July 2, 2002
Making it up
Matthew G. wrote:
From what I know so far, I'd say that if Unitarianism hasn't always been a religion it eventually became one.
Maybe I can clarify my basic point. Very few Unitarians (or Universalists) treated "unitarianism" or "universalism" as their religion. Early on, they took it for granted that Christianity was their religion, and that unitarianism (or universalism) was the most rational, or most scriptural, or most ethical version of the faith. Unitarianism was a denomination, not a religion.
But maybe I'm making an academic point. Most of the time, when we say "my religion is . . .," we're just describing the community in which we experience and think about matters of faith. "My religion is Unitarian Universalism" most often means that we have found a community in which we can celebrate our ideals whole-heartedly, in which we find support and sympathy and encouragement, and in which our values and commitments are deepened through reflection, study, and shared events. It's a lot more than a club, but in a way, it's also just a club that really matters.
I know that I'm a UU because I have found such a community several such communities and because I want to see these communities flourish.
But this takes me back to the point I was making earlier. UUs love to believe that we are reinventing the wheel, indeed that we must reinvent the wheel. We not only aspire to make up our own religion, we believe we're actually doing it. I think we fail to understand not only what other religions are actually up to, but also fail to understand what actually makes our own communities tick. There's a clubby aspect to church, which other Christians recognize as the "church particular" but there's also a transcendent aspect to church, which is known in Christian theology as the "church universal" or, in its ultimate form, the kingdom of God. We have a hard time pointing to this aspect in our religion, under whatever name.
When I hear UUs trying to define "Unitarian Universalism," I often hear them trying to identify doctrines, beliefs, and practices that are distinctively ours. (Daniel O Connell's essay in the Journal of Liberal Religion is one example.) This attempt at definition is what Charles Ellis, in responding to O Connell, calls "denominationalism" it's a second-order process of differentiation from the other varieties of the dominant religious tradition. (We're the Protestants who don't do baptism, communion, scripture study, tithing, or episcopal ordination, and we prefer unitarianism to trinitarianism, universal to elective salvation, and naturalism to supernaturalism, but we do sing hymns, ordain ministers, gather on Sunday, listen to and preach sermons, organize relief efforts, etc.)
What I don't hear UUs doing, when they try to define the new religion of Unitarian Universalism, is to speak revelationally, or to offer the sort of charismatic insight that has in the past launched what we now recognize as religions. We don't have a Gautama Siddhartha, or a Jesus of Nazareth, or a Mohammed, or a Joseph Smith. We don't even pretend to. We evolve and modify, but we don't reveal. We have precious little to build a new religion on.
That's what I mean when I avoid calling Unitarian Universalism "a religion." But I do believe and feel deeply that religion happens in our churches, that people find and feel and share transforming and transformative things in our churches. I also think that much of that energy is still the interest on a loan we borrowed from our parent tradition, rather than something we've "made up" ourselves. In our tradition, the door to transcendence is still open, but we don't really pay a lot of sustained attention to that corner of the room.
So, in a nutshell, Unitarian Universalism is a religion if Presbyterianism is a religion, and in my view we have a number of profound strengths as a tradition. But if we as a federation of a thousand-plus churches are trying to put Unitarian Universalism alongside Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity perhaps even alongside Mormonism we're in way over our heads.
Philocrites | Copyright © 2002 by Christopher L. Walton | clwalton at post.harvard.edu