Engaging Our Theological Diversity


The Commission on Appraisal



Chapter 5


Theology: How Do We Frame the World?





Contents of Chapter 5



Key Questions

What Shapes Our Religious Convictions?

Where Is Our Religious Authority?

Do the Principles and Our History Unite Us?

How Important Are Our UU Sources?

How Do We Understand the Universe?

What Do We Believe About Sin and Evil?

How Do We View Human Nature?

Do We Believe in a Transcendent Dimension?

What Are Our Spiritual Paths?

Who Has Inspired Us?

How Have We Changed?


Theological Challenges

Outgrowing the Enlightenment Worldview

The Postmodern Critique

Our Christian Roots


Depth versus Breadth


The Ground on Which We Meet








Do UU commonalities and interconnections find support in common theological ground? Some who have attended Commission on Appraisal hearings and completed questionnaires have doubted this, or even its desirability. Others have offered diverse reflections on how UU values come together into a worldview supported by implicit if not always explicit theological assumptions about the nature of reality.


As we ponder the question of the unifying characteristics of Unitarian Universalism amid its ever-increasing theological diversity, we now explore the religious ideas that continue to define Unitarian Universalism. Areas of understanding historically considered theological include the nature of the cosmos and of human beings, how we know what we know, where we find our religious authority, how we practice our values and strengthen our spirits, what we see as the goal of the religious journey and the nature of religious community, and how we define our mission in the world.


A common fallacy about Unitarian Universalism is that one can be UU and believe anything. In point of fact, the religion UUs understand and practice today emerges from a particular history of ideas. Those ideas, reflecting the tradition’s roots, were once clearly expressed in the terms of Western Christian theology. Those earlier explicit expressions of theology have given way to an implicit theology, one that is buried within the seven ethical Principles that the UU movement has officially adopted. Nonetheless, the Principles emerge out of a theological tradition that can be traced back to the most radical, free-thinking branch of the Protestant Reformation. UUs are the product of a particular theology, and our core beliefs continue to implicitly express that theology even as we have shied away from explicitly articulating it.


In this light, it is not accurate to say that UUs can believe anything, particularly in terms of theology. To put forward such a notion cuts the tradition off from its historical and theological roots.


Present-day Unitarian Universalists have a tendency to underemphasize the common theological elements of our faith as rooted in our history. A clearer and more consistent articulation of the theology UUs hold in common, and the origin of these liberal theological beliefs, could be one source of greater denominational cohesion. Religious narrative is a part of every major world religion, and the common theological aspects of the Unitarian Universalist narrative should be named and celebrated.


This chapter is not intended to be an in-depth, exhaustive, or academic study of Unitarian Universalist theology. Rather, we seek to launch a conversation that allows for the fact that Unitarian Universalism has an extant theology, a fact frequently de-emphasized in favor of ethics. UU theological roots should be, and are, a source of unity among us, even as UUs find ever more diverse expressions of their liberal theology. We recognize that others are actively working on articulating Unitarian Universalist theology further and more deeply; there is a need and a hope within the movement for this work. We hope that such efforts will deepen the cursory discussion we offer here.


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Key Questions


The following discussion incorporates findings from literature review, Commission hearings, GA workshops, and focus groups. It is informed by findings of a brief questionnaire used with three congregations (86 respondents) and a longer theology questionnaire completed by 170 ministers and students (representing about 15 percent of the UU ministry) as well as 279 lay respondents (most of these in four congregations). The statistics quoted below for theological statements are from the second survey. We recognize that conclusions from such a small lay sample can only be suggestive.


What Shapes Our Religious Convictions?


Is UU faith rooted more in experience  than in beliefs?
Are UUs fully cognizant of the difference?


Almost universally among UUs, personal experience is considered the most important source of religious conviction. While support for deriving convictions from one’s own experience is consistent across variables, significant gender, generational, and personality-type differences do appear in the comparative importance assigned to reason and intuition. The groups that contrast most strongly in valuing reason as a source of convictions are men over age sixty and women under sixty. Conversely, female respondents value dialogue as a source of conviction more than men do, especially older men.


In UU theologian James Luther Adams’s words, “Actuality is richer than thought. There is always a tension between logos and being.”1 Past UUA president William Schulz observes that, to his knowledge, with one exception the signers of the first Humanist Manifesto never “talked about religion in terms of experience; they talked exclusively in terms of beliefs.”2 While recognizing that assumptions do filter experience, UU discourse has shifted significantly over the past eighty years. Humanist Manifesto II, which Schultz signed (along with process philosopher Henry Nelson Wieman), explicitly acknowledged the importance of experience. Is UU faith rooted more in experience than in beliefs? Are UUs fully cognizant of the difference?


Canadian naturalist David Suzuki states,


Plato and Aristotle . . . began a powerful process of separating the world-as-abstract-principle from the world-as-experience—dividing mind . . . from body, and human beings from the world they inhabit. . . . The story told by the Western world specifically excludes human experience as a source of truth. We assert an “objective reality,” made of abstract universal principles, which is more correct, more accurate than the messy sensory world we experience daily.3


Process theologian Bernard Meland puts it this way:


Experience . . . is not so much an interplay of explicit sensory responses as a bodily event which conveys to the living organism, in a holistic way, its rapport and participation in the nexus of relationships which constitute its existence. . . . Depths and discontinuities harass the inquiring mind.”4


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Where Is Our Religious Authority?


Unitarian Universalists have distinguished themselves from other religious groups by where they look for religious authority. Over five hundred years ago, their forebears challenged the authority of religious institutions. Today, scriptures are seen more often as inspirational than authoritative. Unitarian Universalism’s identity as the “free church” has been central to its evolution. So where do UUs today look for religious authority — for what gives legitimacy to their convictions? The italicized statements that follow are items on the theology questionnaire described earlier in this chapter.


“Our primary religious authority is our own experience. Therefore freedom of conscience and choice are central.” This assertion is closely related to the above discussion, and almost all of our respondents agree that it is highly important. UU Wiccan Margot Adler writes, “The battles I would wage would be my own, under my own authority . . . rejecting all answers that did not come from skin and bones and my always ambivalent, continually doubting, heretic’s heart.”5


Biblically centered UU historian David Parke confirms, “Our concern begins and ends in direct personal experience. While valuing the insights of others, we give highest priority to what we ourselves have seen, heard, touched, tasted, and smelled. . . . While cherishing the testimony of others we demand an original engagement with the world and we are impatient with lifeless truth and borrowed authority.”6


Postmodern philosophers assert that the very way people experience — what they notice and what they fail to notice, and how they shape their perceptions — is profoundly influenced by their cultures and individual histories. These concerns are at least partially addressed if we understand experience as encounter rather than perception. Postmodern critiques do affirm that attention to our particularity comes closer to what is real than abstract concepts of a unified reality.


“We deepen our wisdom in community when we share our stories and engage in dialogue across our differences.”


This affirmation was highly important to 82 percent of lay folk and 91 percent of ministers. The recent popularity of covenant groups attests to a growing appreciation of the power of dialogue as a spiritual practice and recognition of the wisdom to be garnered through challenging yet respectful engagement.


A lay respondent observed that UUs “discern where our hearts are moved in common and grow/connect there. Differences are honored, discussed, and shared, but do not limit our forward motion of spirit.” This focus on the power of dialogue in community to help UUs distill truth is not as new as one might think. In her study of the history of covenant in UU tradition, lay theologian and minister Alice Blair Wesley describes our seventeenth-century ancestors as dedicated to doing exactly that. She shows, for example, how church records in Dedham, Massachusetts, describe in detail the house meetings the founders held in 1637 to develop the foundation of their covenant:


Each one could, as they chose, speak to the question, or raise a closely related question and speak to that, or state any objections or doubts concerning what any other had said, “so it were humbly & with a teachable hart, not with any mind of cavilling or contradicting.” In other words . . . here we speak our own understandings or doubts. No arguing. The record reports that all their “reasonings” were “very peaceable, loving & tender, much to edification.”7


“We are committed to the use of reason to interpret our experience and to form and test our religious convictions.”


