Thursday, April 12, 2012

What Unitarian Universalists Believe

I have never become convinced that Unitarian Universalism is in and of itself a religion.  This is perhaps merely a matter of semantics.  For me religion (re-ligio, linking back) is anything that links me back to the totality of which I am a part; and a religion is a concept for accomplishing re-ligio which informs religious practice.  To my mind Unitarian Universalism is a mode of interpreting religion, any religion, rather than being a religion.  A UU congregation is a context within which religion, understood in a UU way, is practiced.  This UU mode of interpretation I think arises from Unitarian Universalism’s least common denominator, humanism.  All UUs aren’t Humanists as a matter of religion, but most must surely hold humanist values.  The first six of the seven principles that UU congregations covenant to affirm and promote are, it seems to me, a humanist manifesto.  So UU understanding of religion will be conditioned by the notion that individual human beings matter, that they are precious.  Hardly any UU would interpret any religion they embrace as justifying the destruction, oppression, or even disrespect of a human being based on some religious end.  Valid religion will be understood as promoting human thriving and freedom, of all human beings, not just the religious practitioner.

A while back I ran across an article on the web written by a Humanist that was an address to the UU congregation he was leaving and an explanation of why, for him, UUism is inadequate as a vehicle of religion.  By being about everything he said UUism is about nothing.  And by embracing every sort of religious orientation (in particular both God oriented and not God oriented)  UUs fail to join with likeminded people so that together they can channel their common intention and take collective action according to their shared convictions.  That made sense to me, but it wasn’t a problem as far as my being part of the Sugarloaf Congregation of Unitarian Universalists.  I hadn’t come to Sugarloaf UU for the religion, I’d come for the community.  I’m an introvert who tends to drift into isolation and I wanted to break out of that.  It worked, and it has continued to work for some years now.  I’m comfortable around UUs perhaps because I am both a universalist (all religions have value, at least for some people) and a humanist (people matter, people are precious) so I’m pretty on board with the values that Unitarian Universalists share.  Religion is important to me but I mostly do religion solo.  If I wanted to practice communal religion there are places I could go to do that with people whose religious understanding and practice are similar to mine.

Being something of an instigator I emailed the link to the web article to the minister at Sugarloaf and asked her what she thought.  Being a UU minister she asked me what I thought and I told her pretty much what I’ve written in the paragraph above.  Reverend Megan developed a sermon out of her response to the article and I came away from hearing her speak with the following basic understanding of her message:

·         Christian religion is about belief.  Christians believe that correct theological belief in and of itself accomplishes a religious goal (often called “salvation”).  For Christians religious practice is secondary to religious belief.

·         Religions other than Christianity, like Unitarian Universalism, Buddhism, Islam and Judaism are about practice, not belief.  Adherents of these religions may hold beliefs proper to those religions, but they don’t believe that such beliefs in and of themselves accomplish any religious goal.  Religious goals are accomplished through religious practice.  So Christianity is actually the odd man out.  UUism is on the practice side of the belief/practice divide along with the other religions that aren’t Christian.

·         There is a fault with the question “What do ___ believe?”  This question is conditioned by Christian religion, long dominant within western civilization, which has emphasized belief instead of practice.  It really doesn’t apply to Unitarian Universalism and other practice oriented religions .  For them the appropriate question is “How/What do ___ practice?”

Two of Reverend Megan’s points didn’t resonate with me completely.  First, that Christianity is about belief and not practice.  Now I get it that official Christianity has long squabbled over fine points of theology, and I was taught in Lutheran religious education that “salvation is by faith, not by works”.  I remember how bemused I was when I heard a tour guide in Greece explain that the difference between western and eastern Christianity is that according to the western creed the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, whereas according to the eastern creed the Holy Spirit and the Son proceed from the Father.  I remember thinking “wow, someone really cares about a nit like that!?” and then remembering that “oh, yeah, some actually do”.  But the suggestion that Christianity is about belief and not practice it seems to me is only half true.  Every serious Christian I’ve ever known has been devoted to practice.  The men and women I knew as a member of Saint Ann’s Episcopal were all about practice.  We had workshops on developing personal prayer practice, ministry to the needy practice, scripture study practice and, yes, social justice practice.  We recited the creed every Sunday, but in effect the creed served as an underlying concept for religion that informed religious practice.  “We are called to do the work of Christ in the world” was our rallying cry.

