What Unitarian Universalists Believe

UU Chalice InterfaithI have found spiritual companions in Unitarian Universalism. Its  congregations now include people of many different spiritual beliefs: Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, atheists, pagans. We include people who believe in a personal kind of God, and those who believe in a divine force of connectedness between everything that exists. We include people who love the Goddess, and people who do not imagine any God at all. Sometimes people say that in Unitarian Universalism you can believe whatever you want—but that is not really true. Though we have many more diverse beliefs today as Unitarian Universalists, you could say we are still arguing with Calvin.

We don’t believe in a God of anger. We don’t believe that people are born evil. We don’t believe that our bodies are shameful. We don’t believe that someone had to die to appease an angry God. We don’t believe that God loves some people and sends other people to hell. We want to get rid of that guilt and shame producing kind of religion, that heavy burden people still carry around because Calvinism is so ingrained in our culture.

We do believe that Love is at the center of the Universe, and those of us who believe in a God, believe in a God of Love. We do believe that each person is important and lovable and that we are all part of one family. We do believe that we are called to live a life of service and compassion, and that human beings, however imperfect we may be, can make a choice to follow our values.

We believe in a democracy of spirit—that each person has a share of wisdom and truth and love. We believe in the importance of community—that we learn and grow most by sharing with each other. We believe that love is contagious, that we cannot find fulfillment and purpose without knowing that we are loved, and loving others. We believe that love can transform lives.

To believe in Love as the foundation of the universe is an act of faith. There is no proof, we don’t know in some objective way that love will win out over the forces of hate and greed. We have to make an experiment of it—perhaps that is why the Quakers could sing “Love is Lord of Heaven and Earth” with such conviction. They practiced nonviolent love in their doings with other people, and learned something of its strength. And perhaps we too have experienced something of its power in our times—those moments when gentleness transformed a heated situation, those historic movements when love crumbled oppression and brought justice into society.

To believe in Love, to make this act of faith, is to strengthen Love’s power in our world, to make it more likely that our relationships will be mutual and kind, that our society will bend toward fairness and compassion. May it be so.

What kind of God do you believe in?

Winter Sun DSC09206

I have never believed in God. Not in your God anyway; the one who looks down onto his chessboard and moves the pieces according to his pleasure, occasionally glancing up at the face of his Adversary with the smile of the one who already knows the outcome. It seems to me that there must be something horribly flawed in a Creator who persists in testing his creatures to destruction, in providing a world well stocked with pleasures only to announce that all pleasure is sin, in creating mankind imperfect, then expecting us to aspire to perfection. …There must be something else, I told myself repeatedly; something beyond sin and solemnity, dust and devotion; something that loved life as indiscriminately as I did.
                                                                Joanne Harris from Holy Fools, p. 32-33.

Throughout history, people have wrestled with the mystery of powers greater than themselves. There are many ways that people have understood these powers—some peoples believed in a pantheon of Gods and Goddesses who ruled various aspects of life; others claimed that there was only one Supreme Being, while still others espoused a belief in natural processes that have unfolded to create the universe as we know it today. We often hear the question now framed simply as: “Do you believe in God?”

Many of us, as children, are presented with one idea of God, framed as if it were the only possible idea of God. If that idea doesn’t work for us, or even hurts our spirits, we may reject the whole notion of God, without further reflection. But there is not just one idea of God, there have been many. People imagine God in one form or another, and it is important to realize that our images of God are not what God really is.

God is a name that some give to the mysterious forces that sustain and uphold the larger reality of which we are a part. These forces are beyond our capacity to actually know or define. We understand them through the use of symbol and analogy. We say God is like this, or God is like that. So, rather than ask, “Do you believe in God,” I think it is much more important to ask “What kind of God do you believe in?” or perhaps even, “What kind of God do you not believe in?” 

Risky Talk

I have some of my own baggage attached to spirituality. From my earliest memories, I knew that it was risky to talk about spirituality. It was sure to mark you as strange or crazy, or get you into trouble. I don’t even know how or where I learned this—maybe at school among my classmates? There was something embarrassing, or dangerous, or profoundly broken with the idea of speaking about this realm.

But in my immediate family, it was just the opposite. Spirituality was an ever-present force. My father didn’t just believe in God, he was in love with God. He had called out to God, and experienced an answer. It filled his life like a contagious fire. A spark of that fire ignited in my heart, too.

FlameI was hungry for this burning love. But I was also afraid of what other people would think of me. How often do we deny our own deep experience to gain social acceptance? It seemed to me that most people outside my family said they believed in God, but they didn’t really expect anything to come of it. So I learned to keep certain things hidden—especially the solitary and mysterious experiences of longing or feeling loved.

