Skip to comments.Divinity without Dogma
Posted on 04/28/2003 7:25:13 AM PDT by TBP
Divinity without Dogma A Look at Progressive Churches by Jonn Salovaara Conscious Choice, September 2001
This article looks at groups associated to varying degrees with Christianity. Other articles have featured, and will feature, outposts of other religious traditions.
For thousands of years, churches have formally stated and proclaimed "a body of doctrines concerning faith and morals" -- the dictionary definition of "dogma." Institutionalized belief tends to become dogmatic, even when the belief itself begins as an alternative to an earlier dogma. So it was with early Christianity, starting small and in contrast to Judaism and imperial Roman belief and eventually becoming an empire itself. So also with some Protestant denominations which began as alternative religions -- remember the radical act of Martin Luther -- but soon had many of the prescriptive qualities of the established church they left behind. Other Protestant sects -- think Calvinism -- made no bones about it; they advertised a strict adherence to their brand of dogma as a principal reason for their coming into being.
Some liberal-minded people make an allowance for a given church's officially unquestionable doctrines. What they get from the church in terms of ritual, community, and tradition transcends any drawback of the church's prescriptive behavior. For others, the very thought of a church spelling out "the truth" is enough to send them into the aisles in search of an exit. As an alternative, they may keep their spirituality a private matter, pursuing an individual journey in search of wholeness, and in the process create a personal religion, an amalgam of beliefs found in books, in music, in nature, and in the human experience generally. Sometimes this religion-for-one incorporates ritual, whether borrowed from various traditions or invented whole cloth; others go without formalized practices.
Nevertheless, those who avoid dogmatism at all costs can at the same time long for regular communal religious experience, especially when they have children with whom they wish to share their spirituality. In short, they want a church. The "good news," in this case, is that there are churches out there that make a practice of avoiding claims to orthodoxy, that attempt to avoid the tunnel-vision that can plague institutions. There are also many churches that, while adhering to traditional doctrine, manage to be liberal-minded about the society in which they live.
Most of us are familiar with Transcendentalism through the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Fewer of us know that the literary-philosophical movement of the mid-1800s was succeeded by a movement with religious implications called New Thought. New Thought affirms "the creative power of constructive thinking," according to the Columbia Encyclopedia, and individual New Thought leaders have "employed concepts from every variety of idealistic, spiritualistic, pantheistic, cabalistic, and theosophical thought, as well as from Christianity." The movement began holding annual national conventions in 1894.
Barbara Bernstein, the executive director of the Association for Global New Thought headquartered in Evanston, Illinois, comments that the movement "accepts all religions, embraces all traditions." It is about "developing a relationship with our spiritual source and living our lives out of that source." Seven hundred churches worldwide are associated with the movement, and many of them have developed their own individual approach to pursuing this goal of living in spirit.
Over the years, various denominations have been associated with New Thought, including Christian Science, founded by Mary Baker Eddy in 1879 upon principles of divine healing expressed in the acts and sayings of Jesus. Eddy was originally influenced by a New Thought minister but Christian Science separated from New Thought and went its own way early on. The Unity movement, however, continues to maintain its association with New Thought. As you might expect from a group of churches that try to avoid dogma, no one Unity church is necessarily like the next.
"We are Christians accepting of Jesus," says Annette Gippe, president of the board at Unity in Chicago, a thousand-member group. "One of our major beliefs is that God or the Christ is within us, is in all living things. We believe that God is good; there is no original sin." Unity in Chicago is a tithing organization, encouraging members to donate a tenth of their income to the church and in turn donating a tenth of the church's funds to help support various community organizations on a rotating basis. For its headquarters the church took a rundown piece of property, a former Elks Club, and turned what was a dangerous eyesore into a lovely three-quarter-acre sanctuary in the city at 1925 W. Thome.
Among its good works are "The Night Ministry," which offers non-religious counseling, food, and clothing to homeless people. The group also has a "Pet Ministry," by which abused and abandoned animals are taken in, given health care, and found homes. The church works with nursing homes and offers ongoing classes and workshops on a wide variety of topics. A recent focus was "Many Paths, One Presence," an experiential workshop on various world religions. This included a Mexican-Indian worship ceremony, complete with drums, sage burning, singing, and honors to the six directions.
The church also makes the arts part of what they do. Its theater group, "Spirit Expressing," puts on high quality stage productions and offers acting classes. There is a summer concert series every Friday evening starting in July in the church's beautiful garden, which is much easier to access than Grant Park.
Also associated with the New Thought movement, Religious Science was founded by Ernest Holmes in 1918; its teaching is called Science of Mind. This teaching says the universe operates under a spiritual law, that there is an overall guiding spiritual intelligence which is an expression of the universal mind. Rev. William Arrot of the North Shore Religious Science group uses a biblical quotation to indicate the teaching of the church: "As a man thinketh in his heart so is he." Rev. Arrot links his church's teaching with Aldous Huxley's philosophy of the perennial wisdom. "It goes back to ancient Egypt, ancient Greece; it's all part of the same thing. Plato taught it."
Health is a central part of the scene at North Shore. Says Rev. Arrot, "We believe very much that health is the normal state. The root of illness is mental. Healing is a matter of straightening out your thinking." Arrot feels that Religious Science is "at the forefront of mind-body medicine." He reminds me that Religious Science belongs to the group of faiths that includes Christian Science. "We're the religion of healthy mindedness, with a focus on nutrition and health," he explains. "The basis of all illness and healing," he adds, "is ultimately emotional." Perhaps as a way to put these beliefs into action, the North Shore group has recently opened a community center. The New Thought Community Center at 833 Foster Street in Evanston offers classes, workshops, and a bookstore.
