What is Unitarian Universalism?
This is probably the question I get asked 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.
“Concise” is helpful. Unpacking all that may take a moment, which may be why my first reaction to the “what is” question is something like: “Want to grab some coffee?” 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 Christian denomination, though both Unitarianism and Christian Universalism did spring out of the Protestant tradition here in the US. That said, there are a great many UU’s that do call themselves Christian, and though not common, there are UU churches that celebrate Christian liturgies and some that offer Communion.
The point I want to make is that Christianity is very definitely one of the Sources that UU’s draw from, but it is one of six such Sources. I’ve heard some say that Unitarian Universalism is more like “Christianity Plus”, a “superset” of belief, or maybe that 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 creating its own pool of light. “But the windows are not the light. They are where the light shines through.”
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 the quality of the conversation under it rises as the diversity of opinion increases. So, in a UU congregation, you may well find Christians holding to the word and life of Christ. You’ll also find Reformed Jews, Western Buddhists, Religious Humanists, Pagans, and those that call themselves NONES. Because 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 the Seven Principles.
UU’s have no Statement of Faith that defines membership. That is, UU’s have no Shahada, no Shema, no Apostle’s Creed. Instead:
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. At the time of the merger in 1961, Universalism was expressly Christian. Unitarianism certainly started as expressly Christian, picking up its name from a heresy that rejected the Holy Trinity as “un-Biblical”. With the work of prominent Unitarians like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Henry David Thoreau, Unitarianism evolved. Transcendentalism, American Spiritualism, Religious 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.
What 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.