I wish Henry Nelson Wieman had been a polytheist. If he had been, UUs might have less of a “theological identity crisis” than we do today.
It seems Wieman is well known to most UU ministers, but is sadly obscure among the broader membership. A Presbyterian-turned-Unitarian, Wieman was an inventive theologian who worked within the tradition of religious empiricism, maintaining that a theology could be built up from human experience, in a manner analogous to the way science builds theory from observation and experiment. What type of experience forms the basis for theology? Wieman’s central insight on the subject was this: that human life may be transformed for the better, and if we can identify the agency of such transformation we have identified God.
An empirical definition of God such as this carries with it a very stimulating implication. For “that which transforms human life for the better” need not, upon investigation, turn out to be anything supernatural. In fact, the definition leads us (as it led Wieman) to see God as a natural process occurring within this world. God, in fact, becomes something we do. Although distanced from supernaturalism, Wieman’s naturalistic theism nevertheless preserves a religious aura around its God, because the transformative experience through which God is known is itself full of profundity and a bit of mystery.
In conversation with UUs today, I find many of us are intuitively attuned to some variety of naturalistic theism, even without ever having heard of Wieman or the theological position he represents. We may be unsure whether it is fair to use the word “God” to refer to a human or natural process, rather than a transcendent being. But the concept goes down smoothly enough, even when the word catches. I even have a sneaking suspicion that the notorious theological diversity amongst us today would seem much less conspicuous if we were all familiar with the vocabulary of naturalistic theism, which anchors religious language in the sturdy stratum of human activity.
So is Wieman’s God our God? I don’t quite think so. But I do think we have a god, or rather a goddess, and that we can learn to see her more clearly by following Wieman’s lead. Wieman’s theology runs into problems (for me) because he seems constrained to find a God who is unique. For him, there must be one and only one agency for true human transformation. Furthermore, he seems to require a God powerful enough to effect this transformation whenever it is present. God must be both necessary and sufficient for transformation. But as soon as one gets specific about what particular natural process brings about the transformation of human life, it is easy to find counterexamples. If the process is defined too narrowly, one can find transformation occurring without it. If it is defined too broadly, one can find many cases where it fails to achieve the goal. So Wieman turns away from his empirical program, and his research into the nature of God seems always in danger of falling into tautology. I hasten to point out that I am no theologian; these are just the impressions of an armchair philosopher.
It seems to me that if Wieman had taken a truly empirical approach, he might have discovered that the transformation of human life for the better happens through a variety of different processes, none of which is always effective. In other words, he would have found that there are many gods, and none of them are omnipotent. “Naturalistic polytheism” seems a suitable label for such a theology.
Polytheistic gods, like cable TV stations, can find a market niche and exploit it to the hilt. They have character. I think there is something both delightful and profound in the way a goddess like Athene, for example, could crystallize and personify the character and values of the polis for whom she was the patron. Free of the burden of being the unique and universal deity of the cosmos, she could get right to work with her own unabashedly Athenian way of transforming human life: through knowledge, art, democracy, military skill, and a kind of haughty independence befitting a motherless virgin goddess.
UUs, as individuals, certainly find transformation through many different processes–we serve (and are saved by) many different gods. But is there a distinctively UU god, a particular transformative process that we partake in collectively, our special patron in the naturalistic pantheon?
I think there is, although I don’t claim to have a detailed empirical model. It’s just a hunch, or a roughly drawn outline. Our patron deity is defined by the nature of our relationship with her, and I see that relationship as symbiotic, a cycle of mutual support.
First, there is the phase of the relationship that we initiate, through what we do as UUs. I think two essential components of “what we do as UUs” are debate and reflection. It is terribly important to us to struggle with new information and novel points of view. We cringe at the thought of ignoring or dismissing uncomfortable ideas, we feel compelled to thrash them out in debate, and then go away and consider privately what we need to take to heart. We’ve been that way since the time of Servetus, and we still are. (And if you disagree, you only prove my point!) I think that when we do this, we nourish our patron deity.
Second, there is the phase of the relationship in which are the recipients, not the initiators. Somehow, when things are working right, we come away feeling richer. For me, that richness encompasses two dimensions: inspiration and community. We feel inspired, excited with new ideas and new possibilities for making life better. We also feel supported and sustained by the feeling of being part of a human community, a reservoir of compassion and strength. These are the ways our deity nourishes us.
