Happy 50th: Not a New Religion, But a New Approach to Religion, Association Sunday 50th Anniversary of Merger, Rev. Arthur G. Severance

Start Date

We�ll start with a group process joke. How many Unitarian Universalists does it take to change a light bulb? I�ll take answers from the floor..., give you mine, have time for exhaustive discussion, then we�ll vote on the one we like the best and it will go in the bylaws.  Let�s start with yours-  Mine is �Are we sure the light bulb WANTS to change? Or should WE be the ones to change?�

            Actually I hate to disappoint you, but we�re not really going to vote, though yours were good, and it would probably be a good idea to have an official church �How many UUs does it take to change a light bulb joke.� Indeed, it sometimes seems like we have to vote on almost everything, doesn�t it?  Including our theology. Let�s vote on what we believe, and not only that, but you can believe on more than one contradictory thing at a time, actually making the survey meaningless! 

I still like the survey that I found somewhere that said something like 40% of all atheists pray daily. Huh? I�ve told you before that when I was in the search process 20 years ago, ministers had only three choices of beliefs; we had to check one of three boxes to describe our ministry, our theological stance-Humanist, Theist, or Christian. That was it. Your only choices. That was before computers, or at least before the search process was on computers. Now, having only those three choices would make most of our heads explode! We all now have to write at least a page of explanation how in some ways and on some days we�re probably a little of all three with some earth centered Buddhism thrown in perhaps.

            When I was in Seminary back in the mid 80s I had come out of a very strongly humanist lay led fellowship and I knew I was humanist, but I couldn�t really explain my theology very well. I didn�t have to. 

�Whatever,� seemed to be an acceptable theological stance to most people there, like people were afraid to challenge you. And going to a United Church of Christ Seminary, since it was close enough to commute to, I was allowed to get away with what I now know was a sloppy theology because whatever I answered, most non-UUs figured must be that mystical UU stuff that they weren�t supposed to understand anyway.

            But when I did my Clinical Pastoral Education, my Chaplaincy training, where the supervisor was a Roman Catholic nun, I suddenly had a problem: I had to help her understand a true UU theology, not one that she had to agree with, not one that even all UUs had to agree with, but that was an understandable one to all people! When I had trouble getting her to understand, I thought it was her fault, because she was, after all, a Catholic nun! But by the following year I went before our Ministerial Fellowship Committee and had the same problem with my own folks-they didn�t understand either. That meant it was MY fault! My internship was partly about discovering words to describe my theology.

            Why do I tell you all this? Because this is Association Sunday and we celebrate our 50th Anniversary of the merger between the Unitarians and the Universalists in 1961. We continue to have debates to this day whether we are a new religion or, what I call, a new approach to religion, and as you can tell, I think we are a new approach to religion. And we are such a new approach, many of us still don�t know our own theology, but that�s one of the new approaches, though it�s also as old as religion itself, just more honest!

            One of the incredible differences, and notice in the word incredible is the root of the word, creed, IS that we don�t have to all believe the same thing, and especially we don�t have to SAY we do! Doubt is OK, even expected. I think we had a bumper sticker that said, �When in Doubt, Pray, When in Prayer, Doubt.�

            Being too sure is almost a form of idolatry. Doubt is seeking, and isn�t that what Jesus said to do? There�s nothing wrong with faith, mind you, but from the very earliest, our heritage has always insisted on mixing in reason with religion.

            According to historian Russell E, Miller, in his book, The Larger Hope, The First Century of the Universalist Church in America, 1770-1870, (The Universalist paper,) �The Christian Inquirer� devoted an article in 1857 to relations between Universalists and Unitarians....the author deplored the mutual distrust and recrimination? that seemed to exist between the two...After all, the two groups were both �branches of the one tree of Liberal Christianity.� Universalism was �more the child of the heart� the first appeared among scholars, learned men, and the �aristocratic classes of society,� while Universalism was �the offspring of the people at large, and deeply rooted in the democratic elements of the community...� but regardless of the differences- or possibly because of them---they complimented rather than competed with each other. Both had a mission �to uphold a new and better Church, the Church of the New World...� In short, �head and heart� ought to work together....�

            Though both denominations originated primarily in Massachusetts, they were very different in class, education and even theology, though both were considered early Christian heresies and liberal. The Unitarians rejected the doctrine of the Trinity and saw Jesus as primarily human, but also rejecting Calvinism and predestination like the Universalist with their idea of a loving God who would not condemn anyone to hell but would have Universal Salvation.

