Unitarian Universalism: Denomination or Religion?

Mike Myers of SNL fame, had a sketch called “Coffee Talk”, during which the character would exclaim in yinglish ( a non-yiddish word that sounds like it could be yiddish) the she was becoming ‘Verklempt.’   To give her time to re-compose herself she would offer a topic,  such as Holy Roman Empire, neither Holy, nor Roman, nor even an Empire.  Discuss.  She could easily have offered:  “Unitarian Universalist:  Neither Unitarian nor Universalist.  Discuss.” 

UU Blogger Aaron Sawyer has received some criticism for a video he did and posted on YouTube. He responds to the criticism on his blog.  What came up in the discussion is whether or not Unitarian Universalist Association is a denomination or a religion.  I responded in part thus: 

               “If we see ourselves as a denomination that means that we are a denomination of a specific faith tradition such as Christianity. Yet, we no longer identify as a Christian faith. We may have people who honor their Christian heritage and identify as Christian but Unitarian Universalism is not a Christian faith.

               “There are other Unitarian and Universalist faiths out there… are we a denomination of them? Judaism is unitarian in theology. Islam is unitarian in theology. Oneness Pentecostalism is non-trinitarian ( Jesus is the one God, so the emphasis is different) in theology. There is also the Biblical Unitarians. Unity is a universalist faith. And there are pockets of universalism within Methodism, Roman Catholicism, United Church of Christ, and Episcopalian traditions, to mention a few. Are we a denomination of these groups? The closest we could be affiliated would be Judaism because they are also a covenantal faith like we are (there are also some major differences which would separate us) but the others have very strong doctrinal and creedal requirements which we as a whole do not meet.

               “Therefore it seems that declaring Unitarian Universalism a religion is closer to the truth of our identity since the term denomination does not seem to match. I know that there are many of us who will cling to the word denomination for nostalgic reasons but we really are no longer a denomination.” 

Unitarian Universalism is in an interesting bind because as a faith we originated out from strong Christian / Abrahamic roots.  Unitarian theology is the theology that most Abrahamic faiths embrace.  Judaism, Islam, and Baha’i are all unitarian in theology.  They believe that God is one.  Only Christianity broke away from this stance in the 4thcentury with a Trinitarianview of God.  Today, we are seeing a shift in Christianity with the rise of non-trinitarian sects forming within Christianity such as Jehovah Witnesses and Oneness Pentecostalism.  Mormonism is non-trinitarianin that they describe the father, son, and holy spirit as more of a godhead, three distinct beings; father and son with distinct physical bodies and the holy spirit in spirit form. Together they form the godhead. 

What is important to note is that none of the religions that formed out of Judaic roots sought to begin a new religion.  Jesus was not looking to begin a new religion; nor was Mohammed, the founder of Islam; nor was Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism; nor was Baha’ullah, the founder of Baha’i.  They each sought to correct what they saw as errors in the religion they grew up in.  This is an extremely simplistic answer as there are more complex layers and nuances to the founding of these great religions but essentially this is true. 

So what errors does Unitarian Universalism seek to correct?  I think there are several.  The first is that revelation is forever evolving and revealing itself.  Part of that revelation occurs in the discoveries that the sciences unveil.  We have unlocked many of the mysteries of the world through scientific inquiry.  Prior to modern day science there was a belief that the earth was the center of the universe, today we know that we are not the center of the universe but that we are on the edge of a vast galaxy in a vaster universe of galaxies.  This revelation changes how we view our humanity in relationship with the universe and with the concept of god. 

The second correction Unitarian Universalism offers is the interdependent web of all creation.  We see ourselves as interdependent with the life on this planet.  We are not beings given dominion over the creation but interdependent players in the balance of life.  Our actions have a profound impact on the life on this planet.  Species live and die because of our ignorance and arrogance.  Unitarian Universalism seeks to honor that balance by becoming aware of our impact in the environmental arena and to reduce our human footprint on the world. 

The third correction we offer is the inherent worth and dignity of all people. This is our first principle that we as congregations seek to uphold.  We struggle with what that means in our lives especially in the presence of evil.  Yet, when followed, changes the way we treat the other in our presence.  Part of the meaning is in the listening to the often harsh reality of the lives others have lived because of the privileges we may have at their expense.   We seek to value the experiences that everyone lives by seeking systemic changes to situations that create injustices and oppression in the world. 

These and other correctives that exist in Unitarian Universalism seem to indicate that Unitarian Universalism is a religion in its own right.    A religion that is evolving.  Blessings,

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Published in: on July 13, 2008 at 11:59 pm  Comments (3)  
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3 Comments

  1. […] by Fred L. Hammond, the eponymous author of A Unitarian Universalist Minister in Mississippi, who wrote If we see ourselves as a denomination that means that we are a denomination of a specific faith […]

    Serenity Home’s response: I wrote a comment in response to Scott Wells thoughts on Unitarian Universalism being a Christian Religion. You may read it by following this link to his site. Blessings, Fred

  2. “These and other correctives that exist in Unitarian Universalism seem to indicate that Unitarian Universalism is a religion in its own right. A religion that is evolving.”

    Well, according to Rev. Peter Morales’ “stump speech” announcing his candidacy for next President of the UUA, Unitarian*Universalism is a “tiny” “fringe religion” that is “declining”. So perhaps it might be more realistic to say that U*Uism is devolving. . . 😉

  3. Robin: Half-full / half-empty which point of view would you rather have? The half-empty strategy is not one I would have chosen but then I am not running for UUA President. Blessings, Fred


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