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What Moves Us: Unitarian Universalist Theology

A Tapestry of Faith Program for Adults

The What Moves Us program peels back the doctrine-rich theological language that can prevents us from affirming our faith experiences with one another and in the wider world. Through shared direct experiences and reflection exercises, readings and lessons, and ethical deliberations, What Moves Us creates an adult faith journey for Unitarian Universalists who want to preach and teach what they already experience but have not been able to articulate: the spiritual power of our faith.

About the Author

Rev. Dr. Thandeka

Thandeka is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister and theologian.

She is the founder of Affect Theology, which investigates the links between religion and emotions using insights from affective neuroscience. She is the author of The Embodied Self: Friedrich Schleiermacher's Solution to Kant's Problem of the Empirical Self, and Learning to be White: Money, Race and God in America, and a contributor to books including The Cambridge Companion to Schleiermacher and The Oxford Handbook on Feminist Theology and Globalization . Thandeka's numerous publications in journals include essays in American Journal of Theology and Philosophy, The International Journal of Practical Theology, Harvard Theological Review, Process Studies, and Tikkun.

Thandeka has taught at San Francisco State University, Meadville Lombard Theological School, Williams College, Harvard Divinity School, and Brandeis University, and has been a Fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center at Stanford University and a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology in Claremont California and Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

Before receiving her doctorate in philosophy of religion and theology from the Claremont Graduate University, Thandeka was a television producer for 16 years and is an Emmy award winner. She was given the !Xhosa name Thandeka, which means "beloved," by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 1984.


I would like to express deepest appreciation to Judith A. Frediani and Sarah Gibb Millspaugh for believing in this theological project from its very inception. Deepest gratitude to Gail Forsyth-Vail for her wise judgment and keen critiques as I worked through early drafts of this program. Very special thanksgiving goes to the Rev. Constance L. Grant, who read numerous early drafts of each of these workshops and offered advice, critique, editing, and ongoing collegial, unswerving support to steer this workshop series home to the hearts and minds of our beloved Unitarian Universalist community. Enormous thanks to librarians Laura K. Whitney, Michelle A. Gauthier, and Gloria J. Korsman at Harvard Divinity School Andover-Harvard Theological Library, whose graciousness and steadfast assistance enabled me to dive deeply into our Unitarian and Universalist theological history. And finally heartfelt praise to my partner, the Rev. Naomi King, whose steadfast belief in my work enabled me to begin and stay the course of this intense two-year theology project.

— Reverend Dr. Thandeka


As a longtime religious educator and a parent of three young adult Unitarian Universalists, I have long been aware of the need for faith development materials that provide a framework for deep and longtime Unitarian Universalists to engage in theological reflection, not as an intellectual exercise, but as a process of meaning-making that equips one for living in the world as a Unitarian Universalist person of faith.

And here it is: a program that explores the life experiences of both historic and contemporary Unitarian Universalist theologians, highlighting that which caused in them a change of heart, a new direction, new hope, and a deeper understanding of their own liberal faith. These workshops offer participants a chance to engage with and bring their personal experiences to bear on the very questions explored by each theologian in turn. The program offers a pathway for developing not only one's own personal theology but also one's deep understanding of the threads of our Unitarian, Universalist, and Unitarian Universalist theological heritage.

As a Tapestry of Faith curriculum for adults, What Moves Us weaves Unitarian Universalist values, Principles and Sources with four strands: spiritual development, ethical development, Unitarian Universalist identity development, and faith development:

Spiritual Development. In Everyday Spiritual Practice, Scott Alexander defines spirituality as our relationship with the Spirit of Life, however we understand it. Our spirituality is our deep, reflective and expressed response to the awe, wonder, joy, pain and grief of being alive. Tapestry of Faith programs seek to form children, youth, and adults who:

  • Know they are lovable beings of infinite worth, imbued with powers of the soul and obligated to use their gifts, talents and potentials in the service of life
  • Appreciate the value of spiritual practice as a means of deepening faith and integrating beliefs and values with everyday life.

Ethical Development. When we develop our ethics, we develop our moral values—our sense of what is right and wrong. We also enhance our ability to act on those values, overcoming oppressions and despair. Tapestry of Faith programs seek to form children, youth, and adults who:

  • Realize they are moral agents, capable of making a difference in the lives of other people, challenging structures of social and political oppression and promoting the health and well-being of the planet
  • Accept that they are responsible for the stewardship and creative transformation of their religious heritage and community of faith in the service of diversity, justice and compassion.

Unitarian Universalist Identity Development. Participation in a Unitarian Universalist congregation does not automatically create a Unitarian Universalist identity. Personal identification with Unitarian Universalism begins when individuals start to call themselves Unitarian Universalist and truly feel a part of a Unitarian Universalist congregation or community. Identity is strengthened as individuals discover and resonate with the stories, symbols and practices of Unitarian Universalism. Tapestry of Faith programs develop children, youth, and adults who:

  • Affirm they are part of a Unitarian Universalist religious heritage and community of faith that has value and provides resources for living
  • Recognize the need for community, affirming the importance of families, relationships and connections between and among generations
  • Accept that they are responsible for the stewardship and creative transformation of their religious heritage and community of faith in the service of diversity, justice and compassion.

