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A Complete Chapter

Here is the complete summary chapter of my book on the theologies of Unitarian Universalism.  What the book is finished, it will be the final chapter.


In Henry Fielding’s novel Tom Jones, there is a character by the apt name of Parson Thwackum. Fielding has the cleric declaim on religion at a luncheon. He says, “When I speak of religion, of course I mean the Christian religion. And by the Christian religion, of course I mean the Protestant religion. And by the Protestant religion, of course I mean the Church Of England!”

Parson Thwackum represents the view of religion most common in the Western world. By this definition, a religion is defined by a unique set of beliefs in certain intellectual propositions, for example, a belief that God is one but also in three persons. As this book has explained, Unitarian Universalists don’t have just one belief. We have many beliefs and many different ways of spiritual practice.

This makes things interesting for us and makes us different for any other religion I know of. Surveys of theological beliefs by Unitarian Universalists, whether they are conducted from time to time by the Unitarian Universalist Association, or by individual congregations, find that there is no majority theological position among Unitarian Universalists. Whether Humanist, Liberal Christian, Nature Mystic, Buddhist or Earth Centered, no one way of belief and practice defines religion for anything greater than a plurality of us. In fact, in almost all surveys, the responses add up to well over 100%, suggesting that people have checked more than one box. Perhaps ‘eclectic’ describes the theology of most UUs! In my experience, those who do find themselves firmly in one theological camp often experience themselves as a beleaguered minority. But every theological position within Unitarian Universalism is a minority position.

So how do we deal with this diversity in our congregational life? What language do we use in worship? How do we talk with each other about the things that matter most to us in life? I would suggest that there are good ways and bad ways to do this. I thought about some of the bad ways we do this when I was standing in line at Starbucks one morning. I realized that the main secret of the success of a place like Starbucks is that it allows consumer preferences to run wild. People were ordering things like an extra hot skinny latte with one Splenda, or a sugar free macchiato with an extra shot. Everybody got exactly the drink that they wanted. I realized that many of us approach our Unitarian Universalism from this hyper-consumerist mindset, expecting our worship services to reflect unique personal preferences for theological language, and sometimes being offended when they don’t. I wrote a skit based on this Starbucks insight that had people ordering sermons based on their personal theological whims. It had people ordering an Earth Centered sermon but with a Transcendentalist and not a neo-pagan sensibility. Or a straight-up Humanist service, hold the God. Our consumer culture has trained us to feel entitled to our personal preferences to the point where for many, personal preference becomes the highest value. This presents preachers with the ever present temptation to preach from the lowest common denominator, saying only things that are general and un-controversial, and hence bland.

In order to understand the ways in which we might use our theological diversity to great advantage, I find the metaphor languages helpful. All human languages express common experiences. There is a word for every language for man, woman, person, earth, sky and sun. Because all languages have words for these common experiences it is possible to translate from one language to another. However, no two languages are exactly equivalent. Each language also adds unique ways of seeing and experiencing the world. Those of you who are fluent in more than one language know the ways in which that knowledge enriches your life.

Theologies are like languages. All theologies seek to answer common human questions: What does my life mean? What does the fact that I have to die mean? How do I love well? How do I know what is true? Who or what orders the universe? In a way similar to languages, each theology seeks to address these questions, and in many ways the answers to some of these questions are similar. For instance, all major religions have at their core the value of compassion. All have a version of what is called the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Or, in its negative phrasing, Do not do to others what you would find hurtful to yourself. All major religious teach that spiritual growth, whatever else it may mean, means a transformation from self-centeredness to making the well being of others our central concern.

But each theological or religious position also has a unique nuance and emphasis. If seeking the lowest common theological denominator is the bad way to address Unitarian Universalism’s theological diversity, what would be a better way? A better way would be for Unitarian Universalists to become theologically multi-lingual. If we did, it would mean that we could appreciate more of the truth and value a greater depth human experience as opposed to erasing the richness and complexity of each UU theological heritage by finding the bland middle.