            Starr King was originally a promising young Universalist minister who became a Unitarian minister just before the civil war, sent West to California, he saved California for the Union it was said and though he died young became so famous that Starr King Seminary in Berkeley is named for him as are Mountains in California and New Hampshire. To him goes the famous quote on the difference between the Universalist and the  Unitarians: �The Universalist believes that God is too good to damn us forever; and you Unitarians believe that you are too good to be damned.�

            Unitarianism had a profound influence on the formation of this country and, truth be told, we are more of a Unitarian country than we are a Christian county- because most of our founding fathers would NOT be considered Christians by today's conservative Christians, at least.  Most were avowed Unitarians and many were what we might call Unitarians without knowing it. We know that John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Ethan Allen, Paul Revere, John Quincy Adams, were Unitarians and many others who considered themselves Deists, a theology that is close to being humanist, it believed in a God that created the world and then let it go and had nothing more to do with it, like a watchmaker with his watch. Almost by definition, you see, a Deist is also a Unitarian, not believing that Jesus is the same as God. Jefferson thought Unitarianism was such an enlightened way of approaching religion that he wrote in a letter that he thought every young man would surely be one in the next generation!  Indeed he almost lost the election because his opponent branded him an atheist! He also became known for the Jefferson Bible, which we might call the UU Bible, actually the New Testament, where he went through and clipped out the supernatural parts and just left in the teachings of Jesus. I often say that we believe in the teachings OF Jesus, but not in the teachings ABOUT Jesus, or we believe only in Jesus� first name, but not the last one!

            Both denominations tended to draw people who didn�t believe in traditional doctrines, but even more importantly found a sense of community within our two traditions because of their use of nontraditional resources and readings. The class and education differences seemed to begin to lessen in the 20th century and both became predominantly humanist, though Universalism less so. By the merger, however, the majority clearly were. Those who designated themselves Christians were a distinct minority of about 13% and probably mostly in Massachusetts.

            David Robinson in his book, The Unitarian and the Universalists, wrote, �When the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America completed their merger in 1961, a new denomination was born, the Unitarian Universalist Association. Although there was much continuity between the old organizations and the new one in the merger, there was also a definite departure from the unique identities that both the Unitarians and the Universalists had developed in America since the 18th century. The fact of this merger...indicates the shared values of the two groups. The  history of Unitarianism and Universalism in America reveals the distinctiveness of the two movements. If they shared many liberal values, they also found different ways to express and embody those values and different groups to whom their liberal message appealed. The different sources of the stream of liberal religion should be kept in mind, for in that diversity there is a richness that needs to be remembered.�

When the Unitarian Universalist Association was formed in 1961, the principles to which it was dedicated were these:

�Support the free and disciplined search for truth as the foundation of religious fellowship. 

Cherish and spread the universal truths taught by the great prophets and teachers of humanity in every age and tradition, immemorially summarized in the Judeo-Christian heritage as love to God and love to humankind;

Affirm, defend, and promote the supreme worth and dignity of every human personality, and the use of the democratic method in human relationships;

Implement the vision of one world by striving for a world community founded on ideals of brotherhood [sic], justice, and peace.� (UUA bylaws)

There were FOUR UNITARIAN UNIVERSALIST FAITH STANCES according to Robinson, in The Unitarians and the Universalists;

Humanism-Turning away from a focus on �God� and building a faith in human abilities and ideals to establish a better life in a more humane world.

Theism-Questing for the divine, as expressed in many different religious traditions, and developing a faith in God or the creative life-force, enabling us to open ourselves to spiritual transformation.

Liberal Christianity-Finding unique spiritual power in the ministry of Jesus, and embracing a commitment to follow him, while reappraising the Gospel through the insights of modern culture.

Mystical Spirituality-Disciplined effort to awaken to the sacred oneness or reality, both within and beyond ourselves, thus bringing balance and wholeness to personal life and the social order.

            It should not be thought, however, that you had to choose only one of these and stick to it, or that you had to find a church that practiced only one of these. People might know whether or not they believed in God, for instance, but even then, they might want to know which God are we talking about? Is an atheist and a humanist the same thing? And how about a UU authority? I use to kid about the Humanist police checking credentials to make sure that ministers were humanist ENOUGH some years ago!  The old Humanist -Theist controversy primarily among Unitarian clergy in the early to mid 20th century before the merger which seemed to evolve ironically into the humanist- spirituality debate of the late 20th century, and those of us who call ourselves mystical humanists are often suspect from those we consider the ultra rationalist humanists! We try to walk together none the less.

            The merger, in many ways, was an attempt to merge the heart and the mind, as much of a stereotype as that is. Rev. Christopher Gist Raible, said, quoted in Millers, The Larger Hope: �Some feared, with the 1961 merger with the then larger Unitarians, that Universalism would die...But Universalism did not die. Its teachings of love, leavened the loaf of American Protestantism. Its institutions of education and service enlightened many persons and communities. Its churches and denominational agencies strengthened the new Unitarian Universalist Association...Universalism lives in the hearts and minds not only of old time members but also of Unitarians who with merger adopted its traditions, and of thousands who have joined since 1961. Unitarian Universalist is too long a label and thus is often abbreviated �UU� or simply Unitarian�, but its contemporary religious expressions are warmer, more inclusive, more hopeful, more universalistic than is readily recognized.�

