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Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Robert M. Price : Bultmannism and Buddhism

Bultmannism and Buddhism
 Protestant theologian and New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann made quite a splash — make that, bomb crater — with his 1941 essay, “New Testament and Mythology.”1 And though whole schools of subsequent theologians have taken Bultmann’s words in stride and moved on to their own new and, in some cases, equally shocking projects, one still finds most Protestants both in Germany and in America either blissfully ignorant of Bultmann’s bombshell or desperately trying to forget it.
Bultmann was far from the first to blow the whistle on the mythic, nonhistorical character of the New Testament. Both enemies of Christianity and Liberal Modernist theologians had already done that. Bultmann’s novelty and wisdom lay in his recognition that myth is the irreplaceable language of religion and that, to retain the powerful message of the myth, one must demythologize — or, as his colleague Paul Tillich put it, “deliteralize” — the New Testament. Liberal theologians, like Adolf Harnack and Albrecht Ritschl, saw fit simply to subtract the myth and focus on what was left: ethics, piety, morality. But Bultmann knew there was more to the New Testament message than that.
What is the purpose of myth, at least in general? Bultmann focused on the role of myth as enshrining, or at least presupposing, the particular self-understanding of the community that told and cherished the myth. Thus, myths could be decoded, or demythologized, to reveal the society’s perception of its own place in the world. Many myths are about the comforting, dependable cyclical continuation of the familiar: the gods recreate the world and give it new stability every year, etc. But myths attached to rituals of rebirth and salvation — myths of grace, not myths of nature, one might say — tell at once of a consciousness of oppression and the thrill of new freedom and maturity. This is true equally of puberty rite myths and mystery religion sacraments, like those of ancient Mithraism, the Isis and Osiris cult, and the Attis religion. Finally, the kernel of myth is the existential self-understanding of those who tell and live the myth.
It is not as if Bultmann thought the actual mythic narratives were henceforth negligible. No, he knew what modern Unitarians do not seem to know: myth is the language of religion, though the religion will be immature as long as it fails to interpret the language. He shared the conviction of Friedrich Schleiermacher, that one cannot practice some sort of distilled “religion in general.” Rather, one must choose a particular religious path, even if they all reach the same destination.
Christianity, Bultmann thought, had reached its present crisis of interpretation because of modernity, particularly science and its disclosures. Most of us, no matter what we think or say we believe, simply do not occupy the world of the ancients. We do not count on miracles or reckon with invasive spirits and demons. We do not readily look up exorcists in the Yellow Pages. We even have clever dispensationalist theologies to explain why miracles do not happen anymore. Or, if we are Pentecostals and charismatics, we try our best to live as if the ancient, mythic miracle-world is real, but the tepid results of the typical Assemblies of God congregation and the aberrant fanaticism of the Deliverance Ministry both amply attest to the failure of the experiment.
So, according to Bultmann, we face two choices: either we can abandon the New Testament proclamation as a product of ancient superstition that does not transcend its origins or we can ask whether the existential self-understanding presupposed in the preaching of the first Christians may still be valid, detachable from the mythic and prescientific worldview of the first century. Bultmann chose and advocated the latter option. He rejected all supernaturalism as superstition. But he did not reject God. Indeed, the major problem he had with myth is that it depicts the Transcendent in objectified, this-worldly terms, as if God might reach down and temporarily suspend the normal process of cause and effect. Insofar as myth makes God do that, myth is superstitious. God is no mere object, no mere person. Nor would that have come as any news to Anselm, Aquinas, or the orthodox theologians of the East. So God is no superstition, but supernaturalism depicts him in a superstitious manner.
Jesus Christ, on the other hand, was certainly a person, a historical individual, though we can know precious little about him. But we do know he preached that the individual stands naked before the keen eyes of divine judgment in every moment. We know of his willingness to place his fate in the hands of his Father, something we might generalize as a bearing of radical openness toward and faith in the future. The resurrection? Bultmann knew good and well that the resurrection of Jesus was a myth borrowed from contemporary mystery religions. It functions, first, as metaphor for the fact that the death/cross of Christ always remains etched against the horizon, re-presented in Christian preaching, to challenge us to abandon faith in all but God. Second, it stands for and catalyzes the transformation one undergoes by casting one’s lot with God. Borrowing the terms of his colleague Martin Heidegger, Bultmann called such Godward living “authentic existence,” the renunciation of the illusion of self-sufficiency. Anything short of it he named “inauthentic existence” — equivalent, I think, to what Tillich called “idolatrous faith.”
This Christian gospel, Bultmann maintained, is independent of the mythic prescientific world picture amid which it entered history. As a result, no one, to be a Christian, need accept the existence of angels, demons, a future apocalypse, or a future life — though here again, since surviving the death of the body is not exactly a mythical notion, just a scientific unknown, Bultmann did not reject it. Indeed, insofar as churches do make such beliefs prerequisites for salvation, they are requiring cognitive “works,” no matter their hypocritical prattle about “faith alone.”
One can be an equally good Christian whether one believes in a round earth and disease germs, or in a flat earth and demons. But to require belief in the furniture of an ancient worldview, against all knowledge and better judgment, is bad Christianity, as it requires the sacrifice of the intellect. And that, for Bultmann, is the mirror-image of the futile attempt of the Liberal Modernist to sacrifice the mythology of the Bible instead of listening to it.
What might it look like if a world religion — not just a small group of ivory-tower academics — were to embrace the Bultmannian perspective? What if some major faith placed demythologizing at the forefront of its missionary efforts? Take a look at Buddhism. Buddhism seems from the first to have been able to make Bultmann’s distinction between the genuine stumbling-block of the gospel (or of the dharma) and the false stumbling-block of parochial worldviews. Buddhism promoted a saving message of self-reliance, of altering one’s self-understanding. The result would be an amazing new freedom, a cutting of the bands that tie one to the delusive world of samsara. To be sure, early Buddhism, surviving today as Theravada, was more optimistic than Bultmann on this sufficiency of self-effort; later Buddhism, Mahayana, came to parallel Bultmann, insisting that one must rely upon Other-power — the saving grace of Amitabha Buddha — to be saved.
But in either case, Buddhists clearly understood that traditional faith, in their case Vedic Hinduism, was irrelevant, whether true or false. That is, if Indra, Vishnu, and Siva did indeed inhabit Lotus-palaces in heavens of bliss, and even if they actually did deign to answer prayers — so what? How did that get anybody liberated from this sinful world, and from endless bondage to its false desires and its sufferings? It simply did not matter if the traditional map of the cosmos or pantheon of gods was accurate. Early Buddhists took for granted that it was all true, albeit irrelevant. And here is the key: later Buddhists, as they entered new cultural zones, did not require converts to believe in the symbolic universe of Hinduism. If one believed in Taoist deities or aboriginal spirits, even if one bargained with them on a day-to-day basis, it was all the same. The message of salvation, of self-understanding, of quenching desire and abandoning false belief in an ego-self (atman), was seen as fully compatible with anyone’s inherited mythology. Or, as with many Buddhists in today’s West, with no mythology at all.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Buddhism has its own stubborn fundamentalists who insist on literal belief in the twenty-five various Buddhas of Buddhist “history.” These devout folks are fully as scandalized at scholarly debunking of the myths of Dipankara, Amitabha, and others as the detractors of the Jesus Seminar are. But it is safe to say that Buddhism as a whole has a much larger place for those, say, Zen masters, who minimize the importance, à la Bultmann, of a historical Buddha. On The Long Search, a BBC television series surveying world religions, host Ronald Eyre inquired of a Zen abbot, “Does the Buddha exist?” The answer was, “For those who need the Buddha to exist, he exists. For those who do not need him to exist, he does not exist.” The real and relevant Buddha is the Buddha-nature latent in all sentient beings. Can we imagine a Christianity willing to make the same admission about Christ? “If you meet the Christ on the road to Emmaus — kill him.”
     1See the most recent reprinting and translation, Rudolf Bultmann, “New Testament and Mythology,” New Testament and Mythology and Other Basic Writings, ed. and trans. Schubert M. Ogden (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1989), pp. 1-43.
 By Robert M. Price

Robert M. Price : Dynamics of Messianism

Dynamics of Messianism

by  Robert M. Price

I am currently working on a comparative paradigm for messianism, a conceptual scheme drawn from the study of various messianic movements throughout world history. Such a typology may help us understand new messianic movements as they arise. What is a messiah? What is the difference between a true and a false messiah? And what can be expected to happen when a messiah comes, as well as when he goes? I would like to set forth the rudiments of my theory, now, in this time of messianic expectation.

