On Unitarian Univeralism: A Brief Response to Its Cultured Despisers and a Call to All Those Seeking Refuge in the Storm

Now don’t get me wrong. I admire the always erudite Lutheran minister and academic Martin Marty. Still, I have to admit I found his recent article about the apparent growth in membership in Unitarian Universalism annoying.

He correctly noted how church membership reporting is notoriously unreliable. For example, as I understand it, the Roman Catholic Church simply reports everyone baptized. Their numbers seem to be wildly inflated. But we UUs are asked to pay membership dues to our center and so if anything we’re inclined to under report our numbers. I also agree that one instance a trend does not make. While we can enjoy the uptick in our reporting we’ll have to keep an eye on what’s going on for some time before we’ll know what if anything is in fact happening.

After this observation Professor Marty went on to offer some opinions about us and the whys of our possible growth. He makes a positive noise or two about our Enlightenment derived rationalism. But he moves from there to cite his 1956 doctoral thesis where he suggested our apologists, particularly our Christian or theist UUs tend to try and place us as “Believers Who Are At The Edge But Not Extreme” rather than as “Infidels Mild.”

However. But. You know, the thing that follows the nice noises. Then he throws out the usual trope favored by Christian observers of Unitarian Universalists who I believe like to be thought of as tolerant of these religious cousins, suggesting perhaps more in sadness than in anger, how UUs have a “thin theology.”

Let me be frank. Apparently they mean we don’t offer enough baloney.

What we lack that they find “thin” is a set of assertions about reality from Holy Writ that have little or no support beyond that ever popular appeal to authority, which in some circles is considered, what is it? Oh, yes, a logical fallacy.

Okay. It’s easy to trot out snide for snide. And I want to be careful, because one part of the Universalism of contemporary Unitarian Universalism, a new Universalism that I hold dear, is the belief all (or close enough to all as to make no functional difference) religions contain everything necessary for salvation. That is Christians of all flavors, Jews in their variety, Muslims in their differences, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, Pagans, all of ‘em, have within their community and traditions what it takes to heal the wounds of life, to get people where they need to go.

(And, of course, I write as dually credentialed, a UU minister and a Soto Zen Buddhist priest. While each of these two traditions sometimes wonder why, I have found a home sharing them in ways that I’ve found pushing me to every greater depths. More anon…)

Really, I know the good professor is trying to be generous. (As I said, I do admire him for his work over the many years. And he led with some good advice to UUs that when we write of ourselves we shouldn’t be quite so self-deprecating as we frequently are, we really, he tells us, don’t need to lead with a joke about ourselves nearly every time.) He says he likes our social activism, which near as I can tell rounds out the things he likes about us, and I’m sure he is sincere in his admiration for our rationalism and our engagement. But beyond that the best he thinks of us is that we might be a home for those who want to take a vacation from orthodoxy, that we might indeed be a place for the “spiritual but not religious,” should they wish community. For a short or long stay.

Still, all that said, he opines how this might, indeed, be our day.

And, here, I agree.

While there is no compulsion within our liberal way, we offer the possibilities of depth without requiring a tip of the hat to the Highly Unlikely. For many hungering and thirsting for a truer life, this is critical. Our tribe counts Christians and Jews and Muslims and Buddhists and Pagans and Humanists and atheists and many, many others. What unites us is a style, an approach to the great matter of life and death. It is at once critical and open hearted.

It has worked for me on my path. It has made me a better, certainly a more relentlessly honest Buddhist and I think a pretty good UU. (Others, of course, will have to decide on both counts for themselves…)

Certainly this liberal way in religion, this liberal spirituality has led to some interesting discoveries about what is what.

And that’s what I want to hold up for the spiritual seeker.

Here’s the way into depth that Unitarian Universalists have found.

Our way has three parts enshrined for the moment in our Statement of Principles and Purposes. While this statement has creed-like qualities, it is important to always note it is not a creed, it is not proscriptive, but rather descriptive, it shows what we as a religious (or maybe better considering this is for those who might be thinking about us, spiritual) community at this moment in time.It will change.