A solid 90 percent of those responding to the theology questionnaire considered reason “important.” However, a substantially lower number (26 percent of clergy and 46 percent of laypersons) answered “very important.” In contrast, 72 percent of the clergy surveyed considered the first Source (“direct experience of mystery”) to be “very important,” and only 2 percent rated it less than “important.”


In the past few years there have been numerous references to the 1995 UU Ministers’ Convocation in Little Rock, Arkansas, where some participants were distressed at what they took to be a rejection of reason.8 Over 95 percent had just agreed to wording to the effect that “a profound experience of the holy” (small h) was at “the core of our faith”; an amendment was proposed to add a phrase about “critical trust in the power of reason” to the sentence. This amendment was defeated, and there was no time to process what that meant and find a resolution. A primary argument of those who voted against the amendment was that reason, as important as it is, belonged logically in the following sentence, as a means of processing and understanding one’s experience. Others would agree with Sarah Oelberg’s statement in a recent sermon: “I submit that the heart of our faith always has been and still is a devotion to reason.”9 Perhaps the current study can shed some light upon that controversy.


Among nearly eight hundred respondents to the Commission on Appraisal’s query “What is at the core of your faith?” only 2 to 4 percent of diverse groups mentioned reason. (When asked about their congregation’s center, however, responses were in the 6- to 20-percent range.) Clearly, discovering a “reasonable” faith has been life-changing for some; for others (especially many who grew up UU), disciplined inquiry is taken for granted as a way of life. As for the 10 percent who indicate they do not consider reason important, some agree with minister Richard Erhardt: “When I was growing up I learned that it was all right to say just about anything that was on my mind in my UU congregation. But that right ended if I mentioned the word God.”10 It is a fact of UU history that while some have come to us because their authentic selves were wounded in orthodox Christian (or other) communities, there are also UUs who have had their most precious, life-transforming experiences dismissed by fellow UUs in the name of reason.


Discovering a “reasonable” faith has been life-changing for some;
 for others, disciplined inquiry is taken for granted as a way of life.


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Do the Principles and Our History Unite Us?


“Sharing stories from our larger UU faith traditions” garnered a modest 54-percent rating of high importance from lay respondents, while ministers valued it more strongly at 80 percent. UU Principles and Sources, in contrast, were valued similarly by both groups, at just under 70 percent. Though not the case among lay respondents, ministers who grew up in the UU tradition or its precursors found the Principles less important than those who did not. This group valued other aspects of the tradition as a source of convictions somewhat more highly than come-inners did.


A number of respondents did focus upon the Principles as providing a center of faith, for them or for their congregation: “Our center does exist: individual search, human dignity, care for world, etc.” Some clearly make reflecting upon the Principles a spiritual practice: “I take the Principles very seriously and found that the deep reflection needed in life to be faithful to those values has changed me. . . . The different ‘Sources’ work for different people, for the same center (the Principles).” There does seem to be some confusion about the function of the Principles, however. Some respondents think the Principles “don’t go deep enough,” or fear they are too often treated as a creed rather than as a covenant among congregations. On the other hand, a GA participant wrote, “I was surprised that in our group we did not say that what holds us together is the seven Principles — that they have to be agreed upon if we stay in Unitarian Universalism.”


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How Important Are Our UU Sources?


Nothing is more characteristic of Unitarian Universalists than a diversity of self-naming. For example, while 20 percent of the eighty-six respondents from churches surveyed in the New York area chose to call themselves “Unitarian Universalist,” over twenty different theological descriptors were mentioned as well. Overall, the Commission’s research supports the perception that most Unitarian Universalists draw from diverse Sources, in every conceivable combination.


While 65 percent or more of lay respondents to the longer theology questionnaire consider each UU Source important, no single Source has a clear edge — despite the fact that nearly half of the respondents belong to churches with a strong humanist identity. Gender and generation are significant here: women under age sixty rated the first Source (“direct experience of transcending mystery”) significantly higher, and the fifth (“humanist teachings”) significantly lower; men over sixty reversed this trend. Comparing these two Sources for mutual exclusion garners a little creative tension: 12 to 16 percent highly valued one while considering the other unimportant. A large majority, however, embraced both these Sources, as well as others. This is particularly true of the clergy respondents, whose responses showed no significant tension between the first and fifth Sources. The first Source had a clear edge among clergy, as 90 percent rated it highly important. Intriguingly, the greatest contrast here is between male ministers of different types on the Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory: Thinking men valued the first Source least, while feeling men valued it most. Two-thirds of the clergy respondents rated “words and deeds of prophetic women and men” highly important, followed closely by the third and fourth Sources. “Humanist teachings” ranks fifth, with substantial generational and gender variation (nearly all respondents consider these teachings important, but relatively few ranked them as “very important”).


Among clergy who completed the theology questionnaire and who briefly described their theological orientation, the language of process theology (including panentheism and process naturalism), was used by 32 percent of respondents, the largest proportion. Second was humanism (20 percent). For the most part this is “hyphenated humanism,” combined by all but three informants with language related to one or more of the following: mysticism, process theology, God/transcendence, or Christianity. Several also mentioned Buddhism or Paganism. In the 17-to-19-percent range were mystic, Christian, and God/transcendence; Buddhism and religious naturalism are in the 13-to-14-percent range; and pagan and feminist/liberation language clustered in the 5-to-6-percent range. Among the small group of lay respondents who gave descriptors, humanism and process theology each garnered 17 percent. Religious naturalism was third, with 14 percent. Multiple descriptors were common, and over a quarter of the respondents used language outside these categories to describe themselves.


This tendency toward multiple self-naming is showing up in many places in the UU faith. Most search committees in the past several years have adopted survey instruments allowing multiple choices. How people identify themselves theologically depends on many factors, including definitions given and the options offered. The Commission phrased its questions in a way that did not emphasize theological boxes, weighing each Source separately, and also invited open-ended self-naming and core-of-faith statements. It focused upon sources of unity more than points of separation. With the caveat that any conclusions about the perspectives of laity in our movement from the Commission’s limited research can only be extremely tentative, the resulting picture is different from that found by two studies in the last decade.


One of these was the “Fulfilling the Promise” survey, completed by about 6 percent of adult membership in 1997. When allowed only one choice and limited options for self-identification, 46 percent of respondents selected “humanist” from the list of options given. Next were earth- or nature-centered (19 percent), theist (13 percent), and Christian (9.5 percent), followed by mystic, Buddhist, Jewish, Hindu, and Muslim in ever smaller percentages. At the same time, when asked what is missing in their UU experience, 52 percent said, “greater intensity of celebration, joy, and spirituality.” These results suggest a polarization that may well be somewhat exaggerated by the power of language.


Commissioner James Casebolt11 conducted another study in the Midwest giving twenty theological labels from which to choose. The results showed respondents “felt the need to circle three or four terms to describe their theological views.” About 54 percent selected humanist, 33 percent agnostic, 31 percent earth-centered, 18 percent atheist, 17 percent Buddhist, and 13 percent each for pagan and Christian.


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How Do We Understand the Universe?


UUs do have a cosmology, and it stand in contrast to the most
common interpretation emerging out of the Abrahamic faiths.


