A friend asks you about Unitarian Universalism. You are wearing a piece of jewelry with a flaming chalice on it, or maybe drinking from your Flaming Chalice adorned coffee mug, and the questions come up, “What do you folks believe? What do you stand for? Why don’t I know anything about your church?”
Here are ten points we hope you will make, though you should be as conversational as possible. The order should vary, depending on the situation and the person asking. The wording isn’t all that important, either, though you are free to use any idea or analogy below. Some of these things are not well-known, or maybe not often enough considered, by those who already call themselves Unitarian Universalists, so please share this list with your RE or small group for further discussion!
We are a religion!
This is very important. While some people make a spiritual practice out of one or more forms of activism and charity, and this is something we encourage, that activism is a personal expression. We are not a political action group, a charity organization, a sexual education resource, or a social club, though we gladly inspire our members to be those things for one another. Unitarian Universalism is a religion. Our relevance and power come from being a community that seeks the truth of religious questions and supports one another as a religious community. Our religion is one that calls for action in the world, but our goal is no less than Heaven, even if we expect it to be here on Earth for all to share.
We care more about what you believe than what you believe in.
Our central theology is what is called, by some, Process Theology. It means that we understand that the universe is always changing, and our understanding of the universe changes just as fast. We believe that every soul (whatever that means to you) shares one common fate at some point. We teach that humans should not wait for gods to sort out our problems, because any gods worthy of our worship will have given us the potential to solve them, and if no gods gave us that potential, then we can’t expect them to do the work for us, either. So, what you believe about the divine mystery is secondary to what your belief calls you to do in the world. We teach action and love-as-a-verb, rather than a noun to be possessed or given. This is the world we have in which to prove ourselves. What you do is more important than why you do it.
Unitarian Universalism is rational and humanist.
…and neither of those words mean “Atheist”. Rational means that we reject things which are provably false, and that we encourage people to accept the word of experts and those who have had direct experience over the circumstantial or anecdotal. Being humanist means believing in the power and the responsibility of humans to solve our own problems and to leave the world a better place than we found it. You can be a rational theist. You can be a theistic humanist. You can be rational and humanist while being an atheist. You can be irrational and non-humanist and still be a UU, but Unitarian Universalism calls us to ask you to reconsider more or less constantly. That is the “responsible” part of our 4th Principle, and the “growth” in our 3rd.
Being a Unitarian Universalist is relational.
Being a UU requires us to constantly question our concept of the world. It requires that we listen to opposing views, so that our ideas can be shaped by them. Sometimes this means that our position is better defined, sometimes that it is weakened, but our commitment to the truth requires us to hear out other perspectives against which to test our ideas. We are also called to share our ideas with love and respect, so that others may undergo the same process. Having your convictions tested is a vital part of being a Unitarian Universalist, as is encouraging others in their search for truth and meaning in their lives. Being together matters for our individual well-being.
We believe that we can achieve more together than we can working separately. By cooperating and pooling our resources, we can effect bigger change and do more good. One person’s expertise helps lead a team, where a team member may have more time to give, while yet another person is more comfortable giving money to use to buy materials. By working in concert and letting everyone give according to their own strengths, interests, and resources, we can more efficiently and effectively build the communities we want and change the world for the better. Our community is better because we come together.
Unitarian Universalism is less than 100 years old.
Our sources are very old, and our name comes from two very respectable traditions we can be proud of, but we are not those people. Our religion did not exist at the time of John Adams or John Murray. We are not their kind of Unitarian or Universalist, no matter how well we regard them. They would not recognize our faith, and might not approve. That is OK.
Unitarianism and Universalism each had changed greatly over the first half of the 20th Century, and there are still churches that cling to what they were rather than joining our association. What they became when they merged was something still different from what they had been in 1960. Our religion has evolved and is always evolving. (Evolved does not mean superior, but that is off topic.) We do not close the book of knowledge and declare our search for truth and meaning to be done, and we might never reach that point. That is OK. The search is part of our religion. That’s because:
Unitarian Universalism is a process without a definite goal.
There is no one right way to be a Unitarian Universalist. There is no standard of belief or behavior that one must follow or even strive for. As long as you agree with the process, our hope is for you to be your own, unique, best self.
It is like making soup.
There are guidelines for what is a soup, as opposed to a casserole or a stir fry. There are things that are not safe to put in soup, because they are not food and are dangerous in some way. But soup can be sweet or savory, hot or cold. It can even be soup if you burned something and it doesn’t taste all that great, and we allow you to start over at any time. It can have things in it other people dislike or are even allergic to, and it can still be a soup that satisfies you and makes you happy.
That is Unitarian Universalist theology. It is personal, and it is different for everyone, at least in how they came to it. There are Principles, and there are guidelines for what is responsible in your search for truth and meaning, but as long as there isn’t anything harmful to you, and it respects the right of others to their own theology, you can be a UU, even if you occasionally fail to live up to your own standards. The thing is the commitment to the process.
We start with belonging.
In many groups and organizations, you have to prove yourself before you are allowed to participate. That makes sense in a professional setting. That is fine for a social club. That is not how we feel about religious community. Instead, we start with accepting you, as you are and with whatever history you have, and we work on helping you become your best, as only you can define it. We start with the belonging, and then comes the work. That way, the encouragement is always done with love and respect, or, at least that is the goal. It is good to keep in mind that
We expect setbacks and mistakes.
Our Principles are not a strict code of conduct. They are aspirations we have set for our congregations; goals we have agreed to work towards and a covenant to guide us. We don’t force anything on you, and we expect disagreements and even outright failures. We are all human, after all. Our job is not to condemn you for your past, but to help you learn from it and become your best in the future. As long as you are working towards that, even in a round-about way, you can choose to call yourself a Unitarian Universalist.
Every Congregation is Different!
If you tell anyone any of the above information, please also tell them this. Each of our congregations is its own church, and they set their own schedules, themes, and tone. They might sound like completely different religions, based on the words they choose and the songs they sing. They have the same core, and the same goals, and they are free to work towards those goals in whatever way they can be enthusiastic about. If there are other congregations in your area, mention them. Let people know that a bad fit in one may say very little about their experience with another. It is wonderful to be proud of your home, but remember that helping people feel accepted and encouraging them to spiritual growth is more important than the growth of any one congregation.