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Mike Gravel is a Unitarian Universalist.
Unitarian Universalism (UUism) is a theologically liberal religious movement characterized by its support of a "free and responsible search for truth and meaning." Unitarian Universalists do not share a creed; rather they are unified by their shared search for spiritual growth. Unitarian Universalists draw on many different sources and have a wide range of beliefs and practices.
Unitarian Universalist congregations and fellowships tend to retain some Christian traditions such as Sunday worship that includes a sermon and singing of hymns, but do not necessarily identify themselves as Christians.
Both Unitarianism and Universalism trace their roots to Christian Protestantism. Many UUs appreciate and value aspects of Islamic, Christian and Jewish spirituality, but the extent to which the elements of any particular faith tradition are incorporated into one's personal spiritual practices is a matter of personal choice in keeping with UU's creedless, non-dogmatic approach to spirituality and faith development. Even before the Unitarian and Universalist movements combined their efforts at the continental level, the theological significance of Unitarianism and Universalism expanded beyond the traditional understanding of these terms.
The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), founded in 1961 as a consolidation of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church in America, is headquartered in Boston, Massachusetts, and serves churches mostly in the United States. The Canadian Unitarian Council became an independent body in 2002. The UUA represents more than 1,000 member congregations that collectively include more than 217,000 members. Unitarian Universalists follow a Congregationalist polity|congregational model of church governance, in which power resides at the local level; individual congregations call ministers and make other decisions involving worship, theology and day-to-day church management. The denominational headquarters in Boston in turn provides services for congregations that can more effectively be handled through joint efforts.
A separate organization from the UUA is the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU), founded in 1995, which coordinates national Unitarian and Universalist associations of churches throughout the world.
Members of UU churches place emphasis on spiritual growth and development. Unitarian Universalism has no creed; seven principles have been affirmed by the Unitarian Universalist Association. It values religious pluralism and respects diverse traditions within the movement and often within the same congregation. Many see it as a syncretic religion, as personal beliefs and religious services draw from more than one faith tradition. Even when one faith tradition is primary within a particular setting, Unitarian Universalists are unlikely to assert that theirs is the "only" or even the "best" way possible to discern meaning or theological truths. There is even a popular adult UU course called "Building Your Own Theology".
Unitarian Universalism's lack of a definitive creed sometimes leads to misunderstanding of the religion. To realistically understand this faith it is necessary to note that while they are not unified by one set of absolute beliefs, UU congregations are unified by the seven principles, shared beliefs, commitment to social justice, and sharing in and learning from each other's spiritual development.
A great deal of attention is paid to the differences in beliefs of Unitarian Universalists because of how non-traditional this is, which can be misleading. While an important aspect of Unitarian Universalism, collectively held convictions are equally important.
Many Unitarian Universalists consider themselves humanists, while others hold to Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, natural theist, atheist, agnostic, pantheist, pagan, or other beliefs. Some choose to attach no particular theological label to their own idiosyncratic combination of beliefs. This diversity of views is usually considered a strength by those in the Unitarian Universalist movement, since the emphasis is on the common search for meaning among its members rather than adherence to any particular doctrine. Many UU congregations have study groups that examine the traditions and spiritual practices of Neopaganism, Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Pantheism, and other faiths. At least one UU minister, the Reverend James Ishmael Ford, has been acknowledged as a Zen master. There are Buddhist meditation teachers, Sufi teachers, as well as gnostic and episcopi vagantes clerics. Some view their Jewish heritage as primary, and others see the concept of God as unhelpful in their personal spiritual journeys. While Sunday services in most congregations tend to espouse Humanism, it is not unusual for a part of a church's membership to attend pagan, Buddhist, or other spiritual study or worship groups as an alternative means of worship. Many Unitarian Universalists are also atheist or agnostic.
In a survey, Unitarian Universalists in the United States were asked which provided term or set of terms best describe their belief. Many respondents chose more than one term to describe their beliefs. The top choices were:
- Humanist - 54%
- Agnostic - 33%
- Earth-centered - 31%
- Atheist - 18%
- Buddhist - 16.5%
- Christian - 13.1%
- Pagan - 13.1%
There is great variety among Unitarian Universalist congregations, with some favoring particular religious beliefs or forms of worship over others, with many more home to an eclectic mix of beliefs. Regardless of their orientation, most congregations are fairly open to differing beliefs, though not always with various faith traditions represented to the same degree.
