Unitarian Universalist Theology 101
This page is adapted from a sermon given by our minister, Deanna Lack, on November 9, 2020.
It might seem strange to talk about Unitarian Universalist theology. How can a religion that has no doctrine have a theology? So the first thing we’re going to do is establish what theology is and what it does.
According to Webster, theology is “the study of religious faith, practice, and experience, especially, the study of God and God’s relation to the world.” Wikipedia says it is the systematic study of the nature of the divine and, more broadly, religious belief. So it becomes apparent that theology and doctrine are not one and the same, and obviously they are definitely not in our denomination.
So what then do we mean when we say “Unitarian Universalist Theology” if it’s not ideas about God, which the etymology of the word itself would seem to imply?
Before we talk about that, let’s talk first about what it is not. It’s a common misperception that UUs can believe whatever they want. Some even say they come to our churches because they don’t believe in organized religion. Come again? This is religion, and while leading UUs can sometimes be like herding cats, we are very definitely organized. Just ask our treasurer how important organization is to our organization. What we are not is organized around a doctrinal principle. We are a non-doctrinal or non-creedal faith that does not demand that you believe a certain way.
But even if we don’t specifically believe in God, I would venture to say that nearly all UUs have spent a good deal of time thinking about God and defining their own beliefs, and whether you avow the existence of God or not, that is theology.
Think about this. If I were a Catholic, it would be my responsibility to learn the catechism, and theoretically, to live by it. When I was a Jehovah’s Witness, before I could get baptized I had to be interviewed by the elders to demonstrate a knowledge of the teachings of the organization and to acknowledge the responsibly I was accepting to live in accordance with the dictates of the Watchtower Society. Those things are true of nearly every doctrinal religion, as many of you who have belonged to one know.
For that, we UUs substitute our fourth principle: a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. So as a person belonging to our faith, what we ask of you is that you become a seeker, continually exposing yourself to ideas and deciding for yourself what has a ring of truth for you. As someone who was a diligent student of a doctrinal religion, and someone who is now a student of the world that decides for herself what truth is, I would argue that the latter is the more challenging of the two, but also the more fulfilling of the two.
What if I choose atheism, agnosticism, or humanism? Does that free me from responsibility of living up to the responsibilities of my chosen faith? No, it does not. A humanist approach to religious thought is still an ethical approach to life, as we will talk more about momentarily.
When we talk about UU history, we often talk about “ancient” UU history — the transcendentalists, the early Unitarians and Universalists, and how they were different from their contemporary religious thinkers. And then we talk about the merger in 1961 and the creation of the Unitarian Universalist Association.
But how did we get here from there? How did we go from being a Christian denomination that focused on universal salvation and the oneness of God, to the fluid, dynamic, non-creedal faith that we all share today? It seems like a big jump from Calvinist Puritanism to Unitarianism and Universalism, but I’m not sure that is a bigger jump than the one from either of those Christian faiths to this tradition where it seems you can believe whatever you want. So we’re going to return to history because it’s really difficult to extricate the history from the theology.
Both sides of our faith sort of married the religious ideas of Congregationalist Christian churches in New England and Enlightenment ideas. This is really important to remember as we trace how our religion evolved. According to Paul Rasor, author of Faith without Certainty: Liberal Theology in the 21st Century, “The element of reason is the dominant characteristic of the proto-liberal theology of the eighteenth century. This tendency was seen most prominently in the emergence of deism and other forms of so-called ‘natural religion.’ By stressing the role of human reason in the discernment of religions truth, the deists and their cohorts challenged the traditional emphasis on divine revelation.”
If you’ve done any research on the history of Unitarianism you’ve heard of William Ellery Channing. He was one of the formative ministers of the Unitarian movement. His theology sought to blend the rationalism of the enlightenment with Christian concepts of divine benevolence and human goodness. These ideas gained a lot of traction in the 1800s.
You can see the roots of today’s theology in some of the words of those Unitarians and Universalists of old:
We believe that to love the good and live the good is the supreme thing in religion.
We hold reason and conscience to be the final authorities in matters of religious belief.
We honor the Bible and all inspiring scripture, old or new.
We revere Jesus (note, not worship) and all holy souls that have taught the truth and righteousness and love, as prophets of love.
We believe in the growing nobility of Man.
We believe that we ought to join hands and work to make good things better and the worst good, counting nothing good for self that is not good for all.
We worship one-in-all, that Light whence suns and stars derive their orbits and the soul of man in Ought — that Light which eightieth every man that cometh into the world, giving us power to become sons of God — that Love with whom our souls commune. This One we name, Eternal God, our father.Rev William Channing Gannett in 1886, in The Things Most Commonly Believed Today Among Us
That last part is interesting because we are moving from God is not a trinity (unitarian) to the Oneness of God is one-in-all, and from universal salvation (universalist) to God is Love in the literal sense of the word.
The fact that liberal theology is the child of the enlightenment means that it has continued to shift to acknowledge the importance of reason and champion tolerance and democracy, which we can see plainly in our current seven principles.
Rev. Rasor identifies four overlapping themes of liberal religion — mediation, flow, autonomy, and ethics. Mediation is cultural adaptation. Several Unitarian thinkers believed that theology needs to be in touch with and responsive to the prevailing culture. Flow means that we don’t believe that revelation is static; we can adapt our beliefs to changing understandings and social needs. Autonomy is the right of each individual to be the ultimate religious authority for themselves. And Ethics has been a focus of liberal religion since Unitarianism declared that salvation and character were intertwined, and offered a view of humanity that differed from the depraved and sinful state in which Calvinism paints us. To quote Rev. Rasor, “The liberal insistence on autonomy meant that individuals could determine for themselves what was good, and this in turn implied an ethical obligation to create the good they envisioned.”
