Unitarian Christianity: Relevance for the 21st Century?

Whenever people ask me if Unitarian Universalism is a Christian faith, I usually respond by saying we have Christian roots but we are not Christian.  This is much like asking if Christianity is a Hebrew faith, Christianity has Hebrew roots but Christians are not Jewish.

It begs the question, what of our Christian roots did we inherit and still hold claim upon?  In Christianity, Christians still hold claim to the creation myths, the necessity of a blood sacrifice for the redemption of sins, and the prophetic vision of a messiah to establish a just world.  These are just a few of the Hebrew sentiments that Christianity brought into its theology with some adaptation but with clear Hebrew origins.

Early in the formation of this nation, the puritans who settled in New England formed covenants on how they were to live together. They sought to create the Free Church where its members would be able to explore their most important loyalties; their most important and deepest loves.   They created covenants such as the following:

We pledge to walk together in the ways of truth and affection as best we understand them now or may learn them in days to come that we and our children might be fulfilled and that we might speak to the world in words and actions of peace and good will[i].

These congregations were not creedal in their formation.  There was an assumption that people were going to be Christian in their creeds and therefore it was not necessary to determine who believed what doctrine.   In time however, it was noted that not everyone was walking together in the same light.  With the First Great Awakening in 1734, there was a backlash by some ministers who believed that such excesses of emotion and hysteria did not result in living a life of good works.  These ministers turned their focus on the potential of humanity to become moral creatures and began to discard the notion of original sin, depravity, and predestination; rejecting the essence of the Jonathan Edwards’ sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.

These ministers also formulated an understanding of God not being a Trinity, three beings in one, but rather God as a unified whole, Unitarian.  Congregations began to not walk together with other congregations based on doctrinal differences.  These differences came to a heated debate in the early 1800s now known as the Unitarian Controversy.

In 1819, the Rev. William Ellery Channing gave the ordination sermon for Rev. Jared Sparks in Baltimore, MD.  In this sermon he lays out the foundation for what Channing called Unitarian Christianity.  Up until that time, liberal religious in New England had resisted the term Unitarian when it was lodged against them by the conservative Christians of the day.  They had up until that time, simply defined themselves as Christians in the Protestant tradition. The Trinitarian Christians had declared these individuals and congregations no longer Christian in their theology, they were considered heretics.  William Channing’s sermon was the first time that liberal religious claimed the nomenclature Unitarian and declared such as being Christian.

In this sermon, Channing laid out the argument for Unitarian Christianity as being based on two things; the principles behind their interpretation of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures and the doctrines this interpretation seemed to express clearly.

Channing writes:  Our leading principle in interpreting Scripture is this, that the Bible is a book written for men, in the language of men, and that its meaning is to be sought in the same manner as that of other books. We believe that God, when he speaks to the human race, conforms, if we may so say, to the established rules of speaking and writing. How else would the Scriptures avail us more, than if communicated in an unknown tongue?

Now all books, and all conversation, require in the reader or hearer the constant exercise of reason; or their true import is only to be obtained by continual comparison and inference.[ii]

In reading the scriptures, one must consider the times in which the writer wrote the passages. What was the society like when the author wrote the text? What were the controversies the early church was facing not only within their community but also within the context of the society in which they found themselves? Channing suggests that such questions must be considered in reading the Hebrew and Christian texts or be found to falsely apply the culture of an ancient time to today’s circumstances.   And one must also consider the personality of the writer that comes through the words chosen to express the scriptures. What influences were present when writing these words?

He writes:  With these views of the Bible, we feel it our bounden duty to exercise our reason upon it perpetually, to compare, to infer, to look beyond the letter to the spirit, to seek in the nature of the subject, and the aim of the writer, his true meaning; and, in general, to make use of what is known, for explaining what is difficult, and for discovering new truths[iii].

From this system of studying the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, Unitarian Christians came to certain conclusions or doctrines for their faith.  Channing definitively detailed what distinguished Unitarian Christians from the other Christians of the day.

He stated their belief of the unity of God, God is one and only one.  In this way, Unitarian Christianity is aligned with the Jews and the Muslims in declaring that God is One.