Transformation of human life for the better becomes possible when the gifts of inspiration and community are bestowed upon us. In fact, when they are abundant, we are able to carry them out into the larger world. The UU passion for political and economic justice is fueled by the strength of our inspiration and our community. It depends on the motivating synergy of our special way of being together. A UU church, of course, is not the only thing that can motivate people to make positive change. But for naturalistic polytheism, there is no need to assert that our patron deity is unique, only that she is effective!
The model implies that our patron deity is a process that converts debate and reflection into inspiration and community. How does this happen? What is the mechanism? I don’t really know, and in fact, I’m happy to let her retain a certain aura of ineffability. (She is a goddess, after all.) I like to think that what this process does, somehow, is to mine the infinite domain of Possibility probing the unknown and the imagination and bringing back a gem or two to fuel our personal and collective enrichment. Certainly debate and reflection are proven tools for expanding one’s set of options, and it is the emergence of new options for making life better that seems to keep so many of us engaged and active in our religious communities.
The “symbiotic theology” of this model helps explain some of the peculiarities of UU worship services. In classical theism, there is no clear need for closed loop, rather there is the descending grace of God, which may transform us and perhaps find expression in good works. The God of classical theism does not require a particular program of human activity for his continued well-being and existence. In a UU service, though, the most pressing need is to initiate our special transformative process itself, to invoke our goddess and give her some raw material to work with. So our sermons are constructed to challenge us, to stir debate and reflection, to strike out from the comfort of the known into the unpredictable world of the possible. If we do this, then we have done what needs to be done to set the process in motion. We may also augment this with more ritualistic components, bringing our attention to the gifts we receive in return. Our flaming chalice, indeed, exquisitely combines in a single symbol the ideas of inspiration and community, candle and hearth.
Some may be made uneasy by my personification of the “UU transformative process.” One can certainly argue that the ideas of naturalistic theism yield up a God that is more “it” than “he” or “she.” My primary motive, I suppose, is ultimately esthetic. I like the poetic and symbolic aspects of religion; they help move humanity the matter out of the impersonal world of academics and into the personalized landscape of imagery and feeling. But I also have a bit of an agenda. I think we UUs tend to be quite keenly aware of our own role in initiating this transformative process. We debate; we reflect, and in the end we act to improve human life. But we may take the completion of the cycle for granted, feeling that the opening up of possibilities, the inspiration, and the sense of community just emerge automatically from the process. I think there is religious value in stepping back and appreciating what extraordinary gifts these things are, and appreciating that the output from this process nourishes us. Somehow, we’re getting a surplus, an abundance, back in exchange for our efforts. Not only does the process depend on us, but we depend on it. Without it, we would be less than we are. Gratitude is an appropriate emotional response, and I think that urges us toward God-as-thou rather than God-as-it.
I chose a feminine pronoun for our deity, not out of any sense of political correctness, but for rather old-fashioned reasons. We are the inheritors an ancient tradition of allegorical personification. Deities of hearth and home (community), as well as muses (inspiration) are traditionally feminine. Sadly, these two aspects of feminine divinity have usually been seen as mutually exclusive: a passive, hearth-tending mother or an aloof, virginal muse. Our goddess must be both, but she can be neither. She is, after all, fed on debate and reflection. If you think of successful mothers in reality, not myth, you find a personality seldom acknowledged in art or literature. She is alert, vigilant, intelligent, proactive, and inventive. She is a constant teacher, learner, and companion, as well as caregiver. She resists every temptation of favoritism. She knows that redirecting attention works better than threats. She knows when things are too quiet. She knows there’s no surer recipe for catastrophe than a bored child. And she makes you want to do your best.
Such a personification of our patron goddess is certainly a liturgical resource. For some, it can also be an aid to clarifying and deepening our relationship with what we hold sacred as UUs. Others may find it an unnecessary distraction. Such issues aside, though, the basic framework of naturalistic polytheism allows us to discuss those things of deepest importance to us in a way that honors their grounding in human experience as well as their religious profundity. It makes contact with many different theological orientations, including theism, humanism, and paganism. It facilitates both debate and reflection, and our goddess would no doubt be grateful for that.
David, A. (2001). Conceptualizing diversity: On the uses of polytheism. The Journal of Liberal Religion, 2.
Frankenberry, N. (1987). Religion and radical empiricism. New York: State University of New York Press.
Miller, D.L. (1974} The new polytheism: Rebirth of the gods and goddesses New York: Harper & Row.
Stone, J.A. (2000). What is religious naturalism?. The Journal of Liberal Religion, 2.
Wieman, H.N. (1958). Man’s ultimate commitment. Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press.