Unitarian Universalist Church of Olinda
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What Makes Unitarian Universalism Different from other Religious Groups?

December 28th, 2008 . by bonnie


A Sermon Given
by The Rev. Roger Fritts
on October 18, 1998
at Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church
Bethesda, Maryland 

A few years ago researchers conducted a nation wide study on the subject of church affiliation. The results showed that more than 450 thousand adults in this country call themselves Unitarian Universalists. This makes us the fifteenth largest religious group in the United States. Yet given that the population of this country is more than 260 million; 450 thousand is but a drop in the bucket. We are dwarfed by the Methodists, who have more than 10 million members, and by the Southern Baptists who have more than 15 million members. We are a mere blip on the radar screen of the Roman Catholics who count 60 million people as members in the United States. 

Because of our size, I often find myself in the situation of trying to explain my religion to people who have never heard of Unitarians or Universalists. For example I might find myself in a conversation where someone asks me what I do for a living. I explain that I am a Unitarian Universalist minister. The people I am talking with often respond by saying that they know nothing at all about Unitarian Universalism. They ask me to explain my religion to them, in a few words.

I do not believe I can give one right answer to this question. Instead several possibilities always come to my mind. For example: 

One answer I give is to refer to the origins of the words Unitarian and Universalist. This is a particularly helpful way to explain who we are to a person who is deeply committed to a Protestant or Catholic church. I explain that Unitarian refers to the unity of God as opposed to the Trinitarian belief. Unitarians believe that Jesus was a human being, while Trinitarians believe that Jesus was God. 

Universalism refers to the belief in Universal salvation, in contrast to the Calvinist belief that God preordains some people at birth to go to hell or to heaven. Universalists believe that no hell exists and that after death everyone goes to heaven. Christians who have struggled to understand the theology of the trinity, or who had struggled to deal with a theology of predestination, can quickly see how Unitarian Universalists are different. 

Another answer I might give is to talk about our emphasis on tolerance and respect. This is a helpful way to explain our religion to people who are angry and disillusioned with all religion, because of their experience with self-righteous, judgmental religious people. Unitarian Universalists, I explain, believe that people should be encouraged to present their ideas about religion without fear of censure or reprisal. People who have left organized religion behind because closed-minded clergy have disillusioned them, may see how we try respect the dignity of every person.

Still another answer I might give is to list famous persons who have been Unitarians or Universalists. This helps when people tell me they have heard that we worship the devil or that we are a new-age-flaky religion. I say that Thomas Jefferson, and Henry David Thoreau held Unitarian beliefs. I explain that a leader of the effort to gain women’s right to vote, Susan B. Anthony, was a Universalist. I say that the last Unitarian to run for President of the United States was Adlai Stevenson and that the last two Secretaries of Defense have been Unitarians. This name dropping is effective with people who confuse the Unitarian Church with the Unification Church. The Unification Church is a conservative Christian group established by a minister from Korea, who claims that he is the messiah. 

I have given all three of these explanations on one occasion or another. However, each of these answers, the origins of the words, the importance of tolerance and respect, and the names of famous Unitarian Universalists, are rooted in another, more basic definition. In trying to explain who we are I find myself turning to this basic definition. 

At some point in the conversation I often say that the use of reason is the unique quality of our church. Reason is the special strength of our religion. When others invite us to take something on faith, we want to know “Is it rational? Is it logical? Is the faith statement consistent with what we know about the world? Is it probable, based on our own experience?” 

Our belief that Jesus was a human being, not God, is a result of our use of reason, going back to the beginnings of our religious movement 400 years ago in Europe. 

Our belief that God does not preordain which babies will go to heaven or to hell is a result of our use of reason, going back to the beginning of Universalism 200 years ago in New England. 

Our belief that we should treat every human being with dignity and respect is a result of our use of reason. The Universalists were the first to oppose slavery and the first to recognize the ordination of a woman minister. 

Our ability to attract to our membership outstanding philosophers, political leaders and scientists is a result of our use of reason. From Ralph Waldo Emerson to Robert Fulghum we have been blessed with creative thinkers in our membership. 

Montgomery County has an enormous variety of religious groups. We have a super market, a shopping mall of religions. Because of this pluralism, religious groups have learned to specialize. The National Cathedral specializes in a high church liturgy. The African Methodist Episcopal church specializes in singing spirituals and expressing powerful emotions. The Mormons specialize in building a giant temple on the Beltway and offering a live nativity each Christmas. Foundry United Methodist Church specializes in being the church attended by the President and his wife. 

In contrast, we specialize in reason. Although some Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic Church allow reason a wide field, they reserve the domain of faith for ultimate truths of their religion. At some point or another most religious communities ask their members to suspend reason and accept on faith words of the religious leader or the writing of scripture. Unitarian Universalists do not.

A Roman Catholic may believe that “dogmatic statements . . . formulate an unchanging and ultimate truth.” In contrast, Unitarian Universalism doesn’t offer unchanging and ultimate truths. Instead we teach that if our hearts and minds are truly free and open, every generation grows and learns. 