Most of the Statements are mom and apple pie, and people appropriately question how they’re different than what is held by most eeryone in our culture. But, then there are those three things, two theological statements and a method.

The first and the seventh Principles. Again, we always have an escape clause, no compulsion and therefore in practice there are a number of us who do not agree. Still, most do agree these two Principles are very important, perhaps the most important thing. The first speaks to the “worth and dignity” of each person. Many, maybe most of us would speak of the preciousness of everything that births into the world. But this observation, assertion can only be understood within the context of the seventh Principle, which is an observation or assertion of an interdependent web of which we in our precious individuality are all a part. So. Each and everyone one of us, and I would add, everything, is a most wondrous thing. But, and, this wonderful manifestation as you or me is a creation of the whole, we are woven out of the world itself. One way of saying this is that we are one family. And so together these two truths are worthy of a lifetime of exploration and unraveling and reweaving. We find personal spiritual exploration. We find ethics. We find a call to justice. And we find a call to the world, this world.

Which brings us to the fourth principle, which calls us to a free and responsible search for our own insight into these truths. The call, as I understand it, is that we have an obligation to understand what these things mean as there are consequences in our lives and for everyone’s life. As ideas, yes, well through through. But, more, as an invitation to a way of knowing, of being in the world.


Important stuff.

And, if you want to take it as thin, that’s your call.

But let me say there is plenty of nourishment for those willing, who want to follow a path of open and critical mind and open and loving heart.

And, so, if you’ve walked away from the orthodox, orthodox anything, and yet have a sense there is something more, a deep out there that you can know for yourself, well, consider yourself invited!

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  • http://summersstudio.blogspot.com LeAnn

    Well said. As a long time UU, I agree that the 1st, last, and 4th principles are the heart of UUism. Actually, it may be the only principles that most, if not all, UUs remember. But having left orthodoxy long before coming to the UU church, those principles are what brought me in. Indeed those principles invited me into a spiritual community that fills me with hope for the future.

  • http://goodwolve.blogs.com Jacqueline

    The last line is what KILLS me though. I think I am sick of seekers. As a life long UU it is exhausting to continuously open the door for every damaged religious person to enter with their enormous baggage. Then they want to twist UU to fit THEM. That DOES make us weak and spineless as a religion. We can’t continue to change who we are just to fit more folks in. Granted, I am from the wave my parents entered in the 50′s – West Coast Humanism and it made room for them and me. But when does that end, because James, I don’t feel I fit in at all anymore.

    • Diggitt McLaughlin

      Perhaps you don’t! Seriously. I am also a lifelong UU and I’m in div school now. Not everyone should be a UU. We don’t believe we have a corner on truth, and people feel comfortable where they feel comfortable.

      That said, any number of people go to a UU church, sign the book (without taking a class or anything that tells them about it) and a year later they’re out the door. We do have a core, and we don’t do our core (or any of us) any favors if we worry about the here-today-gone-tomorrow momentary members, and that includes letting them trying to twist our basic message to suit their momentary needs. (And everyone is better served by membership classes, which are becoming more and more expected.)

      It’s my impression–and it’s no more than that, because I have not read any official report that discusses this–that we are now outgrowing our past. You know, the past where our churches were non-Lutheran, non-Catholic, not-Presbyterian, or whatever else the local folks felt they had to reject. We will always continue to attract wounded former believers, but I think our current newcomers more frequently come from the unchurched, or at least people who long ago forgot what they’re been taught about church.

      Both the midwestern congregation where I am interning and my home congregation in the east know very well who they are and are far from weak and spineless. I’m sorry that’s your current experience, because I am not finding it anywhere I visit among UU congregations.

      • Margaret

        I’m sure the unchurched arrive wounded and with enormous baggage too. What kind of Church are we if want newcomers to arrive at our doors with no scars and no needs, ready to jump in and cause no ripple? Do such humans exist?

        • Mark

          So in agreement with you, Diggitt and Margaret. I’m so glad UUs welcomed me. The only other place I’ve been similarly welcomed is AA, which also welcomes anyone who believes he or she belongs. I know I belong at my UU church, and I’m grateful it opens its doors. Isn’t that what seeing dignity in all people is all about?

