When Unitarians “Come Out”

In my American church history class this week we touched on a topic that has been a curiosity for a while: coming out as a Unitarian.

One of the questions I’ve had for a while is why people who are very theologically liberal often continue to call themselves Christian or identify by their particular denomination (Methodist, Episcopalian, Baptist, Presbyterian, etc.) rather than simple admitting that they have more in common with Unitarians.  This has been an interest to me for a couple of reasons:

First, as I listen to people with more conservative impulses (like my husband), I understand their concern with orthodoxy in the church and their frustration with many mainline denominations as of late.  I agree with them on the importance of purity in the church.  However, I also think that many who are concerned with such purity often resort to a general “nastiness.”  In my view, this helps no one.  I think we have to approach those we consider heterodox with both respect and compassion—after all, I am friends with many of them and they are kind, well-meaning people.  Lastly, I’m also concerned with simple intellectual honesty and attention to history.  I think people should be able to identify themselves as they choose, but we just have to be honest about how our self-chosen identities do or don’t line up with other realities.

Perhaps this will provoke some irritation on the part of my more liberal friends, but here are my thoughts:  In my imagination, a peaceful, productive solution to all of these concerns would be for those who have come to hold more Unitarian beliefs to self-identify that way as opposed to claiming Christianity.  This addresses concerns #1 and #3 above, for it preserves Christian orthodoxy as traditionally understood and also is more accurate.  To me, really it seems odd to want to call oneself a Christian if one is essentially Unitarian—as orthodox Christianity as historically understood is something quite different.

Additionally, if Unitarians were self-identifying, I believe concern #2 would become less of a problem.  If people we willing to self-select to exit Christianity  (either individually or as local congregations leaving denominations or even denominations changing their official doctrine and associations), it seems there would be less drama, anger, and finger-pointing on the part of those who subscribe to orthodoxy.  I’m not in any way excusing those who behave inappropriately–just saying that if nobody had to attempt to “excommunicate” you, everyone would be more likely to stay calm and remain friends.

With regards to the response of more conservative folks, there is a place, I think, for Christians to say to others that identify as Christian, “Look, I don’t think your beliefs line up with the historic Christian faith.”  In fact, I suppose I’m doing that now.  I don’t wish this to be a fight, though.  I don’t wish for more moderate/conservative Christians to get worked up into a frenzy.  I would rather we have a calm discussion of our differences, and if at the end of that discussion it seems clear that you aren’t crazy about the Bible or a literal resurrection or the Trinity, them maybe it’s time for you to claim a different religious viewpoint, since Christianity has a long history of coming down on certain sides of such debates.  Ideally, then, we could move forward with genuine interfaith dialogue.  There will always be significant theological differences among Christians, but when you move far enough away from how a religion has understood itself for centuries, I think understanding such a conversation as interfaith dialogue is more appropriate.

To finally connect this with my class, we just learned about how the vast majority of Congregationalists in the late 1700s and early 1800s became Unitarian.  At first they didn’t identify as such and were a sort of silent minority.  However, as their numbers grew, they finally “came out” as Unitarian–and pretty soon many more followed.  I asked my professor why he supposes this isn’t as common today.  Why, once Unitarianism was established in the United States, did not everyone who had Unitarian-ish beliefs just call themselves Unitarian?  Why do so many today call themselves Christian that seem to disagree with Christianity as understood by Christians up until this time?  He seems to think it’s due to social pressure.  Being Christian is still seen as the “norm” in Western culture, and many still aren’t sure if they’re ready to formally abandon Christianity, even if they already have functionally.

I’ve been pondering this situation this week, and I’ve decided another part of the problem here is that everyone wants to be able to define Christianity the way they wish–after all, we Americans are individualists.  In addition to social pressures, I think many people think that if their version of Christianity is different than traditional Christian belief, that’s fine.  They believe they should get to choose what Christianity means to them.  I understand that asking people to identify as something other that Christian has a degree of arrogance about it, since it seems to say moderates and conservatives have more right to define Christianity than those on the most liberal end of the spectrum.  I’d argue, though that the reason why anyone on either end of the spectrum (and yes, I might sometimes feel this way about far-right “Christians,” as well), should be dismissed as a “real” Christian is not due to what someone else today says, as much as what the trajectory of history says.  In my view, none of us has the privilege of completely redefining Christianity.  We can contextualize it to our time and culture, but we cannot invent a new story for the Christian faith.  In that way, I think that when any of us decides they believe something radically different from historic Christianity, it’s time to move on and choose a new label.  In my view, this not only better preserves the distinctive beliefs of Christianity, but also does justice to whatever other viewpoints are around–which deserve to be understood on their own terms, rather than as part of a confusing porridge of pseudo-Christian beliefs.

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