Channing writes: We object to the doctrine of the Trinity, that, whilst acknowledging in words, it subverts in effect, the unity of God. According to this doctrine, there are three infinite and equal persons, possessing supreme divinity, called the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Each of these persons, as described by theologians, has his own particular consciousness, will, and perceptions. They love each other, converse with each other, and delight in each other’s society. They perform different parts in man’s redemption, each having his appropriate office, and neither doing the work of the other. The Son is mediator and not the Father. The Father sends the Son, and is not himself sent; nor is he conscious, like the Son, of taking flesh. Here, then, we have three intelligent agents, possessed of different consciousness, different wills, and different perceptions, performing different acts, and sustaining different relations; and if these things do not imply and constitute three minds or beings, we are utterly at a loss to know how three minds or beings are to be formed[i].

Channing declares that Jesus was fully human and therefore inferior to God.  The Trinitarian theology creates a Jesus that is of two minds, one divine, one human; of two wills, one divine, one human.  This two beings within one body, diminishes for Channing the act of sacrifice on the cross.  Channing argues that Trinitarians raise up the suffering Christ on the cross for the salvation of the world but what sort of suffering does this Christ bear if he is also God, full of joy that his death would be the salvation of the world?  The suffering Christ is not suffering at all. He argues this discrepancy in their theology weakens their intent to show the fulfillment of John 3:16.

Channing writes: According to their doctrine, Christ was comparatively no sufferer at all. It is true, his human mind suffered; but this, they tell us, was an infinitely small part of Jesus, bearing no more proportion to his whole nature, than a single hair of our heads to the whole body, or than a drop to the ocean. The divine mind of Christ, that which was most properly himself, was infinitely happy, at the very moment of the suffering of his humanity. Whilst hanging on the cross, he was the happiest being in the universe, as happy as the infinite Father; so that his pains, compared with his felicity, were nothing. This Trinitarians do, and must, acknowledge. It follows necessarily from the immutableness of the divine nature, which they ascribe to Christ; so that their system, justly viewed, robs his death of interest, weakens our sympathy with his sufferings, and is, of all others, most unfavorable to a love of Christ, founded on a sense of his sacrifices for mankind[iv].

Channing also lays out a doctrine that Jesus was not crucified to pluck humanity from the eternal flames of hell but rather crucified to remove the sin that keeps us from living a moral and upright life.

He states such erroneous thinking leads humanity to think, that Christ came to change God’s mind rather than their own; that the highest object of his mission was to avert punishment, rather than to communicate holiness; and that a large part of religion consists in disparaging good works and human virtue, for the purpose of magnifying the value of Christ’s vicarious sufferings. In this way, a sense of the infinite importance and indispensable necessity of personal improvement is weakened, and high-sounding praises of Christ’s cross seem often to be substituted for obedience to his precepts. For ourselves, we have not so learned Jesus. Whilst we gratefully acknowledge, that he came to rescue us from punishment, we believe, that he was sent on a still nobler errand, namely, to deliver us from sin itself, and to form us to a sublime and heavenly virtue.

He adds:  No influence in the universe seems to us so glorious, as that over the character; and no redemption so worthy of thankfulness, as the restoration of the soul to purity. Without this, pardon, were it possible, would be of little value. Why pluck the sinner from hell, if a hell be left to burn in his own breast? Why raise him to heaven, if he remain a stranger to its sanctity and love[v]?

In other words Channing argues that salvation is not a matter of grace which he equates as a kind of get out of hell card but rather through the transformation of the human heart towards moral character and charitable living in this life.  He states:  We regard the spirit of love, charity, meekness, forgiveness, liberality, and beneficence, as the badge and distinction of Christians, as the brightest image we can bear of God, as the best proof of piety[vi].

Now almost two hundred years later, Channing’s words might seem strange to our ears because as I stated, Unitarian Universalism is not a Christian faith.

I began with a question.  What of our Christian roots have we still claimed in our faith today?  We continue in the tradition of a covenantal faith.  We state strongly that we need not think alike to love alike.

It is this loyalty to love one another that we hold dear in our congregations that keeps us from our detractor’s claim that Unitarian Universalists can believe whatever they want. We cannot.  Our loyalty to the value of love for others places us in check should we convey racist, homophobic, transphobic, or any other mean spirited action towards another.  We seek to be accountable in our relationships with one another. We seek to protect and honor each person’s inherent worth and dignity.

We hold dear this claim from our Unitarian Christian roots that development of our moral character is vital to our living a happy and fulfilled life. To adapt Channing’s words, We regard the spirit of love, charity, meekness, forgiveness, liberality, and beneficence, as the badge and distinction of Unitarian Universalists, as the brightest image we can bear of our Species, as the best proof of piety.