    • Karin

      I’m sorry you don’t feel you belong anymore; loss of belonging within one’s religious community is greatly unsettling as many people from other religions have experienced in the midst of change (think Vatican II, the splinter in the Episcopal Church over gay and lesbian clergy, and on and on). Yet our faith, I think, calls us to be aware of the fluidity that lies within every moment, every person, every story, every church, and–yes–UUism itself. Conditions in the past had to change to allow the UU Humanism you profess to emerge and grow; today, certainly, other conditions exist. My hope is that, wherever you worship, you are valued, find ways to contribute, and have opportunities to engage in “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”

  • Diggitt McLaughlin

    Thank you! “Thin theology” indeed.

  • http://www.boundlesswayzen.org jamesford

    Dear Jacqueline, this isn’t about changing to fit more people in. I adore “West Coast Humanism,” but it is only a part of the jewel. We offer something precious and healing. And if people find resonance with that thing, which I hope I’ve adequately described, well, of course they need to be welcomed. And, you too. All of us together.

    • Bryan D

      The nature of this “precious and healing thing” that we offer is what is being questioned and discussed. Most of the current attempts to define what it is are actually mystical religious definitions. There are real limits (even with the best of intentions) to how far scientific humanism and mystical theology can be reconciled. Anyone who ignores this basic reality is promoting a kind of naive utopian idealism, in my opinion. The secular humanists shouldn’t dominate the UU community (they tried), but neither should the religious mystics (and they’re trying hard). Whatever we truly have in common is either much broader and deeper than religion or it’s an illusion and doesn’t actually exist.

  • Stephen Slottow

    Thin theology is healthy. Eats sensibly, exercises.

  • http://eastofmidnight.wordpress.com Kim Hampton

    As a UU Christian, I am bloody sick and tired of having to remind fellow UUs that just because somebody makes a critique of UUism that doesn’t make them a cultured despiser. Martin Marty doesn’t despise Unitarians/Universalists/Unitarian Universalists; hell, he probably references Channing, Ballou, and Theodore Parker more than we do. He is a liberal Christian, and most liberal Christians know more about our heritage than the average UU does. And if that liberal Christian went to seminary, they really know more about our history and theology than the average UU. As Diana Eck told me when I got to spend time with her at Harvard, “When it comes right down to it, we are all Uni-Unis.” Seeing as though the conversation was about liberal Christians, I took her statement to mean that, theologically, most (if not all) liberal Christians are Unitarian and Universalist.

    And lest people think that the “thin theology” critique only comes from the outside, I have heard many a UU repeat the line, “We are a mile wide and an inch deep.”

    There is a reason that more people revolve through UU church doors than stay inside. And it’s not because we don’t do enough social justice work. Far more people leave UUism than stay because too often we don’t help them move past the UU 101 stage, or we tell them that they are on their own without giving them any sense of direction. And into that vacuum, other religious groups or “Meet the Press” and the Sunday ‘New York Times’ step in.

    I think I’ll stop here.

    • Kevin Carson

      This is a very interesting thread … and a conversation that I have had many times in the 27+ years I’ve been a UU. And I still don’t know where we are going! On the one hand, I agree with James that we have a vital and welcoming approach to religion, but are we really a religion or just a long seminar about religions? Does it really matter? Do we need to re-imagine what it means to “be” a religion? But, I think the thinness of UU is apparent when those of us who want a deeper spiritual path become hyphenated UU-Christians, UU-Buddhists, etc. Can you just be a Unitarian Universalist and have a profound spiritual path? I am reminded of a fellow seminarian who told me she was asked at her regional committee meeting what her theology was. When she answered, “Unitarian Universalist,” the committee continued to press her for her “theology” — theist? humanist? In the end, they suggested she explore the issue further. Do you think they would have pressed her for more explanation if she had said Buddhist? Saying you are a UU probably says more about how you vote than what you believe. Should it mean something more, or are we stuck with leaving seekers to find a hyphenated identity than works for them?


    • Jerrod

      Thank you for saying this.

  • http://investinginkids.net/ Tim Bartik


    I think it would be more constructive if you were more specific.

