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Most of us are familiar with the TV show “The Simpsons” which, in its earlier years, was derided as animated radicalism that ruthlessly satirized our culture. Many conservatives and Christians were alarmed at the show’s popularity and its seeming attack on their values. Over the years, however, the show has won praise from those circles as they noted subtle but genuine ways the show holds an honest mirror to our culture but has fun with its idiosyncrasies. Unitarian Universalism has suffered, or enjoyed, its own attention from the show as its creator, Matt Groenig, is believed to be a Unitarian.
In one episode Bart Simpson, the troublemaking boy in the show, visits the home of his evangelical Christian neighbors. He finds the two Flanders boys, Rod and Todd, playing a video game where they are shooting virtual enemies – a surprising pastime in this religious home. But the boys explain to Bart that they are playing Bible Blaster – a game where they fire Scripture at Heathens. If they get a direct hit, the Heathen becomes a Christian believer and is saved. Ten hits and the player wins the game. As Bart tries his hand at the game, he is unsuccessful until he scores a wimpy ping sound – unlike the explosion of a direct hit. “Aw Bart,” Todd says to him, “you only nicked him. You made him Unitarian!”
In another episode, Lisa Simpson, the precocious girl on the show, is enjoying an after church ice cream social. She walks up to get her bowl of ice cream from Reverend Lovejoy, minister at the fictitious “Presbylutheran” church, and finds multiple flavors to choose. But Reverend Lovejoy smiles at Lisa, knowing her liberal tendencies, and offers her a bowl of Unitarian ice cream. Lisa frowns as she looks into the bowl and exclaims, “But its empty.” “Exxxxactly!” says a smug Rev. Lovejoy.
Such humor reflects the attitudes of many people toward Unitarian Universalist principles. In an effort to accept everyone, no matter their faith, and in promoting a core idea that there are many paths to universal Truth and all are valid, Unitarians are derided as believing in everything and thus in nothing. The same could be said of our Gathering beliefs. Religious critics see quasi-religious groups of people who lack the kind of strict doctrinal assertions of other religions. They condemn Unitarianism as empty, weak and wishy-washy in its embrace of multiple principles that almost anyone could endorse but which offer no inspiration or solace in a confusing world. Indeed, echoing critics of all forms of liberal religion, it is said that Unitarianism does not offer any means of personal salvation that can provide a person with the emotional and spiritual comfort most people desire.
John Shelby Spong, the famous liberal Episcopalian Bishop and author, agrees with most Unitarian beliefs. However, he asserts that he could never be a Unitarian since it is, he says, too easy. Its rejection of theism is too simple, he believes. It’s better and far more challenging to grapple and struggle with Christianity and the Bible to find meaning behind their literal assertions, he asserts.
What most of us at the Gathering have implicitly known over the years is that our blend of ideals and values closely align with those of Unitarian Universalism. We look to the Bible and other Scriptures for wisdom but we don’t take them literally. We consider Jesus to be a great prophet but not a supernatural God. What I have personally come to understand is that I’ve been a closet Unitarian for many years – without knowing it. As a result, I’ve felt some unease. Just what is it that I believe and find meaningful? I imagine many of you might feel the same way.
From my research, I find critics of Unitarian Universalism mostly wrong. Far from being empty, the denomination and its core beliefs are full of history, tradition and well thought ideas about what it means to be spiritual. Indeed, any study of Unitarianism finds a church that has struggled with theological ideas for four centuries – a history that long outdates many of the emotional forms of religious fundamentalism we see today. Contemporary Unitarianism is NOT simply a diverse group of people who have come together in rejection of doctrinal religion. As simple as that assertion might sound, that modern Unitarians are defined more by what they are against than by what they are for, it ignores the well established framework of Unitarian principles, ethics and traditions that were built over the centuries, one atop the other, in a logical evolution of spiritual philosophy. And those beliefs, much like what we claim at the Gathering, are not fixed in stone but are constantly updated with new understanding. It is a church committed to both a diversity of ideas as well as a determined search for just what is true, good and beautiful. If it has rejected anything, it has rejected the notion that a form of God or absolute Truth has been found.