One of the primary functions of religion is to provide people with a framework for understanding the physical world and their place in it. The Principle that most clearly expresses contemporary Unitarian Universalist cosmology is belief in the interdependent web of all existence. This guiding Principle fuels much of modern-day UU social justice and advocacy work related to environmentalism, animals’ rights, economic injustice, and homelessness, among other worthy and related causes. The current UU understanding of an interdependent and interconnected cosmos has evolved from a theology that we can trace back through our Christian roots to the Old Testament book of Genesis. Genesis is the cornerstone for some of the basic cosmology evident in all three Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam): specifically, Genesis 1:24-31 and 9:1-17. The most common interpretations of Genesis hold that human beings are the pinnacle of all creation. We are God’s favored creatures, with everything in creation — all the resources and all the animals — existing for our explicit benefit. Competing liberal interpretations hold that human beings are the custodians of creation, and that our role as custodians invokes great responsibility as well as privilege. Regardless of the interpretation to which one subscribes, both interpretations create a human-centered cosmology — humans are the centerpiece of creation.


These traditional Jewish and Christian understandings of creation were called into question with the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment. With the publication of the discoveries of Isaac Newton in his Principia Mathematica in 1687, people began to believe in a “natural law” that governed all aspects of nature and human existence; the challenge for rational thinkers was merely to discover these laws, be they moral or scientific.


The latter half of the nineteenth century saw the development of new scientific understandings that pushed Western thought even further away from the traditional human-centered understanding of the universe. Charles Darwin (brother of a Unitarian minister) published The Origin of Species in 1860. Darwin’s book helped fuel a decades-long debate on evolutionary theory and the origins of the human species. Our location in an interconnected evolutionary chain implied a cosmology in which humans are merely one piece of creation rather than its centerpiece. Leaders from both the Unitarian and Universalist movements came to be important supporters of Darwinian evolutionary theory and all that it implied.12 These legacies from scientific rationalism, the Enlightenment, and Romanticism (which returned mystery and emotion to the equation) led to Unitarian and Universalist views of a universe in which humans are a part of an interconnected, sacred whole. Today, many UUs find expression of this belief through Eastern philosophies (such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism), Earth-centered traditions, and Native American spiritualities.


While the Unitarian Universalist understanding of our place in the universe, our cosmology, is not unique to Unitarian Universalism, it is worth noting that UUs do have a cosmology, and that it stands in contrast to the most common interpretations emerging out of the Abrahamic faiths. This theological evolution was borne out by the Commission’s study. Of all the questions asked in the theological survey, “The natural world is a web of interdependent connections, of which we are inescapably a part,” is the largest piece of common ground for both ministers and laity. Over 90 percent of respondents, across all demographics, asserted that this understanding is highly important to their faith. The rise of religious naturalism as an identifier led to the adoption of the seventh Principle in 1984, and interest has accelerated in the decades since.


One GA participant spoke of “the experience of the presence of life within me, within the present moment, within all people and creatures, and intuition that we all share this life and are intimately interconnected in a fragile and durable network of love.” Another wrote, “When we have a felt connection to the Interdependent web of existence, we trigger a natural inclination to become our best selves. I call the fact of interconnectedness and our inclination to be our best selves ‘God’.”


UUs’ experience of the natural world has led us to acknowledge that we are all profoundly interdependent. The first woman astronomer, Unitarian Maria Mitchell, wrote 150 years ago,


Small as is our whole system compared with the infinitude of creation, brief as is our life compared with the cycles of time, we are so tethered to all by the beautiful dependencies of law, that not only the sparrow’s fall is felt to the uttermost bound but the vibrations set in motion by the words that we utter reach through all space and the tremor is felt

through all time.13


The statement We do not live in a “two-story” universe where what is “natural” is separate from what is “holy” or “sacred” is also an area of common ground. Alice Blair Wesley reminds us, “Channing and many other Unitarian teachers of their generation labored all their lives to proclaim: “The extraordinary is but the unfolding of what can reasonably be shown by experience to be implicit in the ordinary.”14 UU religious naturalist and professor of religion Jerome Stone writes, “My naturalistic outlook suggests to me that the deeper vision we seek to attain is not of another realm or of invisible spirits, but rather a revised insight into importance of things. There is a ‘depth,’ not apart from, but right in the midst of things.”15


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What Do We Believe About Sin and Evil?


While present-day Unitarian Universalists continue to debate about what they call sin and evil, many would agree that, to the extent UUs believe in such things, our ideas are far from the conventional understandings of these terms. Religious notions of sin and evil have typically served the purpose of orienting human behavior and framing the human condition. Behavior that is discouraged is categorized as sinful. Realities of the human condition that are undesirable are deemed evil. Yet, religions have typically taken similar experiences and arrived at widely divergent conclusions with regard to what is deemed sinful or evil. What might be considered sinful or evil from a Hindu perspective can be quite different when examined through the lenses of Protestantism. Similarly, the historical Unitarian and Universalist perspectives on these terms has differed from that of mainstream American Protestantism.


New England Puritanism, out of which both Unitarianism and Universalism emerged, subscribed to the Calvinist belief in original sin. This belief held that all humans are born into a condition of inherent sinfulness. A combination of faith and leading a good life was required in order to be saved from this inherent sinfulness by God. According to the most severe Puritan interpretations, even piety and proper conduct did not guarantee election; the elect were chosen by God’s inscrutable grace alone, which mere human action was powerless to influence. The process of determining who was among the elect became increasingly complicated and convoluted as Puritanism took firmer hold in American soil. Eventually, dissent against the Puritan (Calvinist) notions of original sin and election began to emerge, fueled by liberal religious thinking in Europe.


The Congregationalist Churches of New England, the heirs of the Puritan tradition, began to experience a theological rift between more traditional, conservative ministers and those with increasingly liberal ideals. Liberal Congregationalists, the forerunners of the Unitarian movement, became associated with a theology known as Arminianism, the belief that people are born with the capacity for both sin and goodness and that salvation is possible for all.16


Our Unitarian forebears, in proposing that humans can choose between good and evil, developed a theology with greater emphasis on the actions people take. Universalists, with their doctrine of universal salvation, faced a complicated question: If all were eventually saved anyway, then why even try to lead a “good life” in the here and now? The Universalists developed different ways of answering this question, tending to emphasize that although universal salvation eventually happened for all, one was likely to be saved more quickly by leading a good life. The Universalists explicitly included an emphasis on good deeds in their 1803 Winchester Profession.


There are very strong connections between these historical theological developments and contemporary Unitarian Universalism. Present-day UUs continue to disagree with those who view evil or sinfulness as an inherent, God-given state of being. While recognizing human finitude, UUs are far more likely to characterize people’s actions or inactions as good or bad, placing a continued emphasis on deeds and individual choice. Although UUs have been chastened by the events of the past century, we still tend to be optimistic and to believe that human commitment and energy can change many of the wrongs in the world. In this lies not only individual salvation but the potential salvation of all humanity and perhaps of the earth itself.


Although UUs have been chastened by the events of the past century,
we still tend to be optimistic and to believe that human commitment
 and energy can change many of the wrongs in the world.


Sin and evil, in the current UU conception, thus tend to be viewed as the result of both human actions and failures. Yet the solution, or salvation, as it were, also lies largely in the hands of individuals — in the cultivation of character leading to positive actions — strengthening individuals’ potential to be positive forces in the world.


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How Do We View Human Nature?


With typical UU theological bias, the Commission did not ask questions about the nature of sin and evil, nor did any respondent mention these concepts in core of faith statements. However, among the statements considered most important by all groups surveyed is this one: Humans are born with the potential to be good; we are committed to nurturing good through love and learning. Around 90 percent of lay respondents and ministers considered this highly important. While there was little variation among lay respondents, among ministers this affirmation was particularly valued by women, feeling personality types, and those under age forty-five.


