Rebecca F. Benner
I am a third generation Unitarian Universalist. This is by no means a record. Even in this congregation there are families whose Unitarian Universalist history goes much further back, and in New England, where I grew up, there were people who were fifth, sixth, even seventh generation. And yet, in this denomination where 85% of the adults did not grow up within the faith, being a third generation Unitarian Universalist is somewhat unusual.
My grandparents joined First Unitarian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio just about sixty-five years ago, shortly after the birth of their first daughter. For sixty-five years they have been active in that congregation—teaching Sunday school, serving on the Board of Trustees, being part of a Ministerial Search Committee (or two), bringing up their four children in the Religious Education program, greeting newcomers week after week after week, writing a history of the church. They still attend regularly, although not quite as often as they used to, always sitting in the same seats they have sat in for decades. Let me tell you—people notice if they are not there. By now, there is not a single person left in the church who was there when they became members. In fact, they have been there about a decade longer than the next senior member. They have seen people come and go. They have seen a good number of ministers serve the church. They have watched generations of families grow up; they have known countless people who have died.
My grandparents are now in their nineties, with none of their children or grandchildren living in the area. Although they have made good connections in their independent living residence, First Unitarian Church remains at the core of their life. We who are their family and who love them dearly are grateful beyond words to know that the members of their church are there watching over them, ready to help out whenever they need it.
My grandfather had grown up in the Presbyterian church, my grandmother as a Methodist. They found in the Unitarian church a caring community, a place that was open to intellectual inquiry, a place that would help them raise their children in a liberal religious atmosphere. They have seen the Unitarian church go through a tremendous number of changes, including the merger with the Universalists in 1961. They have a daughter and a granddaughter who are Unitarian Universalist ministers. And they, in the context of this loving, challenging religious community, remain ever open to learning new things.
This is what I think of when I think of what it means to be a member of a church, what it means to be Unitarian Universalist. I think of my grandparents and their sixty-five year history with First Unitarian Church of Cincinnati, Ohio. I think of all that they have seen, and heard, and learned as part of that congregation and the fact that their commitment to Unitarian Universalism has remained faithful throughout.
Unitarian Universalism has changed a great deal since its North American origins over two hundred years ago. Both Unitarianism and Universalism began in part as transplanted European religious movements that made their way across the Atlantic, but more so as homegrown American religions, born in reaction to the conservative Calvinist doctrine that was becoming popular at the time. Unitarianism in particular came out of the same intellectual tradition that spawned the American Revolution and the values of equality and religious freedom that were so much a part of that time.
Like all religious traditions, we have historical figures who played prominent roles in the founding of the faith. On the Universalist side we have John Murray, who brought Universalism over from England, as well as George deBenneville and Caleb Rich who discovered it through their own study of Scripture. We have Hosea Ballou whose theological writings did much to clarify the Universalist position.
On the Unitarian side we have Joseph Priestly who, like John Murray, brought his religious faith with him from England. We have William Ellery Channing, the first public spokesperson for early Unitarianism. We (sort of) have Thomas Jefferson who, although he was never a member of a Unitarian church claimed that he subscribed to the Unitarian philosophy, who believed that, by the end of his generation, Unitarianism would be the dominant religion in this country, and who created his own Bible using the words of Jesus but leaving out the miracles and the resurrection. We have a lively and interesting history in this country.
It was Channing who made the first attempt to define Unitarianism, this new religious tradition that was emerging out of New England congregationalism, when he preached his sermon “Unitarian Christianity” at the church in Baltimore for the installation of Jared Sparks.
The issues that really separated Unitarianism from the Congregationalism that gave birth to it were the nature of humanity, the nature of God, and the place of reason in religion. The difference over God is clear from the name given to this new religious perspective—Unitarians believed that God is one, in opposition to the belief in God as a Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Channing wrote, “We believe in the doctrine of God’s unity, or that there is one God, and one only… We object to the doctrine of the Trinity that, whilst acknowledging in words, it subverts in effect, the unity of God.”
The difference over human nature is less obvious, but probably more important. While the more conservative Christians focused on the innate sinfulness of humanity, Unitarians believed that human beings are truly created in the image of the divine. In other words, human beings are, at heart, good, and can, in fact, live up to God’s expectations for them.