Because I was a child growing up Catholic, I fit my experience into the stories I learned, the beliefs that were given to me. It was safer to talk in the language of belief, rather than to reveal my feelings. Later, those beliefs were challenged by my experience, and my journey brought me into a very different place. My beliefs got turned upside down, in order for me to be true to my experience. But that fire of burning love kept re-igniting.

Today, when I venture inside my own heart, I still experience deep longings, these hungers that feel almost like pain, or sometimes like restlessness. It is difficult to feel this and I am tempted to read a book, or find something else that might fill up that empty place. But instead of escaping or fixing it, I invite myself to try to be present with it. I breathe into the longing and let myself experience the hunger. Is this what it means to become friends with my burning? I accept the feelings of my heart just as they are. I connect with the experience of my deeper self.

Perhaps that is all that happens. But sometimes, something else happens too. My heart opens up, the emptiness becomes a doorway, and I fall into a larger awareness. I feel the earth, the sky, the wind. I feel joined to everything. I find answers to questions and guidance when I face a crossroads. I feel held in the arms of tenderness. I feel that I have come home. Sometimes, as Rumi says,

Something opens our wings
Something makes boredom and hurt disappear
Someone fills the cup in front of us
We taste only sacredness.

This has been my experience of spiritual awakening. Hunger itself becomes a doorway into sacredness, into feeling connection beyond my aloneness. Does it matter, on any particular day, whether I feel longing or feel love? Whether I feel questions or feel answers? The Buddhist mystics would say no. What matters is that I am becoming conscious. Vietnamese Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, says,

“If we want to enter Heaven on Earth, we need only one conscious step and one conscious breath.”

Take some time to notice what is brewing in your heart. Do you feel a sense of emptiness? A sense of connection? Do you feel questions? Don’t try to change anything, just become aware of what you are carrying in your heart in this moment.

Quotes from: The Essential Rumi, trans. Coleman Barks p. 280.
Thich Nhat Hanh, Touching Peace: Practicing the Art of Mindful Living, p. 8.

Do You Believe in Rocks?

Beach RockThe word spirituality comes from the Latin root spirare, which means to breathe. When we breathe, we are alive. We are in relationship, physically, to the world around us, to all other breathers of air: all the human beings, all the animals and the birds, all the trees and the plants. It is first of all a very material, chemical exchange. Breathing is life shared among many beings. When we stop breathing, we die. Breathing might be called the first prayer. Spirituality is first of all about what breathes us into life, what inspires us.

But this word spirituality also comes with a lot of baggage. It has been associated with dogma and religious doctrine. It has been understood as separate from the earth and the body and our physical reality, and also declared more important than our physical reality. Some people have been repelled by the idea of spirituality because they associate it with the irrational and the supernatural, something that requires accepting beliefs that don’t make sense, that don’t fit the facts.

However, spirituality doesn’t have to carry all that baggage. In fact, it may be critical to our lives that we unpack that baggage and find a definition of spirituality that can breathe again. And here is one place to start: spirituality is not about our beliefs, but about our experience. Spirituality is our experience of the larger reality of which we are a part. Spirituality is our experience of connection—our connection to this living earth and all its creatures, our connection to other people, our connection to all that is mysterious and beautiful at the heart of life.

Spirituality is like breathing. Just as the invisible air enters our lungs and brings oxygen to each cell, so spirituality—as experience—brings the outer reality that is so much bigger than we are into the inner feeling of it. Each person’s inner experience may be different from that of their neighbor. When we emphasize experience rather than require certain beliefs, our religious communities can include spiritualities as different from each other as Pagan and Atheist, Christian and Jew. Each person can follow a path that fits their own experience of reality. We are not asked to believe in a particular spirituality, but to be open to the possibility that people’s spiritual experiences have validity, even if they are different from our own.

Now, some might ask, “How can atheists have spirituality?” If we understand spirituality as our experience of the larger reality, then atheists have spirituality when they experience, in their own meaningful way, that larger reality of which we all are a part. Perhaps that experience is mediated by science or skepticism or meditation. That’s fine. Spirituality does not require a belief in God or Goddess or heaven or hell or any of the ideas that have become associated with spirituality. It is not about belief, but about experience.

Pagan writer, Starhawk, describes this distinction between beliefs and experience in regard to her experience of the Goddess. She says:

People often ask me if I believe in the Goddess. I reply, ‘Do you believe in rocks?’ …The phrase ‘believe in’ itself implies that we cannot know the Goddess, that she is somehow intangible, incomprehensible. But we do not believe in rocks—we may see them, touch them, dig them out of our gardens, or stop small children from throwing them at each other. We know them, we connect with them. In the Craft, we do not believe in the Goddess—we connect with her; through the moon, the stars, the ocean, the earth, through trees, animals, through other human beings, through ourselves. She is here. She is within us all.

Starhawk, The Spiral Dance