First written for the Berry Street Conference in 1941, UU theologian James Luther Adams’s essay on “The Changing Reputation of Human Nature” captures something of the tension of the time within the Unitarian tradition and is relevant to UU self-understanding today. Adams reflected upon three views of human nature, two from Greek philosophy and a third from Christianity, that he believed combined the other two.


The first view asserts that “reason is the masterful principle of creation. . . . Man’s primary, distinguishing faculty is his reason, and through it he can release a vitality that will enable him to achieve control of himself and of the human situation.”17 This view “exalts the cognitive, non-affective aspects of the human psyche.” The second perspective views existence “more in terms of . . . a vitality that is both creative and destructive, that imbues every form but that also eludes and bursts the bounds of every structure.” This point of view Adams referred to as voluntarism, because it focuses on will — vitality, feelings, and choice-making — rather than reason as the key to understanding human nature. He saw these two views as coming together in Christianity. Adams understood the intellectualism of his era as a reaction to “extreme forms of voluntarism.”18 However, his essay warns that the rationalistic tradition of his time has optimistically taken for granted the idea of unity in the world . . . and in the structure of the individual psyche. . . . [It] stresses the role of reason in such a way as to offer a truncated view of the functions operative in both society and the individual and also in such a way as to encourage both separative individualism and “the attitude of distance.” The voluntaristic outlook . . . aims to correct and supplement this view.19


The liberal optimism Adams spoke of was soon to be curtailed by history, but the question remains: Does the UU understanding of human nature do justice to its complexity and to motivations for personal and social transformation?


Does the UU understanding of human nature do justice to its
complexity and to motivations for personal and social transformation?


From our Universalist, voluntarist side comes the statement We embrace a covenant in love not to “give up on anyone” — to create inclusive community, which was affirmed by 80 percent of lay respondents and 72 percent of clergy as highly important.


The challenge of a UU doctrine of human nature, according to Meadville Lombard professor Thandeka, is that the Unitarians had one idea (shaped by William Ellery Channing) and the Universalists had another (shaped by Hosea Ballou); when the two denominations consolidated in 1961, this and other differences were never resolved. Thandeka traces in the formative events of each theologian’s life the vision of human nature he expressed in his theologies, one more rationalistic, the other more voluntaristic:


Channing affirmed an independent, disembodied mind — an autonomous self — as the essence of human nature. Ballou affirmed an interrelational self, one in which the feelings of the human body co-determine the state of the human mind. Channing believed human identity was completely discrete. For Ballou, it was embodied and thus communal because the body cannot exist without environmental support.20


Out of Ballou’s worldview, then, comes this question: To what extent do UUs’ theological and philosophical differences reflect our efforts to make sense of the formative experiences of our lives? Some who embrace a covenant of inclusive community are inspired by the vision of Ballou and other universalists of a God who keeps the latchstring out until the last child comes home. Carl Scovel, former minister of King’s Chapel in Boston, offers his story:


What changed my life . . . was my own discovery, or the divine disclosure, that I, who trusted least, could trust this love, that I, who believed so little, could believe it, that I, who wished to be above all self-sufficient, could receive it, that in my own imperfect way I could even sometimes live a little bit of it; and that I could do this, not because I was good, moral, clever, or wise, but because that love, that good intent at life’s own center, was beginning to transform me, not as I expected (god’s other name, after all, is surprise) but most surely and most steadily.21


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Do We Believe in a Transcendent Dimension?


Among the nearly eight hundred UUs who provided the Commission with a statement of what is at the core of their personal faith, between 16 and 30 percent of respondents from diverse groups named a transcendent dimension, whether or not they called it God. Quite a few respondents found a powerful center of faith in “deepening my response to God’s inexhaustible love.” One wrote, “At center is and always has been a rooted, personal, and living sense of connection to ‘source,’ ‘the Eternal,’ what as a child I was taught to name God. But even then I knew it was much bigger than humans can name.” Individual Christian UUs offer statements embracing “belief in God and Universal salvation for all souls” and “the importance of Jesus as an inspirational focus.” Several respondents expressed a strong opinion to the contrary: “The core of my faith is that there is no God.”


“The depth dimension of our lives (spirituality) calls us to live mindfully, seek meaning, and serve love.” Close to 90 percent of survey respondents gave this affirmation high importance. Women rated the statement higher than did men. It is of considerable interest that 86 percent of lay respondents and 90 percent of clergy valued both spirituality and reason.


Knowing and experiencing come together in spirituality, what minister Nancy Arnold calls “that elusive term that almost defies definition.” She continues,


Spirituality points, always, beyond: beyond the ordinary, beyond possession, beyond the narrow confines of the self, and — above all — beyond expectation. Because “the spiritual” is beyond our control, it is never exactly what we expect. . . . Carl Jung . . . remarked that “one of the main functions of formalized religion is to protect people against a direct experience of God.”22


Humanist minister Khoren Arisian offers these words:


To learn to be in touch with this fundamental life force, this depth dimension of reality that cannot be weighed or measured, is to sanctify one’s existence, and, through its working out, to establish the grounds for lasting affection between people and the earth at-large. It’s the kind of love that never diminishes, ever grows, and makes all things new.23


“We encounter ‘God’ in our own depths, in others, and in nature, seeking wholeness and transformation.” This statement, too, reflects a broad consensus among UUs. Even in a congregation with a strong humanist identity, 80 percent rated this statement important. Among respondents, there was a positive correlation with Feeling personality types and younger age. One GA participant wrote, “I believe in God, but not in the traditional sense. For me, God is the organizing force of the Universe, the rays of sun that shine through breaking clouds on the horizon, and most importantly, that which gives existence to all kinds of love between living beings.”


Ministers who value naturalistic “god” language, as exemplified by the above quotation, tend to rate relationality and community highly: “My faith is in the abiding presence of God which I find in all living things. This presence is the spark of love which animates us, sustains us.” UU minister Gary Kowalski writes in Science and the Search for God, “God is in the details — the lavishness and extravagance that bless every niche, nook and cranny of creation, so that out of the millions of species who inhabit our globe, not one creature has been left half-painted, merely sketched in or without a role to play within the larger picture.”24


“‘God’ can be conceived as a pervasive Creativity, ever evolving, that lures us beyond our limiting horizons.” Process theism was more controversial among lay respondents. About 60 percent of lay respondents considered this concept highly important; 82 percent of ministers did. Among ministers, correlations reflect both the relational and creative emphases of process theology. Richard Gilbert, a mystical humanist, explained,


With Henry Nelson Wieman, I think of the divine as the power of cosmic creativity. That creativity is manifest in nature as creative evolution; it is observed in history in those prophets of the human spirit who have tried to bend the arc of history toward justice against all odds; it is manifest here and now as we are co-creators of the Beloved Community. . . . It is my mystic identification with this creative process that prompts me to continue.”25


“Spiritual reality engages us in the midst of paradox and mystery; we are challenged to abide there at times.” This statement was also preferred by ministers over lay informants by a similar ratio of about four to three. “I dwell at the center of Mystery, possibility. To awaken to love and compassion, and to grow in wisdom are my central tasks,” wrote one minister. Another found his center in “faith in the compassion of God in the midst of paradox & mystery.” A GA participant who saw exploring what holds us together as the “most important issue we face today” wrote, “I use the word God, but it represents the unknown or mystery in life to me.”


Similarly, 58 percent of lay respondents said that they have had mystical experiences, compared to 81 percent of clergy. Most such experiences fall under the heading of natural mysticism. Examples include a profound sense of oneness with nature or with people, the birth of a child or the death of a loved one, something enfolding or uniting all things, a sudden new insight imbued with a feeling of certainty. For some, such compelling experiences have shaped the major choices of their lives.


Many people who shared their perspectives with the Commission
 find their religious lives in the creative space between theological
positions, taking a “both . . . and” approach to religious labels.


Many people who shared their perspectives with the Commission find their religious lives in the creative space between theological positions, taking a “both . . . and” approach to religious labels. Minister Richard Gilbert writes,


By mystic I mean one sensitive to a reality greater than the self, but of which the self is an integral part. Believing self is enmeshed in ultimate reality, the mystic celebrates that serendipitous union. . . . I try imaginatively to take a “God’s eye view of the world,” seeking to distance myself, however slightly, from my humanist perspective, to identify with the highest cosmic good insofar as I can imagine that good. In that sense I am a mystic, with a prophetic twist.26


Minister Lex Crane argues for rational mysticism at the core of UU religion:


The rational perspective divides reality into discreet parts . . . and gives a name to each part so that it can be held in the mind, be expressed in speech. . . . The mystical world view does just the reverse. It sets aside all words, all concepts or divisions, and perceives the world as one unified whole, radiant with meaning, and oneself set down in it, an integral part of it all. . . . If we learn to perceive the world now through mystical eyes and then, at other times, from a rational perspective, we begin to approach seeing the world whole. We get closer to reality. To God.27


If we learn to perceive the world now through mystical eyes and then, at other
times, from a rational perspective, we begin to approach seeing the world whole.


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What Are Our Spiritual Paths?


How does the widely recognized interest in spirituality express itself? Scott Alexander’s Everyday Spiritual Practice: Simple Pathways for Enriching Your Life offers some examples in a number of essays by Unitarian Universalists. Alexander describes “everyday spiritual practice” as “any activity or attitude in which you can regularly and intentionally engage, and which significantly deepens the quality of your relationship with the miracle of life both within and beyond you.”28


Respondents to the Commission’s theology questionnaire were asked about the importance in their lives of four paths:


All four were solidly supported among lay respondents (around 70 percent rated each highly important). Interestingly, the first two proved most important to ministers (at 92 and 82 percent, respectively, compared to 62 and 58 percent for the second pair). Here are some responses from workshop and questionnaire participants, as well as writers who find each important:


Love and Service



It will not be enough to offer people the opportunity to “build your own theology.” They must be offered the freedom to build their own theology in the context of a community which is asking serious and probing religious questions, and has the courage to make deep and profound affirmations—questions and affirmations rooted in a sense of who we are and what we care profoundly about.30



Though all of the contemplative traditions aim at going within and beyond reason, they all start with reason, start with the notion that truth is to be established by evidence, that truth is the result of experimental methods, that truth is to be tested in the laboratory of personal experience . . . and that dogmas or given beliefs are precisely what hinder the emergence of deeper truths and wider visions.31


Interior Harmony

It was not until I began a daily practice of meditation and in the deep silence fell smack dab into my own shadow — all the rationalizations, justifications, intellectualizations used over the years to maintain my “good girl” self-image — that I truly began to heal, truly began to learn the meaning of compassion.32


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Who Has Inspired Us?


This question produced a wide range of responses. After their own families, ministers, teachers, and friends, people most often named Jesus and the Buddha as sources of inspiration. James Luther Adams came second to Jesus among ministers, followed by the Buddha. Members of the laity also mentioned, in order of frequency, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., the Dalai Lama, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bertrand Russell, Deepak Chopra, Wayne Dyer, William Ellery Channing, William Schulz, and Kahlil Gibran.


Ministers left out Russell, Chopra, and Dyer and added Thich Nhat Hanh, Rebecca Parker, Howard Thurman, Rumi, Henry Nelson Wieman, Joanna Macy, Matthew Fox, and Starhawk. Eclectic as this list is, there were many more. The limited number of UU forebears among lay responses is noteworthy. How might we address this?


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How Have We Changed?


Many respondents supported the general observation that there
has been a shift in Unitarian Universalism away from a
humanist center to a more eclectic mix of philosophies or theologies.


Many respondents supported the general observation that there has been a shift in Unitarian Universalism away from a humanist center to a more eclectic mix of philosophies or theologies. This finding is additionally supported by the comments of a number of search committees that submitted packets in the past few years. Some fear this trend, while others celebrate it. Among the ministers surveyed, 39 percent said their congregations had become “more spiritual,” 26 percent “more diverse,” 19 percent “less humanistic,” and 15 percent more comfortable with “religious” language.


But people have noted other shifts as well, among them a growing awareness of “right relations” in congregations and a stronger sense of mission and inclusiveness. About 13 percent said there had been no change.


Only 5 percent said their congregation had become “more theistic.” There was mention of “new age” attitudes not always tested by an inquiring mind, but for the most part it appears UUs are attempting a holistic integration, using human experience as the primary authority across theological leanings as they are reflected upon through dialogue in community.


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Theological Challenges


As the Commission explored what might make up a Unitarian Universalist theological profile, we encountered areas of challenge as well as common ground and creative tension. While this is not the place for an extensive discussion of such challenges, we reflect briefly here upon several areas that are pertinent to UU self-understanding: challenges to Enlightenment philosophy, a postmodern critique of the modernist worldview, dealing with our Christian roots, challenges to Romanticism’s fascination with the exotic, and the dilemma of spiritual depth versus breadth.


Outgrowing the Enlightenment Worldview


John Cobb, liberal Christian process theologian, was asked as a sympathetic outsider to give his observations about Unitarian Universalism:


Today the limitations of Enlightenment modes of thought and of social organization are becoming more and more apparent. Whereas progress in the past two centuries has meant increasing the role of Enlightenment principles in our religious life, today it means something quite different. The dualism, the individualism, the rationalism, and the empiricism of the Enlightenment have all failed us. . . .


Unitarian Universalists have freed themselves from pre-Enlightenment baggage precisely by committing themselves to the insights of the Enlightenment. But now it is just those partial truths whose exaltation in theory and practice is destroying us. Can Unitarian Universalists find the resources to criticize the principles by which they have lived? If so, where? . . .


If Unitarian Universalists could become self-critical in this way, you could once again be in the vanguard of dealing with the most important issues of our time. I do not expect this, but I hope for it.33


Unitarianism in particular claims strong roots in the Enlightenment. Its gifts are enduring: reason — a valuing of evidence and the scientific method; Tolerance — the possibility of valuing multiple perspectives; and freedom — an appreciation of introspection, autonomy, and individual vs. role identity (which prepared the ground for such movements as women’s suffrage). The Enlightenment moved humans out of the center of the universe and encouraged imaginative possibility.34 Now we need to ask ourselves if it is possible that we have identified too strongly with a particular worldview and philosophical era. Could a continuing evolution of worldviews leave UUs holding the rearguard instead of the front lines at this time in history?


The modern world is struggling with an increased pace of change and the challenge of new paradigms. Many people are coping by trying to return to ways that worked in the past. Unitarian process theologian Henry Nelson Wieman’s definition of evil is resistance — resistance to change, resistance to the flow of creativity.35 Yet how do we know when it is time to let go, and when is the new idea on the horizon simply a passing fad that does not contribute to human wholeness? The hunger for more spirituality many UUs are expressing may well be a response to the lure of an emerging era.


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The Postmodern Critique


Postmodernism is a reaction against or a corrective to modernism. Modernism in theology can be very broadly characterized as a worldview based on an optimistic faith in progress and the rational pursuit of knowledge. Postmodern thinking, by contrast, asserts that it is hard to predict whether science will eventually save the world or destroy it.