And because human beings carry within them this goodness and virtue, this spark of the divine, human reason must be brought to bear upon religious understanding and interpretation. Channing wrote, “Our leading principle in interpreting Scripture is this, that the Bible is a book written for men [sic], in the language of men, and that its meaning is to be sought in the same manner as that of other books…we feel it our bounded duty to exercise our reason upon [the Bible] perpetually, to compare, to infer, to look beyond the letter to the spirit, to seek in the nature of the subject, and the aim of the writer, his true meaning; and, in general, to make use of what is known, for explaining what is difficult, and for discovering new truths.” This was a radical departure from how Scripture was viewed by most other Christian denominations.
Universalism arose around this same time, reacting against the same conservative Christianity but focused on a different subject. For Universalists, the doctrine that concerned them was that of salvation. Calvinists believed in predestination, that certain people were destined for heaven and others for hell. Even those Christians who did not believe that our eternal fates were sealed before we were even born believed that some of humanity was headed for eternal punishment at God’s hand.
The Universalists disagreed. They believed that God is so good, that God’s love for humanity is so great, that every person will, in the end, be saved. That there is no such thing as hell. From our modern perspective, it is next to impossible to imagine how radical this view was two hundred years ago.
Both Unitarianism and Universalism held that one of the central callings of religion was to create God’s kingdom here on earth, by working for greater peace and justice wherever and whenever possible. Both also were, from the beginning, non-creedal faiths. In other words, although there were many attempts to articulate the basic theological understandings of each tradition, there was no statement of belief that people had to sign on to when they joined the church.
Much has happened since those first articulations of American Unitarianism and Universalism. In the past two hundred years, Unitarianism and Universalism have been influenced by the Transcendentalists, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, the scientific revolution, formal biblical criticism, and humanism. The two religions joined together in 1961, a move that had been considered for over a century. We have changed from a religious tradition that is clearly and explicitly Christian to one that embraces the religious pluralism we find in our world and within our own congregations. And by no means have we finished changing. No wonder we sometimes have difficulty knowing who we are!
As I was thinking about how much we have changed over the last two hundred years, I found myself wondering what our religious forebears would think if they suddenly found themselves here on a Sunday morning at the beginning of the 21st Century. Would they recognize our Unitarian Universalism as part of the same religious tradition they had a hand in creating? Just what do we have in common with those who founded our faith?
Because both Unitarianism and Universalism developed in response to the dominant religious culture of the country, and because a majority of modern day Unitarian Universalists still come to our congregations from other religious traditions, one of the biggest dangers we face in defining ourselves to that we will do so only in negative terms. “We don’t believe this. We have rejected that…” and so on. Sometimes it is easier to see what makes us different from other religious traditions than what it is we actually have in common with each other.
It makes sense, perhaps, that we, both as individuals and as a denomination, need first to separate ourselves from those traditions or ways of thinking that we have left behind, whatever they may be. But unless we move beyond that, unless we find some way to define ourselves in the positive, we will be stuck forever reacting to someone else’s religious tradition. It is both a gift and a challenge that so many in our churches come to Unitarian Universalism as adults. On the one hand, we are forever learning from new perspectives, forever challenged to continue the search in ways that invite people in. At the same time, it can be easy to lose sight of our history, to fall into the trap of believing that each of us gets to invent Unitarian Universalism in our own image, turning it into whatever we want it to be.
As I look back over the writings of the early Unitarians and Universalists, the ways in which we have changed are, at first, more apparent than what has remained true about the tradition. No doubt, if some of those men (and they were mostly men, at least at the beginning) were to appear among us this morning, they too would initially be struck by how much has changed. Probably what they would notice first would be the very large houses across the street, and that there is a woman in the pulpit. They would probably be surprised to discover that the Bible isn’t our only or even primary text. They might wonder at some of the changes we’ve made in the words to our hymns, taking out much of the theistic language and almost all of the gender-specific language. They would probably have to get used to our references to religious traditions from around the world. I know they would be puzzled by our casual dress.
But I don’t think they would have to hang around for long to discover that we do, in fact, belong to the same religious family.
They would see that our commitment to on-going inquiry and openness to religious truths is a continuation of their own. They would see that in our commitment to equality for women and for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people and in our work to abolish racism, both within our own walls and in the wider world we have followed the example of their efforts to abolish slavery. They would see that we continue to struggle to live up to the divine possibility each of us has within us, and that we continue to believe in our potential for growth and goodness.
