Monday, August 29, 2005

The UU-FAQ IV: Hyphenated UU's

Q: Are Unitarian Universalists Christians?
The best one-word answer is no, but the actual situation is much more complex. Both Unitarianism and Universalism came out of the Christian traditions of colonial America, and each was considered a Protestant denomination at one time. (That’s why many UU church services look so much like Protestant services. We didn’t copy them, we arose from the same roots.) But Christians are a minority in UU churches today, and many self-proclaimed UU-Christians would not be accepted as Christians by other Protestant denominations.

The term unitarian originally meant non-trinitarian; in other words, Jesus was not elevated into the Godhead. Today, UU-Christians tend to focus on the teachings of the human Jesus rather than on the mission of the Christ spirit to redeem the world from sin – the Sermon on the Mount rather than John 3:16. Originally, universalist referred to a belief in universal salvation; in other words, there is no Hell in which some souls will be eternally separated from divine love. The Universalist Principles of 1899 affirmed “the final harmony of all souls with God.” Both the Unitarians and the Universalists evolved towards a more generally humanist outlook, and their beliefs were sufficiently compatible that they merged in 1961.

As with any statement about UU beliefs, these are statistical tendencies rather than doctrinal commitments. If Jerry Falwell wanted to join a UU church, he could. Attempting to welcome both Christians and people who are running away from Christian denominations that they find oppressive is a balancing act that each congregation has to perform for itself. Some do a better job than others.

You can learn about the range of UU-Christian views from the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship which also publishes the journal Unitarian Universalist Christian.

If UU’s aren’t Christians, what are they?
Just about anything. A sizable plurality (somewhere above 40%) of UU’s call themselves Humanists. Humanists focus on life in this world rather than an afterlife, and attempt to find natural explanations for events rather than supernatural ones. Similar attitudes are widespread even among UU’s who don’t call themselves Humanists.

Smaller numbers of UU’s also consider themselves to be Buddhists, Pagans, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, and many other faiths. Collectively, all such people are sometimes called hyphenated UU’s because they use a hyphen to describe their religious commitments: UU-Buddhist, for example.

Many of these groups have some formal organization: HUUmanists, Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans, Unitarian Universalists for Jewish Awareness, and Unitarian Universalist Buddhist Fellowship, among others. The Unitarian Universalist Association maintains a more extensive list of such organizations.

How did all these people wind up being UU’s?
There are three basic paths. Some people are UU’s first, and their search for truth and meaning leads them to Buddhism or Paganism or some other belief system. (In a similar way, UU-Humanism developed gradually from liberal Christianity in late 19th and early 20th centuries.) From there, they choose to remain UU’s rather than join a more sectarian community. Some interfaith couples (particularly Jewish/Christian ones) come to UU churches as a place where each spouse can be accepted equally and their children can be raised to respect both parental traditions. And some members of small, liberal branches of other faiths (Sufi Muslims, for example) seek community in a UU church either because they find themselves in towns where their particular sect is not represented, or because their particular interpretation of the belief system is incompatible with the local sectarian organizations. Many such people become enthusiastic UU’s even as they continue to practice their original faith.

How do they all manage to get along?
Not perfectly, but surprisingly well. The key feature of Unitarian Universalism that makes this coexistence possible is that our communities are covenantal rather than credal. In other words, we are committed to help one another rather than to promote a particular belief system. UU communities work best when members give each other the benefit of the doubt -- when we assume, in other words, that our fellow members have some good reason for believing what they believe, even if we cannot fathom what it is.

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