Main Content

Handout 2: The Theology of William F. Schulz

Information and short excerpts from the writings of William F. Schulz—presented in five sections, or topics, for ease of study and discussion—convey his theological point of view. All quotations are used with permission of William F. Schulz.

I: Assessment of Human Nature

William F. Schulz defines himself as someone who begins with lived experience. He understands human beings based on the experiences that shape their interests, guide their lives, and help them restrain or release what he calls "their basest impulses." His experiences as executive director of Amnesty International, USA, for 12 years caused him to fundamentally shift his perspective on human nature and the individual. He understands the community (of nations, of worshippers, etc.) to be central in shaping the individual's actions and mores.

Schulz does not preach the assurance of faith. Rather, he preaches the practice of steadfastness. This is the case, he says, because Unitarian Universalist ministers can provide:

... the confession of one human soul that the way beyond mourning, for example, leads into it and not away; that the way beyond oppression requires confrontation and not avoidance... . The minister's job is to take affliction—her own surely but the world's every bit as well—to take affliction, to honor it, share it, as taste and health allow, knowing that out of such engagement will come, if they are to come at all, newborn intimations of the possibility, faith, grace, and God. (Finding Time and Other Delicacies, Boston: Skinner House Books, 1992, p. 116-117)

Schulz's Unitarian Universalist faith, its principles, and its gathered worshiping community were the primary resources from which he drew his strength as Executive Director of Amnesty International, USA. It shaped and informed his best self. And this is why throughout his 12-year tenure, he always regarded himself "first and foremost as a Unitarian Universalist minister." Schulz explains his understanding of our ministry in this way:

Now I learn from my colleagues that a true minister strives to be what Rabbi Edwin Friedman calls a "non-anxious presence," and I feel more inadequate than ever... . The problem for me at least is that the aspiration to be a non-anxious presence is so frequently at odds with another value I hold dear: personal authenticity... .

Surely, some will want to contend that I have failed in my quest for authenticity—but of one thing I am certain: that anyone who does not experience anxiety in the face of chaos or heartache is either far "healthier" than I can ever hope to be or dead to the world. The first step to coping with anxiety, I have found, is to give yourself permission to feel it. The way through pain is not around it but right through the middle.

Religion exists in large measure to help us confront the scariest things under the sun: things like boundless injustice, the explosion of dreams, the hard edge of suffering, and the magnet of death. I don't think it makes much sense to try to pretend that things like that don't call up a little anxiety. Indeed, I think the great Danish existentialist Soren Kierkegaard had it exactly right when he suggested that "fear and trembling" are requisite to being a religious person and that only when we overcome our denial of death are we likely to truly "remember existence."

... I would almost always rather have passionate engagement, even if it be tinged with anxiety now and then... .

And I would like to encourage us all to be less ashamed of our anxieties. There are few more difficult lessons to learn: feelings by themselves are value-neutral. They really are. Only actions are good or bad. But feelings, no matter how "nasty" they may seem to us, lead us inexorably to our hearts. (Finding Time and Other Delicacies, 119-120)

Schulz believes that anger displacement (and other emotional impulses) can lead persons to debase themselves and others. He believes that the role of a community is to show persons how to manage and restrain such feelings for the sake of the greater good. This is the case, he argues, because the worth and dignity of human nature is not innate. It is assigned:

So is the worth and dignity of every person inherent? No, inherency is a political construct—perhaps a very useful myth but a myth nonetheless—designed to cover up the fact that we all are sinners and that we are not always certain which sins (and hence which sinners) are worse than others. Each of us has to be assigned worth—it does not come automatically—and taught to behave with dignity because, as Sartre once said, "If it were not for the petty rules of bourgeois society, we humans would destroy each other in an instant."

But who does the assigning of worth? How do we decide that something is a sin? How do we know that torture is wrong? What is the basis for human rights?

There are only three options. Rights are established by divinity, by natural law or by pragmatic consensus. I wish we could get everybody to agree on one of the first two. But because we cannot... we are left with public opinion as the basis for determining rights. Global public opinion, to be sure, but public opinion. (See Leader Resource 2)

Schulz believes we should participate in corporate worship, because:

the holy—those things which matter most in life—does not show all its colors in solitude and silence. Sometimes it requires the clarity of another's voice, sometimes the cacophony of community, and often the touch of other pilgrim's eyes and arms and hands... . [Moreover, another reason] to support the worshipping community is that whatever it is we value, be it freedom, courage, love, can only be preserved and only be transmitted with the help of institutions. No one passes on a heritage all by herself. No one by himself alone can provide a countervailing force to sheer iniquity. Our worship signals the institutional incarnation of our faith. (Finding Time and Other Delicacies, p. 111).