In the nineteenth century, certain thinkers and philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche became disillusioned with the idea that knowledge could be objective and absolute. Nietzsche asserted that everything we know comes to us with a bias, our own and that of the predominant culture, and that how we know things is entangled in all kinds of social constructs. In the twentieth century, Jacques Derrida took this idea one step further, proposing a method of examining knowledge as it is expressed through written texts, what he called deconstruction.36 Derrida asserted that for any text there are multiple conflicting interpretations, none of which is definitive — everything is capable of holding multiple meanings. Author Daniel Adams says that postmodernism is a reaction to modern Western culture, in particular its excesses, arrogance, and ethnocentrism. He sees deconstructive postmodernism as a transitional viewpoint, composed as it is of negations of that which came before. He calls the postmodern age an in-between time: “The postmodern is the name given to this space between what was and what is yet to be.”37 There are, however, a number of thinkers in North America who look positively at the “constructive” school of postmodernism. Adams points out that one of the most significant trends of modern culture, the secularization of society, is starting to be reversed. Partly this is because the “false gods” that replaced theism (he names communism, nationalism, and progress as examples) have clearly failed, and people feel the need for something to take their place. He identifies four characteristics of postmodern thinking:


Suzanne Meyer, in her lecture to the Minister’s Convocation in Birmingham, Alabama, in 2002, applied these concepts to Unitarian Universalism. She pointed out that in many ways we are the quintessential modern religion — based on those Enlightenment ideals of rationalism, individuality, and faith in science and progress. She agrees with Adams that postmodernism critiques the blind spots and biases of modernism and affirms that it remains a needed perspective. She, like Adams, understands postmodernism as a between time” approach. Modernity is losing ground, but as yet nothing, at least nothing comforting or comfortable, has emerged to replace it.


Meyers uses the metaphor of the Exodus to explain where Unitarian Universalists are in this process. We were perfectly comfortable, she says, in Egypt. We are probably not comfortable in the wilderness: There is always the possibility that we may perish in the desert, that our religious movement is so inextricably wedded to modernism that it will not survive long enough to make it to the Promised Land. And although we are the generation that left Egypt, I seriously doubt we will be the ones to enter the promise. Nevertheless, brothers and sisters, we will have an important role to play as faithful and decisive leaders during this nomadic time.38


Many of the words used by the authors to talk about the postmodern world — pluralistic, radically inclusive, syncretic — are the very words we could use to describe contemporary Unitarian Universalism. A familiarity with postmodern thought can help UUs to understand our own evolution as a movement. An attempt to call the UU movement back to a time when there was an easy and identifiable core, a single overarching paradigm, would be a move backward instead of forward. According to author Leonard Sweet, “Postmodern thought has turned with a vengeance against Enlightenment notions of a fixed center toward which we strive, or a single central self.”39 So as UUs seek the core of their faith, they should be careful not to settle for an anachronistic or nostalgic vision of what Unitarian Universalism was in the past rather than a dynamic vision of what it is and will be, or should be.


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Our Christian Roots


Both the Unitarian and the Universalist national organizations were Christian at the time of consolidation, although this seems to have been forgotten or ignored in some parts of the denomination. In the intervening forty-two years, there has been a dramatic shift. Today most UUs, if asked, “Are you Christian?” would respond with something between “Well, not really,” and “Hell, no!” Though there are many UU Christians, they have become a minority within the denomination. In fact, UUs seem almost proud of the way they have abandoned their roots. “We are not Christian,” some say, perhaps implying that they are better than Christian, that they have moved beyond Christianity. In religious studies, this idea is called supersessionism; one example is the notion that Christianity superseded Judaism. Now many of us imply that Unitarian Universalism has superseded Christianity.


Unitarian Universalists need to make peace with their heritage.


We are not suggesting, as some might, that Unitarian Universalism should become a Christian denomination again. That would not be remotely practical, even if it were desirable. But UUs should do a better job of remembering the tradition from which they came, and even be grateful to it. UUs should be aware of, and make use of, the rich gifts the movement’s heritage has for them. UUs need to stop being afraid to talk about their roots.


Unitarian Universalist need to stop
being afraid to talk about their roots.


There are two aspects to this idea.


Individually, UUs need to make peace with their own religious backgrounds, whatever they may be. In completely throwing away the religion of one’s childhood, one loses a lot. This includes people who were raised in a rigid, dogmatic faith — the ones we usually think of as having serious issues with their past — but also others. For example, it includes born-and-raised UUs who may have issues with the humanism they were exposed to in childhood. As a contrary example, there is a rich mystical tradition in humanism, including among many of those who drafted the original Humanist Manifesto, that is often overlooked by humanists today.


We strongly encourage all UUs to be intentional about dealing with their past. It is important, of course, to do things only as they are appropriate and not charge into painful psychic territory before one is ready. But we strongly caution against getting stuck in a place of comfortable reactivity, and never moving past it.


Institutionally, Unitarian Universalism needs to make peace with its Christian heritage. While there are many strands of UU heritage about which people are ignorant, Christianity is what tends to make people reactive. This makes sense based on UU demographics — the largest number of “wounded” come-inners have come from Christian faiths, and so they tend to react against that tradition. But although Unitarian Universalism is not a Christian faith today, within living memory it was, and its roots are firmly in the Christian tradition. Just as a person loses a lot by throwing away his or her personal religious past, UUs also collectively lose a great deal of who we are and what we could be by discarding the entirety of this part of our heritage. As long we continue to allow this reactivity to Christianity to disconnect us from our personal and institutional heritage, we will be lacking a large part of who we are as a movement and will be unable to be fully whole.


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The diversity of spiritual and scriptural sources available to Unitarian Universalists is a source of intense pride for most. It is a mark of the undogmatic nature of the faith, and of the fact that UUs can find many ways to express the core spiritual values we hold dear. However, as the adage goes, one’s greatest strength can also be one’s greatest weakness. The spiritual and scriptural openness of the UU faith, which appeals to so many, also creates some unique problems. One such problem, which is also related to the ambivalence (or outright hostility) many UUs feel toward their personal religious roots, is that of cultural and religious misappropriation and exoticism.


The problem of exoticism is rooted in the background of most adult UUs as well as prevailing cultural notions of what’s fashionable. The vast majority of UUs are come-inners, those who were not raised in the religion and came to it as converts. (A 1997 denomination study showed that at the time, only 10 percent of members had been raised in UU traditions.) The vast majority of these converts, in turn, are UUs who were either unchurched or previously churched in the Christian or Jewish traditions. Those who left their Christian congregations usually did so because of some sense of disaffection or incompatibility. Many UUs in this come-inner category have not completely processed or reconciled their feelings of dissatisfaction with the religion they have left behind. Those unreconciled feelings tend to manifest themselves in the form of a strong reaction against anything that draws on the religious traditions they have abandoned. For the unreconciled, the use of Christian scripture or metaphor in UU services tends to raise suspicion and sometimes anger. This undercurrent of anti-Christianity is reinforced by cultural sentiments among the liberal intellectuals Unitarian Universalism tends to attract that Christianity is passé. It’s old news; it’s too conservative; it has been co-opted by people opposed to the values religious liberals hold dear. In short, it’s not “in.” What is “in,” and also unobjectionable (from the standpoint of many unreconciled former Christians), is anything Eastern or “earthy” in nature. Hinduism, Buddhism, Native American spirituality, and pagan earth-centered religions have been identified as trendy, cool, and acceptable among UUs. The problem with this is that the fashionability of these “exotic” religions is frequently defined in opposition to Christianity. The exotic religions are prima facie given great latitude and not always critically examined, while any use of Christian sources in UU churches is minutely scrutinized.


The exotic religions are given great latitude and not always critically examined,

while any use of Christian sources in UU churches is minutely scrutinized.


