Unitarian Universalist Campus Community

Searching for truth, Supporting each other, Welcoming to all!

 

Frequently Asked Questions

 

by Marshall Hawkins and Alice Blair Wesley [adapted]  


I've heard that Unitarian Universalists can believe anything they want to. Is that true?

No. One could not be considered a Unitarian Universalist and believe that subscription to specific doctrines or creeds are necessary for access to God or spirituality or membership in our congregations.

Unitarian Universalists could not believe that God favors any group of people based on any inherent qualities, such as skin color, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability, etc.-or that any group of people is more worthy of access to opportunities than any other as a result of these qualities.

We don't believe that autocratic, undemocratic or overly hierarchical systems are appropriate methods of organizing our congregations or the larger society.

We don't believe that humanity has the right or moral authority to exploit the environment or other life forms with whom we share this planet.

 

What is the significance of the flaming chalice, the symbol of Unitarian Universalism?

The flaming chalice is made up of two archetypes—a drinking vessel and fire. It is rich in symbolism as a result. The chalice represents sharing, generosity, sustenance, and love, among other interpretations. The flame symbolizes witness, sacrifice, testing, courage, illumination and more.

The origin of the symbol comes from the Unitarian Service Committee. The USC was founded during World War II to assist war refugees who needed to escape Nazi persecution. Artist Hans Deutsch drew the flaming chalice in 1941 so that the USC could have it as a symbol for official documents.

The director of the USC, Charles Joy, wrote this about the symbol when it was first drafted:

"It represents, as you see, a chalice with a flame, the kind of chalice which the Greeks and Romans put on their alters. The holy oil burning in it is a symbol or helpfulness and sacrifice. . . . This was in the mind of the artist. The fact, however, that it remotely suggests a cross was not in his mind, but to me this also has its merit. We do not limit our work to Christians. Indeed, at the moment, our work is nine-tenths for the Jews, yet we do stem from the Christian tradition, and the cross does symbolize Christianity and its central theme of sacrificial love."

Today, the flaming chalice is the official symbol of the UUA. It also functions as the logo for hundreds of congregations. It is also a part of worship in many congregations -- services often begin by lighting a chalice while saying some brief reflective words.

There is no one official meaning of the flaming chalice. Like our faith, it stands open to new and ongoing interpretation and significance.

 

Since Unitarian Universalists don't have a creed or doctrine, how can one describe a set of beliefs that they hold in common?

One of our ministers, David O. Rankin, described our beliefs in ten statements. They are:

1. We believe in the freedom of religious expression. All individuals should be encouraged to develop their own personal theology, and to present openly their religious opinions without fear of censure or reprisal.

2. We believe in the toleration of religious ideas. All religions, in every age and culture, possess not only an intrinsic merit, but also a potential value for those who have learned the art of listening.

3. We believe in the authority of reason and conscience. The ultimate arbiter in religion is not a church, or a document, or an official, but the personal choice and decision of the individual.

4. We believe in the never-ending search for Truth. If the mind and heart are truly free and open, the revelations which appear to the human spirit are infinitely numerous, eternally fruitful, and wondrously exciting.

5. We believe in the unity of experience. There is no fundamental conflict between faith and knowledge, religion and the world, the sacred and the secular, since they all have their source in the same reality.

6. We believe in the worth and dignity of each human being. All people on earth have an equal claim to life, liberty and justice-and no idea, ideal or philosophy is superior to a single human life.

7. We believe in the ethical application of religion. Good works are the natural products of a good faith, the evidence of an inner grace that finds completion in social and community involvement.

8. We believe in the motive force of love. The governing principle in human relationships is the principle of love, which always seeks the welfare of others and never seeks to hurt or destroy.

9. We believe in the necessity of the democratic process. Records are open to scrutiny, elections are open to members, and ideas are open to criticism-so that people might govern themselves.

10. We believe in the importance of a religious community. The validation of experience requires the confirmation of peers, who provide a critical platform along with a network of mutual support.

 

What do UUs believe about God?

Some Unitarian Universalists are nontheists and do not find language about God useful. The faith of other Unitarian Universalists in God may be profound, though among these, too, talk of God may be restrained. Why?

The word God is much abused. Far too often, the word seems to refer to a kind of granddaddy in the sky or a super magician. To avoid confusion, many Unitarian Universalists are more apt to speak of "reverence for life" (in the words of Albert Schweitzer, a Unitarian), the spirit of love or truth, the holy, or the gracious. Many also prefer such language because it is inclusive; it is used with integrity by theist and nontheist members.

Whatever our theological persuasion, Unitarian Universalists generally agree that the fruits of religious belief matter more than beliefs about religion-even about God. So we usually speak more of the fruits: gratitude for blessings, worthy aspirations, the renewal of hope, and service on behalf of justice.

 

What about Jesus?

Classically, Unitarian Universalist Christians have understood Jesus as a savior because he was a God-filled human being, not a supernatural being. He was, and still is for many UUs, an exemplar, one who has shown the way of redemptive love, in whose spirit anyone may live generously and abundantly. Among us, Jesus' very human life and teaching have been understood as products of, and in line with, the great Jewish tradition of prophets and teachers. He neither broke with that tradition nor superseded it.

Many of us honor Jesus, and many of us honor other master teachers of past or present generations, like Moses or the Buddha. As a result, mixed-tradition families may find common ground in the UU fellowship without compromising other loyalties.

