The Core of Us
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Binghamton
October 3, 2004
Over the handful of years during which I have been a minister I have ardently strived to hone an answer to the persistent question: “What is Unitarian Universalism?” I have particularly tried to articulate an answer that is concise. I have sought an answer which can be given while standing on one foot or in the brief duration of an elevator ride; a difficult task due to the complexity of the subject. This tradition with its fervent respect for the individual has a struggle defining itself as a group. And until recently my attempts have focused around the concept of “covenanting.” By this I mean, the central facet around which we Unitarian Universalists gather is the way in which we gather, the set of promises we’ve made as to how we will be together. That is “covenanting” and that is what is at our center. About a dozen members of this congregation heard the president of our denomination, William Sinkford, speck in Ithaca for a growth conference. When asked the question, what is at the center of our faith, he responded along these lines: that we are Covenanting communities. We the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association covenant to be a diverse and supportive religious community. What binds us together as a faith community is the way we do religion rather that any particular belief statement. At least that is what I have been saying all along. I want to let you all know that I have recently changed my mind.
It’s not that I no longer think we are covenanting communities. I still see that to be the case. Instead, what I’m digging at now is an attempt to articulate the theological core of who we are. “Well, Douglas,” you might say, “Covenant is a theological concept. Why are you discounting it?” Because the concept of covenant describes how we are together, not what we are together. Covenant is the vessel, the container, I want to be able to describe what is in that container. I believe we have an enduring and clearly definable core theological identity.
Now, some say there is not a particular shared core of that sort in our denomination. We are non-creedal, we do not have a doctrine around which we all must adhere, we do not have a single belief which we are compelled to hold in common. We’re all over the map, theologically speaking. And this is quite true. Even in this congregation today, there are folks among us who find the holy in nature and in rituals and call themselves pagans. There are others among us who believe in God and call themselves Theists and perhaps even call themselves Christian-UUs or Jewish-UUs. There are those here who do not believe in God and call themselves atheists or religious humanists. Then there are folks among us who don’t know how to define the holy from one day to the next if ever, and they call themselves mystics or agnostics or simply seekers. And within each of these are nuances that spread us quite wide. There are as many ways to approach the holy as there are people to approach it.
Our theological diversity has been referred to as “cafeteria-style” theology. “Take what you like, but believe what you take.” Another description portrays us as the safe harbor for any soul disillusioned and/or abused by the mainstream religions, the catch-all alternative religion. One colleague told me Unitarian Universalism is technically not even a religion, it is simply an interfaith group because it has no core theological identity of it’s own, according to that colleague. If, however, Unitarian Universalism does not have a common core theological identity, a unifying center, then our unity must be on the surface. We do have a surface unity. We share a name: Unitarian Universalist, we meet together regularly for worship, we share a hymnal. But is that all there is – just a surface unity? Are we just a surface level faith? Or do we indeed have a defining unity at our core?
Unfortunately, when we start talking about having a core and a center, the implication here is that we then have fringes and boundaries. We don’t like to talk about that implication! We are still a non-creedal community. As there is a core, there will certainly be many who are closer to the center and some others who are further out. What is at our core as an organization will not necessarily be what is at the core of every individual’s personal belief structure. But it is better to recognize that we have a fringe than to continue to consider ourselves to be a fringe! That’s okay. And as much as we don’t like to talk about it, Unitarian Universalism has boundaries. They are fairly indistinct, but they do exist. In many ways, our theological boundaries are self-selected. I know I fit in here. You need to decide if you fit in here.
This level tolerance is how we get so much theological diversity. But there is a danger in this. It almost seems like diversity and tolerance are the only common values around which we can root out a core theology. Freedom of belief, or as previous generations put it, freedom of conscience, is one possibility. Again, however, that does not quite define what we believe, only that we are free to believe it. David Bumbaugh, a colleague now serving as a professor at the Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, had an article in our UUWorld magazine several years back in which he wrote that our denomination is
. . . much clearer about wanting to attract more people than we are about what we want to attract them to . . . [I]t is easier to embrace diversity than to define who we are and what we stand for. I fear we are attempting to put diversity at the center of our religious life … because we fear the consequences of defining too precisely the core . . . blind to the fact that diversity can only flourish with a strong, clearly defined faith. (World, March/April 1995, p.26)
It wasn’t always this way. We didn’t always have this wide a spread. Originally, both Unitarianism and Universalism here in America were quite specific about their theological core identities. They each had a very clear message which distinguished them each from other denominations of the time. When I look back at documents from those founding times, the “Ames Covenant” and the Preamble to the National Conference of Unitarian Churches as well as the “Winchester Profession” and the “Boston Declaration,” documents dating from the early 1800’s, I find faith statement fraught with phrases like: “We believe in one God, infinite in all his perfections,” and “We unite for the worship of God and the service of man.” A big one from the Universalists in 1803 was: “We believe that there is one God, whose nature is Love, revealed in one Lord Jesus Christ, by one Holy Spirit of Grace, who will finally restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and happiness.” And the Unitarians wrote this one in 1853: “We desire openly to declare our belief as a denomination, so far as it can be officially represented by the American Unitarian Association, that God, moved by his love, did raise up Jesus to aid in our redemption from sin…”
Now, I’m not suggesting we should go back to those days, even if we could. Some have tried. I just want us to see that who we were back then is very different from who we are now. And more to my point, they were quite clear about it. Sure there was that hedging moment in the Unitarian statement: “so far as it can be officially represented.” And the Universalist often had in their statements something called a “Liberty Clause” which allowed for the freedom of conscience.
