What is Unitarian Universalism?
This is probably the question I get asked most.
“Want to grab some coffee?” is the response I tend to give the most.
One of the most concise answers I’ve heard is that Unitarian Universalism is a liberal, religious tradition that celebrates diversity of thought, background, identity, belief, and purpose.
The challenge is unpacking all those descriptors before the eyes glaze; this is, in part, why my first reaction to the “what is …” question is to seek both caffeinated fortification and a comfortable seat.
The point: Unitarian Universalism is “many things” — by history, by design, and by aspiration.
It may be surprising to say that Unitarian Universalism is not (exactly) a Protestant Christian denomination, though both Unitarianism and Christian Universalism here in the US most definitely did spring out of Protestant Christianity.
Today, there are a great many individual UU’s that do call themselves Christian, just as there are UU churches that celebrate traditional Christian liturgies and, yes, even some that offer the Eucharist as part of their worship services. However, the point worth underlining here is that visitors (and members) should expect some variety in religious expression among the individual congregations at home under the umbrella of Unitarian Universalism. Every UU community is just a little different.
So, yes — Christianity is very definitely one of the Sources that UU’s draw from, but it is one of six such Sources (see below). I’ve heard some say that Unitarian Universalism is more like “Christianity +”, a “superset” of beliefs. That’s helpful, to an extent, but one might also say that most UU’s do not “center” Christ — Jesus of Nazareth is one of many figures whose words of inspiration find voice on Sunday morning.
There was a symbol that was used by a Universalist group called the Humiliati that might help understand this relationship: the circle with an off-center cross. While the Cross is certainly present, there is more room in that circle for a wider Truth. You can also see this idea of “wider truth” celebrated today in the more modern UU chalice, the symbol at the bottom of this page.
Another way of imagining this relationship came from the Rev. Dr. Forrest Church, who talked about “The Cathedral of the World“. He says that there are many windows in “The Cathedral”, each with its own view on Truth, each window creating its own pool of light. “But the windows are not the light. They are where the light shines through.” Each of the many religious traditions in the history of our world, then, are simply individual windows.
The image I tend to use for today’s UU faith is that of a “big tent”. I like to believe that there is room under our tent for a wide range of views and beliefs, and I believe that the quality of the conversation under that tent rises as the diversity of opinion increases. So, in a UU congregation, you can find Christians holding to the word and life of Christ. You’ll also find Reformed Jews, Western Buddhists, Humanists, Pagans, those that call themselves “spiritual, but not religious”, and those that simply are NONES. We have found that this tent of ours is big enough to shelter a great many of those who wander and wonder.
What UU’s agree on, what ties us together as a community, are Seven Principles.
Unitarian Universalism affirms and promotes seven Principles, grounded in the humanistic teachings of the world’s religions. Our spirituality is unbounded and draws from scripture and science, nature and philosophy, personal experience and ancient tradition as described in our six Sources.
Those Principles that UU’s “affirm and promote” are:
- 1st Principle: The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
- 2nd Principle: Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
- 3rd Principle: Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
- 4th Principle: A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
- 5th Principle: The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
- 6th Principle: The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
- 7th Principle: Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
By my count, there are three streams that flow into the river that is today’s UU: Unitarianism, Universalism, and Religious Humanism.
It’s worth noting that Unitarianism and Universalism as ideas were not unique to history or to the United States. UU historians are quick to point out inspiration in the heresies of Arianism, Pelagianism, and others, back to the very beginning of Christianity. They also note the development of Unitarianism in Eastern Europe, like the Unitarian Church of Transylvania, which dates back to the 16th century. As interesting and suggestive that these links are, however, they’re at best accidents or parallel lines of development. Unitarianism and Universalism, as they became threads of the eventual merger, are both distinctly American.
At the time of the merger in 1961, Universalism was expressly Christian, and preached the gospel of Universal Love and Salvation–their goal, you might say, was to “Love the Hell out of the World.” The founding of Universalism is attributed to the arrival of the Rev. John Murray in the late 18th century, after both he and his religion were hounded out of England. Over the course of the 19th century, Universalism became one of the largest and fastest-growing denominations in the rapidly expanding nation. I believe that the reason Universalism declined in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was entirely due to it’s success–by WWI, the idea of “eternal Hell” had fallen largely out of favor in most mainline church pulpits (that is, until Fundamentalism came to the US in the early 20th century, but that’s a different story).
Unitarianism certainly started as expressly Christian. Getting its start in early 19th century New England, Unitarianism became quite influential, a religion of the Northern elite, one that was very open to Enlightenment thinking and research. Engaged deeply with new, rigorous, Biblical scholarship they called into question many of the theological commitments of the Church, concluding (among other things) that the idea of the “Holy Trinity” had no Biblical foundation or support. Iconoclasts, they made some significant enemies and earned the name, “Unitarian” as an epithet, one that was hurled at them in the tabloids of the times. In a move of reclamation, these heretics simply adopted the name.
With the work of prominent Unitarians like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Henry David Thoreau, Unitarianism evolved rather profoundly. Transcendentalism, Spiritualism, Humanism, and Naturalism are all threaded through the tapestry of Unitarianism. An interesting side note: some of the first translations of Eastern philosophy were by Unitarian Transcendentalists — a fascination that continues with UUs today.
After Unitarianism and Universalism, Humanism is the third major wellspring of inspiration within today’s UU. Humanism, at least as I understand it, had a root in the Enlightenment, and followed a winding path through to the late 19th century. There, the idea wove together the ideas of reason, truth, and logic directly into the fabric of community and social engagement. The Free Religious Association, the Freethinkers, and other groups explored the edges of a new “religion” at a time when industry and society was evolving as rapidly as scientific understanding. In 1933, a group of influential academics and preachers (many of them Unitarians) signed the first “Humanist Manifesto“, a declaration of Good Without God, a way to form a more perfect union without metaphysics and supernaturalism, one grounded in science, tolerance, and human capacity. Humanism, as a religious movement, grew and evolved through WWII, but never really caught fire outside of Unitarianism. Today, the most well-known version of Humanism is “Secular Humanism”, a vocal opponent to religious fundamentalism.
What all this means is that there is no one book of holy scripture in today’s UU churches; while the Bible is no longer “centered” as the sole source of Truth and Divine inspiration, it is widely revered. To that richness, today’s UU’s find inspiration from many sources — six of them, to be exact — and together with the Principles, they create the shape of “the big tent”.
- Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
- Words and deeds of prophetic people which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
- Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
- Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
- Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit;
- Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.