 

And about the Bible?

In most of our congregations, our children learn Bible stories as a part of their church school curricula. It is not unusual to find adult study groups in the churches, or in workshops at summer camps and conferences, focusing on the Bible. Allusions to biblical symbols and events are frequent in our sermons. In most of our congregations, the Bible is read as any other sacred text might be-from time to time, but not routinely.

We have especially cherished the prophetic books of the Bible. Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and other prophets dared to speak critical words of love to the powerful, calling for justice for the oppressed. Many Unitarian and Universalist social reformers have been inspired by the biblical prophets. We hallow the names of Unitarian and Universalist prophets: Joseph Tuckerman, Dorothea Dix, Clara Barton, Theodore Parker, Susan B. Anthony, and many others.

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 (or the newspaper)-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.

 

How do UUs understand salvation?

The English word salvation derives from the Latin salus, meaning health. Unitarian Universalists are as concerned with salvation, in the sense of spiritual health or wholeness, as any other religious people.

However, in many Western churches, salvation has come to be associated with a specific set of beliefs or a spiritual transformation of a very limited type.

Among Unitarian Universalists, instead of salvation you will hear of our yearning for, and our experience of, personal growth, increased wisdom, strength of character, and gifts of insight, understanding, inner and outer peace, courage, patience, and compassion. The ways in which these things come to, change, and heal us, are many indeed. We seek and celebrate them in our worship.

 

Are Unitarian Universalists Christian?

Yes and no.

Yes, some Unitarian Universalists are Christian. Personal encounter with the spirit of Jesus as the christ richly informs their religious lives.

No, Unitarian Universalists are not Christian, if by Christian you mean those who think that acceptance of any creedal belief whatsoever is necessary for salvation. Unitarian Universalist Christians are considered heretics by those orthodox Christians who claim none but Christians are "saved." (Fortunately, not all the orthodox make that claim.)

Yes, Unitarian Universalists are Christian in the sense that both Unitarian and Universalist history are part of Christian history. Our core principles and practices were first articulated and established by liberal Christians.

Some Unitarian Universalists are not Christian. For though they may acknowledge the Christian history of our faith, Christian stories and symbols are no longer primary for them. They draw their personal faith from many sources: nature, intuition, other cultures, science, civil liberation movements, and so on.

 

What ceremonies are observed, what holidays celebrated?

Our ceremonies-of marriage and starting a new family, naming or dedicating our children, and memorializing our dead-are phrased in simple, contemporary language. We observe these rites in community, not because they are required by some rule or dogma, but because in them we may voice our affection, hopes, and dedication.

Though practices vary in our congregations and change over time, UUs celebrate many of the great religious holidays with enthusiasm. Whether we gather to celebrate Christmas, Passover, or the Hindu holiday Divali, we do so in a universal context, recognizing and honoring religious observances and festivals as innate and needful in all human cultures.

 

Do Unitarian Universalists practice what they preach?

Religious liberals put less emphasis on formal beliefs and more on practical living. Our interest is in deeds, not creeds. We appreciate the biblical text, "Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only."

Our members have been active leaders in the struggles for racial equality, civil liberty, international peace, and equal rights for all people. We work as individuals, in congregational social action, and in other groupings, including such denominational efforts as the UUA's Faith in Action Department and the UU-UN Office. We also work with the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, which brings critically needed social change to many parts of the world.

 

What are your church services like?

The services vary from church to church. Most last about an hour. The centerpiece is usually a sermon delivered by the senior minister. The sermons are usually thematic and rarely follow a lectionary. Ministers often preach about universal themes of life, truth and meaning. They use stories, myths and poems, as well as scripture from a variety of world religions.

Services often begin with the lighting of the chalice-the symbol of Unitarian Universalism. Brief words of reflection are usually read as it is lit, inaugurating the start of the service.

We sing from our hymnal Singing the Living Tradition, which contains a wide range of traditional and contemporary songs, using gender-inclusive language. Many congregations have choirs.

Many congregations reserve a time in their services for lighting "Candles of Joy and Concern." Members are invited to come up from their pews and light a candle at the front of the church to honor an event in their lives, to share an idea, or to ask for the thoughts and prayers of the community.

After the service, most congregations sponsor "coffee hour"-a chance for people to socialize informally and to discuss the worship service.

 

How did the movement come to have such a long name?

In North America, Unitarianism and Universalism developed separately. Universalist congregations began to be established in the 1770s. Other congregations, many established earlier, began to take the Unitarian name in the 1820s. Over the decades the two groups converged in their liberal emphasis and style, and in 1961 they merged to become the Unitarian Universalist Association.

 

Where can one find Unitarian Universalist congregations now?

More than one thousand congregations in the United States and Canada belong to the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) of Congregations, with headquarters in Boston, Massachusetts.

The oldest Unitarian congregations are in Romania. There are large Unitarian congregations in the Khasi Hills of India. Others are found in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland, Germany, France, Great Britain, Australia, Nigeria, South Africa, the Philippines, and Japan. (Some of these are Unitarian and some are Universalist.)

North American Unitarian Universalists maintain ties with other Unitarian Universalists throughout the world, mostly through our membership in the International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF) and the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU). Members of the ICUU include Unitarians Universalists from all around the world, while IARF also includes liberal Christian groups, Humanist, Hindu Reform, Shinto and Buddhist groups.

 

Click here for more complete questions and answers.

 

Return to Main Page