There is an unspoken assumption that Christian sources need to be treated with suspicion, while other, more exotic sources are inherently full of wisdom. In truth, as most of our UU clergy are aware, there is as much wisdom and insight in Jewish and Christian sources as there is in other more fashionable traditions. This exotic fashionability of non-Judeo-Christian sources is something that the UU movement has not adequately examined but needs to. There is a colonialist attitude inherent in the way UUs, made up predominantly of whites, seem to pick and choose what they want from religions that have traditionally belonged to ethnic groups different from the majority UU demographic. It seems like an unspoken assumption that UUs, as members of a predominantly white denomination, can take what we find appealing from the religions of Native Americans, East Asians, South Asians, and others without any regard for the context or the history of the symbols, beliefs, and practices that we are seeking to co-opt. (One small example of this is the universal depiction in UU circles of Buddhism as a religion of peace and nonviolence, an image that does not stand the test of history. One need merely examine the histories of Sri Lanka and Cambodia to understand that.)


The reality is that all religions have their flaws and have been historically misused. While UUs are hypersensitive to this reality when it comes to Christianity, we are virtually uncritical in our examination of religions considered exotic. This exoticism, when examined through the lenses of white power, raises concerns over how Unitarian Universalists, as a movement, might be adopting the symbols, rituals, and beliefs of traditionally nonwhite religions in a way that is tokenizing (selectively picking and choosing), in essence a form of cultural misappropriation that could be interpreted as racist. To the extent that the process of appropriation typically occurs in an uncritical vacuum or with a lack of full contextual understanding,

UUs run the additional risk of misappropriating (taking out of context) that which we are adopting as our own.


A particular aspect of this issue concerns religious language. Because of the almost instinctive resistance to all things Christian, which has become a strong undercurrent in the UU movement, it tends to be quite difficult for ministers to use English-language theological terms rooted in Christianity. Terms like sin, redemption, salvation, and even God require elaborate explanation and redefinition when used in a UU context. Even then, some UUs still object, arguing that these terms have already been defined by mainstream Christianity and cannot be redefined. Many of these same UUs will uncritically accept the use of terms like nirvana, dharma, karma, or moksha from the UU pulpit, even though our own usage of these terms almost invariably requires some measure of redefinition or reinterpretation. Again, the exotic gets a pass, while the familiar (that which may have caused hurt in the past) is heavily scrutinized. Even in terms of the theological language to which UUs tend to be open, we see themes of racial/cultural power and appropriation at play.


To be clear, we are not arguing that UUs should turn away from the spiritual wisdom they have found in Hinduism, Buddhism, Native American spirituality, earth-centered religions, and other traditions. UUs could, however, probably benefit from a deeper examination of how we relate to all of the religious traditions we currently draw on. If we can find ways to do this, we can move as a movement toward a more holistic approach to our diverse theological sources. If we begin addressing these problems we stand to achieve a deeper, more authentic understanding of all the spiritual and scriptural sources available to us.


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Depth versus Breadth


Unitarian Universalists love variety. And yet, if spiritual development
requires discipline, attention, and time, then it also requires focus.


One great challenge for Unitarian Universalism is the issue of depth versus breadth. As we become ever more inclusive, as the circle widens ever more broadly, we court the danger of becoming “a mile wide and an inch deep.” UUs have been charged with this on more than one occasion. Unitarian Universalists love variety. And yet, if spiritual development — whatever that means—requires discipline, attention, and time, then it also requires focus. In this way it is comparable to academics: one can be an expert in one area and have a general idea about many others, but to know a subject thoroughly is to become specialized. Spirituality is not academics, but something similar is true of it. It is not possible to walk all paths at once. Religion scholar Huston Smith makes exactly this point:


The problem with cafeteria-style spirituality is that Saint Ego is often the one making the choices at the salad bar. What tastes good is not always the same as what you need, and an undeveloped ego can make unwise choices. I believe that it is most helpful for people to choose one main meal, to commit and focus on that tradition, and then to add to it if the need arises. I am a firm believer in vitamin supplements. 40


Without rejecting the respectful borrowing of elements from other traditions, there is merit to Smith’s suggestion that they should be supplements and spices and not the main course. Other traditions should not be used as distractions from Unitarian Universalism’s own path. Pieces from other traditions can illuminate and enrich the UU tradition, but they cannot in themselves make up that tradition. Too often, it seems, UUs try to achieve just that.


But what about those for whom their “other” discipline is their primary religious path? Perhaps if we had more to offer within Unitarian Universalism, they might not feel such a need to go elsewhere. This is not to say that it is wrong to be a UU and pursue a discipline from another tradition. The numbers indicate that it is certainly possible to be a “hyphenated UU,” and to follow a particular spiritual discipline within the community and values of Unitarian Universalism. Nor does this mean there should be an orthodox UU path that is imposed from outside or that is supposed to fit for everyone. However, perhaps it would be  beneficial if UUs had their own distinctly UU spiritual path, something we could use to explore our own depths and increase our depth of spiritual exploration, without having to go outside the UU faith.


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The Ground on Which We Meet


In what ways are the diverse flavors of the UU tradition moving toward shared

understanding while retaining their own particular wisdom and practice?


“Since we embrace theological diversity,” wrote one respondent to the Commission’s question, “it is our living historical tradition and its imperative for the future that is at the core of our faith.” Professor David

Bumbaugh, who finds his center “between Kenneth Patton’s mystical humanism and Henry Nelson Wieman’s natural theism,” offers this vision:


The heart of a faith for the twenty-first century, I am convinced, is suggested by the seventh Principle. . . . Hidden in this apparently uncomplicated, uncontroversial, innocuous statement is a radical theological position. The seventh Principle calls us to reverence before the world, not some future world, but this miraculous world of our everyday experience. It challenges us to understand the world as reflexive and relational rather than hierarchical. It bespeaks a world in which neither god nor humanity is at the center; in which the center is the void, the ever fecund matrix out of which being emerges. . . . It calls us to trust the process, the creative, evolving, renewing, redeeming process which brings us into being, which sustains us in being, and which transforms our being. It offers a vision of a world in which the holy, the sacred is incarnated in every moment, in every aspect of being, a world in which God is always fully present, and in which God is always fully at risk.41


Can our congregations be places where the world finds itself open to the in-breaking of new life? Charlotte Shivvers, retired minister and social activist, suggests as much: “The very emptiness that is left in that central place is neither weakness nor failure. It can become a place of humility, acceptance, and wonder — and a place where we all can meet.”42


These images have sparked provocative discussions among the commissioners, as we hope they will among our readers. Words like emptiness and void mean radically different things to us. Three years of study and conversation have not brought us to a complete consensus about a common core to our faith. Yet we have found much common ground along the way, in the material we share here.


In reflecting upon underlying unities, this report has for the most part resisted the tendency to sort UUs into theological boxes. As retired minister Phillip Hewett writes,


It’s pretty hard, sometimes, to follow through consistently with a refusal to accept labels which assign you to one or another of mutually exclusive camps, desiccating the richness of human response to the overall reality we experience into a few hard and fast categories. . . . I am not interested in trying to sort people out into categories. The categories I have in mind . . . coexist and interact within our tradition — and, whether we care to admit it or not, they coexist and interact within each one of us, in widely varying proportions and ways.43


Given that UUs do name themselves so diversely, what do postmodern UU Christians, new humanists, Buddhist UUs, process theologians and religious naturalists, UUs who embrace earth-centered pagan practices, advocates of liberation and feminist theologies, and UU mystics of all stripes have in common? In what ways are the diverse flavors of the UU tradition moving toward shared understanding while retaining their own particular wisdom and practice? What gifts does each bring that are distinctive and creatively challenge UUs? What vision can UUs hold that, while honoring these gifts, binds them together to pursue a common future? Do all the diverse Unitarian Universalists stand upon any shared theological ground? Respecting the integrity of individual perspective, we offer the following statements as descriptive of who Unitarian Universalists are theologically:






We have the ability to ameliorate suffering, if only we find the will to do
 so. Our diverse sources of religious inspiration power our will to act.










