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.

God is Love

FriendsTo me, the statement that “God is Love” can evoke a person who stands close by through thick and thin, the friend who doesn’t run away when you have to go to the hospital, or when you make a big mistake. The one who doesn’t mind that you have faults, that you get cranky sometimes, or feel overwhelmed by the problems of the world. The friend who doesn’t mind when you get into a controlling mood, but just shakes you a little, and says, “relax.”

For many people, the image of a God who loves us unconditionally like a father or a friend is very powerful. We imagine God as a person because we are persons, and it can help us to relate to that God; we model it on our closest human connections. That is one way of understanding the idea that God is love. But for other people, that image of a person doesn’t work. To say that God is love means that God does not have to be imagined as a person who loves us. God can be understood as the very flow and energy of love itself: that energy that moves between people and connects us and empowers us.

Ultimately, it matters less how or if we imagine God, and it matters more how we are living our lives—if we are living in love, then God is inside our very living. And there doesn’t have to be just one image or one story—we might ask instead what does it mean that Love is at the center of the universe?

Of course, love is another one of those overused words that become hard to really understand. Love is based on the essential connections between people, and the sacredness within people. When we love someone we see the beauty in them, the gift of their being, and we know that it matters to us that they are alive. When we are loved by someone, we feel the beauty in ourselves, the gift of our own being, reflected in our connection to another. We feel seen. We feel alive in relationship to others.

Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed says that “the great insight of Universalism is that you cannot coerce people into loving one another.” He says,

No one has ever or will ever draw true love out of another with punishment. God’s love is given to all and is a more positive force for good than fear ever will be. Behind this is a simple truth: in being loved we learn to love. Those who are loved will in turn love others. Those who feel God’s infinite love within themselves will in turn feel so good about themselves, so connected to life and so full of compassion that they will not be able to help but to spread that love for they will overflow with it.

There is a traditional Quaker hymn that says “Love is Lord in heaven and earth.” Love wins. Universalism was called the gospel of success. When the Universalists opened the doors to heaven, that led the way to opening the doors here on earth. Over time they opened up their churches to expanding ideas of religion—they began to see that there must be wisdom and truth and holiness in all religions, and they reached out to learn from others. They were open to the wisdom of science and the blessing of nature. Where ever love was, that was holiness and truth.

No One Way

If some of this talk about spirituality doesn’t make sense for you, remember that we bring our diverse personalities to our experience of spirituality. We will not all resonate with every approach to spirituality. My colleague, Rev. Peter Richardson, outlined four possible approaches to spirituality corresponding to traits from the Myers Briggs personality inventory.  His framework is just one example of how our spiritual experience might be diverse. We all have natural inclinations to tune into different frequencies.

He suggests that those of a more intellectual bent may be primarily drawn to the search for great truths. Einstein is one such mystic of the scientific realms. He felt awe and wonder at the mysteries of life revealed through science. A first step for an intellectual might be to appreciate the intricacy and beauty of the natural world, to pay attention to those moments of wonder.

Those of a more practical bent may be drawn to the works of goodness. They might find inspiration in the path that Gandhi shaped, to live out the connectedness of life by organizing for justice on behalf of the oppressed. A first step might be to volunteer for a soup kitchen, to pay attention to the larger reality in the gift of soup that connects us to someone who is hungry.

Those of an emotional bent are more likely to be drawn by love and devotion to divine or spiritual beings. The Sufi poet Rumi wrote thousands of love poems to the divine Friend, whom he felt most closely through his relationship with his human friend Shams. These are the folk who might especially benefit by reading the poems of the mystics, by music and incense and sacred ritual.

Finally, there are those of an intuitive bent, who may be drawn to the unfolding and transformation of the self into the larger self. The writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson might be a guide for those in this visionary orientation. These folk may be drawn to a diversity of practices and rituals, and may find their spiritual experience changing greatly over time.

There is no one way to practice spirituality. We begin by being aware of the present moment, by inviting our hearts to pay attention. We can notice those activities that help us to feel a sense of connection and wonder and gratitude, that help our hearts to feel most alive. We can invite the larger reality into our lives, by choosing to bring more of these activities into our daily lives.


Photo by Margy Dowzer

Peter Richardson, Four Spiritualities, (1996.) Find it here.

Humility and Confidence

What do we do with people’s different understandings about God and the religious battles that go along with it? I believe we must begin by affirming that difference is real. People—in the same town and all over the world—think differently about the idea of God and have different experiences of God. That is real, and we can choose to fear it, or we can choose to welcome it, explore it, and even celebrate it.

But what does that do to our ideas about truth and reality? We might ask, for example, “Can God both exist and not exist at the same time?” That isn’t logical. But the truth is: both kinds of human experience exist! There are humans who experience or affirm God and there are humans who do not experience or affirm God. There are humans who experience or affirm certain images and ideas of God, and reject other images and ideas of God. We must take into account that all of our understanding about God comes through our human experience.

When my images and ideas about God began to change, something opened up before me. I embarked on a journey that demanded a deeper humility and a deeper confidence. I needed humility to recognize the incompleteness of my spiritual experience and the validity of truth beyond my understanding. I also needed to have confidence to claim my own experience as valid, whether or not others agreed with me.

I believe that each person’s experience is valid, at least in part, and the fullest truth is that which is weighed in community with the experience of others. This is one reason why I later chose to find a home within a Unitarian Universalist spiritual community that welcomes diverse beliefs. There is a Hebrew proverb: “Hospitality to strangers is greater than reverence for the name of God.” To live within a diverse spiritual community, we must cling more strongly to an open heart, than to specifics images and beliefs about God.

Heart StoneWhat this means for me is that the real God might be everywhere—hidden within each person, in each plant or animal, in each sunrise or stormy day, in the ordinary and the spectacular alike. Or God might be no where at all. It means that revelation is continuous and always unfolding. It means that words and images like God or Spirit or Mystery are metaphors trying to describe what is indescribable. The Sufi poet Rumi said,

“Just remember: it’s like saying of the king, he is not a weaver… words are on that level of God-knowing.”

My colleague the Rev. Forrest Church has said:

“The power which I cannot explain or know or name I call God. God is not God’s name. God is my name for the mystery that looms within and arches beyond the limits of my being. Life force, spirit of life, ground of being, these too are names for the unnamable which I am now content to call my God.”

Quote from The Soul of Rumi: A New Collection of Ecstatic Poems, translated by Coleman Barks, p. 77.