Unitarian Universalism in a Thousand Words

James Ishmael Ford

Back in the mid nineteen seventies, after I left the Zen monastery that had been my home for several years, I stumbled upon an early nineteenth century pamphlet titled “Unitarian Christianity.” After reading it I immediately looked for where the local Unitarian church was, now called, I saw Unitarian Universalism. I fell asleep during the service. But, later, at the coffee hour I met with people who intrigued me, fascinated me, and eventually opened a new spiritual way for me.

Over the years that have followed I’ve reflected on this tradition, a lot, where it comes from, what it is, and where it is heading.

Personally, at the beginning, I blame the Enlightenment.

In the eighteenth century when Europeans and North Americans noticed they could take the same skills that were revealing the secrets of the natural world to the workings of the mind and heart and even to their religions, something wondrous birthed into the world. It would variously be called rational religion and liberal religion.

Throughout the eighteenth century some broad principles were worked out through a critical engagement with traditional Christian doctrines and texts. One scholar tagged these as freedom, tolerance, and reason. While these currents would find homes in nearly all religions, by the first decades of the nineteenth century in North America two denominations emerged that were particularly devoted to this approach, the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association. Despite their deep similarities, for various reasons it would take more than a hundred years for these two communities to consolidate. Finally in 1961, they did, forming the Unitarian Universalist Association.

Each brought a distinct style to the party. In the middle of the nineteenth century a Universalist minister Thomas Starr King called to the Unitarian pulpit in San Francisco was asked how he saw the two denominations. Arguably the first Unitarian Universalist, he replied dryly the Universalists believed God too good to damn humanity, while the Unitarians felt they were too good to be damned. In this little joke we can see these two styles. The Universalists focused on the matters of heart with the slogan “love over creed,” while the Unitarians focused on ethics and the good life with the slogan “salvation by character.”

By the Twentieth century these styles emerged as a naturalistic religion, concerned with life in this world. For a while it would be closely identified with humanism, but unlike organized humanism Unitarian Universalism felt no need to disassociate itself from the family of religions. However this religion was a radical departure from the Abrahamic faiths. Through its own evolution a religion emerged that more closely resembles the traditions of ancient China, Confucianism and particularly Taoism than any of the other Western traditions.

Those who have gathered together under the Unitarian Universalist flag are notoriously resistant to labeling, hostile to anything that might look like a creed. Nonetheless, in 1985, with a second round of voting at our annual convention, the General Assembly of the UUA established a statement of principals and purposes, which were incorporated into the bylaws of the Association.

While the target of disdain from many within, particularly that so much of it is vague and “mom and apple pie,” there are three of the principals which I think speak to the shape of contemporary Unitarian Universalism. Two are theological assertions. And the other speaks to a style.

The first of the theological assertions is that every individual has value. This intuition is grounded in the seventh assertion in the principals that everything is bound up together in a vast web of intimacy. Taken together numerous ethical and social and spiritual concerns arise. How do we live if we feel each of us has significance, value, and that we are all of us related? And, more, what if we see that we are completely a part of this world? Over the years people have taken up one or another of the consequences that follow these intuitions.

The other point is enshrined, at least until there’s another vote, as the fourth principle, which is a call to a “free and responsible” search for meaning. Here we opened ourselves to the full range of spiritual disciplines from prayer to meditation to critical analysis, but always with the call to test whatever we find in conversation within a spiritual community predicated upon a covenant of presence to our own minds and hearts and to each other.

While the radical freedom of this tradition means people can join and do pretty much nothing, to genuinely honor the tradition means taking our lives seriously, to engage that free and responsible quest, to understand deeply what the preciousness of the individual might mean within the context of radical intimacy. I’ve noticed people tend to do this in two ways.

The first is to take these intuitions and style and live them within a larger faith stance. This is sometimes called the great hyphen. Among others there are UU Christians, UU Jews, UU pagans and UU Buddhists. I’m a UU Buddhist. I’m deeply convinced of the principal insights of Gautama Siddhartha, Buddhism’s founder and more the Chan masters of China and their followers in Japan’s Zen schools. And, I engage this tradition as a religious liberal, bringing my confidence in the abilities of ordinary people within all cultures to find everything necessary in this life, to the great matters of life and death. I’ve seen UU Christians do the same thing, with similar success in the transformation of heart.

But, also, I’ve seen people grow wise in this tradition without any hyphens. Simply looking at their own hearts and minds, paying attention to how we each arise in this world precious, and how we are all wound up together vastly more intimately than we can ever describe, leads as naturally as the day follows the night, to a life of wisdom and joy. Some in this approach might think of themselves as humanists. Many would just say they’re Unitarian Universalists.

I love spending time with people in their seventies and eighties and older, who’ve devoted a lifetime to this tradition with critical and radically open hearts and minds.

That’s all it takes.

And that gives me hope.

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  • http://www.revalexholt.com Alex Holt

    Hello James,
    What a wonderfully written column and so well thought out. Thank you for this offering to us all. May I (with attribution of course) read from it when I lead our Path to Membership class this Sunday?

  • http://www.boundlesswayzen.org jamesford

    Please cite all you want, Alex.


  • Suzanne Black

    James–I just realize that you are my minister. The major connection I have with my UU faith in this remote desert AZ town. Thank you so much!


  • http://www.andrewhidas.com Andrew Hidas

    Fine overview, James, of the kind I’d want to pack around with me on a little thumb drive or smartphone email, and every time someone in the basic getting-to-know-you conversation arrives at the point of asking, “So what is that Unitarian thing about again?” (they most always leave out the Universalism), I could just pull this out and say, “Here.”
    Thanks for this!

  • http://autismoutloud.com eric

    There is an aspect of (non) development of my individual voice that sent me fleeing from the speaker audience construct of my youth to the roundtable construct, of fellowship. But I greatly agree that non-creedal is the way to go. It’s an acquired taste.

  • Rev. Glenn Farley

    Great column, James. Thank you.

    Could you hash this one out a little more for me?

    “However this religion was a radical departure from the Abrahamic faiths. Through its own evolution a religion emerged that more closely resembles the traditions of ancient China, Confucianism and particularly Taoism than any of the other Western traditions.”

    How is 21st C. UUism like Daoism? In its Naturalism/Transendentalist tendencies? Examples will be appreciated.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/monkeymind James

    Hi Glenn,
    Hope Sedona is treating you well. Did I mention I preached there once when I was serving in Chandler.

    As to the Confucianist and particularly Taoist resemblances. Yes, I had in mind our naturalist, this worldly sense. So, Confucianism in the sense of being focused on society and human relations. Taoist in, yes, our ecological sense as a spiritual concern as well as Transcendentalist at least to the degree of a Thoreauvian naturalism. Of course none of these analogies should be pushed too hard.

    The point really is that we belong to a this worldly spirituality which has these analogs much more than the great mythic structures of divine submission we find in the Abrahamic family, even if we birthed from them…


  • Linda Horton

    I’m also convinced we UUs are a part of an evolving “balance tradition” as defined by the Director of “Exploring World Religions|’ based in Toronto. \He has developed a conceptual scheme with three columns and 12 dimensions- Western, Eastern, and Balance. I find I fall in the Balance tradition column on 10 of the 12 dimensions- only Western in a prophetic interest in changing society, and Eastern in the psychological dimension. The Director, speaking at a CUC gathering, suggested, in fact, that we were a “new Balance Tradition.”