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The Future of Religion at Stanford


The new Stanford Dean for Religious Life, William McClellan, Jr., is a "Unitarian Universalist." The Stanford Report gave no explanation of what this is, saying simply that he is "nonsectarian". So I consulted Green Library's ever-helpful Eric Heath. He says:

"The Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley has a good web site with lots of links to Unitarian Universalist sites. That site:
http://www.gtu.edu/library/LibUU.html

Too simply but historically put, it is a Unitarian church movement born of the Transcendentalist tradition of 19th Century New England. "Universalists" believe that, if "salvation" makes any sense at all, then everyone must ultimately be "saved", or no one is "saved." Or, put
another way, if God is One and Universal, then we are all in it together and share an ultimate, common destiny."

This is a generous concept which appeals to generous souls. It  is in tune with the present ecumenical mood, but I hear Dante turning over in his grave. It opens a whole can of theological worms, which St. Peter could use in his fishing for souls. It is in accord with Mrs. Stanford's dislike of narrow creeds. However, this should not be a reflection of the prevailing dislike of theological discussions, which are just swept under the rug. Each of the religious groups represented at Stanford has its own view of "salvation." I hope they and the new Dean will engage in a vigorous theological discussion, which would add greatly to Stanfordīs intellectual life.

Paul Rich of the Hoover Institution has provided some interesting historical background:

Both Senator Stanford and Mrs. Stanford went to a Universalist academy or secondary school in their youth and David Starr Jordan was a very active Unitarian. Indeed, he took his middle name from Thomas Starr King, the Unitarian minister whose preaching helped keep
California in the Union during the Civil War and is one of California's
two statues in the Capital rotunda. Many Unitarian clergy or writers are commemorated in the "Professorville" area of Palo Alto -- for example, William Ellery Channing, who was the minister of the Arlington Street Church in Boston...Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was minister of the Second Unitarian Church in Boston...William Cullen Bryant, an active layman.
Harris and Manchester College at Oxford was founded because the other Oxford University colleges required a Trinitarian oath to take the degree. Its faculty included Joseph Priestley, the discoverer of oxygen. Yale was started because of Harvard's Socinian or Unitarian sympathies. And both the Adams, Jefferson, Fillmore, and Taft are included among the Unitarian presidents."

To Paul's remarks I would add that Unitarians come in many varieties, some Christian, some non-Christian. Socianism refers to the  doctrines of the Italian Laelius Socinus (1525-1562), who influenced the Unitarians. He acted as a messenger among Calvin and his friends. Harassed by the Inquisition, he died at the age of 37. His nephew Fausto founded the Socinian movement.

To understand the plight of Socinus and his nephew, simply recall Dante's Inferno, which represented the theology of the time. Over the entrance to Hell stood the inscription "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here." In other words you are damned eternally. This is surely not the God of Mercy of Christianity!  No wonder Socinus was appalled by the idea.

I do not know what the official position of the Catholic Church under theologically conservative Pope John Paul II is toward Unitarians and Socinians, but the Catholic Church is one of the few religious groups unwilling to take part in the United Religions movement, promoted by Grace Episcopalian Cathedral of San Francisco.

In the United States, the Universalist Unitarians were at odds with the preachers who warned sinners of their fate in fire and brimstone, not much more attractive than Dante's Hell.  It would be interesting to find out what the two groups said and wrote about each other.

The Universalist Unitarians introduce a dogma of salvation which is at odds with other churches, and seems to be on the edge of Christianity. In Palo Alto there is a Universalist Unitarian Church, which describes itself as "a Church that believes in the dignity and integrity of every human being and every religious journey." The San Mateo group also calls itself a Church, whereas those in Redwood City and Sunnyvale call themselves a Fellowship. All this is grist for Stanford's Department of Religious Studies.

A well-informed colleague comments:

"Unitarians believe in one god, at most.  In fact, many Unitarians are atheists.  While the movement did come out of the Congregationalists of New England, I believe that modern Unitarians do not consider themselves Christians.  It is an interesting group in that it essentially has a revolving-door membership.  The vast majority of adults who
were raised as Unitarians are no longer Unitarians, and the vast majority of those who are currently Unitarians were not raised as such.  Often, members of Unitarian churches are couples who come from different religions, usually Christian and Jewish. The Unitarians are said to be the wealthiest religious group, per capita, in the country - as well as being the best educated and one of the smallest."

Be that as it may, the Stanfords certainly considered themselves Christians, as the Stanford Church shows. Its iconography would satisfy even theologically conservative Pope John Paul II.

The Unitarian Universalists enjoy a high reputation. David Pike, who obtained his Ph.D. at Stanford and now is Distinguished Professor at the American Professor of Paris, enlightens us Californians about a Californian:

"We learn from recent messages that Unitarians are the wealthiest, the best educated, and the most generous of religious groups.  I wonder if any Stanford alumni knew Persis Miller, because she belonged with all three. [Miles Seeley says he remembers hearing about her]. Born into a wealthy Californian family, she gave up an easy life to serve in the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, moving to France in February 1939 to help a group abandoned by everyone else: the 500,000 Spanish Republicans who at that moment crossed the border from Catalonia and on the French beaches had nothing above them but the stars.  Persis Miller went on helping the destitute to the end of her life, operating from the most modest of premises and in the Cold War stoically enduring the malice of the communists."

I owe to Fran O'Donnell, curator of the Manuscripts and Archives Office of the Andover-Harvard Theological Library a wealth of information about Persis Miller, notably the relevant pages from Ghanda di Figlia, "Roots and Visions: The First fifth Years of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee and In Memoriam: Persis Sibley Miller, 1902--1970.She was generally praised for her unassuming generosity and kindness, especially as director of the the Service Committee's project in Southwest France to help refugees from the Spanish Civil War. She wasa splendid example of quiet and devoted service. There were services in her honor in Boston, Toulouse ansd San Jse, where she is buried.

St.Paul must have admired her. He seems to have been thinking of university professors when he said: "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, I am become as sounding bronze, or a tinkling cymbal." Tinkle, tinkle, little academic star, how I wonder what you are. Learn from Persis Miller.

The ecumenical spirit is spreading at Stanford, The July 2000 issue of Chaplaincy News, published by Stanford Hospial and Clinic, features an article by C. George Fitzgerald listing the various faiths represented by the Chaplaincy Service. However, no Unitarian. Perhaps William McClellan could be co-opted.

However, not everything is ecumenical at Stanford. Mathematics Professor Harold Bacon was a fervent Christian, but his imposing Stanford home has just been sold to a Jewish organization. The many other faiths on campus will now be justified in claiming that they shuld have a house too. This would create an intolerable situation. The Bacon House should become an ecumenical center.

Another warning: At Stanford religious diversity has often been reduced to a circus, with the variouus faiths banging drums or whatever they do to express their peculiarity. This is a parody of religion, the essence of which is an attempt to answer two basic questions: What is the world all about? and How should I behave? All religions have different answers. At best one is entirely correct. In my view they all have flaws. That is what religion debate should be about at a university like Stanford.

Ronald Hilton - 7/18/00


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