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Scotty McLennan recently finished fourteen years as Dean for Religious Life at Stanford University, where today he teaches ethics and political economy at the Graduate School of Business.  Before Stanford, he was the University Chaplain at Tufts for sixteen years.

Dan: Thanks for joining us at Journey with Jesus.  It seems like yesterday when we had dinner at Evvia in downtown Palo Alto in the fall of 2001 when you first came to Stanford.  It's a good memory!

Scotty:  Yes, thanks for being one of the first to welcome me to Stanford and to develop a close, personal relationship.  A lot has happened in both of our lives, and the world, since then!

After thirty years as the dean of religious life at two major universities, do you think that religion still matters at our universities?  If so, in what ways?  What are the pressure points?

I define religion very broadly — as the search for meaning and purpose in life, as a combination of personal spirituality and institutional wisdom traditions, as an understanding that things ultimately hold and make sense.  By this definition, religion lies at the center of the liberal arts tradition of higher education, which is all about interconnecting the academic disciplines and seeing them whole, and about developing one's personal character and ethics.  The pressure points occur when disciplines become silos with their own disconnected language, methodology, and content, or when studies become merely career-oriented.

You were at two private universities; the role of religion at our public universities plays by slightly different rules.

Only slightly, in terms of not directly hiring chaplains on state salaries or having a university church as we do at places like Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, etc.  But public universities must heed the constitutional requirement not to prohibit the free exercise of religion, so lots of different religious groups can and do flourish on those campuses.  Also, importantly, the academic study of religion, and religion as a dimension of virtually any discipline — from history to art to anthropology and on and on — can be as strong at a public university as at a private university.

Scotty McLennan.

1975 was an important year for you.  After finishing degrees at both Harvard Divinity School and  Harvard Law School, you were ordained as a minister in the Unitarian Universalist denomination (see note below), and admitted to the Massachusetts bar, after which you spent ten years practicing church-sponsored poverty law in urban Boston.

Yes, I had a vision of "legal ministry" or "ministry at law" that I tried to construct during my five years of running back and forth across the street, being dual-registered at a divinity and a law school.  I saw it as a way of eventually doing community ministry with law as my primary tool, but seeing my clients' legal problems contextualized pastorally within their whole life situation, and seeing my lawyer's role as counselor in the broadest sense, not just as functionary.  I also saw a social justice dimension for my clients, relating to their organizing into tenants' unions, welfare-rights groups, etc., which I felt was best informed by both law and religion.

Did you know William Stringfellow (1928-1985), who blazed a similar path?  He's in my pantheon of saints.

Yes, my divinity school thesis was entitled "Explorations in Legal Ministry," and it examined William Stringfellow as an exemplar of what I hoped to do.  He was an Episcopalian who went directly from Harvard Law School to the East Harlem Protestant Parish in New York.  He always saw his law practice as a Christian vocation in pursuit of social justice for oppressed and marginalized people.  I hoped to do the same.  I had differences with him on theology and on the role of ordained ministry, but I always saw him as one of the great modern prophets.

So, you've nurtured a passionate commitment to both religious liberalism and social justice for forty years.  What have you learned in those forty years that shaped you and remains with you today?

Wow.  Big question.  I've increasingly learned, and been able to articulate, what religious liberalism stands for: freedom, reason, tolerance, and progress.  That includes individual conscience and freedom from religious authority, honoring reason as a mode of religious insight, and respecting the inherent human potential for goodness and progress.  Of necessity, for me, religious liberalism means a growing commitment to pursuing social justice as the way to live both conscientiously and freely.  Religious conservatism at its worst can use religious authority to defend the status quo and prevent progress, prioritize belief over reason, accentuate original sin, and believe and act as if its way is the only way.

And congratulations on your new book Christ for Unitarian Universalists; A New Dialogue with Traditional Christianity (2016).  What sort of feedback are you getting?

It's been largely positive so far, so I'm waiting for the other shoe to fall.  I've had a couple of standing-room-only sessions at regional and national UU gatherings that have been enthusiastic and appreciative.  Perhaps I haven't been talking widely enough, or to the right people.  Maybe this interview can help open up a larger dialogue that includes stronger critiques.  Less than 20% of UUs identify as Christian, so I've been expecting to hear more questions from those in my denomination who identify with Humanism, earth-centered spirituality, Buddhism, Judaism, and other traditions.  On the other hand, I've received little feedback from traditional Christians.

Your book attempts to bridge the gap between UU and mainstream Christianity, to build bridges and foster a dialogue.  Is that right?

Yes, absolutely.  I'd like to see a robust conversation develop between UUs and the whole range of Christianity — liberals to conservatives, mainline to evangelical, Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant.

In your conclusion, you say that your aim is "to provide a fresh, twenty-first century appreciation of Christ that is compelling and personally engaging for us as Unitarian Universalists."