Usually such synthetic studies as this one have the character of "post-game wrap-ups." They are of interest, mostly, to scholarly outsiders, not to members of the type of movements they discuss. This is perhaps because followers of messianic movements prefer to regard their movements and their progress as the result of pure, unmediated miracle and providence; thus, they are indifferent to the explanations of unbelievers offered in the spirit of scientific naturalism. And this is why, in the case of messianic movements, people so often ignore and repeat the lessons of history. A significant exception is a uniquely modern messianic movement, the one sponsoring this very journal, the one at whose seminary I began working on the present study: the Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon. This movement seems to have embarked on its historic course with an unusually acute awareness of its position in the modern world. As a result it stands an excellent chance of learning the lessons of the past and so of avoiding the repetition of the sad ones. Thus I will begin with typological generalities, then apply them to the specific case of the Unification movement.

First, let us remind ourselves of Clifford Geertz’s description of religion as a cultural system of symbols for managing the three great negativities of life: adversity, ignorance and injustice. Life is filled with these three things, and yet we cannot grow inured to them. We seek their resolution by appealing to an imagined, unseen realm outside and adjacent to the visible world. We posit that the sad facts of death, ignorance, suffering, and oppression will be avenged, reversed, justified, explained or alleviated up there, out there, in heaven or in the future. The murderer may seem to get away scot free as far as we can see, but rest assured, he will get what's coming to him in hell, or when he's reincarnated as a flatworm. Why did tragedy strike? We don't know, but we will when we get to heaven.

As Peter Berger notes,[1]  messianism is one such rationalization strategy. Note how it works: messianism does not do what some theodicies do. It does not pretend to answer the question of how God can be good and yet allow all the evils of the world. It is more pragmatic than that. It knows that mere theories are cold comfort at best. Messianism focuses not on the beginning, the source of the problem; it focuses instead on the end of it, which it says is coming soon. The Savior, the Redeemer, will come to wipe away every tear. He will finally destroy evil. And when it is gone, who will think to reproach God? Who will care why everything went wrong once it has been made right?

Berger calls this a “future, this-worldly theodicy.” By contrast, an “otherworldly theodicy” would abandon hope for the messiah bringing justice into this world or “peace on earth.” Instead it would promise relief from the ills of this world by giving you a ticket to heaven. In the latter case, you would be leaving the visible, factual world of ills, this veil of tears, and embarking for the farther shores of Geertz’s unseen larger world on the margins of this one [2]  
 In Mircea Eliade’s terms, this world that needs redemption would be profane space, while the unseen world of imagined answers would correspond to sacred space. 
Messianism envisions that a savior is presently waiting in the wings of unseen sacred space. This may be understood as his already existing in heaven; or his waiting in concealment somewhere on earth, as a leper outside the walls of Rome; or it may be simply the prophesied certainty of his coming. In other words, he is “waiting” in the future. The messiah’s place is off-stage. He is always “the one who is to come.” The trouble starts when one day he appears.

When someone announces himself to be the messiah, he is claiming to have brought sacred space into profane space, transforming the one into the other. "The kingdom of this world [that is, profane space] has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ [i.e., sacred space]." People are excited, because they have been convinced that all evils will cease. The world will be changed. But history stubbornly goes on, even after the supposed coming of the end of history. How is the impression maintained that redemption has dawned?

First, a bulwark is erected against the profane world. Of course, the profane world does not cease to exist, but the messiah and his followers create and retreat into a bubble of messianic, eschatological existence. Berger and Luckmann [3]  call it a “finite province of meaning,” a willing suspension of disbelief, a retreat, usually temporary, into a carefully circumscribed and fortified subworld in which the kingdom of God will seem to have come.

The boundaries of this island reality are laid down by behavioral rules, inner-circle jargon, special clothing, and distinctive beliefs. Contact with outsiders is strictly regulated: believers spend all their time with each other and interact with outsiders only by token of evangelism. An example of this is the Jehovah’s Witness sect. As John Lofland explains, in an early study of the Unification movement,[4]  the evangelist sets the terms for interaction with the unbeliever. By offering him the gospel, the evangelist shapes the unbeliever's response: he will either reject the gospel, playing the role of worldling, rejecter, Satan-deceived persecutor, or he will accept the gospel and join the group, another welcome vote for the beliefs of the beleaguered sect. Either way, the evangelist wins!

Within the magic circle of the mustard-seed kingdom, the fires of supernatural redemption are stoked by charismatic prophecy, speaking in tongues, and reports of miracles. Soon, the believers assure one another, this beachhead of salvation will spread abroad to the ends of the earth. But redemption does not come, not according to the original, Technicolor expectation. The most successful it can be is eventually to become a new worldwide religion or the ideology of an empire. But even this will fall short of the once-imagined glories of the millennium. (Rest assured, though, its hierarchy will still claim the absoluteness of eschatological truth to authorize its dictates and dogmas!)

The process of adjusting to the delay of the end already begins within the reign/ministry of the messiah if it lasts long enough. Otherwise it may occur at his death. Either way, there are various ways of adjusting to the failure of the eschaton, coping with the ongoing of history. 

One is ritual anticipation/evocation of the future. Eliade[5]  understands ritual as the process of cyclical return to the sacred time of origins, as nature is renewed and rejuvenated each year when spring comes. But in the case of a messianic sect, ritual is the calling into the present of the future. (Not that this is much of a difference from Eliade's paradigm, since in most eschatological schemas, Erdzeit=Urzeit anyway. The future state of bliss is a return to Eden, a re-creation.) For concrete examples, take the Lord’s Supper and the Dead Sea Scrolls messianic banquet. Both are "dry-runs" for the real thing, and at the same time stop-gap substitutes for the real thing. In precisely the same way, watching low-budget Rapture movies (Distant Thunder, Years of the Beast, Image of the Beast, etc.) provide fundamentalist church audiences with a kind of cathartic vicarious experience of the eagerly-awaited eschatological events.
 The believer hopes to see the events predicted by Hal Lindsay happening soon, being covered on CNN. But it never comes. So in the meantime, one can watch theatrical simulations of the events. It's not the apocalypse, but it's better than nothing. John Gager is surely correct inseeing this as the function of the drama-like Book of Revelation.[6]  It is a powerful psychodrama supplying at least a measure of the eschatological excitement with which mundane reality is so stingy. 

