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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?

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.

Where can one find Unitarian Universalist congregations now?

More than one thousand congregations in the United States and Canada belong to the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) of Congregations, with headquarters in Boston, Massachusetts.

The oldest Unitarian congregations are in Romania. There are large Unitarian congregations in the Khasi Hills of India. Others are found in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland, Germany, France, Great Britain, Australia, Nigeria, South Africa, the Philippines, and Japan. (Some of these are Unitarian and some are Universalist.)

North American Unitarian Universalists maintain ties with other Unitarian Universalists throughout the world, mostly through our membership in the International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF), organized in 1900. Members of the IARF include other liberal Christian groups as well as Humanist, Hindu Reform, Shinto, and Buddhist groups.

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 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.

And 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.

How do UUs understand salvation?

The English word salvation derives from the Latin salus, meaning health. Unitarian Universalists are as concerned with salvation, in the sense of spiritual health or wholeness, as any other religious people.

However, in many Western churches, salvation has come to be associated with a specific set of beliefs or a spiritual transformation of a very limited type.

Among Unitarian Universalists, instead of salvation you will hear of our yearning for, and our experience of, personal growth, increased wisdom, strength of character, and gifts of insight, understanding, inner and outer peace, courage, patience, and compassion. The ways in which these things come to, change, and heal us, are many indeed. We seek and celebrate them in our worship.

What ceremonies are observed, what holidays celebrated?

Our ceremonies-of marriage and starting a new family, naming or dedicating our children, and memorializing our dead-are phrased in simple, contemporary language. We observe these rites in community, not because they are required by some rule or dogma, but because in them we may voice our affection, hopes, and dedication.

Though practices vary in our congregations and change over time, UUs celebrate many of the great religious holidays with enthusiasm. Whether we gather to celebrate Christmas, Passover, or the Hindu holiday Divali, we do so in a universal context, recognizing and honoring religious observances and festivals as innate and needful in all human cultures.

Are Unitarian Universalists 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.

How is religious education conducted?

The program of religious education is determined, as are all other programs, by members of the local congregation. A wide range of courses is available through our Association. These are adapted by members as they choose. Courses appropriate for children may be offered in subjects as varied as interpersonal relations, ethical questions, the Bible, world religions, nature and ecology, heroes and heroines of social reform, Unitarian Universalist history, and holy days around the world. The same is true of adult religious education.

In most of our congregations, regular children's worship-often held during a portion of the adult service-is part of the program. We seek to teach our children to be responsible for their own thinking and to nurture their own impulses of reverence, morality, respect for others, and self-respect.

Do Unitarian Universalists practice what they preach?

Religious liberals put less emphasis on formal beliefs and more on practical living. Our interest is in deeds, not creeds. We appreciate the biblical text, "Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only."

Our members have been active leaders in the struggles for racial equality, civil liberty, international peace, and equal rights for all people. We work as individuals, in congregational social action, and in other groupings, including such denominational efforts as the UUA's Faith in Action Department and the UU-UN Office. We also work with the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, which brings critically needed social change to many parts of the world.

How can I become part of a Unitarian Universalist congregation?

Many of our societies offer introductory sessions, study groups, videotapes, and increasingly, a World Wide Web homepage to acquaint those interested in membership with our history, Principles, and programs. Individual appointments with ministers and members are encouraged. Many pamphlets are available through the UUA Bookstore. Usually, these are readily accessible in a church's foyer, and even small fellowships may have a good library of Unitarian Universalists writings. The UUA website at www.uua.org is another good source of information about Unitarian Universalism.

All of these, along with your presence with us at worship and in our many other activities, provide the means for learning more about who Unitarian Universalists are, and whether you want to become one of us.

The last act of joining the congregation is simple, but significant: You write your name on a membership card or in the membership book or parish register.

We have no creedal requirements. With your signature you affirm your pledge to enter and to remain in a continuing and tolerant dialogue concerning the ways of truth and love, a dialogue within which free persuasion may occur; to share in our fellowship and in our corporate decision making; and to support with your gifts of energy and money our common work for the common good.

What are your church services like?

The services vary from church to church. Most last about an hour. The centerpiece is usually a sermon delivered by the senior minister. The sermons are usually thematic and rarely follow a lectionary. Ministers often preach about universal themes of life, truth and meaning. They use stories, myths and poems, as well as scripture from a variety of world religions.

Services often begin with the lighting of the chalice-the symbol of Unitarian Universalism. Brief words of reflection are usually read as it is lit, inaugurating the start of the service.

We sing from our hymnal Singing the Living Tradition, which contains a wide range of traditional and contemporary songs, using gender-inclusive language. Many congregations have choirs.

Many congregations reserve a time in their services for lighting "Candles of Joy and Concern." Members are invited to come up from their pews and light a candle at the front of the church to honor an event in their lives, to share an idea, or to ask for the thoughts and prayers of the community. After the service, most congregations sponsor "coffee hour"-a chance for people to socialize informally and to discuss the worship service.

What are your church services like?

The services vary from church to church. Most last about an hour. The centerpiece is usually a sermon delivered by the senior minister. The sermons are usually thematic and rarely follow a lectionary. Ministers often preach about universal themes of life, truth and meaning. They use stories, myths and poems, as well as scripture from a variety of world religions.

Services often begin with the lighting of the chalice-the symbol of Unitarian Universalism. Brief words of reflection are usually read as it is lit, inaugurating the start of the service.

We sing from our hymnal Singing the Living Tradition, which contains a wide range of traditional and contemporary songs, using gender-inclusive language. Many congregations have choirs.

