Understanding Unitarians

Understanding Unitarians

Francis David quoteHow many times have I heard people remark, “You can believe anything and be a Unitarian Universalist.” Or someone might say, with no trace of irony, “I go to the Unitarian Universalist church because I don’t believe in organized religion.”

Contrary to popular belief, Unitarian Universalism is a religion, and one with a long and noble history. We are a free religious faith, and so have no creed. And as freedom is wont to do, our faith invites a certain degree of wackiness and abuse. But if that is the price of freedom, then I still choose freedom.

Our faith, of course, does have requirements. To become a Unitarian Universalist, you make no doctrinal promises, but you are required to do much more. You are required to choose your own beliefs—you promise, that is, to use your reason and your experience and the dictates of your conscience to decide upon your own theology, and then you are asked to actually live by that theology. In a very real sense, all theology is autobiography, is it not?
The universalism in Universalist refers to universal salvation—a very radical theological concept that emerged in an age in which revival preachers were riding through the countryside telling people that they were going to burn in hell unless they repented of their sins.

The term “Unitarian” indicates our belief that God is One, in contrast to the idea of a triune God. The concept that God is One goes beyond the controversies about the trinity, however. If God is One, then the God of the Jews and the God of the Muslims and the God of the Christians is One.

I remember a tragic incident that occurred during my ministry. One evening I was called to the hospital to be with the mother of a two-year-old child who was brain-dead after choking on a piece of chewing gum. The mother, a Unitarian Universalist, was estranged from the child’s father, who was of another faith. Leaving the hospital, I found myself in the elevator with the father’s minister, and I said to him, “Well, we can do the memorial service together.” And he responded, “No, we can’t. We don’t worship the same God.”

His comment punctuated my sadness and the family estrangement. What other God could he have been thinking of? ▪

Marilyn SewellDr. Marilyn Sewell is the minister emerita of the First Unitarian Church in Portland, Ore. She is the subject of an acclaimed documentary film, Raw Faith, and the author of 10 books, the latest of which is In Time’s Shadow: Stories about Impermanence.

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