Ask a Unitarian Universalist (Response)

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

Our friend Ellen Cooper-Davis really outdid herself in her response to your questions about Unitarian Universalism for our interview series. You asked some great questions, and Ellen provides some great, thoughtful answers. If, like me, you don’t know much about Unitarian Universalism, I guarantee you will learn something new.

 Ellen is the minister of Northwoods Unitarian Universalist Church in The Woodlands, Texas. She writes a blog for the Houston Chronicle on liberal religion called Keep the Faith, and a monthly column on Spirituality and Money for Outside the church, Ellen is a mom to 2 and 4 year old daughters, a spouse, and enjoys growing food, geocaching and collage art.


From Justin: What led you into the Unitarian Universalist tradition, or was it something you were always raised in? Also, would you mind describing what you believe as a U-U?

I was baptized and raised in the United Methodist Church, in churches that were fairly theologically liberal. I never heard any talk of hell as a child or a teenager, mostly of God as love, and Jesus as the savior, given in love. From a very young age, I asked lots of questions; I was fortunate to have both Sunday School teachers and ministers who never discouraged questions. By third grade or so, I wondered about salvation. If belief in Jesus was required to go to Heaven, then what about the poor little child on the other side of the world who grew up in a different religion? Would he go to Heaven? If he'd never heard of Jesus, but was a good person?

I decided that I couldn't reconcile that question in favor of the child not going to Heaven. So either there wasn't any Heaven...or all good people get to go, no matter what their religion. So by the age of 8, I was already trending toward Universalism. I left Methodism upon graduation from high school, concluding that while the community had nurtured me all my life, I could not accept all of the teachings in any kind of literal way. I figured I was done with religion...until a World Religions professor noted the nature of my questions in class, and suggested I check out Unitarian Universalism. That was fifteen years ago.

Unitarian Universalism is a non-creedal liberal religion historically rooted in Protestantism, and heavily influenced by early 20th Century Humanism. (Liberal religion refers to open and ongoing revelation, interconnected relationship grounded in love and never coercion, an understanding of our responsibility to assist the arc of the moral universe in bending toward justice, and our understanding that there are resources both human and divine that make it possible for us to do so. Historically, Unitarianism refers to the understanding that God (which is known by many names, Spirit of Life being a favorite of many of our people) is one source of all things. Jesus, for us, is an important and worthy, but entirely human teacher. Universalism refers to the understanding that we all share a common destiny, rejecting the notion of eternal punishment for all human beings. The two denominations consolidated in 1961, creating my current religious home (unwieldy though the name is).

In very personal language, I believe that all things are progressing from the same divine source; that that source is the ground of all being and its essence is love and interdependence; that all human beings (all of life, really) are equal and beloved in its sight; that in response to that overarching, boundless love which ensures that no one is ever truly alone, I have a responsibility to assist in the creation of just and loving community here on Earth.

From Findo: Is there something that you feel is often misrepresented about Unitarian Universalists?

There are a number of things that are often misrepresented about Unitarian Universalists. Here in Southeast Texas, there is the odd notion that we are a cult. I'm not sure what these good people are using for their definition of "cult" but it certainly doesn't gel with who we are. We prefer coffee to Kool-Aid, anyhow.

By far, the most damaging misrepresentation is one that is perpetuated both from outside our faith, as well as from some of our own people. It is said that we are allowed to believe anything we want.

Not so, my friends.

Unitarian Universalism, as a liberal religion, sits in a dynamic tension between our historical roots and traditions, and the freshness and innovation of ongoing revelation. That means we are neither free to completely divorce ourselves from our history, but nor are we to ignore new insights afforded by science, experience or the wisdom of other peoples and traditions. As our very close cousins, the United Church of Christ puts it so eloquently: God is still speaking.

Because of that dynamic tension, and because of our insistence that reason be applied to faith as it is to other things in the world, we are not free to simply make up our own mythology and call it truth. Also, our responsibilities toward justice-making make it impossible to believe certain things. If you were to walk into my congregation and explain to me that your personal concept of the Kingdom of God is that all human beings would be white-skinned, and all women should submit their authority to males, then I would gently explain to you that you probably would be more comfortable elsewhere, since those beliefs run counter to our basic theology and practices.