There are many advantages to this. One important one is that the debate about the future of our country is being fought in the language of the Christian Bible. Many UUs are Humanist, agnostic or atheist. Biblical language is not their language of meaning. If we are to join the debate and have a positive impact upon it, we cannot insist that the conversation happen only in a language we are comfortable with. That would be like insisting that people speak English in a non-English speaking country. We must be able to speak the language most people use to express those values. We must hold out the positive and life affirming values of the Judeo-Christian tradition and we need to make common cause with those progressive Christians and Jews for whom that language is at the core of their identity.

Despite our theological diversity, we do have a core identity. There is a particular Unitarian Universalist way of being religious that is true of all the theological paths of Unitarian Universalists. There are Unitarian Universalist Buddhists, Unitarian Universalist Christians, Unitarian Universalist Humanists. It is what we have in common that cuts across all of the various Unitarian Universalist identities, and that similarity is about how we approach our religion and spirituality as opposed to what we might believe in common. Put another way, it is our values and not our beliefs that we have in common. And our values matter only when they are lived out. So it could be said that Unitarian Universalism is a religion not about what is believed but what is lived. Crucial here is the concept of covenant. A covenant is a sacred promise. It has often and accurately been said that Unitarian Universalism is not a creedal but a covenantal faith. What holds us together is not what we believe but the promises we make to each other about how we will live, and how we will treat each other and the web of creation. Thus our faithfulness is measured not by our beliefs but about the extent to which we bring integrity, love and service into our lives.

Early in the 20th Century, Earl Morse Wilber, history professor at Starr King School For The Ministry and the author of a two volume definitive history of Unitarianism spoke of the three guiding principles of the Unitarian way of religion: freedom, reason and tolerance. A Unitarian Universalist version of these principles might be freedom, reason and love. I will discuss each of these in turn.

Freedom of belief is at the center of Unitarian Universalism. Our Unitarian forebears defended freedom of belief in the name of truth. They recognized that the truth was a very large matter, far beyond the ability of the individual to grasp. In addition, they understood that our opinions are subject to the distortions of ego, personality, social position and bias. Therefore, honest dialog and respectful argument is essential to ever increasing understanding. You know things that I do not know and cannot know without conversation with you. Our Universalist forebears defended freedom of belief in the name of love. In gratitude for what John Murray called, ‘the kindness and everlasting love of God,” a God who refuses to give up on anybody, we are called to live out of an ever greater and more inclusive love. We realize that despite any differences of belief or approach to theology, there is much more that unites us than divides us. As the founder of Unitarianism in Transylvania, Francis David said, “We need not think alike to love alike.

In his famous Baltimore sermon of 1819, Rev. William Ellery Channing said, “We honor revelation too highly to make it the antagonist of reason, or to believe that it calls us to renounce our highest powers…..revelation is addressed to us as rational beings.” A modern way to say this is that no belief, no theological position is beyond the scope of reasoned argument and proof. Channing used as his text for the sermon a verse from 1 Thessalonians "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good." This is the UU way of faith, always to be open to new revelation, new truth and new light. Ours is a way of faith which is eager to learn, which knows that I will believe differently a year from know or 10 years from now, because I have been open to new evidence. I assume my sense of the truth will grow.

Tolerance of the viewpoints of others has been a part of Unitarian Universalist identity since our beginnings. The first edict of religious toleration in Europe was proclaimed by the Unitarian King John Sigismund, of Transylvania in the year, 1568. But perhaps the words tolerance and toleration are no longer strong enough for the small and diverse world we live in today. Dictionary definitions imply forbearance or allowance of someone or something one finds unpleasant. In medicine, tolerance is the amount of a substance one can ingest without harm. Unitarian Universalist theology, at its best, does not always find the acceptance of diversity unpleasant or negative. More positive words are needed to express the fact that for Unitarian Universalists acceptance of diversity is a positive choice and a positive good. So, we do not just tolerate the ideas of others, we are curious about them. We try to understand and appreciate them. We at least respect them. As the Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh has said, to love is to understand. This experience of love as understanding is not the romantic kind of love often associated with that word. Indeed, this kind of love need not depend on feeling at all. Finally, our goal as Unitarian Universalists is not simply tolerance of others’ beliefs but to fully understand those others. Our goal is love.
The fact that we are bound together in a covenant of right action, and that we always seek to practice freedom, reason and love, is what makes us distinctly Unitarian Universalist. Unitarian Universalism is not just a big tent that happens to contain Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Humanists, Earth Centered Worshipers and nature mystics. Unitarian Universalism is a way of acting and living based on principles and promises. These principles of freedom, reason and love lead us to be ever more fluent and comfortable with all the different dialects of the human quest for meaning.
This covenant of those dedicated to freedom, reason and love has never been more needed in the world. The people who have died in the last year because of religious and political differences may number in the millions. Because of the vast availability of lethal force and lethal words due to modern technology, sectarian divisions threaten the very existence of human civilization. We humans are capable of unbelievable selfishness, cruelty, willful ignorance and murderous aggression. Fortunately, we humans also have the capacity for great love, creativity and community. Unitarian Universalists have chosen a path for the soul and not an unyielding stance. We have chosen to honor and learn from our differences. We have chosen to trust free individuals. We have chosen rational thought and conversation. We have chosen tolerance that matures into love. It takes courage, discipline and determination to live this way. And by making this choice we can change the world.

