Unitarian Universalism 101
By Rev. Ellen Quaadgras
Westminster Unitarian Church
August 13, 2017
What’s your theology? You try to say the world the way it means to you. You look at what you live and try to speak it; and the mystery turns into a search for language to tell how it is, and what the world has to say about what you mean. We are all theologians. We step, says Wallace Stevens, “Barefoot into reality.” We touch the running water and the rocks. We hurt, we laugh, we grasp and are grasped. We fall and are embraced. We find ourselves in others and others in ourselves. Broken and fragmented, we are driven toward wholeness, integrity, toward healing what separate and divides us from one another. Long before we hold any belief about it, we feel the presence of something sacred and meaningful. Unable to name it, we respond with metaphor, with vision, with decision; and we live as though that were the way the world is. You theology is your commitment. In Herman Melville’s words, “It is not down in any map; true places never are.” Raymond Baughan
We may be hard to pin down on the Christmas vs Hanukkah question but if there’s one’s thing we can agree on, it’s that Unitarian Universalism is hard to explain…
Which is why I appreciate the words of Raymond Baughn – what is your theology? We touch running water and rocks, we laugh and hurt and grasp and are grasped. Long before we hold any belief about it, we feel the presence of something sacred and meaningful. Unable to name it, we respond with metaphor, with vision, with decision; and we live as though that were the way the world is.
Putting life and love and faith and the holy into words is difficult. Bobby the video guy on the Colbert Show is not the only one who struggles to articulate it.
And still, it is. We have inherited a tradition with depth and beauty and possibility and ancient roots. Many of us who are newer to Unitarian Universalism assume it is a relatively new faith but our roots actually reach right back to the very beginnings of Christianity, right into the mix of the early days when there were lots of different ideas about who God was and who Jesus was, about how to be religious, about which texts were holy and which were not… In the midst of all that there was one particularly big question – was Jesus God? Or was he human? What about the holy spirit? Was there One God, or, somehow, three? Those who believed that God was three – the father, the son, and the holy spirit – we now call Trinitarians – three persons – Trini – tarians.
Then there were those who believed that there was only one God, not three, God was God, Jesus was human, what we now call Uni-tarian, One God, just one.
And while on the surface you might think to yourself, really, what’s the ruckus, 1, 3, what’s the issue?? Why does it matter? Who cares?
But people cared. There was, we know, passionate debate and disagreement, powerful arguments for and against, deep divisions among those with differing views. Jim Sherbloom writes that “It became such a popular dispute that shopkeepers would put up signs that God is Triune, or God is One. In Greek taverns they made up drinking songs: “God is great and Jesus is human,” or after a leader in the trinitarian belief was exiled: “Jesus was God but now he’s not!” I believe these songs were lustier in Greek!”
Government got involved. Emperor Constantine wanted to unify his empire and saw Christianity as an excellent way to do it. He converted and the question became tied up in the state, Constantine and other emperors involving themselves in ways that might, to an outsider appear more driven by political expediency than by passionate conviction.
For years, and through 4 different emperors, the arguments raged, the balance tilting to one side, then to the other, until, eventually, in 381 at the Council of Constantinople the Trinity became the formal doctrine of the church – laid out in the Nicene creed, in fact, which you heard recited just a few minutes ago. Some of you may be familiar with it. It refers to: the father, the son and the holy ghost. Three persons. It is still recited in Catholic and many Protestant churches as well.
The bishops who, at that time, believed in One God, who believed that Jesus was human, these men were ultimately silenced, exiled, their books burned.
And the Trinitarian view became the official version from the end of the 4th century onward.
But, you know that’s not the end of the story because, afterall, here we are, and we are not the only church around with Unitarian in our name.
The fact is, those radical ideas about God being one and Jesus being human, they never totally went away.
Some 1100 years later, in spite of the book burning and voice silencing that followed the official endorsement of Trinitarianism, questions continued about the nature of God and Jesus, and resentment stewed against the oppressive ways in which the church enforced its doctrine, right up until the 1500’s, when the protestant reformation was beginning to brew.
Enter Servetus, often considered a hero of our history, who cared passionately about his faith. Passionately enough that when he noticed that the Bible made no mention of the Trinity, he felt duty bound to share that realization with those around him, helpfully pointing out the problematic theology to the powers that be. The Errors of the Trinity, is what he called his first major work, pusblished with that apparent assumption that once people understood the logical errors in their thinking, they would immediately make the proper theological corrections.
