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.

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God is not an angry judge

The God of judgement has been a prevalent theme throughout the course of American history because of the influence of John Calvin. He lived from 1509-1564, and was an important figure in the Protestant Reformation in Europe; he was heavily influenced himself by the earlier work of St. Augustine. Calvin’s teachings became known as Calvinism. He is important to our American story because the Pilgrims and the Puritans who came to America were Calvinists.

Calvin preached the total depravity of human beings. Because of original sin, he said, all human beings were born evil, and had no capacity to goodness or to connection to God. However, according to Calvin, God chose to unleash his anger on Jesus, who willingly died so that some people could be granted salvation. The people who were saved were called the “elect,” or the chosen. These people were predestined to holiness, and all other people were doomed to bear the anger of God for their sins, and to suffer in hell. It did not matter whether you tried to be good—that wasn’t enough to get you into heaven.

This was the preaching of the earliest New England pastors, and it was revitalized in a religious movement known as the Great Awakening in the early 1700’s. The Great Awakening was marked by an appeal to emotion, rather than intellect, and the goal was to provoke emotional conversion experiences. If you had one of these conversion experiences, it was considered a sign that you might be among the elect. Again, these were “fire and brimstone” sermons—lifting up the torments of sin and hell, and the likelihood of damnation if one didn’t find salvation.Firey Furnace MJ DSC02606_2

But some preachers found a different inspiration. They asked, “If God is our father, then how can a father condemn his children?” People knew how much they loved their own children. If as human beings they only wanted the best for their children, wouldn’t a heavenly father be even more loving than we could be. Wouldn’t a father want to save all of his children from the torments of hell?

A man named John Murray had asked these questions in England, and been branded a heretic. He came to America in 1770 to try to get away from all that. There is a wonderful story about him being shipwrecked off the coast of New Jersey, right where a farmer named Thomas Potter had built a chapel, waiting for someone who would preach about universal salvation. And so John Murray did.

This was the beginning of the religious movement in American called Universalism: a deep devotion to the idea that God is love, and that God’s love reached everyone, and there was no such thing as hell. This was quite a radical notion in 18th century America. The most influential of the early Universalist preachers was the Rev. Hosea Ballou. He and others went around the countryside, spreading their message among the working people and farmers, and many Universalist churches were started. When the preacher Rev. Thomas Barnes came to Maine in 1799, that was the start of Universalism in Portland, and the beginnings of my own congregation.

People used to argue with Hosea Ballou—they would say, “if there is no threat of hell, why would anyone be good, or obey the law.” Ballou used to respond, “what kind of goodness is it, if you are only doing it to avoid hell? I don’t need the threat of hell to practice goodness.”