The Theology of Unitarian Universalists
By Rev. Dr. Marilyn Sewell
“How many times have I heard people remark, “You can believe anything and be a Unitarian Universalist.” Or someone might say, with no trace of irony, “I go to the Unitarian Universalist church because I don’t believe in organized religion.” Incredulous, I say to myself, “Gee, I try to be organized. And we do have a choir. And choir robes. And ministers. And a building.”
Unitarian Universalism is a religion — and one with a long and noble history. Why are we so often misunderstood? One problem is our public relations gaffes. All too often when Unitarian Universalists have gotten in the national news, it has been because of some P.R. blunder, like the minister who, during the worst of the AIDS epidemic, passed out free condoms during the Sunday service and spoke on the subject, “The Condom Conundrum.” This was not a bad idea — it’s just not what most churches in the nation were doing on Sunday morning. Or the student minister (she never actually made it into our ministry) who had a funeral service, with communion, for her dog and invited all of the cats and dogs in her Berkeley neighborhood to the service. The AP wire photo showed a dog standing on its hind legs, its mouth open for the communion wafer, and the article stated, “The guests neither barked nor balked at receiving the host.”
We are a free religious faith, and so have no creed. And as freedom is wont to do, our faith invites a certain degree of wackiness and abuse. But if that’s the price of freedom, then I still choose freedom.
Our faith, of course, does have requirements. To become a Unitarian Universalist, you make no doctrinal promises, but you are required to do much more. You are required to choose your own beliefs — you promise, that is, to use your reason and your experience and the dictates of your conscience to decide upon your own theology, and then you are asked to actually live by that theology. You are asked to take your chosen faith very seriously.
In a very real sense, all theology is autobiography, is it not? Our experience, real and vicarious, is what informs our sense of reality, our internal picture of the way the world works, what our values are. We believe what we know is true — that is, our felt knowledge–not what we are told is true. In the final analysis, how can a person who wishes to live with integrity do other than this?
Our free faith was hard won. It has a long history, and our religious ancestors died for this freedom.
A Unitarian, King John Sigismund of Transylvania — now known as Romania — pronounced the first edict of religious freedom in the year 1568. I traveled to Romania several years ago and stood in the church in Torda, where that proclamation was made. This was an almost unimaginable act in an age in which people were being burned at the stake for not getting their theology just right.
Francis David, King Sigismund’s spiritual advisor, was the single greatest influence on the king’s theological beliefs. After Sigismund’s death, David lost favor and was finally arrested for his views. I made a pilgrimage to the town of Deva and walked up a long, dusty hill to the dungeon where he was imprisoned. It was actually a deep hole in the ground into which David was lowered, and there he sickened, and died. His famous words still live with us, though. He said simply, “You need not think alike to love alike.” At the center of our faith is not belief, but love.
Many others died for their faith during this period of religious persecution. The Unitarian movement came out of the left wing of the Protestant Reformation, and we were way too far to the left for both Calvin and Luther. The Unitarian scholar Servetus, who wrote On the Errors of the Trinity, was burned in effigy by the Catholics and then burned in fact by Calvin, with a copy of his book strapped to his thigh. It is said that if he had been willing to change just one word of his book — to change “Jesus is a son of God” to “Jesus is the son of God” — he could have saved his life.
So this is our heritage — or at least a little taste of it. It is rich, and we can be proud of it. This is not light or easy stuff that we’re a part of. But because we are a free faith, could our movement be said to have a theology? After all, our contemporary churches are populated with Christians, atheists, humanists of various stripes, Jews, Buddhists, and even Wiccans. Whoever will, may come. Nevertheless, when we look at our history and the practice of our faith, certain theological themes dominate, and so I will argue that, yes, we do have in fact a theology of sorts, a theology that has been relatively clear and consistent through time.
We must begin with the assertion that Unitarian Universalism has always emphasized freedom as a core value. It follows that human beings have a choice. We are not predestined by God before our births, to be saved or unsaved. We are not mired in original sin by the very fact of our birth and therefore have to go through a ceremony called baptism, even as babies, to cleanse ourselves of that sin. We do not have to have someone sacrifice himself by dying on a cross to save us from hell. Yes, human beings have a propensity to do evil, but we also have the propensity to do great good. We have a choice. Unitarian Universalists prefer to think of ourselves as being born into “original blessing,” as theologian Matthew Fox likes to put it. (He was of course ex-communicated from the Catholic Church, for that heresy and others.)
The term “Unitarian” indicates our belief that God is One. As Church doctrine began to be codified in the fourth century, the concept of the trinity was found to be confusing for our Catholic forebears, and they disagreed with their colleagues in the church hierarchy. But when the vote was taken in 325, the Nicene Creed was adopted, and the doctrine of the trinity was established. Note that the trinity is not a Biblical concept — it originated in the power structure of the Catholic Church. Basically, the Unitarians lost the vote.
The concept that God is One goes beyond the controversy over the trinity, however. If God is One, then the God of the Jews and the God of the Muslims and the God of the Christians is One. God is One. I remember a tragic incident that occurred during my ministry. One evening I was called to the hospital to be with the mother of a two-year-old child who was brain-dead after choking on a piece of chewing gum. The mother, a Unitarian Universalist, was estranged from the child’s father, who was of another faith. Leaving the hospital, I found myself in the elevator with the father’s minister, and I said to him, “Well, we can do the memorial service together.” And he responded, “No, we can’t. We don’t worship the same God.” His comment made my sadness deeper still, and the estrangement of these families seemed ever greater. What other God could he have been thinking of?
