A couple of years after becoming a Unitarian Universalist, I felt increasingly
comfortable with my new found faith. As an energetic, enthusiastic and evangelical
Unitarian Universalist, I found myself wanting to tell others about what I had
Of course, living in the South (and I am a native Southerner), there is ample
opportunity to tell others where you worship. Sometimes it's planned; many times
it's not. I have heard it said that when you meet someone new in the South they
may ask where you go to church before they ask you anything else. Surely, this
has never happened to anyone here! Often after I say I attend a Unitarian
Universalist congregation,I notice a certain lull in the conversation. Most
people politely nod and smile and you know they don't have a clue what you are
talking about. Still others have a distant and far away look, and you can see
their mind hard at work behind their eyes, as they wonder to themselves, "You're
Explaining to others what Unitarian Universalism is, is no simple task. It's
a different way of being religious than most people are comfortable with. And it
requiressome careful thought on our part, because most people are unprepared to
hear the full breath and depth of what Unitarian Universalism is all about.
In my early years as a Unitarian Universalist, I found myself particularly
frustrated by the long name when I had to say "I'm a U-ni-ta-ri-an U-ni-ver-sa-list."
You'll notice that most religions have a one word name, usually 2 syllables to
describe themselves:I'm Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Baptist, Buddhist, Catholic
(Catholic has 2 syllables doesn't it?). For those of you who are busily counting
on your fingers, you will need them all;Unitarian Universalist has 10 syllables.
To this day, my closest friends and family outside of Unitarian Universalist circles
have difficulty saying the name without stumbling.
Our name can also be confusing. On countless occasions, I found myself explaining
that, no we are not the Unification Church, which is lead by the Reverend Sun Myung
Moon, and no, we are not the Unity church, which is a liberal Christian church that
emphasizes self-help and the metaphysical.
In my early years of Unitarian Universalism, I found myself wanting to change
our name; I wanted to change it to something people could pronounce easily, to a
name less similar to other religions, and to something that through our name, a
newcomer had some hope of understanding what our religion is all about.
However, as I learned the history of the Unitarians and the Universalists, my
interest in changing our name quickly subsided. I learned that our history is a
very meaningful one, and that telling our history is one way, though certainly not
the only way, to explain who we are, what we stand for, and why we do what we do.
Part of the reason that our name is so long is that we represent the joining
of two traditions, the Unitarians and the Universalists, a merger that took place
in 1961. You have to admit, with all the sectarian splits that exist today, that
two religious traditions would join together is an amazing feat in itself.
Who were these groups that merged in 1961? I must confess, I could never do
justice to their histories in a single sermon. I have listed some very readable
books in today's Bulletin that provide much more depth than I am able to do today.
The short answer to the question "Who were the early Unitarians?" is that they
were Christians who had a different idea about the person and nature of Jesus.
Because they questioned the divinity of Jesus (which is a part of the Christian
doctrine of the Trinity), they were Unitarians rather than Trinitarians. They
believed in the Unity of God rather than the Trinity of God.
Although the ideas go back much earlier, the word Unitarian can be traced to
the 1500s in Europe as the Unitarian movement was one that came out of the Christian
Reformation. As the Christian Bible became more available to people in Europe, some
who examined it closely found certain doctrines and practices were not in Scripture.
The Anabaptists questioned the practice of infant baptism; Unitarians found that the
Trinity is not mentioned in the Bible. In fact, the Trinity only became church
doctrine in the year 325 at the Council of Nicea. Those who opposed this doctrine
were condemned as HERETICS.
In the year 1531, Michael Servetus published a book called On the Errors of the
Trinity. For his boldness, his audacity, Servetus was burned at the stake at the
hands of John Calvin. Servetus' beliefs and his influence would not be denied. His
writings influenced major movements in Poland and Transylvania. In Poland, the
movement was persecuted, banished, and eventually destroyed. In Transylvania, under
the influence of Unitarian leader Francis David, King John Sigismund, the only Unitarian
monarch in history, embraced not only Unitarianism but also its spirit of toleration,
and in 1568, he issued the Act of Religious Tolerance and Freedom of Conscience which I
would like to read. Remember, this was 1568:
(For Faith and Freedom, p.99)
His Majesty, our Lord, in what manner he---together with his realm [i.e.,
the Diet]---legislated in the matter of religion at the previous Diets, in the
same manner now, in this Diet, reaffirms that in every place the preachers
shall preach and explain the Gospel each according to his understanding of
it, and if the congregation like it, well, if not, no one shall compel them
for their souls would not be satisfied, but they shall be permitted to keep a
preacher whose teaching they approve. Therefore none of the
superintendents or others shall abuse the preachers (I like that part), no one
shall be reviled for his religion by anyone, according to the previous
statutes, and it is not permitted that anyone should threaten anyone else by
imprisonment or by removal from his post for his teaching, for faith is the
gift of God, this comes from hearing, which hearing is by the word of God.
In Transylvania, a region of present-day Rumania, Unitarian churches still exist
and many Unitarian Universalist congregations in the United States have sister
churches in Transylvania to maintain a link with this important part of our history.