Faith Development. When we develop in faith, we develop our heads and our hearts as a transformative way of life. We become meaning-makers who stand on the side of love. Faith is about embracing the heart of life's transforming possibilities and growing in our sense of being at home in the universe as part of the interdependent web of life. Faith is practice of right relationship with others that inspires trust and care. While faith has aspects that are internal and personal, it is best supported and sustained in a community with shared symbols, stories, traditions and values. Unitarian Universalist faith development emphasizes each person's religious journey, each person's lifelong process of bringing head, heart and hands to seeking and knowing ultimate meaning as part of beloved religious community.

Each What Moves Us workshop weaves these strands together, to help participants grow in their identity and faith as Unitarian Universalists as they find the grounding to live out their values in the world. May these values come to life through your facilitation of these workshops, in collaboration with those who bring their stories, their spirits, their minds and their hearts in the process of engaging our theological heritage and making meaning for themselves, with others, and in the world as ongoing spiritual practice.

— Gail Forsyth-Vail, Unitarian Universalist Association Adult Programs Director

The Program

Almost universally among [Unitarian Universalists], personal experience is considered the most important source of religious conviction. — Engaging Our Theological Diversity: The May 2005 Commission on Appraisal Report of the Unitarian Universalist Association

When we say "That service was very moving," "I always love that song," "I cry whenever we," "I feel safe here," "My heart is stronger," or "I'm ready for what comes next," we know what moves us as Unitarian Universalists: personal experience. These comments and so many others demonstrate every week that our religious feelings and practices are changing and transforming us through direct personal experience as a major source of our Unitarian Universalist faith. Yet, we often stumble when trying to explain our Unitarian Universalist theology of personal experience to ourselves and to others. We falter when we try to explain how our Unitarian Universalist faith heals, saves, liberates, holds, and moves us to ethical action and compassion.

The What Moves Us program peels back the doctrine-rich theological language that can prevents us from affirming our faith experiences with one another and in the wider world. Through shared direct experiences and reflection exercises, readings and lessons, and ethical deliberations, What Moves Us creates an adult faith journey for Unitarian Universalists who want to preach and teach what they already experience but have not been able to articulate: the spiritual power of our faith.

What Moves Us consists of ten, 90-minute workshops that can be extended to two hours. The facilitator will begin each workshop with a simple story of a Unitarian, Universalist, or Unitarian Universalist forebear, naming the emotion—the change of heart—that moved them to new theological understanding in their liberal religious faith. The stories include:

  • Physician George de Benneville's experience of boundless Divine Love that pulled him from a deep despair and led him to become one of the spiritual fathers of American Universalism.
  • Puritan minister Charles Chauncy's response to the emotionalism of the Great Awakening, which led him to affirm the place of human reason in religious renewal, inadvertently sparking a new American liberal theological tradition.
  • Universalist forebear Hosea Ballou's shift from dejection to happiness when he read, on his own, the book banned by his Baptist preacher father because it had turned his son into an apostate: the Bible.
  • Unitarian forebear William Ellery Channing's celebration of human nature as divine, while at the same time engaging in a struggle to gain control and mastery of his own emotions, believing such struggle to be the route to moral perfection.
  • Transcendentalist forebear Margaret Fuller's personal discovery of an uplifting religion of the heart that turned her into a liberal religious champion for human rights for all people, everywhere.
  • Unitarian Universalist founding religious educator, theologian, and minister Sophia Lyon Fahs' personal experience of the emotional impulses that prompt people to be religious because these feelings are part of human nature "everywhere and apparently always."
  • Beloved 20th-century Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams' encounter with Nazism which led to his understanding that our religious beliefs and our faith are reflected in our actions rather than in our words.
  • Renowned theologian and minister Forrest Church's personal discovery of the liberating feelings of awe and humility that prompted to preach, teach, and write his Universalist Theology for the Twenty-First Century.
  • Celebrated human rights activist, author, minister, and third-generation Unitarian William F. Schulz, whose own personal discovery of a steadfast "organic faith" that can teach all of us how to stay the course through anxious feelings, led him first as president of the Unitarian Universalist Association (1985-1993) and then as president of Amnesty International, USA from 1994-2006, and now as president and CEO of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, to practice his Unitarian Universalist ministry on the world stage.
  • Respected contemporary theologian, writer, and teacher Thandeka, whose discovery that personal experience is the basis of our faith commitments has led her to advocate for building networks of care and compassion in our faith communities through her We Love Beyond Belief program ( and the spiritual practice of small group ministry.

The selections represent some major theological streams of our faith tradition and display our racial, ethnic, gender, and class diversity.

Some congregations may wish to expand and extend this theology workshop series into a Small Group Ministry program. In Workshop 10, Thandeka, find guidance for taking this next step in Leader Resource 2, Healing Community.