Many congregations reserve a time in their services for lighting "Candles of Joy and Concern." Members are invited to come up from their pews and light a candle at the front of the church to honor an event in their lives, to share an idea, or to ask for the thoughts and prayers of the community. After the service, most congregations sponsor "coffee hour"-a chance for people to socialize informally and to discuss the worship service.

What do you teach children?

Our children are taught to think for themselves, while receiving guidance on moral and ethical behavior. They learn Bible stories and talk about them, allowing their individual beliefs to unfold without a dogmatic interpretation. We present them with thought-provoking themes and allow them the space to develop points of view and convictions. Our church schools often have chapel services, where children lead and participate in their own services and find their spirituality. Many churches include the children in part of the main worship service before they go to another part of the church for church school.

Children learn about the beliefs and practices of the world's major religions. They are encouraged to respect differences in theology-many even spend a year visiting other churches, mosques and synagogues in their area.

We have an award-winning, age-appropriate sexuality education program for our youth as well as a Coming of Age process that most churches use. Coming of Age is a program in which a church fosters the transition of its youth into young adulthood.

What does it mean if a congregation calls itself only Unitarian or only Universalist?

The American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America consolidated in 1961. Many congregations kept their original names after the consolidation, though fully consider themselves to be Unitarian Universalist churches. For example, the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, is a member of the Unitarian Universalist Association, but retains its historical name.

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.

What does a person have to do to join a Unitarian Universalist church?

Joining a Unitarian Universalist congregation generally entails signing the membership book of a particular congregation. By signing the book, people declare themselves part of that community. To become a voting member of the community, most congregations require an annual contribution to the church. Although some congregations are more specific than others in suggesting what they would like their members to give, few demand a particular amount as a condition of membership. Most congregations periodically offer "New UU" classes for those considering or intending to join the church. These provide an introduction to the congregation and to the principles and history of our faith.

Do Unitarian Universalists say grace? If so, what are some UU table graces?

That depends on which Unitarian Universalist you ask. Some do, some don't. Our congregations don't require their members to say grace before eating. As with all religious practices, the decision about whether to adopt this ritual is left to the individual. A small collection of UU table graces can be found in the Handbook of Religious Services, available from the UUA Bookstore: http://www.uua.org/bookstore/ Here are two sample graces from that collection:

"May the love we share around this table with family and friends renew us in spirit.

May the spirit of hope, joy, peace, and love dwell within our hearts This day and forever more. Amen."

"A circle of friends is a blessed thing; Sweet is the breaking of bread with friends; For the honor of their presence at our board We are deeply grateful."

How are Unitarian Universalist ministers trained?

Technically, our congregations are free to call whomever they wish to be ministers of their communities. However, almost all our churches select from a group of ministers that have been approved by the Ministerial Fellowship Committee of the UUA. To obtain approval from this committee, ministers must have earned a Masters of Divinity degree from an accredited theological school, completed a year of supervised internship, read materials from a required reading list, completed a course of clinical training in pastoral care, and met other requirements before interviewing in front of the committee itself.

There are two specifically UU seminaries in the United States: Meadville/Lombard Theological School in Chicago and Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, CA. Many of our ministers graduate from other seminaries that are non-denominational. Both Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, MA, and Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, MA, have sizable numbers of Unitarian Universalists enrolled in their programs.

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.

Since Unitarian Universalists don't have a creed or doctrine, how can one describe a set of beliefs that they hold in common?

Our association of congregations has covenanted to affirm and promote seven basic principles. They can be found here: http://www.uua.org/principles.html

One of our ministers, David O. Rankin, described our beliefs in ten statements. They are:

1. We believe in the freedom of religious expression. All individuals should be encouraged to develop their own personal theology, and to present openly their religious opinions without fear of censure or reprisal.

2. We believe in the toleration of religious ideas. All religions, in every age and culture, possess not only an intrinsic merit, but also a potential value for those who have learned the art of listening.

3. We believe in the authority of reason and conscience. The ultimate arbiter in religion is not a church, or a document, or an official, but the personal choice and decision of the individual.

4. We believe in the never-ending search for Truth. If the mind and heart are truly free and open, the revelations which appear to the human spirit are infinitely numerous, eternally fruitful, and wondrously exciting.

5. We believe in the unity of experience. There is no fundamental conflict between faith and knowledge, religion and the world, the sacred and the secular, since they all have their source in the same reality.

6. We believe in the worth and dignity of each human being. All people on earth have an equal claim to life, liberty and justice-and no idea, ideal or philosophy is superior to a single human life.

7. We believe in the ethical application of religion. Good works are the natural products of a good faith, the evidence of an inner grace that finds completion in social and community involvement.

8. We believe in the motive force of love. The governing principle in human relationships is the principle of love, which always seeks the welfare of others and never seeks to hurt or destroy.

9. We believe in the necessity of the democratic process. Records are open to scrutiny, elections are open to members, and ideas are open to criticism-so that people might govern themselves.

10. We believe in the importance of a religious community. The validation of experience requires the confirmation of peers, who provide a critical platform along with a network of mutual support

About the Author Alice Blair Wesley is a Unitarian Universalist minister who has served congregations in College Station, Texas; Silver Spring, Maryland; Cherry Hill, New Jersey; Hagerstown, Maryland; and Harford County, Maryland. Purchase paper copies of this UUA Pamphlet Commission Publication from the UUA Bookstore for distribution or display.

© Copyright 2005 Unitarian Universalist Association


 
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