The Rev. Galen Guengerich, Ph.D., is senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of God Revised: How Religion Must Evolve in a Scientific Age (2013). We asked Rev. Guengerich what he wishes everyone knew about Unitarian Universalism.
1. Unitarians played a pivotal role in founding the United States.
If you look at our Principles and Purposes as a denomination, you’d think we had founded a nation rather than a religion. In a sense, we did: three of the first five U.S presidents were Unitarian, including Thomas Jefferson, who reportedly thought the U.S. would soon become a majority-Unitarian nation.
A leading historian has suggested that, just as the theological underpinning of the Vatican’s architecture is Catholic, the theological underpinning of the Library of Congress building in Washington is Unitarian. Be that as it may, we’ve been at the center of the American experiment from the very beginning.
2. Religiously speaking, we’re in our adolescence.
If you visit a typical Unitarian Universalist congregation, you may walk away thinking we know more about what we don’t believe than what we do. That’s because we’ve only recently left home, theologically speaking. Both the Unitarians and the Universalists left the Christian fold more than a century ago; the two denominations merged in 1961.
Like teenagers who have just left home, we’re relieved to not be under mom and dad’s thumb, but we haven’t fully decided on a home of our own — either where it stands or how it’s furnished. No worries: it took the Christian tradition several hundred years to cobble together its tradition from then-contemporary sources, so we have plenty of time.
3. We focus on what we know by experience.
Over the past 500 years or so, human beings have come to rely more and more on reason and science as the basis of human knowledge. As a result, religion and its defenders have been engaged in an often-brutal tug-of-war with science and its defenders over what we most truly know.
Unitarian Universalists have ended this test of strength between reason and revelation by letting go of the rope. For us, it’s no contest: if what we know from our experience contradicts what we’re told by an ancient wisdom text, reason trumps revelation every time.
4. Our name refers to historic heresies that matter today.
Among other catalysts, religion develops in response to two persistent questions: Where did we come from? Where are we going? Our theological lineage extends back to people who believed that an omnipotent God sent his fully human yet fully divine son to save humanity from eternity in hell. The Unitarians rejected the Christian doctrine of the Trinity; Jesus was a great prophet and teacher, but not divine — not the Son of God. The Universalists rejected the Christian doctrine of predestination; a good God wouldn’t damn anyone to hell, especially not before the world was even created.
Put in contemporary terms, we believe that we all emerge from the same source, whatever that may be. And we all share the same destiny, whatever that may be. Taken together, these beliefs point to our often-unsatisfying conviction that any reward for good deeds and any punishment for bad deeds must happen in this life, if they are to happen at all.
5. We don’t believe in the God many others don’t believe in either.
When you look at the systematic injustice — structural violence is probably a better term — in the world today, especially toward women and gays, people of color, and other disadvantaged peoples, the idea of an all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving God is hard to accept, much less believe in. But it’s not hard to understand where the idea came from.
Our most distant predecessors survived because they came to understand the concept of agency. If the reeds rustled at the water’s edge, it’s best to see what’s causing it, or you may become dinner. Writ cosmically large, this tendency led people to think that if the world was set in motion, someone or something must have caused that as well.
Not surprisingly, this primordial prime mover ended up looking a lot like the most powerful people on earth — always male, usually straight, and typically white — only infinitely more so. This view of God has had catastrophic consequences, which is why we don’t believe in such a God.
6. We’ve revised our view of God — and of everything else.
The ancient Greek physician Galen, the so-called father of medicine, lived nearly 2,000 years ago, when the ideas in the Nicene Creed (the main creed of Christianity) took shape. Galen made advances in physiology and surgery, but I’m glad my own physicians no longer consult his recommendations. He championed bloodletting, among other archaic practices.
In the same way, we need to revise our understanding of ultimate reality so it conforms to everything else we know. We understand our experience of God (though not all of us would use that term: see #2 above) as an experience of belonging — not just to a family, or a nation, or even a galaxy, but to everything: the experience of ultimate belonging. The experience of God intimately and extensively connects us to everything — all that is present in our lives and our world, as well as all that is past and all that is possible.
In a word, God is the experience of possibility.
7. We believe that freedom is a consequence of belonging, not its antithesis.
Americans — especially American men — have a longstanding belief that heroism is the ability to go it alone. We celebrate the spiritual heroism of Henry David Thoreau on Walden Pond, the justice-seeking heroism of the Lone Ranger, and the elegiac heroism voiced by Kris Kristofferson, who insists that “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”
In fact, you can’t be free until you belong. You’re not free to be alive until you belong to this macrocosm known as Earth. You’re not free to enjoy the benefits of being American until you belong as a citizen. You’re not free to play in the World Series unless you belong to one of the teams. And so on. Freedom comes when we find ourselves in a place that sustains us and among people who nurture us. Life is first and foremost a collaborative endeavor.
8. We’re the gratitude people.
While Unitarian Universalist theological identity hasn’t yet cohered (again, see #2 above), here’s my sense of what we can make our own. Each religious tradition has a defining discipline of faith. For example, Jews emphasize obedience to the commandments, Christians emphasize love of God and neighbor, and Muslims emphasize submission to the will of Allah. For us, our defining discipline could be gratitude, which emphasizes all we have been given and all we owe back in return.
This is not about feeling warm fuzzies when someone holds the door open as you approach with a load of groceries any more than the Christian concept of divine love is about making what Aerosmith calls “Love in the Elevator.” Gratitude is how we respond upon recognizing that we are made up of our relationships to everyone and everything else, from trees (try living without oxygen) to teachers (try getting a job without knowing anything) and even to tyrannosaurus rex (without them, there probably wouldn’t be us).
9. The discipline of gratitude calls us to worship together.
The experience of worship is what distinguishes religious communities from other kinds of communities. It’s a time when we gather to remind ourselves and each other of what we should never forget: our utter dependence on the people and world around us for everything.
We depend upon the natural world for air, water, and sustenance; we depend on the institutions of human civilization to make our lives livable; and we depend on the people around us to make our lives wonderful. The reason it’s a discipline (the root is the same as the word “disciple”) is that we’re forgetful — and we’re inclined to think that we’re self-made and self-reliant, which we’re not. In worship, we remind ourselves that we’re utterly dependent.
10. The ethic of gratitude calls us to serve a broken and needy world.
We need to nurture in return the people, the institutions, and the natural world that make our lives possible, livable, and wonderful. Because we personally take what we need from the people and world around us, we need to take personally what the people and world around us need.
For this reason, you’ll find Unitarian Universalists at the very forefront of movements to make the world a better place for everyone: women, people of color, LGBT people, and people imprisoned by unfair laws or impoverished circumstances. We want the world to be fair for everyone. For us, a commitment to justice seeking is a leading indicator that we understand where we belong and for what we are free.
The opinions expressed in this piece belong to the author.
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