What is a “Unitarian Universalist”?

On our Facebook page we have started every day this week with some quote that tries to explain what is great, what is different, and what is compelling about Unitarian Universalism. We’ve seen some mixed reactions to these posts, but they do give people some help in forming their personal answer, which is always going to be the best answer to give.

We have specifically avoided negative statements. In fact, the only negative parts of these quotes are about how difficult it can be for some people to understand liberal religion and Unitarian Universalism specifically.

One of the things that makes this so difficult is that there is so little that we will not accept, as long as we feel that a person is trying to be a healthy part of the community. We accept people who are kooky and people who are stiff. We accept people who believe in horoscopes and people who believe in nothing that has not been verified by lab test. We make room for all people who come with the sincere hope of being part of a loving community and who respect the covenant that community gathers under.

One of the hard things about sharing Unitarian Universalism is “Unitarian Universalism”, a long name with two funny-sounding words that people don’t really understand. Worse, we don’t need them to understand those two words, because the real meaning has little to do with what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist. We don’t teach Unitarianism any more, as we rarely try to teach people anything definitive about the divine mystery. We teach a kind of Universalism, but not one that relies on mainstream notions of Heaven or the afterlife. Indeed, none of the quotes we’ve shared since Saturday have required or given  any understanding of either of these historical theologies in explaining what modern Unitarian Universalism is.

Before you go any farther, let me remind you all that you are currently reading this on the website: IAmUU.net, which is the official page for the I Am UU project.

I still have to ask a question that has been asked of Unitarians and Universalists longer than there has been a Unitarian Universalist Association: What’s with the name?

One of the more compelling answers is the ties these words give us to great thinkers and activists throughout history. From the Heretic martyr Michael Servetus to the civil rights martyr James Reeb (Be sure to look at the related stories sidebar!), those words connect us to people we have every right to be proud of. The US Presidents, legislators, and even Supreme Court Justices who were Unitarians in their day are part of our history, but would they recognize us as part of the movement to which they belonged? The Unitarians and Universalists are part of our 6 Sources, but not even specifically named in them. We have just as much right to be proud of what we have learned from Eastern philosophy in the last century, and yet we would never claim the name “Buddhist” for our movement.

More over, if we seek to grow and be seen as a modern religion for the new century, ready to face new challenges to theological thought and spiritual growth, shouldn’t we want to reflect that in what we call ourselves? I don’t mean that we should rush to rename the UUA, or even individual congregations, but shouldn’t we re-title our movement to reflect who we really are? Something that makes it easier to separate our covenanted communities from the expectations of “Church”, as so many congregations have done in calling themselves “Fellowships” and “Societies”?

I admit to some adoration of the writing of Rev. Dr. Forrest Church, who gave the best defense of the name Unitarian Universalist I have ever read when he described our movement like this:

In a sweeping answer to creeds that divide the human family, Unitarianism proclaims that we spring from a common source; Universalism, that we share a common destiny. That we are brothers and sisters by nature, our Unitarian and especially our Universalist forebears affirmed as a matter of faith: Unitarianism by positing a single God, Universalism by offering the promise of a shared salvation.

A Theology for the 21st Century“, UU World, November/December 2001

This is certainly a description that gives both words relevance, but this is primarily achieved through redefining them in broader terms than was true in the time of even the last Unitarian President of the United States, William Howard Taft.

So, I put my name on the list of those calling for a discussion about what we really are, and how our labels effect how we are seen. Not because we should be ashamed of how we arrived at this point in history, but because we are now more than our forebearers could have ever imagined. Not because we need yet another rebanding effort, but because we need real discernment about who we are now and what we want to be in the future. Not because the name Unitarian Universalism is hurting us so much as because it isn’t doing us justice. So, if you were to seed a new church, outreach program, or mission, would you do as so many others are now doing, and leave the words “Unitarian Universalist” for the small print?

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