II: Unitarian "Universalist" Values

Schulz, a third-generation Unitarian, emphasizes his Universalist heritage as a Unitarian Universalist. He writes:

Indeed, what we gather from our Universalist roots may be even more germane to today's world than our Unitarian traditions. I can explain my Universalist fealty in four simple observations:

1) Universalism had a Gospel, a doctrine, a core of belief, around which its members rallied. While rarely putting that doctrine into creedal form, Universalism was unafraid to proclaim that it had some Good News which the world needed desperately.

2) Universalism imaged God as gentle and conciliatory rather than violent and retributive. If, as seems most likely, our images of divinity affect how we behave in the world, Universalism's conviction of God's beneficence has much to recommend it.

3) Universalism affirmed religious experience and feeling. Religion was not just something to think or talk about; it was something to be held deep inside the heart and something to be shouted from the rooftops.

4) Universalism taught a global consciousness long before it was fashionable. It called us to transcend national loyalties in the interests of the human spirit. (Finding Time and Other Delicacies, p. 95-96).

III: Religion Is a Discipline

Schulz believes that:

... religion is not solely a matter of true or false beliefs. Religion is also a matter of practice and praise, feelings and faith. It is, that is to say, not just about the running itself; it is also about the catching of breath and the feel of the wind.

Moreover, Schulz believes that:

The first thing we need to do is to understand that religion is not a pastime but a discipline; not an amusement but a craft. Woody Allen said, "I read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It's about Russia." Well, that's how we sometimes treat religion—casually, quickly—and we get about as much out of it. Unitarian Universalism is not fundamentally about creedlessness; it is not fundamentally about believing whatever you want; it is not fundamentally about the liberty of the individual—all of these are mere pastimes, amusements. It is rather an opportunity to pursue ultimate religious questions within a context which respects mystery and is open to a multitude of revelations. (Finding Time and Other Delicacies, p. 23).

He wrote:

The best way to experience spirituality is not to chase it—and surely not to run as if we're being chased. The best way, I suspect, is to pause and ponder in silence. In silence we can feel our breath return. And occasionally, if we are very, very quiet, even the wind itself may speak. (Finding Time and Other Delicacies, p. 10).

IV: Schulz's Definitions of Theological Concepts

In his Unitarian Universalism in a New Key, Schulz gives context and definition for traditional theological terms and concepts:


To my mind no theological concept is more worthy of our reclamation than that of grace. Used so often by the orthodox to exclude and divide, grace in fact refers to whatever blessings of Creation come to us unbidden, unheralded, and unearned. In this sense, the gracious—whether manifest in the rising of the sun, the sparkle of a fish, the chuckle of a child, or the deliverance of death—is the gateway to gratitude and the wellspring of faith. We need to rescue the notion from the orthodox and claim it as our own... . (Finding Time and Other Delicacies, p. 40).


We need, to be sure, a new theology of social change and a contemporary doctrine of evil capable, for example, of addressing the Holocaust. But what we need even more is a new eschatology, that is, a new vision of the social world to come. To the extent to which liberal religion has depended upon liberal/economic liberalism for its image of the Blessed Community, the former will perish with the latter. But neither traditional capitalism (even in its neoconservative form) nor traditional socialism (even in its democratic form) offers viable alternatives... So we need a new Unitarian Universalist fantasy of utopia. We need, in other words, to know what (in the world) we're working toward...

If we are to be lost to the world, let it be because we were too far ahead of our times and not because we were oblivious to them. And if we are to be found, let it be for a faith worth finding. (Finding Time and Other Delicacies, p. 40)


Schulz writes of sources of authority for Unitarian Universalists:

For though the individual certainly is the ultimate source of religious authority within Unitarian Universalism, the individual is not the only source... ... here are five additional sources of religious authority for Unitarian Universalists which complement the authority of the individual:

1) The Tradition. The Unitarian and Universalist traditions provide a sort of "early warning system" for the recognition of tenets at odds with the norms of our faith. The tradition is not definitive—part of our genius is our conviction that it will inevitably be superseded by new "revelation" —but if you hear someone preaching hellfire and damnation or insisting that the future is solely in God's hands, chances are it's not a Unitarian Universalist!

2) The Community. While Unitarian Universalism encourages each person to see his or her own religious truth, we also believe that such truth is most likely to be disclosed in the context of a religious community... hence, congregations. The love and nurturance, the feedback and critique, which we find in a healthy congregation, are invaluable resources in the shaping of a religious pilgrimage...