    Rev. Ford has indicated that he believes that a church centered around exploring and understanding and feeling the meaning of the first and seventh principles, pursued as outlined by the fourth principle, would NOT be offering a thin theology. Do you agree or disagree?

    If you disagree, what do you think needs to be added to give more weight to UU theology?

    • http://eastofmidnight.wordpress.com Kim Hampton

      I think Martin Luther King Jr. says it better than I do…so I’ll let his words speak for me…

      “There is one phase of liberalism that I hope to cherish always: its devotion to the search for truth, its refusal to abandon the best light of reason. . . . It was . . . the liberal doctrine of man that I began to question. The more I observed the tragedies of history, and man’s shameful inclination to choose the low road, the more I came to see the depths and strength of sin. . . . I came to feel that liberalism had been all too sentimental concerning human nature and that it leaned toward a false idealism. I also came to see that liberalism’s superficial optimism concerning human nature caused it to overlook the fact that reason is darkened by sin. . . . Liberalism failed to see that reason by itself is little more than an instrument to justify man’s defensive ways of thinking. Reason, devoid of purifying power of faith, can never free itself from distortions and rationalizations.”

      As long as most UUs don’t want to talk about humanity’s depravity (not total depravity a la Calvin but regular depravity) in a real way, any theology it comes up with will be thin.

      • http://investinginkids.net/ Tim Bartik

        I don’t see how stressing the 1st and 7th principles is inconsistent with human weakness being a key issue. Valuing the inherent worth and dignity of each human being means we value what the Quakers call “that of God in every man”. We value what is noble and beautiful in human beings not because human beings always hit the mark and avoid sin, but rather because human beings often do not live up to their potential best character, their specific human excellence. Valuing our radical interdependence with other human beings and with the broader world means we admit that escaping our failed choices requires acknowledging our relations with others and with the world and seeking to make those relations right. And escaping sin requires we acknowledge our radical dependence on others. And I don’t think valuing each individual’s best character and interdependence means we think that pure reason, without compassion, can show the way as to how to develop right relations with our own selves and with others.

        So, if what you’re saying is that stressing the 1st and 7th principles needs to be accompanied by a full awareness of human weakness, and by opening up to aspects of ourselves beyond reason, I agree with you. But I don’t think this undercuts the potential power of the 1st and 7th principles as theological guides. It is part of what it means to explore what those principles really mean in the real world.

  • Ted Seeber

    The logical fallacy of appeal to authority is in and of itself an appeal to authority. If you don’t agree with the “authority” that sets the rules of logical debate to begin with, why the heck should you accept that appeal to any other authority is a fallacy? And if you accept that appeal to authority is a fallacy, then why are you referring to the authority of logical fallacies to begin with?

    Now having said that- from Roman Catholicism, all theology and philosophy is thin. Except maybe Judaism and Buddhism. The reason is because of an utter lack of historical perspective; without a few thousand years to sift the lies out from the truth, all you have is a huge appeal to authority. UU is just as much an appeal to authority as any other philosophy- including science and the art of language.

  • http://www.wizduum.net shaktinah

    Thanks James, for your post and for sparking the wonderful conversation flowing from it. I have a question for you tho: would you still feel that UUism has as much to offer spiritually if you didn’t also have the Soto Zen tradition? If you didn’t have Zen’s long history, rituals, and beliefs, would UUism be enough?

  • http://patheos.com/blogs/monkeymind james

    Dera Shaktinah,

    I don’t think it possible to tease out such a central part of my life and then posit what my life would be like without it.

    What I can say is that I’ve witnessed people grow deep, truly full heartedly engaged in the flow, living their lives as humanist Unitarian Universalists, Christian Unitarian Universalists, and never caring for any hyphen, just as Unitarian Universalists. And others. And, also, witnessed people who’ve wasted their time. Of course?

    • Ted Seeber

      I’ve never met a deep humanist of any type. Humanism seems to preclude thinking deeply.

      • http://investinginkids.net/ Tim Bartik

        Mr. Seeber: Have you read Andre Comte-Sponville, as one example? (The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality, A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues). Thomas Nagel? Owen Flanagan (The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized).