The other point I didn’t cotton to, that for practice oriented religions like UUism, Buddhism, Islam, and Judaism the question “What do ___ believe?” is really the wrong question, struck me as even more strange.  I’m a practicing Buddhist.  If someone asks me “What do Buddhists believe?” I can tell them.  I can tell them in a small number of words.  And I can tell them with a high degree of confidence that what I’m telling them is not my personal take on Buddhism (which would require a lot more words) but rather is what we Buddhists universally believe.  We call what I would tell the questioner the Four Noble Truths, and we do believe that the Truths are true, not just locally and for the time being but universally and ultimately.  Now it is true that according to Buddhist teaching belief in the Four Noble Truths (at least in the ordinary sense of cognitive belief) does NOT in and of itself accomplish any religious goal.  It is also true however that we Buddhists do believe the Truths and that they inform all Buddhist practice in all of its variety across the world of Buddhism.  So the question “What do Buddhists believe?” is a sensible question to which a sensible and simple answer can be given.

My understanding of Islam is at the Reader’s Digest level, but I know that the word means “submission” and I’ve heard the adage “There is one God, and Mohammed is his prophet.” It’s ultimately for Muslims to say, but I think it’s fair to say that Muslims believe that there is one God, that submission to God’s will is our ultimate calling, and that the prophetic words of Mohammed, the Glorious Qur’an, contain the ultimate truth and all of the religious truth any of us need to know.  That belief is not merely common among Muslims but essentially universal, and that belief informs all Islamic practice.  It is a simple concept for religion and a fair and simple answer to the question “What do Muslims believe?”

I also have no native understanding of Judaism, and like many of our culture have learned about it through a Christian lens.  I received religious education in a Lutheran church which involved gaining some familiarity with a body of Jewish religious literature and an interpretation of that literature imputed to Jesus of Nazareth.  Only religious Jews can authoritatively say what Jewish religion is, but I’ll again hazard my semi-informed guess:  God the almighty creator has made a covenant with our people from the time of Abraham.  We are called to love God and turn to God as the source of all we need and to keep our covenant with God as revealed in the scriptures.  It’s a simple concept for religion that can inform a variety of religious practice.  With editing by someone having a native understanding of that religion it is perhaps a fair answer to the reasonable question “What do Jews believe?”

So I think that when people ask “What do ___ believe?” they don’t usually mean “What is it that ___ believe, and believe that believing it accomplishes religion.”  I think they typically mean “What’s the underlying concept, the basic religious understanding that informs a life of practice?”  I think it’s a reasonable question and an honest one, and not a result of distortive thinking induced by a certain Christian obsession with niceties of theology.  So why might UUs think to respond with some version of “That’s the wrong question . . .”?  Well, it’s not like people NEVER mean “What is it that ___ believe, and believe that believing it accomplishes religion”.  That meaning of “believe” has been and is embraced in some Christian circles; believing the creed means you’re saved and not believing means you’re damned.  UUism of course eschews this approach to religion and loudly proclaims that it has no creed.  UUs are so sensitized to this meaning of the English word “believe” that as a group they are what I would call “creed phobic”.  They seem to see creeds lurking behind every rock and tree as if in wait to jump them.  I’ve actually heard UUs at the Sugarloaf Church suggest that the Sugarloaf Community Covenant, which is clearly an aspirational document and makes no mention of belief, amounts to a creed; which is irrational on a level with asserting that black is the same as white or that 1 = 2.  Sadly this creed phobia can prevent UUs from hearing what someone is really asking when they ask the simple honest question “What do you believe?”

I think I know what Unitarian Universalists believe.

I think I know what the simple underlying UU concept for religion is.  Perhaps not identifying as a UU frees me to say this.  After all, who really gives a hoot if I get it wrong?  Here goes:

·         Everyone is intrinsically capable of seeking and finding the highest truth and meaning in life, and of knowing it when they find it

·         To seek and find the highest truth and meaning, that which ultimately satisfies us, is the highest calling of each of us

·         To honor and cherish one other as the ultimate seeker, the channel and embodiment of the ultimate truth and meaning, is also the highest calling of each of us

We believe in one another.

A few years ago, as a fairly new member of the Sugarloaf Congregation of Unitarian Universalists I developed the notion that if anyone ever asked me “What do UUs believe?”  I would answer with the nifty phrase “We believe in one another.”  (No one ever did ask which is probably just as well.)  As I learned more about UUism I came to think that such a word trick is hardly kind or helpful and that a more genuine answer would be on the lines of:

“UUs are united by shared values expressed in seven principles that UU congregations covenant to affirm and promote.  One of those, “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning”, places the authority to embrace or reject religious beliefs and practices in the individual rather than in the community or any outside authority.  UUism recognizes a range of sources of religious and spiritual inspiration and guidance including . . . (fill in the six sources written into the UUA bylaws).  At the end of the day though, every UU sorts out for herself what sources are valuable, what is true, and what it all means.”

