Wednesday, March 16, 2011

What Is a Unitarian?

This Sunday, I and my family are heading south to participate in a service of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Mankato. We have a Muslim foreign exchange student named Farzad living with us until June. Although church attendance is generally considered strictly voluntary in our household, I informed our student that this excursion was required. Why? Because I feel one of our duties as foreign exchange hosts is to give our exchange student some opportunities to learn about different cultures and also to learn something about American history. When we were visiting family in Iowa for Christmas, he was also required to come with us to a Christmas Eve service at the conservative Evangelical Church Göran's step-dad has been attending lately. I felt that the UU Fellowship would expose him to yet another unique religious perspective in America, and I also wanted to take him to see the Buffalo Monument, and educate him a little bit about Native American history as well.

Farzad was born in Afghanistan. His family spent a few years in Iran and they are currently living in Finland. So when Farzad asked me to explain exactly what a UU was, I found myself a bit at a loss. How do you answer that question for someone who has almost no context for understanding American religion? As it is, I've struggled to explain Mormonism to him in terms that might be meaningful to him. The temptation is always to tell too much, or to start with details that -- while significant to you personally -- have no meaning for someone who still has some pretty distorted notions of what Christianity is. And I had to do it in fairly simple English. This is harder than it sounds, folks!

My best stab at it was to ask him if he was familiar with the Christian concept of the Trinity. "No," he said, "What's that?"

"That's this notion that God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit are all Gods, and that they are one God," I explained.

"Oh, yeah, yeah," he said. I wasn't completely sure he had the faintest idea of what the Trinity was, but I didn't doubt that he'd at least heard of it.

"OK," I said. "Unitarians believe there is only one God who is above all things." (That was my best stab at including the notion of transcendence in my explanation of the Unitarian notion of God.)

His eyes lit up, and he nodded. "Oh, OK!" he said. I could tell that, as a believing Muslim, he approved.

"OK," I said, feeling I was getting somewhere. "The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship is also known for being a very liberal church."

"What does this mean, 'liberal'?" he asked.

I was surprised, but not surprised, at having to explain this to an Afghan Muslim 18-year-old! I really, honestly found myself at a loss having to explain this from scratch. Sometimes it's the most basic terms -- the ones we take for granted the most -- that we have the hardest time explaining. This was turning out to be a good exercise for me!

"They believe that free thought and free expression is very important. They also believe that the church should be about striving for social equality. They are against racism. They believe in equality for women and for gays and lesbians. There are lots of gay people who are members of this congregation. And they believe in helping the poor."

"Oh," said Farzad, "They are very good people then."

"Yes," I said, "They are very good people." I was satisfied that this was the take-away point.

I could tell he was anxious to play the FIFA World Cup Soccer video game we gave him for Christmas, so I figured the Unitarianism 101 lesson was over. He'll hopefully learn more when we actually go there on Sunday!

Did I do a good job? I don't know. How would you explain it?


  1. Hi John,
    This is what the UUA (Unitarian-Univesalist Association) says:
    Unitarian Universalism is a liberal religion with Jewish-Christian roots. It has no creed. It affirms the worth of human beings, advocates freedom of belief and the search for advancing truth, and tries to provide a warm, open, supportive community for people who believe that ethical living is the supreme witness of religion.

    When I speak to individuals about Unitarian Universalism I tell them that we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all people and that we are born as redeemers free of sin. We welcome people who come from many faith journeys and look to many texts (including the Bible) for meaning and what is sacred. This may include a Maya Angelo poem or a Rumi. We believe in the journey vs the destination so we strive to live each day with our values and faith in mind. The deeds we do today matter today. I think you hit on that with your description.

    A word of caution is that since we are not hierarchical or creedal there is a great variety in worship experiences or beliefs. We are an umbrella denomination with unique raindrops (UUs) and different puddles (churches/fellowships). It creates tensions some times for theists and atheists alike but ultimately, I believe it is a beautiful

  2. Yes, I was trying to communicate something along those lines... This is classic "liberal" faith: freedom of individual conscience, ethical living emphasized over creeds...

    In the UU faith tradition, members of the same community could have radically different beliefs. For folks -- like our exchange student -- who come from religious backgrounds where all adherents of the religion have similar beliefs, this can be a fairly difficult concept!

  3. Religious community is too valuable a commodity to be shared only with those who are “religious” in the traditional sense. This is what many Unitarian Universalists have come to understand. The community is more valuable than the creed.

    Coming from my Catholic background, I couldn’t understand this at first, either.

    “But what do you believe?” I asked.

    It doesn’t matter. UU’s extend the hand of fellowship to all who are heavy laden. We feel your pain. Our humanity is our common bond.

    The religious community we build is a two-way street. Sometimes it fails miserably and devolves into a private club. But often it succeeds beyond our wildest dreams.

    Rep. Keith Ellison, speaking recently at the Creating Change conference, shared a message of respect and justice that was in essence a Unitarian sermon.

    And he’s a Muslim.

    If you’ve got something to say, UU’s will usually listen.

    Whether we agree on anything is another question.

  4. A.J. - Don't I know it...! The reason we're going to the UU Fellowship of Mankato is so I can preach. I am an excommunicated but believing Mormon, and my text is coming from the Book of Mormon. This is the second time I will have preached there in the last couple of years, so they knew what they were getting into, but they still want to have me!

    At any rate, that alone speaks volumes about the values of this particular community.