Unitarian Universalists do have a commonly-held theology that is very broad in scope. It is a practical theology, rather than a doctrinal one. Within that broad theology, individuals flesh out the details for themselves. For example, as a faith, we make no claims about an afterlife other than that there is no hell. Different individuals might believe in various ideas about what happens to humans after death. For us, it doesn't much matter if different pictures of such things (or different names for God, or different primary spiritual practices, etc.) are varied. We value the process of exploration itself, the willingness to change the world and be changed by it, and a constant journey toward greater integrity, compassion and love for both neighbor and enemy.

Because we are non-creedal, the question "What do you believe?" is not really the right question for Unitarian Universalists. Instead, it might be questions of how and why. How do we encounter the holy? How should we live together, we funny, fragile, beautiful humans? Why is it we must bring more love and justice into the world? Whose are we? How am I called to serve?

From Zeckle: From listening to a lot of the rhetoric from some Christian denominations, many seem to question whether Unitarian churches are Christian. Does your church consider itself Christian?

Unitarian Universalist churches certainly began as Christian paths, and their theological positions were derived from those who read the Bible, and found evidence there for rejecting both the Trinity and hell. But today, in our modern North American form, we are best considered Post-Christian. That is to say, we have roots in and influence from Christianity, but solidly mainline Christian churches would not recognize as Christian. In my opinion, this hinges primarily on Christology. Since we believe that Jesus is a human teacher to be followed rather than a God to be worshipped, we also do not see Jesus as a primary agent of any kind of salvation, personal or collective. This, combined with our understanding that we can seek wisdom from other world religions in addition to our Christian roots, puts us outside generally recognized boundaries of Christianity.

That said, my church has a Christian Fellowship within it--a group of people whose primary means of encountering the Holy is through Christian scripture, story, teaching and study. There is a national organization for such people, that I have written articles for on occasion, called the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship which provides study and community. There are also organizations for those who find their primary religious practice in Judaism, Buddhism or Humanism.

From Dustin: The most common praise I have heard for UU is that it celebrates the individual and promotes acceptance and equality across all spectrums. What has enabled UU churches to be successful in this area?  The most common criticism I have heard of UU is that "belief in everything is belief in nothing." In other words, if something is not objectively or empirically true then it is not really true at all.  A belief that is only true in the perception of an individual isn't really a belief in something that is true, but simply a self-delusion. What is your response to this?

Freedom, Reason and Tolerance have been watchwords of the Unitarian faith since its very earliest days. In the 1500s, King Sigismund of Transylvania, who was converted to Unitarianism by his court minister, issued the world's first Edict of Religious Toleration, allowing his subjects to choose to observe religions other than the King's. "We need not think alike to love alike," his minister, Francis David, famously said.

So on one hand, this has been part of who we are since the beginning. In addition, I think our promotion of the use of reason in religion has also contributed to our being at the forefront of equality movements, and outspoken proponents of acceptance. Because we do not rely on one particular book or prophet or teacher to hand us the unvarnished, absolute Truth, we are free to apply our minds to questions of human worth and dignity, and to test and revise our conclusions as we learn more. We have deep conviction that every single human being who lives or has lived has inherent worth and dignity. We attempt to live this truth in our individual lives, and in our communities.  And if we believe that our common source is boundless, unconditional love, then how can we be called to do anything but love one another? We are all made of stardust. We are all beloved children of God. 

Regarding the critique you have heard, this is not unlike the assertion that Unitarian Universalists can believe anything we want. I do not claim that we believe in everything, nor that we are free to. Rather, it is true that there is some variation in the personal, individual beliefs or understandings of what is most important among us. We are richer for it. There are those among us who adhere strictly to the test of empirical or objective truth. Can an assertion be proven? Observed by others? Perhaps some can, but certainly not all. I do not think questions of faith are ones that are ultimately decided by empirical and objective proof--that is for the realm of science. Those who believe that without objective proof, we're all just being delusional are fundamentalists--they're just non-theistic fundamentalists. By definition, liberal religion does not fit with fundamentalism. Religion, at its heart, is an exploration and a practice of encountering the unseen. It is a realm of poetry, metaphor, music, art, silence, connection. How would one gauge such things objectively and empirically?

From Jonathan: If all roads indeed lead to God, why put so much effort into church? Why believe in anything? Why does one even need to pursue leading a virtuous, moral life?

