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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

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July 14, 2004 07:44 PM | Permalink for this comment

So, Chris, how did your correspondent respond?


July 15, 2004 09:50 AM | Permalink for this comment

He hasn't responded yet. It's not uncommon for me to hear from readers who want some more context or information about Unitarian Universalism, but who seem to want to mull over whatever I've sent rather than engage in a dialogue about it. Remembering how I explored other religious traditions when I was in my early twenties, I can entirely understand this approach. (Of course, it may be that I sent too much, too!)


July 16, 2004 02:19 PM | Permalink for this comment

Part of this entry has been translated into Spanish and posted on "El Cáliz Azul".

The jest of my response to this entry is that it is confusing for people outside of UU'ism to understand what it is we mean by having a faith. This is not helped when, as a matter of habit, we refer to ourselves as a "community of faith". It might be more helpful to begin to call ourselves a "community of inquiry". I believe I first came accros this term in an essay by John A. Buehrens, but now I'm not sure.

Overall, I found it a very thoughtful posting, Chris.

Matthew Gatheringwater:

July 16, 2004 06:00 PM | Permalink for this comment

¡Enrique! Thanks for sharing your Website. This is going to do wonders for my Spanish homework!


July 16, 2004 06:04 PM | Permalink for this comment

Still mulling!


July 16, 2004 08:04 PM | Permalink for this comment

A fundamental difference between you and your Evangelical friends may be the basis of your outlook. Yours seems to be centered on relationships and how you treat people, while theirs seems to have a philosophical structure at its base -- perhaps regarding the inerrancy of the bible along with some set of creeds.

Such beliefs can be examined if you observe your responses to moral dilemmas. If a criminal asks you where the children are hiding, do you lie? Why? If you don't because lying is wrong, or do because it's justified by a particular scripture or doctrinal rule, you probably are structure-based. If you answer based purely on consequences to the parties involved, you're probably more people and relationship based.

Both viewpoints have advantages and drawbacks which are fascinating to consider.


July 18, 2004 09:20 AM | Permalink for this comment

The conversation takes a new turn over at the LDS blog Times and Seasons.

Pat Jones:

August 27, 2004 04:29 PM | Permalink for this comment

First, most likely the context of Martin Luther's teaching was refutting the Catholic Church for baseing their teachings on text and opinon outside of Bibical teachings. So in order to use his teaching to prove UU would be in error. I dont think that Martin Luther would agree with UU reliance on personal consicence to the extent that it contradicts Bibical teachings. Yes, their are issues in the Bible that are culturally for the early church, women head coverings, etc... and some issues that didn't even exist at the time, but nonetheless if you want base your theology on personal conviction you might as well expect the mass murder of babies. Where is UU's standard at, how can UU be absolute on murder and human issues but not on other issues.
Yes, I agree that theology is infulenced by culture, studies, pastors, but in the end it is up to you to make a descion about what your believe. This is a very valuable possession and resposibitily, and that is why we can't trust our consicence fully. We must get our theology from something greater, the creator of us and of theology. We cant base it completely off of our culture because for theology has to be something that is absolute over all cultures. We must get it from someone who proved himself God and this is where i differ with UU's, we must get it from Jesus and his gift of love. To love God with our hearts, mind, streight, soul, means to confirm what he, God, believes to be true. How can we calm as mere humans, to know what truth is, when God himself created the world.

Email me any comments,, I would love to dialogue with anyone.


April 4, 2005 01:42 AM | Permalink for this comment

Oh, but I do let God tell me -- I just don't believe the bible has much in it that is from God. I believe the bible to be full of stories from people in the distant past interpreting their own beliefs about God. Some of them may even have been based on experiences of God, just like mine, but I have no way of knowing which are and which aren't, and they are still interpreted through an antique world view.
So, I'll stick with the present God rather than the distant past god-that-might-be.