We value today the teachings of Jesus’ life as offering profound wisdom of how we might live with one another.  We also value the profound wisdom found in the writings of the Bhagavad Gita, the Dao de Jing, the Qur’an and the various teachers and mystics that have arisen following these texts.    We sift through all of these texts and teachings looking for our revered values and how we might better embody them in our lives.  Like Ralph Waldo Emerson, we believe that one book could never hold the fullness of revelation’s truth.

Channing faced many detractors of Unitarian Christianity that increasingly became Universalist in theology as well.  We face detractors who state without a unifying doctrine how do we hold together as a community. The conservative Christians today, like the conservative Christians of two hundred years ago have a theology whose glue is avoiding hell and damnation after death. They draw people in to avoid eternal damnation, they tithe to avoid damnation, and they abstain from immoral behavior— as they define immorality— to avoid damnation.

We have no such theology in our faith.  Our seeking to live a moral life is not predicated by the possibility of facing the wrath of god on judgment day. Those of us who may subscribe to theism do not imagine that god would create us in a state of depravity worthy for destruction.  If there is a unifying theology in Unitarian Universalism, it is that we were created in a state of goodness and that we will return to a state of goodness.  And in between we are to do good[vii]. We do good because we have self-agency to choose to do good, there is no overhanging threat of damnation to coerce us to do good.

We seek to live a moral and ethical life like our Unitarian Christian ancestors, because we have come to understand that living a moral and ethical life benefits the uplift of the community as a whole. Not only are we as individuals benefactors of our embodying our values but the whole of the community benefits as well. We come together to support one another in our endeavors to create a better world not only for ourselves but also for our children’s children.  We have maintained the claim from Unitarian Christianity that we not only have the choice but the responsibility to emulate good into the world.

More than at any other time of our Human history, we recognize the systems of oppression and privilege that prevent people from being presented with the choices to do good.  So our faith calls us to intervene with creating justice so that more people will be free to be able to make choices of doing good in the world.  Our faith therefore is a salvific faith geared towards increasing the power to create an abundance of justice and goodness in the world not only for this present generation but for the generations to come.

There is an indigenous saying that when making decisions we need to consider the wellbeing of the lives to the 7th generation that follows us.  Consider this for a moment.  Seven generations.  In my family seven generations back from me is the era of the revolutionary war. The decisions made then by that generation are still being felt by us today either for ill or good.  The systems of oppression that were instituted then are still in operation today in a variety of ways.

The decisions that we make today will have an impact far into the future. I heard Matthew Fox speak this past week and he said we are the first species that can choose whether or not we go extinct.  He added we still have not chosen.

Unitarian Universalists have claimed from Unitarian Christianity the need to make reasoned responses to the needs that surround us in the world.  We look to not only right the social injustices as we discern them but also for the environmental injustices that we have created through our advancing technology. We sift through the ethics of our actions, individually and societally, to determine a reasoned response that may move us towards making a decision for survival—not just for our species but all other species in which only now are we beginning to realize our intricate linkage with on this planet.

The covenantal faith that Channing and others in the early 19th century sought to embody with reason is still very much a living legacy for our 21st century life. This may be the most important aspect of our Unitarian heritage that we can offer a world gone mad with hyper-individualism and narcissistic self-importance.

Connie Goodbread once stated that we are the people of the promise and the struggle. Our promise is our covenant with how we are to be together, our struggle is ensuring that our covenant continues to be ever more inclusive of all people who seek another way of being. This faith calls us to be more than we currently are through our promised intentions and through our struggles to embody those intentions.  May we choose to be the good we wish to see in the world.

[NOTE: The quotations in this sermon reflect the times in which they were written. They reflect the understandings of early 19th century thinking and therefore are not inclusive in their reference to humanity. I felt it was important to honor the integrity of the times in which this understanding was held as it also holds an important truth for us today; namely that revelation is ongoing even until the present day.  This sermon was delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa on November 17 2013 (c) by Rev. Fred L Hammond.]


[i] Alice Blair Wesley, Our Covenant: the 2000-01 Minns Lecture; Meadville Lombard Theological School Press Chicago 2002.

[ii http://www.transcendentalists.com/unitarian_christianity.htm

[iii] IBID

[iv] IBID

[v] IBID

[vi] IBID

[vii]This concept comes from a sermon that Rev. Tandi Rogers gave at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa on October 13 2013

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