Unitarian Universalism in Societal Perspective

Professor Robert Bellah offered us a rich and provocative address, fortunately printed in our Fulfilling the Promise booklet for us to absorb later more slowly. Read the full text of the speech (PDF, 12 pages).

His initial observation will perhaps take some of us by surprise. It is true, he argues, that Unitarian Universalists (UUs) are strong dissenters in the area of social justice, but we are nonetheless squarely in the mainstream of American religious thought. This is because religion in this country perceives itself, by and large, as almost universally dissenting. The point at issue is which dissenting tradition has the greatest validity.

The thrust of his presentation is that UUs are so affirming of the inherent worth and dignity of the individual and of the need to respect our differences and autonomy that we come close to denying our essentially social nature. When questions were asked of a sample of UUs in a survey conducted a decade ago, our tenacious individualism was amply demonstrated. But it comes close to threatening our institutional commitments.

Our seventh principle, the interdependent web of all existence, he says, ought to be our first. There is within the deepest threads of our tradition—indeed of Western culture as well if one looks hard for it—a recognition of our interdependence. It was well expressed in the recent Commission on Appraisal. Our task as a denomination is to reconcile the tensions between a potentially destructive individualism and an equally difficult veneration of unity. UUs feel this tension most keenly. Finding an appropriate balance has so far been elusive. "You face in your denomination the most basic conundrum of American life," he concluded. "If you can solve it, you may help lead the larger society out of the wilderness into which it has wandered."

Reported by The Revolution, the daily newspaper of General Assembly