Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The UU-FAQ I: A Creedless Religion

A year or two ago I was complaining to my minister (John Gibbons) about a booklet of questions and answers about Unitarian Universalism. I found it too doctrinaire and too humanistic. You would never have guessed from that booklet that there were UU-Buddhists or UU-Pagans – or that they have as much of a claim on the UU tradition as anybody else. John did the perfect ministerial thing and called my bluff: He suggested that I write my own set of questions and answers.

The UU-FAQ, as I started calling it in my own mind, was a back-burner project for a long time. Finally, some nagging from my wife brought it to a conclusion this spring. Since then, I've gone over it with her and with John, and have shown it to a handful of other people. I think I'm ready to get a wider set of comments.

The questions fall into eight categories: Creedlessness; the UU Principles; Covenants; Hyphenated UU's; God, Prayer, and Miracles; Death; Good and Evil; and Society and Politics. I thought I'd put the categories out for discussion one at a time.

Does Unitarian Universalism have a creed that sums up its beliefs?

No. Unitarian Universalism is an intentionally creedless religion. It isn’t that we haven’t gotten around to writing a creed yet or that we just couldn’t agree on one. We like not having a creed.

So, does that mean you can believe anything you want?

Beliefs are not whims, so I don't think it makes sense to talk about believing “anything you want.” I might want to believe, for example, that I have never made a mistake, or that if I jump up and flap my arms I’ll fly away. But wanting to believe is not the same as believing.

Maybe you meant to ask whether Unitarian Universalism imposes some kind of discipline on its members’ beliefs or expressions of belief. No, it doesn’t. In UU churches and other UU organizations, you can admit (to yourself and to others) that you believe the things you really believe – and doubt the things you really doubt. Even if other UU’s disagree with you, you won’t be excommunicated or ostracized for your beliefs. Of course, you don’t get to excommunicate or ostracize the UU’s who disagree with you, either.

How does that work?

Clumsily, sometimes. When you believe something very strongly, it can be disturbing to associate on a regular basis with people who don’t believe it. (Conversely, if you don’t believe in something, it can be upsetting to associate with people who do.) But the world isn’t likely to agree on a set of beliefs anytime soon, so maybe the ability to live and work with people of different beliefs is worth cultivating. The 16th century Unitarian theologian Francis David said, “We need not believe alike to love alike.” In other words, we can stay in community with people who disagree with us.

Groups of individual UU’s sometimes come to consensus about particular issues, and if you happen to disagree with the local consensus you may find life in that community very annoying. But they can’t throw you out just for disagreeing, and most of them wouldn’t want to.

One way to picture how creedlessness works is to look at science. If 18th century scientists had felt obliged to produce a creed for physics, they couldn’t have done any better than to include Newton’s laws of motion. After all, they did believe those laws to be true; so why not make a creed of them? But if they had, then the 20th century scientists who discovered relativity and quantum mechanics would have been in violation of the creed. They would have had to form some new branch of science and leave physics, which would have died out as the next generation of scientists joined the new science. But by being creedless, physics was able to change its core beliefs about the universe without ceasing to be physics.

What does creedlessness do for me as an individual?

You get to continue learning and growing. If at some point the experiences of your life cause you to completely overturn your view of the world, you don’t have to say good-bye to all your friends and find a new church. (You can if you want, of course, but it’s your decision.) You may find, in fact, that other UU’s sympathize with the stresses involved in having your worldview flip upside-down. You may receive moral support at precisely the moment when another church would be pressuring you to get back in line.

Belonging to a creedless religion puts the responsibility back on you to figure out what you believe, who you trust, and what you want to be doing with your life.

Isn’t that exhausting?

It can be, but it can also be exciting. The best UU churches foster curiosity and exploration. They are good places to hear about new ideas and new ways of looking at things.

Naturally, most people eventually discover a core set of beliefs that are not in constant upheaval. But the continuous challenge of new ideas and divergent perspectives prevents them from taking their beliefs for granted.

It sounds like a religion for wishy-washy people.

You might be surprised. When beliefs emerge from deep inside yourself rather than being forced on you by the community, you can wind up feeling intensely committed to them.

The history of Unitarian Universalism (including the separate histories of Unitarianism and Universalism prior to their merger in 1961) is full of people who exposed themselves to considerable ridicule and danger. Such people were at the forefront of the movements to abolish slavery, give women the vote, and get rid of the Jim Crow laws, just to name a few controversial issues.


Will Shetterly said...

Nice. I like citing Francis David. I think you might add a bit more to the part about our activist heritage. That's the part I'm proudest of, and if we have anything like a creed, it's something like, "Help as many as you can, hurt as few." (Uh, not a suggestion for the FAQ. I haven't really thought through the best way to explain the nebulous UU notion that it's good to do good.)

Jaume said...

Perhaps a good question about what creedlessness means in the 21st century is, whether we can choose any religion we like and still be a UU, or if we *still* need those old religions and their beliefs to be religious persons and UUs...

Adam Tierney-Eliot said...

At first read, I like it. Thanks for doing this. I often find our attempts to define the tradition to be too "shiny happy." There seems to be quite a bit of reality in your answers...

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