        For that matter, my impression is that a very large percentage of contemporary philosophers would probably fit most closely the “humanist” category, although that might not be the label they would pick. In any event, a high percentage of contemporary philosophers would probably consider themselves “naturalists” who reject the supernatural.

    • http://www.wizduum.net shaktinah

      James, namaste. Yes, of course. Like any religious tradition, one only gets out of it what one puts into it.
      I agree that many UUs seem perfectly happy to be just UUs, and it is not my wish to rock their boat. But as other commenters have noted here, many of us long for deeper theology and/or liturgy. Hence the plethora of hyphenated UUs. And it begs the question of how much UUism actually offers on its own to those of us who need shared ritual and tradition. In my time as a UU, I’ve seen many people come to us and many people leave. And I see that as both a success and a failure. It is a success because many come to us as what I call “religious refugees,” wounded by other traditions, and within the loving and encouraging environment of UUism, many are healed to the point where they are no longer “allergic” to religion. That is something to celebrate. But it is also a failure because so often when these people get to the point there they are open to deeper spiritual practice, they find that UUism is not enough to suit their needs. I also think we’ve failed when 80% of cradle-UU young adults leave us because we’re not offering them enough reason to stay. This is why I asked you to try to imagine only being a UU, without the Zen, and would you find that to be enough. If you can’t imagine what that’s like, there are the several commenters here, including myself, who say that UUism alone, as it currently is, is not enough for us.

      So rather than seeing Rev. Marty’s observations as derisive, I recognize truth in them, and take it as a challenge. Can we, as Unitarian Universalists, create something deeper that is genuinely UU, that won’t rock the boats (too much) of people who are already content, but would give others enough reason to stay *without* hyphenating. I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t hyphenate – there are all sorts of reasons why people identify with more than one religious tradition – I’m just saying can we create something that doesn’t require it?

      • Bryan D

        I’d like to know the factual basis for your assumption (shared by many in the UU community) that our young adults leave because they seek greater religious depth and meaning. I’m sure this is true for some individuals, but I think they’re a minority of our young adults. I was a UU young adult and I’ve known many UU youth. In my experience, most of them don’t find much meaning in traditional religion, whether liberal and conservative. This was true for me. They find depth in scientific understanding and meaning in many variations of humanism. Their individual spirituality and the spiritual practices that they choose are usually more personal than collective. UU community, values, and principles are important to them. UU religion, which is traditional in its structure and theology, doesn’t touch most of them or speak to the reality of their lives.

  • http://patheos.com/blogs/monkeymind james

    Dear Shaktinah, I thought my posting here was such an attempt…

  • Betty Hoskins

    I am so delighted with the conjunction of the First and Seventh Principle….
    and also 2nd and 6th, 3rd and 5th, making the 4th a uniquely human
    challenge. Along the way to that insight, let us not oversimplify
    The 7th Principle means the Interdependent Web of ALL Existence,
    i.e. ecosystems of all animals, plants, microbes, miscellaneous
    organisms fitting not-so-well into our current understandings –
    and perhaps extra-terrestrial life. As a biologist (retired), I know
    life forms exist within cycles of living (adapting, reproducing,
    evolving) and non-living (i.e. molecules organic and inorganic,
    elements, ions and such).
    (Yes, Religious Naturalism. See the Journal of Religious Humanism
    or “The Sacred Depths of Nature” by Ursula Goodenough, Oxford
    Press 1998, developed at Institute for Religion in an Age of Science,
    on Star Island. )
    The 7th Principle originated in the Women and Religion movement,
    now widely ignored, misquoted, co-opted, trivialized … even though
    our spirituality is deep and sustaining. I recall the presentation of
    what became the 7th Principle to GA, by Lucile Schuck Longview.
    (I also live within her work with Carolyn McDade, originators/
    birthers of the Water Ritual and “Spirit of Life”, and their many
    expressions continent- and world-wide. See ICUUW.)

    I believe we have moved beyond the “Man the Meaning Maker” era,
    exciting and thoughtful (rational) and caring as it was in its time.
    Regretably, we see more clearly the destruction wrought by such self-
    Depth, interconnections, joys and responsibilities …