The Promise of Progressive Religion for the Twenty-first Century.
It is hard for an atheist to know what to say when reviewing a book like A House for Hope; The Promise of Progressive Religion for the Twenty-first Century. Its authors, John A. Buehrens and Rebecca Ann Parker, are deeply religious and their book’s intent would appear to be devotional and inspirational. It presents no creative, original, or intellectual premise that is developed and for which a conclusion is reached. As a devotional book it is well titled, it is about hope and decidedly passive in its message. There are no concrete proposals for how society might be made better, there is only hope that their take on religion will, somehow, lead to a more religious and just society. Social justice is a major theme.
“This book is important to UU humanists . . .. ”
This book is important to UU humanists because it authors are, arguably, two of the most representative and influential people in UU leadership today. Their book had the full imprimatur of the UUA. A grant from the Fund for Unitarian Universalism supported the research and writing of A House for Hope and the UUA’s Beacon press published and markets it.
Buehrens was president of the Unitarian Universalist Association from 1993 to 2001 and is now minister of the First Parish Church in Needham, Massachusetts. He is also coauthor of A Chosen Faith: An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism and author of Understanding the Bible, both published and marketed by the UUA’s Beacon Press. He is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School.
Parker is president of Starr King School for the Ministry. Starr King and Meadville/Lombard Theological School are the two UU seminaries. Parker is also Starr King’s Professor of Theology and is an ordained United Methodist minister in dual fellowship with the Unitarian Universalist Association. She has had two other books published by Beacon Press; Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of this World for Crucifixion and Empire and Proverbs of Ashes.
In Chapter One, This Holy Ground, by Parker, we read theological devotion and witness, in the cadence of a sermon. These two final sentences of the chapter capture the flavor:
“Our hope can be that from within the heart of this world paradise will arise. It will arise from the seeds of Eden sown everywhere; from the life that is within us and around us in our communities and cultures; from the gifts of our resistance, compassion, and creativity; and from the very stones crying out their praise for the presence of God who is here, now, already wiping the tears from our eyes. ”
In Chapter Two, Last Things First, Buehrens, like Parker, gives us worshipful preaching, with a scholarly overlay, but with no point the reader is going to underline or take away. It is preachy minister talk, a sermon. The last paragraph:
“So let us begin where we all hope to end: in gratitude—with a radically realized eschatology. After all, if Jesus was an eschatological preacher, warning contemporaries about the consequences of self-indulgence, injustice, and oppression, he also preached that the kingdom of God is right here among us wherever and whenever we make it real by loving the very ground of our being with all our heart, mind, and strength and by refusing to give our allegiance to any oppressive power. It is among us when we love our neighbors, even the very least of these, as we should also love ourselves. It is among us when we put our anxieties over what to eat, drink, and wear into proper perspective and consider the lilies of the field. For we are in the garden of creation, where surely not even Solomon in all his glory was adorned like one of these. So may our final words, at the end of lives, be words of thanks. And may we sustain all our efforts and hopes along the way in that same spirit. ”
This raises the question, Is theism necesserily anti-intellectual or, at least, a-intellectual?
One would like to think that Buehrens and Parker are probably good, gracious, well intended people. But I know John Buehrens. He is openly hostile to atheists and free thinkers. One year, I was at SUUSI, the UUA’s Southeastern summer church camp, Buehrens was in the book store to sign copies of his latest tome. I ask him if there was a place at the UU table for atheists and secular humanists. His answer was “yes, but it is a religious table”. So, I guess, in his mind, if you are not religious, as He defines it, you are not a UU and He sees Himself as some kind of gate keeper. Further, the book that Buehrens and Forrest Church wrote, A Chosen Faith: An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism, took hard shots at atheists. For a full discussion of the hostility in the book to atheists and secular humanists, go to:
And how would atheists fit in at Parker’s theological school? They would have a hard time of it. Neither Buehrens’ nor Parker’s vision of the UUA is welcoming and inclusive to atheists, agnostics, free thinkers, and secular humanists. For them, UU is a religious faith, take it or leave it. Here is Parker’s postmodern talking about God on page 105;
“Process theology’s reconceptualization of God fits well with the many liberation movements in theology that have deconstructed God-talk, protesting images of God that sanction oppression and violence. It resonates with biblical understandings of God’s active, creative presence in nature and history—which should not be divided into separate realities. It focuses on immediacy, spontaneity, and relationality similarly to Taoism and to Buddhist traditions and practices. And it presents God the constant instigator of needed transformation in the world. Where there is oppression, injustice, abuse, or neglect, God’s creative response offers new possibilities to all beings, luring them toward decisions and actions that will advance healing, liberation, and justice. The divine possibilities are more than abstract ideals—dreams of what should be. They come to the world as specific proposals for specific situations. Immediate, and contextual, and multisided, God’s love for life takes all sides—oppressor and oppressed—and proposes a way of peace and justice tailored to the concrete dilemmas and opportunities present for each. ”
It is rather odd, with Parker and Buehrens, there is much talk of God but we are left with no definition of their God. He seems to be found somewhere is the vapors of process theology and the social justice mission they are on and in the righteousness they feel. It is a theology of divine good will. Never mind that their religious dogma is dodgy, New Age and postmodern with no clear mythology, nothing concerning the saved and unsaved, good and evil, sin, salvation, or an afterlife. One assumes Parker and Buehrens think of themselves as Christians who are going to heaven when they die, but we know nothing of their heavenly beliefs. Their religious faith is highly educated and rarefied, not for the masses, similar to that of Karen Armstrong who, by-the-way, was the keynote speaker at the UUA’s, 2011, General Assembly.
In the final analysis, should there be a place, a church, for religious faith manifested as liberal theism as represented by Buehrens and Parker and the current host of UUA “credentialed” ministers with their theist followers? Yes, of course. Parker is an ordained United Methodist minister. Buehrens has been married since 1972 to the Rev. Gwen Langdoc Buehrens, a priest in the Episcopal Church. Current UUA leadership has developed programs in conjunction with the United Church of Christ and is looking to further ties with that church. So there are several liberal, progressive religions from which to choose. While it would be disappointing for humanists to entirely lose the home they had found — and in many cases they were the founders of the congregations — we are big girls and boys and will be fine because reason, modernity, and the flow of secular Western Civilization keep marching on.