A second historic strategy for managing the delay of the predicted End is to "realize," i.e., demythologize, eschatology. Though Lutheran existentialist Rudolf Bultmann is the best known exponent of this approach, it is, as he himself pointed out, quite old. The Gospel of John already seem to have abandoned hope of the second advent of Jesus and says it has happened in an unfalsifiable, invisible form as the coming of the Paraclete. The predicted resurrection? It will not happen literally; rather, the resurrection is the rebirth from the Spirit of those who believe in the word of Jesus.[7]  Similarly, in the Gospel of Thomas, the disciples ask Jesus when the repose (i.e., resurrection and final rest) of the dead will come. His answer: "What you expect has come to pass, only you do not recognize it" (saying 51). Ali Muhammad ("the Bab," or Gate) and Hussein Ali ("Baha'ullah," the Glory of God), founders of the Babi and Baha'i Faiths in nineteenth-century Iran, likewise preached that the End-Time events were to be realized figuratively--in their own ministry.[8]

A third tried-and-true approach (and no doubt the most controversial) is transcendence (of the present) by transgression (of the present order). In the seventeenth century, messiah Sabbatai Sevi convinced much of Eurasian Jewry that the messianic utopia would soon arrive, that he would persuade the Ottoman sultan to convert to Judaism. Instead, the sultan threatened him with death if he did not convert to Islam. His response? Allah-o-Akbar! If a crucified messiah was a bitter pill to swallow (1 Corinthians 1:23) how much more an apostate messiah! Most left the fold in disgust, but many did not, clinging rather to various theological rationalizations for the infamous act, many of which bore a startling analogy to the atonement theories attached to the crucifixion in early Christianity. For these believers, the question arose as to whether the messianic age had dawned or not. Outwardly, things appeared stubbornly the same. But the messiah had come, had he not? His messianic kingdom, then, was for the time being a secret, a mustard seed kingdom. One day soon it should burst forth in its Technicolor fullness, but in the meantime believers must live out the kingdom in secret, living by the standards not of the old age but of the new. And what were these? Some mystics had dared to posit that in the redeemed, sinless age, there would be no need for the many prohibitions of the Torah, so on that glorious day the Torah would show a new face: all its prohibitions would turn to positive commands. Among one radical sect of Sabbatians, the Dönmeh, [9]  the piety of the secret conventicle was to joyfully perform every act that the Torah had forbidden! Needless to say, their liturgical orgies had to be kept secret. The strange world they lived in was antipodal to that of their fellow Jews (and Gentiles). It was so different from evertything else in the world, one might well believe it to be the kingdom of God. 

As I say, these processes may begin already within the lifetime of the messiah, but they will surely get underway once the messiah dies. And then his status of finality (i.e., his futurity, his eschatological character) is relativized. He remains “the Seal of the Prophets,” God’s final messenger, in name only. 
His community, which had anticipated no further need for revelation (since God, after all, would shortly be making his dwelling among men) still requires divine guidance. So other revealers will follow the ­­­­"last prophet." This may happen in either of two ways: charisma is either routinized or inherited. All this, of course, is familiar from the great sociologist of religion Max Weber.[10]  Charisma (the status and personal influence of the messiah) is routinized when the charismatic prophet is replaced by theologians and managers, caretakers and interpreters. Concurrently, the messianic sect is being socially and religiously mainstreamed on the way to accommodating itself to society. The sect and society will begin to permeate each other: the church in the world, the world in the church. Things become more comfortable, less exciting. As Abraham Maslow sees it,[11]  the founder, the messiah, had visionary "peak experiences" and invited others to share them, whereas after his death, managers, notorious for their lack of inspiring vision and charisma, take over to build institutions, tombs for the prophets.

Why does this evolution/devolution occur? A messianic movement cannot remain a radical sect and succeed demographically, since sects cater to the elite; they want only "hundred percenters." Catholic Christianity and Sunni Islam, by contrast, are mainstreamed messianic sects. They are no longer "the camp of the saints" but, as Saint Cyprian said, a "school for sinners." 

If, on the other hand, the movement remains a sect at the margins of society, content with “a few good men,” the charismatic prophet will have been replaced by successors in kind. His charisma is inherited, as from Elijah to Elisha. The successors are vicars of the Christ who will return, while he is temporarily unavailable. (The Pope is an exception that proves the rule: he is really an institutional caretaker and only claims to speak with the messiah’s absolute authority very rarely.) Bearers of inherited charisma would include the Shi'ite Imams descended from Muhammad through Ali. These Imams are not prophets (God forbid! Muhammad was the last of those!), but they are divinely inspired interpreters of the Koran, unlike the mere caretakers of Sunni Islam, the Caliphs. Shi'a Islam remained sectarian; Sunni Islam mainstreamed and continually persecuted new Shi'ite messianisms. In early Christianity, the charisma of Jesus was inherited by the wandering prophets and apostles whose activities are attested in Matthew 25:34-40; 3 John vv. 5-8, the Didache, and other texts.[12]   These Jesus-prophets, brethren of the exalted Son of Man, would speak new revelations in his name, with his authority ("Whoever hears you hears me"--Luke 10:16. "Whoever in this sinful and adulterous generation is ashamed of me and my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes"--Mark 8:38). Bultmann and other form critics attribute much of the sayings-tradition of the Synoptic Gospels to these itinerant charismatics. As 3 John and the Didache make clear, these "loose canons" (pardon the expression) eventually came into conflict with the consolidating authority of the bishops, those who also claimed to be successors of Jesus, but through "apostolic succession," i.e., routinization of charisma. 

Let me mention one more interesting development once the messiah dies and history continues. Very often the believers go into denial: they say he did not die, but only seemed to! Invisibly to mortal eyes, he really escaped! (Note how we are again appealing to an imaginary unseen realm to soften the blows of adversity.) He is waiting in seclusion to return; or he rose and went to heaven, whence he will soon return; or his spirit is with God in heaven, whence it will return by means of the soon-coming resurrection of the dead. By these expedients, the terrible event which seems to debunk the messianic faith instead reenergizes it, since the death is now taken to betoken the final stage, the eleventh hour. Time to get cracking!

The eschaton, the end, has been deferred, but only to the immediate future. In the meantime, however, the vanished messiah is represented by divinely inspired spokesmen, such as the Bab or the Paraclete, till he should reappear. The longer this “interim” lasts, the more likely it is that the sect will remain messianic in name only, or will return to traditional future expectation: the vanished messiah, or a new messiah, will come someday. In fact, one of the interim spokesmen likely will claim to be the returned messiah, and the cycle will begin again.

The major alternative to having the messianic tension slacken and go limp is for the sect to perish together in a this-worldly Armageddon. Jim Jones and David Koresh took this alternative. In this way, and only in this way, can the messiah actually and literally lead the faithful into the promised land of Geertz’s imagined unseen realm of final rectification.

But short of this, every messiah must become a false messiah the minute he sets foot on the stage of history, because history will continue. He will either be discarded by disillusioned believers or he will later be reinterpreted as a “new Moses,” a founder figure, a figure of a receding past (e.g., Jesus in Matthew's Gospel; Muhammad as the provider of the Koran). Or he may be assigned to a kind of messianic Valhalla with the honorary status of a preliminary messiah, as was Simon bar-Kochba, hailed as King Messiah by no less a personage than Rabbi Aqiba. Simon briefly achieved Jewish independence, only to be overwhelmed by Rome. But he was not then retroactively made a false messiah. As Geza Vermes argues,[13]  it was Simon bar-Kochba's noble failure that prompted some sages to split the office of messiah into two: that of Messiah ben Joseph, an Ephraimite messiah doomed to die heroically in battle to atone for Israel's sins, and a victorious Messiah ben-David, to carry the banner to victory. 
This way, Simon could be venerated as a messiah despite his failure, and eschatological expectation could begin again, only momentarily deferred. A similar strategy is to understand a messiah who died without bringing in the kingdom of God as the first coming of a messiah who will come again, this time in glory. This, of course, is the Christian option. Again, only a deferral.

