What Do UUs Believe?

by Paul Britner

This morning, I am going to tackle an obligatory topic for every would-be UU minister: what do UUs believe? The rap on our faith from outsiders is that we believe in nothing or that we believe in everything. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. So, elsewhere in this sermon I am going to posit what I believe UUs believe. Before doing that, though, I will address two related topics. First, I will to say a few things about the nature of faith and then, second, how we talk about our faith.

What is faith? Perhaps the most well-known definition is found in Hebrews, chapter 11, verse 1: "Now, faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." As used in the New Testament, it has the same meaning as to believe or a belief. The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms offers 11 entries on the subject of faith. Consider all of these uses: I believe that revelation is on-going. I believe in my spouse. My spouse isfaithful. My dog is faithful. I believe that Santa Clause exists. I believe in Santa Clause. My faith gives me serenity when I feel uncertain. As these examples show, faith or belief covers a lot of ground.

In his book, The Assurance of Things Hoped For: A Theology of Christian Faith, Avery Dulles offers seven models of faith. Here is an excerpt that summarizes them:

In the propositional model, God appears as teacher, whose statements are to be accepted on his authority. In the transcendental model, he is an enlightener; he illumines the minds of those who are struggling in darkness. In the fiducial model God is a merciful benefactor, who can be trusted to keep his promises. In the affective or experiential model, he is a lover who touches the hearts of those who seek him. In the obediential model, God is a revered ruler, whose word is command. In the praxis model, he is the great emancipator, who lends strength to those who struggle against injustice and oppression. In the personalist model, finally, God is the ever-blessed source of life, who draws others unto his own glory by enabling them to participate in it.

Of course, if one doesnít believe in God, one must do a lot of translating.

I offer these models not as way of understanding God, but merely to show the many dimensions of faith and belief. Our prejudice is toward the propositionalist model. That is, when people ask us what we believe, we find ourselves naturally searching for statements on the nature of the divine or Jesus or salvation. Yet, as Dulles shows us, faith or belief may be understood in many forms, some more easy to describe than others.

Many of us could find a way to express each of these models in our own words. Here is how each of Dullesís seven models might be translated into UU-speak.

Each year at our General Assembly, the collective conscience of our fellowship is expressed in many propositions which take the form of Statements of Conscience and Actions for Immediate Witness. Though we donít take these propositions as authority, I certainly believe that Unitarian-Universalism can be my teacher, helping me to understand whatís happening in my world in a faithful context. Dullesís phrase "illuminating minds that are struggling in darkness" echoes our 3rd and 4th principles, "encouragement to spiritual growth" and "a free and responsible search for meaning." When I affirm my faith that some difficult situation will be resolved the way it was meant to, I am expressing trust in something, whether I think of it as Godís intention, the natural order of the universe, or simply the goodness of humankind. Iím most drawn to the experiential model. I think we all share the conviction Ė not in the sense of a proposition but as a deeply held beliefóthat through the affirmation of our principles, our engagement in our faith community and our care for one another, our hearts are touched. We naturally rebel at any model associated with obedience. Our 2nd source says that we heed the "Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love." When I hear those words, I feel a little fire under my feet and Iíll be the first one to say that, sometimes, I need a little fire under my feet. Finally, Dullesís description of the personalist model, which invites us to participate in creation, expresses our 7th principle, "respect for the interdependent web of existence, of which we are a part" and our seventh source, "Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature." Just as an aside, that source was not adopted with the first six, but was added later, which is why it is not listed among the sources in our hymnals.

In relating our principles and purposes to Dullesís models, I still havenít addressed what most people would describe as propositions. What do we think of God? Of Jesus? Of the Bible? Outsiders might say our principles say more about how we believe than what we believe. Thatís partly true; yet, it is important that we not let outsiders define us. We must appreciate that in many cases, we have such radically different understandings of what faith is that we always will have difficulty discussing our faith with some others for lack of a common frame of reference. Our faith tradition will never meet the test of the person who believes that faith means "to give oneís assent to a doctrine." If that person wants to accuse us of having no faith, so be it.

