Wednesday, July 14, 2004
Do Unitarian Universalists have morals?
Last month, I corresponded with a young Evangelical Protestant who asked me two questions:
1. Are there any definite morals in Unitarian Universalism?
2. How can you have a set standard of beliefs if you allow people to develop their own "personal" theology?
I found it a demanding and valuable exercise to respond. Here's what I wrote back:
Your questions are great ones. Yes, there are definite morals in Unitarian Universalism — but they tend to emphasize what we value more than giving really explicit lists of what's forbidden. (Here's our most general statement of Principles.)
For example, the first Principle that Unitarian Universalist churches affirm is that every human being has inherent dignity and worth. (For me, this is an affirmation that each of us is a child of God, made in God's image, loved by God.) As a moral principle, this means that we oppose actions that violate the dignity of human beings: murder and violence, rape and sexual abuse, torture — all those horrible things — but also all the other ways that people often treat each other as "lesser" or unworthy of respect. That's why we oppose things like racism, sexism, authoritarian and undemocratic political systems, social systems that put people into inflexible hierarchies, and denials of the dignity of gay and lesbian people, among other things.
Our other principles work in similar ways: they affirm broad principles for how people should relate to each other, and respect the variety of ways that people of good will try to live.
Another way to think about Unitarian Universalist morality is that we put a lot of emphasis on the qualities of people's actions and relationships rather than on specific deeds. This helps to explain why Unitarian Universalists have welcomed gay and lesbian people into our churches without condemning their homosexuality: We condemn qualities of abusiveness, coerciveness, infidelity, and other violations of the respect that each person deserves, but we don't condemn specific actions, such as the different ways that loving adults bond with each other.
You also asked how we can have set standards of belief when each person is developing their own theology. It's a great question — and sometimes we're better at it than others. The first thing to say is that we have simply embraced something the early Protestant Reformer Martin Luther taught: No one can do your believing for you. Just as Protestants today emphasize that salvation depends on your personal commitment to Jesus and not on what somebody else thinks you should believe or what somebody else does on your behalf, Unitarian Universalists believe that your conscience — your deepest beliefs and values — can't be up to anybody but you. They are shaped by your culture, by your studies, by your friends and relatives, but in the end your beliefs really are your own business, your own most valuable possession and responsibility.
We say that your relationship with God is fundamentally not something that anyone else can have for you. So we take very seriously each person's responsibility to understand their own faith and to refine it. One of my favorite Unitarian Universalist sayings is "an unexamined faith is not worth having" — because a faith that you don't think about and come to own on a very personal level can be like the seeds that didn't take deep root. For me, believing something mostly because other people say I should is a failure to love God with my heart, my mind, and my strength.
Now some Unitarian Universalists will describe their personal faith in ways that really seem impossible to reconcile with things other Unitarian Universalists believe. For example, I'm a Christian Unitarian Universalist, which means that I try to live my life as a disciple of Jesus, trusting that his life can help me come to know God — but some of my UU friends describe themselves as atheists or humanists! At first this seems completely bizarre. But I have found that people who are genuinely interested in dialogue often learn a great deal from each other, and although I value the fellowship I can only have among other Christians, I also believe that other people have important insights on life and religion. I'm a Unitarian Universalist because I want to refine my own theology in conversation with other people who are trying to refine theirs, and my church helps me have those conversations.
The other thing I should add is that "Unitarian Universalist" really describes a federation of churches, almost like a related family of somewhat different faiths. There are Unitarian churches, and Universalist churches, and humanist churches, and more modern "Unitarian Universalist" churches — each one with its own history and worship style and beliefs. They all work together through the Unitarian Universalist Association, and they share those seven general principles, but they don't necessarily believe the same things. (The Association doesn't have the authority to tell the churches what to believe: We don't have a pope or prophet, and we don't believe that the Bible gives hard and fast answers to every question, so we don't give authority to some centralized place to determine what we believe. That's up to the members of each church, working respectfully with each other and their ministers.)
Each church has a responsibility for its own standard of beliefs — and so there are Christian Unitarian Universalist churches, and theistic churches (where people believe in God but may not regard themselves as Christians), and humanist churches (where people believe that human beings are the source of their own ultimate values and purposes), and even a handful of earth-centered-spirituality churches.
I wonder how you would respond.
Copyright © 2004 by Philocrites | Posted 14 July 2004 at 5:44 PM