Seven Ways to Say It
Rev. Douglas Taylor
There are times when I step back and wonder at this community of ours: such an amazing collection of people with an amazing collection of ideals and practices. I am proud and honored to be a part of this community and I occasionally fall into wondering how I ended up so blessed as to be a part of it. I don’t mean to signal a tone of false modesty with these reflections, I know full well that I have played my part in creating this community. My call to ministry is best expressed as a call to help build this sort of life-saving, life-affirming faith community. But I know I am not solely responsible for the result. I know for certain because when I am away for the summer or gone for a sabbatical, this community of amazing people continues to pour out its blessings. I know for certain because when I am here offering my ministry I am also ministered unto: I am affirmed and challenged, uplifted and inspired. I suspect this is the experience for many of you as well.
Early in my ministry while serving another congregation, I led a class focused on helping participants to articulate what Unitarian Universalism is. Many people would speak of their personal experiences of the congregation as I have just done. The best part of the class was that at the beginning of each session, as an opening activity, we would each say our name and answer the question “What is Unitarian Universalism?” After the third session I noticed a few patterns emerging, the answers began to line up in distinct categories. Thus began the list of seven styles of answering the question that I have included as an insert of you.
Seven Ways to Say It
by Douglas Taylor
It is always good to have several ways to answer the question,
“What is Unitarian Universalism?”
(1) Underlying Unifying Shared Values
We do not gather around shared beliefs, rather we have shared values such as … (eg justice, freedom of conscience, respect, tolerance, reason, spiritual exploration, democracy.)
2) Covenanting Seekers
We do not gather around a set doctrine or creed, rather we join in a shared process of discovery. We promise to help each other in the search for what is ultimately meaningful in life. We are a church where you can believe as you must, as your conscience demands.
3) Theological Commonalities
Beliefs are not at our center, but we do generally share some beliefs such as: Most of us believe that every person has worth and that we have the capacity to choose to do good.
4) Historical Overview
We are a liberal religion born from the Judeo-Christian heritage. Historically, the Unitarians believed in the unity of God and the Universalists believed that all are saved.
5) Interfaith Group
We have a diverse mix of theological perspectives: Pagans, Liberal Christians and Jews, Theists, Agnostics, Atheists, Humanists, Transcendentalists, Native Spiritualities, and Process theologies. We are not one religion, but a respectful group of many religions
6) Personal Experience
When I come to this amazing community of people, I am affirmed and challenged, uplifted and inspired. In this congregation I feel called to be my best self. These are my people.
7) What We Are Not
No Dogma, No Creed, God is not mandatory, Guilt is optional …
Unitarian Universalism is a complex and nuanced faith tradition that does not offer quick sound-byte type answers to the question of definition. It is hard to articulate a simple definition of Unitarian Universalism not because it vague or contrived or non-existent, but because it is complex. Ours is an evolving faith. We grow as people and who we are grows with us. And our capacity to answer the question “What is Unitarian Universalism?” has become rather important to me. Thus, over the years I have developed this list of various ways to answer the question because the first thing I discovered is that my promoting ONE final and ultimate answer is impractical and indeed goes against the heart of what we are all about. I currently have 7 styles of answering the question.
And, an argument could be made that I actually have 8 ways to say it, because I have not included the Principles and Sources as a way of answering the question on my list of seven styles, yet clearly that is a fine way to begin. How many of you have made use of the UU Principles when asked about your Unitarian Universalism? Have any of you carried the Principles and Sources wallet card so you could offer it to someone? And have any of you actually offered the card to someone else curious about our faith? Being able to pull out even just the First Principle about the “Inherent Worth and Dignity of Every Person” is a great way to open a conversation with someone who wants to know more about Unitarian Universalism.
And I slipped in a little thing there that I find very important to all of this that I want to be clear about. These styles and categories of answering the question, these are different ways to ‘start a conversation,’ not to simply answer the question so as to put off the questioner. You see, that is an important piece of all this. Imagine the ways in which this question has come up. Sometimes it is in a conversation with a person who is really only interested in the answer so they will have sufficient fuel to tell you how you are wrong, sufficient information for them to come up with a better way to convert you to their understanding of the truth. This is a conversation you are can avoid if you wish. I don’t much care for this sort of conversation myself.
The other reasons this question may come up can be much more compelling. Sometimes people are genuinely curious about another person’s faith, and dialogue across our religious differences can be of immense benefit! And other times people are genuinely curious because they are searching for a faith community like ours but have not yet found us because (among other reasons) Unitarian Universalists tend to not be very forthcoming about Unitarian Universalism.