As Unitarian Universalists, we respect other religious traditions — we don’t think we have the market on the truth. I like the way my late colleague, Dr. Forrest Church of All Souls in New York, put it. He said that truth is like light shining through the windows of a great cathedral, in different colors and shapes. The light comes from the same source. But it looks different, depending upon which window it shines through. So it is with the various religious traditions of our world. In conducting worship, I regularly use readings from a wide range of sources, including Native American, ancient Chinese, the Hebrew Bible, Rumi, as well as a lot of contemporary poetry. Truth is where you find it. There is no single scripture that holds all the truth.
And there’s another theological perspective that Unitarian Universalists have concerning truth: we believe in evolution — not only evolution of life forms, but evolution of thought and evolution of moral and ethical understanding. So the truth that I embrace today may not be the truth I embrace tomorrow. Revelation is not static, but is ever unfolding. More and more will be revealed. Our part is simply to be open, and thirsty, thirsty for the truth that would be ours — but just for the time being. Such a stance keeps us humble — and awake. When we venture into the Mystery, we are entering the ground of the infinite with the powers of a finite mind. An awe-filled agnosticism is perhaps the better part of wisdom.
Unitarian Universalist theology is of this world, not of the next. Jesus, in fact, taught that the Realm of God is within and, contrary to most Christian practice, his teachings were centered on relationship, not salvation. Unitarian Universalists do not emphasize an afterlife. For one reason, we simply don’t know anything about it. No one as yet has come back to report. But we do know about suffering and injustice on this earth, and so we try to create the Kingdom of Heaven here and now, with real people.
Back to Francis David — our faith is focused not on what we believe, but how we love. It is a fact that people with the most fervent and orthodox beliefs have been known to engage in some of the most dastardly acts. Christopher Hitchens and other prominent non-believers take great pleasure in pointing out this discrepancy in religious faith. I would agree with Hitchens that the rise of fundamentalism in various parts of our world is one of the most frightening of contemporary social and political developments. When we place another beneath us, set apart from us, we tear out a part of our human heart, and then anything goes, for that person has become Other. For Unitarian Universalists, the question is never “What do you believe?” but rather “What kind of person have you become? What are the fruits of your living?”
The significance of love and tolerance in our faith is even more strongly a dimension of Universalism. The Universalist movement began in our country in the late 18th century, about the same time as did the Unitarian movement, both being imports from England. The American Universalist preacher Hosea Ballou told his followers that heaven and hell are not found in any kind of afterlife, but simply in the life we create on this earth. He also rejected the idea that Jesus’s death on the cross saved us — he taught that what saved us was Jesus’s embodiment of love and justice. Historically, paradise for the Universalist was a place where people struggle with injustice and where they are called upon to develop wisdom and our capacity to love.
The universalism in Universalist refers to universal salvation, a very radical theological concept that emerged in an age in which revival preachers were riding through the countryside telling people that they were going to burn in hell unless they repented of their sins. I remember the time I was speaking at a conference on Buddhist-Christian dialogue, and at lunch one of the Christian presenters, a noted academic, said to me, “This doctrine of Universalism, that’s a pretty silly notion, don’t you think?” I was taken aback, and I said no, that actually I thought it was a step in the right direction at a time when hell and damnation sermons were giving God a bad name. And then I paused, and I said to him, “Do you believe that God loves everyone?”
“Yes,” he said.
“So did God love Hitler, too?”
Reluctantly, he agreed. “Yes, I suppose so,” he said.
And then I said, “And so it’s not that much of a stretch, is it, to believe that a loving God could somehow in the end, reconcile all things to Himself.” And we let the conversation end there.
The Unitarians and Universalists talked for many years about merging, and although their theologies were close, they were kept apart by class differences. The Unitarians tended to come from the educated, upper-middle class, and tended to be more cerebral in their worship style than the Universalists, who were mainly rural and less well educated. They decided in 1961, at last, to merge and now the faith is known as Unitarian Universalist.
In summary, we Unitarian Universalists do have a theology:
- We believe that human beings should be free to choose their beliefs according to the dictates of their own conscience.
- We believe in original goodness, with the understanding that sin is sometimes chosen, often because of pain or ignorance.
- We believe that God is One.
- We believe that revelation is ever unfolding.
- We believe that the Kingdom of God is to be created here on this earth.
- We believe that Jesus was a prophet of God, and that other prophets from God have risen in other faith traditions.
- We believe that love is more important than doctrine.
- We believe that God’s mercy will reconcile all unto itself in the end.
Now this piece about God’s mercy — I confess that I don’t know how that could be true. How could God’s love be that encompassing, that forgiving? I can’t even forgive my neighbor who consistently gets out his leaf blower while I’m trying to write a sermon. How could everyone be saved? Surely some of us should go to hell! Surely the guy with the leaf blower.
No, not one. Not one, in God’s infinite mercy. And we are asked to stretch ourselves large enough to take that in. I’m not there yet. But that’s the great thing about my faith. It’s evolving. And so am I. May God have mercy upon my soul. And yours. So be it.