The Roman Catholic Church claims to have existed since the day of Pentecost recorded in the biblical Book of Acts. Certainly the organization is quite ancient, tracing back to the first centuries of the Common Era. We know that the Christian faith began with the spread of the legends about Jesus of Nazareth. Islam is said to have begun in 610 C.E., with the first revelation given to the prophet Muhammad when he was 40. Other religions, like Judaism, Hinduism,and others have origins in the early history of human civilization, shrouded by the mists of time. What does Unitarian Universalism offer in terms of history and accumulated insight?
The American Unitarian Association was organized in 1825. The Universalist Church of America formed a few decades later, in 1866. Almost century later, these two denominations merged, in 1961, to form the Unitarian Universalist Association. It may seem that such a young faith, still finding its way and figuring out what it is all about, couldn’t have much to offer in comparison to the faiths born in antiquity. I would argue, though, that it has much more to offer than them, precisely because it is able to draw from wisdom wherever it may be found.
Unitarian Universalism doesn’t have a creed, but it does have seven Principles. Beyond those, it also identifies the body of teachings and knowledge it has to draw upon, enshrined in its six Sources:
Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit;
Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.
Where Christianity has the Bible and tradition, Judaism the Torah and Talmud, and Islam the Quran and the Hadith, Unitarian Universalism has all these and more. A progressive faith, UUism doesn’t take any of the sacred texts of the various religions literally. It does, however, encourage us to look into them for insights, testing them to see what works and what doesn’t, filtering out sexism, racism,oppression, and whatever else is not conducive to human flourishing. Unitarian Universalism at its finest takes a humanistic approach to world religions and the spiritual teachings of the ages.
In fact, Humanism itself has long played a significant role in Unitarian Universalism, with many ministers and members identifying as atheists or agnostics, and taking this lifestance to be their own, lived out in the context of UUism. Even self-identified Christians and others of a theistic bent within UUism will often say they follow their chosen paths from a humanistic perspective. Reason, science, and evidence all matter, and they help to temper and inform the perspectives learned from older religions.
Unitarian Universalism is able to do what virtually none of the major religions — expressed in their myriad sects and movements — can do. It can draw on everything from every corner of human civilization, examine it in the light of current scientific understandings, accept what is good and reject what is less so, and create new paths. This is a potential that has only begun to be tapped in this young faith, and I’m glad to now be a part of this pilgrimage, still so close to its beginnings.