August 11, 2005 08:15 AM | Permalink for this comment

In a comment to a post about the Christian right's politically-charged phrase "moral values," Dudley Jones asked:

I feel comfortable with UU values, and my life has been greatly enriched by UU people and institutions. However, I know that there are other people, some of them very intelligent and well educated, who have different values. Some of them are on the other side of the world, and some of them not so far away. I just have a deep feeling that thoughtful people of good will can disagree on vital issues. Sometimes I wonder where UUs get their unshakable confidence that they are correct. I will always vote the way UUs vote, but not with the same assurance.
In terms of what kind of advice - I do not know what to say - maybe a book to read?

I'll come back with some responses tonight or tomorrow morning when I get a chance -- but I hope others will start discussing this important question right away.


August 11, 2005 09:58 AM | Permalink for this comment

For me, my "moral values" have developed from my study of ethical systems and from observing from the world religions and seeing what helps people to make decisions that do not hurt themselves or others. The basic golden rule (Do onto others..) expoused by so many religions seems to work well here.
Nature gave me a brain to do more than just listen to a blow hard minister or read a 2000 yr old patched together book of fables, and I take full advantage of that.


August 11, 2005 04:45 PM | Permalink for this comment

Clyde Grubbs suggests that religious liberals actually share large portions of the moral worldview of the culture they live in -- and that the disagreements they have with the dominant culture depend on communities of moral resistance.

In a post on his blog last week, Doug Muder embraces moral relativism -- and draws Camassia (my favorite Christian blogger) into a fascinating dialogue at her site.

Dudley Jones:

August 12, 2005 12:34 PM | Permalink for this comment

Re: 2000 yr old patched together book of fables-
Actually the newest parts are about that old, but bits of it are much older than that. It is a remarkable book, and the more you read it the more interesting it gets. Someone said reading it is sometimes like opening up your desk drawer and finding in it an ancient stone knife, covered with blood.


August 13, 2005 09:16 AM | Permalink for this comment

It is no more a "2000 year old patched together book of fables" than it is the revealed and inerrant word of an ompotent deity. It is the accrued human witness of 5,000 years of one culture's -- our own culture's -- spiritual experience.

Without contradicting the authority of our own individual conscience, it is the aggregate testimony and authority of 5,000 years of everyone else's personal conscience. That being the case, when we find an instance where our own personal conscience at first pass does not agree with it, our first response should not be, "Aha! My conscience disagrees, so it must be wrong!", but rather, "What's here that I'm misunderstanding?"


August 14, 2005 12:32 AM | Permalink for this comment

I'm a "born UU" and I was part of a group sermon on how we were saved by our faith.

There's a link from my page to the church's with two other "saved" stories - both quite different from mine. It seems that there has to be something kind of "moral" about it to feel "saved". I think it shows we're much more than a "community of inquiry".

Our principles do give us a lot of guidance toward living a moral life - the way we treat people, that we try to make the world a better place to live, and care for the environment. Yet it doesn't lock us in by giving us a narrow message ("love your neighbor, but not if your neighbor is gay" kind of messages). We have members who are anti-abortion and pro-Bush. It challenges our ability to be loving of our neighbor, but challenges make life more interesting. We can have a respectful, open dialogue about why we believe differently and how our background brought us to our beliefs.

I prefer diversity and in my church, though I know not many UU churches are quite as diverse as mine, we have political conservatives, Christians and Muslims, Urantians, besides the expected agnostics, atheists, deists, pagans, etc., and we're increasing in cultural and racial diversity, too.

I think what makes it hard for our religion to grow is that diversity is uncomfortable and people are looking for comfort with their religion. Just my opinion.

- Joyce


August 16, 2005 03:25 PM | Permalink for this comment

It is, at the newest a 1800 yr old, book of fables edited to further a certain point of view. I feel that often the stories are about forming power relationships to keep the masses down than in elevating them to understanding. While some of the quotations that are directly attributable to Jesus are enpowering, most of the rest is depressing. I find much better examples of how to live my life when reading Hume or Bentham than in the Pauline parts of the New Testament, not to mention much more guidance in a good science book about the real world that I live in. The scary part is the mentally ill people who claim it is an instruction book for 21st century living.
I've read the whole thing, and I place it right next to Grimms Fairy Tales on my bookshelf.


August 16, 2005 05:29 PM | Permalink for this comment

The scary part is the mentally ill people who claim it is an instruction book for 21st century living.

Did you have anyone specific in mind, or is this a sweeping generalization?

If you are being specific, whom are you referring to, and is it an accurate characterization?

If you are not being both specific and accurate, how are sarcastic, scornful comments against straw men faithful to either the purpose of the brain nature gave you or the UU moral values that are the subject of this thread?

I've read the whole thing, and I place it right next to Grimms Fairy Tales on my bookshelf.

When I was in seventh grade I read Famous UU Herman Melville's Moby Dick cover-to-cover. Unlike a lot of other people, I didn't read it in high school or college as part of an American Lit class, with a teacher and study guide, but on my own at age twelve, precociously, as part of my background research for a ten-page term paper in history class on the whaling industry.

What I learned from my exercise in self-directed, autonomous discernment was (1) that Melville wrote in interminable run-on sentences that my seventh-grade English teacher would have flunked in a heartbeat, (2) that he managed to cover over 500 pages of novel with ink without inventing any kind of interesting plot whatsoever, and (3) that deus ex machina is a sleazy literary device that lazy authors use to make something happen and bring things to a conclusion fast when they're stuck and can't figure out what else to do.

Do you suppose, relying entirely on my own authority and judgment, and giving no heed to anyone else's, I found all the meaning there was to find in Moby DIck?

Do you think your own authority is any more reliable when it leads you to write publicly with such snide hostility about things that other people cherish?


August 16, 2005 07:58 PM | Permalink for this comment

The comment re an instruction book is not directed to you.
I have lived amongst a large number of people (In Central Florida) who believe that the Bible is inerrant and is to be treated as an instruction book. I have been told in a direct manner that I can only be moral if I accept everything in that Bible without question. I've been told that dinosaurs either died in the Noahan flood or that their fossils are placed by Satan, since Satan is in the ground.

I understand your analogy about Melville. I find it hard to put much of Emerson writings into 2005 context as well. As a part of my maturation into UU, I critically re-read the Bible, took several university classes on it's meaning and history, and participated in a 6 month review of new and old testaments under the direction of my UU minister.
So I've pulled out of it as much as I can for my personal "theology". And I'm sorry if it offends you that what I use from it is next to nothing. I cherish many books that I have been told with "snide hostility" were Evil, Origin of Species for example. You seemed to have overlooked that I mentioned the actual teachings of Jesus, few that they are, that are in the bible. I cherish those teachings, and reject the dogmatic rules of Paul and, of course, those of the Old Testament.
I get my morals from those teachings, as well as my reading of Socrates,Buddah,and Hume's Moral teachings. I'm sure that I am not out of the mainstream of UU.


August 16, 2005 08:39 PM | Permalink for this comment

The scary part is the mentally ill people who claim it is an instruction book for 21st century living.

I grew up fundy, so those are my people you're dissing. Are you going to take back what you said about my mama, or am I going to have to go down to central Florida and whoop your ass?

Are you a psychiatrist? A doctor? A therapist, or social worker? How do you know that these people are mentally ill? What is the DSM-IV classification?

That kind of rhetoric doesn't help anyone, especially not you.


August 16, 2005 09:46 PM | Permalink for this comment

Well, since you ask, I have a BS in Psychology before my PhD in another field.
I would think that the closest diagnosis would be Delusions, as defined in DSM as false beliefs that are deeply entrenched and clearly not based in reality and are not consistent with cultural believes or the persons' level of intelligence and life experiences. Persons cling to these believes even after the believes are shown to be false. I think that believing that a supreme being in the ether is talking directly to people is delusional. And I've worked with fundamentalists who believe that. I knew one who beat his wife and children under direct orders from above, allegedly.
The discussion is where UU's have morals. And where we get them. I have my strongly held beliefs, and you can see that they bring strong reactions, as they are not "conventionally trinitarian". They do not come soley or even mostly from the Trinitarian Christian tradition. I'm sorry that you don't think that rhetoric helps anyone, but those are my honest feelings.


August 16, 2005 11:36 PM | Permalink for this comment

Who said anything before about trinitarians? I thought the conversation was about moral standards for UUs, before it took a detour into the question of whether there is any useful meaning to be gained from reading the Bible. Or, for that matter, whether there is anything useful to be gained from slamming it.

People who don't agree with Mike are delusional? Feeling free to flame other religions whose tenets we don't personally share is not out of the mainstream of UU?

Physician, heal thyself.


August 17, 2005 09:29 AM | Permalink for this comment

No, I'm fine with people disagreeing with me. I can differentiate between disagreement and delusion. I'm not fine with them telling ME how to live MY life, based on THEIR delusions. If they choose to live that way, that's fine, I'll respect that, until they start telling me or my kids, that we are evil because we don't go to such and such Christian Church.
Yes, being able to flame other religions is part of intellectual freedom. Respecting other traditions is fine, but we don't have to like them. Part of the knock from many non UU's about UU's is that we don't all use all of the Bible for our morals, that is where the biblical discussion comes from.
Does it drive some to distaction that we don't all use the Bible as our moral code? I guess so.

Dudley Jones:

August 17, 2005 12:28 PM | Permalink for this comment

I did not understand the part about UUs not flaming other religions. I have been lurking around UU institutions for a long time, and I have an strong impression that many UUs vigorously dislike anything remotely related to the most popular of the western religions. As an example, they say nasty things about the Episcopal Church. A recent "Pocket Guide to UU" specifically referred to it as an institution associated with racism. After the 2006 GA, maybe we should count to ten before making accusations like that.
{I wish blogs had spelling checkers. }

Bill Baar:

August 17, 2005 05:56 PM | Permalink for this comment

Good question.

I would say UUs have morals. That they're consumed with morals. And perhapes we would be better off less focused on morality, and focused on some deeper spiritual questions.

Our Covenant in Geneva, Illinois reads,
Being desirous of promoting practical goodness in the world, and aiding each other in our moral and religious improvement, we have associated ourselves together: - not as agreeing in opinion, - not as having attained universal truth in belief or perfection in character, but as seekers after Truth & Goodness.

It's a good one. It attracted my family to the church. We appreciate the opportunities to promote practical goodness in the world our Church offers us.

What I see in the so-called religious right though, is the seeking after Truth & Goodness.

You don't see that so much among UUs. I think its because how to you deal with the question of not-true, and not-good; and then having to take a stand on belief. Our lack of creed prohibits that judgement.

I don't advocate a creed, but I think we need more than a religion of just ethics and morality. It doesn't fufill a need for Truth and Goodness.

I've never been told I'm immoral by anyone on the religious right really. I find I get along just find with the right bloggers. In fact, I would find morality a lessor issue for them becuase they're comfortable with the conversion, followed by the back sliding, and finally redemption cycle of life. They expect the backsliding and tolerate it because it's what they expect.

Here is a great quote from Chesterton on sin by the way I found on Stuart Buck's blog. It expresses my thoughts on sin and morality, and why morality not only teaches us how to act, but more importantly offers revealation; which I think is where the best of the "Christian Right" is at,

Modern masters of science are much impressed with the need of beginning all inquiry with a fact. The ancient masters of religion were quite equally impressed with that necessity. They began with the fact of sin--a fact as practical as potatoes. Whether or no man could be washed in miraculous waters, there was no doubt at any rate that he wanted washing. But certain religious leaders in London, not mere materialists, have begun in our day not to deny the highly disputable water, but to deny the indisputable dirt.

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