Not all non-dogmatic churches are associated with the New Thought movement. Unitarian Universalism is also known for its aversion to dogmatism. "Non-creedal and the far-left of the Protestant tradition" is how Edward Searl, minister of the Unitarian Church of Hinsdale, describes his tradition. Unitarianism in America goes back to 1819. Its name comes from the word with which its adherents were smeared; instead of being proper, unquestioning Trinitarians, they saw problems with the theological doctrine of the trinity. More to the point, however, Unitarians believe in freedom of belief, and in acting in accordance with one's conscience. When I asked Searl about the old joke that says Unitarians "believe in, at most, one God," he offered another Unitarian byword, noting that the wedding service he offers is "God-optional."
In 1961 the Unitarian tradition merged with the Universalist tradition. Universalists, who also adopted the name they were called by their detractors, refused the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. Universalism holds that no one is eternally damned. Another joke about Unitarian Universalists suggests that Universalists believe that God is too good to damn anyone while Unitarians believe they are too good to be damned by any god.
Indeed, Unitarian Universalists tend to be humanistic rather than theistic in their interests, although some of them are God-centered. Some, says Searl, identify with the Buddhist tradition, some with Jesus. He comments further that the church supports the integrity of individual belief, engages in tolerance for a wide variety of religious beliefs, and encourages social action.
Each U.U. church is independent, though they are linked through a national association. Local churches decide what issues to pursue. Much of the church's community involvement is led by lay activism, as individuals or groups within a congregation decide to involve themselves with larger groups such as Habitat for Humanity. The Hinsdale congregation has been involved in a religious coalition for reproductive choice, and volunteers there have been serving as escorts for women obtaining abortions at a Westmont clinic.
Other Unitarian Universalist churches, of which there are thirty or so in the Chicago area, reflect their differing communities. One has been socialist/communist; others, located near universities, are more academic. Several pride themselves on being "welcoming" toward those who are gay, lesbian, transgendered, and bisexual.
Unitarian Universalist sermons, most often but not always offered by the presiding minister, are expected to be well presented, thoughtful pieces, with a frequent focus on character and personal morality. It's rare, though not impossible, to find biblical quotation as a focus. Searl, an author of two books (one is about getting funerals back in the hands of churches, away from the funeral industry; the other is about home altars) jokes that a Unitarian who died and was offered a choice between heaven and a discussion about heaven unhesitatingly chose the discussion.
Good music, he says, is also a common feature of Unitarian Universalist services. Many services include one or more musical performances and perhaps a poem or memorable literary excerpt, along with more traditional hymns, sung enthusiastically by members of the congregation.
Because of the absence of creed and iconography, Unitarian Universalist churches often feel comfortable to many Jewish-Gentile families. Some congregations also have active subgroups of earth-centered worshippers, secular humanists, or Unitarian Universalists who maintain links to their religious roots in Catholicism and other religions. Many churches support families through age-appropriate religious education programs. Nearly 50 percent of the ministers in Unitarianism are women, and a number of ministers are gay or lesbian.
One example of a church that manages to be socially progressive while maintaining a traditional set of beliefs is the parish at St. James Episcopal Cathedral. Centrally located at Huron and Wabash, the church offers a traditional baptism-based faith strongly centered on Christ as redeemer. The Episcopal service goes back to Henry VIII of England who split with the Pope and started his own English-language church in the 1500s. It features a centuries old, albeit modernized, liturgy.
According to St. James' interim Dean Helen Moore, "Episcopalianism is a home to many disenfranchised Roman Catholics," in part because it permits the marriage of clergy and ordains women as priests. "It is a bridge between Roman Catholicism and pure Protestantism, offering a middle way." While there is no specific pronouncement from the church about homosexuality, gay members have played a leading role in this and other parishes. St. James also is part of an interfaith movement with Roman Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist, and Islamic partners. In addition, it introduced and passed a no-gun-in-the-home resolution at the national convention in 1999 and continues to work in opposition to violence. It is also part of a commission against racism and a member of United Power for Action and Justice. There is a strong emphasis on the congregation as a community supporting its members in times of trial and change.
The church offers a Montessori-like Sunday school for pre-schoolers, a Sunday school for older children and a Bible-study group for adults, and hosts a speakers series that has included feminist theologian Rosemary Reuther and author John Frederick Crossan. It also offers a wide program of free concerts to the community and a healing service every Wednesday.
Obviously, this is a small sampling of the many churches in the Chicago area that might lay claim to the progressive label. (See the box for a list of others worth checking out.) For those looking to join a church, any of these churches would be worth experiencing firsthand. Alternatively, they might inspire you to initiate progressive changes in a church where you already belong. As the many endeavors of these churches attest, a faith community can be a blessing, a tradition that supports, rather than negates, your need to grow.
What? No ball game? No ritual beheading of the victors? No ripping people's living hearts out with obsidian knives and eating them raw?
What a wimpy ceremony!
Actually, Christian Science came before there was a "New Thought Movement." Mrs. Eddy hired a woman named Emma Curtis Hopkins as Editor of the Christian Science magazine. Unfortunately, Emma had a habit of publishing articles that went beyond Mrs. Eddy's doctrines, which is hardly acceptable since Mary Baker Eddy had received the final revelation. So Hopkins was fired. She went out on her own and became the teacher of Charles and Myrtle Fillmore, the founders of the Unity School of Christianity and of Ernest Holmes, the founder of Science of Mind (Religious Science.)
Not quite accurate, New Thought was founded by one Phineas P. Quimby. Mrs. Eddy "borrowed" heavily from his work, to the point where her writings could be considered plagerism by some. Of the rest, i am prepared to defer to you.
i am curious as to whether or not Unity Village in Missouri is still a functioning community. Any information would be appreciated.