Sunday, January 6, 2013

Unitarians: We Meet To Inquire, Celebrate, Share And Care

The lit chalice is the official symbol of Unitarianism.
I departed evangelical Christianity just over a decade ago, and have been part of my local Unitarian congregation off and on (more on that later) for about 4 or 5 years. I'll have Christians or others ask me "What do Unitarians believe?" and I do my best to give them my answer. We have a set of 7 Principles & 6 Sources, but even more can be said. Here are some words by Rev. Charles Eddis, who has served Unitarian congregations in Edmonton, Montreal, the U.S., Australia, etc.

What's In A Name: The word "Unitarian" comes from a distinguishing belief its founders held four centuries ago in the unity of God, in contrast to the Christian belief in the Trinity, God in three persons.

Beliefs: If you ask Unitarians what they believe, you may find them stumped for an answer. If you were to conclude from this and from their diversity and freedom, that they don't know what they think, or that one can believe anything one likes and be a Unitarian, you would be mistaken. In spite of appearances, they are remarkably united in their basic values and beliefs.

I have never known a Unitarian who did not accept the findings of science. I have never known a Unitarian who did not affirm the importance of this life, of living well in the here and now as opposed to preparing now for a life to come. Unitarians hold that living well now is the only possible preparation for whatever may come after death - if anything. Life is a gift, a mystery to be respected and lived.

I have never known a Unitarian who did not feel a sense of personal responsibility for how he or she lived his or her life and for what happened to society and the world. I have never known a Unitarian who did not insist on the right to make up her or his own mind, rather than being told what to believe.

I have never known a Unitarian who did not believe that Jesus was the son of normal human parents, conceived and born as you and I were. I know no Unitarian who regards the world as a puppet stage over which some higher inscrutable power from time to time pulls strings.

I cannot be sure no Unitarian will contradict me on some of this, but I venture to say that Unitarian agreement on these matters is as close to unanimity as you will find in any religious movement.

We Unitarians are not distinguished by one or two simple points of belief. The question "What do Unitarians believe?" is almost too broad to answer. Ask what we believe, for instance, about God or human destiny, and you will get answers to that one question. The answers will vary. It will be clear that our beliefs are still evolving.

Beliefs Are Subject To Reason

Beliefs are often confused with credulity. Too often, faith is thought of as the acceptance of beliefs which are beyond question, not subject to the tests of reason and experience.  But what of contradictions? In the event of a conflict between beliefs and reason, which should be modified or give way? Are beliefs superior to reason and experience and beyond comprehension, or must they be modified in the light of reason? Must beliefs conquer reason, the facts, our experience, history and personal judgment?

In the sense of beliefs that cannot be questioned, we have no beliefs. We hold that all beliefs must be open to examination, questioned and then accepted, modified, or rejected.

No Absolute Truth

We reject truth with a capital "T," the truth of a holy book that cannot be questioned, or the truth of an authoritarian religious leader. Truth is a function of persons, of people, not of books beyond reason or faiths beyond doubt.

Unitarians believe, first of all, in an open search for truth and meaning. Truth cannot be embalmed for posterity. We jealously guard the right to know, to speak and to argue freely, according to conscience, within our own church and in society at large. We are opposed to censorship by church, state, or any other institution. We believe that truth emerges  more clearly under conditions of freedom.

We are firmly committed to truth with a small "t," to the right - indeed the duty - to exercise personal judgment. Freedom of belief is not a licence for religious anarchy or irresponsibility. It is not a franchise for wishful thinking. It is an opportunity for careful, honest though. Every person should develop her or his own capacity for personal judgment so that he or she may, in the words of the Christian apostle Paul, "Prove all things; hold fast to that which is good." Such thinking is not private: we believe in sharing personal convictions and beliefs with each other in an atmosphere of openness and mutual respect.

We value honesty of belief and integrity of convictions in every person. We do not say, "Think as you like but say you believe." We say, "Think as you must, then say what you really believe."

Much of our diversity, our variety of beliefs, lies on the surface. We each have our own personal perspectives and experiences. We attach difference meanings to words.

This is obvious when we speak of God. There is no "yes" or "no" answer to the question, "Do Unitarians believe in God?" There is no universally accepted meaning of the word "God" among us. Its meanings among us include the ground of being or existence, creative force, highest ideals. Some of us say the word has too many meanings and express their beliefs without using it. Beyond the questions of meaning and usage lies the mystery of our being here, with all the gratitude and wonder it entails. Our thoughts lead us to a depth we know and acknowledge that goes beyond words.

Human Possibility

We have a fundamental and underlying faith in human possibilities. We believe our inherent powers are such that under favourable conditions we can judge and know what is good and true.

We human beings can also act. We have the power and the ability to act constructively and creatively. Given the opportunity we can, if we choose to, make this life a good and a fulfilling one - not just for ourselves, but for all people, indeed for the whole of creation here on this earth. We believe we should use our powers to this end. We believe in the good life for all people, with each person to decide for himself or herself what that good life is.

We believe in social responsibility. We believe in human rights; in basic human equality; in universal community, undivided by nation, race, age, sex, disability, sexual orientation, age, caste, colour or creed. We believe the good life for all people is within our powers, if we will but develop our capacities to know and to love. This is easier said than done, but nonetheless true.

Nature And Evolution

We believe in the world, the universe, our home. It is a source of ecstasy and joy. It is also, one must acknowledge, a source of tornadoes, disease, pain and death. Yet it is dependable, orderly and, in its way, intelligible and predictable. We believe its evidence. We believe in evolution because that is what the evidence indicates as to the origin of life on this planet. We view life on this planet as an interdependent web of which we should be responsible members.

The Past And The Future

The only way we can understand the past is from our own perspective. We cannot draw on the Christian Bible and the other great religions of the past using the interpretations people of old placed upon them. We draw on the past using our present insights. The past can only live in the present as appropriated by the present. The future is contained within the present, too. It is within our hands. What yet shall be is our responsibility and our concern, here, now.

Spirituality Of Religion

While Unitarians enjoy intellectual stimulation and tend to be book lovers, we also enjoy the arts and music. We do not use free inquiry to make our religion complicated, but to make our perception of it so simple and direct, so free of obstacles and nonessentials it is sometimes hard to put into words. We are emotional people like everyone else. We value the emotional and spiritual side of religion. We recognize depths to our selves the conscious mind can hardly take in. We have our dreams and our loves. While we meet to inquire, we meet more to celebrate and share, to enrich and care for each other.

If you are looking for such a community of people, we invite you to celebrate and journey with us:

In Waterloo Region: Grand River Unitarian Congregation

Canadian Unitarian Council

Unitarian Universalist Association