There is also a wide variety in how congregations conceive of themselves. Congregations call themselves "churches," "societies," "fellowships," "congregations," or eschew the use of any particular descriptor (e.g. "Sierra Foothills Unitarian Universalists"). Many use the name "Unitarian Universalist," (and a few "Universalist Unitarian"), having gradually adopted this formulation since consolidation in 1961. Others use names that reflect their historic roots by keeping simply the designation "Unitarian" or "Universalist." A few congregations use neither (e.g. "Community Church of White Plains"). For some congregations, the name can be a clue to their theological orientation. For others, avoidance of the word "church" indicates a desire to distance itself from traditional Christian theology. Sometimes the use of another term may simply indicate a congregation's lay-led or relatively new status. However, some UU congregations have grown to appreciate alternate terms such as fellowship and retained them even though they have grown much larger or lost features sometimes associated with their use (such as, in the case of fellowships, a traditionally lay-led worship model).
Also of note is that there are many more people who identify as UU on surveys than those who attend UU churches (by a factor of four in a recent survey), reflecting lapsed members who nonetheless consider themselves part of the UU movement.
General beliefs of UUsEdit
Unitarian Universalists (UUs) believe in complete but responsible freedom of speech, thought, belief, faith, and disposition. They believe that each person is free to search for his or her own personal truth on issues like the existence, nature, and meaning of life, deities, creation, and afterlife. UUs can come from any heritage, have any sexual identity, and hold beliefs from a variety of cultures or religions.
Concepts about deity are diverse among UUs. Some believe that there is no god (atheism); others believe in many gods (polytheism). Some believe that God is a metaphor for a transcendent reality. Some believe in a female god (goddess), a passive god (Deism), a Christian god, or a god manifested in nature or one which is the "ground of being". Some UUs reject the idea of deities and instead speak of "universal spirit" or "reverence of life". Unitarian Universalists support each person's search for truth and meaning in concepts of deity.
Principles and purposesEdit
Although lacking an official creed or dogma, Unitarian Universalist congregations typically respect the Principles and Purposes of the Unitarian Universalist Association. As with most actions in Unitarian Universalism, these were created in committee, and affirmed democratically by a vote of member congregations, proportional to their membership, taken at an annual General Assembly (a meeting of delegates from member congregations). The Principles are as follows:
"We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote
- The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
- Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
- Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
- A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
- The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
- The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all;
- Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part."
Unitarian Universalism is often referred to by its members as a living tradition, and the principles and purposes have been modified over time to reflect changes in spiritual beliefs among the membership. Most recently, the last principle, adopted in 1985 and generally known as the Seventh Principle, "Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part", and a sixth source (adopted in 1995), "Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature" were added to explicitly include members with Neopagan, Native American, and other natural theist spiritualities.
Unitarian Universalists tend to be open-minded and promote unique beliefs of a person that are based on their individual thoughts, and can range from a strict monotheistic belief to more of a philosophical view of things.
Approach to sacred writingsEdit
A Unitarian Universalist approach to the Christian Bible and other sacred works is given in Our Unitarian Universalist Faith: Frequently Asked Questions, published by the UUA:
We do not, however, hold the Bible - or any other account of human experience - to be either an infallible guide or the exclusive source of truth. Much biblical material is mythical or legendary. Not that it should be discarded for that reason! Rather, it should be treasured for what it is. We believe that we should read the Bible as we read other books - with imagination and a critical eye. We also respect the sacred literature of other religions. Contemporary works of science, art, and social commentary are valued as well. We hold, in the words of an old liberal formulation, that "revelation is not sealed." Unitarian Universalists aspire to truth as wide as the world - we look to find truth anywhere, universally.
In short, Unitarian Universalists respect the important religious texts of other religions, but do not necessarily accept them as truth. UUs view these sacred texts as historically significant literary works that should be viewed with an open mind, a critical eye, and an appetite for good literature. Unitarian Universalists view the individuals depicted in such works in much the same way. For example, many UUs believe that Jesus of Nazareth probably existed, and they respect him for many of the values he stood for and for his fearless campaign for what he believed in. Most Unitarian Universalists, however, do not believe that Jesus is the Son of God or the Messiah.
Recently, UU World magazine asked for contributions of "elevator speeches" explaining UUism. These are short speeches that could be made in the course of an elevator ride to those who knew nothing of the religion. Here are examples of the speeches submitted:
In Unitarian Universalist congregations, we gather in community to support our individual spiritual journeys. We trust that openness to one another's experiences will enhance our understanding of our own links with the divine, with our history, and with one another. — Rev. Jonalu Johnstone, Oklahoma City, OK
Most Unitarian Universalists believe that nobody has a monopoly on all truth, or ultimate proof of the truth of everything in any one belief. Therefore, one's own truth is unprovable, as is that of others. Consequently, we should respect the beliefs of others, as well as their right to hold those beliefs. Conversely, we expect that others should respect our right to our own beliefs. Several UU's then, would likely hold as many different beliefs. Other beliefs they may hold in common are a respect for others, for nature, and for common decency, leading to a particular caring for the poor, the weak and the downtrodden. As a result, issues of justice, including social justice are held in common among most. — Gene Douglas, Harrah, OK
Traditionally, Unitarianism was a form of Christianity. The term may refer to any belief about the nature of Jesus Christ that affirms God as a singular entity and rejects the doctrine of the Trinity. Unitarianism was rebuffed by orthodox Christianity at the First Council of Nicaea in 325, but it resurfaced subsequently in Church history. Unitarian churches were formally established in Transylvania and Poland (by the Socinians) in the 16th Century. Michael Servetus, a Spanish proto-Unitarian, was burned at the stake in Geneva, in 1553.
Universalism started as a separate Christian heresy, with its own long history. It also can be traced deep into Christian past, beginning with the earliest Church scholars. Both Origen and St. Gregory of Nyssa preached its essentials. Universalism denies the doctrine of eternal damnation; instead, it proclaims a loving god who will redeem all souls. In 1793, Universalism emerged as a particular denomination in the United States, eventually called the Universalist Church of America.
In the United States, the Unitarian movement began primarily in the Congregational parish churches of New England. These churches, which may still be seen today in nearly every New England town square, trace their roots to the division of the Puritan colonies into parishes for the administration of their religious needs. Beginning in the late 18th century, a Unitarian movement began within some of these churches. As conflict grew between Unitarian and Trinitarian factions, Unitarians gained a key faculty position at Harvard in 1805. The dispute culminated in the foundation of the American Unitarian Association as a separate denomination in 1825.
After the schism, some of those churches remained within the Congregational fold, while others voted to become Unitarian. In the aftermath of their various historical circumstances, some of these churches became member congregations of the Congregational organization (later the United Church of Christ), others became Unitarian and eventually became part of the UUA. Universalist churches in contrast followed a different path, having begun as independent congregations beyond the bounds of the established Puritan churches entirely. Today, the UUA and the United Church of Christ cooperate jointly on quite a number of projects and social justice initiatives. In the 19th century, under the influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson (who had been a Unitarian minister) and other Transcendentalists, Unitarianism began its long journey from liberal Protestantism to its present more pluralist form.
Unitarians and Universalists often have had a great deal of common interests and communication between them; they have often been associated in the public's mind. That said, one observation made years ago about Unitarianism and Universalism to distinguish them, long before their consolidation, was that "Universalists believe that God is too good to condemn man, while Unitarians believe that man is too good to be condemned by God." Both Unitarianism and Universalism evolved over time into inclusive, tolerant religions. In 1961, the American Unitarian Association (AUA) was consolidated with the Universalist Church of America (UCA), thus forming the Unitarian Universalist Association. In the same year, the Canadian Unitarian Council (CUC) formed and became an arm of the UUA to service the needs and interest of Unitarian Universalists in Canada. The Unitarian Universalist Association was also given corporate status in May 1961 under special acts of legislature of The Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the State of New York. In 2002, the CUC split off from the UUA, although the two denominations maintain a close working relationship.
In 1995 the UUA helped establish the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU) to connect unitarian and universalist faith traditions around the world.
Worship and ritualEdit
As in theology, Unitarian Universalist worship and ritual are often a combination of elements derived from other faith traditions alongside original practices and symbols. In form, church services might be difficult to distinguish from a liberal Protestant church. In content, given the broad constituency of some UU congregations, those of more traditional faiths may be hard-pressed to find more than superficial commonalities with Unitarian Universalists.
The most common symbol of Unitarian Universalism is the flaming chalice, often framed by two overlapping rings that many interpret as representing Unitarianism and Universalism (the symbol has no official interpretation). The chalice itself has long been a symbol of liberal religion, and indeed liberal Christianity (the Disciples of Christ also use a chalice as their denomination symbol). The flaming chalice was initially the logo of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee during the Second World War. It was created by Austrian artist Hans Deutsch, inspired by "the kind of chalice which the Greeks and Romans put on their altars. The holy oil burning in it is a symbol of helpfulness and sacrifice."
Nevertheless, other interpretations have been suggested, such as the chalice used by the followers of Czech heretic Jan Hus, or its vague resemblance to a cross in some stylized representations. Most UU congregations light a chalice at the beginning of worship services. Other symbols include a slightly off-center cross within a circle (a Universalist symbol associated with the Humiliati movement in the 1950s, a group of reformist, liturgically minded clergy seeking to revive Universalism).
Other symbols include a pair of open hands releasing a dove.
Religious services are usually held on Sundays and most closely resemble the form and format of Protestant worship in the Reformed tradition. The vast majority of congregations have a lightly structured service centered on a sermon by a minister or lay leader of the congregation. Sermons may be on a wide range of topics, drawing from religious or cultural texts or from the personal experiences of the preacher.