I’ve recently come full circle through the discovery of an anecdote shared by Sophia Lyon Fahs as a preliminary remark to a talk she gave about the natural religious impulses of humans.  She related that she had given a talk to a group of Quakers, and that after the talk one of the Quaker gentlemen had said to her “I don’t believe a word thee said this evening, but I believe in thee.”  Reverend Fahs said that through this affirmation she “discovered in an unforgettable way what it means to be a true Quaker.”  When I read the anecdote I immediately thought “You can’t beat that, you just can’t.”  For me, if there is a religion that is Unitarian Universalism this is it.  “I believe in thee.” “We believe in one another.”  And if a day ever comes when every human being on the planet, in their heart of hearts, looks into the face of every other and says “I believe in thee”, then the Messiah really HAS come, and that sweet sound you hear in the rustling of the branches nearby really is the angels singing “Hallelujah”.

May we all be blessed


  1. This is a fine essay. I think you make an important point that although non-Christian religions do not hold that belief alone does not constitute religion, they nonetheless have a set of foundational beliefs. This leaves UUism as the odd man out again. Your response is to argue that UUism does have a set of fundamental beliefs after all. This is of course a touchy proposal in UU circles, but you provide an interesting answer. It raises a troubling prospect however.

    "Everyone is intrinsically capable of seeking and *finding* the *highest truth* and meaning in life, and of knowing it when they find it." (Emphasis mine.) We are all seeking the highest truth, but if we are actually capable of *finding* it, how can we "agree to disagree" as UUs do? How can I worship with Christians when I *know* that atheism is true, and that they are thoroughly misguided? Philosophically, if there is a highest truth, and we are all capable of finding it, why do we disagree at all?

    Forrest Church tried to get around this by redefining the term "Universalism" to mean that *every* theology, or non-theology, contained some distorted reflection of the highest truth (many windows), but that we are not actually capable of finding the *highest* truth (the one light). Now we can all agree to disagree safe in the knowledge that none of us is actually right!

    So the answer to "What do UUs believe?" is a very short one: Nothing. Yes, we all agree on living according to humanist principles, but there is no common understanding of why we should do this. Why do people have "intrinsic worth" as the first principle instructs? Because they are endowed with life by a loving creator? Because we are all in a social contract that obliges us to treat each other *as if* we have intrinsic worth? Because the self is an illusion, so we should treat each other as ourselves? I dunno.

    Ultimately, I think you have it right in the opening paragraph. "Unitarian Universalism is a mode of interpreting religion, any religion, rather than being a religion." And there is really nothing wrong with that.

  2. Minor proofreading note, with a side of Freudian slip:
    "There is one God, and Mohammed is his profit [sic]".

  3. I suspect that belief really IS core to all of the religions you've mentioned. But how that belief is acted out varies wildly.

    Here's a somewhat 'flip' description of what I mean. No disrespect intended to any of the adherents, as I see value in each approach.

    Judiasm: God made a bargain with us, and keeps on bargaining. So we should, too!

    Christianity: Death is pretty frightening. Jesus rose from the dead, and said we could too if we believed really hard in him. And he said some other things about being nice to other people, too, and we try to remember those, but it's hard when everyone else is so annoying.

    Quakers: Not quite sure what we believe, but we believe we'll only get a clue about what we should believe if we sit down and SHUT UP! Oddly enough, it seems to work better in groups.

    Islam: God's pretty heavy about his rules, but just go along with God's will, and it really will be better for us and everyone. If God doesn't seem to be stepping in at the moment to enforce those rules, we should.

    Atheism: Occam's Razor says the whole God thing is just too ludicrous to believe. Not to mention mostly hypocritical. Please just shut up and let us be.

  4. "I believe in thee" reminds me of one of my favorite stories...

    Rabbi’s Gift
    unknown author

    (Note: Because of space issues, I had to split it into two posts).

    The story concerns a monastery that had fallen upon hard times. It was once a great order, but because of persecution, all its branch houses were lost and there were only five monks left in the decaying house: the abbot and four others, all over seventy in age. Clearly it was a dying order.

    In the deep woods surrounding the monastery there was a little hut that a rabbi occasionally used for a hermitage. The old monks had become a bit psychic, so they could always sense when the rabbi was in his hermitage. "The rabbi is in the woods, the rabbi is in the woods" they would whisper. It occurred to the abbot that a visit the rabbi might result in some advice to save his monastery.

    The rabbi welcomed the abbot to his hut. But when the abbot explained his visit, the rabbi could only say, "I know how it is" . "The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore." So the old abbot and the old rabbi wept together. Then they read parts of the Torah and spoke of deep things. When the abbot had to leave, they embraced each other. "It has been a wonderful that we should meet after all these years," the abbot said, "but I have failed in my purpose for coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me that would help me save my dying order?"

    "No, I am sorry," the rabbi responded. "I have no advice to give. But, I can tell you that the Messiah is one of you."