No messiah ever manages to bring the unseen sacred space down to the profane world, so that we may walk henceforth by sight and no longer merely by faith. He may pretend to, in which case provisional opinions are given the unimpeachable status of absolute truth, and one dare not question it. Accordingly, though he anticipated distant-future revelations supplanting his own new dispensation,  the Bab commanded book-burnings of all uninspired books in his own day. 

At best, a clever messiah can “stall” and remain with one foot in the future by being cagey about his messianic identity. Jesus is asked if he is the messiah, and he leaves 'em guessing: "You say that I am." 
Reverend Moon used to be asked the same question, and his nimble reply topped even Jesus: "I'd have to give the same answer Jesus did." Beautiful! If he gives Jesus' answer, he must be the messiah like Jesus, no? But, then, strictly speaking, Jesus' answer was elusive! So close, but so far! Or recall Rabbi Schneerson's caginess: he would neither confirm nor deny his avidly believed messiahship. 
The uncertainty kept people on edge: they thought the messiah was present, but strictly speaking his explicit messianic claim was still at least a few minutes in the future!

When the messiah dies, he will have returned to Geertz’s unseen realm. He will be “back” in heaven, “hidden,” like the Mahdi, somewhere on earth, or “he” will return to the merely virtual existence of a second prophesied messiah. Heaven, earthly seclusion, or futurity — all are in the imaginary realm.

As I have anticipated, the Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon has already managed to learn a number of the lessons described here, having progressed with unprecedented rapidity through several stages that take most sectarian movements many generations. The result is that now, while the Messiah himself is alive and in active charge of the movement, the Unification Church has already sloughed off much of its sectarian alienation from nonmembers, its disdain of "worldly wisdom," and it's fear of institutionalism.[14]  It has not only assimilated the element of "realized eschatology;" rather, realized eschatology and demythologizing are at the heart of its theology. Though Unification theology is unabashedly supernatural, even spiritualistic, realized eschatology is primary to it, and not merely, as usual in messianic movements, a fall-back position. This is because of the unique Christology. Reverend Moon claims to be the Lord of the Second Advent, the fulfillment of the prophecy of the Parousia of Jesus Christ, not an independent messianic figure in his own right, like Rabbi Schneerson. Short of contriving to descend from the sky in celestial glory, how else could Reverend Moon justify this claim without demythologizing the Parousia? He was a man among men, a man born of woman, not an apocalyptic angel. If he were to heed the charge of Jesus on Easter morning 1936 to fulfill his mission, demythologization was inevitable. (Ali Muhammad, the Bab, had been forced to draw the same conclusion once he realized he himself was the Mahdi whose advent he had been heralding.)

When Unification theology demythologizes the advent of the Christ, reconceptualizing it as a birth (of Reverend Moon, plus, of course, his accomplishments), it transmutes the prophesied "end" into a new beginning instead. In the same way, the messianic fulfillment brought by Sun Myung Moon must be that of establishing a new dispensation, defining the threshold of a new age stretching into the future. History will continue. It is supposed to continue, unlike the expectation of most messianic sects. 

Notice the contrast between Paul's reference to Jesus as "the last Adam" (1 Cor. 15:45) and Unification theology's understanding of Reverend Moon as "the Third Adam."  Paul sees his messiah as ringing down the curtain of history. He calls Jesus an Adam just to make him the capper of history, the opposite number of the first man, the other book end. The Third Adam, on the other hand, is a parallel to the Edenic Adam, not an antitype. The Third Adam raises the curtain on a new era of history. He is an inaugurator.

 And this means, in turn, that Reverend Moon's messianic identity already includes and indeed demands the transition, described above, from messiah figure to founder figure. Since it is supposed to happen, it will be no shock or disappointment when it does happen. Still, certain problems may remain, even if they are seen clearly ahead. For instance, there is the problem of succession. Even though no one will be taken aback at the very fact of Reverend Moon's eventual passing, succession disputes tend to emerge only at the moment of succession itself, since the moment unleashes certain tensions that could not come out into open negotiating space earlier on. The situation and its outcome will be even more unpredictable if someone suddenly feels the impulse of prophecy. It would be very surprising if a movement like Unificationism, a surprising hybrid of businesslike administrative organization on the one hand and of shamanistic spiritualism on the other, did not eventually find itself forced to decide, as early Christianity eventually had to, between "ecclesiastical authority and spiritual power."[15]  
The Church has already felt something of the turbulence that can erupt between office and charisma, even during the founder's lifetime, when, for a while, Reverend Moon himself took seriously the claims of a radical Zairean youth who claimed to be channeling the spirit of a deceased son of Reverend Moon. Events revealed the channeler to be a charlatan, and the storm passed, but it should remain a living warning of what might happen following the founder's death: what if someone should step forward claiming to be the prophetic voice of Sung Myung Moon from the spirit world? For speculation's sake one might suggest that such an eventuality might be ruled out in advance by the founder's own prescriptive stipulation. But then we would simply be moving one notch over to a slightly different version of the dilemma of religious authority, that between canonical scripture (the founder's bequest) and the living voice of prophecy (the claim of a self-appointed successor). 

In any case, the two models of authority seldom peacefully coexist. For instance, the Taiping messiah, Hong Xiuquan, who understood himself to be Melchizedek and the younger brother of the ascended Jesus Christ, was able to brook the sometimes intrusive revelations of Xiao Chaogui, an early compatriot who was believed to channel revelations from the ascended Jesus himself, not to mention the utterances of Yang Xiuqing, who spoke with the very accents of God the Father. But eventually, Xiao Chaogui lost out to Yang Xiuqing in what appears to have been a prophetic power struggle.[16]  The Younger Brother of Jesus still had to put up with the sometimes humiliating oracles of the Father, but his Elder Brother fell conveniently silent.

Another problem, usually met with after a founder's death, but already occurring within the Reverend Moon's lifetime, is the painful evolution from a "camp of the saints" sect to a "school for sinners" church. Stevan L. Davies has mapped out the social dynamics between factions of an evolving movement of this type in his The Revolt of the Widows: The Social World of the Apocryphal Acts.[17]  He shows how the itinerant prophets, those who had heeded the gospel counsels to leave home and family to preach the News of the kingdom of God, conducted a circuit-riding ministry among sympathetic house-churches and Christian communities, to whom, however, these prophets had less and less to say. As Christianity took root among communal entities, families, homes, settlements, the old commands to sell one's possessions and give to the poor fell increasingly on deaf, or at least puzzled ears. Notoriously, such dominical commands have found no welcome in increasingly bourgeoisie Christian social settings such as eventually produced the Pastoral Epistles. Settled, domestic life represented a mainstreaming of the originally radical apocalyptic preaching. A sect was becoming a church, and the spokesmen for the old order became increasingly irrelevant fossils as things changed. 

I see something similar already happening among the ranks of Unificationism. Unificationists who began, precisely in the fashion of early apostolic workers, street witnessing and fund-raising, passed through the sacramental portal of the Blessing, a hieros gamos whereby they officially became grafted into the True Family of the True Parents. The very notion of Perfect Families, models of stability and matrices for the production of Perfect Children, immediately clashed with the continued obligation to perform apostolic ministries suitable for the celibate and unattached. These tensions are still being worked out. The felt contradiction seems to be the result of an attempt to keep the Unification movement a sect even while it is marrying its way into a church. 

The transition from the camp of the saints to the school for sinners has been accelerated even more by the decision to open up the sacramental Blessing of couples to those who are not believing Unificationists. In this way, the influence of the True Parents is believed to be increased like leaven in the lump, permeating society in a broader way. But some veterans of the movement fear that what is happening is theological inflation: a wider extension of the influence of the True Parents, but at the cost of being shallower. What we have, apparently, is an analogy to the controversy over the Halfway Covenant in American Puritanism. Puritan congregations required an "experience of grace," a datable moment of conversion to faith in Christ, or one could not be a full member. Otherwise, one soon has a school for sinners, not a "visible church." And they didn't want that. But that is what they got, in the form of Solomon Stoddard's Halfway Covenant, which allowed the children of converts to take communion in church even though, having been raised as perfect children (pardon the borrowed  terminology), they lacked the opportunity to convert to Christ from a previous life of sin.[18]  
If non-Unificationist sympathizers are able to be united with the True Family without conversion, then one must ask whether the movement is not only compromising its original sectarian zeal but even blurring the borders of the Unification Church as a movement at all. It might appear to be rapidly evolving into something of a para-church movement like the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association or the Christian Broadcasting Company. The support thus sought and gained is proverbially a mile wide and an inch deep. 
There is nothing necessarily wrong with such a change. But we seem to be passing from one New Testament analogy, that of the seed growing secretly, to another, the salt of the earth. That is, the hope is no longer that the messianic movement will gestate unobtrusively till the Great Hour be come at last, but rather that it will quietly and subtly savor the general stew. It is a more modest goal, and a more realistic one, from a demythologized point of view.

Like Lao-tse, who emerged from the womb already an old sage, Unificationism seems to have been born with a mature historical consciousness. Like the adolescent Jesus in the apocryphal Infancy Gospels, who irritated his tutors because he already possessed an adult's knowledge, Unificationism is uncannily shrewd in its self-understanding. Only history will show how this unique perspective will affect the survival, success, and further evolution of the Unification Church.                 


[1]  The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Approach to Religion (Garden City: Doubleday Anchor, 1969, pp. 69-70.

[2]  "Religion as a Cultural System" in Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures, NY: Basic Books, 1973, pp. 87-125. 

[3]  The Social Construction of Reality" A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. Garden City: Doubleday Anchor, 1967, p. 25.

[4]  Doomsday Cult: A Study of Conversion, Proselytization, and Maintenance of Faith (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1966., pp. 208-209.

[5]  The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. NY: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1959, pp. 68-161.

[6]  Kingdom and Community: The Social World of Early Christianity. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1975, pp. 50-57.

[7]  Bultmann, The Gospel of John: A Commentary. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975, e.g, p. 261; see also Robert T. Fortna, The Fourth Gospel and Its Predecessor: From Narrative Source to Present Gospel. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1988, pp. 284-293.

[8]  Baha' Ullah. The Kitab-I-Iqan, The Book of Certitude. Wilmette: Baha'i Publishing Trust, 1950, passim.

[9]  Gershom Scholem, The Messianic Idea in Judaism. NY: Schocken Books 1971, pp. 142-166.

[10]  The Sociology of Religion. Boston: Beacon Press, 1969, pp.60-79. 

[11] Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences. NY: Viking, 1974, pp. 23-29.

[12] Gerd  Theissen, "The Wandering Radicals," in Theissen, Social Reality and the Earliest Christians (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992, 33-59;  M. Eugene Boring, Sayings of the Risen Jesus: Christian Prophecy in the Synoptic Tradition. Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series 46. NY: Cambridge University Press, 1982

[13] Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew: A Historian's Review of the Gospels (London: Fontana/Collins, 1973), 139-140. See also Leibel Reznick, The Mystery of Bar Kochba: An Historical and Theological Investigation of the Last King of the Jews. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Inc., 1996, 130-131; 145-146.

[14]  Michael L. Mickler, "When the Prophet Is Yet Living: A Case Study of the Unification Church," in  Timothy Miller (ed.), When Prophets Die: The Postcharismatic Fate of New Religious Movements. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991, 183-194.

[15] Hans von Campenhausen, Ecclesiastical Authority and Spiritual Power in the Church of the First Three Centuries. Translated by J.A. Baker. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1981.

[16] Jonathan D. Spence, God's Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan. W.W. Norton & Company, 1997, 147.

[17] Carbondale: Southern University Press, 1981.

[18] See Stoddard's "The Inexcusableness of Neglecting the Worship of God," together with Robert L. Ferm's introduction, in Ferm, ed., Issues in American Protestantism: A Documentary History from the Puritans to the Present. Doubleday Anchor, 1969, pp. 41-48.  

Robert M. Price : Postmodern Unitarian Universalism

Postmodern Unitarian Universalism

 By Robert M. Price

In the gradual evolution of Protestant Theology toward the left, Unitarians and Universalists have played the role of the vanguard of the revolution. Or, tIn other words, Unitarianism and Universalism have served as the cow-catcher on the front of the theological locomotive: they were the first to clash with and dispense with all the sacred cows, one by one. The mainline denominations would catch up with them on point after point, followed even by the evangelical churches a few generations down the line, but Unitarians and Universalists had already cleared the rails for them. Unitarians and Universalists early took aim at the doctrines of Hell and Trinitarianism. With Nicene and Chalcedonian encumbrances thus sloughed off, they were free next to see new obstacles that stood in the way of "a free man's worship" (Bertrand Russell) and to begin to chip away at these, too. The centrality of Christology, even that of a safely Arian or merely human Christ, was the next bovine roadblock scooped off the track. Theism yielded to mystical Transcendentalism, then to Religious Humanism, then to Secular Humanism.
      Unitarian Universalists have decided that the truth is a moving target, or that the motion of the quest for the truth is itself the target: a way, not a destination. In this article I will venture to show how Unitarian Universalism is well on the way into its next evolutionary stage: Postmodernism. This may be more than an abstract exercise in abstract theological taxonomy (or taxidermy!). In his recent article in these pages ("Strained Bedfellows: Pagans, New Agers, and 'Starchy Humanists' in Unitarian Universalism," Religious Humanism, Vol. XXX, #s 1 & 2, Winter/Spring 1996, 7-29), Richard Wayne Lee has documented the increasing influx of New Age thought and practice into once staid and rationalist Unitarian Universalism, as well as the turbulence this development has caused. Lee does a fine job in explaining the change sociologically. Here I seek but to add a philosophical perspective to his his compelling account, showing how, despite the fears of some that UUism is threatened with the loss of its historic identity, in fact, the shift Lee describes can be understood as the next logical stage of UU evolution along its natural trajectory of historical evolution. What we are witnessing is the changeover from Modernism to Postmodernism in Unitarian Universalism.


