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The Unitarian Universalist Church: A Personal Encounter
Who Are the Unitarian Universalists?
It was a customary scene I have been familiar with since my own childhood: first-time visitor parking, greeters at the door with smiles and a word of welcome, double-doors leading into a Sanctuary where the morning bulletin is handed to me. People are talking to their kids, young and old alike share warm greetings, others are sitting down drinking coffee, but the room is filled with people who are rustling like leaves in the Fall wind, filling the room with the sounds of life. I take a seat in the very back trying not to be noticed, but already my new face has caught the eyes of those more familiar with the regular congregants. Hymnals are placed under every chair, a classy black piano sits in the front where choir members are taking their seats. At the sound of a chime a holy silence seems to fall over the room as the worshipers face the front and a young man begins to eloquently strike the keys. In due time the music stops, and a man stands up at the pulpit and welcomes everyone before making his announcements. A time of greeting gives me a chance to talk to the woman next to me—Barbara—a tall thin middle-aged woman with short dark hair, a warm smile and welcoming spirit. When the time of greeting is over, my eyes are fixed toward the front of the room as the pastor lights a large chalice-shaped candle. The room needs no electric lights, for the transparent windows above our heads outline the room while light floods the corporate space through a transparent spherical globe-like window that dominates the aesthetic of the room. Through it I can see the trees and the grass that compliment the paper-bag colored walls and forest green carpet inside. The transparent windows outlining the room are sprinkled with leaf-art giving the entire room the feel of nature.
Even the sermon topic was an exhortation hardly unusual to my church going ears. The pastor urges the congregation to consider the scary statistics of traditional-styled churches becoming churches of the past faced with the reality of sharp decline and the threat of extinction. He urges the congregants to be open to change even as the service (unknown to me) is uniquely sequenced to gently throw the regular attendees for a liturgical loop. As the minister is waxing eloquent, I cannot help but notice the unusually robust wooden pulpit from which his oration emanates, and his humble position in the back corner rather than front-and-center. Nor could I help from staring at the multicolored cloth draped down the middle of the massive pulpit. As I take it all in, I hear the pastor himself begin his scrutiny of the room as he lamented the stark and “Quaker-like” worship space of the churches typical of his denomination. He attempts to help his people untangle the stigma of contemporary worship music from the musical style itself. “We tend to associate contemporary worship with those churches we don’t want to be like,” he suggests, “But if you think about it … objectively … what we don’t want to be like is not a music style, but a certain theology.” He even mentions the technological revolution unfolding at the beginning of the 21st century, and how it has swiftly changed the landscape of communications.
Reverend Bill Gupton did not pick his topic capriciously, but his prophetic plea was a timely execution as the church continues to have “building conversation meetings” open to everyone. As the service progresses, a time of testimony and candle lighting finally breaks my own acquaintance with the service dynamics and my eyes behold a scene hard to forget. Before I even realized it, each side of the room was lined with congregants. I looked around to estimate how few of us were still in our seats. One by one, the congregants take their turn coming up to the microphone, offering spontaneous words of praise, mourning, humor, remembrance, joy, and gratitude, lighting a small but symbolic candle for each spoken gesture and placing it around the larger chalice-candle in the center of a table at the front of the sanctuary between the pulpit and the choir. It was then that I was reminded of just what kind of church I had walked into that morning, and how different it was from anything I knew, for as the people spoke their words and lit their candles around the chalice, I noticed a certain linguistic discipline. Those with concern either for themselves or others, rather than asking for prayer, were beseeching their fellow religionists to send “positive [or good] thoughts [or energy]” to the person of concern.
Toward the end of the service, we all stood for the recital of what I would otherwise identify as a creed had I not later learned the church strives to be non-creedal. Although they call it a church covenant rather than a creed, the way the congregation recited it reminded me of how the Apostles Creed was routinely recited aloud at the United Methodist Church my parents often brought me to as a child. Their covenant, though not a creed, is read just as powerfully as any church’s creed nonetheless:
Love is the spirit of this church, the quest for truth is its sacrament, and service is its prayer. To dwell together in peace, to seek knowledge in freedom, to serve humankind in fellowship—to the end that all souls shall grow into harmony with the Divine—Thus do we covenant with each other, and with God.
