I was raised as a Unitarian Universalist, and my own theological journey has gone from atheism and humanism in my youth to a panentheism (by “panentheism”, I mean the belief that the Divine is within all things in the known universe, and also something beyond that which is known) that is strongly influenced by liberation theology (a theology that developed by Latin American Catholics, the idea being that the Holy, or “God”, has a preferential option for the poor and oppressed). I generally do not use the word “God” as it is often used in a way that suggests an anthropomorphized Divine “being” that does not match my own concepts of Ultimate Reality or the Great Mystery of the Universe. Words can never do justice to this topic, though!
My religious tradition is firmly UU. This can be both a frustrating and exhilarating tradition to start from when naming one’s theology since Unitarian Universalism (UUism) has no creeds to “mandate” theological beliefs. My pastor once described modern UUism as “being open to the truth wherever it may be found, and working compassionately toward social justice”. More than anything, this pithy description speaks to the anything-but-pithy nature of modern UUism’s six named sources.
In accordance with the breadth of UUism, my sacred texts include the canonical Christian Bible (including the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament), as well as some non-canonical Christian texts. I would also include the Tao Te Ching (Taoism), the Upanishads (wisdom texts of Hinduism) and the Guru Granth Sahib (Sikhism) as sacred texts, though they often resonate more with my head than my heart (in part because they were less a part of the culture I grew up in). I would also include poetry from Kabir to Audre Lorde as “sacred text”. Having said that, I am open to the different perspectives that others bring to their vision of God (or to their atheism), and to their sense of the meaning of life. In the words of the Buddha, I try to “imagine that everyone is enlightened except [me]”.
Much of my background and interest in liberation theology has come from feminist and queer perspectives, which match my own experience. But I know I must learn to better integrate liberation theology from other experiences of oppression as well, particularly those of class and race. As Audre Lorde wrote, “I know that people cannot profit from the oppression of any other group . . . I know that I cannot afford the luxury of fighting one form of oppression only.” I am called to task by James Cone, who wrote, “White theologians and philosophers write numerous articles and books on theodicy, asking why God permits massive suffering, but they hardly ever mention the horrendous crimes whites have committed against people of color in the modern world. Why do white ministers and theologians ignore racism?” Integrating anti-racism adequately into my theology is an ongoing task for me.
Like many people drawn to ministry, I am a fan of Henri Nouwen and his “wounded healer” framework. I believe that my own personal experiences of loss (my wounds) greatly inform my ministry. This is lived out in my ministry whenever someone asks “why” something horrible has happened. This is a question I have asked myself in despair several times in my life. The only answer that has ever spoken to me is the only answer I have ever given: “I don’t know.” In this, my thinking has been strongly influenced by Rabbi Kushner’s “When Bad Things Happen to Good People”. In a practical sense, why we suffer has not been as important to me as the response to suffering. I often think of the Metta prayer of Buddhism, in its abbreviated form: “I care about your pain.” This is a kind of radical theological empathy.
This also makes me think of the Christian tradition of “witnessing”. Feminist theologian Dorothee Sölle has written that the oppressed rely on others to be the living witnesses of their suffering. Theologian Rebecca Ann Parker has said that in the presence of suffering and evil, “part of what saves us are the steady witnesses – the human beings who are willing to face the realities of [suffering and evil] without mystifying it or denying it. We help one another when we refuse theology that moves us away from showing up…”
Theologian Paul Rasor has written, “One hundred years ago a lot of Unitarians and Universalists rejected Christianity because it was not rational. Today a lot of UUs reject Christianity because it’s too hard to do if we really take it seriously.” As someone raised a humanistic UU who truly discovered Christianity (or really, the teachings of Jesus, as opposed to orthodox Christianity) as an adult, I fully appreciate this sentiment. Taking the teachings of Jesus seriously is hard – seemingly even too hard. One of the sacred texts that is central to my theology is the Gospel of Thomas. In this gospel (at saying 113), the disciples ask Jesus when the realm of God will come (and thus earthly suffering end). Jesus responds, “It will not come by watching for it. It will not be said, ‘Look, here!’ or ‘Look, there!’ Rather, the Father’s kingdom is spread out upon the earth, and people do not see it.”
This final phrase acts as a mantra that I use in trying times: “[God’s realm] is spread out upon the earth, and people do not see it.” I take this to be a kind of affirmation of panentheism and process theology (though of course Jesus would not have known or used either of those terms). As a Jew, Jesus would seem to have a vision of God that is compatible with process theology (or a “process theology of liberation”, to use the thought of C. Robert Mesle); his was a vision of Yahweh who was waiting for us humans to do the right thing – to work for love and liberation. All things are in God and God (or Divinity) is in all things (panentheism), and humans have the capacity to act with creative, responsive love to bring about a more perfect world. In fact, “God awaits our choice.” “God’s realm” won’t come about by our passively watching for it; we are needed to create Beloved Community.
To use terminology from Buddhism, I believe that we suffer because of the illusion that we are individual beings with competing desires – we have the illusion that our happiness is in competition with the happiness of others. The key to getting beyond this illusion is to see the oneness of all things – “the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” Herein lies, I believe, the path to becoming a beloved “community of resistance and solidarity” (to use Sharon Welch’s term) as well: Structures of institutional oppression are are evils against which we are called to struggle. A “process theology of liberation” agrees with the sentiment of Teresa of Ávila, who wrote, “Christ has no body now on earth but yours / No hands but yours / No feet but yours / Yours are the eyes through which is to look out Christ’s compassion to the world / Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good / Yours are the hands with which he is to bless the people now.”