Logocentrism Incarnate

What was the Christology Socinians rejected? It was the theological scheme that made the preincarnate Christ the Son of God, the divine Word, eternal in existence and partaking of the identical substance with the Father (and the Spirit). The Father made the world through the agency of the fully divine Son, the latter obedient to his Father's every whim. This divine Word appeared in the flesh to reveal the true doctrine of the Father and to gather his elect to his bosom, promising to take them out of this world to a heavenly mansion. This he will someday accomplish at the final ­Parousia­, or appearing, of the Word of God. On that day we will spurn prophecy and fragmentary knowledge for a face-to-face encounter with the Truth. Then all things shall be revealed, and those unbelievers who gladly accepted a lie in place of the truth will perish ignominiously. The righteous will retire to the Camp of the Saints, where there shall no more be any tears. And those without, all Jews and pagans and apostates, heretics, witches, and sinners, can go to Hell where they belong. All this is what the Unitarians and their twins the Universalists (two sharing one hypostasis­?) meant to reject and what they paid a high price for rejecting, braving rack and stake. To be more specific, they meant to deny the division of the divine monad, the exaltation of a mere man (albeit a surpassingly great one) as God, the unreasoning acquiescence in ancient dogma and superstition, and the bigotry of sectarianism.
      Unitarianism and Universalism progressively followed the trajectory thus set with remarkable consistency. The God thus rescued from Trinitarian refraction was then more thoroughly purged of irrational elements as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was happily traded for the more abstract deity of the philosophers and Deists. Personalism succumbed to abstraction, the merely personal to the Superpersonality of the Absolute, the Oversoul. At length Unitarians and Universalists heeded the prophet-cry of Ludwig Feuerbach and resolved henceforth to seek for the divine attributes where they might truly be found: in human nature, not in some imaginary projection of human perfections onto the heavens. This progressive peeling of the divine onion led to the disclosure that there was no hard center. But this discovery coincided perfectly with the Christ-trajectory. As Christ had been thrust from his Nicene usurpation of the glory of the Father (cf. Philippians 2:6-11!), he began to drop further and further down through the heavens till he became simply one of many saints and prophets in the Unitarian Universalist pantheon, just as we are told Julia Domna had a chapel containing statues of Abraham, Orpheus, Apollonius of Tyana, and Jesus of Nazareth.

      But as Christ's stock went down, that of normal human beings went up, and it was no coincidence. The Son of Man, a Hebrew term originally denoting Everyman, had been usurped by the figure of Jesus of Nazareth, but now Everyman had wrested it back. Without theism, Christology had turned into Anthropology. Christocentrism became Anthropocentrism, even a kind of Anthroposophy (with apologies to Rudolf Steiner!). Human nature was exalted, Protagoras' dictum prevailing as the Unitarian Universalist creed: "Man is the measure of all things: of the things that are, that they are, and of the things that are not, that they are not."

      And this meant that Humanism was an alias of Rationalism, for it was the faculty of reasoning that made Homo Sapiens the crown of evolutionary perfection: both apex and ex-ape. Enlightenment Rationalism found its religious home in Unitarianism-Universalism as nowhere else, though the Liberal Protestant theology of the nineteenth century and up to the Great War briefly caught up, only to retreat shortly thereafter to the comfortable irrationalism of Neo-Orthodoxy. 
Unitarian Universalists remained the Righteous Remnant of Rationalism. And one of the cardinal points of Enlightenment Rationalism was the belief that the reasonable person could occupy a God's-eye-view perspective outside the arena of the warring creeds and cultures and perceive the rational-moral essence of them all, perhaps daring even to distill a "natural religion" from all of them. Kant's "religion within the boundaries of reason alone" was such an attempt, though John Locke and others had attempted it, too. 
Universalism seems to have set out to be such a universal Esperanto of religion, perhaps not a syncretic mix but a synthetic abstraction of the various world faiths. All that a religious Rationalist would consider the best. "World Bibles" were compiled from this perspective, and they tended to major in ethics and Golden Rules with little theology in evidence.
      Surely the Twin Tribes had journeyed far from the house of bondage and the fleshpots of supernaturalism and Trinitarianism.  But perhaps not so far after all. Is it possible that they had secreted away certain cherished idols, carrying them with them on the way? I believe so, and it is the Postmodernist critique of  Enlightenment modernity, as well as Jacques Derrida's deconstruction of Western "presence metaphysics" that make it possible to detect this.      

­Presence Metaphysics­

Derrida has traced out the fundamental, sometimes unacknowledged axioms of what he calls presence metaphysics. He begins with Plato and his belief that the mind is by nature a clear mirror apprehending the self-evident truth. On the highest level of contemplation the trained mind, having polished its mirror to perfect clarity, beholds the essences and forms of things. The apprehension of the light of truth is immediate, the mind having fled the allegorical cave where one only inferred and guessed at the truth, seeing only its shadows. No, truth was deemed immediately present to the mind. One simply saw it with the unimpaired eye of the mind.
      Derrida (in his seminal essay "Plato's Pharmacy") next focuses on Plato's polemic against writing as a medium of communication inferior to and subversive of vocal speech. Only the latter, Plato insisted, can maintain and convey the immediacy of the speaker's grasp of truth with an immediacy of its own. That is, Plato says, the speaker can almost telepathically convey what he wants to say, what he knows, to the mind of the hearer by well chosen words sped on their way by means of appropriate facial expressions, tones of voice, oratorical flourishes, hand motions, opportunities to double back and explain. The speaker, he says, is "the father of the word" and sends his utterance on its way to do its work. The spoken word says "Father, I go," and indeed goes. But the written word, the tract, the treatise, the epistle, says, "Father, I go," but then does not go. That is, the written word, lacking the presence of the speaker, sent on its way like the community of Israel without the ark accompanying them, may be misconstrued, misinterpreted, misread by the hearer. The writer tries to control the reading of the text, but ultimately he or she must cut it loose. The authorial intent would be the authoritative intent, but it gets lost. It can only be hypothetically reconstructed by the reader, who may never be able to consult the writer for confirmation. Again, the written word is like the Prodigal, straying into far lands of dissolute pursuits, unintended readings, while the spoken word remains in earshot, faithfully carrying out the intention of the father, the speaker. What the spoken word, the Living Word, ostensibly has that the written word lacks is the living presence of the speaker and thus the immediate presence of the truth the speaker knows. Every written text is plagued by a built-in ambiguity of meaning that vitiates the meaning of any message. Meaning is always a step ahead of us in a wild goose chase. When we read, we decode, we wait to receive a message, even if we read with fluency and rapidity. Meaning temporizes, only to appear later, if at all. We turn from an obscure text wishing we could question the author, because we are sure the Truth would appear with the living word of the father, the author.  The true and objective meaning of a text, that programmed into it by the father of the word, the authoritative meaning of the author, is that truth aimed at by the language of the text. It is a truth outside or above the text. Rational, logical explication of the text should cause it to emerge.
      All this Derrida calls logocentrism or the Metaphysics of Presence. It is that set of assumptions which has allowed philosophers to exempt their discursive texts from the slings and arrows mere literature is heir to. Philosophers have pretended to have immediate rational access to the Truth and to be able to communicate it to their students in speech, of if need be, in written texts, which strive to mirror speech, as when Plato, Berkeley, Hume and others adopt the dialogue format in their writings.  Naive in our confidence that what seems "clear and distinct" in our minds must be the truth (Descartes), we believe we can trust our speculations, following in the footsteps of Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz who naively assumed they could reason out reality just as they systematized mathematics, optics, and grammar. We assume the picture we paint inside our head mirrors the reality outside it.
      Logocentrism has an architectonic bias as well. It insists that the truth always be a symmetrical system of abstract propositions or axioms, and not, say, a narrative or an experience. And we have limited patience with those who will not or cannot look at things the way we do: the truth seems so clear and distinct, so immediately present to us, we can only imagine our opponents are intellectually lazy or perverse. If they will not step into the neutral commons of rational objectivity as we define it, we write them off as bigots and fundamentalists of this stripe or that. Plato, remember, dreamed of an ideal Republic ruled by Truth-seeing philosopher kings who would not hesitate to execute heretics.  Rationalism, then, is an "ism," a dogma, like all its competitors.
      Derrida points the finger at Plato as the father of the logocentric tradition in Western philosophy, but he makes Christianity the highest exaltation of logocentrism, logocentrism incarnate, as it were. The Creator God is quite literally the Father of the Word. And the Word is God, which is to say that the order of knowing is imagined as being identical with the order of being, the central assumption of Presence Metaphysics. The Platonic terms have been hypostatized, have become divine persons. What are the divine hypostases but products of the hypostatization fallacy bemoaned by logicians? Every crucial element of the Christian salvation epic can be understood as a hypostatization of logocentric metaphysics. When the Son of Man goes forth as the sower sowing the word of God, we have a dramatization of the Stoic doctrine of the ­spermatikoi logoi­, the seeds of rational order permeating all things to give them their intelligible form. This tendency reaches its utmost extreme in Valentinian Gnosticism, where the Demiurge seizes the sparks of divine light from the Pleroma, the Fullness of Divine Presence.

