The Center of Unitarian Universalism
Unitarian Universalism is hard to explain. One of the initiation rites of membership in a UU congregation is being confronted with the question, “What do Unitarian Universalists believe?” Often there is some discomfort for the new UU who isn’t sure how to answer the question since we have variety of beliefs in our midst. The questioner may get impatient with some vague generalities and insist, “Yes, yes, but you believe Jesus is the Son of God, don’t you? You do believe in God, right?” In that moment the UU often yearns for some 10 second sound bite to fire back that captures us in a few words.
The problem of explaining the center of UUism is like a Zen koan to be struggled with again and again. The difficulty comes from the twists and turns of history and theological controversy which has brought us to this point. The Unitarian Universalism we inherit today is exploring a new way to be a religious tradition. We are exploring how to do religion based in shared values rather than shared beliefs. It is parallel to the American, democratic experiment that has evolved along with us.
Although we claim a lineage that can be traced back to the time of the founding of Christianity, we began leaving Catholicism during the Protestant Reformation. The corruption of the institution of the Church and the rise of Humanism during the Renaissance prepared the way for the Protestant focus on the Bible as the core of Christianity rather than the Church. Jesus’ message and salvation could be discovered from the Word itself without the need for a priest or church as intermediary. The printing press put Bibles in the hands of the literati. Our Unitarian forebears read the Bible themselves, trusted their own interpretation or chose their favorite Biblical scholar to follow and started our Unitarian heretical tradition by questioning the Biblical foundation for the Trinity.
Unitarianism and Universalism began here in America with a rejection of the Puritan interpretation of Calvinism. The Unitarians and Universalists embraced the idea of a loving and compassionate God rather than a judgmental and condemning God. We were created in the image of God. They rejected the Augustinian concept of Original Sin. This loving God would not eternally damn any of us to hell. Unitarianism, and to a lesser extent Universalism, have weathered several theological crises. Emerson and the Transcendentalists began a long series of challenges to the authority of scriptures. They were beginning to see nature itself as a sacred text and as a valuable path to truth. Sacred texts from Eastern religious traditions were beginning to surface suggesting persuasive non-Christian paths to truth. The idea of the indwelling spirit of God giving new revelation to the hearts of the Transcendentalists further challenged the authority of the Bible. Natural science over theology, world religions over exclusive Christianity, and transcendentalist spirituality were some of the important issues being fought about during the nineteenth century in Unitarian circles.
Around the beginning of the twentieth century began the Humanist Controversy. Science alone seemed to explain everything, eliminating a need for a human invention called God. This battle was a tough one with much wailing and gnashing of teeth on both sides. The Humanists eventually got the upper hand, loosening the definition of our faith to include them.
The Humanist-Theist controversy was a primary concern during the merger of the Unitarian and Universalist Churches in the late 1950’s. The Universalist Church had a stronger Christian orientation than the more Humanist Unitarians at the time. The way we have settled the problem is to focus our identity on shared values rather than shared beliefs.
The difference between values and beliefs is important even though the words have significant overlap in meaning. Whereas beliefs are thoughts in which trust, confidence or reliance is placed without question, a value has within it a comparison of merit. Beliefs are absolute whereas values are relative and depend on the situation. The roots of the word value come from the marketplace evaluation of worth. In the free marketplace, people determine what has worth rather than conforming to an absolute or revealed standard. Value yields to supply, demand, and quality. Values arise in the context of relationships and are related to this world. Values do not assume a theological context or unquestioning faith or reliance. Values are reflections of human desire, meaning and appreciation rather than extraterrestrial edicts.
While values are human centered, they can certainly have a foundation in belief. The value of caring for others in one’s community can find much support ranging from self-interest by cultivating the good will of others to the Biblical commandment to love thy neighbor. When we agree as a community to value caring for each other, we need not agree on the belief which supports that value. Part of the inspiration for this kind of approach comes from recognizing the large pool of shared values promoted by the different world religions. The Christian and Jew need not argue about the value of human life even though they will fight bitterly about their beliefs concerning redeeming the human condition. Rather than focus on our differences in belief, we can collect a set of life affirming and promoting values upon which we can agree to uphold together.
What are those values? Right now, they are pointed to by our seven principles. Where do we find support for those values? Right now, we’ve identified a list of six sources. Is that a complete list? Have all the values we hold dear been listed there? The proposers of the 8th Principle think there is a glaring deficit in the list. There are sources that are not listed that many of us depend on.
Our UU Principles and Sources are written in Article II of the Unitarian Universalist Association Bylaws. As a member congregation of the UUA, we need to be in alignment with them to be a member organization. We are free to add principles and sources as we may choose … and have by adopting the 8th Principle.
Our personal center may not exactly align with the center of our congregation or Unitarian Universalism which is just fine because our principles respect “the right of conscience” … for now. Yet for institutional life and vitality, we need to name, review, and verify or amend the words that name our center to move together following principles rather than personalities. This is the work the Article II Study Commission is doing to help us, as an association of congregations, name and rename our center for the benefit of all of us.