Unitarian Universalism: Are We A Religion, At All?

I’ve been sitting on this post for over a week, wondering if I should post it. It’s undergone several revisions, but I’ve come to the conclusion that I am not done with the topic. I need to discuss it, and failing some kind of resolution, I need to rethink my involvement in the Unitarian Universalist movement.

Lately, I have been on a quest to learn what makes a Unitarian Universalist. No one has answered that with any usable definition. I asked how the Principles might fit into a definition, and that got a lot of replies. It seems that there are many who are opposed to using our Principles as a guideline for UU theology. It smacks too much of “Creed” to ask individuals to make a commitment to the covenant that our congregations enter into when they join the UUA.

This did not come without some logical inconsistency. Some people refused to recognize certain spiritual paths as “religions” in order to make the claim that every religion follows the 7 Principles. Most were forced to admit that the religion practiced by the people is not to same one handed down as dogma by institutions. There were others who claimed that one could, theoretically, be a member of a UU congregation without personally believing in the Principles and supporting their work, meaning that all it takes to be a UU is paying dues.

To carry that thought through, to be a Unitarian Universalist is simply to meet the membership requirements for one of thousands of associated Congregations, all of which are, technically, affirming and promoting the 7 Principles in someway, though how they do this is governed by no body or council higher than the congregation its self. Several people complained that there was no real accountability to the UUA or member Congregations, even though some of the same people were loathed to give any more authority to the UUA even on this count.

This is not the description of a religion, or even a spiritual movement. These are descriptions of a social club that, in general, wants to be seen as doing good things. This describes a group more concerned with membership numbers than with the spiritual health of members. This description actually goes against the Principles that define the Association’s covenant.

It has to mean something to be a Unitarian Universalist, or there is no point in using the label. It certainly no longer requires that you care, one way or the other, about the singular or plural nature of deity. It doesn’t even imply that you are concerned with the salvation of human souls, universal or otherwise. The label has become a symptom of a bigger problem: it is long, hard to explain, and no longer describes to the majority of our members.

It has to mean something. There has to be a boundary. We need to define who we are, and we need to admit that this will mean some people just aren’t ready or willing to be included. We need to accept that not everyone is willing to live up to our Principles, and that might mean that not everyone is able to be a UU.


7 Responses

  1. You say: “It has to mean something to be a Unitarian Universalist, or there is no point in using the label.” It does mean something, but that something is different for each person.

    You might also consider a distinction between ways of ‘belonging’ and ways of ‘being.’ Belonging to a larger group that identify as something is not the same (at least IMHO) as personally identifying as something yourself. Paying dues may be a useful indicator of ‘belonging,’ but they may be irrelevant to ‘being.’

    The tension in ideas, diversity of opinions, and lack of clear answer you describe above is Unitarian Universalism. Being able to happily exist within this is a great place to start when considering what it means to be UU…

    • If the meaning of a word or term can differ to each and every person using it in a particular discussion, then the word or phrase does more harm than good. The idea that each person is using a poorly defined term as if they might all be talking about the same thing can only be detrimental to reasonable discourse.

      Currently, Unitarian Universalism is tied, inextricably, to the UUA. This is precisely because the only definition of a UU is one who is a member of a UUA affiliated congregation. There is no other way to define the term, and the UUA only encompasses those who pay dues. You can call yourself a UU if you like, but you cannot “be” or “belong” because there is no other context in which the label has meaning.

      I am not asking for a creed, but we need to agree at some point that there are things which define the character of a UU, and those should be, at least partly (Hopefully largely) spiritual concerns. We need to address some serious issues as to what our movement stands for. It might start with further defining the wording of the 7 Principles, but that may be my next post…

  2. Your tendency to speak in absolutes may be keeping you from satisfactorily understanding meaning: “…using a poorly defined term can only be detrimental..Unitarian Universalism is tied, inextricably, to the UUA…this is precisely because the only definition…There is no other way to define the term…”

    Your need for clarity and prescision is understandable, but it’s keeping you from imagining alternatives.

    Additionally, many single words and phrases have different meanings to different people–the word ‘awesome’ might be an example, the phrase ‘spiritual life’ another.

    Meaning is not always about definition. Meaning can be so powerful as to be impossible to put into words. The beauty of UUism is that we can call ourselves UU and that’s enough. Seeking my own understanding of truth and respecting that of others’ is UU–especially if you feel our 7 priciples guide our understanding of our faith.

