- Who are Unitarian Universalists?
- How did the movement come to have such a long name?
- What do UUs believe about God?
- What do UUs believe about Jesus?
- What do UUs believe about the Bible?
- Are UUs Christian?
- What is the significance of the flaming chalice, the symbol of Unitarian Universalism?
- I’ve heard that Unitarian Universalists can believe anything they want to. Is that true?
Who are Unitarian Universalists?
We are a religious people who have woven strands of a rich past into a tapestry of the present.
In the first centuries of the Christian era, Christians held a variety of beliefs concerning the nature of Jesus. In 325 CE, however, the Council of Nicea promulgated the doctrine of the Trinity-God as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost-and denounced all those who believed differently as heretics.
In the sixteenth century, Christian humanists in Central Europe-in Poland and Transylvania-studied the Bible closely. They could not find the orthodox dogma of the Trinity in the texts. Therefore, they affirmed-as did Jesus, according to the Gospels-the unity, or oneness, of God. Hence they acquired the name Unitarian.
These sixteenth-century Unitarians preached and organized churches according to their own rational convictions in the face of overwhelming orthodox opposition and persecution. They also advocated religious freedom for others. In Transylvania, now part of Romania, Unitarians persuaded the Diet (legislature) to pass the Edict of Toleration. In 1568 the law declared that, since “faith is the gift of God,” people would not be forced to adhere to a faith they did not choose.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, radical reformers in Europe and America also studied the Bible closely. They found only a few references to hell, which they believed orthodox Christians had grossly misinterpreted. They found, both in the Bible and in their own hearts, an unconditionally loving God. They believed that God would not deem any human being unworthy of divine love, and that salvation was for all. Because of this emphasis on universal salvation, they called themselves Universalists.
In the eighteenth century, a dogmatic Calvinist insistence on predestination and human depravity seemed to liberal Christians irrational, perverse, and contrary to both biblical tradition and immediate experience. Liberal Christians believe that human beings are free to heed an inner summons of conscience and character. To deny human freedom is to make God a tyrant and to undermine God-given human dignity.
In continuity with our sixteenth-century Unitarian forebears, today we Unitarian Universalists are determined to follow our own reasoned convictions, no matter what others may say, and we embrace tolerance as a central principle, inside and outside our own churches.
Also during the seventeenth century, reformers in several European countries, especially in England, could not find a biblical basis for the authority and power of ecclesiastical bishops. They affirmed, therefore, the authority and power of the Holy Spirit to guide the local members. These reformers on the radical left wing of the Reformation, seeking to “purify” the church of its “corruptions,” reclaimed what they believed to be ancient church practice and named it congregational polity.
These same seventeenth-century radicals did away with creeds, that is, with precisely phrased statements of belief to which members had to subscribe. Members joining their churches signed a simple and broadly phrased covenant, or agreement, such as this one: “We pledge to walk together in the ways of the Lord as it pleaseth Him to make them known to us, now and in days to come.”
Some of these reformers, the Pilgrims and the Puritans, crossed the Atlantic and braved the North American wilderness to establish covenanted congregations whose direction belonged to the local members. Some of these original congregational churches developed increasingly liberal theological beliefs after 1750, and in the early nineteenth century, many of them added the word Unitarian to their names. Thus, some of the oldest churches in the United States, including the First Parish of Plymouth, Massachusetts, became Unitarian. In the late eighteenth century, other radicals who believed in religious liberty and universal salvation organized separate Universalist congregations.
In continuity with our independent forebears, today Unitarian Universalist congregations are covenanted, not creedal. Congregational polity is a basic doctrine. In the spirit of freedom, we cherish honest dialogue and persuasion, not coercion. We embrace democratic method as a central principle. Our local members unite to engage in and to support ministries of their own choosing.
The seventeenth-century scientific revolution began a great shift in Western thinking. In the eighteenth century, the Enlightenment brought an increased willingness to look critically and analytically at all human institutions, without presupposing the sanctity or privilege of any.
Many religious groups fiercely resisted these scientific analytical ideas. Some still do. In the churches of our forebears, new scientific and social ideas-from Newtonian physics, to evolution, to psychology, to relativity-found ready acceptance. Indeed, some of the greatest scientists and social theorists of the age were either privately or publicly Unitarian or Universalist: Joseph Priestley, Charles Darwin, Maria Mitchell, and Benjamin Rush, for example.
In the nineteenth century, increased travel and translation of Eastern religious texts brought greater awareness of different religions. Again, many of our forebears were uncommonly open to new ideas from Eastern cultures. Ralph Waldo Emerson was deeply influenced by Hinduism, and James Freeman Clarke was among the first in the world to urge and teach the study of comparative religion.
In continuity with our forebears, today Unitarian Universalists expect new scientific disclosures to cohere, not conflict, with our religious faith. We embrace the challenge and the joy of intercultural religious fellowship.
How did the movement come to have such a long name?
During the first three centuries of the Christian church, Christians could choose from a variety of tenets about Jesus. Among these was a belief that Jesus was an entity sent by God on a divine mission. Thus the word Unitarian developed, meaning the oneness of God.
Another religious choice in the first three centuries of the Common Era (CE) was universal salvation. This was the belief that no person would be condemned by God to eternal damnation in a fiery pit. Thus a Universalist believed that all people will be saved. Christianity lost its element of choice in 325 CE when the Nicene Creed established the Trinity as dogma. For centuries thereafter, people who professed Unitarian or Universalist beliefs were persecuted.
In North America, Unitarianism and Universalism developed separately. Universalist congregations began to be established in the 1770s. Other congregations, many established earlier, began to take the Unitarian name in the 1820s. Over the decades the two groups converged in their liberal emphasis and style, and in 1961 they merged to become the Unitarian Universalist Association.