Heritage Universalist Unitarian Church, although initially established in downtown Cincinnati in 1827 as a Universalist Society, merged with the Unitarians (as did all Universalist Churches in 1961) and later relocated to the eastside of the city in 1985. A rainbow flag hangs in the entry room; bold colors send a bold message of tolerance. The UU Church has come to be an advocate of and supporter of social outcast groups such as the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender people). For Hollie Johnson, the Director of Religious Education at Heritage UU, the UU Church is primarily a “safe place” where people on diverse spiritual paths can pursue their spiritual journey unhindered with exposure and knowledge to a range of religions and religious beliefs. Here people do not have to worry or fear what someone else might think of their beliefs or worry about being excluded for “unorthodox” views. In this pluralistic community of tolerance, unconditional love takes on new meaning.
For congregants like Barbara Rohrer, Heritage UU has become like a family she wound up with when her own spiritual journey became at last honest. She could no longer bear the boredom of Catholic Mass, the continual anthropological pessimism that seemed to reduce the value of her spiritual status down to that of a “sinner,” and the teaching that Jesus had to die a cruel death because of her sins. “No, I reject that,” she said finally with her actions when she, in a dramatic turning point in her own spiritual journey, simply and literally walked out of the Catholic Church. For Barbara, the Universalist faith has mainly to do with a rejection of the doctrine of hell—a refusal to believe that God is a vindictive deity who would torture some sector of damned humanity forever. After church shopping in her 20’s she finally landed at Heritage UU. “What I really like about Heritage is the fact that we all have so many different beliefs,” she told me over coffee in the Anderson Town Center close to the church. “I see my church as trying to live out on a micro-level what I think the world needs to live out on a macro-level.” Barbara emphasized tolerance and acceptance in a society of religious pluralism, but put more broadly this simply means “accepting other people’s differences.” Here in Barbara’s words I found the simple link between theological pluralism and advocacy of the LGBT. If the UU Church is going to accept people’s varied religious beliefs, no matter how distant or contrary they are from their own, why should they hold a double standard with people’s sexual orientations, which may fit perfectly with religious intuitions about human flourishing?
Finding out that Barbara used anything but the language of material naturalism, and listening to her oft repeated refrain—“I am a Universalist. I believe we all came from God, and we all will return to God,”—my theological mind began to race over just what salvation might mean if it applies to everybody. She acknowledged that she did not believe salvation was to be understood as something applying to an afterlife per se (if there even is such a thing), but had to do with basic human needs being met: food, clothing, shelter, affection, etc. I tried to conjure up a mental picture for Barbara of the injustices and hardships some orphaned children in the world are born into before they die of malnutrition or hunger, and asked how she could see salvation as applying to these most unfortunate people. If even they are saved, my mind is at a loss to comprehend what this salvation would consist in if not an afterlife.
But Barbara relentlessly brought the focus back to what ought to be rather than what actually is—that is, her response emphasized human culpability: “I think it’s up to us to make changes,” she said with a tone of urgency. She believes a great deal of the suffering and injustice in the world is owing to human agency, and it is up to human agency to set it right. But when I pressed the question persistently she articulated a view of salvation as “in the here and now” and as a gift of “grace” if we choose to accept the “spiritual path,” which for Barbara is exemplified in the life of Jesus. Eventually I concluded that although Barbara says she has a belief in universal salvation (that everyone is or is going to be saved), her embrace of this had more to do with an embrace of universal human dignity and human responsibility than with any traditional notion of salvation for which I had ready-made categories. Barbara’s well articulated and passionately spoken views on injustice, human culpability, and the practice of compassion, along with her contrasting hesitancy, puzzlement, and inconclusive answers to my theological quandary spoke volumes of what was central to her own spiritual journey. Listening to Barbara, I got the feeling that for her, formulating exacting creeds about how to define salvation will do virtually nothing for those in need of it, nor necessarily give the creedal adherent any major salvific advantage. Her insistence on social action and ethical concerns, coupled with her uncertainties about doctrinal definition (such as figuring out how to articulate a theology of universal salvation) make her an instructive example of why many UU folks are proud to be part of a non-creedal religion. The virtue of good deeds outweighs the virtue of formal creeds.
