Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: What Moves Us: A Unitarian Universalist Theology Program for Adults

Handout 2: Thandeka's Theology of Personal Experience

Part of What Moves Us

Love beyond belief, according to Thandeka, means that personal experience has three basic elements for us as Unitarian Universalists: (1) a change of heart, (2) a congregational ethos of care and compassion, (3) doctrinal freedom to explore various sources to explain our religious feelings and sentiments and the moral values and actions linked to them. We use different theological lenses to examine and explain a personal change of heart. We perceive the difference between what we emotionally feel (a change of heart) and what we intellectually cite (God, the Universe, the Holy Spirit, Humanity, etc.) as the source of our change of heart.

Unitarian Universalists maintain a mental space of difference between our thoughts and feelings, which enables others to make a diversity of personal theological claims about what brought on their own personal change of heart. This mental space for different religious beliefs is our intellectual signature as a religious people. We call this mental space our doctrinal freedom. Using this mental space, we are able to affirm our common emotional ground as one religious people, while at the same time affirming our intellectual freedom to make a diversity of personal theological claims about the source and meaning of our own change of heart.

We thereby establish and affirm a noncreedal religious tradition, which Thandeka calls "loving beyond belief," as definitive of our Unitarian Universalist faith. Orthodox, conservative, and traditional evangelical and fundamentalist traditions, by contrast, do not allow for this mental space of doctrinal freedom that enables and encourages a theological diversity of explanations among its members regarding the cause that prompted the personal experience of a change of heart. Our liberal faith tradition is founded, in part, on this difference between emotion and belief. This is why we can love beyond belief. Our hearts are not restricted by belief.

We maintain this mental space of doctrinal freedom liturgically during our Sunday services. Moreover, we transmit this openness to difference to our children through the way we teach them how to handle their shifting emotions long before their own personal religious belief systems as Unitarian Universalists are set in place. This is our emotional signature as a caring and compassionate religious people, a people who love beyond belief. We align our thoughts and feelings liturgically within an intellectual context of doctrinal freedom.

We are members of a democratic faith because of our ongoing affirmation and experience of intellectual freedom as a religious right and because of our ever-renewing experience of emotional integrity through our liturgical rites. These personal experiences of open-mindedness and open-heartedness as a religious practice prompt us, as Unitarian Universalists, to work in the world for justice, equity, and freedom as moral agents.

Our social justice work emerges from the ways in which we intellectually and emotionally handle the ongoing capacity of human beings to experience a change of heart. This is why we affirm human nature in positive terms rather than condemn it as irretrievably broken and fallen from grace. We nurture the redemptive capacity of the human heart to be transformed. This means that we are pro-active in creating human communities that nurture the capacity of human beings to bond in ways that are productive for their own wellbeing and for that of the wider world.