What do UUs believe about God?
Some Unitarian Universalists are nontheists and do not find language about God useful. The faith of other Unitarian Universalists in God may be profound, though among these, too, talk of God may be restrained. Why?
The word God is much abused. Far too often, the word seems to refer to a kind of granddaddy in the sky or a super magician. To avoid confusion, many Unitarian Universalists are more apt to speak of “reverence for life” (in the words of Albert Schweitzer, a Unitarian), the spirit of love or truth, the holy, or the gracious. Many also prefer such language because it is inclusive; it is used with integrity by theist and nontheist members.
Whatever our theological persuasion, Unitarian Universalists generally agree that the fruits of religious belief matter more than beliefs about religion-even about God. So we usually speak more of the fruits: gratitude for blessings, worthy aspirations, the renewal of hope, and service on behalf of justice.
What do UUs believe about Jesus?
Classically, Unitarian Universalist Christians have understood Jesus as a savior because he was a God-filled human being, not a supernatural being. He was, and still is for many UUs, an exemplar, one who has shown the way of redemptive love, in whose spirit anyone may live generously and abundantly. Among us, Jesus’ very human life and teaching have been understood as products of, and in line with, the great Jewish tradition of prophets and teachers. He neither broke with that tradition nor superseded it.
Many of us honor Jesus, and many of us honor other master teachers of past or present generations, like Moses or the Buddha. As a result, mixed-tradition families may find common ground in the UU fellowship without compromising other loyalties.
What do UUs believe about the Bible?
In most of our congregations, our children learn Bible stories as a part of their church school curricula. It is not unusual to find adult study groups in the churches, or in workshops at summer camps and conferences, focusing on the Bible. Allusions to biblical symbols and events are frequent in our sermons. In most of our congregations, the Bible is read as any other sacred text might be-from time to time, but not routinely.
We have especially cherished the prophetic books of the Bible. Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and other prophets dared to speak critical words of love to the powerful, calling for justice for the oppressed. Many Unitarian and Universalist social reformers have been inspired by the biblical prophets. We hallow the names of Unitarian and Universalist prophets: Joseph Tuckerman, Dorothea Dix, Clara Barton, Theodore Parker, Susan B. Anthony, and many others.
We do not, however, hold the Bible-or any other account of human experience-to be either an infallible guide or the exclusive source of truth. Much biblical material is mythical or legendary. Not that it should be discarded for that reason! Rather, it should be treasured for what it is. We believe that we should read the Bible as we read other books (or the newspaper)-with imagination and a critical eye.
We also respect the sacred literature of other religions. Contemporary works of science, art, and social commentary are valued as well. We hold, in the words of an old liberal formulation, that “revelation is not sealed.” Unitarian Universalists aspire to truth as wide as the world-we look to find truth anywhere, universally.
Are UUs Christian?
Yes and no.
Yes, some Unitarian Universalists are Christian. Personal encounter with the spirit of Jesus as the christ richly informs their religious lives.
No, Unitarian Universalists are not Christian, if by Christian you mean those who think that acceptance of any creedal belief whatsoever is necessary for salvation. Unitarian Universalist Christians are considered heretics by those orthodox Christians who claim none but Christians are “saved.” (Fortunately, not all the orthodox make that claim.)
Yes, Unitarian Universalists are Christian in the sense that both Unitarian and Universalist history are part of Christian history. Our core principles and practices were first articulated and established by liberal Christians.
Some Unitarian Universalists are not Christian. For though they may acknowledge the Christian history of our faith, Christian stories and symbols are no longer primary for them. They draw their personal faith from many sources: nature, intuition, other cultures, science, civil liberation movements, and so on.
What is the significance of the flaming chalice, the symbol of Unitarian Universalism?
The flaming chalice is made up of two archetypes – a drinking vessel and fire. It is rich in symbolism as a result. The chalice represents sharing, generosity, sustenance, and love, among other interpretations. The flame symbolizes witness, sacrifice, testing, courage, illumination and more.
The origin of the symbol comes from the Unitarian Service Committee. The USC was founded during World War II to assist war refugees who needed to escape Nazi persecution. Artist Hans Deutsch drew the flaming chalice in 1941 so that the USC could have it as a symbol for official documents.
The director of the USC, Charles Joy, wrote this about the symbol when it was first drafted:
“It represents, as you see, a chalice with a flame, the kind of chalice which the Greeks and Romans put on their alters. The holy oil burning in it is a symbol or helpfulness and sacrifice. . . . This was in the mind of the artist. The fact, however, that it remotely suggests a cross was not in his mind, but to me this also has its merit. We do not limit our work to Christians. Indeed, at the moment, our work is nine-tenths for the Jews, yet we do stem from the Christian tradition, and the cross does symbolize Christianity and its central theme of sacrificial love.”
Today, the flaming chalice is the official symbol of the UUA. It also functions as the logo for hundreds of congregations. It is also a part of worship in many congregations — services often begin by lighting a chalice while saying some brief reflective words.
There is no one official meaning of the flaming chalice. Like our faith, it stands open to new and ongoing interpretation and significance.
I’ve heard that Unitarian Universalists can believe anything they want to. Is that true?
No. One could not be considered a Unitarian Universalist and believe that subscription to specific doctrines or creeds are necessary for access to God or spirituality or membership in our congregations.
Unitarian Universalists could not believe that God favors any group of people based on any inherent qualities, such as skin color, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability, etc.-or that any group of people is more worthy of access to opportunities than any other as a result of these qualities.
We don’t believe that autocratic, undemocratic or overly hierarchical systems are appropriate methods of organizing our congregations or the larger society.
We don’t believe that humanity has the right or moral authority to exploit the environment or other life forms with whom we share this planet.