Part of why we tend to be quiet about our faith is that in Unitarian Universalism we believe in the freedom of religious conscience, that faith cannot be coerced. So why would we ever foist our beliefs and values on another when we would not wish the same done to us? Do unto others … and all that. Except, with this as our leading understanding we tend to categorize anyone asking “What is Unitarian Universalism?” as a hostile questioner.
If we can allow ourselves to be open to the question and welcome the curious questioner, we may be helping someone find the religious home they have been longing to find. And I am convinced that one simple piece of assistance I can give to anyone willing to engaging in such a conversation is to offer a variety of ways to step in.
So now, to the list! And I will offer them in reverse from 7 to 1.
#7 What We Are Not
This comes up for me when someone in a group looks over at me when they quip, “Somebody should pray for good weather because our event will be outdoors.” My typical response is something like, “I’m a Unitarian Universalist minister, we don’t do weather.” As a non-creedal faith it is easiest to describe what we are not, especially when creed-based religion is the accepted norm. When the question comes, it often is asked as “What do Unitarian Universalists believe?” and the only fair answer to that is to fall back to this category. We are non-creedal; we are not gathered around a shared belief. Individuals believe things, communities do not; the question “what do we believe” is the wrong question.
And then if we get into particulars, I often find myself having to say things like, “We do NOT believe the Bible is the literal word of God.” “We do NOT believe in Hell and, even though we are Universalists, most of us do NOT believe in a literal heaven either.” “We do NOT believe Jesus to be the only begotten son of God, or at least most of us do not.” And it is that last phrase “at least most of us do not,” that really causes confusion when talking to someone trying to correct my heresies. But then, that is exactly the phrase that begins to take us out of the rut of what we are not – which is when the conversation can get exciting for a person truly interested in Unitarian Universalism.
But generally speaking, this is a style of answering the question we do well to avoid. It is not all that helpful to tell people what we are not because it set us up to define ourselves by another religion’s categories. A Buddhist would never begin a conversation about Buddhism by stating they do not believe in the Tao or in Jesus as the son of God. They would begin by stating the four noble truths or outlining the life of the Buddha. So, all considered, this is a poor choice, or one to use sparingly.
I will however, offer you this. I have heard this style put to constructive use in one compelling scenario: as a way to demonstrate to atheists that atheism is a viable and valued path among us. Sometimes, who you are having the conversation with will lead you to choose one strategy over another.
#6 Personal Experience
The next pattern on my list is Personal Experience. This, I already shared an example of earlier. When I come to this amazing community of people, I am affirmed and challenged, uplifted and inspired. In this congregation I feel called to be my best self. I could also speak of our Social Justice work. What is Unitarian Universalism all about? It is about living our faith, it about walking the walk.
The down side to this style is that while it describes the experience of being in this community, it doesn’t really describe what the community is all about. It doesn’t explain the theology or the history or why we do the things we do. On the other hand, this is a great way for talking about Unitarian Universalism with someone who already has some understanding of us but is uncertain if they will fit in or if they just don’t care about the theology and are only really interested in finding a decent community.
#5 Interfaith Group
The next approach, moving up the list, is one that I actually disagree with, but in fairness I have heard a number of colleagues define Unitarian Universalism this way … so it is on my list. And there is a grain of truth to it I will admit. This is an approach that says Unitarian Universalism is not really a religion in its own right. It is more of a mutually respecting conglomerate of many religious perspectives. We have a diverse mix of theological perspectives: Pagans, Liberal Christians and Jews, Theists, Deists, Buddhists, Agnostics, Atheists, Humanists, Mystics, Transcendentalists, Native Spiritualities, and Process theologies. We are a respectfully gathered interfaith group, but not a religion per se.
Now, for each of these styles of answering I am trying to not only offer a fair rendering of it but to also lift up both its limitations and its benefits. But, I am biased about this one. So I will be brief. The limit of this approach is that it is not an accurate portrayal of Unitarian Universalism as I, at least, have experienced. What this approach has going for it is that it will be rather easy for non-UU’s to grasp the concept.
#4 Historical Overview
Our next pattern is one in which we offer a historical overview. I used to use this one a lot, especially when I was among Christian colleagues. Unitarian Universalism is a liberal religion born from the Judeo-Christian heritage, specifically from the liberal progressive wing of the Protestant tradition. Historically, the Unitarians believed in the unity of God. Rather than a Trinitarian formulation of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Unitarians believed in one God with Jesus as a human, a deeply spiritual human but certainly not in some way also God. Historically, the Universalists believed that all people are saved. Rather than seeing a large portion of humanity predestined to go to Hell, Universalists believed that God’s love was stronger than any sin or mistake a human could make and in the end, all souls would be reunited with God in Heaven.