  3. My use of absolutes was, by and large, my lament for the situation. I want there to be another definition, but there isn’t; I want UU to move beyond the need for the UUA, but it isn’t moving in that direction.

    Like time and gravity, some things, for all intents and purposes, are absolute. That’s simply fact.

    Still, in speaking of language, the need for clarity is, in fact, absolute. If we cannot understand each other, we cannot communicate.

    There are things, great and worthy things, that lie beyond simple explanation. I am, again, not looking to create a creed, but we do need to establish what it means to be a UU aside from economic or social association.

  4. I get what you’re frustrated by… Sometimes I feel a bit that way, too… but even as I re-identify myself as an Emerging/Emergent Christian, I see that in a UU context, and I cannot imagine myself as not UU. So what is it that makes me (still, especially) UU? Part of it is very simply, a different WAY of doing religion. It is a way that is 1) very much rooted in this life and this world, and 2) ideally, in dialogue across different religious and world views, but 3) still its own thing, not just an amalgam or a study group…. Regarding the fact that some in UU churches recoil at affirming the 7 principles on the grounds that it turns them into a creed… While I have heard that claim second-hand, I have not personally encountered it. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, but I will confess — where it does exist, I do not think I could understand it. In that way, I agree (I think) with you …. For myself, though, I do think that the Principles are as close to a bedrock of our faith as one can come, and of them, the first 4 are the core — though not “all”: inherent worth and dignity; justice, equity and compassion; acceptance; and the free and responsible search…..Finally, consider that even in other faiths, the decision of what it means to be a member of that faith is much more fluid and murky than it might look on the outside…. As one example, Christianity: Spend any time talking to a wide range of Christians — not just one particular sectarian flavor — and you’ll encounter a wide range of understandings about what Christianity really calls people to believe and do…. Yes, millions of Christians honestly believe that its primary goal is to “save” people from a real “Hell” by affirming their belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus on their sinful behalf… BUT… millions as well *do not* believe that, and still call themselves — OURSELVES — Christians. And some of those latter people might even recite the Nicene Creed at church on Sunday, which seems to affirm the first definition… but if they do, they may be like the pastor I once heard say, “Think of it as poetry, not geometry.”… OK… this has been a really rambling answer, but thank you for the opportunity to engage…

  5. Thank you for being engaged! First let me say that I believe we each have the right to label ourselves, within some limits. I could call myself a Unitarian Christian, though I do not consider Jesus central enough to my spirituality to do so. The way I see it, though, it would be highly deceptive of me to simply call myself Christian, because while I do believe that Jesus taught many great things, I do not believe that he taught the only, or even the universally best path to a relationship with the Divine. Even if I did think that, I would consider it somewhat deceptive to call myself Christian, without the Unitarian modifier, because I do not believe that Jesus was uniquely divine.

    So, we can see that there are some easy and reasonable ways to define a Christian. People will argue about what it means, but people who are unwilling to agree on the use of terms will never be able to discuss those terms in a rational way.

    We won’t be able to stop anyone from calling themselves a UU if they embrace the label. What we need to do, though, is to define the term for ourselves in an effort to shape what we mean to the rest of the world. We need to look at the wording of our Principles, and where they might lead us if we took them more seriously.

    We claim to hold each other to a free but responsible search for truth and meaning. Free is an easy word to define, but there is no meaning in the word responsible the way it is used here.

  6. Thomas, thanks for sharing what obviously took a good amount of angst to write and release. I’ve only been UU for five years, but in that time I’ve come face to face with the difficulty in defining what that really means. I’d like it to mean I’ve joined a body of people committed to living the path that our 7 principles states (and especially those first four, as dairystatedad mentioned). I’m not sure that’s what it does mean, and that gives me a bit of angst, too.

    Like you, I can’t return to Christianity due to my view of Jesus and my lack of faith in God as Christians see God. It’s not a clock I can turn back, nor a genie I can shove back into the bottle. I’m UU because it’s the best descriptor (at least in principle but often in best practice) of what I hold true and sacred.

    I hold a bit of comfort that while UUs may be alone in having no creed, we’re not alone in a diverse set of interpretations of a religion. Within each religion are people who are there for the company among those who are there for the doctrine. We’re no different, if one substitutes “principles” for “doctrine”.

    I’ve been doing a fair amount of hair-pulling myself lately, and you’ve put a different spin on the question with this post. I’ll be musing about this further on my own blog soon.

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