Goals rather than creeds should unify religionists.
-The Urantia Book 99:5.7
When I explain that I’m in divinity school to learn how religionists might unify around goals instead of creeds, people often ask if I’m Unitarian Universalist (UU). To be honest, I didn’t know much about Unitarian Universalism until this year. I have been discovering a lot at school, both in and out of the classroom, but attending General Assembly—or GA, as they call it—allowed me to more fully appreciate the significance of the UU movement.
Thanks to a scholarship from The Urmia Project, I was able to join a number of my fellow students at the Unitarian Universalist Association’s 53rd annual GA in Providence, Rhode Island this summer. I will share some of my findings here.
First, if—like I did—you need a crash course in Unitarian Universalism, here is a drastically abridged history:
- UU roots go back to two different Christian traditions: Unitarianism and Universalism. Unitarians held that God is one person, rejecting the trinity concept. Universalists believed in universal salvation. Both groups were persecuted by other Christians throughout the centuries.
- In North America, starting with early Massachusetts settlers, both Unitarians and Universalists became identified with movements working to free people from oppression—including from religious persecution.
- By the nineteenth century, both groups were incorporating ideas from world religions other than Christianity, on the grounds that no one religion can embrace all religious truths.
- By the early twentieth century, both denominations were known for their active participation in social justice movements. The quest for religious freedom led humanists within both traditions to advocate that people could be religious without believing in God.
- By the middle of the twentieth century, Unitarians and Universalists realized they could have a stronger liberal religious voice if they merged their efforts. In 1961, they formed the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA).
- Today, Unitarian Universalism has no creed. The more than 1,000 self-governing member congregations of the UUA affirm the seven principles of Unitarian
Universalism. They include theists and atheists, agnostics and humanists, pagans, Christians, Jews, and Buddhists.
General Assembly was a multi-day conference that mixed the social, spiritual, political, and organizational. It included business meetings at which congregation delegates from all over the world voted on issues of concern to the UUA, such as divesting the organization’s endowment from fossil fuel companies. (The resolution passed, enthusiastically.) It included a full program of workshops, which were organized into a topical guide. The topics with the most workshops were: “Anti- Racist, Anti-Oppression, Multicultural,” “Outreach, Membership, and Growth,” “Social Justice,” and “Worship and Music.”
Worship and music were featured throughout, including stadium-style services in the Rhode Island Convention Center arena. Saturday night culminated with UUs spilling into the streets and processing down to the Providence River for “Witness and Waterfire.” Anyone is welcome to attend GA, and there were over 4,500 people there.
I had a really good time. This was in part because I went with friends and colleagues from Harvard Divinity School who are pursuing UU ordination, and I got to enjoy and challenge and reflect on the experience with them. It was in part because of the emphasis on unity in diversity. The convention center was strewn with lovingly-
crafted banners, a GA tradition, each one representing a congregation and collectively honoring the diversity of the UUA’s member groups. This symbolically attested to a broader focus on celebrating all that makes people and groups unique.
I found it especially moving to witness the Service of the Living Tradition. This is the annual service that honors both new and retiring ministers and educators, and remembers those who have died in the past year. It felt like a big graduation, and the joyful tone made me wonder what kinds of ceremonies our community might someday create to honor “graduation” to the Mansion Worlds.
In general, I thought about our community—namely Urantia Book readers—a lot. I liked that the Service of the Living Tradition honored teachers and leaders without endowing them with undue authority, and I wondered how we might do more to nurture, train, and honor the leaders among us. I liked the solidarity that came from worshipping with thousands, and wondered how much more extraordinary it would have been, had we been worshipping a personal God. I felt at home given the resemblances to our community—including rabid individualism, an aging population, and the hoped-for young people stirring up controversy—and I frequently wondered about this whole question of goals rather than creeds.
The UUA has a proud legacy of activism, and continues fostering coalitions to work on issues of social justice. Right now their priorities are environmental justice, immigration justice, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer equality, racial justice, reproductive justice, and voting rights. Is this what the Urantia Book is talking about?
