The religion of what?

For better or worse, I was thinking theologically in the shower this morning.

Ponder, as I did, that once-common Unitarian Christian claim that “we don’t practice the religion about Jesus, but the religion ofJesus.” Well, I don’t believe that. However well we dig down to Jesus’ idea and ideal of religion, it comes mediated through the very community of faith that very much practices a religion about him. Whatever claims are made of Jesus’ humanity and deity, it seems hard to image Christianity without having fellowship with his living presence. Without that fellowship, what remains becomes something other than Christian. Sometimes beautiful and sometimes ugly, but different. And it doesn’t take that long.

Christianity will always be, to some degree and probably always to a very great degree, about Jesus and not of him. I’d like to unpack that a bit more some other time.

Now, I would like to take that of/about dynamic a farther by a degree. I think Unitarian Universalism is about Christianity, if not a faith of it. Yes, there are Unitarian and Universalist Christians and needn’t rehearse this fact. But even among those Unitarian Universalists for whom Christianity is alien, unknown, unwelcome or even hated, Christianity is the enduring context. Our polity, style of worship, forms of leadership, history, connections, lingo and culture has direct and subtle traces of its Christian aboutness. If it’s only a habit, it’s one not broken after decades of neglect and deprecation. That’s more than tradition, which suggests a past connection and for which there’s little esteem today, but continues as an itchy and integral part of our identity.

It follows, I think, that we ought to be more careful to cultivate relationships with unambiguously Christian individuals and entities. Whatever we may choose from the interchange, we surely would learn more about ourselves.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. I agree with you. The “religion of Jesus” was probably an apocalyptic variety of Messianic Judaism, something that has been quite alien to Unitarianism in the last 300 years (although early antitrinitarians like Servetus were indeed apocalyptic). And every development in modern-day Unitarian Universalism has been somehow related to Christianity, whether in opposition or as permanent reformation.

    But hey, Neopaganism is mostly also about Christianity after all (by rejecting it), therefore it is not that peculiar.

  2. A few stray thoughts.

    I think that if we UU’s truly practiced the religion of Jesus, it would look more like Judaism. Instead, much of our religion (practiced by Christians and non-Christians) is a religion about Christianity. Much that we do is a reaction to the surrounding Christianity, and our efforts to either dissent from it, or reform it.

    So now I am left wondering what my “about Jesus” is truly about. About his teachings? About his person? About stories featuring him? And could I truly divide these things from each other? Perhaps not. Now I’m not sure to what extent I can divide the teachings of Jesus from the person of Jesus. And as somebody who once thought that this was neccessary, I now have something significant to think about.

  3. “But hey, Neopaganism is mostly also about Christianity after all (by rejecting it), therefore it is not that peculiar.”

    I disagree. A great many Neopagans have no problem with Christianity; it is merely not their religion. I hear much less Christian bashing among my fellow Pagans than I’ve heard in my UU congregation.

  4. Joel, I am not talking about individuals. Every person has a history and a spiritual path with his or her own conditions, likes, and dislikes. But the Neopagan movement, in its theology, in its morals, and in its social development, exists in contrast with Christianity, not ignoring it. (Just beginning with its name, because “pagan” is a Christian word.)

  5. Derek, as I see it, Christianity is a religion that tries to give an answer to the central question: “Who is Jesus?”. Jesus’s teachings were important as far as it was Jesus who taught them. See, e.g. Larry Hurtado’s books about early Jesus worship. The starting point of Christianity was that Jesus was not a mere man. If he was a prophet, the Messiah, a son of God, the Logos, or God Himself, was to be discussed in the next three centuries, with the outcome that we all know about. But the central question was always “who?” rather than “what?”.

  6. Scott, I agree completely–in fact, I was having the “of/about” conversation just a couple days ago, and commenting that all kinds of church movements and reformers claimed to be returning to the 1st century, including Theodore Parker in his indirect, limited way.

    As for contemporary UUism, we have amputated ourselves from the Body of Christ. (I’m speaking broadly here; our CXCUUA congregations legitimately can argue this claim.) Thing is, though (and I apologize for the graphic metaphor), when a person has some part–say, for example, a finger–amputated, it’s still a human finger, in human form, even if human life no longer flows through it. Unitarian Universalism may have cut itself off, for the most part, from the Christian church universal, but we still retain the forms, the structures, of our Christianity of old, even if the Blood of Christ no longer flows through our veins to nourish our cells.

  7. Jaume, I seriously doubt your conclusion that Christianity is a religion that tries to give an answer to the central question: “Who is Jesus?”. For most Christians that is a settled issue, if one is to believe their creeds. I cannot worship in the Methodist Chuches because of the recital of a creed. I became a UU chiefly because I was not called upon to swear an oath to something supernatural. There is a creeping movement among many UU professionals for formalization of our services, a call for respect for our Christian roots, and a turn towards popularization of what was a uniquely complex church. I do not see an advantage for Humanist, Atheist, and others who disregard the supernatural as holding relevance for our lives in a return to the worship of the Blood of the Lamb.

  8. BSTR – I think if the creeds are to believed, who Jesus is remains the central question of Christianity as an institution. Creeds merely propose various official answers to that common Christian question. And even creedless tradions (Quakers, Baptists, Disciples, Unitarians) end up with some kind of unofficial creed about who Jesus is (Inner Light, the Lord, Son of God, Human Teacher, etc.).

    I wonder what you mean by formalization of services? What I’m hearing (but could be wrong about) sounds like an echo of the 1950’s Fellowship Movement, where services were very unstructured and sometimes like lecture platforms with a bit of discussion and music. This is only one thread of UU liturgy among many liturgies present throughout the 20th century. There are also other liturgical norms, some of which would seem more formal than that which was common in the Fellowship Movement.

    I would agree with you that most Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics have no advantage to gain from “worshipping the Blood of the Lamb”. But then, most mainline and liberal Christians would also agree that there is also no such advantage for them. Blood Atonement is not popular theology among that strain of Christians. Nor is “worshipping the Blood of the Lamb” how they would describe their own faith.

    I would also wonder what advantage there is for liberal Christians, in taking part in worshipping non-Theism, or trying to create a religion that is never about Jesus. But then, those questions about advantage get us into the whole contemporary crisis of UU identity. And that, I suspect, is a discussion for a different blog entry.

  9. bstr, probably I did not express my thoughts adequately. What you say is exactly right: because the Christian churches have given an answer to the central question, i.e. “who is Jesus?”, you are able to worship in those churches. Those denominations, like the Unitarian or the Mormon churches, who give a different answer about who Jesus is, are considered fringe churches or even post-Christian churches. While Mormons still struggle to be recognized as Christians (as they try to produce a theological response about who Jesus is that could be acceptable for other Christians), Unitarians are giving up in that attempt. Those movements that do not care who Jesus was but have and promote the same or a similar ethical message are not considered to be Christian. And if you look back at the early centuries of the Church (e.g. the Arian controversy), the central debate was not about Jesus’ message but about his nature.

  10. I would not agree that the question of who Jesus is is settled within mainline Christianity. For one thing, I would be willing to bet that Marcus Borg’s answer to that question is not the same as the answer provided by your typical conservative Christian. And even the creeds are a complicated thing. Not only do not all Christian churches have creedal recitation as part of their faith, but even among those that do, many liberal Christians effectively re-interpret them in a progressive way that differs quite a bit from the traditional intepretation (this is common among Episcopaleans–Borg being one example of this, but also John Shelby Spong.)

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