An Orthodox Jew may believe that the written law, as contained in the first five books of the Old Testament, is eternally valid. Unitarian Universalists respond that Old Testament law is historically and culturally conditioned by the time in which the authors wrote it. We learn from the past, but we use our reason and our experience to develop laws and religious observances that have meaning to us.

A Muslim may believe the Koran is the word of God. Unitarian Universalists respond that the best evidence indicates that the Koran, like other religious writing, is the work of a human being, not of God.

A Hindu may believe in demons, magic rites, and animal worship, as manifestations of a higher God. We will ask “What evidence is there to support these claims? Are the claims consistent with our own experience of life?”

A Buddhist may believe in reincarnation, an endless series of worldly existences in which every being is caught. We will ask “What facts are there that lead to this belief? Does this belief in rebirth fit with our own knowledge of life and death?” 

The role of liberal religion is to ask reasonable questions about claims that others ask us to accept on faith. When we use our reason, we examine our own emotional reaction critically before accepting it. We decide what evidence we need to reach a conclusion about a faith claim and we conduct our inquiry patiently. We draw conclusions based on the evidence, keeping our judgement tentative wherever the facts will not support a firm answer. 

We show our rationality not by our commitment to fixed ideas, set beliefs, or rigid convictions, but by the ways in which our ideas, beliefs, and convictions grow and develop.

Our emphasis on reason to evaluate claims of faith has resulted in jokes about our beliefs: 

It is said that our Bible is the Sunday edition of The New York Times

It is said that “Generally speaking, Unitarians are generally speaking.” 

Our emphasis on cold reason and logic has caused some to call us “God’s frozen people.” 

Laughing at ourselves is healthy. A religion without humor is dangerous. 

Yet the critics are mistaken. To conclude that Unitarian Universalists are only rational is to misunderstand what I am trying to say this morning. The question in the sermon title is “What Makes Unitarian Universalism Different from other Religious Groups?” My answer is that more then any other religious group, we use reason as a tool to understand claims of religious faith. 

However, what makes us different and unique is not the same thing as our goal as a religion. I believe the central goal, the primary mission of this religious movement, is to learn how to love each other and the earth. This is a goal we share with most other religious groups. We gather here to learn to love each other, to learn to love others in the community and to learn to love the earth and all its creatures. What makes us unique is the extent that we use reason as a tool in helping us learn to love each other. 

Our use of reason as a tool in learning to love can lead us in very radical directions. We join others in expressing our shock and sadness about the death of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, who was brutality murdered because he was openly gay. Unitarian Universalists openly welcome gay and lesbian people to our churches. Unlike many other religious groups we ordain openly gay and lesbian people into our ministries. Unlike many other religious groups our clergy officiate at ceremonies of union between same sex couples. Our use of reason and love has led us to this. 

And we join others in expressing our support and sympathy for Michele Finn’s decision to remove the feeding tube from her husband. We watched with anguish and horror as others tried to maintain his body on artificial support long after his life had ended. Unitarian Universalists have gone on record supporting people who do not wish extraordinary means used to keep their bodies going. Our use of reason and love has led us to this. 

We use the rational side of our brain as a tool to help us better use the intuitive side. We specialize in reason as opposed to blind faith, but we use our reason to explore our dreams and our imagination. We use our rational side as a tool to guide our creativity and our compassion.

In a Book called Women and Science, Vivian Gornick describes the interplay between reason and creativity this way:

The natural biologist walks through a city park, across a suburban lawn, past an open shopping mall, and is half-consciously wondering: Why two leaves instead of three? Why pink flowers instead of white? Why does the plant turn this way instead of that way? Such rumination goes on without end in the scientist’s mind, a continuous accompaniment to the rhythm of daily life . . . It is from this continuousness of thought and perception that the scientist . . . receives the crucial flash of insight out of which a piece of work is conceived and executed. 

Galileo could have looked up at the movement of the sun and moon and wondered if it was time for lunch. Darwin could have visited South America to get a tan or to write a cookbook on how to prepare bananas. Instead, both choose to use their minds to observe, dream, and reason. They were engaged in acts of creative intelligence.

Reason is a demanding discipline. It requires a rigid process of questioning, observing, and drawing conclusions. And after we have gone through the process we must have the courage to share our conclusions and be willing to let in new information that might change our ideas. However, hard as it is, this process has freed humans from a life of hunting and gathering. Without the slow, painful process of reasoning and testing today we would be a race of unwashed animals climbing in trees. Without the inventions of creative intelligence, we would still be making our homes in caves.

What Makes Unitarian Universalism Different from other Religious Groups? The use of reason is the unique quality of our church. Reason is the special strength of our religion. When others appeal to us to take something on faith, we want to know “Is it rational? Is it logical? Is the faith statement consistent with what we know about the world? Is it probable, based on our own experience?” 

However, reason is not our God or our idol. It is our tool. Like many religions, love is our goal. How do we love each other, given the reality that we often see things differently, we have different needs and competing desires? How do we love each other when some of us are young and some of us are old, when some of us are extroverts and some of us are introverts, when some of us are gay and some of us are straight? How do we love each other? What makes Unitarian Universalists unique is that reason is our authority as we work to realize the goal of love. 


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