It was Augustine who said about faith, "I understand what it is until I start to explain it." On that issue, anyway, he could have been a good UU. Most of us who have been around for a while think we understand what Unitarian-Universalism is all about, but we have a hard time explaining it to other people. One reason for that explains why such a description is so difficult, yet in its own way, is itself a perfect description of Unitarian-Universalism. We are a faith tradition that honors the individual search for truth and personal autonomy in deciding for ourselves by what moral authority we will order our lives, and it is that truth about Unitarian-Universalism that makes it nearly impossible for any of us to purport to speak for anyone else or for all us collectively.

Still, we censor ourselves too much sometimes for two mistaken reasons. Iím using "we" now to refer to Unitarian-Universalists collectively. The first is that we have internalized the criticism of others that we have no core beliefs and the second is that we think everyone else does. Iím going to save that first point for a few minutes and turn to that second mistake we UUs tend to make, thinking that other faith traditions are more unified than we are.

Culture shapes faith, and what shapes the faith of Americans of all different faith traditions is pluralism and democracy. More than any other country on Earth, including all of the Western-style democracies with religious freedom, pluralism and democracy shape our political, social, and religious life. Just look at 6 or 7 kids trying to pick out which game to play. Itís only a matter of time before someone says, "letís take a vote". If countries had genes, I respectfully suggest, Americans would be born with a gene that makes us resist authority and that causes us to insist on speaking for ourselves on matters of politics and faith.

There is some evidence for this in a result poll conducted jointly for the PBS program Religion and Ethics Newsweekly and U.S. News and World Report. According to the survey, 77 percent of Christians agree with the statement that all religions contain some truth, in contrast to only 19 per cent who agree with the statement that their religion is the only true religion.

I grew up in the United Methodist church. Itís been in the news the last couple of years as the result of some well-publicized fights over the ex-communication of clergy who officiated at homosexual unions. Thatís far from the only fight within that church. At my school the other day, I came across an old copy of Circuit Rider, a publication for Methodist clergy. One of the articles was entitled, "Is schism the next step?" The very question tells you a lot. Hereís the first paragraph:

The reports that came out of the Dialogue on Diversity meetings suggest huge ideological differences exist among United Methodists. The current "hot" topic, of course, is homosexuality, but this denomination is increasingly polarized around a variety of other issues. That list includes Christology, music, polity, biblical interpretation, apportionments, multi-culturalism, the sources of authority, worship, evangelism, ministerial placement, conference priorities and theological education.

Of course, UUs could put together a similar list Ė in fact, it would look a lot like the Methodistís list Ėbut there would be one big difference. They worry about their differences, and we celebrate them.

More important than the question of theology, though, is the question of authority. Ask just about any Protestants or Catholics in America what they would do if their experience, reason and conscience called them to a different response than their faith tradition, and I respectfully suggest that the vast majority of them would follow their consciences. Iím not saying that people in France or Bolivia wouldnít do likewise, but the idea of personal autonomy in matters of faith is more pervasive here, and held in much more respect by other individuals and the church structure here.

The preceding comments have been a long way of saying this (and Iím speaking about UUs): when it comes to our diversity, our affirmation of personal autonomy, our lack of handy "read off the card" answers to many of the questions visitors may ask, we have nothing for which to apologize. Part of the human condition is to fear at times that we are the only ones just like ourselves. Thatís true for communities of faith, too. The fact is that we are much more like every other faith tradition in the United States that we often think we areóor want to be. Every religious tradition in some way acknowledges the great mystery of faith. It would be silly to think we can put our collective response to that mystery on the back of an index card or on a 30-second greeting on an answering machine.

