I am a Unitarian Universalist. That is such a tongue twister that we are often just known as Unitarians. I know there are other Unitarians out there, but most people probably don’t know much about this particular faith tradition. Actually, I am still learning about it myself! The Unitarian Universalist church has a rich history that involves the blending of 2 traditions – Universalism and Unitarianism – both of which started hundreds of years ago in Europe. The Unitarians were primarily known for their belief in the unity of God rather than the trinity – in other words, they believed in the moral authority of Jesus, but not necessarily his divinity. The Universalists on the other hand were known for their belief in universal salvation – that everyone would eventually be united with the Holy, that no one would be condemned for eternity. After these two denominations began to emerge in America in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Unitarians and Universalists grew closer and closer in their theology. Eventually, by the early 1960’s, the two American branches combined and formed the Unitarian Universalist Association.
This relatively new denomination is not based on just one or the other of its predecessors, but a real blending of concepts from both, focusing on their commonalities of Freedom, Reason and Tolerance. It also incorporates lots of ideas from other faith traditions. In fact, people from many different backgrounds and faiths – Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and even Pagan – all can feel affirmed in the Unitarian church.
Unitarian Universalism is very different from most other religions in that it doesn’t have a specific doctrine or creed. How that works is somewhat difficult to explain, especially in under 1000 words, but I will give it a try! I read recently that the word Religion comes from the same root as the word “ligament”. I am sure you have heard of ligaments… muscles. Both words have to do with that which holds us or binds us together. When someone talks about their religion, they are usually referring to a particular set of beliefs, shared by the members of that group, that bind them together. For example, members of certain religions often share a belief in one or more particular deities, in a single written source as the word of God, in certain rituals such as baptism or Holy Eucharist, or in creeds that promise salvation to the believers.
Unitarian Universalists, on the other hand, believe none of these… or all of these… or some combination of these. In the Unitarian faith, what binds us together is not a common set of religious beliefs but rather a common set of values and attitudes towards life. Some Unitarians say that we as a group have many beliefs, but one faith, that we don’t have to believe alike to love alike. In fact, within any Unitarian congregation, you will probably find lots of different beliefs, with no one judging anyone else as being wrong.
Unitarian Universalism is known as a liberal theology – meaning it supports broadminded thinking about spiritual issues and offers the freedom to choose our own beliefs. As I mentioned, the Unitarian church doesn’t have one particular creed that we all ascribe to or even one scripture that we all follow – instead we use lots of different sources of inspiration, both religious and secular, written and experienced. It is a tradition that focuses more on how we live our life, how we treat each other, and less on dictating what we should believe – some people say we value Deeds over Creeds; service and diversity over dogma and unity of thought.
What Unitarian Universalists do have in common is a set of 7 guiding Principles that were written by members of the faith and adopted by the national association. These principles compel us to value and affirm every living being, to treat them with compassion, to serve the needs of others and to acknowledge the interconnected-ness of human life and all that is around us.
In simplified language, the seven principles are:
1. Everyone has worth and is important.
2. Be kind in all you do.
3. We are free to learn and grow together.
4. Seek the truth.
5. All people need a voice – democracy in all things.
6. Build a fair and peaceful world.
7. Care for the Earth and all that is in it.
The fourth principle – seek the truth – represents another aspect of the Unitarian church that is different from many other religions, particularly those that use the Bible as the source of all truth. Unitarians generally accept the view that Truth (with a capital T) is an evolving, growing, living thing for which we are, and will continue to be, searching. It isn’t limited to what has already been written; it continues to be revealed to us all.
Unitarians are known to be very tolerant of, even welcoming to, diverse points of view. Many feel that everyone brings a part of the truth with him or her, and that it is through questioning each other and sharing our experiences and faith that we can continue to learn and that the ultimate truth will be revealed.
So, my story… Well, like many Unitarian Universalists, I was raised in a more “traditional” church – most of my family is actually Catholic, so I grew up going to Mass every Sunday. It didn’t take me long to realize that THAT was not the path for me to follow – even in high school, I remember feeling somewhat hypocritical when I would attend church with my parents because I didn’t believe what everyone around me seemed to. Although I knew I wasn’t going to follow the Catholic path, it took many years and much introspection for me to find my own direction.
For a long time – all through college and for several years beyond, I didn’t go to church at all. After college, I lived in Virginia and taught at a school that was not religiously affiliated at all, so we didn’t have chapel every day like we do here. I also didn’t feel the need to go to church on Sundays since I didn’t believe in all the things that church represented to me, at least not in the way that I assumed one was supposed to. But after reading a book called “This Present Darkness”, and doing a lot of thinking about what I did believe, I realized that I didn’t have to be religious to be spiritual, that I didn’t have to believe exactly what a particular church taught to be a part of one. So one Sunday morning, I decided to check out an Episcopal church that I had driven by many times.
