Unitarian Universalist Christianity
Early in my ministerial studies in the mid-1990s I created a folder on Unitarian Universalism. I contacted the Unitarian Universalist Association the old fashioned way, by postal mail, and also found information online to print out and bind in the folder. Along the way, I also discovered the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship and received information from them. At the time I was evangelical, and looking back I think that I was yearning to be able to have a ‘free faith’ like what these two groups described. I felt bound, however, by the ‘reality’ of the resurrection of Jesus and also by the fear of Hell. Now, as a Unitarian Universalist Humanist who continues to enjoy studying the history and texts of the Abrahamic tradition, the role and place of Christianity in Unitarian Universalism is on my mind from time to time.
Lately there’s been some excitement among UU Humanists about Skinner House Book having published ‘Humanist Voices in Unitarian Universalism.’ This is part of a series that has already touched on Christian, Jewish, and Buddhist perspectives in UUism. The other day I got curious about the contributors to the Christian book in the series, and so I looked a few of them up. It was initially something of a surprise to me to discover that Rachel Nguyen, the person who contributed the first essay in the book, entitled ‘A Bible-Thumping, Trinitarian, Charismatic, Born-Again Jesus Freak,’ has since converted to Roman Catholicism. Then again, it really shouldn’t have been all that unexpected.
In her essay, Ms. Nguyen talks about having been raised UU, then later wanting to pursue the Christian path. She asked a UU minister, ‘Can a UU be a Christian,’ to which he replied, ‘It can be a challenge.’ To many Humanists in UU circles this can seem downright laughable, given the push in recent years towards adopting ‘the language of reverence.’ This is judged by some to be a thinly-veiled attempt to move us closer to mainline Protestantism. While I do see theism being favored, and some overt hatred expressed towards Humanists, it doesn’t seem to be Christianity in particular that’s being promoted. Sure, the services are called ‘worship’ and look mostly like what the Protestants do, but I haven’t heard of many congregations outside of those with a long Christian tradition worshiping Jesus or following the lectionary. Outright Christianity, while definitely not persecuted, is also not entirely accepted throughout Unitarian Universalism.
Given the above scenario, it’s only natural that UU Christians can feel unsupported in their congregations and in the larger life of the denomination. They are included and encouraged, but UU congregations don’t typically have the usual accoutrements of devotion and practice offered in Christian churches. There’s no eucharist (again, except in the historically Christian UU congregations), no stations of the cross, no devotionals or prayer beads. These are all things that individual UU Christians can find on their own, and in the process they can start to ask themselves why they don’t simply join a different church.
The United Church of Christ offers an extremely progressive approach to Christianity, and for those looking for smells and bells the Episcopalians can be an inviting option. Ms. Nguyen looked beyond these and into Roman Catholicism, finding there what she had been missing not only in communal ritual and personal devotional practice, but also in terms of theological reflection. Although she and I are traveling in opposite directions, I respect her desire to find a satisfying spirituality. She sought out the place she felt most likely to fulfill her longing.
What can Unitarian Universalism offer in the way of a unique Christian experience, such that some would find it compelling enough to stay, or even for non-UU Christians to seek it out? Within UUism it is possible for alternative approaches to Christianity to arise, including post-theistic Christianity.
In the first few centuries of Christianity there was no official canon of Scripture. That is to say, while the Hebrew Scriptures were often respected, the texts the churches had were various gospels and letters that were copied and circulated. We’re accustomed nowadays to the 27 books of the New Testament being the go-to resource on normative Christianity, but there were in fact many texts around from a variety of theological viewpoints. What became considered ‘orthodox’ was only one of these early Christianities, and even within those churches there was long disagreement over what texts should be considered canonical. The matter was only settled for the Eastern (Orthodox) Church in the Second Council of Trullan of 692, and for the Western (Catholic) Church at the Council of Trent of 1546.
While some level of heterodoxy or ‘heresy’ can easily be tolerated among progressive mainline Protestant churches, they still only go so far. People who identify with the person and work of Jesus but doubt the existence of any gods can’t easily sing along in worshipping god the father or Jesus Christ. Petitionary prayer can also be an awkward experience for such people.
The majority, it seems, of Unitarian Universalist congregations seek to create a welcoming, inclusive experience in their services. In such a setting, the kind of Christians I’ve described above can feel at ease and even engaged. For uniquely Christian support, however, more is needed. Small groups that meet for prayer and Bible study can be scheduled. Monthly, quarterly, or annual Christian services could be scheduled, perhaps at a different time from the main service, and all depending on the level of interest and participation from the community. At times, progressive Bible scholars, historians, and theologians can be brought in for special events. All this won’t happen on its own, though. It has to be organized by parishioners with the active support of congregational leadership.
Although I am most definitely a Humanist, I could totally see myself delivering a message from the Bible and related texts, from a non-theistic and ethical perspective. To support my UU Christian friends I don’t have to be ‘one of them.’ There is a place for Christians in Unitarian Universalism, just as there is for Humanists, Buddhists, Pagans, and others. This does not have to be a zero-sum game with winners and losers. We all can have a part in living out the vision of human flourishing in beloved community.