Yes.  So many UUs have left Christianity far behind now or never identified with it in the first place, but I think historically we've had a lot to say, as well as experiences of real value, about Christ.  Also, we're in an important pluralistic moment in the twenty-first century, where Christ can be looked at and contextualized differently within the religions of the world than ever before.  UUs can gain a lot by being part of that.

That sounds like a steep climb. Why should a group that prides itself in being "creedless" care about that?

We care about many sources of wisdom in our living tradition, including "Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbors as ourselves," as we say in the Principles that we covenant to affirm and promote.  Actually, by being creedless, I think we can keep taking uniquely fresh looks at Christ and Christianity, as human knowledge and experience expands and develops.

At lunch you mentioned to me another portion of the UU denomination — those who do, in fact, identify with Christ and Christianity.  A seminary professor mentioned to me how some of her students who were UU and Christian felt beleaguered or even persecuted by fellow UUs, so perhaps your book is a real encouragement to them?

I hope my book will be an encouragement not only to them but also to other Christians, and to all UUs, as well as to people of entirely different religions, or none.  (I have chapters for all of them in my book!).   There's a wide range among UUs, from those who have been badly burned by Christianity in their personal past, to those who feel our Christian roots have been lost and are not currently respected, to those who identify quite differently in their spiritual lives and don't think about Christ or Christianity very much.  My book is meant to speak to all of them.  We UUs affirm in our Principles "acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth," ideally in whatever way is most meaningful to each person and congregation.  Also, "we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision," and part of that, at least in America, surely includes Christianity.

In successive chapters you address issues that would seem to be non-starters for a good UU — the Trinity, the resurrection, miracles, etc.  What's so important about retaining these ideas if Jesus is just one among many people who had "an elevated level of spiritual consciousness?"

One of the main reasons for my book is to help us as UUs to talk intelligently about Christ with our Christian friends.  These issues have played a central role in Christianity (even if not necessarily for the historical Jesus), so we need to grapple with them, try to understand what they have meant and could mean, and think about UU resonance with them.  Likewise, when we are communicating with Buddhist friends, it behooves us to know how they have viewed the Buddha, ideas like the Dharma, and the role of reincarnation — and how we UUs might relate.  Then, for a number of us as UUs, we may well find our personal spirituality deepened and our vision expanded by new perspectives on traditional Christian concepts.

With less than 20% of UUs identifying as Christian, and many others agnostic and atheist, is the UU really a religious body?

This takes us back to my definition of religion.  It has to do both with touching a deep place of purpose and worth within ourselves as human beings (what Christians might call the soul, and Hindus Atman, and agnostics and atheists profound joy), and also with being part of a wisdom tradition that has had teachings of significance, a variety of arts, meaningful rituals, effective leaders, specific times and places of gathering, and the like. Being "religious" etymologically means being tied together or bound together, and UUs take community to be an important part of who we are.  We covenant together in associations of people and congregations to affirm and promote certain values and to promise each other our mutual trust and support, even as we are "grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith."

In your book you mention Adam Hamilton, the pastor of a United Methodist mega-church, who calls himself a "liberal evangelical."  Are you an "evangelical liberal?"  Or maybe labels like that aren't helpful?

Sure.  I could call myself an "evangelical liberal" (although I never have until now!).  I'd be using the word "evangelical" not in the sense of a kind of conservative Christianity requiring avowal of certain doctrines and creeds, as I assume Hamilton means, but instead in the sense of spreading good news about liberal religion — as being freeing, tolerant, reasonable, and progressive, as I believe Jesus was when we look at the biblical evidence.

You interact with a broad range of Christians in your book — Rick Warren, John Stott, Rob Bell, NT Wright, Marcus Borg, Ann Lamott, Jaroslav Pelikan (a conservative Lutheran who converted to Orthodoxy), and others.

I'm trying to understand Christianity in all of its breadth, on the assumption that it's meant to be one body of Christ.  As Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians, "There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit… All the members of the body, though many, are one body… If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it."  Do we mean what we say when we talk about Christian unity, or not?

You even have a chapter on how evangelicals and UUs should work and talk together.

Of course.  Unitarian Universalism affirms a "goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all."  At the same time, there are obvious and important differences between evangelical Christians and UUs.  But we really need to listen to each other, to respect each other, and to learn from each other.  Labeling can be very dangerous and destructive.  There's so much we can do together in the realm of social justice.  There's lots to admire in each others' proficiencies.  Liberal religionists like UUs can appreciate the fluency that many evangelicals have with the best-selling book of our culture, the Bible, for example.  They can learn from evangelicals' critique of failures of modernity, and the assumption that human progress is always onward and upward.  We UUs may also have something to offer evangelicals in our emphasis on rationality and the importance of religious scholarship.  Perhaps even in our insistence that holy scripture is always interpreted by fallible human beings.

One of the strengths of the UU is its advocacy of interfaith dialogue and inclusivity.  How has that expressed itself?  What shape does that take (other than your own new book!)?

