Human Nature and Liberal Religion

I've been turning over in my mind the question of liberal religion's view of human nature.

Nadia Bolz-Weber
The issue came up a few weeks ago when I was at the 2012 Festival of Homiletics in Atlanta. (See my reflections about that here.) One of the speakers I heard was Nadia Bolz-Weber, a young minister of a Lutheran "Emergent Church" in Denver. (Her blog is: "Sarcastic Lutheran: The Cranky Spirituality of a Postmodern Gal.") I have since found a profile piece about her that ran in the Denver Post last year:
"I left church for 14 years. I wouldn't have anything to do with it," she said. "I hated Christianity. I didn't like the anti-gay stuff. I didn't like the hubris." As a young adult, she was a hard-drinking ne'er-do-well. Clean and sober for 19 years, she said, one awakening led to another. She tried out the Unitarian Universalist Church, where they have "a high opinion of humans" that didn't fit with her experience. People are flawed, she said.
"It's dark in there," she said tapping her chest over her heart. ["Pastor turns heads by blending tradition and irreverence," Denver Post, 2011 Apr 23]
In the talk I heard, Bolz-Weber recounted some of this autobiography, mentioned that her path had led her briefly to Unitarian Universalism, and quipped,
"Unitarians are so cute. They have this high, high view of human goodness. It's like they never read the paper."
As I was listening, I was trying out the technique of taking notes by tweeting (posting on Twitter) every sentence that captured my attention, while also following along the tweets of other attendees (and a few off-site folks who chimed in). So I tweeted her quip. Others also tweeted the same line, and still others re-tweeted my tweet. This is as much twitter-verse buzz as I have ever been a part. (My colleague from down the road in Orlando, Rev. Kathy Schmitz, was also in the audience for Bolz-Weber's talk. Her reflections on the experience are in her sermon here.)

In fact, Unitarian Universalists read the papers more than average. And we have a pretty clear sense of human capacity for evil. Just ask a typical UU how much she trusts the board of Monsanto to do what's best for workers, consumers, or the planet.

As I listened more to Bolz-Weber's account of her unfolding religious and spiritual development, I had the growing sense that the issue wasn't the goodness of human nature versus the darkness of the human heart. It was about religion with a closed canon (for Christians, the 66 books of the Bible -- with a special emphasis on the last 27) versus religion without a canon.

We Unitarian Universalists do not have a canon. This is not because we think we are all so intrinsically good and wise that we can get along without it. Rather, just the opposite. We UUs know that political and personal self-serving agendas and a propensity to be self-deceived are never very far from the human heart -- including the hearts of those who establish canons. We know a little bit about the intrigue and in-fighting among the early Christian bishops that went on for 300 years before one faction was able to get enough power to lock down the New Testament to its present list of 27 books, excluding at least as many other texts that had also been beloved and sacred to some early Christian communities.

It's not that Unitarian Universalists have a high opinion of human nature. Rather, we don't have a high enough opinion of human nature to trust anyone to limit our scripture to one unchangeable canon. We can't even stick with one hymnal for 20 years without needing a supplement.

This is not a question of "deferring to an authority" instead of "figuring it out for yourself." I do believe that there is just as much "figuring it out for yourself" in Bolz-Weber's present Lutheran church as there was in her erstwhile Unitarian Universalist congregation. The Christian canon may be closed, but it is infinitely flexible.

A canon – that is, a specified set of narratives to which a community agrees that its teachings, however creative and new, must appear to be tethered – does have some advantages. Canons provide an illusion of definiteness. This illusion of a definite scriptural anchor often helps new or younger members of canon-based communities keep themselves moored long enough to grow into the community’s interpretive tradition. That interpretive tradition, rather than the canonical texts themselves, provides the real anchor.

Unitarian Universalists also stand in a relation of accountability to an interpretive tradition. It’s just that, without a canon, learning our interpretive tradition is a bit different. As UUs today, we are the latest participants in a 200-year-long conversation in America (450-year-long if we go back to our European roots), and we are continually bringing new insights from physics, biology, economics, psychology, current events, other religions, fiction, and poetry into the conversation. Our interpretive tradition -- our anchor and the grounding of our identity -- is in the ways we weave together our history, the values that have emerged through that history, and these new insights.

We are well aware that it's "dark in there" (tapping chest over heart). We know that the heart is dark when it is closed. Therefore, our calling is to open our hearts to all the light of the world.

My tweet of Bolz-Weber's quip about Unitarians having "this high view of human goodness" was also posted on my Facebook, where my colleague Rev. Matthew Johnson-Doyle was prompted to reply:

Here's what I have to say about that:
The Good News
by Thich Nhat Hahn:

They don't publish
the good news.
The good news is published
by us.
We have a special edition every moment,
and we need you to read it.
The good news is that you are alive,
and the linden tree is still there,
standing firm in the harsh Winter.
The good news is that you have wonderful eyes
to touch the blue sky.
The good news is that your child is there before you,
and your arms are available:
hugging is possible.
They only print what is wrong.
Look at each of our special editions.
We always offer the things that are not wrong.
We want you to benefit from them
and help protect them.
The dandelion is there by the sidewalk,
smiling its wondrous smile,
singing the song of eternity.
Listen! You have ears that can hear it.


  1. I have been reading your prolific blog for a while now and have been amazed at the frequency, variety of topics, and depth of your postings. As I see this interesting topic differently, today I am going to take time to comment.

    Of course as readers of the news we know darkness lurks in people. My experience of a UU church compared to other churches is that some churches seem to regularly acknowledge the pain/brokeness that people sitting in the pews may be experiencing in a more supportive way. UU congregants appear to have it pretty well together and seem to have little need for prayer. The focus is more on do your part to heal the world rather than on healing yourself.

    Using the Bible seems to work well for focusing on the personal, while drawing from a wide variety of sources fits with a focus of doing good in the broader world.

    As writing can take too much effort for me I expect I will return to my habit of passive reading.

    1. Hi, Laurie, Thanks for your note. Your point that a closed canon (or, at least, the particular closed canon of the Christian Bible) tends to encourage more attention to the personal rather than the social is interesting. Perhaps you're right -- i.e., maybe the "illusion of definiteness" necessarily has more appeal when the needs for personal healing are predominant. That hypothesis seems to fit with what Bolz-Weber told us of her background. On the other hand, the canonless UU tradition can -- and, I believe, must -- also attend to the needs of personal healing. Otherwise, our social justice actions are merely projections of our ego and brokenness writ large.