While Heritage offers a “Build Your Own Theology Class” where congregants are given the tools for doing theology and encouraged to discover their theology for themselves, what is most important here is the method rather than its results—people are not indoctrinated, but empowered to think for themselves. Hollie Johnson’s educational ministry at Heritage UU, according to congregant Jenny Hamerstadt who gave me a tour of the building, is bringing more and more young families to the church along with their small children. “The Children’s education has grown tremendously!” she exclaimed in an appreciative tone. It was Jenny that explained to me why the atheists at their church are not offended by God-talk: they have come to an understanding that “God means very different things to different people.” The tolerance practiced by UU atheists make militant atheists like Richard Dawkins look like arrogant, narrow-minded fundamentalists.
Hollie remembers being told by a Catholic priest when she was very young that she would probably not get as good of a job if she went to a secular school instead of a Catholic one. Knowing this was not true, her young mind quickly learned to question religious authority. In her late 20s as she searched for the truth on her spiritual path, Hollie began to identify with paganism and felt drawn to pay attention to the seasons, but she had to learn to overcome her fear of what her parents or others might think of this. “What we do [at UU] is support your path,” she explains, “so everybody might come to a different creed or belief.” I wondered, however, if a UU fundamentalist might be an oxy-moron, so I asked whether fundamentalist evangelicals or Islamic extremists would be welcomed also and treated as equal at Heritage UU. Hollie answered slowly only after a long pause, talking as if her words were coming out before she were sure of them: “I believe that everyone will be accepted at our church, but people who want to come to our church are going to believe what we believe in.”
Given the UU Church’s pride in such a non-creedal identity, I asked Reverend Bill Gupton why the pamphlet I swiped from the table peppered with free UU summation literature in the open church foyer read so much like a creed, as it proclaimed:
We believe that personal experience, conscience, and reason should be the final authorities in religion. In the end religious authority lies not in a book, person, or institution, but in ourselves. … We believe that religious wisdom is ever changing. … Revelation is continuous. We affirm the worth of all women and men.
His answer was representative of what the members also told me. “Well you don’t have to agree with everything … in order to be a member of this church. You don’t have to stand up and affirm those things.” He also made the point that even the seven principles of UU—which were adopted by democratic vote at a UU Convention in 1985—could be amended at any time and may not represent all UU churches. He would prefer the pamphlet used language that better reflected the state of affairs by reading “’We tend to believe…’ or ‘Most of us believe…’.” As I laughed and told him how ironic it was to pick up a pamphlet that read “We believe … we believe … we believe,” when one of these statements says “We will not be bound by a statement of belief,” he began to talk about his handout on “creedless creed-making.” “Groups feel the need to define themselves,” Gupton replied after laughing along, “and when defining themselves to outsiders, they tend to speak in generalizations” that can sound “creed-like.”
Gupton himself was attracted to the UU from a non-religious position when he discovered UU churches did not preach or teach things he could not “rationally believe in,” and emphasized in no uncertain terms the role Enlightenment thinking played in shaping these two denominations that now form the UU.
We would not exist without the Enlightenment. Every important figure in early Universalism and Unitarianism in North America was an intellectual product of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment totally goes hand-in-hand with Unitarian Universalism. … We were a group of people who embraced the Enlightenment and all its implications early on.
Given that western religion has been so caught up with belief in the supernatural—especially a supernatural deity who intervenes in history and in people’s lives—I asked Reverend Bill why he should not just give up the religious identity and become a lecture society instead. His response was unhesitatingly sanguine. “Not being interested particularly in the supernatural does not necessarily mean that you are not very interested in something greater than yourself; something greater than we can touch and see and taste.” One of Reverend Bill’s recent sermon’s was focused entirely on newly developing science, for example, about electromagneticism, quantum consciousness and quantum entanglement. The point of course, was that the scientists are now arguing for counter-intuitive ways of understanding reality and are saying that maybe the universe is one giant quantum entanglement—which is to say, it is all somehow interconnected in ways we never before thought possible. I already knew the UU faith was more open-minded than conservative churches, but Gupton helped me to see how it represents a spirituality that is also “open ended.”
