Sunday, November 4, 2012

Why I Am A Unitarian Universalist

Mark Andrew with the chalice, the Unitarian symbol
by Mark Andrew Alward

I have been a Unitarian for about 5 years, off and on. In the middle of that I belonged to another congregation called Unity, which I have fond memories of. For 22 some-odd years before these 2 places, I was an evangelical fundamentalist Christian. I could go on and on about this experience, but I’ve written a lot about that in the past, and have also preached a sermon about it (which can be found here).  But this morning during the service at my congregation – Grand River Unitarian Congregation in Kitchener, Ontario – I thought to myself, “I am really glad that I belong here.”

For starters, many reading this may ask, “Is Unitarianism a form of Christianity?” or “What is the history of Unitarianism?”  The answer to the first question is no. Unitarianism is a separate, liberal religion which stands outside Christianity (while it may include Christian members – more on that later). I say this with the caveat that Unitarianism initially came out of Christianity, with the belief that God was not a trinitarian God, but that God was "one." As for the second question, I am not an expert on the history of Unitarianism, only saying that it has roots in mid-16th Century Transylvania and Poland, but goes even further back. As far as North America is concerned, James Freeman began teaching Unitarian doctrine in Boston in 1784, where the Unitarian headquarters still are today. For a more thorough read, go visit the Canadian Unitarian Council's site, and the Unitarian Universalist Association site out of Boston.

For now I will tell you what I appreciate about being a Unitarian. The first thing that comes to mind is inclusion and diversity of belief.  Unitarianism has no official creed or dogma which a person must follow in order to be “in the good books” or to be “OK with God.”  Yet, there are many people within Unitarian congregations who see life through a Buddhist lens, or a Jewish lens, or a Christian lens.  More intriguingly, you will find many atheists and humanists in a Unitarian congregation. That sounds strange to some. “Why would an atheist be part of a religion? Why would they go to church?” Is Unitarianism a social club? I'll get to this later. Also, it is important to me that the LGBTQ community is fully welcome in our congregations.  On a Sunday morning you will find people who come from all sorts of religious or non-religious movements, denominations, and beliefs. Yet we've been drawn to this historic faith.

Since there is no creed or dogma within a Unitarian congregation, and because there are people of various beliefs or unbelief, you may ask, “What holds a congregation together?” To this I would say that a commitment to caring for one another and the earth is important. Another question may be, “Aren’t you just a social club if there isn’t a God you believe in?” My answer would be no, since Unitarianism has its roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition, we have our own rituals, and we come together regularly in community in a way that runs much deeper than just a club.

We also have our set of Principles & Sources. They are as follows:

We, the member congregations of the Canadian Unitarian Council, covenant to affirm and promote:
§  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;
§  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 all existence of which we are a part.

The living tradition which we share draws from many sources:

§  direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
§  words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
§  wisdom from the world's religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
§  Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbours as ourselves;
§  Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit;
§  spiritual teachings of Earth-centred traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.

Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision. As free congregations we enter into this covenant, promising to one another our mutual trust and support.

There is a high degree of value placed on intellectualism in Unitarianism. You don’t have to “check your brain at the door” and have blind faith.  While saying that, intellectualism isn't the main thing that draws me to my Unitarian community. Aside from inclusion and diversity, I value that I am not judged in any way and can be completely real. If I’ve had a great week I can come and celebrate that with people. If I've been having a shitty week, I can come and be honest about it and not be judged. In our congregation, we have a time called “Joys and Sorrows,” where people can come forward, light a candle in observance of a joy or sorrow, such as a birthday or perhaps a death in the family, and they can briefly share that joy or sorrow with the congregation. In this way we can better celebrate or care about them.

I also value the meditation time in our services, where our minister reads a short inspirational reflection, followed by the singing of a hymn called Spirit of Life, followed by a few moments of silence, then a musical meditation.  Here are the lyrics of Spirit of Life by Carolyn McDade:

Spirit of Life, come unto me.
Sing in my heart all the stirrings of compassion. 
Blow in the wind, rise in the sea; 
Move in the hand, giving life the shape of justice. 
Roots hold me close; wings set me free; 
Spirit of Life, come to me, come to me.

Now, you may be wondering, "What is there to meditate about if you don't believe in God or the Bible?" My answer is simple and yet important: Just because we may not believe in God, many in Unitarian congregations embrace spirituality, and some, even a divinity.  The big difference maker mystery. Three of my favourite words when asked these days about my beliefs are "I don't know."  And that's OK at a Unitarian church. While many may have their own personal credos, others do not, and are, as Buddhist monk Pema Chodron would say "comfortable with uncertainty." For me, after most of my life thinking that I must have the "right" beliefs about God, it is a real relief to know that it's OK to not know all the answers. Actually, I find it baffling if any human thinks they have all the answers about God. Unitarians realize that change is an inevitable part of life, and we have changed in several ways since our foundations.

As far as what a Unitarian service looks like, that also varies depending on the congregation and on any given Sunday. There may be a theme for a few weeks, but perhaps not. There may be guest speakers, perhaps not. There are Unitarian ministers, who perform weddings, funerals, everything other ministers do. At our congregation we are incredibly blessed to have Rev. Jessica as our minister. Most weeks are about not just personal growth, but how we care about our religious community, our communities at large, and the world as a whole.

Well-known Unitarians have included: 
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson (American Essayist, Lecturer, & Poet)
  • James Luther Adams (American Professor, Most Influential Theologian among Unitarian Universalists in the 20th Century.
  • Louisa May Alcott (American Novelist)
  • Florence Nightingale (English Social Reformer/Founder of Modern Nursing)
  • Beatrix Potter (Author)
  • Thomas Jefferson (An American Founding Father, Principal Author of the Declaration of Independence, 3rd President of the United States)
  • John Quincy Adams (6th President of the United States)
  • Benjamin Franklin (Author/Scientist/A Founding Father Of America)
  • Paul Revere (Patriot - American Revolution)
  • Charles Dickens (English Novelist & Social Critic)
  • T.S. Eliot (Publisher/Playwright)
  • Henry David Thoreau (Author/Poet/Philosopher)
  • Paul Newman (Actor/Philanthropist)
  • Christopher Reeve (American Actor)
  • Randy Pausch (Professor/Author "The Last Lecture")
  • Robert Munsch (Canadian Children's Author) 

I'd like to leave this article with a link to the Canadian Unitarian Council's main site, and an affirmation we collectively read each Sunday.  

Love is the doctrine 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 humanity in harmony with the earth, 
Thus do we covenant together. 

And finally, as Ferenc D├ívid, a 16th-Century Transylvanian Unitarian preacher said, "We need not think alike to love alike."