7 comments (Add your own)

1. Kathleen Garcia-Horlor wrote:
Amen, brother!

Sun, January 30, 2011 @ 8:24 PM

2. Sufiyan wrote:
I've been struggling with this same issue. I have no derise to belong to a church . But I am looking for a community to be part of. I also have outspoken kids, and I want to provide an opportunity for them have a peer group where they can be comfortable without having to shut up about what they think. After checking out several groups in our area, a local UU congregation seems to be the best fit for all of this. I've signed up to teach 6th graders, and my 7th grader's class will be studying other religions and making field trips. There's a Science and Reason forum, and lots of interesting people to talk to. Recent sermons were on Freud and Jung. Yet, I don't know that I can ever be a member there. There are too many details that rub me the wrong way. Too much acceptance of woo . Too much emphasis on worship and spirituality , neither of which do I want anything to do with. I'm an atheist. UU suits my purposes for right now, but I don't think I will ever be a UU.

Sun, June 17, 2012 @ 10:02 PM

3. Ishika wrote:
Yes, it's that spiritual but not rilogeius thing that's grating on me. I'm not rilogeius. I'm not freaking spiritual either, whatever the heck that's supposed to mean.I kind of get the feeling that a lot of UU's have gotten as far as questioning religion, and perhaps questioning the existence of a god, but they still have underlying assumptions that they are not questioning. I think that aside from their dogma, most xian churches also work very hard to instill the basic messages of it's important to be spiritual , and it's necessary to have faith in something . Those assumptions still seem to be operating in the UU congregations.

Mon, June 18, 2012 @ 2:30 AM

4. Jared wrote:
Yeah, UUs are tricky that way. There's no UU pope dceneeirg how each congregation should operate. And I'm sure a fair portion of the identity crisis only seems that way because some congregations say one thing and other congregations say another. But I feel like I should mention that there is the organizational structure of , and there are every year at which collective decisions get made. And some UU congregations and individuals (such as Ron, commenting above) do try to take both sides at once.

Mon, June 18, 2012 @ 3:56 AM

5. Rashedul wrote:
Hi, Ron. I'm curious as to your oponniis on my posts on UUism, but you've left me just a short blurb and I have a lot of questions. You say neither a congregation nor a church, but you talk about a place devoted to the religious and spiritual, and the sermon videos you link to do talk about atheists coming to church. Which is it? Is Unitarian Universalism religious, or not? That's the identity crisis I was talking about in this post.

Mon, June 18, 2012 @ 7:13 AM

6. Ika wrote:
I agree that there are many benefits from cotimnumy, and I recognize that some atheists would welcome the opportunity to come together with others who hold similar views whatever they want to call it. Like you, I don't have much interest in UU because it strikes me as being too close to religion. I am an atheist, and I see little need to conceal that behind Unitarianism.

Mon, June 18, 2012 @ 7:41 AM

7. Mary wrote:
And may it be so.
THe amount of freedom that comes from being a faithful, dedicated, and committed UU is immense. With that freedom comes even greater responsibility. It is a lens to look at the world through that is always needing to be readjusted, refocused, and cleaned. I love that UUism embraces the entire fabric of life and that responsible progress is at the heart of it UUism. Love this article. Definitely sharing it with my congregation. :)

Tue, March 12, 2013 @ 1:25 PM

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