But the search for greater spiritual insight goes on. As answers are found, new questions arise and that has defined Unitarianism over the centuries – it has evolved with layer upon layer of new insights. By claiming a set of principles instead of a defining creed, Unitarians, like us at the Gathering, celebrate the mysteries of spiritual living that call us to transform ourselves into better people so that we are equipped to serve and love others. With all due respect for Bishop John Shelby Spong, a writer I admire, his views on Unitarianism are wrong. It is far more difficult to embark on a sea of spiritual unknowns instead of accepting an already established religious template.
This month I plan to look at Unitarian Universalism in a way that hopefully both informs and inspires. You will hear much that sounds familiar to what we believe at the Gathering. I profess to my own incomplete understanding of the UU association and its traditions but I want to look for common ground as well as its usefulness in a world where religions compete in ways that are often violent and unloving. I believe Unitarian Universalism, along with what we believe at the Gathering, offers a spiritual ecumenicalism that humanity desperately needs – a means for diverse people to come together to solve problems. Instead of being divisive, it is radically inclusive – so long as participants practice universal human ethics of love, respect and humility toward the beliefs of others. The historic scourge of religious based hate and arrogance must end and only an inclusive, loving spirituality – like that of the UUA – might end it.
Unitarian roots are found at their oldest level back in the fifteenth century in Poland and Transylvania. They began in reaction to strict Calvinism and Lutheranism that emerged from the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther and John Calvin rejected Catholic belief in sacraments, purgatory and earning one’s way to Heaven. Salvation is found only from God and his Son Jesus Christ they asserted. As eternal beings who existed long before humans, this God in three persons knows all things and controls all things, past, present and future. A Calvinist god has pre-determined who are the select few who will join her in heaven. As creatures born with sin, we are incapable of saving ourselves. We can only hope, pray and assume we were pre-selected to be saved.
Various theologians and ministers soon rejected this theology. It negates human reason and the power of people to consciously choose to do good or bad, to believe in God or not. Indeed, numerous Scripture verses point to the crucial concept of choice in belief. God sent his Son so that those who believe in him shall not perish, reads a famous Bible verse, John 3:16. Early anti-Calvinists were thus early Unitarians – asserting a belief in human capability to reason and freely choose a spiritual pathway. This Arminian or anti-Calvinism was the first of four phases in developing Unitarian beliefs.
The second phase directly evolved from the first. If humans have the ability to reason, as the anti-Calvinists believed, then they can interpret the Bible on their own. If they do, they will find in it no basis for belief in the Trinity. Indeed, a study of the Council of Nicaea, established by Roman Emperor Constantine in 325 CE, reveals there were a significant number of people at that council who saw Jesus not as equal to God but as a prophet who might be divine but who is not God herself. Such people were labeled heretics by the Council of Nicaea. The Nicene Creed thus stated that God is a trinitarian being – she is God the father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Such a belief has weak support in the Bible and many eighteenth century theologians, notably Justus Socinius, found no Biblical assertion by Jesus that he is God. Instead, Socinians, as they were called, asserted Jesus and the Holy Spirit were not God. Christianity had gone astray and rejected its monotheistic Jewish heritage. It worshipped an idol in the form of Christ and it believed in a contradiction – God is three persons but God is also one.
William Ellery Channing, in 1819, delivered a sermon entitled “Unitarian Christianity” which claimed that God is completely one being and that Jesus was only a man who pointed the way to her. That message became the foundation of the American Unitarian Association in 1825 and hallmarked the second phase of Unitarian history.
The third phase came, once again, in natural evolution of thinking and inquiry. Without the two preceding phases of history and tradition, the third would not have occurred. It is labeled the Transcendentalist period.
If humans have the ability to reason and choose their spiritual pathway, as the anti-Calvinists believed, if they can use that power to better understand the Bible and assert the Unitarian nature of God, as the anti-Trinitarians believed, then they also have the right to skeptically examine other parts of Christian doctrine. Transcendentalists began with rejecting the miracles of Jesus. If Jesus was not God, if he was a human teacher, then miracles ascribed to him are not fact. This idea was not based on mere belief but on human reason – that supernatural miracles described in the Old and New Testaments are myths lacking any supporting evidence. Even further, we can find transcendent revelations on our own, without scripture, when nature, science and art fill us with wonder and new insights. Transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson claimed that humans must experience the divine on their own – particularly in nature – if they purposefully seek such moments. Transcendence comes from the power of our own minds and experiences.
