Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog

TERM PAPER PART 16–Theological Similarities and Differences: Are You Christian?
January 31, 2012, 8:25 am
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[NOTE:  This part of the paper is one that responds to the professor’s request that we relate our term paper topic to the overarching issue of Christianity in the Pacific region.  The paper to which I refer here is one to which she referred us.]

In a paper for a scholarly conference on “global Christianity,” Brian Goldstone and Stanley Hauerwas challenge secular scholars for their distanced, “outsider” approach to defining Christianity and Christians.  To be Christian, they argue, is to be the body of Christ, proclaiming the resurrection and making disciples, often at great personal cost, including persecution and martyrdom.  Being Christian means living in a way that the larger culture cannot understand.  Hence, scholars—before they can really “see” Christianity—need first to be struck blind like the Apostle Paul at his conversion.  They must observe with humility and engagement, rather than distance.[i]

In the United States, many non-members inquire of Unitarian Universalist churchgoers and ministers:  “Are you Christian?”  The answer depends on what you mean.  First, we have no creed—Christian or otherwise–to which a member subscribes to belong to a UU church.  Moreover, our initial theological liberalism has led to a diversity of theological beliefs in both our pews and pulpits.  The UUA is not a member of the National Council of Churches. True, the denomination has strong roots in the Protestant movement; there are Christian-identified UU ministers and church-goers, and there are a few congregations in the North East where the structure and language of worship is explicitly Christian (and the Christology is both Universalist and Unitarian).   However, to answer the question “Are you Christian?”, many of our own North American church members would say no.   (For more, see Appendix III: Is It Christian?  Historical Details on American Unitarianism)

The Unitarian movement to the West Coast was led by ministers who identified as “liberal Christians,” and included some clergy who were expelled from other denominations, including Laurentine Hamilton, who founded the Independent Protestant Church of Oakland after losing a heresy trial for ideas he preached in his Presbyterian church.  It later became the First Unitarian Church.

But what about the Philippine church?  Lively conversations about theological differences and the nature of Jesus and salvation have marked some of the relations between Philippine UUs and their North American friends, as noted above.  In my experience, worship services include prayers, sermons, hymns and often Bible readings, but there is no creed.  UUCP has adopted statements of UU Principles and Sources very similar to those of the North American UUA Principles (except they have inserted an additional Principle at the start:  “There’s God.”)[ii]  Recently I asked Nihal Attanayake if UUCP is Christian.  He said, “We say we are Universalists.”

The Rev. Frederick John Muir, who serving our church in Annapolis, Maryland, has had a relationship with the UUs on Negros Island since 1991.  In 2001 he published Maglipay Universalist:  A History of the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Philippines.  In this he writes:  “The UUCP is thoroughly Christian (and some are Trinitarians).  Many Philippine Unitarian Universalists are exasperated that western [UUs] don’t seem to understand, appreciate and accept their theological stance.”[iii]

I have yet to encounter sources either to confirm or refute Muir’s description of the UUCP as “thoroughly Christian” and his assertion of exasperation with North American UU attitudes.  However, my recent observations give me confidence that more frequent and face-to-face encounters between Filipino and North American UUs over the past decade have reduced this misunderstanding.  In March 2011 I participated in a “UU Pilgrimage,” an organized ten-day visit to UUCP headquarters and over 10 of the congregations on Negros Island.  Our group included people from three North American congregations that have Partner Church relationships with a village church of the UUCP, plus three of us whose churches are not at present in a partnership.  (This is the religious equivalent of a Sister City relationship, to promote cultural exchange, spiritual fellowship, and mutual inspiration and encouragement by communicating and visiting in person.  See more in the next section.)[iv]

Our North American group included significant religious diversity.  I did not witness discomfort on the part of our group about Universalist theology, explicit references to God, or the reading of Bible verses in worship.   A UU who is not comfortable with theistic language could be surprised by these things, perhaps.  Yet one who takes the time and makes the expense to make such a trip would, I hope, be interested in a truly cross-cultural exchange.  Moreover, in a Philippine village or city neighborhood, the living conditions of congregation members, the large proportion of children in the congregations, and the abundant spirit of the people at church, would be more notable contrasts with our typical North American UU church experiences.  For me, the village settings, church buildings, and warmth of the people were more notable than the basic fact that most adult members did not speak English and none of us spoke Cebuano.

In the spirit of the essay by Goldstone and Hauerwas, I would invite any observers—Unitarian Universalists or not—to let go of preconceptions and categories and just see what is taking place in the religious life of the Philippine Unitarian Universalists.   What’s called for is a depth of engagement with one another, and solidarity in the struggle to live out our deepest values.

[i] Brian Goldstone and Stanley Hauerwas, “Disciplined Seeing:  Forms of Christianity and Forms of Life,” South Atlantic Quarterly 109:4 (Fall 2010), 766-790.

[ii] UUCP Website, visited December 11, 2011.

[iii] Muir, 79.

[iv] Partner Church Council NEWS?  Website?    ?

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