Fieldnotes on Unitarian Universalism

angie_thumbAngela Thurston

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.

Screen Shot 2014-09-04 at 10.57.40 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2014-09-04 at 10.57.47 AM

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?

Screen Shot 2014-09-04 at 10.57.54 AM

Spread the word ❤

Feel free to share this article by using any of the following buttons:

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on whatsapp
Share on telegram
Share on email

11 thoughts on “Fieldnotes on Unitarian Universalism”

  1. My morning mediations were on why “peace on earth and good will among men” is in that order, not the other way around.

    Peace on earth comes before because we can have peace on earth without good will among men but we cannot have good will among men without peace on earth. By this I mean that people can agree to submit to a just form of government that treats everyone fairly even though these same people may have serious disagreements involving a lack of good will between individuals. We can expect the group expression of peace on earth to precede the resolution of all interpersonal conflicts. This is something we see on smaller levels all the time. Groups continue to function even when individual members have problems with each other. In fact, group function is designed to help people with interpersonal problems so that they do not become group problems.

    I think this is one of the reasons why religionists are suppose to stay out of politics as religionists and is consistent with this reflection by Angie, “I struggle with this because I think it alienates people in the name of dismantling systems of alienation.”

  2. Angie,

    What a great idea to celebrate those who have graduated in a 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.

    Loved the inspiration of the whole article, and the cliff notes on UU.

    Thank you sister,


  3. Beautifully written sister. I’m so grateful for you, and appreciate all that you do, and will do for the Kingdom. What do we do? Supply favorable conditions 🙂

    100:3.7 Man cannot cause growth, but he can supply favorable conditions. Growth is always unconscious, be it physical, intellectual, or spiritual. Love thus grows; it cannot be created, manufactured, or purchased; it must grow. Evolution is a cosmic technique of growth. Social growth cannot be secured by legislation, and moral growth is not had by improved administration. Man may manufacture a machine, but its real value must be derived from human culture and personal appreciation. Man’s sole contribution to growth is the mobilization of the total powers of his personality — living faith.

  4. It’s such a good thing that the teachings have found their way into HDS, and thru such a fine representative. Thank U~

    The UU church seems like a natural fit, and might be remarkably amenable to the revelation. It needs new leaven badly, new ‘goals’ as you say.

    You’ve planted the seed, let experience water it, let people taste the new fruit we’ve been so long languishing for, especially in seminaries, where the next spiritual leaders are.

  5. I’ve been thinking for quite a while how a spiritual foundation is needed underneath our campaigns for social justice. I’d like to see a new movement to establish friendship with God, a campaign to reinvigorate the importance of having an inner life. Step 1, Recognition of your inner life; be willing to take the adventure, turn away from the materialism of the outside world. Step 2, Consecration, make mind your ally, and God your friend. Step 3, Progress, and managing your emotional life instead of being a victim of your emotions. It’s actually not complicated once you experience the uncomplicated love of God. It is not meant to be hard to get.

  6. It is totally unconscious, but when God is left out of the picture, essentially a person operates with a sense of “being God” so I think you really hit on something when you said, “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.” Of course, we can all help our friends in many ways, but only a man or woman in concert with God can fulfill the thought adjuster’s blueprint.

  7. Good insights, Angie. Following one of your links, I found The old Unitarian Covenant.

    The Unitarian Covenant

    “We believe in:
    The Fatherhood of God;
    The Brotherhood of Man;
    The Leadership of Jesus;
    Salvation by Character;
    The Progress of Mankind
    onward and upward forever.”

    This was a common formulation of Unitarian faith from roughly 1870 until the late 1920s.

  8. Some awesome field notes.

    I once attended a UU church for several weeks and had many of the same conclusions (though not so clearly articulated). There was a lot that was impressive, noble, humanitarian, etc. but alongside this there was an apparent reluctance to express and share the inner-life, a fear even to mention the word ‘God,’ and an expectation to prioritize social justice issues above spiritual and religious ones. This in turn didn’t make it seem like a spiritual gathering – but rather like a support group for social activists.

    Of course, not to say no good comes of support groups for social activists. Also, each UU group is very much defined by its participants in terms of what is expressed and what kind of language is generally acceptable.

    It would be great to see UU spiritually ‘leavened’ as Rick mentioned, but I wonder about its potential receptivity and I’m really not sure from my limited experience with it. At this point is it not, in effect, a secular humanitarian organization?

  9. Thanks for this insightful and informative report!

    It’s probably not a coincidence that the question of how to achieve spiritual unity in a multi-cultural social environment was also a focus at Burning Man this year. This is one of the biggest problems that we face in today’s world, it seems to me.

    This year’s theme for the Center Camp speaker series was “Psychic Nomadism,” which Wikipedia defines as “a philosophical term that refers to the practice of taking as one needs from any moral, religious, political, ethical, or whatever system, and leaving behind the parts of that system found to be unappealing.”

    UU clearly embraces this level of individual freedom (theoretically, at least), as does Burning Man. It’s also interesting that both of these “cults” (in the UB’s meaning of the term) are guided by principles rather than creeds, foremost among which (in both cases) is the principle of inclusion. This is expressed in the first and third principles of UU, and is identified explicitly as the first of ten Burning Man principles: “Radical Inclusion.”

    In both cases, it strikes me that the unspoken goal of development, by implication, is the emergence of the “cult of the whole,” which would provide an all-inclusive sense of belonging for everyone, along with individual responsibility for the good of the whole, regardless of pre-existing cultural, racial, religious, or national loyalties.

    This possibility brings up the question of how to build a bridge from our current state of competing loyalties to this higher state of unity that foreshadows the UB’s concept of the brotherhood of man. We know, of course, that universal recognition of the fatherhood of God is the key, but how can we move in this direction in a world that is increasingly characterized either by religious conflict or by secular, atheistic, and even anti-religious attitudes?

    How can we guide the emergence of the multi-cultural “cult of the whole” so that it dos not end up as just another failed attempt to create the brotherhood of men without the fatherhood of God? (195:8.11)

    I was invited to participate in the above-mentioned speaker series at Burning Man this year, so I prepared a talk on the assigned topic of “psychic nomadism,” with the goal of offering a group unity strategy that honors the values of individual initiative, originality and freedom of choice. For this purpose, I decided to focus on three main ideas that can be applied both to individual and group development:

    1) The power of simple visual symbols to focus and represent complex architectures of meaning, loyalty, and intention.

    Speaking of symbols as an integral feature of cults, the UB tells us:

    “…the new symbolism must not only be significant for the group but also meaningful to the individual. The forms of any serviceable symbolism must be those which the individual can carry out on his own initiative, and which he can also enjoy with his fellows…” (87.7.9 )

    2) The emergence of “open source” assets and resources.

    Just as Wikipedia is intended to be an “open source” knowledge base (unlike the Encyclopedia Britannica, for example, which is proprietary), the “cult of the whole” will require “open source” symbolism that has universal meaning but is also freely adaptable and customizable by the individual.

    3) Increasing awareness and effective use of metacognition.

    This refers to the human capacity for thinking about thinking, having feelings about feelings, and evaluating our values. This is the level where our highest decisions and loyalties are formed. Effective open source symbols can have great value as tools for metacognitive development.

    A more detailed description of my talk is available at the following link. For the purposes of this audience, I decided to refer to God as “Source,” which seems to be an acceptable concept, even for many non-theists.

    A few examples of “open source symbols” and a more complete explanation of what I mean by this idea can be found at this link:

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Whether you’re curious about our courses, want to join us as a volunteer, or would like to make a contribution, feel free to reach out :)