Over the decades, Universalists had won the theological struggle with mainline Christianity. Few of those churches now preached the partialist doctrines of hell-fire and damnation. This development served to make them unclear about the distinction between Universalism and the larger Christian community.

Unitarian Universalism: A Narrative History

The Revival is Secular

If a philosophy, ideology, or theology becomes commonplace, it is no longer unique. When the questions have changed but an association continues offering answers to the old ones, no one will stick around to listen. If this seems obvious, then good. What should be equally obvious is that it makes no sense to turn back and embrace the dying paradigm and the antiquated answers. Apparently, it isn’t obvious enough.

It was a helluva thing. In the early days of the United States, the common religious message among churches was that there’s heaven and hell after this life, and where you end up depends on whether you had been saved by Jesus. In revival meetings, hell was often described in lurid detail, with the wrath of an almighty god looming over everyone who had not yet bowed the knee to Jesus. Complicating matters, Calvinism’s doctrine of predestination led earnest people to worry themselves sick over whether or not they were among the ‘elect.’ Often such people would go off by themselves or else respond to an altar call and plead for their god to give them a ‘testimony’ to assure them of their salvation. 

This was a far cry from the much milder, simpler pray-to-accept-jesus formula promoted at a later time by the likes of Billy Graham. Amidst such a grim religious milieu, Universalism stood out with a downright cheerful message of expansive divine grace. In later times, that gospel of universal salvation became nearly irrelevant, and when that happens to a religion’s key selling point, conversions cease and the faithful drift away. 

As I’ve already indicated, although evangelicalism has continued to preach heaven, hell, and salvation by faith, in the 20th century this message took on a kinder, gentler visage. As stated in the quote above, mainline churches for their part virtually ceased any talk of punishment for sin. Only fundamentalists have continued to hammer away at the old message. As we entered the 21st century we began to see a decline not within mainline Protestant ranks, but even among evangelicals. While people still desire community and purpose, science has informed them that many of the old answers were simply wrong, and the questions themselves have changed in the process.

Many Christians have thought that a new ‘revival’ was necessary to bring people back to the churches. They were right, though that new birth of congregations does not look like what they expected or desire.

In late 2012, some people got together in Houston, Texas and decided to organize what seemed sort of like a church, but which was entirely secular in outlook and message. This was the birth of Oasis. Just a few months later, in January 2013, Sunday Assembly was launched in London, complete with boisterous singalongs to pop songs and messages about understanding and celebrating the one life we know we have. While these movements have spread, with new chapters popping up around the world, other, similar groups have come into existence as well. The commonality among them all is a rejection of supernaturalism (without generally being too snotty about it) and an embrace of evidence-based thinking about life.

Along with these new movements have come efforts to provide secular summer camp alternatives for children (Camp Quest) and a means for atheists and agnostics to respond to the needs of the world (Foundation Beyond Belief). There are conferences, networks, and local volunteer groups. 

And so, with all that, it is something of a wonder to me that Unitarian Universalism appears to be leaning back into a mainline way of thinking and behaving. Oh sure, we’re dropping the name ‘church’ in favor of ‘congregation’ and making certain there are no crosses around our buildings, but we’re kidding ourselves if we think those ‘inclusive’ services we call ‘worship’ look like anything other than a watered-down Protestant church service. 

To be clear, this is the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, meaning it has a congregational system in which local bodies decide for themselves how to order their services and conduct their affairs. This means that there are UU congregations that are historically Christian in identity and which have no desire (nor requirement) to be otherwise. These are just as ‘Unitarian Universalist’ as the congregations that position themselves as neutral, broad-minded, or even humanist in perspective. In no way am I attempting to deny the ‘UU-ness’ of anyone. I am, however, questioning the disdain for Humanism based on outdated stereotypes and the apparent disregard for the godless handwriting on the wall.

Polls who more an more that people in the United States are religiously unaffiliated. This is a mix of spiritual-but-not-religious people and athests/agostics that is popularly referred to as ‘the nones.’ So many of these ‘nones’ are going to college now that we actually have Humanist chaplains at a handful of universities. The ‘nones’ tend to be socially progressive, religiously skeptical, and more prone to listen to a scientist than a preacher. 

Times have changed, and if the UUA really wants to continue to promote healthy communities concerned about human and civil rights, the denomination (yes I called it that) needs to rethink its extension efforts. There’s no need to jettison the chalice, the principles, or the sources of our Living Tradition. Rather, these need to be realigned to support a relevant gospel of human progress through science and social justice. Let’s be upbeat, let’s be honest, and let’s break out of the mainline mold as we hold fast to what is good and seek out what is better.

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