This program will:

  • Demonstrate how personal experiences become the primary source of our religious convictions as Unitarian Universalists, by exploring stories from the lives of key Unitarian, Universalist, and Unitarian Universalists
  • Explore why personal experience is foundational to our faith, by examining:
  • How our Unitarian Universalist theology flows out of our personal reflections on unexpected shifts in our emotional lives
  • How such acts of self-reflection, unrestricted by traditional religious doctrine or dogma, inform our ethical behavior
  • How our identities as Unitarian Universalists emerge in our own religious communities of care and compassion as our personal experiences of a change of heart and our doctrinal freedom to explore its meaning are transformed into our personal Unitarian Universalist convictions and their expression in faith-in-action initiatives to heal and transform the world.
  • Equip adult learners to recognize and articulate their own responses to their own personal feelings and explore how these responses illuminate the foundations of their personal theology, ethical behavior, and Unitarian Universalist identity
  • Support participants to systematically articulate their Unitarian Universalist theology of personal experience using a personal theology journal
  • Affirm that the variety of theological streams within our liberal faith tradition simultaneously represents an amazing diversity and displays our unity as one religious people.


A religious professional or a layperson who strives for a deeper understanding of Unitarian Universalism should facilitate the What Moves Us workshops. We recommend a two-person team so workshop leaders can plan together and share facilitation responsibilities. These workshops require significant preparation time for both reading and reflection. Be sure facilitators understand the commitment they are making and plan to spend as much as three or four hours preparing to lead each session.

Facilitators with these strengths may be especially effective:

  • Experience in facilitating a group process
  • Ability to create and nurture a supportive, respectful, and safe community in the workshops and follow all congregational safe congregation guidelines and policies
  • Time to prepare thoroughly for each workshop
  • Readiness to take appropriate action in the event of unexpected cancellations
  • Willingness to listen deeply and to let "answers" emerge from the group process
  • Integrity, and the ability to maintain strong boundaries, especially during challenging conversations
  • Commitment to Unitarian Universalist Principles and to the faith development components of this curriculum
  • ?Respect for individuals, regardless of age, race, social class, gender identity, sexual orientation, and ability, and willingness to modify workshops to support the full inclusion of all participants
  • Willingness to support healthy group process by reinforcing ground rules politely and confidently
  • Ability to model respect for the congregation, its mission, and its lay and professional leadership.


What Moves Us is designed for adult participants of all ages and stages of life, young adult through elder, who seek an in-depth faith development experience. Because of the small-group process, the ideal workshop size is nine to twelve participants, although the workshops can accommodate as few as six persons or as many as 20.

Participants will be invited to bring their own stories to the group and to share some of their own experiences in both small and large groups.

Integrating All Participants

People with obvious and not-so-obvious disabilities need accommodation in order to participate fully. As a presenter, you may or may not be aware of a participant's need for accommodations. In addition to accommodating the accessibility needs of participants who request them, you are urged to follow these basic accessibility guidelines for every workshop activity.

  • Prepare a few large print copies of all handouts.
  • Write clearly and use large letters on newsprint. Use black or brown markers for maximum visibility (red and green are difficult for some to see).
  • Make a printed copy of information you plan to post on newsprint, to give to any who request it.
  • Face the group when you are speaking and urge others to do the same. Be aware of facial hair or hand gestures that may prevent or interfere with lip reading.
  • In a large space or with a large group of people, use a microphone for presentations and for questions and answers. If a particular activity will likely make it difficult for speakers to face those who are listening (e.g., a fishbowl, forced choice or role play activity), obtain a portable microphone to pass from speaker to speaker.
  • In a brainstorm activity, repeat clearly any word or phrase generated by the group in addition to writing it on newsprint.
  • During small group work, position each group far enough from other groups to keep minimize noise interference.
  • Keep aisles and doorways clear at all times during a workshop so that people with mobility impairments or immediate needs may exit the room easily.
  • Offer a variety of seating options, e.g. straight chairs, soft chairs, chairs with arms, and chairs without arms so that participants may find seating that best accommodates their needs.
  • When re-arranging furniture for small groups or other purposes, ensure clear pathways between groups.
  • Enlist workshop participants in being vigilant about removing bags, books, coffee cups and other obstacles from pathways.
  • Use the phrase, "Rise in body or spirit," rather than "Please stand."
  • Use language that puts the person first, rather than the disability (e.g., "a person who uses a wheelchair," rather than "a wheelchair-user"; "a child with dyslexia," rather than "a dyslexic child; "people with disabilities" rather than "the disabled.")
  • ?Do not ask individuals to read aloud. Avoid read-alouds that require everyone in the group to automatically take a turn. Request volunteers or read the material yourself.
  • Ask participants in advance about any food allergies. Add to your group covenant an agreement to avoid bringing problem foods for snacks or to always offer an alternate snack food.
  • Ask participants in advance about any allergies to scents or perfumes. If participants have allergies or sensitivities, invite members of the group to refrain from wearing perfumes and add this agreement to your covenant.

Find more guidance on the Unitarian Universalist Association website, including information about accommodating people with specific accessibility needs.

Though focused on inclusion of children, Welcoming Children with Special Needs: a Guidebook for Faith Communities by Sally Patton (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 2004) can also help leaders of adult workshops.

In addition, some workshop activities suggest specific adaptation under the heading "Including All Participants."

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