Notable Unitarian minister Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, "Make no mistake, a person will worship something." This rings true, for me. Humans will find something to place at the center of the universe...something to strive for, to seek. It may not be God in the traditional sense, but it might be truth, compassion, love, understanding. Absent ends that are larger than the self, then a person will worship the self, and will seek elusive fulfillment through consumerism, activity or power. Seeking and encountering that which is beyond the self in a community helps us stay on the path, stay accountable, helps us test the accuracy of our claims and assumptions. It also helps us live the truth of our interconnectedness, and to practice loving others as we are loved. Church is at once a place to encounter what is beyond the self through worship, liturgy, and community-building; it is a place to rest when we are weary and in need of sancturay; it is a place to vision the world that could be. It is a place to discover God--the God that dwells within, among, and between us.

And if all roads lead to God, which a Universalist would need to concede, I believe that is only by grace, not by accident. I do not believe that existential threats are needed in order for human beings to be persuaded to live a moral, virtuous life. I also do not believe that anyone is born fundamentally evil, or chooses to become so outside of other mitigating factors (upbringing, cultural expectations, societal conditioning, etc.) which influence their choices (or perceived lack of choice). Those in our society who feel driven to choose to act in ways that are not life-giving deserve our compassion...and our efforts to correct the systemic failures that helped to shape them.

From N. Neal Paradise: From what I've read, Unitarian Universalism tries above all things to be as inclusive as possible. Is there any basic thing Christians believe that would exclude them from UU?

Since we are Unitarian in our theology, those who believe in the Trinity might find themselves feeling out of place, although such a belief would not cause us to show you the door. Similarly, a belief in subsitutionary atonement, or other views of Jesus as the divine sacrifice for our salvation would be unusual, and technically not in keeping with our Universalist heritage. But if you wanted to hang out with us, we probably wouldn't mind too much.

What we would mind is those Christians (or people of any other faith, for that matter) who hold an absolutist, fundamentalist position on their truth. That theirs is *the* way and the *only* way, with an absolutely literal interpretation of their sacred texts, and a conviction that we, therefore, are inferior people on the wrong side of God. That kind of perspective, though certainly many of us know and love people who hold it, is anathema to our liberal religious heritage, and stands against our commitment to reason, freedom and tolerance. One cannot hold such absolutist understandings and rightfully be a Unitarian Universalist.

From Joe: What is your view on the importance of the Bible?

There are some Unitarian Universalists who might like to claim that the Bible is irrelevant, full of contradictions, and therefore of no use to us. They would be mistaken.

The Bible is our heritage. It is out of the Protestant Reformation, and the ability for people to read the Bible using their own minds to interpret and understand it, that both Unitarianism and Universalism came into their own. It is the Bible that tells us the stories, warnings and parables that have undergirded our western culture, and therefore have helped to shape this faith. It is in the Bible that we are challenged to love our neighbor and our enemy, to bring the Kingdom of God into being here and now, to be mindful of the price of speaking truth to power, and to contemplate the mysteries of love and suffering.

Not all Unitarian Universalists read the bible regularly. It is not read every Sunday in our churches, though it is read sometimes. Still, though, we acknowledge that it is culturally and religiously important, and there are those of us who still read and study it with some regularity, through the lens of Progressive Christianity and our own faith history.

We know that there is also wisdom to be found, much of it similar to Biblical wisdom, in the sacred texts and stories of other faiths and traditions and we are glad to have those, also, to help us discern the direction of our lives and paths. The Bible is among those, and holds a particular place as foundational. We do not read it, or any other texts, as a literal instruction manual for life, but rather as a living, breathing text which we can view with fresh eyes each time we open it. We approach the Bible along with historical context and information, as well as literary understandings of the text and its writers. All of this information, far from demeaning the Bible, gives us more tools to understand it and make it relevant to our lives here, now.

I am grateful to all of you for the privilege of attempting to help you understand my faith a little better. Ours is a faith that loves the questions themselves, that delights in self-effacing humor, that believes fully in the wonder and awe and love that colors this world, even if we do have a brightly irreverent streak. If you're interested in a more poetical approach to who we are, I recommend that you spend some time with the music of Peter Mayer, who is a UU singer-songwriter who very much embodies our essence in his songs. If you have other questions or need clarification on anything, I'm happy to help!  Thanks especially to Rachel, and to all whose minds are curious enough to ask questions and listen with an open heart for the answers.

Check out the rest of our interview series, which includes 12 Q&As with everyone from an atheist to a Calvinist to a gay Christian to an evolutionary creationist.

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