Seeking the Essence of Unitarian-Universalism

nullIn her blog piece “Love is More Important than Freedom”, Unitarian-Universalist minister Victoria Weinstein writes…

It has come time for Unitarian Universalists to admit that we have honored free thought over love as an institutional commitment, and to consider the possibility that our obsession with personal freedom of belief has caused our organizations spiritual harm. We have developed a congregational culture that honors intellectual dominance over love and tenderness. We are brilliantly conversant when voicing opinion, but do not know how to engage each other as vulnerable persons in need of hope, grace and healing, leaving it to the self-identified victims in our congregations to motivate and then control most discussion of what it means to love, to welcome and to accept.

There are probably less than 700,000 “UUs” in the United States today (I among them), and not much more than a million in the entire world, and the denomination has soul-searched over the last several decades to find the missing keys to significant growth. The denomination has particularly struggled to gain adherents beyond its white Anglo-Saxon Protestant roots into communities of color. UUism is often criticized as a religion of the head rather than the heart, and thus of limited appeal to most people.

From the Wikipedia article on “Unitarian Universalism”

Unitarian Universalism is a religion characterized by support for a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning”. Unitarian Universalists do not share a creed; rather, they are unified by their shared search for spiritual growth and by the understanding that an individual’s theology is a result of that search and not obedience to an authoritarian requirement. Unitarian Universalists draw on many different theological sources and have a wide range of beliefs and practices.

Historically, both Unitarianism and Universalism have roots in the Christian faith. Contemporary Unitarian Universalists espouse a pluralist approach to religion, whereby the followers may be atheist, deist, theist, polytheist, or have no label at all.

My Take on the Essence of UUism

As a white male UU who does not believe in deities but believes that consciousness continues from life to life (so not your conventional atheist either) I agree that UUism at its best is a mix of both heart and head. But I disagree with Weinstein that, “Love is more important than freedom”. I see these two concepts together as being at the essence of what UUism is all about, at least for me. My dear friend Toni, who led the service when my partner Sally and I married, embodied that essence in a poem she had written that she read at the conclusion of the service, “Love that holds close with open arms”.

Some of us fall short in our humanity because we fail to embrace our fellow people with love and respect, we fail to hold them close. But then many (if not most of us) who participate in that positive embrace do so with closed rather than open arms. We expect and even demand that the people we love believe and behave the same as we do.

“Love that holds close with open arms” to me is the best of UUism, and our denomination’s “ministry” perhaps to the larger human community. It is having the love and forbearance to give each other the liberty to be who we are, with the hope, but not the expectation, that we will find common ground and community together. It represents a true commitment, in both head and heart, to egalitarianism and moving beyond any sort of “us and them” hierarchical thinking.

Not that we UUs always succeed at practicing this egalitarianism, this love with liberty, that we preach! We tend to be uncomfortable with people who don’t define themselves as political progressives or liberals, at least implicitly creating a “Republican free zone” with our attitudes.

But to our credit, like the Quakers, UUs are big proponents of democratic process in society at large and in how we run our own congregations. A longtime joke about UUs in this regard says that when a good Christian dies they go to heaven, but when a good UU dies they go to a discussion about heaven. Behind this joke is the fact that to a truly observant UU (like the Quakers), a well-run meeting (that encourages the active participation of all participants as a circle of equals) is a sacrament and essentially a sort of worship service.

UUism at Its Best with Its Older Youth

In my opinion, nowhere is that commitment to egalitarianism and “love that holds close with open arms” more evident than in my own experience of the YRUU older youth camps and conferences that my own kids participated in at the UU deBenneville Pines facility north of Redlands CA and other Southern California UU venues. (See my piece, “Camps, Cons & Compasses” for more details.) I cannot think of another older youth program that allows young people such freedom to govern their own events and their own community. I can think of no other denomination that has more egalitarian “right relations” between adults and youth.

Subject to Elitism

But as Reverend Weinstein points out in her piece, UUs can suffer from an intellectual elitism while at the same time championing egalitarian ideals.

Being a small denomination that many people have never even heard of, we UUs tend perhaps to have a bit of an inferiority complex (the underside of elitism) and are quick to note famous Unitarians include key figures of the white mostly Protestant intelligentsia of Britain and particularly the U.S. Four U.S. Presidents – John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams and William Howard Taft – plus America’s second First Lady Abigail Adams (a women’s rights advocate in her own right) and even our current President’s mom, Stanley Ann Dunham. Great writers and figures in the arts like Charles Dickens, Louisa May Alcott, E.E. Cummings, Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut, Pete Seeger, Rod Serling, Frank Lloyd Wright and Paul Newman. Philosophers and social commentators like John Locke, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, John Dewey and Buckminster Fuller. Other social activists and scientists like Paul Revere, Horace Mann and Clara Barton, Linus Pauling, Joseph Priestley, and Albert Schweitzer.

UU Roots in the Life and Work of Michael Servetus

Perhaps there is no better embodiment of the strengths and weaknesses of UUism, than in the life and work of the man credited as the progenitor of the Unitarian side of UUism, Michael Servetus. He was a brilliant scholar, Renaissance man and challenger of conventional wisdom about God and religious authority. Here is a paragraph from his extensive biography in Wikipedia…

Michael Servetus (also Miguel Servet or Miguel Serveto also Miguel De Villanueva or Michel De Villeneuve; 29 September 1511 – 27 October 1553) was a Spanish theologian, physician, cartographer, and humanist. He was the first European to correctly describe the function of pulmonary circulation. His interests included many sciences: mathematics, astronomy and meteorology, geography, human anatomy, medicine and pharmacology, as well as jurisprudence, and the scholarly study of the Bible in its original languages. He is renowned in the history of several of these fields, particularly medicine and theology. He participated in the Protestant Reformation, and later developed a nontrinitarian Christology. Condemned by Catholics and Protestants alike, he was arrested in Geneva and burnt at the stake as a heretic by order of the Protestant Geneva governing council.