We must give credit to the people who would inquire about our faith for knowing this, too. Let us relieve ourselves of the burden of trying to reflect the views of over 200,000 UUs in a spiffy retort to a casual question. The truly sincere seeker will want to hear want our greeters have to say, but also will want to read about us and experience our worship and will draw inferences from all of those things.

So, now that Iíve affirmed our differences, what do UUs believe?

The good news is that we arenít the first people to ask this question. We are not writing on a blank slate. The good folks at the UUA headquarters in Boston and in our other congregations have made several efforts to describe our beliefs.

Before sharing some of them with you, it is appropriate here to offer an aside about tradition. By tradition, I donít just mean the organizational structure but the larger idea of the means by which we pass down from ourselves to each succeeding generation who we are and what we believe. Helping us to articulate our meaning and our message to others and even to better understand it ourselves is what having a tradition is all about. A congregational polity such as ours always will have some tension between the individual congregations and the denominational headquarters. Still, the elected and appointed leadership and staff members who work in Boston do a lot of good work for us, and on balance, provide us much for which we should be grateful.

As for descriptions of our faith, there are many and the good news is that they are fairly consistent. The one description that we all covenant to affirm is that which is contained in our seven principles and seven sources. As I said, it is a covenant, not a creed. We do not require individuals to give their assent to them as a condition of membership or to participate in our rites of passage. That does not mean that our principles and sources cannot serve as normative values for members of our fellowship.

I could name most of them with a little help, but few if any of us could rattle them off with the speed of a catechism. These principles and sources are printed in our hymnal in an unnumbered page near the front, and we have them printed on many pamphlets and pocket cards. I donít think anyone would accuse me of our highest heresy, that is, promoting a creed, if I said we all could be more familiar with our own principles and sources. If you donít feel comfortable in your knowledge of them, I encourage you to take one of our publications from the lobby area and to read it from time to time.

Beyond our common principles and sources, the UUA itself makes no attempt at a quick definition of our beliefs. On the UUA website, there is a section for Frequently Asked Questions. Yet, it does not pose the question, "What do UUs believe?" Rather, it breaks that question down into several questions about various topics, including God, Jesus, the Bible and Christianity. I donít think thatís being evasive at all. When someone asks us "what do UUs believe?" itís perfectly appropriate to respond, "what would you like to know about?" Again, let us relieve ourselves of the burden of carrying the weight of our tradition on our shoulders Ė we are not alone, we have help.

The UUA has produced a small pocket card on the subject, which purports to describe what UUs believe in 10 small paragraphs. Here is a summary: We believe in the freedom of religious expression, the toleration of religious ideas, in the authority of reason and conscience, the never-ending search for truth, the unity of experience, the worth and dignity of each human being, the ethical application of religion, the motive force of love, the necessity of the democratic process, and the importance of religious community.

In the pamphlet, "We Are Unitarian-Universalists," which we distribute on our literature rack, Rev. Marta Flanagan devotes several paragraphs to our beliefs.

Here are just the first two:

Unitarian-Universalism is a liberal religion born of the Jewish and Christian traditions. We keep our minds open to the religious questions people have struggled with in all times and places.

We believe that personal experience, conscience and reason should be the final authorities in religion. In the end, religious authority lies not in a book, person, or institution, but in ourselves. We put religious insights to the test of our hearts and minds.

I could go on and on. What Iíd like to know is what you think UUs believe. In closing, I want to affirm some beliefs about which there should be no misunderstanding. We believe in each other. We believe that we are here for some purpose bigger than our own hedonistic self-satisfaction. We are a community of faithful seekers of the truth. We help each other to deal with the all the eternal human questions that humans always have asked, and which other traditions have attempted to answer. Yet we believe that only we can answer those questions for ourselves, with a little help from our tradition and our congregations, and with apologies to the Beatles, a little help from our friends.


UU Principles and Purposes

We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote

The living tradition which we share draws from many sources:

Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision. As free congregations we enter into this covenant, promising to one another our mutual trust and support.


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