I don’t think so, and I will try to explain why.
GA magnified and clarified the discomfort I have felt at Harvard Divinity School (HDS), where I am about to enter my second year of study. Unitarian Universalism significantly informs the HDS culture. This is, at least in part, due to Harvard’s legacy as a center of academic Unitarian thought. Last fall, my roommate staged a reenactment of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1838 Divinity School Address in the chapel that now bears his name. That address got Emerson banned from Harvard for 30 years and contributed to his becoming one of the most recognized figures in the Unitarian movement. (For the curious, I found the lesser-known rebuttal sermon by Henry Ware, Jr., called The Personality of Deity, to be even more important.)
On the one hand, I am grateful for the religious tolerance that allows me to attend HDS in the first place—much less incorporate the teachings of The Urantia Book into every aspect of my academic, spiritual, and social life here. My professors encourage me to cite the UB in my papers and class discussions, and this summer a bunch of my Div School friends came to IC’14 and acted out a musical I wrote based on Jesus’ relationship with his sister, Ruth. I cannot help but think the Unitarian Universalists’ long and many fights against persecution contribute to the religious freedom I now enjoy.
On the other hand, I struggle with the cultural assumptions in my academic environment. Social justice is stitched into the fabric of HDS. While I respect its noble goal—namely, for everyone to have an equal opportunity to actualize their
potential in the society where they live—there are two problems I encounter regularly.
The first is an assumption of intellectual uniformity around particular social causes. This is true not only at HDS but at the Unitarian Universalist church services I have attended. What is gained by the non-creedal nature of HDS and the UUA, in terms of engaging religionists of diverse perspectives, is risked by putting politics behind the pulpit. Whether it is gay marriage, fracking, or Ferguson, the spiritual unity in these places is predicated on a general consensus to fight injustice and oppression—and a general consensus about what constitutes injustice and oppression. I struggle with this because I think it alienates people in the name of dismantling systems of alienation. It also limits the projects of HDS and the UUA to those who share their political leanings.
Moreover, the focus on social justice points to a deeper problem: Limited goals. If success for Unitarian Universalists means that everyone has an equal opportunity to actualize their potential in society, then their bond as a religious group is forever tethered to social causes. God—especially a personal God—is not assumed, so humans are endowed with the power to provide or deprive. I have a hand in determining whether or not my friend has the chance to live up to his or her inherent worth and dignity. Within that framework, it makes sense to fight for justice, above all else, as the social manifestation of love.
We know from The Urantia Book that on a universe scale, all of us do have an equal opportunity to actualize our potential; in fact, that is our supreme duty and privilege. Actualizing our potential—as individuals and as a group—is the goal! I don’t determine whether my friend has this chance, because it is God-given, but my spiritual growth is tethered to hers. We are all partners on the adventure of figuring out how we actually do live up to our inherent worth and dignity.
Stamping out oppression on earth is an inevitable outcome of the spiritual maturation of each person; of the consistent choice to respond to each other with loving service, unselfish devotion, courageous loyalty, sincere fairness, enlightened honesty, undying hope, confiding trust, merciful ministry, unfailing goodness, forgiving tolerance, and enduring peace. The shared goal of spiritual maturation requires each and all of us to become just because that is to emulate the character of our creator and become aligned with lasting reality.
There is no question that we need to work hard to make this world a just place. If everyone on earth shared a personal God concept, then UUs would represent a very effective group of religionists with similar political views who are committed to doing justice work in a particular way.
Since that is not the case, the question remains: How do we unify around spirit goals that will bring about the spiritual maturation of each person and thereby the planet? What will make each of us more effective in moving our world toward light and life?
In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., much-cited by UUs, “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.” Our destinies are bound up together, and this UUs understand deeply. How might we help expand this idea—that our interdependence goes beyond this world to our co-creation of the Supreme? How might we learn from UUs’ extraordinary efforts on behalf of humanity, to take action toward the spiritual uplift of that humanity?
What do we do with the staggering opportunity we all, already, actually have: To become better and better to the point of being like God, who is love personified?