Which, needless to say they did not. What they did instead, John Calvin in particular, was to argue furiously against what they called heretical ideas, drive Servetus into hiding, and ultimately burn him at the stake, reportedly with a copy of his book strapped to his thigh.
Not much appreciation, they had, for the kind of logical reasoning that contradicted their firmly held beliefs.
So those are the deep roots. Already you can see the beginnings of some of our core characteristics – counter cultural convictions, a trust in our human ability to reason, willingness to stand up to the powers that be, and a conviction, that when there is a greater truth calling to us, it is ours to answer.
Out of these roots, Unitarianism and Universalism would re-emerge once again, right here, in the 18th century, making the leap from Europe to the United States. Here, the faith grew right along with and in contrast to, the culture it was part of, expanding and evolving and take its characteristic shape.
Now, in the US in the late 17 and early 1800’s Trinitarianism was dominant, and at that time was also associated with a belief in the fundamental depravity, the brokenness of humankind. “Sinners in the hands of an Angry God,” was a notable sermon preached by a spiritual descendent of John Calvin – the title alone gives you some idea of how he saw God (angry) and how he saw us (sinners). In that theology humanity, of itself, was helpless, lost, unable to heal ourselves. Only a relationship with Jesus could save you. Maybe. If you were lucky.
The theology of our Unitarian fore-bearers on the other hand, grew out of an assumption of humanity’s basic goodness, that we, like Jesus, are all human children of God, that all have a spark of divinity, that humans can tell right from wrong, can apply reason to our religious lives and do not need to be forever subservient to some religious authority who will do it for us. Unitarians believed we can grow in likeness to moral exemplars like Jesus. Salvation by character, they called it.
And our Universalist ancestors questioned this idea of hell and eternal damnation. They saw God as a loving father – and what loving parent would condemn their child to everlasting punishment?? It made no sense to them. Instead, they talked about how we, humans, we create heaven, or hell, on earth.. and they asked, what can we do about that?
And both denominations put their emphasis on a dawning future over bonds of tradition, centered their faith not on static creeds about what each person must believe, but in evolving relationships among people committed to the faith, relationships in which we hold each other accountable, that allow us to grow, together. Covenant, rather than creed, as we put it these days.
In spite of intense resistance from those who saw things differently, Unitarian, and Universalist ideas took off. Toward the end of the 19th century, Universalism was the 5th largest denomination in this country. And Thomas Jefferson, who many claim as an early Unitarian, once said that “in this country of free inquiry and belief there is not a young man in this country who will not die a Unitarian”. But he was expressing the enormous promise of the ideas of reason, hope and personal agency that were part of this liberalizing perspective on American religion.
A promise expressed not only in theology but also in action: Unitarians and Universalists were leaders in the abolitionist movement to end slavery, and in women’s suffrage. In the 1950’s and 60’s, hundreds went to Selma to support the Civil Rights movement. We have supported gay and lesbian rights since the 1970’s, more recently those of bisexual and transgender people. We fought for marriage equality.
And, I must not exclude mention of a key piece of our history – which is that the Unitarians and the Universalists two separate denominations until the mid 1960’s, recognizing that their faith and ideals were aligned and, wanting to strengthen their ability to have an impact in the world, decided to join ranks, in 1961, becoming the Unitarian Universalist association of congregations.
There’s a lot to be proud of and pleased with and our promise extends into the future, as Dianna Eck, Harvard religious scholar put it in 2007: “You are, in my estimation, the church of the new millennium.”
We have so much promise. And yet. Our movement is not growing the way we might. We have so much potential, but, many of these achievements were of a few people, in a few congregations. How do we make the dream a reality, in our lives, in our world, which desperately needs a church for the new millennium? A church like ours?
Sometimes, our greatest strength is also a weakness. Sometimes, those traits that have led to our success are exactly those which may be limiting our further evolution.
Rev Fred Muir, in the 2012 Berry Street essay titled “from iChurch to the Beloved Community,” (recently republished) lifts up our “trinity of errors,” a cheeky spin on the original Errors of the Trinity title by Servetus – Muir talks about 3 strengths that, when acted out unawarely, become 3 errors, errors that may actually be limiting our potential in this new millennium, as opposed to furthering it.
The first is our emphasis on freedom, on individual agency, on trusting our own intuition and following our own best wisdom. This is a tenet of our faith, and at its best fuels our counter-cultural justice-making and opens us up to ideas that expand our minds and open up our lives. Take this quote, actually an Apple Ad: ‘Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. They push the human race forward.’
Who doesn’t want to think different in a way that pushes the human race forward?
Execepppttt. Sometimes….. there’s a shadow side to this kind of individualism. It’s actually pretty rampant in the culture as a whole right now. The “me” generation the “I” generation: iphone Ipad, Iwhatever. We customize our lives to our preferences and miss out on the growth that happens when we have to stretch. We might pick and choose those spiritual beliefs or practices that are comfortable for us, steering clear of those that we don’t like. It’s part of what gives outsiders the impression that we are the church where you can “believe anything you want.” But at our best we are not a “believe anything you want” church, we are a – find and practice the disciplines that push you to grow kind of place. At our best we are a radical welcome kind of place that says I will make room for you and your needs even if they’re not my preference, whether that means singing your hymns, whether that means making room for your children, whether that means participating a ritual that I do not yet fully embrace that might have meaning for someone else. At our best we lift up communal well being over individual preference. The question we must live with in our custom fit culture, how do we create truly welcoming collective community?
The second error Muir cites may be simply our pride in our very strengths themselves, particularly our emphasis on reason. This is a strength that at its best has led us to break free from illogical and oppressive theologies, from limiting superstitions, opening minds, opening fields of study, opening possibilities.
At its worst though, this pride can lead to what Muir calls exceptionalism, the lifting up of our way above all others. I remember in a UU preaching class I took once, one of my classmates spoke of a Christian member in his congregation. “She’s still a Christian” he said, implying that, eventually, this woman would, or should, change her beliefs…. let go of her Christianity, and become enlightened… like him, I suppose. Or, I’ve heard comments like, this is the religion where you don’t have to leave your brain at the door. What does that imply we think about those who walk the doors of other religious homes? What might we be missing about the strengths of other faiths that, perhaps, prioritizes faith and trust over reason, or service over personal theological freedom? When we find ourselves feeling critical, how can we reframe our thinking to curiosity? Move toward understanding and relationship?
And the third and final of Muir’s trinity of errors is also the shadow side of a cherished strength. Our historical heroes, through the ages, have stood up to powers who misuse their authority. We stand up for the little guy, or gal, the oppressed. And this standing against abuse of power, this is a almost part of our congregational DNA. Built into our polity and expressed in how UU’s run our congregations.
Yet, it can also manifest, in Muir’s words, as an “allergy to power and authority” – ironically, this, too, is so present in the larger culture right now. Not only in the last few months and years but the last few decades, there are trends showing how, as a whole, there is less trust in authority, less trust in those in power, less trust of those who lead regardless of who they are.
And that distrust itself can limit us. It can make it difficult to listen to a diversity of interests and passions – without being distracted or immobilized in an attempt to reach consensus – it can make it harder to move forward, while making space for those who disagree.
In those congregations where the antidote to the allergy has been found, Muir writes, where there is a clear and deep understanding that addresses the potential of abuse and misuse of authority and power, those ministries are among our most vibrant, growing and electric.
We have, in the words of Diane Eck the potential to be the church of the new millennium. One reason for that, I believe, is that, errors or not, we also have, baked into our theological heritage, flexibility, openness, and the conviction that we are fundamentally good. We know that each and every one of us is holy and blessed and worthy, and that we all have room to grow and can do so. I mentioned earlier that we are not a creedal religion, we are bound together by covenant. Covenant, our agreements about how we will be together, creates for us a space that brings out our best, while also giving us the flexibility to adapt to a changing future.
Rev. Aaron White has said, this is not a religion about being right, but about being in right relationship.
And covenant, our agreements about how we will be in relationship together, puts the focus on relationship, it is an antidote to the persistent messages in our culture to focus on the self, it draws us out and into the healing forces of community.
Einstein said that “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it” we are positioned to create new answers to old problems. Not just for ourselves, but for a world that needs them.
Next month, in September, our theme of the month is covenant. I look forward to exploring more with you how our relationships with one another can help heal us, transform our faith and help change our world.