The service also includes hymn-singing, accompanied by organ or piano, and possibly led by a song leader or choir. The most recent worship songbook published by the denomination, Singing the Journey Hymns typically sung in UU services come from a variety of sources - traditional hymn tunes with new or adapted lyrics, spirituals, folk songs from various cultures, or original compositions by Unitarian Universalist musicians are just a few. Instrumental music is also a common feature of the typical worship service, including preludes, offertory music, postludes, or music for contemplation.
Pastoral elements of the service may include a time for sharing Joys and Sorrows/Concerns, where individuals in the congregation are invited to light a candle (similar to the Catholic practice of lighting a votive candle) and/or say a few words about important events in their personal lives. Many UU services also include a time of meditation or prayer, led by the minister or service leader, both spoken and silent. Responsive readings and stories for children are also typical.
Many UU congregations no longer observe the Christian sacraments of baptism, communion, or confirmation, at least in their traditional forms or under their traditional names. Congregations that continue these practices under their more traditional names are often federated churches or members of the Council of Christian Churches Within the Unitarian Universalist Association (CCCUUA), or may have active chapters associated with the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship or similar covenant groups."Child dedications" often replace more traditional infant baptisms (though it should be noted that such "dedications" are sometimes practiced even in "orthodox" Christian communities that do not baptize infants for theological reasons). Annual celebrations of Water Communion and Flower Communion may replace or supplement Christian-style communion (though many pluralist and Christian-oriented congregations may celebrate or otherwise make provisions for communion on Christian holy days). Confirmation may be replaced by a "Coming of Age" program, in which teenagers explore their individual religious identity often developing their own credo. After they have completed exploring their spiritual beliefs, they write a speech about it which is then presented to a portion of the congregation.
Historically, Unitarian Universalists have often been active in political causes, notably the civil rights movement, the gay rights movement, the social justice movement, and the feminist movement. In the 19th century, Unitarians and Universalists were active in abolitionism, the women's movement, the temperance movement and other social reform movements. The second woman's rights convention was held at the First Unitarian church in Rochester, NY.
Susan B. Anthony, a Unitarian and Quaker, was extremely influential in the women's suffrage movement. Unitarian Universalists and Quakers still share many principles, notably that they are creedless religions with a long-standing commitment to social justice. It is therefore common to see Unitarian Universalists and Quakers working together.
UUs were and are still very involved in the fight to end racism in the United States. John Haynes Holmes, a minister and social activist at The Community Church of New York - Unitarian Universalist was among the founders of both the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), chairing the latter for a time. James J. Reeb, a minister at All Souls Church, Unitarian, in Washington, D.C. and a member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was clubbed in Selma, Alabama on March 8, 1965, and died two days later of massive head trauma. Two weeks after his death, Viola Liuzzo,a Unitarian Universalist civil rights activist, was murdered by white supremacists after her participation in the protest march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Reeb and approximately 20% of UU ministers marched with Martin Luther King in the three marches from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery. The Selma to Montgomery marches for voting rights are best known as Bloody Sunday, although technically that refers only to March 7, the most violent day of the three.
The current head of the Unitarian Universalist Association, Rev. William G. Sinkford, is African-American, making Unitarian Universalism one of the first traditionally white denominations to be headed by a member of a racial minority.
While political liberals make up a clear majority of Unitarian Universalists, the UU movement aspires to diversity, and officially welcomes congregants regardless of their political views. Politically conservative Unitarian Universalists point out that neither religious liberalism nor the Principles and Purposes of the UUA require liberal politics. Like the beliefs of Unitarian Universalists, politics are decided by individuals, not by congregations or the denomination.
Many congregations have undertaken a series of organizational and practical steps to be acknowledged as a "Welcoming Congregation," a congregation which has taken specific steps to welcome and integrate gay and lesbian members. UU ministers have been performing same-sex unions since at least the late 1960s, and now same-sex marriages where legal (and sometimes when not, as a form of civil protest). On June 29, 1984, the Unitarian Universalists became the first major church "to approve religious blessings on homosexual unions." Unitarian Universalists have been in the forefront of the civil rights work to make same-sex marriages legal in their local states and provinces, as well as on the national level. Gay men and lesbians are also regularly ordained as ministers. In May 2004, Arlington Street Church was the site of the first state-sanctioned same-sex marriage in the United States. The official stance of the UUA is for the legalization of same-sex marriage - "Standing on the Side of Love." In 2004 UU Minister Rev. Debra Haffner of The Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing published An Open Letter on Religious Leaders on Marriage Equality to affirm same-sex marriage from a multi-faith perspective.
Many congregations are heavily involved in projects and efforts aimed at supporting environmental causes and sustainability. These are often termed "seventh principle" activities because of the seventh principle quoted above.
- Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations
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