The sermon that day really spoke to me and I started attending service there on a regular basis. It was nice, for a while, but I think that was mostly because it felt familiar. Not only was the ceremony similar to what I had been raised with – Catholic Mass and Episcopalian Eucharist services are very similar – but I had attended an Episcopal high school, so I felt fairly comfortable in that environment. I thought at the time that it was a better fit for me than being Catholic – it seemed to be less rigid in what you were supposed to believe, but still had the structure I was used to. After a while, though, I realized being an Episcopalian wasn’t quite right either. I was still wrestling with what exactly I believed in and although St. John’s (the church I had been attending) was a friendly place, it still didn’t feel like “home”.
When I moved to Memphis 11 years ago, I started teaching at an Episcopal school where we have chapel every day. I thought – OK, I go to church 5 days a week – I don’t need to go on Sundays. And besides, where would I go? I certainly wasn’t Catholic, nor did I feel like I was Episcopalian. I wasn’t sure what I was, so I decided to be nothing. But I did feel like there was something missing – I wanted to belong somewhere. I just didn’t know where… I wanted to find a spiritual home that would match what I did believe and not admonish me for what I didn’t.
A few years ago, during one of our daily chapel services, we had a speaker who was a female Rabbi at a local synagogue. Much of what she had to say resonated with me, so I thought hey – that’s it! Maybe I should look into becoming Jewish! From what I could tell, it seemed to fit my beliefs better than anything else had so far. Well, in doing some research on the internet, I soon found a website on which I could take an online quiz. If I answered a list of questions about my beliefs, it would point me in the direction of a religion. Surely it would tell me I should be Jewish! So I took the quiz, answered each question as best I could – including some “I’m not sure’s” – and lo and behold, the website told me I was a perfect match for….. Unitarian Universalism! Who knew?
I had heard of Unitarian churches… I had seen one near where I lived in Virginia and knew someone who went there, but didn’t know much about it. I also knew that there were 2 Unitarian churches here in Memphis – a friend had invited me to the Church of the River once and she mentioned that there was another Unitarian church further east. At the time, I wasn’t looking for a church, so didn’t think anything more about it. Well, when I decided to check out this “perfect match” religion, I realized that the Church of the River is all the way downtown and I live in Cordova. I didn’t really want to have to drive that far. I wasn’t sure where the other one was, but I was sure it was closer than downtown… so I looked it up in the phone book. Again, my research turned up a surprising answer! I found out that Neshoba Unitarian Universalist Church is in … Cordova! About 5 minutes from my house! I figured it was a sign! So I went … the very next Sunday. And the next. And the next. Each week I went back, I was more and more convinced that I had found where I needed to be. Neshoba is a relatively small congregation, but very much a welcoming one, and that is nice – I found it was really easy to meet people and to get involved. I had finally found a church that gave me the freedom to explore my own beliefs and to view the Divine in a way that was meaningful to me.
According to the weekly bulletin, Neshoba describes itself as: “an intentionally diverse liberal religious community” that “fosters religious growth and spiritual learning.” The minister, the other members, and the printed materials that I was offered all let me know that no matter where I was on my religious and spiritual journey, with all my doubts and questions, passions and beliefs, certainty and uncertainty, I was welcome at Neshoba.
The more I spend time there, and the more I learn, the more I come to realize that I have probably been a Unitarian Universalist all my life, but just didn’t know it! I have a long way to go in my spiritual growth, but being a part of such a supportive community makes the journey safe and fun! By the way, if you are wondering about that online quiz… it is at beliefnet.com.
The church service at Neshoba isn’t that different than other places. It involves singing, readings, prayers, a sermon and ceremonial candle lighting. One of my favorite parts of the weekly service is after the peace candle ceremony when we all join in saying what we call our Affirmation of Covenant. A covenant is an agreement that you promise to uphold. This affirmation is a covenant that we enter into with God (however we define that) and with our fellow human beings. It is the closest thing we have to a creed that we follow. I would like to end with it because it really sums up what being a Unitarian Universalist means to me:
Love is the doctrine of this church,
The quest for truth is our sacrament and service is our prayer.
To dwell together in peace, to seek knowledge in freedom,
To serve human need to the end that all souls shall grow into harmony with the Divine;
Thus do we covenant with each other and with God.