Understanding Unitarian Universalism

"We need not think alike to love alike"

-attributed to Francis David, a 16th century Unitarian minister

Unitarian Universalism is a non-creedal faith tradition which celebrates religious freedom, embraces diversity of theological beliefs, and affirms the human values of love, compassion and respect for all people. We believe that church should be a place where people with different understandings of God can come together to learn and grow in Spirit, find support and work together to make the world a better place.   

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Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism

WE AFFIRM & PROMOTE:

The inherent worth and dignity of every person,

Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations,

Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations,

A free and responsible search for truth and meaning,

The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process in our congregations and in society at large,

The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all, and

Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

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Sources of Our Living Faith

UNITARIAN UNIVERSALISM DRAWS FROM MANY SOURCES:

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 women and men 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.

 

 

 

+ Who are Unitarian Universalists?

We are a religious people who have woven strands of a rich past into a tapestry of the present.

  1. In the first centuries of the Christian era, Christians held a variety of beliefs concerning the nature of Jesus. In 325 CE, however, the Council of Nicea promulgated the doctrine of the Trinity - God as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost - and denounced all those who believed differently as heretics.

    In the sixteenth century, Christian humanists in central Europe - in Poland and Transylvania - studied the Bible closely. They could not find the orthodox dogma of the Trinity in the texts. Therefore, they affirmed - as did Jesus, according to the Gospels - the unity, or oneness, of God. Hence they acquired the name Unitarian.

    These sixteenth-century Unitarians preached and organized churches according to their own rational convictions in the face of overwhelming orthodox opposition and persecution. They also advocated religious freedom for others. In Transylvania, now a part of Romania, Unitarians persuaded the Diet (legislature) to pass the Edict of Toleration. In 1568 the law declared that since "faith is the gift of God," people would not be forced to adhere to a faith they did not choose.

    In continuity with our sixteenth-century forebears, we Unitarian Universalists are determined to follow our own reasoned convictions, no matter what others may say, and we embrace tolerance as a central principle, inside and outside our own church.
  2. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, radical reformers in Europe and America also studied the Bible closely. They found only a few references to hell, which they believed orthodox Christians had grossly misinterpreted. They found, both in the Bible and in their hearts, an unconditionally loving God. They believed that God would not deem any human being unworthy of divine love, and that salvation was for all. Because of this emphasis on universal salvation, they called themselves Universalists.

    In the eighteenth century, a dogmatic Calvinist insistence on predestination and human depravity seemed to liberal Christians irrational, perverse, and contrary to both biblical tradition and immediate experience. Liberal Christians believe that human beings are free to heed an inner summons of conscience and character. To deny human freedom is to make God a tyrant and to undermine God-given human dignity.

    In continuity with our Universalist and Unitarian forebears, we Unitarian Universalists hold fast to our faith in the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We hold the worth and dignity of the individual to be the appropriate basis of all human relations.
  3. Also in the seventh century, reformers in several European countries, especially in England, could not find a biblical basis for the authority and power of ecclesiastical bishops. They affirmed therefore, the authority and power of the Holy Spirit to guide the local members. The reformers on the radical left wing of the Reformation, seeking to "purify" the church of its "corruptions," reclaimed what they believed to be ancient church practice and named it "congregational polity."

    These same seventeenth-century radicals did away with creeds, that is, with precisely phrased statements of belief to which members had to subscribe. Members joining their churches signed a simple and broadly phrased covenant, or agreement, such as this one: "We pledge to walk together in the ways of the Lord as it pleaseth Him to make them known to us, now and in days to come."

    Some of these reformers, the Pilgrims and Puritans, crossed the Atlantic and braved the North American wilderness to establish covenanted congregations whose direction belonged to the local members. Some of these original congregational churches developed increasingly liberal theological beliefs after 1750, and in the early nineteenth century, many of them added the word "Unitarian" to their name. Thus, some of the oldest churches in the US, including the First Parish of Plymouth, Massachusetts, became Unitarian. In the late eighteenth century, other radicals who believed in religious liberty and universal salvation organized separate Universalist congregations.

    In continuity with our independent forebears, Unitarian Universalist congregations are covenanted, not creedal. Congregational polity is a basic doctrine. In the spirit of freedom, we cherish honest dialogue and persuasion, not coercion. We embrace democratic method as a central principle. Our local members unite to engage in and to support ministries of their own choosing.
  4. The seventeenth-century scientific revolution began a great shift in Western thinking. In the eighteenth century, the Enlightenment brought an increased willingness to look critically and analytically at all human institutions, without presupposing the sanctity or privilege of any.

    Many religious groups fiercely resisted these scientific analytical ideas. Some still do. In the churches of our forebears, new scientific and social ideas - from Newtonian physics, to evolution, to psychology, to relativity - found ready acceptance. Indeed, some of the greatest scientists and social theorists of the age were either privately or publicly Unitarian or Universalist: Joseph Priestly, Charles Darwin, Thomas Jefferson, Maria Mitchell, and Benjamin Rush, for example.

    In the nineteenth century, increased travel and translation of Eastern religious texts brought greater awareness of different religions. Again, many of our forebears were uncommonly open to new ideas from Eastern cultures. Ralph Waldo Emerson was deeply influenced by Hinduism, and James Freeman Clarke was among the first in the world to urge and teach the study of comparative religion.

In continuity with our forebears, Unitarian Universalists expect new scientific disclosures to cohere, not conflict with our religious faith. We embrace the challenge and the joy of intercultural religious fellowship.