As one of the great Unitarian figures in history, Emerson delivered a commencement address at Harvard Divinity School in 1838, which was widely controversial at the time, but which established the basis from which Unitarianism evolved away from its Biblical and Christian roots. Human experience and reason, in these first three phases of Unitarian history, had used logic and reason to turn away from Calvinism, from the Trinity and, in the mid-1800’s, from a theistic and supernatural God.
The fourth and most recent phase of Unitarian history began in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was and is a logical evolution from the the first three Unitarian periods. Two ministers in the 1880’s, Jenkin Lloyd Jones and William Channing Gannett, both began preaching that past Unitarian history was not as much about theology but about tolerating and accepting contrary beliefs. Unitarianism, they claimed, is about openness, diversity and respect for any and all beliefs – and that must include those who do not believe in God. More important, this kind of acceptance leads directly to universal values of humility over arrogance, love and tolerance over religious hatred, service and charity over self-interest. Having discounted creeds and belief in a supernatural God, Jones and Gannett said Unitarians should instead follow an ethical approach to spirituality: right behavior toward others versus right belief in a theological deity. They claimed we must honor the teachings of Jesus and other prophets instead of the prophet him or herself. This humanist approach was accepted in 1894 by the American Unitarian Association. It took until 1945 for most Unitarian congregations to fully accept humanism.
According to humanist ideals, people are the force that determines our well-being. We are saved not for some mythical after-life, but for the here and now. This earth and our present existence is what matters and must be the focus of spiritual endeavors. While Unitarians merged with the Universalist Association in 1961, leading to a combined focus on humanism, love and social justice, my review of Universalism will wait for two weeks. Even so, Unitarianism is known today for its emphasis on using our minds and experiences to determine what is ethical, beautiful and spiritually good.
The Seven Principals of Unitarian Universalism are said to embody its ideals. Some have criticized them as being too broad so that anyone can agree with them. But that is precisely the point – who could disagree with them? All people can feel comfortable in a place that has such visions for human life: dignity, justice, democracy, truth seeking, peace, acceptance, and love for all creation. While other faiths encourage people to “come as you are”, it is implied that if you do come, you must then change. Unitarians encourage others to come as they are and not to change. Just as it is at the Gathering, all are welcome and all are respected for who they are.
But as I elaborated earlier, such an open ideal can lead to a lack of direction, purpose and meaning. We must give religious fundamentalists credit for understanding their singular purpose – to worship and serve God. And with that purpose comes their identity. UUA churches, like the Gathering, are prone to dilute a collective sense of purpose because there are so many different traditions and opinions. That can create a lack of cohesive identity that spawns a vicious cycle – without purpose, no identity and without identity, no purpose.
But Unitarian tradition and history do offer an identity and purpose. Unitarians have historically pushed the boundaries of belief while asserting the basic human right of self-actualization through sound reason. That is a consistent identity. From anti-Calvinists who were burned at the stake for their beliefs, to Ralph Waldo Emerson, to Unitarians of today, humanity has been the focus of spirituality. It was not God or one individual that was and is celebrated, but the one human family.
In the contemporary UU ritual of water communion, people bring samples of water from hundreds of different sources. And they pour them into a single large bowl – many waters, one common stream. Such symbolism calls them and us to put humanist belief into practice – many people, but only one human species. And that focus provides a clear purpose for Unitarians and, indeed, for all people. We were each born with the purpose to serve and love others. That is implicit in historical Unitarian ideals of dignity, reason, democracy and social justice.
By simple logic, we each matter. We matter because alone we cannot survive. We need to cooperate in order to thrive. And we need to practice ethics required for cooperation – empathy, humility, gentleness, love. We find in Unitarianism the kind of salvation story that resonate with our emotions. Everybody has inherent dignity. Everybody has rights and abilities to think as they wish. Unitarianism champions the present possibilities in human affairs instead of the negative – sin, death and fear. It worships the power of love, focused through a prism of our minds. And that love works to create a type of heaven right now – for everyone. From many paths, we find this one essential truth…..and a shining hope for the future.