An introduction to Unitarian Universalism
by Rev. James Ford, Roshi
Unitarian Universalism is a unique American religious expression. Grounded in New England congregationalism, Unitarianism first flowered as a rationally-oriented alternative both to Calvinist orthodoxy and the earliest revivals that swept through the new nation. This flowering gave birth to a sense of individualism and a strong faith in the power of reason, which have continued to mark the denomination down to the present day.
With Transcendentalism (a literary movement for most of America, but a central theological dispute within Unitarianism), Unitarians moved from any dependence on scripture to a faith more or less completely centered in human experience and human intuition. And so, while a UU may be Christian or Jewish or humanist or Buddhist; this emphasis on finding religion as a fundamental human experience is another basic assumption of Unitarian Universalism.
By the beginning of the Twentieth century Unitarianism and its theological cousin Universalism were clearly humanistic and rationalist churches, drawing more on the Enlightenment and modern science than on scriptural tradition. Unitarians were the first people of faith to support the theory of evolution and, indeed, to embrace the scientific method as an essential tool in understanding the way the world and the human mind works.
And so today in a worship service one may find readings from the Jewish and Christian scriptures, from Emily Dickinson or May Sarton, from the Bhagavad Gita or the Dhamapada, from Albert Einstein or the Dalai Lama. Contemporary Unitarian Universalism is content to find truth wherever it is encountered. It is a wide and expansive expression of Western religious liberalism. It is also very open to those truths to be found in the East.
To best understand contemporary Unitarian Universalism (the two denominations merged in 1961), the image I’ve generally found most helpful is to suggest Unitarian Universalism is a liberal religious movement that has one foot within Christianity and the other outside. And, this is very important, sometime during this century the weight shifted to the outer foot.
Today, as a radically non-creedal body, individual Unitarian Universalists hold many different theological opinions. One may be a Christian, a Jew, an atheist, even a neo-pagan, while still being considered a “good” UU. One may even be a Buddhist, and ever more frequently this is becoming the case…
It is my impression that possibly as many as ten percent of around 120,000 active adult UUs consider themselves Buddhist–or at the very least, seriously influenced by Buddhism. And, I feel, the percentage is possibly even higher among the clergy.
In the 1960’s most of these people coming into UUism felt hostile to their faiths of origin. They tended to be well education, politically very liberal, and inclined to shun classic Western theological language. Since the 1980’s, those coming into Unitarian Universalist societies, fellowships and churches, while remaining well educated, and more liberal than average, have also felt less hostile to their childhood faith’s than had the previous generation.
These new UUs tend to be more open to spiritual experiment and questioning. Possibly most have at least tried meditation in one form or another. And of these newer Unitarian Universalists, many continue to be interested in the possibilities of meditation and prayer and the development of a spiritual life.
While there is no UU “creed,” the General Assembly, an annual gathering of Unitarian Universalists produced in 1985 a Statement of Principles and Purposes. This is an interesting document, wherein the member societies of the Unitarian Universalist Association covenanted to affirm and promote:
“The inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity and compassion in human relations; acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations; a free and responsible search for truth and meaning; the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large; the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all; respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”
Most of this document is typically UU abstract. However, that last clause, with its image of the interdependent web, has caught the imagination of many people. This has included both those styled “humanist” and those called “spiritual.” Also, many UU Buddhists have observed the similarities between this web and the Mahayana image of the Jeweled Net of Indra. Something rich is developing within this small denomination.
For links to UUA sites, see RESOURCES.
For links to Buddhist sites, see RESOURCES.