Although UU has minority leaders currently working to help UU become more diverse, UU churches have a tendency to be on the higher end of the socio-economic latter. In general American churches tend to minister to a certain niche of society rather than a wide range of people from various socio-economic, ethnic, and racial identities. Gupton knows other UU churches in Cincinnati more racially diverse than his own, for example, and admits his congregation is mostly a representation of the immediate surrounding community of a highly educated white middleclass; it does not represent the broader community in the city as a whole. Educated or not, Gupton had no problem using excessive redundancy to make a point when conveying his own disappointments of the failed efforts to create more diversity in the UU, which efforts have been “at best ever so moderately tiny slightly successful.” Thus while diversity of thought is achieved in most UU churches, social diversity is not necessarily characteristic of their churches. This high level of education results in the danger of a dry intellectualism, and thus the UU movement has had its own tradition of charismatic prophets, as it were (men like Ralf Waldo Emerson), rise up to pull the denomination in a more spiritual direction.
The Flaming Chalice
If Rev. Bill Gupton was attracted to the UU by his pleasant surprise at its full accommodation to modernity and the Enlightenment critique, and Barbara Rohrer was drawn largely through a rejection of Catholic doctrines of sin, atonement and hell, the UU church in Hollie’s words seems to pull all these stories together and highlight a common theme—as Hollie says, in the most simple terms the UU Church is a “safe place” where one will be unconditionally accepted regardless of their beliefs, race, religious background, sexual orientation, or social status. When I asked her to also interpret the UU emblem for me—a flaming chalice—she resorted to this same language: it symbolizes for her the safe place in which each person can follow his or her own path without trepidation of creedal restraint, exclusion from fellowship, unequal treatment, suppressed inquiry, or anything other than encouragement.
The Flaming Chalice, although depicted in a range of branding styles, is the official religious symbol of the UU church. It was originally created for the Unitarian Service Committee (USC) in Portugal by an Austrian musician and artist Hans Deutsch in 1941. Deutsch was a refugee from Paris who, having contributed political satire against the Nazi regime by drawing critical cartoons, was forced to flee Paris and eventually landed in Portugal and ended up being so impressed by the work of USC for refugees, wound up joining the movement and working for USC. Although depicted in many forms, this symbol was “made into a seal for papers and a badge for agents moving refugees to freedom” and the burning oil was meant to stand for helpfulness and sacrifice—“a lifetime of service.” The interpretation of the symbol since its creation typifies the UU approach to religion: “no one meaning or interpretation is official. The flaming chalice, like our faith, stands open to receive new truths that pass the tests of reason, justice, and compassion.” The interpretations suggested by Hotchkiss for the chalice related it to Jan Hus’s proposal that the communion chalice used in worship be shared with the laity. Charles Joy (executive director of the USC at the time of Deutsch’s service and knew Deutsch personally) was nevertheless quick to emphasize something of great importance: “the fact, however, that it remotely suggests a cross was not in the mind of the artist, but to me this also has its merit.” Deutsch actually did not believe in anything he considered characteristically religious, but found himself an enthusiastic supporter of UU as he understood it to demystify religion into a confession of “practical philosophy” and “useful social work.”
Context and Evaluation
The UU church is honest about its Christian roots but more proud of its liberal identity. The Universalist Unitarian Church (UUC) is the result of a merger between two liberal branches of Protestant Christianity—the Universalists and the Unitarians—who, although having started off taking the authority of the Bible for granted and basing their arguments rigidly therein, came to rely more on reason and intuition along a very similar trajectory as the American experiment itself as it progressed to increasingly tolerant laws concerning religion and social mores. Although the Universalists and Unitarians started off from different places with different theological emphases historically, their liberal identity has at last brought them together and relativized any historical or theological differences. As mentioned above, Heritage UU was founded in 1827 in America as a Universalist Church initially, so it has kept its Universalism first in the Church’s name even though this causes confusion because the denomination has these names the other way around—the UU denomination is the Unitarian Universalist Church, but Heritage is a Universalist Unitarian church.
Alister McGrath’s focus on the authority question in Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution (New York: HarperOne, 2007) helps us to see that the variety of beliefs within a given UU church (including atheism) are a natural outworking of the movement’s multiple sources of “final authority”—personal experience, conscience, and reason. In addition to the seven principles, this church also appears to have many other doctrinal beliefs: certain views on ultimate religious authority, ecclesial agency, and social justice. For example, that revelation is continuous and religious wisdom is “ever changing,” that the church should act as a “moral force” in the world, that “ethical living” is the “supreme witness of religion,” that each “church” (read: local congregation) should be free and autonomously governed, etc. The UU brand of “social justice” includes acceptance and public advocacy for LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender people).