+ How did the movement come to have such a long name?

In North America, Unitarianism and Universalism developed separately. Universalist congregations began to be established in the 1770s. Other congregations, many established earlier, began to take the Unitarian name in the 1820s. Over the decades the two groups converged in their liberal emphasis and style, and in 1961 they merged to become the Unitarian Universalist Association.

+ What do UUs believe about God?

Some Unitarian Universalists are nontheists and do not find language about God useful. The faith of other Unitarian Universalists in God may be profound, though among these, too, talk of "God" may be restrained. Why?

The word "God" is much abused. Far too often, the word seems to refer to a kind of granddaddy in the sky or a super magician. To avoid confusion, many Unitarian Universalists are more apt to speak of "reverence for life" (in the words of Albert Sweitzer, a Unitarian), of the spirit of love or truth, of the holy, or of the gracious. Many also prefer such language because it is inclusive; it is used with integrity by theist and non-theist members.

Whatever our theological persuasion, Unitarian Universalists generally agree that the fruits of religious belief matter more than beliefs about religion - even about God. So we usually speak more of the fruits: gratitude for blessings, worthy aspirations, the renewal of hope, and service on behalf of justice.

+ And about the Bible?

In most of our congregations, our children learn Bible stories as a part of their church school curriculum. It is not unusual to find adult study groups in churches, or in workshops at summer camps and conferences, focusing on the Bible. Allusions to biblical symbols and events are frequently in our sermons. In most of our congregations, the Bible is read as any other sacred text might be - from time to time, but not routinely.

We have especially cherished the prophetic books of the bible. Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and other prophets dared to speak critical words of love to the powerful, calling for justice for the oppressed. Many Unitarians and Universalist social reformers have been inspired by the biblical prophets. We hallow the names of Unitarian and Universalist prophets: Joseph Tuckerman, Dorothea Dix, Clara Barton, Theodore Parker, Susan B. Anthony, and many others.

We do not, however, hold the Bible - or any other account of human experience - to be either an infallible guide or the exclusive source of truth. Much biblical material is mythical or legendary. Not that it should be discarded for that reason! Rather, it should be treasured for what it is. We believe that we should read the Bible as we read other books (or the newspaper) - with imagination and with a critical eye.

We also respect the sacred literature of other religions. Contemporary works of science, art, and social commentary are valued as well. We hold, in the words of an old liberal formulation, that "revelation is not sealed." Unitarian Universalists aspire to truth as wide as the world - we look to find truth anywhere, universally.

+ What ceremonies are observed, what holidays celebrated?

Our ceremonies - of marriage and starting a new family, naming or dedicating our children, and memorializing our dead - rephrased in simple, contemporary language. We observe these rites in community, not because they are required by some rule or dogma, but because in them we may voice our affection, hopes, and dedication.

Though practices vary in our congregations and change over time, UU's celebrate many of the great religious holidays with enthusiasm. Whether we gather to celebrate Christmas, Passover, or the Hindu holiday Divali, we do so in a universal context, recognizing and honoring religious observances and festivals as innate and needed in all human cultures.

+ Are Unitarian Universalists Christian?

Yes and no.

Yes, some Unitarian Universalists are Christian. Personal encounter with the spirit of Jesus as the Christ richly informs their religious life.

No, Unitarian Universalists are not Christian, if by "Christian" you mean those who think that acceptance of any creedal belief whatsoever is necessary for salvation. Unitarian Universalists are considered heretics by those orthodox Christians who claim none but Christians are "saved." (Fortunately, not all the orthodox make that claim.)

Yes, Unitarian Universalists are Christian in the same sense that both Unitarian and Universalist history are part of Christian history. Our core principles and practices were first articulated and established by liberal Christians.

No, some Unitarian Universalists are not Christian. For though they may acknowledge the Christian history of our faith, Christian stories and symbols are no longer primary for them. They draw their personal faith from many sources: nature, intuition, other cultures, science, civil liberation movements, and so on.

+ How is religious education conducted?

The program of religious education is determined, as are all other programs, by members of the local congregation. A wide range of courses is available through our Association. These are adapted by members as they choose. Courses appropriate for children may be offered in subjects as varied as interpersonal relations, ethical questions, the Bible, world religions, nature and ecology, heroes and heroines of social reform, Unitarian Universalist history, and holy days around the world. The same is true of adult religious education.

In most of our congregations, regular children's worship - often held during a portion of the adult service - is part of the program. We seek to teach our children to be responsible for their own thinking and to nurture their own impulses of reverence, morality, respect for others, and self-respect.

+ Do Unitarian Universalists practice what they preach?

Religious liberals put less emphasis on formal beliefs and more on practical living. Our interest is in deeds, not creeds. We appreciate the biblical text, "Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only."

Our members have been active leaders in the struggles for racial equality, civil liberty, international peace, and equal rights for all people. We work as individuals, in congregational social action, and in other groupings, including denominational efforts as the UUA's Faith in Action Department and the UU-UN Office. We also work with the Unitarian Universalists Services Committee, which brings critically needed social change to many parts of the world.

 

Learn more about Unitarian Universalism:

Unitarian Universalist Association: www.uua.org

Southern Region of the Unitarian Unitarian Association: www.uuasouthernregion.org

Southwestern Unitarian Universalist Conference: www.swuuc.org

Houston UU Network: www.uuhouston.org