Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Principles and practice

A flame in a chalice is among the most widely used Unitarian Universalist symbols.
I am excessively fond of Unitarian Universalists, having spent some time in that denomination’s liberal and welcoming fold while making the transition a good many years ago from a narrow denominational expression of Luther into the far more expansive fields of the mainstream Episcopal Church.

That’s an odd way to make the transition from one Christian approach to another, some have said, since when the typical Unitarian Universalist is asked if he or she is a Christian, the answer most likely will be “certainly not.”

Ask the same UU if a Christian can be a Unitarian Universalist, however, and the answer most likely will be, “of course.” But so can a Buddhist, a Jew, a Hindu or a pagan. And there’s really no inconsistency in that if looked at from the UU perspective.

I was reminded of all this while having Sunday dinner with three UUs, one now planted firmly in southern Iowa and the other two, visitors from Kansas City. Lots of good conversation --- and great food.

I’ve also been thinking lately, in light of the disastrous continuing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, of the seventh guiding principle of Unitarian Universailsts (and these seven principles often are spoken during UU services in much the same manner as Episcopalians speak the Nicene Creed) --- “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”

It wouldn’t hurt all of us to tack that principle onto whatever creeds we profess --- and then try to live it.

You’ll find the seven UU principles and six sources of the UU faith at the end here. Unitarian Universalists are a relatively small group, after all (the nearest UU congregation to southern Iowa is First Unitarian in Des Moines), and there’s a good deal of confusion concerning just what it is they’re all about.

I’m also interested in the origins of both Unitarianism and Universalism, original and enduring threads in the fabric of organized Christianity. It’s useful to remember that much of what we take for granted now about creedal Christianity, including the mystifying concept of the Trinity, wasn’t really tied down until 325 A.D. when articles of faith expressed in the Nicene Creed were adopted at the ecumenical council of Nicaea.

In the United States, Unitarianism burst into full flower in New England during the early 19th century, sweeping into established Congregational parishes like a great wind. The Unity of God, not a trinity of three in one, was emphasized; and although avowedly Christian, Christ came to be looked upon in Unitarianism as fully human but on a divine mission, a great teacher to be followed but not worshipped.

Universalists, more evangelical than the Unitarians and less inclined to dispense with the Trinity, believed firmly that in the long run a loving God would condemn no one to an eternal pit of fire --- that all God’s children would finally be turned and reconciled to Him. Universalism, especially, flourished in the Midwest.

Armed with our creeds, Christians have a long record of burning, dismembering, hanging and otherwise disposing of heretical unitarians and universalists along with Anabaptists, Quakers and a variety of other dissenters. That’s gone out of fashion nowadays although, of course, there are those who would joyfully bring it back. But the Unitarian and Universalist threads continue to weave their way in and out of mainstream (and not so mainstream) Christianity.

The Unitarians and Universalists, which had come increasingly to share outlooks and resorces joined to become the Unitarian Universalists in 1961.

The UUs, for the most part, no longer profess to be an expression of Christianity --- although Christians certainly are welcome among them. And of course not all is always sweetness and light. A fundamentalist atheist UU can be just as aggravating as a fundamentalist Lutheran given the opportunity.

The merged UUs became leaders in the drive for social justice and were among the first to get over issues of gender and sexual oritenation, bless their hearts.

Here, courtesy of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, are the principles UUs affirm:

The inherent worth and dignity of every person;

Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;

Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;

A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;

The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;

The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;

Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Sources of the Unitarian Universalist faith include the following

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.

Disclamer: None of this should be construed to mean I think you should become a Unitarian Universalist. This is not an advertisement for that faith community. Quite naturally, I think you should throw off your United Methodist chains and become Episcopalian.

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