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What Are We?

The Human Side of Unity
The Human Side of Unity

Mark Hicks

What Are We?

(Part One)

Hi Friends –

Many years ago, Imelda Shanklin asked “what are you?” Her question asked you and I to identify our most basic understanding of ourselves–what is essentially true of our nature and being rather than who we have become by effort, training and habit.

Have we asked the same question about we as a movement of metaphysical Christians? If someone were to ask “What is Unity?” would we be able to give an answer which provides a true description of our essential nature as a church or denomination?

People like to place things in categories. And it is no different when someone asks us “what is Unity?” They want an answer so that they can place Unity in one of the categories they already have in their mind.

You may think that this post is about branding. It’s not. Branding is about the personal nature, about the name, the title, the achievements, the capabilities, the preferences and anything else that develops and changes over time. Branding is an answer to “who are we?” Categories are an answer to Shanklin’s question “what are we?”

Let me say right now that I don’t think we in Unity know what we are. Further, I think that differing opinions about what we are causes a fair amount of disagreement about who we should be.

Here are five different answers to this most difficult question, “what is Unity?” as it appears to me. Each one also has what is called by Avery Dulles, a well-known scholar, as the “bonds of union.” The bonds of union answers the question “If this is what Unity (uppercase) is, then what is the source of our unity (lower case)?”

Your list may differ, but at least I have a list and the list I have helps me understand some of the disagreements we have in how we conduct ourselves. Here they are as they seem to me.

Sacred Canopy. A sacred canopy (borrowing a term from Peter Berger) is a religious movement that provides a common shared vision or the experience of God. This vision or experience is what Avery Dulles would call the “bonds of union” of people under the canopy.

Sectarian Cause. A sectarian cause is a gathering of people in reaction to disorder in the political, economic, social or religious system. The “bonds of union” of a sectarian cause is the “rebellion” one makes in reaction to the existing order.

Community of Faith. A community of faith is what we typically know as a church, a gathering of people with identifiable spiritual needs. The “bonds of union” for communities of faith are the specific unmet needs and preferences of members of the community or denomination.

Center of Practice. A center of practice or club, or more pejoratively, a “coven” is a group which assembles for the purpose of practicing a spiritual or religious faith. So the “bonds of union” is a common religious practice.

Audience Cult. An audience cult is a group of people who comprise an audience for some innovative and interesting belief or practice. The “bonds of union” of cults and audience cults are the common “interest” among its practitioners and audience.

More about Avery Dulles. He was a Catholic priest. Many years ago he wrote a book called “Models of the Church”. The Catholic church had changed in the aftermath of Vatican II and many Catholics found the changes traumatic. Dulles’ book explained that people have different “models” of the church and in that book he came up with this idea of the “bonds of union”.

Catholics fiercely disagreed about what the Catholic church is. Is it an institution, a herald of truth, a servant of humanity or a mystical communion? But Catholics were able to understand the “bonds of union” that brought them together. And that helped many to overcome their trauma.

My sense is that similar feelings exist in Unity. And my hope is that these categories or “models” and their underlying “bonds of union” will lead to greater understanding and tolerance.

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Mark Hicks
Sunday, April 25, 2021


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