If one thing is blaringly obvious from my own experience and analysis it is this—the non-creedal identity of the UU church has more to do with its insistence against traditional Christian dogma and its creedal tolerance and flexibility than anything else. They may be self-branded as non-creedal, but they most certainly have a creed that creates the climate and boundaries in which free inquiry and theological pluralism is practiced. Their routine recital of the “covenant,” the famous “seven principles” adopted by the denomination, the parts of their pamphlet literature that read like a creed and the particular theological and ethical stances taken therein, Hollie’s comment about those who “believe what we believe,” Reverend Gupton’s comments about their embracing of the Enlightenment “and all its implications,” all indicate strongly that the non-creedal identity can be very misleading. Perhaps, as Gupton pointed out, the official statements can be revised at any time, but so can the Southern Baptist Message and Faith. Whether it is likely is another question.
My rich experience and conversations have left several additional impressions on me concerning the UU Church. First, Heritage’s strong Universalist history means there are many congregants like Barbara who still use God-talk and even quote Scripture, borrow traditional Christian language (like “grace” and “salvation”) and talk about Jesus. Christians are a minority in UU churches, so Heritage is unique in its strong representation of Christian linguistic residuals. Yet when asked if Christians were persecuted in any way as the UU attempts to rid itself of the baggage of Christian particulars, he laughed. “To use the word persecution, he said, would be a distortion of terms if ever there was one. Now feeling persecuted—that’s a different story.” Second, the church’s move to a better part of town in 1985 also localizes the continuing trend away from non-theological diversities. Finally, with the decline in numbers abroad and locally, along with Rev. Bill’s prophetic “change or die” sermon, I have reason to be skeptical of whether the UU denomination has the potential to continue to thrive the American jungle, stomping grounds of the 900 pound Gorilla in U.S. religion.
I am alluding, of course, to the explosive Protestant evangelicalism that has recently exploded yet again in the U.S. in the form of Pentecostalism in recent history expanding its reach of influence into the global South. As long as this massive Gorilla keeps a tight grip on the popular level of American religion across class, race, political, and denominational divides, the UU church will be swimming upstream against a constant smear campaign in which UU churches are seen as ecclesial duds, lacking any firm theological basis for aggressive expansion. It certainly appears that all King Kong has to do is say the word “liberal” and all the stigma of a unbelieving, scripture twisting, relativist with no objective standard of ethics is immediately foisted upon the perceptions of Americas religious majority. So long as America continues to be a land of openly competing ideologies, the religious landscape will be determined by who has the competitive edge, and minority groups like the UU might do well to come full circle and seek to learn a little something about evangelical fervor, the strength of easy-to-grab ready-made commitment demanding doctrines that provide a totalizing worldview capable of pervading the religious adherents entire way of life, missions mobilization, traditions of apologetics for intellectual engagement, and the list could perhaps go on, but you get the point. Whatever else the UU might say about evangelicals, they have a history of explosive expansion and institutional strength.
 Church bulletin for December 4, 2011 at Heritage Universalist Unitarian Church.
 Unitarian Universalism and Heritage Universalist Unitarian Church (founded 1827), anonymously printed pamphlet. For a brief historical overview of both denominations, see “Appendix 1.”
 Interview with Barbara Rohrer, congregant at Heritage Universal Unitarian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio: 2011.
 Interview with Jenny Hamerstadt, congregant at Heritage Universalist Unitarian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio: 2011.
 Interview with Hollie Johnson, Director of Religious Education at Heritage Universalist Unitarian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio: 2011.
 Marta Flanagan, We Are Unitarian Universalists (UUA Pamphlet Commission Publication, 1999).
 Interview with Bill Gupton, minister of Heritage Universalist Unitarian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio: 2011.
 Marta Flanagan, We Are Unitarian Universalists.
 Interview with Bill Gupton.
 Dan Hotchkiss, The Flaming Chalice (Boston, MA: UUA Pamphlet Commission Publication, 1993).
 Hotchkiss, The Flaming Chalice.
 Marta Flanagan, We Are Unitarian Universalists (Boston, MA: UUA Pamphlet Commission Publication, 1999).
 “We affirm: The inherent worth and dignity of every person. Justice, equity and compassion in human relations. Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning. The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large. The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all. Respect for the interdependent web of existence, of which we are a part.” Unitarian Universalism and Heritage Universalist Unitarian Church (founded 1827).
 Interview with Bill Gupton.