10 things We Want Everyone to Share About Unitarian Universalism

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.


…and cooperative!

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.

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11 Responses to 10 things We Want Everyone to Share About Unitarian Universalism

  1. Michael Hipps August 5, 2015 at 11:09 am #

    I would be really interested if, in some future post, you would expand on the part about how we are less than one years old. And how, although we come from two faiths, we are not those faiths.

    • Thomas August 5, 2015 at 2:41 pm #

      Thank you for asking! We will give that some thought and see if we can give you a few hundred words (paring it down from a couple of thousand). It is a great topic, and it has a lot to do with embracing revelation as an ongoing process…

  2. Rev Byrd Tetzlaff August 6, 2015 at 11:11 am #

    I love this. As a UU minister, I am often asked about our Faith and these days sometimes I am at a loss for words. But your words are a great starting point for a conversation (yes, a two-way conversation) about what it is to be a Unitarian Universalist.

    Thank you.

    Rev Byrd Tetzlaff

    • Thomas August 6, 2015 at 12:50 pm #

      That is a huge compliment, and I thank you for sharing it. My goal is to form a ministry of my own, using the most modern tools, to make Unitarian Universalism easier to understand and share. The response to this post indicates that I am on my way. I am blessed to have made it this far.

  3. James Witker (@jwitker) August 6, 2015 at 10:28 pm #

    “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.”

    Thomas, I think that this is an interesting way to express the emphasis on pluralism in UU. But I think that the postmodernism that gave rise to process theology has gone too far. It has failed to provide powerful meanings. Openness to new information and ideas is so important. But when UUs focus so keenly on this idea that truth is different for everyone and always changing, what non-UUs hear is that we don’t care about what is *objectively* true, that we don’t have any commitment to ideas or knowledge that has been hard-won. Similarly, some of us are fighting a losing battle to reclaim religious language. The problem is that we are in a literal age, caught between the fundamentalist literalists on one side and the New Atheists on the other. I do lament it to some degree, but there is less and less room for nuanced, elastic definitions of a word like “soul.” Most people either believe in a duality of spirit and body or do not. I suspect the ones that do are confused by the idea that it can mean “whatever” to you. The ones that don’t are not as content as previous generations of religious liberals to translate religious terms in their heads. They are simply turned off and don’t want to waste time on stuff they don’t believe in.

    If we want to appeal the the “nones” as much as we often say we do, we need better messaging and some stronger, clearer ideas.

    • Thomas August 7, 2015 at 1:30 am #

      While keeping an open mind is certainly something we advocate, the I Am UU project teaches that we have a foundation of liberal theology and that there are things outside of the wide fence provided by Unitarian Universalism. We have stated many, many times that “responsible” is every bit as important as “free” when searching for truth and meaning. That said, I’m just a guy with a Facebook page and a website, and I have to hope that no one looks to me as their primary source of spiritual guidance. I am tentatively calling myself a religious educator, but one with no more credential than my volunteer history, at the moment, and I am certainly not fit to lead anyone in deep faith development. I have to hope that our religious professionals will find a way to convince us all that being a UU implies a commitment to a process of discernment and discovery.

      As for better messaging, that’s a big part of my ministry, and I’m told I’ve helped a few people over the years to find a spiritual community. I am always looking for new ideas.

  4. Jim Barnett August 7, 2015 at 11:10 pm #

    Every definition that I know of humanism is that it is non-theistic=atheist. It’s a good word. Embrace it. Who said that our central theology is Process Theology? I thought we were non-credal. I think that Process Theology is nonsense and as far as I know, I’m a UU.

    • Thomas August 8, 2015 at 12:48 am #

      One need only look to Merriam Webster to refute your first point, in that few definitions of Humanism actually mention atheism.

      humanism: noun hu·man·ism \ˈhyü-mə-ˌni-zəm, ˈyü-\
      : a system of values and beliefs that is based on the idea that people are basically good and that problems can be solved using reason instead of religion

      Or, if you prefer Cambridge,

      humanism, noun [U] us /ˈhju·məˌnɪz·əm/
      a system of thought and reasoning based on human values and interests, often without accepting the beliefs of religion

      Obviously, that last part cannot apply to Unitarian Universalism, as we are a religious movement, but the rest stands, and makes no mention of gods at all. It is a good word, and we do embrace it, but like other words that UUs quibble with me over, such as “evangelism”, I refuse to let the actual definition be changed by people with agendas and loose the use of a good word to fundamentalists.

      As for our theology, you can call it what you like. “Process Theology” is really just a way of saying that our theological house is always in remodel, always expanding and tearing down the bits that no longer serve us. You are free to name it what you like, and it is precisely because ours is a process theology.

      As far as the implied question at the end, as to whether you are a UU, I will repeat:

      There is no one right way to be a Unitarian Universalist… 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.

      Only you know for sure what your commitment is, and so I will always take you at your word if you say you are a Unitarian Universalist.

  5. James Long August 9, 2015 at 4:25 am #

    Thomas, you’ve hit on something here that is provocative, powerful, and potentially transformational.
    Evangelism before the internet probably clashed with UU culture, where humanism was a refuge in a US society where going to church was the norm. But two things have changed radically in just 20 to 30 years.

    First, the US is not a predominantly church going culture anymore.

    Second, as Marshall McLuhan says, “The medium is the message”. Evangelism on the internet plays to UU’s strength, that it can be an exchange of ideas and words.

    When I was 19 years old, I was a missionary for the Mormon church. That type of evangelism is not about ideas, it is about devotion and emotion to convert people.

    Evangelism on the web, sparked by powerful imagery, and followed by discussion in a transparent, open source, bulletin board type of electronic setting makes evangelism almost seem like an academic debate. It makes UU evangelism an exciting possibility.

    The last thing I want to say is that UU’s do reach out to the world, not with evangelism, but with social justice. From my perspective, UU’s have a weak theological identity, and do not engage young adults as well as the evangelicals. If UU’s can find an appropriate UU evangelism, I think the association will grow with creativity, and be more attractive to young people.

  6. Kitten August 9, 2015 at 9:44 pm #

    Today, I processed more OKness @ about myself and my God connection than I’ve been able to positively voice or
    understand. …….My inner struggle now feels like it can LISTEN; not with a conflicted ear but with a conversational
    possibility. I look forward to reading more. Thank you for beginning this sharing medium of principled faith & actions.

  7. Kitten August 31, 2015 at 4:12 pm #

    WOW ! the timing of this topic……an” evangelical” family member gave me Adam Hamilton’s book Christianity’s
    Family Tree (what other Christian’s believe & why)…Prior to that, another family member had asked me where the
    church had failed me…….I find myself saying that my traditions gave me roots and I’m branching out differently than
    the traditions of my background. U U’s are not apart of this book’s reunion, but a supportive branch for MY growth.

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