There are, I believe, two things that are essential to Unitarian Universalism. Two things which hold us together as a community, which tie us to our past, and which will carry us into the future. The first is the core belief of Unitarian Universalist theology; the belief that is, as Unitarian minister Theodore Parker reminds us in his sermon “The Transient and Permanent in Christianity,” the eternal truth of our religion—that as human beings, we are called to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” and to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Let me say that again. As human beings, we are called to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” and to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
This may not be the language that most of us use any more, but if you look at the principles on the back of your order of service, you will see that, in many ways, they reflect a modern understanding of this ancient declaration. The first part of this commandment tells us that we are to discover and love the divine, the sacred, God, with all our mind, heart, and soul. We are to find that which calls us beyond ourselves, that which reminds us that we have the ability to serve truth and goodness wherever it is found. I believe that, whether or not we find God to be a useful concept for ourselves personally, the concept that we must find something of ultimate worth upon which to base our lives holds true for all of us.
The second half—love thy neighbor as thyself—reflects how we want to act in this world. We strive to act with justice and compassion, with an awareness of our connection to all those around us. Over the centuries, we may have learned more and more about what this means, but it has always been central to who we are.
Whatever changes our theological perspectives, our religious language and rituals have gone through over the years, whatever we have learned about the world and about ourselves, this call to love our God and to love our neighbor as ourselves remains as powerful and central as it has been since the first time it was spoken.
The second thing that holds us together as Unitarian Universalists is not a particular theological belief or ritual, but rather how we go about “doing religion.” We hold that the process of religion is ongoing, that there is always more truth to be found, that our faith is never finished. We believe that revelation is not sealed. That which is ultimate is continually being shown to us—through the sacred scriptures of the world’s religions, through science and study, through the natural world, through the arts, through human relationships, through our own experiences in the world. We believe that, although most of our religious searching happens within community, our spiritual journeys are our own and every one of us has the freedom to make his or her particular journey in his or her particular way.
It is this freedom and openness, this belief in continuous revelation that has led us to the religious pluralism we have within our tradition today. This does not mean that people can believe whatever they want. We hold people to the integrity of their own truth. There are days when I want to believe in a personal God who will enter into my life and take care of me, but Unitarian Universalism challenges me to be honest, with myself and with you, my religious community. I must acknowledge that, as much as I sometimes want this belief, it is not a part of my faith or of my experience. But within the bounds of honesty and integrity, within the bounds of loving that which is ultimate and loving our neighbor, there is a tremendous amount of room for religious exploration and learning, for diversity of belief and diversity of practice.
It may not seem like a lot, these two things that hold us together as part of the same religious tradition. They may seem simple, even obvious. But the best and deepest religious truths are simple. It is what we do with them that gets complicated. But let me save that issue for next week. For now, let me just say that simple doesn’t always mean easy.
It is often a surprise to people who are new to Unitarian Universalism just how powerful our history is. How much, despite the surface differences, it informs who we are today. As a third generation Unitarian Universalist, I feel deeply connected to our history, not only because it is the history of my faith tradition and association, but because it is also the history of my family. I can see, almost daily, how much this religious tradition has shaped me and those I love.
One of the introductory books on Unitarian Universalism is titled A Chosen Faith. Unitarian Universalism is a chosen faith. Even for those of us who grew up Unitarian or Universalist or Unitarian Universalist, there was a time when we had to choose this faith for ourselves. There is tremendous power in this, in knowing that we are here because we want to be, because we are committed to sharing our religious journeys with each other, committed to sharing our lives with one another. Part of choosing Unitarian Universalism is learning about our history, making connections between where we are now and where we came from. Because, as you know, it is only through knowing how we got here that we can carry our true religious faith into the future.
I am incredibly grateful that my grandparents chose to become a part of the Unitarian tradition. I am grateful that my mother and father chose to stick with it. I am grateful to be able to spend my life serving this faith that I believe is deserving of our allegiance.
Let us remember the words of Universalist minister Olympia Brown that we read together this morning:
Stand by this faith. Work for it and sacrifice for it. There is nothing in all the world so important as to be loyal to this faith which has placed before us the loftiest ideals, which has comforted us in sorrow, strengthened us for noble duty and made the world beautiful. Do not demand immediate results but rejoice that we are worthy to be entrusted with this great message, that you are strong enough to work for a great true principle without counting the cost. Go on finding ever new applications of these truth and new enjoyments in their contemplation, always trusting in the one God which ever lives and loves.
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Last updated on Monday, March 25, 2013.
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