What is Unitarian Universalism?
Rev. Douglas Taylor
August 28, 2016
“Unitarian Universalism, isn’t that a cult?”
“Unitarian Universalism, I’ve never heard of it. What is it about?”
“Universital– Unitaral – uh – Unisal; what is up with that name?”
“So, what do you all believe?”
“Unitarian Universalism, is that even a real religion?”
“If you don’t have beliefs, what’s the point?”
“If I visit, what should I wear?”
These are some of the common questions I get when people discover I am a Unitarian Universalist. Several years back I stumbled into one of those conversations. I was at a bookstore with my daughter. After collecting a relatively small stack of books I found her in quite conversation with a young man on the topic of religion. I sat nearby listening for a few minutes and it was clear he was a fundamentalist Christian doing that tricky dance of trying to have an actual conversation despite the usual script for such encounters.
The usual route is for the fundamentalist Christian to listen only enough to use your words as evidence that you are going to hell. But this young man was asking honest, searching questions trying to understand what Unitarian Universalism is all about. Eventually my daughter tagged me, you know like in team wrestling. And there I was having a very earnest conversation in the bookstore about doctrine, difference, damnation and dignity.
Unitarian Universalism, what is that? What do Unitarian Universalists believe? What do UUs believe about God, about Jesus, about the Bible, about life after death? These are the sorts of questions that arise from people who have not encountered much beyond the basic Protestant Christian perspective. In some ways, Unitarian Universalism is a direct, albeit heretical, response to exactly these questions, but only in a strictly historic context.
You see, one of the distinctive features of Unitarian Universalism is that we keep evolving and growing. The religious concepts central to our faith in the 1770s or the 1840s or the 1930s are not the central concepts today. Humanity grows, society changes, science expands our understanding. We grow. Our faith tradition grows with us.
Unitarian Universalism is progressive, non-creedal religion that grew out of the liberal wing of the Protestant Reformation. We grew out of Christianity, yet we are not technically considered a Christian denomination today. We are a bit of a hybrid partly an offshoot of Christianity and partly our own religious tradition. So I have hybrid answers to the particular questions about what Unitarian Universalists believe about God and Jesus and the Bible and the afterlife.
The historic answer also deals with another question I have bumped into over the years: Why do Unitarian Universalists have such a long name? What is with that tongue-twister of a name?
In an odd twist of irony, our non-creedal religion is named after two religious doctrines. Unitarian comes from the belief in the unity of God rather than the trinity of God. Consequently Unitarians see Jesus not as part of the Godhead. Instead Jesus is a wise rabbi, a teacher or even a rabble-rouser who had a particular relationship with God, but was not God.
Universalist comes from the belief in Universal Salvation, that all souls will be united with God in heaven. Universalists see the dominant characteristic of God not as God’s anger or judgment, but God’s love. Consequently there is no hell (or at most, a limited, non-eternal hell. But that is a nuance I don’t really need to wade through today.)
However, ours is a hybrid between the old Christian aspects and a more contemporary spirituality. Today, there are a multitude of beliefs about God and Jesus and the afterlife among us. There is no unifying belief we all hold about any of that. Some of us believe in God, some do not, still others believe in several; some are undecided or need to clarify the concept or use more accurate words. So it is with beliefs of Jesus, scripture, and the afterlife. And, perhaps more importantly, for many people the answers to these questions are not central to their faith or why they are Unitarian Universalist.
Beliefs, today, are not the point. We are a value-centric faith, not a belief-centric faith. One UU theologian, Thandeka, says our core is about “love beyond belief.” What she means by that is that the values and relationships are more important than the doctrines and beliefs; in particular ‘love’ is central. Love beyond belief.
I am about to drift into a conversation about values and covenants, but before I do let me answer one other variation of this type of question based on a conversation a colleague had with someone. The person grew up Christian and had discovered she was an atheist. In asking about Unitarian Universalism she wondered: “Do I have to pray to god?”
My quick answer is: No. But let me expand on that. There are two levels to that question I want to address – what will be expected of you in the community worship experience and in your own private spiritual practice. For your private spiritual practice you will be encouraged to find something that nourishes you spiritually. For some that is prayer or meditation, for others it is poetry or walking or gardening or meaningful discussion. And more to the point – you will be encouraged to discover what works for you, not expected to perform something that works for others.
During community worship, that commitment to personal spiritual practice can be tricky. I always include a time of prayer or meditation in the service. I don’t assume when I offer a prayer, that everyone in the room is ‘praying.’ And I make a distinction in my vocabulary between a prayer and a meditation. A prayer is directed, often to God or the spirit. A meditation is more a time of reflection. Since it is a communal experience, we know it doesn’t fit everyone. But there is a power found in community that is healing. It can’t be coerced or contrived. The way this works is that we each either ignore the parts that don’t fit or translate those parts into the theological or spiritual language that fits. People in other religious communities do this to, we just admit it publicly.
Let me circle back to some of the other common questions that come up about Unitarian Universalism. Is it a cult? People make up definitions of the word cult so they can delegitimize other religions. So I am sure that by someone’s definition we are. But really, no.
Really, according to reliable sources such as the Merriam-Webster dictionary, Cults tend to have a few distinctive characteristics: They are small, unconventional or non-traditional, centered on a charismatic leader, and share a single mindset (and Merriam-Webster adds that the single mindset is “regarded by many people as extreme or dangerous.”) We are small (about 1,000 churches in the US, roughly 200,000 members). We are unconventional and non-traditional – that’s 2 cult-like points against us. However, we fail miserably at the other two points. We are not focused on a single charismatic leader and we don’t share a single mindset. We are a pluralistic tradition dating back to the Protestant Reformation with an emphasis on the democratic process in our structure of autonomous congregations. So, no, we are not a cult.
“So, if you don’t all believe the same thing, do you each believe whatever you want? I had an 8 year old ask me that question once. We already knew each other and he was curious about how Unitarian Universalism worked. He asked, in essence, ‘can I believe anything I want?’ and I responded, in essence, ‘we can each believe as we must, as our conscience demands of us.’ How do you explain concepts like Theological Plurality and the Freedom of Conscience to an 8 year old? I used this analogy.
They say everybody’s fingerprint is unique. I have heard that this is not actually true, but the story is out there and it works for my purposes here. In the same way that your fingerprint is unique, your spirit is as well. How your spirit fits with the holy is particular to you. The experiences you have had, the interpretations you find, even the words you use to understand life and find meaning, all of that has a unique texture that is yours. We can have similarities and patterns, but ultimately each individual’s experience of the holy is unique.
But if you can’t get past the fallacy of the fingerprints for our analogy, look at the trees around this park, I said. We were at a park when my 8-year-old friend asked me this question. Look at the trees. Each tree is different. We can put them in categories, maple trees here and pine trees there – but even then each maple tree and each pine is slightly different. Difference is the order of the universe. As it is with the material world, so it is for the spiritual aspect as well. The answers you find will not be the answers I find. That doesn’t mean one of us is wrong. It just means we are different.
So we gather in community to support each other and sometimes challenge each other. Unitarian Universalism is not defined by what we believe; it is defined by the kind of community we create that supports each person’s search for truth and meaning in life. I use the term ‘covenantal.’ We are a covenanting community, promising to treat each other and our world with respect and care. We are covenantal rather than creedal.
One Unitarian Universalist theologian names James Luther Adams said people come to a congregation for intimacy and ultimacy. They come for the horizontal connections of intimacy: to be known, loved, connected to other people so we know we are not alone. They also come for the vertical connections of ultimacy: to find depth and meaningfulness in life, to connect with the earth and the generations of humanity. I like to add a third axis. We come for intimacy, ultimacy, and agency. Agency is about our own power to make a difference in the world. People come to church to make a difference, to heal the world, to participate in building something better for all people, particularly the poor and hungry and all those in need.
Unitarian Universalism is not about believing in a particular creed or doctrine. It is about making a meaningful life. It is about helping you heal your soul and build a better world. We still have great conversations about God and prayer, karma and reincarnation. We just don’t hold the answers as central to our continuing the conversation.
This brings me to one of my favorite questions I have been asked over the years. What do you preach about when the beliefs are all over the map? If there are pagans and atheist and Christians and Buddhist and agnostics all sitting next to each other in the congregation, what do you preach about on Sunday mornings. Life. I preach about life. I preach about hope and ethics, justice and forgiveness, democracy and spirituality. This coming fall I have plans for a sermon on the 2nd amendment and a sermon about spiritual brokenness. I will be preaching about Non-violence and about the faith of a scientist.
I think people assume I must water down all my messages so I don’t offend anyone. Instead of aiming for the lowest common denominator, I pitch my sermons for the highest common ideals among us. Our values of inclusion and interconnectedness, compassion and transcendence – that’s what I talk about.
The next question I have is one that has always confused me, why does it seem so important to people that it keeps coming up? What is appropriate to wear to a service? I think I finally figured out what is behind this question. It is about judgment and inclusion. The gentler possibility is that people just want to be respectful of the norms so they can fit in. A harsher possibility is the fear that they will be negatively judged for their clothing at our church. I can only infer that in some religious communities such judgements do happen.
Either way, the answer here is: wear what makes you comfortable. I wear a suit most Sundays. There are a few others who wear a nice shirt or blouse, skirt or slacks, sometimes a jacket or nice hat. Many others wear jeans or shorts, a comfortable, casual shirt. Pink hair is fine, tutus are acceptable. Keep your hair natural or straighten it. Jewelry and makeup, piercings and tattoos are all welcome. I will admit that high heel shoes and three-piece suits are uncommon, but you go ahead and wear what makes you comfortable. We usually talk about inclusion less in terms of clothing and more in terms of age, race & ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identification, religious belief, and economic status. But what you wear and do to your hair – that’s okay too.
So the last question I hear that I want to bring up today is “How do I convert?” You don’t. Conversion is a Christian concept. Instead, we talk about joining and becoming a member. There is an internal level and an external level to this. When you feel like this is your community, when you want to support it, then you have reached the internal part. You belong. Or if you really want to use that language: you have converted. Externally, what we do is have people join the church by signing the membership book and making a financial pledge. Yes, you will be asked to give money when you become a part of this congregation. There is a detailed budget cheet hanging in the hallway if you are curious.
All the stuff we do around here comes from us. We are like a spiritual potluck – whatever shows up is what we have. Or to follow the tree analogy, we are our own thriving ecosystem in which the resources we have come from us and the spirit. That is part of what it means to be Unitarian Universalist. We form community together.
Welcome to the adventure of spirit we call Unitarian Universalism. It is a little different from what you might expect from a religious community, but in all the best ways. We are a curious people, covenanted to accept and encourage each other, willing to be challenged and to grow. Welcome. Won’t you join me in helping heal your soul and build a better world.
In a world without end,
May it be so.