Apparently, Servetus was as insufferable as he was brilliant. From what I’ve read he felt that no one was his intellectual equal, including his theological nemesis John Calvin. Calvin’s theology is arguably one of the key threads of American culture. (See my piece “American Calvin”.)

A great book on Servetus’ life (that reads at times like a Dan Brown novel) is Out of the Flames. Episodes from his life included talking his way of a guilty plea in his first trial for heresy. The second time he was caught, tried and convicted, but he end up escaping from prison, going underground, and reemerging with a completely new identity to become a renowned cartographer and doctor under that new identity. Finally, tempting fate with his usual chutzpah, he decided to drop in on a service being led by his arch nemesis. Calvin recognized him, had him arrested, tried and burned at the stake, with the heretical text he had written tied to his leg.

In the simplest terms, Servetus challenged the conventional Christian belief that Jesus Christ was an aspect of God and essentially believed that he was a regular human being like the rest of us. Jesus was not our “lord” in some hierarchical sense, but more an egalitarian exemplar of what all human beings could aspire to be. Even today, such a belief would be considered by many Christians to be very heretical.

Here’s Wikipedia on Servetus’ legacy…

In recent years Michael Servetus has also been credited with being one of the modern forerunners of freedom of religion and freedom of conscience in the Western world. A renowned Spanish scholar on Servetus’ work, Ángel Alcalá, identified the radical search for truth and the right for freedom of conscience as Servetus’ main legacies, rather than his theology. The Polish-American scholar, Marian Hillar, has studied the evolution of freedom of conscience, from Servetus and the Polish Socinians, to John Locke and to Thomas Jefferson and the American Declaration of Independence. According to Hillar: “Historically speaking, Servetus died so that freedom of conscience could become a civil right in modern society.”

That freedom of conscience is what I see as the synergy of love and liberty embodied in “love that holds close with open arms” and the ministry of Unitarian-Universalism at its best.

11 replies on “Seeking the Essence of Unitarian-Universalism”

  1. Well thought out, Cooper, and beautifully stated. I believe Ms. Weinstein makes a point about the cerebral nature of Unitarian Universalism, including the possibly arguable need to show more love. But like yourself, I do not believe love is more important than freedom. Reading again about Michael Servetus is such a powerful reminder of how important that freedom is. Perhaps freedom is what we have received, and showing more love is what we can do to express our understanding and gratitude for having it as a theological basis.

  2. Coop,

    Beautifully written.

    Those who would deprive us of our freedoms in the name of protecting our country from perceived enemies are always among us. Fortunately liberties are sufficiently institutionalized in our countrythat we stand a better chance of withstanding these threats than do other countries, allowing us to explore spiritual avenues and emotional manifestations.

  3. Reuben… I so appreciate getting comments on the things I have written and particularly ones like yours that make my day and inspire me to keep writing.

    Interesting that you honed in on Servetus and his association as one of the progenitors of the movement for freedom of conscience. I was not aware that he was seen as such until I read his Wikipedia article in doing research for this piece. But I certainly can see how you as a Jew who has steadfastly stood for the rights of Jews to live free from fear, plus being an intelligent thoughtful person who is interested in all aspects of the human story and the wisdom we have compiled, would resonate with Servetus’ story.

    You might enjoy reading the book I read about him, “Out of the Flames”. As I said it reads at times like more of a spy thriller or Dan Brown’s “Da Vinci Code”.


  4. Marilyn… Your comment made my day as well and appreciate your thoughts about Weinstein’s and mine. Glad to read that you share my sense of the synergy of love and liberty at the heart of UUism.

    Frankly, I don’t think we UUs live up to our wonderful principles even half of the time! But such are we human beings, in the midst of our ongoing development from unknowing to ever greater knowing.

  5. Nice, well thought out piece, I especially like the UU history included.
    Being a UU allows one to think about things (cerebral) and to me that is so much better than “blind faith” and I believe UU do have Heart..after all, think of the passion they bring to Social Justice issues..think about Standing on the Side of Love and our fellow UU’s in Arizona fighting for immigration

  6. Hello Cooper,
    your article is well thought and presented. Right now I am into the “both, and” attitude rather than the “either, or” in order to achieve more feelings of “wholeness”. So, I think that Love and Freedom are both very important…just as you sumarize it in the last paragraph! Your article is superb!
    The problem of obtaining more membership and specially of people of color, would be a very interesting topic to discuss and even more prevalent to our congregation that needs to grow. Katie would be interested on that one. – I think.
    Also, I remember reading another article by you on “schools without bosses” ?? something about no more hyrierchical structures…that was great! I think hyrarchies are from medieval times, and some tend to become disfunctional. There are good hyrarchies and are needed, but circles of inclusion (with just a moderator) is again another way toward wholeness.
    Sorry if I am all over the place, but wanted to get back to you with all the thoughts I have been incubating for you.
    With much Love, Gerardo.

  7. I would like permission to use the chalice design on this blog for notecards sent from our membership committee. May I have your permission to use the chalice or can you direct me to the artist? Thanks

  8. Dorie… Sorry… I can’t help you there. I am using the chalice logo without permission. I simply went to Google images, put in “UU chalice” and picked one to use as a picture.

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