My dear friend and mentor, David Bumbaugh, has written this article, his latest work exploring the dilemma of the lack of a clear Unitarian Universalist message — what defines us as religious people. As an agitator and self-proclaimed windmill tilter myself (dare I say, a “pre-curmudgeon”), I identify with much of David’s frustration. I, too, find enormously frustrating our lack of a clear answer to the simple question, “What is a Unitarian Universalist?”
David is correct when he points out that we too often let our fear of offending anybody steer us toward language loaded with ambiguity than fails to clarify or inspire. But, as David points out, I suspect that his deep roots and prodigious contributions to our movement perhaps influence his perspective and weigh his hopes down with excessive expectations.
As a relatively new Unitarian Universalist (I’ve only been a UU for 25 years), I have no personal pre-merger history that influences my foundational thinking. And, while I do fashion myself an historian, I believe this discussion depends far more on how we envision the future than the path we travelled to reach the current state.
I think one key piece missing from our equation will help define us as a religious denomination, both to ourselves and to the world. Like other religious traditions, we interpret great truths; we help people cope with challenge and tragedy; we celebrate joys and life passages; and we educate ourselves and our children about our principles and traditions. Specifically, however, we must declare boldly and proudly exactly what differentiates us from other religions.
For me, three things clearly separate us from most religions.. I believe that collectively they define us as a wholly distinct religious body.
- Courage — Unitarian Universalism celebrates individual and collective acts of courage, specifically acts that challenge the authority of institutional power and dogma. We not only elevate martyrs and people of great accomplishment to pedestals of admiration, but we encourage each and every Unitarian Universalist to do the same. By holding no individual or congregation to creedal tests, we literally demand of everyone a commitment to crafting a unique philosophy of moral conduct.
- Reason — Unitarian Universalism places the power of human thought above any sacred text, holy object, tradition, or vow of obedience. The opinion of no single member of our denomination — be they minister, administrator, or even the President of the UUA — matters more than that of any other. And, we promote the notion that Truth can be discerned through the application of reason.
- Universal Love — Unitarian Universalism is not unique among religions promoting love of our neighbors. We aspire, however, not to pick and choose which neighbor receive that love unconditionally. This phrase also has the double meaning of portraying our love for our universe, a belief that all of existence is sacred and deserving of our caring devotion.
So, my “elevator speech” in response to the question “What is Unitarian Universalism?” is this.
Unitarian Universalism is a religion promoting the use of human courage and reason in the pursuit of universal love.
For me, that’s it. No long preambles. No “whereas” or “be it resolved.” All of the rest can wait. All of our principles and sources are covered.