A powerful vision! And one that can be claimed by all strands of the UU tradition. At the same time, UUs should not lose sight of the critiques mirrored by the more newly visible strands in the UU web of community. For theological concerns surface organically when they are called forth by the cry of the heart and the need of the world; these strands are growing because the times call for what they offer.


Neopaganism reminds UUs that we would do well to become a more embodied faith, respecting the power of ritual and the importance of beauty, living more fully in our individual and corporate bodies and therefore more respectful of the body of Gaia. The rise of Buddhist influence in the UU midst reflects a hunger for a more mindful faith, willing to be disciplined, fully present in the moment, and aware of the depths as well as the drama of being, and of UUs’ compassionate connection with all sentient beings. Feminist and liberation theologies call us to a more prophetic faith, a more risk-taking faith, daring to name what is broken, to challenge assumptions and to take actions requiring discomfort and sacrifice, that we might contribute more effectively to the repair and transformation of our world. They remind us that talking is not enough. All of these newer emphases within the UU faith tradition call us to the disciplined embodiment of our values and commitments and the strengthening of those qualities that will help us to live them with integrity—to be more whole and to contribute to making the world more whole. This is more than a new spin on “salvation by character” and “service to humankind—onward and upward forever.” It challenges UUs to incorporate a wholeness of being and contemporary ideas into the UU tradition’s long-held commitments.


Every strand of the UU tradition holds up a mirror to our lives and to the society in which we live. Each brings both critique and constructive practice. Every strand has evolved in recent decades toward a more inclusive vision of wholeness and interconnectedness. Each brings a somewhat different perspective and body of wisdom to the circle of dialogue. As UUs grow more diverse, we are also growing toward more solid common ground.


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1. James Luther Adams, “The Changing Reputation of Human Nature,” revised reprint from The Journal of Liberal Religion (Autumn 1942 & Winter 1942): 23.

2. William Schulz, Making the Manifesto: The Birth of Religious Humanism (Boston: Skinner House, 2002), xix.

3. Suzuki, David, The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering our Place in Nature (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1997), 191, 195-196.

4. Bernard Meland, quoted in Jerome A. Stone, The Minimalist Vision of Transcendence: A Naturalist Philosophy of Religion (New York: State University Press, 1992), 156.

5. Margot Adler, Heretic’s Heart: A Journey Through Spirit and Revolution (Boston: Beacon Press, 1997), 288-289.

6. David Parke, “Theological Directions of Unitarian Universalism for the Next 25 Years,” The Unitarian Universalist Christian, vol. 44, no. 3-4 (1989): 16.

7. Alice Blair Wesley, Our Covenant: The 2000-01 Minns Lectures—The Lay and Liberal Doctrine of the Church: The Spirit and the Promise of our Covenant (Chicago: Meadville-Lombard, 2002), 19.

8. See William R. Murry “Religious Humanism Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow,” Religious Humanism, vol. 34, no. 3 & 4 (2000): 74.

9. Sarah Oelberg, “Reasonable Religion,” HUUmanists News, no. 1 (2004): 4.

10. Richard Erhardt, “Beating a Cold Still Corpse,” First Days Record, (December 1997): 9.

11. James Casebolt and Tiffany Niekro, “Some UUs Are More UU Than U: Theological Self-descriptors Chosen by Unitarian Universalists,” Review of Religious Research 46, no. 3 (2005): 235-242.

12. Ernest Cassa (ed.), Universalism in America: A Documentary History of a Liberal Faith, (Boston: Skinner House, 1971), 36-37.

13. Singing the Living Tradition, reading 537.

14. Alice Blair Wesley, “Time and Character in Unitarian Universalist Faith” The Unitarian Universalist Christian 44, no. 1 (Spring 1989): 46

15. Jerome Stone, “What Is Religious Naturalism?” Religious Humanism, vol. 35, nos. 1 & 2 (2001): 67.

16. David Robinson, The Unitarians and the Universalists (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985), 11.

17. James Luther Adams, “The Changing Reputation of Human Nature,” a revised reprint from The Journal of Liberal Religion (Autumn 1942 & Winter 1942): 7.

18. Adams, “The Changing Reputation,” 15.

19. Adams, “The Changing Reputation,” 45-46.

20. Thandeka, “New Words for Life” in Language of Reverence, ed. Dean Grodzins (Chicago: Meadville Lombard Press, 2004), 75.

21. Carl Scovel, “Beyond Spirituality: The Berry Street Essay, 1994,” in Unitarian Universalism: Selected Essays (Boston: UU Ministers Association, 1995), 8.

22. Nancy Arnold, “Our Faith as Unitarian Universalist,” in Unitarian Universalism: Selected Essays (Boston: UU Ministers Association, 1996), 73.

23. Khoren Arisian “‘The Promised Land’: Humanism and Human Spirituality,” Religious Humanism, vol. 34, nos. 1 & 2 (2000): 61.

24. Gary Kowalski, Science and the Search for God (New York: Lantern Books, 2003), 105.

25. Richard Gilbert, “Confessions of a Militant Mystic: Spirituality and Social Action—A Seamless Garment,” in Unitarian Universalism: Selected Essays (Boston: UU Ministers Association, 1997), 13.

26. Gilbert, “Confessions,” 8.

27. Lex Crane, “Rational Mysticism in UU Religion,” in Unitarian Universalism: Selected Essays (Boston: UU Ministers Association, 1996), 31.

28. Scott Alexander, ed., Everyday Spiritual Practice: Simple Pathways for Enriching Your Life (Boston: Skinner House, 1999), 5.

29. Marilyn Sewell, Wanting Wholeness, Being Broken (Portland: Fuller Press, 1998), 113.

30. David Bumbaugh, “The Heart of a Faith for the Twenty-First Century,” in Unitarian Universalism: Selected Essays (Boston: UU Ministers Association, 1994), 37.

31. Ken Wilber, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution (Boston: Shambhala, 2000), 273.

32. Barbara Carlson, “An Awakened, Compassionate Life in Today’s World,” in Unitarian Universalism: Selected Essays (Boston: UU Ministers Association, 2001), 42.

33. John Cobb, “As Others See Us: Ecumenical Perspectives on Unitarian Universalism,” The Unitarian Universalist Christian, (Winter 1987): 15.

34. See Wilber, pages 385-392.

35. Henry Nelson Wieman, The Source of Human Good (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University, 1946), 105.

36. Jacques Derrida, Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida (New York: Fordham University Press, 1997).

37. Daniel Adams, “Toward a Theological Understanding of Post-Modernism,” Cross Currents, vol. 47, no. 4 (1997): 518-530. Also available online at www.aril.org/adams.htm.

38. Suzanne Meyer, “Claiming Our Prophetic Voice: The Modern Church in the Post-Modern World.” Presented at the 2002 UUMA Convocation, Birmingham, Alabama. Available online at www.uuma.org/archives/Convocation/Modern%20Church%20Postmodern%20World%20Suzan


39. Leonard Sweet, Faithquakes (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994).

40. Elizabeth Lesser and Huston Smith, “Are You Religious or Spiritual? Letters from the Heart,” Spirituality & Health (Spring 2001). Available online at www.spiritualityhealth.com/newsh/items/article/item_2930.html.

41. Bumbaugh, “The Heart of a Faith,” 36-38.

42. Charlotte Shivvers, “Moving Forward with Power Against Evil: Obstacles and Faith Center,” in Unitarian Universalism: Selected Essays (Boston: UU Ministers Association, 1998), 55.

43. Phillip Hewett, “Reappropriating the Living Tradition,” in Unitarian Universalism: Selected Essays (Boston: UU Ministers Association, 1997), 85, 89.


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