Monday, February 21, 2005

Robert Bellah and the Unitarian Universalists

When I was in graduate school, Robert Bellah's Habits of the Heart profoundly affected my understanding of church in America. Bellah and his team of researchers suggestion that individualism is at the heart of American worship. And unfortanately, this individualism precedes community and often overwhelms any movement toward community.
I just finished reading a fascinating talk he delivered to the Unitarian Universalists in 1998: Unitarian Universalism in Societal Perspective. He argues that social dissent is at the heart of American religion, making Baptists and Unitarian Universalists both seperate strains in the grand untradition of dissent. His talk is challenging and critizuing the UU for tendencies to devalue notiions that provide a framework for developing true community. I think all churches could benefit from reading his lecture. Along the way, he references Mark Lilla who makes the case that the sixties social sexual revolution and the eighties economic boon are both sides of the same coin.
He says:
The revolution of the sixties did not come from nowhere. I would argue that it was another stage in the unfolding of what I have already described as our deepest common value, respect for the individual conscience, the individual person, a respect that is rooted in our dominant religious tradition of dissenting Protestantism

And again:
I called to mind the dissenting tradition. What was so important about the Baptists, and other sectarians such as the Quakers, was the absolute centrality of religious freedom, of the sacredness of individual conscience in matters of religious belief. We generally think of religious freedom as one of many kinds of freedom, many kinds of human rights, first voiced in the European Enlightenment, and echoing around the world ever since. But Georg Jellinek, Max Weber’s friend, and, on these matters, his teacher, published a book in 1895 called Die Erklärung der Menschen- und Bürgerrechte, translated into English in 1901 as The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens, which argued that the ultimate source of all modern notions of human rights is to be found in the radical sects of the Protestant Reformation, particularly the Quakers and Baptists. Of this development Weber writes, “Thus the consistent sect gives rise to an inalienable personal right of the governed as against any power, whether political, hierocratic or patriarchal. Such freedom of conscience may be the oldest Right of Man—as Jellinek has argued convincingly, at any rate it is the most basic Right of Man because it comprises all ethically conditioned action and guarantees freedom from compulsion, especially from the power of the state. In this sense the concept was as unknown to antiquity and the Middle Ages as it was to Rousseau. . . ” Weber then goes on to say that the other Rights of Man were later joined to this basic right, “especially the right to pursue one’s own economic interests, which includes the inviolability of individual property, the freedom of contract, and vocational choice.” (1978:1209) So, almost from the beginning the sacredness of conscience, of the individual person was linked to “the right to pursue one’s own economic interests.” Remember that Weber locates the famous “Protestant ethic” in the intersection of Calvinism and sectarianism out of which our own dissenting tradition comes. Freedom of conscience and freedom of enterprise are more closely, even genealogically, linked than many of us would like to believe. As I hope to show, they are both expressions of an underlying ontological individualism.

For those willing to wrestle with Bellah's ideas, I think he raises many valid challenges that face the contemporary church and society. We must seriously consider how our actions (praxis) is derived from ideas or dotrines (doxis) that may lead to unrestrained individualism--even when we are proclaiming the value of community. For Bellah, he finds hope of connecting with the sacraments, the communion of the saints and in a social ontology rooted in Trinitarian theology.

1 comment:

Matte said...

Hey Doug -

First of all, thanks for your support of my writings...you don't know how much a kind word can do.

The remarks about individualism really made me think about my struggles in developing community around me and how my first reaction on encountering difficulty (it is always the other people letting me down) is to withdraw into individualism because it is so much safer. I am realizing that the struggles are a natural part of the development and growth of a living organism and should not be seen as insurmountable obstacles.

Our fierce determination to be individuals gives us a strong drive to accomplish things, but does hinder our ability to patiently develop and nurture community. Thanks for the provoking and insightful reading...