            I experienced Universalism early in my ministry. Though the fellowship I discovered UUism in was called Buxmont Unitarian Fellowship, having started out in the Unitarian Fellowship movement of the late 1940s and early 50s, it was very UU when we joined. But it was in a converted barn, lay led, intellectual, and very humanist.  It had Sunday morning programs, not worship services, and visiting ministers gave talks or presentations, they didn�t �preach� and what they didn�t preach weren�t called �sermons.� But when I started seminary, I had  a chance to fill in at a small UU church whose minister had just left and who couldn�t afford an interim. They hired me to preach a sermon twice a month from September to December to see how it worked out. If things went well, we�d continue until June. They did, and actually, we went another year after their candidate turned them down and they went back into search.  It was originally an old Universalist church in Reading, PA, a factory town. It was Gothic style, stone and oak, with a huge stain glass Jesus the good shepherd window and an old oak communion alter that had carved on the front, �God is Love.� I loved that church and its people; I felt like I was in my old Congregational church in NH, except that now my religion made sense to me, and of course I was the one preaching!

            It was not a new religion; after all, there was Jesus, right there in the window! God was carved into the communion table, and the inside of the church sure as hell looked like a real church, if you�ll pardon the pun.  My brother likes to tell a story, as a matter of fact, about the time I was there, he was delivering propane gas to summer customers on the lake in NH, and one older woman said she was from Reading, PA. My brother, trying to be friendly said that he had a brother who was minister there, and she asked which church. He said, �The Unitarian Church.� She said, dismissively, �Oh, that�s not a REAL church!� As my brother used to like to continue, looking at me; �I guess that means you�re not a REAL minister!�

            Well, we ARE a REAL church and I AM a REAL minister and what we practice is REAL religion! We don�t all believe the same thing about God, for instance, but I would bet the farm that given truth serum neither does the congregation of ANY church Protestant OR Catholic!  One of the differences is that we don�t have to fake it! I would hazard an educated guess that for most of us religious behavior is more important that what we say we religiously believe.

In 1995, five hundred UU ministers, almost half of our current number, gathered in Hot Springs, Arkansas in a convocation to explore the theological center of our movement. Is there anything we can all agree on? Even, or perhaps especially among ministers the discussions were long and sometimes heated, but we went through a process together and finally came up with a statement, the Covenant of the 1995 UUMA Convocation:  "In the midst of mystery And the enduring presence of religious community, The creative power of transforming love, Engages us in the beauty and tragedy of life To awaken compassion, call us to justice, And invite us to live in harmony with the earth.

In light of our commitment to our Unitarian Universalist faith and our responsibility to our colleagues, congregation and the world: We covenant to affirm that at the heart of our faith is a profound sense of the holy and a critical trust in the power of reason. We lift up this universal religious experience, while respecting our different religious languages and symbols, in worship, religious education, fellowship, and service."

            This was not a new religion, but a respect for a new approach to religion, one with respect for religious diversity in �our different religious languages and symbols, in worship, religious education, fellowship, and service.� And especially crucial��the enduring presence of religious community, the creative power of transforming love.�

            Dana Greeley, the last president of the AUA and first President of the UUA wrote in his book, The Free Church in a Changing World, in 1963: �Liberal religion is not an institution; it is a movement in history, a set of values, and a way of life. More important than the merger of two denominations is the quickening of the principles for which they exist...We believe in change and growth. We must be honest enough to detect our weaknesses, and be brave enough to assert and develop our strengths. If we have faith in the future, we must be convinced that our great heritage is insignificant in comparison with the role of liberal religion for tomorrow. Without vision we would perish, and that role would be realized by others instead. But with vision, and a commensurate commitment, our own efforts may prove worthy of the promise of yesterday.�

            Vision, change, and growth are three key concepts of both personal and congregation religious dimensions along with covenanting together to love one another on how we walk together by how we will behave together, how we will worship together, yea, even how we will financially support the life of this movement together.

            Our new UUA president, Peter Morales, a good friend of mine from one of our fastest growing churches in Colorado and whose father was a member of the church I served in San Antonio, writes; �The true challenges before us are spiritual. The first great test for us is whether we are willing to let go of those things in the past that no longer serve us. We must learn to �do church� and our associational life in new ways. Change can be hard. The familiar is comfortable. In the coming months and years we must remind ourselves that we are the spiritual heirs of people who were willing to leave the past behind in order to embrace the future. We must not let the fear paralyze us.

            The second great spiritual test for us is relational. Can we open our hearts, our lives, our doors, and our congregations to the millions of seekers looking for a religious home? Ultimately, the test is whether there is enough love in our hearts. Love reaches out. Love is vulnerable, We must dare to love.�

Amen, Peace, Shalom, (Peace in Hebrew), Assalaamu Alaikum (may Peace be upon you in Arabic), Abrazos a todos (Hugs all around) Namaste, (A Hindu greeting the divinity with me greets  the divinity within you) Blessed Be, and one more blessing that I adapted from the Spanish long before I went in to ministry. �Vaya con Dios� is Spanish for Good-bye, but literally is �Go with God,� So I adapted it to say �Vaya Con Su Dios,� �Go with your idea or interpretation of God.�

Peace, Love, Shalom, Salaam, Blessed Be, Namaste, Abrazo a Todos,Vaya con su Dios

Event type
Worship Service