With regard to the responsiveness of our faith to the prevailing culture, and to scientific progress, I’d like to introduce you to Francis Ellingwood Abbot, co-founder of the Free Religious Association, which was sort of a splinter group in Unitarianism that emphasized rational thought and humanist ideas, though it was not yet called that. This was in the late 1800s. Abbot wrote Scientific Theism in 1885, and in it he wanted to rethink theology in light of new scientific developments, such as the idea that the earth was very old, and the theory of evolution. Abbot has been “acclaimed as the first American theologian to develop a system of religious thought in complete consonance with Darwinian evolution.” (Ahlstrom).
This Free Religious Association did not meet with instant acceptance among Unitarian churches. In 1865 the National Conference of Unitarian and Other Christian Churches was formed, and adopted a distinctly Christian platform. Thus a schism formed within the denomination. There was a good bit of back-and-forth on this subject and many general assemblies became debates about theological issues. This was all put to rest in 1935 when the General Assembly adopted this resolution:
We avow our faith in God, as eternal and all-conquering love, the spiritual leadership of Jesus, the supreme worth of every human personality, the authority of truth, known or to be known, and in the power of men of good will and sacrificial spirits to overcome all evil and progressively establish the kingdom of god. Neither this nor any other statement shall be imposed as a creedal test.
Note a few things here. One, this can be broken down into bullet points, and three of the bullet points are meant to satisfy the theists and three are meant to satisfy the humanists.
- faith in God (but AS LOVE)
- spiritual leadership (but not divinity) of Jesus
- the power of men to overcome evil and establishing the kingdom of God (note here that it did not declare a responsibility to overcome evil, and that establishing the kingdom of god meant making the earth we live in now a better place, not waiting for divine intervention)
- the supreme worth of every human personality
- the authority of truth, known or to be known
- no creedal test
This last part is known as the liberty clause. When this was originally adopted in 1935 the liberty clause had a caveat, that believers had to accept the other things in this bullet list, but that too was removed in 1953. This was so strongly imprinted on Unitarians that when the Principles were first proposed many balked because they seemed too much like creed.
A note about humanism: the Humanist Manifesto was adopted in 1933, and it’s interesting that half of those who signed the original document were Unitarian ministers. The influence of the Free Thinkers was very strong by that time. If you explore the Humanist Association’s website, you’ll see that the basis is very closely tied to Unitarianism.
So we can see there is not a sudden shift from Christian faith, but that over time the great thinkers of our denomination emphasized Christian ideals less and less, and the right of the individual to determine their own theology more and more.
So, does that mean that we can believe whatever we want as UUs? When I took the Beliefnet quiz that tells you what religion your ideas are most in line with, many years before I came to this church, it told me I was Unitarian Universalist. I mentioned this to my husband, and he said, “Oh, yeah, everybody gets UU because they can believe anything.”
Here is what I believe, and what I come to this church expecting that you also believe:
- That we all have inherent worth and dignity.
- That what I believe about the Big Questions has the same value as what you believe, and vice versa.
- That what we do in the world matters, and we can all make a difference, no matter how small.
- That even if you believe in an afterlife, you believe that it’s also important to try to make a difference in the world now.
- That Truth isn’t fixed, but changes over time and from person to person.
- That religious community is important, and that even if we don’t agree on religious ideas, we can agree on the best ways to be together in community, and that the best way to do that is democratic process.
- That all things are interconnected and interdependent.
- That it’s important to never stop growing in our own understanding of the world and of faith.
- That social justice is part of what sets us apart from other religions.
This is just a list I put together and it’s by no means exhaustive. But when I think about the foundational beliefs that tie us together regardless of our personal beliefs, these are the things I come up with. Maybe your list would look different. Really, our covenant and our seven principles are less of a belief system and more of a system of explaining how to talk about diverse religious ideas. If we don’t believe in the inherent worth and dignity of each of us and the right of each of us to be the final authority on our own theology, then we cannot come together in respect and discuss ideas about how the world is and how we believe it should be. If we don’t accept one another and each have an equal vote in how we are governed, then someone will have power over the other and we lose our equality. If we don’t have a goal of world community and peace, then what really are we coming together for?
So no, Unitarian Universalists do not believe whatever they want. We believe in a set of principles that help us to explore ideas together and apart, and find what truth is for us, and then come back together to go out into the world and try to make it better. These things matter. These people, hundreds of years ago, whose ideas evolved to open the way for us to make this search individually and walk this path together.
I want to return to the quote I shared earlier from Faith Without Certainty: “The liberal insistence on autonomy meant that individuals could determine for themselves what was good, and this in turn implied an ethical obligation to create the good they envisioned.”
Those who belong to more traditional religions often try to tell us that our religion, because it is not focused on a god, is selfish. If we’re not living our lives for God, are we not just living for ourselves? Isn’t that a selfish way to be? Isn’t it all “me, me, me?” And the answer to that lies in this quote. Autonomy means that we spend a great deal of time thinking about what our being here means, and when we have a working answer (by no means a final answer), then it is our ethical obligation to create the good we envision. I am honored to walk my path beside you as we each find our way, and together co-create the good we are envisioning together.