      When Jesus, the Incarnate Word, silences the demons of madness because they know who he is, what we have is the attempt of logocentrism to suppress the truth that reason is but the tip of the iceberg that is madness. When Jesus the Logos is exalted as the Pantocrator from whom all authority stems in heaven and on earth, what we are really dealing with is the exaltation of rationalism over all other forms of perception, and with the centered systematizing of reality according to the dictates of an architectonic system. When belief in the gospel truth is made the criterion of salvation, we are saying that ideas and abstractions are the ultimate truth, the Water of Life which to imbibe is to attain unto the ultimate level of reality. To say that human beings are made in the image of God is to project anthropocentric arrogance onto the cosmos, to say "reality is just like us."

      And it is no accident that logocentric Christian faith has been androcentric as well, male-centered. Feminist critics speak of phallocentrism, the imposition of a male point of view as the filter of all thought and the embrace of it by women as a kind of false consciousness. Derrida sees that phallocentrism and logocentrism are one, since the exaltation of reason (or potentially anything else) as the single center is a male tendency, a game of "King of the Hill," where only a single victor is left standing as the most powerful. Originally this was an evolutionary mechanism to assure the survival of the hardiest genes: the winner in the duel of suitors became the bull ape in charge of the herd with access to all the females. All talk of a supreme value or meaning-center is "phallogocentrism": a reflection of the victorious ape pounding its chest. Christianity is completely phallogocentric. If the eternal reason according to which all things were created is male, if the Word is the Son, then the universe is ipso facto defined in male terms. And the notion of the Word being the true son, of one nature with the father, is simply the old male paternity anxiety, the care that one's child be truly one's own, one's true-bred genetic stock, homoousias­.  Nicea was male metaphysics from start to finish.  And the eschatology of Christianity? When the Parousia of the Logos appears? Here is the hope that meaning will finally issue from texts. And it will be a male meaning: "He shall rule the nations with a rod of iron," and what is that sceptre but the phallus of the Logos?
      Just as Christian Christology and theism were found wanting by earlier generations of Socinians, Arians, Unitarians, and Universalists, the presence metaphysics of logocentrism has been repudiated by a number of thinkers, especially Jacques Derrida. Derrida attacks traditional presence metaphysics at many points.  Here are a few that I find most illuminating.

­Against Logocentrism­

He mounts a frontal assault on the key assumption of Rationalism by denying Descartes's claim that we truly know anything that is clearly and distinctly present to the conscious mind. He is shattering what traditional philosophy sometimes called the mind as "the mirror of nature" (cf. Richard Rorty, ­ Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature­). There is no pure and unadulterated presence. There is no bare, uninterpreted reality which the mind is able to confront. We always receive the world as inscribed with some prescribed grid of meaning. What confronts us has already been mediated. It stands always already at one remove from us, not really "present" to us at all. What seems obvious to us only seems so because it is force-fed through culturally-prescribed categories and expectations. There is no pure nature, for example, since "nature" is always a projection from culture, the hypothetical extrapolation of anthropologists or philosophers, and thus the "nature" against which culture is so often unfavorably measured is actually a function of the particular theorist's philosophy or theory.
      Even the experience of "the present moment" is not real, metaphysical presence. It is instead ­derived­, a product with visible seams, an experience stitched together (as Dilthey already recognized) from the past and the future. The present moment would be a blank slate without echoes of our recollection of the past and anticipations of the future. The "pure" present is actually a composite, the result of a hidden process of relation. Ironically, St. Augustine's attempt to explicate the timeless Eternal Present in which God must live demonstrates the impossibility of presence: Augustine says it must be something like his experience as he recites a familiar Psalm that he knows by heart. He recalls the verses of it he has spoken, as their echoes linger, and he anticipates the parts of it he knows but has not yet reached. So this ever-present now is not present at all, but rather a melding of past and future. This fact of derivation, of having been derived, means that realities are ever deferred, always already at some remove from us. The case is reminiscent of the criticism Plato leveled against writing, that the meaning is precisely not present to the reader, but ever threatens to stay one step ahead of him as a will-o'-the-wisp, ever leading us onward, phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence. And this observation is crucial: the deferring factor, the distancing factor, what Derrida calls ­differance­, is characteristic of reality as a whole.
      Derrida denies that speech is exempt from the ­differance factor any more than writing is. The speaker cannot be sure he will communicate his intention and very often does not, as any teacher or preacher knows. The very advantage speech possesses over writing, the opportunity to backtrack and clarify, is itself evidence of the inherently ambiguous character of all language whether written or spoken. Else why should clarification be necessary in the first place? The  reason all language is ambiguous and indeterminate of meaning, despite the intention of the speaker/writer or the interpretation of the hearer/reader, is the differential nature of meaning. We assume that the meaning of words is referential, words keyed to corresponding things. But as Ferdinand de Saussure has argued, the meaning of words is primarily differential. They are like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The shape of each is determined by nothing other than its complementary difference from the adjacent pieces. Words mean this because they do not mean that. The signifier "apple" refers not so much to the familiar piece of fruit as its "signified," but rather (by way of negation) to the meanings of signifiers like "pear," "tomato," "cantaloupe," "apall," "appeal," or "ape." Signifiers receive their meanings by way of differentiation from the other possibilities that they might mean. I can recognize my wife because of her uniqueness, i.e., what differentiates her from all the other women I see.
      The fact of ­differance­ has far-reaching implications, and not only for linguistics. It implies two major things for theology. First there can be no Transcendental Signified, no Reality, no Meaning beyond language, except perhaps meaningless prime matter of some sort, or some Buddhistic Suchness about which nothing can be said. Second, there can be no Ground of Being, no "fundamental" or foundational meaning. This is because every theory of the meaning of things is already infected with the virus of ­differance­, the uncontrollable free play of language, the dissemination of meaning. Every use of language unleashes uncontrollable forces of signification that threaten to undermine every intended meaning. Meaning is never present to us, never has a Parousia, because it is always slipping away, draining off, into these cracks between possible meanings. Indeed, this is just where Derrida's controversial hermeneutics of Deconstruction arises. Deconstruction traces out the countersignature of every text whereby it may be shown to argue at cross-purposes with it's author's intention.
      Tillich came close to seeing how the very Ground of Being he liked to talk about was actually impossible when he defined Being as the affirmation of itself over against Non-Being. In other words, it is grounded on the abyss of ­differance­ between itself and its opposite. The earth, as Isaiah said, is hung upon the void.
      If God is dead for Deconstruction, so is "Man," Descartes's "thinking thing," the Invictus-self of the Enlightenment. Postmodernists learn from Freud that what we call the self is actually the epiphenomenon of subterranean, never-experienced processes in the subconscious. We form our self-concept as we hear our opinions spoken. We are at least as much audience as actor, as George Herbert Meade and Peter Berger have also argued. As writers we are readers of what our creative genius produces. We are language speaking itself. The self if the ­a posteriori­ perceiver, not the ­a priori­ actor.
      Even the axioms of reason are the rules of a game imposed on the ambiguous chaos of the world. The consistency of logic is the consistency of the rules of a game, tautologous, self-referential, the rules of the order of knowing, not necessarily of the order of being. It is the logocentric bias that makes us think otherwise. And the privilege of the supposedly neutral "common ground" from which superior Olympian position Enlightenment Man deigned to judge and mediate all cultures and beliefs turns out to be merely one more among many competing plausibility structures. Having no common ground with rival paradigms, such as the epistemology of militant Islam, of Flat-Earthism or National Socialism, it cannot possibly demonstrate its superiority to them. Indeed it becomes meaningless to claim superiority over them.