UUs were early supporters of the ecumenical movement within Christianity, as well as founders of interfaith organizations like the World Parliament of Religion, the World Conference on Religion and Peace, and the International Association for Religious Freedom.  We have had a significant role in organizing broad-based social service organizations like the Red Cross, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and the Urban League.  We are committed coalition builders in many social justice arenas, and our UU United Nations Office works hard to advocate and train not only for international discourse but also for interfaith dialogue.

I especially appreciated your reminder about avoiding stereotypes and learning to listen.

Thanks.  I've found very useful, for example, the simple exercise of having each participant in interfaith dialogue summarize the prior speaker's comments before contributing herself or himself.  That prior speaker must affirm that he or she has truly been understood before the next participant speaks.  If not, the prior speaker gets to talk again until the next participant gets it and can articulate it to the prior speaker's satisfaction.

Wow.  That sounds like a very powerful exercise, for any time, place, or purpose!

Also, if people use only "I" statements, they can make powerful statements of their feelings, beliefs, and values without leading to arguments and name-calling.  In the process, dialogue participants can both put themselves into others' shoes and also make it clear where they stand.  Real learning can then take place.

I can heartily agree with the "Seven Principles and Purposes" of the UU by-laws, but in doing so I don't feel like I'm saying very much.  Has UU set the bar of religious affirmation so low that it's impossible to be wrong?

I'm glad to hear that you agree, but it always amazes me how many people apparently don't.  For example, respect for "the inherent worth and dignity of every person" can feel like an empty statement to LGBTQ people who are told by various religionists that their homosexual orientation is objectively disordered and that sexual relations with their spouses and partners are matters of grave depravity.  Or again, not all religions affirm "the use of the democratic process" in their polity.  "A free and responsible search for truth" can be labeled as apostasy or heresy if truth has been defined and one's search doesn't affirm settled doctrine or dogma.  So, I like to think of the UU bar of religious affirmation as low, though, so that we can see how many mansions of diverse beauty have been built above it.

 Picture of his new book cover.
Picture of his new book cover.

There's a sort of pluralism out there that insinuates that affirming anything other than agnosticism is morally repugnant, intellectually untenable, and politically disastrous.  It's polemical in its own way.

I think there are two kinds of pluralism out there.  One is simply empirical or descriptive:  we all co-exist, at least in this country, in an environment of many different religions, as well as atheist, agnostic, and secular philosophies.  I don't think that's polemical.  It's a fact.  The other is theological, controversial and potentially polemical:  there are many roads to the top of the spiritual mountain (along with plenty of cul-de-sacs and cliffs to fall over).  There's not just one way, through Jesus Christ, although I profess that he is my way.  Or, as the Hindu metaphor puts it, we're all like blind people feeling specific parts of an elephant while each claiming that we know what the whole (God or ultimate reality) looks like.  I don't think this constitutes agnosticism, though.  It could simply be seen as an assertion that because we humans are finite and ultimate reality is infinite, we can't use normal human concepts to describe ultimate reality or God (although we'll keep trying, because it's all we've got, and that reality is absolute and real, not relative).

Can you comment on the demographic trends of the UU?  For several decades, demographers have told us that conservative churches are growing and liberal churches are dying.  I remember visiting that vast bureaucracy of the National Council of Churches on Riverside Drive in New York City about twenty years ago, whereas in 2013, after 55 years there, they vacated the historic building and moved to Washington, DC., with a greatly reduced staff.

According to the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, Unitarian Universalism grew nationally 15.8% between 2000 and 2010.  That makes us an anomaly in relation to the documented decline of liberal Christianity at the same time.  We grew the fastest in the Bible Belt of the South—22% in Georgia and 20.8% in Tennessee, and in parts of the West—for example, 42.5% in Colorado.

That's remarkable.  What's the explanation?

One theory is that we do best in areas of conservative religion, where a number of people are leaving their churches and looking for a fully liberal alternative.  We also seem to attract people looking for spiritual community from the rising number of people who write "none" on religious preference surveys.

Whatever the demographics, it would seem that a healthy future for any religion depends upon learning to respect and dialogue with other faiths, rather than trying to exclude and marginalize each other.  We have to live together.

I couldn't agree more!

Thanks again for your book.  As I read it, I thought about how it's a model of irenic dialogue and engagement during our presidential election that has been marked by such violent and vulgar discourse.

Thanks, Dan.  You've always been a model of irenic dialogue and engagement for me, and I hope you run for President soon!


For more on Scotty McLennan, see

From the website

The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) has more than 221,000 members in the United States. Other Unitarian Universalist organizations in Canada, Europe, international groups, as well as people who informally identify themselves as Unitarian Universalists, bring the worldwide total to 800,000.

The UUA had its beginnings in Europe in 1569, when Transylvanian King John Sigismund issued an edict establishing religious freedom. The Universalists organized in the United States in 1793, with the Unitarians following in 1825.

The consolidation of the Universalist Church of America with the American Unitarian Association created the UUA in 1961.

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