The down side to this approach is that these historic anecdotes do not always offer an accurate rendering of what Unitarian Universalism is all about now. It offers a snap shot of what we were, which for some faith traditions might be great. But ours is an evolving faith that grows and changes. Thus, only a small number of us believe as Unitarians or Universalists did two hundred years ago.
The reasons this would be a good approach to use again depends on who your audience is. When talking to liberal Christians, this can create a shared reference point. It is important, I think, to not let this be the end of the conversation and to instead find a way to bring the conversation around to the present, perhaps augmenting it with the approach of how we have become an Interfaith Group or how we are Covenanted Seekers.
#3 Theological Commonalities
The next style, counting up, is listed as Theological Commonalities. A generation ago, David Rankin produced a list of “Ten Things Common Believed among Us” that is a great starting point for conversation. He lists things like the authority of reason and conscience, tolerance of religious ideas, the worth and dignity of all people, and several more. I have often proclaimed how the vast majority of Unitarian Universalists believe that every person has worth and that our theology of the human condition declares that we have the capacity to choose to do good. Most of us believe we are interconnected with everyone and everything. Most of us believe that our personal experiences of life can lead us to know truth and find meaning.
The trick is that beliefs are not our center. Our center is covenant, a promise grounded in mutual respect to support and encourage each other despite theological differences. We have common beliefs, but beliefs are not what we hold at our center. So, to start talking about our theological commonalities is skating rather close to saying we have a creed. It is a nuance that can be easily lost in conversation with others – especially when so many other people define religion as a set of beliefs.
On the other hand, so long as we can be clear that such a list of theological commonalities is descriptive rather than proscriptive we will be able to say these are the kinds of beliefs we usually find together, with out it being a claim these are the beliefs you must subscribe to before being allowed in to our membership. The benefit would be, again, to create a shared reference point for the conversation, or to be able to offer a bone to gnaw on if the person asking about Unitarian Universalism is just fixated on the idea of beliefs.
How are we doing? I have two more to go and these are my favorites, the ones I recommend highest.
#2 Covenanting Seekers
In all my dozen years of ministry, this answer carries the strongest accuracy by all the lights I have been able to see. Ours is a covenanting faith. We do not gather around a set doctrine or creed, rather we join in a shared process of discovery. We promise to help each other in the search for what is ultimately meaningful in life. We are a church where you can believe as you must, as your conscience demands. We travel different theological paths, but our covenant leads us to support, challenge, and encourage those around us to each travel our different paths well. We are seekers first; always open to new learning to new insight, to new understanding. The best avenue we have found is to be seekers in community. The covenant of respect and mutual care is the framework that provides the freedom we long for and the best boundaries possible for being in community.
The only downside to this approach is that the concept of covenant is a foreign idea to too many people. And so there is some education needed when we use this style of answering. But isn’t that true for all the other styles of answering as well? The benefit of this way of explaining us to others is that it can convey the positive tension of individual-in-community that many of the other approaches miss. Many of the other patterns of answering will work well to unpack how we are individuals, but the concept of covenant is the heart of how we are able to be individuals together.
#1 Underlying Unifying Shared Values
The final style is to talk about the unifying shared values of Unitarian Universalism. Our faith tradition is now and always has been about some basic shared values such as freedom of conscience, respect and tolerance, reason and personal experience, justice and compassion, acceptance, democracy, and encouragement in spiritual and religious exploration. If you read through our seven Unitarian Universalist Principles you will find therein many values such as I have listed just now. The concept of Covenant even is rooted in certain values such as respect, freedom of conscience and Beloved Community. I don’t think there is any down side to this approach except in the need to narrow down the list of guiding values so as not to overwhelm your hearer.
What is Unitarian Universalism? Oh, there are many answers to offer to that question. Sometimes the answer you might offer will depend on who is asking or on the mood you’re in or the book or sermon you’ve just been reading or thinking about.
I have been blessed lately to be able to avoid unproductive or combative conversations with people about my faith. It has been several years since anyone tried to convert me or save me. Thankfully, instead, I have been having conversations with people who are genuinely curious to know more about Unitarian Universalism. I don’t know how this is for you, but I believe we would do well to open ourselves to more such questions and conversations. Answering such questions has helped me be clear about my understanding of our faith. Engaging such conversations has broadened the perspectives of others and has helped a few find their way here.
In a world without end,
May it be so.