Living Theologically in The UCC

A friend asked me a question the other day.

"This might be an offensive, question..." he said, "I hope it's not, but... how do you, as a theologically-minded person, handle being in a denomination which trends the other direction?"

I took it as a fair question. After all, he was only asking the question because he felt he was facing a similar trend in his own denomination. How should someone who cares about theology--who not only cares about the diversity of the church, but truly cares about what unites the church, namely the revelation of God in Jesus Christ--navigate their relationship to a denomination which seems to come to its conclusions by means which ignore or even avoid the normative (perhaps even doctrinal) theological sources implied in the name, United Church of CHRIST? How does one who truly appreciates theology and considers it to be indispensable to the church (if the church indeed wishes to be the Church of Jesus Christ) feel at home in a denomination which appears, in at least some of its circles, to roll its eyes at the mention of dogmatic, systematic, or confessional theology of any kind?

I assured my friend that I have struggled with the question at times. Even though I usually land right where the UCC has landed on specific social issues it seems that I take a very different path to get there. For example, I am passionate about affirming the ordination of LGBTQ people, supporting the legalization of same-sex marriage, advocating for environmentalism, and ending racism, sexism and discrimination of all kinds. But I come to these conclusions not by sidelining questions about the divinity of Christ and the justification of humankind through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I come to these conclusions not despite Scripture and theological reflection, but precisely because of and through Scripture and theological reflection. It is only because of the future of Jesus Christ, the resurrection, that we have a future and anticipate a future and engage in activities which correspond to some notion of progress. It is not because we can do it or because it's the right thing to do, per se. It's because these things are part of the ministry of the triune God--the ministry of Christ in the world through the power of the Holy Spirit.

And the fact is, theological reflection is not alien to the heritage of the UCC. Indeed, theology (even Reformed theology) is indigenous to the UCC's theological tradition.

John Williamson Nevin
There is indeed, according to Gabriel Fackre, a "...disdain for theological matters found in some quarters" of the UCC (Believing, Caring, and Doing in the United Church of Christ, 127). But despite the UCC’s ambiguous relationship with theology, there is actually a strong theological heritage in the UCC. Fackre represents one theologian who has called for more disciplined theological reflection in the UCC. Lillian Daniel, as a Pastor in the denomination is another important voice in calling the UCC to a more defined theological position. In response to the cultural trend toward a spirituality without theology, Daniel has written, “…in an age of spiritual people who are not religious, we need religion, and its dearest expression to this particular religious Christian person, the church” (When “Spiritual But Not Religious” Is Not Enough, 11). Both John H. Thomas and Fackre point out the strength of the Mercersburg theology of John Williamson Nevin and Philip Schaff (both Calvinist/Reformed theologians) in the UCC, imported through its Evangelical Reformed heritage (See Paeth, Who Do You Say That I Am?, 96-114). The UCC's heritage is a reformed heritage and, as Dorothy Bass put it, “if our Reformation heritage is called into active participation in our present quest for identity… it can remain one fresh and provocative source for theology in this denomination” (Bass and Smith, The United Church of Christ, 13.). This "Reformation heritage", it seems to me, is the unifying element which can balance the diversity of the UCC and can remedy the UCC’s apathy to theology. We do not need to sacrifice diversity for theology, but we certainly do not need to sacrifice theology for diversity either. As Lillian Daniel has written, “you can be open-minded and still know what you think… You can rejoice in the many diverse paths to God and still invite your neighbor to Church” (Daniel, 164). The UCC is a rich and trinitarian theological tradition with deep historical roots--a church!--and not just a club for social activism. It is what it is and does what it does only by virtue of its being of Christ.

So my answer to my friend's question... how do I handle being in a denomination which seems to have, in some of its circles, forgotten the importance of theology, even its own theology?... I simply enjoy being part of a denomination which doesn't see itself as the theology police of the local church. I enjoy being part of a denomination which will never kick me out for being "too liberal," and I continue to point to the theological heritage of the UCC, reminding it of its own resources as the church of Christ, not letting those with a more negative posture toward theology set the standard for the UCC's identity.


Luke said…
I'm in the UCC for the same reasons. And feel the need to remain as to call us back to theological talk, convictions, and principles. And principles are what we're about. Or should be... We don't skew strict legalistic, we tend toward antinomianism. Yet we need to land in the middle of Principles or what Nancy Duff calls Casuistry:

Another great post.