The following is an adapted excerpt from a sermon I gave entitled “Identity Crisis”. I thought it would be helpful for those exploring Unitarian Universalism to have a minister’s perspective on these very common myths about us.
1. Myth: Unitarian Universalism is a new religion.
No. While the Unitarian and Universalist denominations merged in 1961, Unitarian Universalism is a faith tradition with roots in the Protestant reformation of the late 1500’s and theological thoughts going back to the founding days of Christianity. Unitarian and Universalism thought were profound shapers of the formation of the United States of America. Five Presidents have been either Unitarian or Unitarian influenced; Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Millard Fillmore, and William Howard Taft. Thomas Jefferson never officially joined a Unitarian church however, there is enough documentation to suggest his religious beliefs were very much aligned with Unitarian thought. John Quincy Adams was raised in his father’s Unitarian church but later joined a Congregational church as an adult. For fundamentalist Christians to claim that the founding fathers were intending a Christian nation to be developed is a weak argument given the profound influence of Unitarian theology in colonial America which was non-creedally based.
Judith Sargent Murray, wife of John Murray the founder of Universalism in America had a profound impact on the social development of this country. Her writings on education,on women’s issues, and on social concerns were ahead of her time and influenced the development of public education, the suffrage movement, and the development of modern social work.
2. Myth: Unitarian Universalists can believe whatever they want.
Not true. Yes, we are a creedless faith just as our spiritual ancestors the Puritans did not have a creedal test for membership. But just as our Puritan ancestors did, we have covenanted together to uphold certain standards. Today we call those standards our seven principles. And while our individual theologies may differ from one another, these theologies are to support our striving to live out these seven principles. If our beliefs counter these principles, then we are challenged to examine our beliefs and explore how to bring them into alignment with these principles.
3. Myth: Unitarian Universalists do not have a faith.
No, I have a very strong faith. My faith is not handed to me from some text book written thousands of years ago by a people who could not even imagine my life and culture. My faith is an intimate and personal relationship with my here and now. My faith is concerned with how closely I live my values now, and not on whether some hereafter judgment will allow me to enter a heavenly paradise. My faith is focused here in this life; the hereafter will take care of itself. Yes, I have a strong faith.
4. Myth: Unitarian Universalists are wishy-washy in their values.
No. I am very firm in my values. My values are based on my ability to sift through the lessons of humanity, seeing what is moral and good. Using my intellect, my faculties of reason and experience; I weigh out the measure of what constitutes liberty, justice, and equality. My values guide me to act in certain ways to help correct societal ills. Many of us have come to conclude that one need not think alike in order to embrace others into our family. We have learned that from great diversity comes greater ideas and wisdom that can guide us in living our humanity collectively. Our values give us the basis from which we are free to explore other religious thoughts without being threatened that those thoughts might reveal a truth that contradicts our presumptions. My faith is firm in its values.
5. Myth: Unitarian Universalism is a cult.
No. Just because someone may not understand another’s faith does not mean the other person is in a cult. There are distinct characteristics of a cult. Cults tend to be insular. Cults tend to want to separate from society. They tend to want to isolate members from those from outside the group, including their friends and family. Cults insist that their way of being and doing is the only course of action that is correct. Cults tend to discourage questioning and free thinking about their beliefs. Cults tend to have a central key figure who is charismatic and whose totalitarian authority is supreme above all others. We Unitarian Universalists want to question. We want to encourage our young people to have critical thinking skills. We want our young people to find a spiritual path that exemplifies and strengthens their values and moral convictions. We want to be engaged in society, to seek improvements for all people, of all classes, races, and sexual orientation. Our faith has been engaged with American Society since the days of King George III. We value the democratic method of governance within our congregations. No, we are not a cult. In fact, we have our seven principles that we covenant to uphold that would help prevent any of our congregations from becoming cult-like.
Rev. Fred L Hammond