Over the years both Unitarianism and Universalism underwent several significant theological shifts. Unitarianism broadened beyond Christianity and then even beyond Theism, though continuing to include all that it had held before. Universalism broadened in these ways as well, and developed a focus on the here-and-now rather than the here-after. And then, interestingly, the two group joined together in the early 1960’s. And according to my colleague, Gordon McKeeman, it was at this point in which we suddenly stopped talking about beliefs being at our core and instead started referring to our plurality of beliefs. And further, the values we lifted up as central to our newly merged religion, were instrumental values, not terminal values, according to McKeeman.
Terminal values are values we hold for there own sake. Truth and meaning, for example, are terminal values. Reason, on the other hand, is a tool we use to discern truth and meaning. Reason is an instrumental value. At the moment we stopped talking about beliefs being at our core we also switched all our values from terminal to instrumental. If you recall our Principles, they speck of truth and meaning, but we don’t say “We affirm and promote truth and meaning.” It says, “We affirm and promote the free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” We affirm and promote the instrumental values that lead us to truth and meaning.
Instrumental values are instruments with which we can reach terminal values. Diversity and tolerance also are not terminal values; they are instrumental values. Freedom of conscience is not a terminal value; it is an instrumental value. These values lead us toward and allow us to get to the deeper values. Why would we want to allow for diverse religious perspectives? Way should we tolerate other’s views? Because they lead us to something deeper; and is something deeper which we are after.
For whatever reason, we have not been jumping up and down in front of the rest of the world or with each other about that something deeper, we’ve been getting very hot, however, about our diversity and our tolerance! I’m not knocking tolerance or diversity! Indeed, I have really only been speaking of theological tolerance and diversity, but I fully support all our efforts to further our racial diversity, our economic diversity, our cultural diversity, and our theological diversity. I just don’t want to put that cart before the horse. I am not interested in diversity for diversity’s sake. I am in favor of diversity because it helps us arrive at that something deeper, that essential principle behind our Principles and Purposes, that core theological identity.
It is hard to articulate what is at our core, not because it vague or contrived or non-existent, but because it is complex. Ours is an evolving faith. We grow as a people and who we are grows with us. We do, however, have a core theological belief that binds us together. It is more than simply agreeing to disagree, or covenanting to walk together but on different paths. Yes, there are many paths found among us, but all of them, Pagan, Theist, Humanist, Agnostic, they all hold the core belief that human beings have a basic worth, an essential and innate value.
The enduring theological core of our evolving Unitarian Universalist faith is our radical understanding of human nature.
Roberta Finkelstein a colleague from Virginia, has said,
“We broke away from the liberal Protestant wing of American congregationalism, but the break wasn’t over what many people think. It wasn’t really over the doctrine of the trinity, though it is true that our first name, Unitarian, refers to the belief in the unity rather than the trinity of God. And it wasn’t really over the question of salvation, although our second name, Universalism, refers to the belief that a benevolent God saves all. It was really over the doctrine of human nature that we declared our independence.”
It was true then and it is true now. We cast a resounding opposition of the old doctrine of Original Sin. Human beings are not born with some cosmic divinely ordained flaw. We don’t need to be fixed. Sure, we have flaws — we’ve got problems. But we believe in the transformative power of love, and that by addressing flaws and failings we can learn from them and grow. That’s what it means to be human. I’m not saying all human beings are always displaying their innate worth and goodness: witness world events and we can all see how untrue that statement would be. Humanity has got problems, to be sure, but they are our problems. Unitarian Universalism has at its core a belief that every person has worth and value.
When early Unitarians and Universalists declared their understanding of human nature, it was radical. It is radical still today. This is basically a very Humanist message. Religious Humanism focuses on life as we know it while letting its mysteries be. Humanism can be confused with Atheism, but where Atheism says there is no God, Religious Humanism says the questions of God’s existence is irrelevant. Religious Humanism says: We are born, we live, and we die. This much we know, this much we can talk about. There is a great deal of suffering and injustice in the world that will not be dealt with by a magical, wish-fulfilling deity. The only way there will be change is if we do something about it.
Deep down, we Unitarian Universalists are all Religious Humanists. It’s just that some of us also believe in God or the Goddess or an Eternal Spirit. Look, for example, at what we do when it comes time to bless our babies. We do not baptize them in the sense of cleansing them of sin and bestowing a membership upon them. We have Child Dedication services in which we name the child, recognize the blessing, and dedicate the parents and the supporting community to the task of creating a healthy environment in which the child can grow. In our Child Dedication services we do not dedicate the child, we dedicate ourselves to the child. We do not make the child change from inherently depraved to suddenly blessed by God. If anyone changes as a result of our Child Dedication services it is the parents and the supporting community! And we do it this way because we have a core belief that every human being has a basic worth, an essential and innate value.
Our emphasis on social justice, our commitment to diversity, our love of the environment and our place in its intricate web, our dedication to the education of our children, our fondness for the democratic process, our loyalty to civil liberties and the freedom of belief, our appreciation of beautiful music and art; all these strong values arise from our core belief statement at the heart of our faith that each human being is of value; that every person matters.
In a world without end,
may it be so.