In the United States, the Unitarian movement began in New England in the 1700s in
Puritan or Congregationalist churches. Early Unitarians argued for a more rational
approach to religion. Later, Unitarians who called themselves Transcendentalists would
radically accelerate the evolution in theological ideas. They found the divine, not
just in a book, but in nature and within each person. And Unitarian Humanists of the
twentieth-century have increased our appreciation of science. The list of theological
contributions by Unitarians is much longer than I have been able to present here. It
is impressive indeed.
The short answer to the question "Who were the early Universalists?" is that they
were Christians who embraced a God of Love and rejected the belief that God would
condemn part of humanity to eternal damnation, to eternal hell. The Universalists
believed in Universal salvation, meaning that in time, ALL of humanity, through Jesus,
would be reunited with God. In the United States, the Universalists were less
theologically diverse than the Unitarians and yet they maintained their devotion to God
as love. For their belief that all would be saved, the idea of Universalism, like
Unitarianism, was condemned as HERESY.
To those who enjoy the study of word origins, you will find the word heretic of
particular interest. "The word hairesis in Greek means choice; a heretic is one who
[chooses]."(Our Chosen Faith, p. 7). Both the Unitarians and the Universalists were
condemned as heretics because they had a different understanding of Christianity.
Their beliefs were beliefs of their own choosing.
Over time, the Unitarians and the Universalists continued to expand their
understanding of religion and their understanding of the world. Over time, both groups
departed from an exclusively Christian stance, recognizing that each of the world's
religions has value and merit. Today, Unitarian Universalists also find that direct
experience, science, and the guidance of reason can be great partners in religious
Today, Unitarian Universalism is a free faith, meaning we, heretics that we are,
are free to choose the direction of our religious quest. As Unitarian Universalist
minister JohnMackey has said "Unitarian Universalism is based on the belief that each
of us is on our own spiritual journey. We begin in different places, follow different
routes, and value different landmarks'[and while we recognize ancient traditions, we
remain] open to new insights into what it means to be human."
Religion is not about one finding The One Essential Truth that is the same forever
and ever, as some traditions are fond of saying. Religion is about finding and creating
meaning in our lives, both as individuals and in community, and religion is about the
journey toward Truth, which some call God, recognizing that we will never discover it in
For many, this is a disturbing claim---that we cannot know---that we will never
know---the absolute Truth. This would be disturbing to many outside our Unitarian
Universalist congregations, and it may be disturbing to many within our congregations
We can never know the Absolute Truth because we are finite beings, limited in what
we can know and be. It is my sense that the Truth (with a large T) transcends this
finite quality. To claim to know the absolute Truth is to equate oneself with that
Truth, with God.
Another reason we can't know the Truth absolutely---that we can't know God
absolutely---isthat we are participants in the Truth, that we are participants in the
reality we so desperately want to understand. We must recognize that our participation
influences, clouds, our perception.
In the 1980s I played a lot of volleyball and at times I would serve as a line judge
at other games, calling the ball either in-bounds or out-of-bounds. One evening when I
was calling the lines, during one crucial play, I called a ball in-bounds. In a look of
utter astonishment, one woman, who was playing, looked up at me as if to say, are you an
idiot? She wasn't the first and probably won't be the last to wonder that! I was really
caught off guard by her passion. I had called it as I had seen it. But she had seen it
quite differently. Of course it's possible I made a mistake, but I can't help but wonder
if her participation in the game affected how she saw it.
A more poignant example about the differing perspectives we each bring to situations
(whether they be religious or possibly political) comes from our nation's capital and
the moral and legal quagmire that President Clinton now finds himself in.
The current state of affairs in our country reaches deep into my gut, deep into my
passion. The haranguing, bickering, and political posturing that is being played out in
Washington and across the country sends a devastating jolt to my sensibilities about our
I recognize that, at times, every relationship, every institution, every religious
body will go through a disturbing time of change and disruption. Despite my awareness
of this, it's still so hard to understand. It's my fervent hope and belief that we will
survive this. And yet, right now, the pain is very real.
Each of us is a participant in this struggle of national proportions. We each bring
our own values and different perspectives. And just like our theologies that may differ,
our response to this seemingly intractable imbroglio in Washington will also differ. I
may be naive, but I don't think there is much disagreement on what the President did, and
yet there is sharp disagreement on what he---what we---need to do to move on.
I'm not here to tell you that one point of view is better than another. Rather, I
want to affirm that we can have different perspectives and that people---good people---
can and will disagree about how we can best move on? Should we recognize Clinton's
failures and forgive him? Should we call for his resignation? Should he be impeached?
These are weighty matters.
In my home, we are divided on this issue and our passions run deep. I think it would
be fair to say that Carol and I have been supporters of President Clinton, and we are
both aware of the devastation reaped by partisan politics, and we want nothing of it.
And yet, one of us believes passionately he should resign and the other believes that we
should accept him for his faults and move on.
How can two people who are so close, feel so differently about this political issue?
In Unitarian Universalism, how can we have a religious faith that permits and embraces
very different theologies?
We can, because we are all heretics choosing our own path, recognizing
that each of us has only a part of the Truth and by coming together, and with
great humility, we shareour perspectives and listen to the views and visions
We can, because as Unitarian Universalists, we come to share, to listen, to learn,
and to grow. Each of us sees through different windows in the Cathedral of the World.
And while we share many values, the light refracts a little differently for each of us.
As we share a little of our light with others, we are illuminated by their light as well.
And together, in community, the light becomes brighter for us all.
May it be so.