­Postmodern Unitarian Universalism­

Unitarian Universalism seems to be the very incarnation of the Enlightenment paradigm of Rationalism, Humanism, and Logocentrism. And even more ironically, insofar as Chalcedonian Christology was simply a hypostatization of logocentric presence metaphysics, ­rationalistic Humanism remains essentially just as Chalcedonian as Orthodox Christianity­. To finally purify itself of Chalcedonianism, to purge itself at long last from every vestige of Athanasian Christological dogma, Unitarian Universalist theology must needs empty itself too of Rationalism, Humanism, and its bias toward a single "unitarian" synthesis point, or Ultimate Concern. "­Uni­versalism" must give way to multiversalism or pluriversalism. And that, I contend, is precisely what is happening with the emergence of New Age, Christian, Pagan, Jewish, and Buddhist factions within Unitarian Universalism. Breaking the hegemony of logocentrism means that there can be no one orthodoxy, and of course Unitarian Universalists have long upheld diversity and pluralism in doctrine. Similarly, the "Unitarian" tag long ago lost the connotation of that monotheism its adherents once sought to free from Trinitarian confusions. Humanism made the monotheistic meaning of "Unitarian" obsolete. Many Unitarians decided the One God was a much a groundless figment of priestcraft as the Three had been. And now the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans represent an altogether different approach to breaking the monotheistic hammer lock. They seek to restore the polytheism of ancient Israel, banished from the canon by late phallogocentrist editors. There is a lesson for Universalists in Paul M. van Buren's suggestion that, in the wake of the "dissolution of the Absolute," it is only out of habit that we speak of a 'universe' at all. It really depends on how you approach it, we might say, for the 'universe' of one discipline is but the background or a detail for another. All things considered, it appears to be more appropriate to speak of a polyverse. (­Theological Explorations­, p. 39) Need we trouble ourselves anymore to define a synthetic harmony of all truth because there is the prefix "uni-" in our trademark? It might be better to follow Van Buren's lead and treat the world as making no one single definitive sense apart from the many different viewpoints from which we and others may view it.
      Today a rapidly increasing number of Unitarian Universalists feel the need to transcend (as  Schleiermacher, Emerson, and Parker did) the sometimes dry moralism of Kant's "religion within the bounds of reason alone," lacking any mystical, spiritual dimension. Many, as Kenneth Patton did, embrace what some call "ecstatic naturalism," where it is the divine spirit, as Feuerbach said, manifest in human arts and glories that catches away the breath and catches one up to the third heaven. The poems of Rilke and Hölderlin are good examples of ecstatic naturalism, fragments of true inspiration, where the Muse of the subconscious far transcends left-brained rationalism. All this represents, not a repudiation of reason, far from it, but rather a dethronement of logocentrism.
      When logocentrism reigns no more, one can feel free to explore spiritual experiences without having to explain them and to account for them first. One need only approach them in the spirit of phenomenology, bracketing the ontological question, temporarily and willingly suspending disbelief as one does in a playhouse or a movie theatre. One may navigate the experience ­as­ an experience, whatever may or may not lie "behind" it. As Nagarjuna said, one need not despise that which one suspects to be ultimately phantasmal, so long as one does not mistake it for more than a pleasant phantom.
      Reason and rational scrutiny must remain our first line of defense against the resurgent superstition of much of the New Age Movement (and here he continues proudly to play our role as sentinels against religious hokum and priestcraft). But we will heed the advice of Paul Feyerabend and embrace the methodological axiom of "counter-inductivity," exploring hypotheses (in this case, religious experiences) not derivable from or even consistent with our base-line theoretical model of rationalism. We may, for example, insist on historical criticism as applied to the miracle-legends of the biblical text, yet be open to visionary experiences ourselves.
      The same open-ended, distinctly un-synthesized pluralism seems to mark the emerging UU stance toward the various historic world religions. There is no urgency to figure out a synthesis, an abstraction of what we deem the essence of all the religions (which no single religion would recognize or accept), or to form a syncretism, a new super-religion collecting parts of this and that and hybridizing them into a new system, as the New Age Movement does.  Rather, UU ministers and congregations, in their experiments with Sufism or Zen, seem to have adopted the principle of ­ bricolage­. This term for the unsystematic ad hoc technique of the handyman who patches and contrives a solution from whatever odd bits he may have available, has been adopted by Claude Levi-Strauss and Jacques Derrida to denote the use of leftover techniques, individual ideas or methodologies, from systems that have, as wholes, been deconstructed and dismantled, much as Newton was able to salvage parts of Kepler's earlier paradigm. In our case ­bricolage­ seems to mean the jury-rigging of whatever spiritual practices or ideas happen to appeal to us, with no attempt to form any kind of comprehensive system. Without logocentric presuppositions, no synthetic system of truth is desirable or possible, so why waste time building one? In the wake of the wreck of all systems of knowledge, one can only pick up what glittering bits of debris as catch one's eye, like a magpie decorating her nest.                    
     The abandonment of Humanism is perhaps the bitterest pill to swallow, as witness the rancor documented by Richard Wayne Lee. Perhaps we need only speak of a chastened Humanism, just as Henry Pitney van Dusen once spoke of a chastened Liberalism in the wake of Neo-Orthodoxy. Indeed I see no retreat from our Protagorean axiom "Humanity is the measure of all things." In fact, in light of the Postmodernist disclosure of the self as a rhetorical construct, this maxim might take on a new meaning. True, we can no longer flatter ourselves simply to be Descartes's "thinking thing," a pure mirror that sees the light of truth undimmed. Perhaps we might rather adopt some sort of Buddhist "no-self" doctrine.
      We are less like Aristotle's "thought thinking itself" (Descartes's self concept was pretty much a microcosmic miniature of this God-concept) than "language speaking itself." We are listeners as well as speakers in the same moment, passive in the very moment of activity. We do not measure by use of sovereign reason; rather we are the measuring rod, a tool both of language and of the coded text of the subconsciousness that incarnates language. We must learn to read ourselves. The last frontier is within, that vast ocean of text of which the human self is the epiphenomenon. Humanism, then, is not the sovereign judgment by human selves of everything else. Rather, "the proper study of mankind is man." We must advance to square one as Socrates did, to admit our unwisdom before true wisdom can be ours. We are not blank slates, much less polished mirrors. We are clay tablets already inscribed to the margins, palimpsests with many layers of inscription. We must get down to business decoding that text. And what if that were the best way to understand the continual self-examination beloved of UUs? Instead of denoting a failure of nerve, a loss of mission, what if it denoted an altogether proper turn inward?
      In the course of the present essay I have suggested that, thanks to the disclosures of the Postmodernist deconstruction of Presence Metaphysics, we can recognize that in their very embrace of Rationalism, Humanism, a unity of Ultimate Concern and a universal faith, Unitarian Universalism retained the essence of the Nicene-Chalcedonian Christo-theology it sought to reject. The most illuminating way to understand the current shift to neo-Christian, pagan, New Age and other spiritualities in the UU camp is as a natural and inevitable transition to a Postmodernist stance, the next logical step in the ongoing evolution of Unitarian Universalism.