  5. Rabbi's Gift (continued)

    When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, "Well what did the rabbi say?" “The rabbi said something very mysterious, it was something cryptic. He said that the Messiah is one of us. I don't know what he meant"

    In the time that followed, the old monks wondered whether there was any possible significance to the rabbi's words. The Messiah is one of us? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks? If so, which one? Do you suppose he meant the abbot? Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant Father Abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation. On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas. Certainly Brother Thomas is a holy man. Everyone knows that Thomas is a man of light. Certainly he could not have meant Brother Elred! Elred gets crotchety at times. But come to think of it, even though he is a thorn in people's sides, when you look back on it, Elred is virtually always right. Often very right. Maybe the rabbi did mean Brother Elred. But surely not Brother Phillip. Phillip is so passive, a real nobody. But then, almost mysteriously, he has a gift for always being there when you need him. He just magically appears. Maybe Phillip is the Messiah. Of course the rabbi didn't mean me. He couldn't possibly have meant me. I'm just an ordinary person. Yet supposing he did? Suppose I am the Messiah? O God, not me. I couldn't be that much for You, could I?

    As they contemplated, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the chance that one among them might be the Messiah. And they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.

    People still occasionally came to visit the monastery in its beautiful forest to picnic on its tiny lawn, to wander along some of its paths, even to meditate in the dilapidated chapel. As they did so, they sensed the aura of extraordinary respect that began to surround the five old monks and seemed to radiate out from them and permeate the atmosphere of the place. There was something strangely compelling, about it. Hardly knowing why, they began to come back to the monastery to picnic, to play, to pray. They brought their friends to this special place. And their friends brought their friends.

    Then some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the old monks. After a while one asked if he could join them. Then another, and another. So within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order and, thanks to the rabbi's gift, a vibrant center of light and spirituality in the realm.

    From The Different Drum (shortened version)by Dr. M. Scott Peck (The Different Drum was written by Scott Peck. He did not write this story. The author is unknown).

  6. Here's a comment on the post by George (thnaks George!):

    Hi Roy-
    Thanks for your essay on questions facing UUs. Please consider the following comments on your essay for your blog.
    What Unitarians Believe
    UUs do not believe that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh, though there are other religions that do. Those that do have more than belief (still open to question), they have faith (not open to question) in the word of a supernatural being who speaks the absolute Truth. Without the word of a supernatural being, all other religions are Humanist by definition because they depend on human knowledge which is always open to question.

    The problem with UUs is that they have not written a bible of their beliefs so others can see it in writing. If there is not some body of beliefs that all UU’s can agree on, they may as well be consigned to oblivion. Since we are an educated lot we can base our bible on scientific knowledge which is always subject to reinterpretation or change. Science states that the universe began with the Big Bang 14 billion years ago, continues to expand and may evaporate into nothing if there is not enough mass to return it to the Big Crunch. Life it appears was created out of matter and according to the theory of Evolution created conscious humans in this infinitesmal part of the Universe. There is no evidence that Evolution has stopped and that another creature will become dominant on the trash that humans leave behind. The human ability to create trash has led to global warming which threatens the future of planet earth to hold any organic matter in its present form. Humans have become so dominant that they have nothing to fear but the human race. This might provide a kind of morality story like the Judiac-Christian notion of Armagedon. Or, we might elaborate on the notion that we have become such victims of our own success medically that vast numbers of us will live to a state of dementia.
    Anyway with the development of the stone age, the bronze age, the iron age, agriculture, town, city, national life, a vast variety of humans exist with different cultures. Since cultures do not think alike, there can be no one religion. Therefore you have Buddhists, Confucians, Roman Catholics, Greek Catholics, Protestants, Unitarians, Pagans (their gods were human like), Scientologists and others. Those who established religions include a sheep herder, an iterant preacher, a camel driver and business man, a farmer in New York State, a science fiction writer, a philosopher and essayest, a 19th century lady and so forth. Unitarians are a highy educated, middle class group who have been successful in their work and who have been unable to acclimate themselves to creedal religion in their struggle for self-fulfillment. Being unfulfilled they make up a group that is together about everything which makes them something, that is, a UU. Why? Because they say so.

  7. While part of me loves the Rabbi's Gift story, and the idea of"Honoring one other as the ultimate seeker of truth and meaning", the scientist in me says, "There's something wrong here. This is just wishful thinking. It's in direct conflict with what we know from neuroscience about REAL humans." At one extreme, we know that at least 2% of males and 1% of females are born with brains incapable of experiencing empathy. Eventually using stem cells or some even more advanced technologies, we may be able to change them, but in the meantime we surely don't want to "honor their truth", right? I wonder what would we lose if we simply say we honor NOT all person's truths but a specific set of behaviors?