3) Reason. Sullied though it be by misuse and exaggerated expectations, the human capacity to reason and its most famous offspring, the scientific method, are still worthy recipients of our praise. Spirituality is not contra-reasonable but supra-reasonable, taking off from the boundary where reason cannot tread. But until we reach that boundary, reason reigns, and even once we pass beyond it, it is wise to keep our heads.

4) Nature. If we posit, as we do, the value of the earth, then the natural rhythms of Creation provide authoritative echoes of their own. Some of these are undeniable: our utter dependence upon the generosity of other living things, our partnership with Being in the tending of abundance...

5) The Holy. The final and most idiosyncratic source of religious authority is whatever we call Holy. Be it God or Good, Jesus or Jeremiah, the Bible or the Bhagavad-Gita, that which commands our highest loyalty commands our hearts. This last source requires testing against the previous four. But then those four must be judged also in reference to the fifth. Indeed, no source stands alone; each requires the wisdom of its colleagues, all informing the authority of the individual.

We Unitarian Universalists believe that the future is not set, that History is not determined, that destiny is not fated. We believe that human beings create history and can change it if we will. But we also know that the tools with which we have to work—the measure of our energy, the degree of our intelligence, the allurement of the sun—are outside our control, are gifts of an abundant grace. Will and grace go hand in hand; justice and grace are inseparable. (Finding Time and Other Delicacies, p. 43-50)

V: The Source of Our Ethical Injunctions

Schulz says he sees "Unitarian Universalism today in the midst of a major theological transition. That transformation takes at least these five different, if related, forms:

1) Heretofore an exclusively North American movement, Unitarian Universalism is becoming more global in its focus and its consciousness.

2) Fiercely proud of its emphasis on individual freedom of belief, Unitarian Universalism is nonetheless becoming less frightened of the primacy of relationships and the disciplines of community.

3) While what we believe about religion is important, what we experience of the religious is even more so. Unitarian Universalists are learning not just to talk about religion but to invite the Spirit to dwell within our hearts.

4) Reason is still a cherished standard in our religious repertoire, but reason is coming to be supplemented by our immediate apprehensions of the Holy and by our conviction that the Holy is embodied in the abundance of a scarred creation.

5) If we Unitarian Universalists believe that human beings are responsible for History, we are at the same time far more aware of all that which we cannot control. We are, in other words, balancing a conviction of Will with an appreciation of Grace. (Finding Time and Other Delicacies, p. 46)

Schulz continues:

The reason ours is a creedless faith is because we have a theory about Creation and our theory—unlike that of most religious traditions—is that Creation is too grand, too glorious, too complex, and too mysterious to be captured in any narrow creed or reflected in any single metaphor.

It is exactly because we so cherish the world in all its multi-hued grandeur that we resist the temptation to see it through only one lens. Our conviction is that we will come a little closer to the truth about the world—and certainly be more receptive to its splendor—is we use a variety of vehicles to apprehend it: all the world's great religious traditions, for example, but also the sciences, the secular arts, the disciplines of mysticism, and the electric touch of love.

The bedrock of Unitarian Universalist affirmation is not individual freedom of belief. The bedrock affirmation is a belief in the complex majesty of Creation which in turn entails the adoption of a creedless faith. But the complexity and the majesty come first! (Finding Time and Other Delicacies, p. 47)

[W]e human beings are not masters of Creation but simply one more expression of Creation's jubilation...

From this embrace of the holistic, a series of ethical injunctions flow: that I and the Other need not be enemies for we are both held in the hands of the same Creation; that rigid ideologies are an outmoded brand of politics; that all life on the planet—not just human—has value unto itself; that power is to be shared and ultimate loyalty paid not to a nation or a region or a culture but to the Universal...

To recognize the complex mutuality of Creation is to be in pain at any instance of its denial, to be a surrogate to anyone who suffers. It is to recognize, quite literally, that we and all that Is are bonded...

What is our special role as a religious movement today? Perhaps to teach the world that no one is saved until we All are—where All means the whole Creation: the animals, the rain forests, the tiniest of microbes, the Soviets, black and white South Africans, the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Every religion is confronted with two great tasks: First, to teach human beings how to be in right relationship with each other and the world, and second, to help us be at peace even in the face of death. As to the first task, Unitarian Universalism derives from its convictions about the world the faith that strangers need not be enemies, that the interdependence of Creation compels us to acts of reconciliation. And as to the second, Unitarian Universalism begs us to be so engaged in life that—paradoxically—we may even look kindly upon the letting go. For we know that the best way to meet death is to have looked upon the routines of our dailiness through the prisms of surprise and to have found in the utterly unexceptional the very evidences of God. The more we love and the more we mourn, the more acceptable becomes the letting go. (Finding Time and Other Delicacies, p. 48)

Like, Share, Print, or Explore

For more information contact

Find everything tagged: