Unitarian Universalism: Radicalism vs Liberalism?

by Elias Blum

Do you believe in God? What’s your religion? Do you go to church? Are you saved?

When I first started identifying as a Unitarian Universalist, in my early 20s, these questions used to phase me. I’d get flustered. The problem is that, for a Unitarian Universalist, these questions have no answers that are simultaneously brief and accurate. Any brief answer is likely to lead to a mess of incomprehension. Any accurate answer will necessarily take time to explain. I was afraid of being misunderstood and then put into the wrong category: labelled by atheists as a religious nutcase, or excluded by Christians from being part of their special holy club.

So now I respond to these questions with another question: “Do you want the three second answer, the three minute answer, or the three hour answer?”

The three-second answer is this: “Kinda. I’m a practicing Christian, but very liberal – not one of those scary fundamentalist ones”. Then, one hopes, in the absence of any tricky supplementary questions, the subject can be changed back to something more tangible.

But there always are supplementaries. No one asks these sorts of questions unless they care passionately about the answers. And, whether the interlocutor is an Atheist or an Evangelical Christian, this wishy-washy answer is never the one they are hoping for.

So the next step is to move to the three minute answer. This involves explaining that I am a Unitarian and a Universalist. That I belong to a liberal, progressive, non-creedal religious tradition that comes out of the radical reformation. That I have experienced the transforming, loving, power of the Holy Spirit, but I do not believe in a personal Man-in-the-Sky God. That I am inspired by the ethical teachings and moral example of Jesus of Nazareth, but that I understand Jesus to be a radical martyred prophet, not a divine Son-of-God. That I am immersed in the mythology, legend, history, poetry and prophecy of the Scriptures, but that I believe that the Scriptures are ultimately a product of human experience, and neither inerrant or necessarily authoritative.

By this point, if the questioner is an atheist, I have usually been consigned to the loony-bin of ‘religious insanity’, dismissed as a bible-basher, told to read ‘The God Delusion’, and given six examples of why religion is evil. If they are a Christian of more orthodox or evangelical views, they are already stoking the fires of hell to make way for my obviously unsaved soul, and quoting bible verses as if they were hammers.

Resolving this usually requires a bottle of red wine and plenty of oatcakes and cheese. Three hours is barely enough to get to the bottom of it. The aim is not necessarily to reach a point of agreement, but simply to reach a point of comprehension.

This is where, on reflection, the parallels between conversations with atheists and conversations with evangelical Christians become very illuminating. In both cases, the challenge is the same: to convince them that not all Christians are necessarily ‘crazy fundamentalist bible-bashers’ (as the atheist might put it), nor ‘bible-believers saved from the hellish consequences of Adam’s fall by the perfect atoning blood sacrifice of Jesus, the Son of God’ (as the evangelical might put it).

Essentially, the discussion devolves into an argument about what ‘Christian’ means, and whether a Unitarian Universalist, who would claim to follow the human Jesus rather than to believe in the theology of Paul or Augustine, can call themselves a Christian. We are back to labels, to ‘in’ and ‘out’, to defining the boundaries.

I find it fascinating, and somewhat troubling, that the same discussion takes place within the Unitarian Universalist movement. Who are we? What do we stand for? What, if any, are our boundaries?

The Unitarian Universalist community is split in half on this. For some, including myself, we have (and should retain) a Christian identity. We are, in accordance with our tradition and origins, the radical left wing of the Jesus-following movement, committed to a transforming gospel of love and salvation. Others welcome the transformation of Unitarian Universalism into a post-Christian, syncretic, ‘New Age’ religious movement, where Jesus is put on the same level as magic stones, pagan chanting, and ill-understood fragments of Buddhism, in a religion of personal well-being.

Our understanding of ourselves will shape our motivation and all our activities. Ultimately, it comes down to the question of what our Unitarian Universalist Church, Fellowship or Meeting is actually for. Does it exist to build the Kingdom of God and to declare the Year of the Lords’ Favour through a mission of social justice and preaching against the greed, violence and oppression of what might be called the ‘Kingdom of Darkness?’ Are we trying to tear down the imperial rule of ‘Babylon’ and build the ‘New Jerusalem’ of ‘tikkun’ (repairing the world) and ‘shalom’ (righteous peace)? Are we trying reach the lost and edify the saints? Or is it just a hobby? Are we just in it to salve our post-modern existential anxieties with the help of a bit of nice-sounding, inoffensive ‘spiritual-but-not-religious’ dabbling?

At the root of this identity crisis within Unitarian Universalism is an unresolved tension between liberalism and radicalism.

Liberalism in religion – a commitment to orthopraxy (right living) over orthodoxy (right belief), and to the critical application of reason in matters of religion – is one of the great inheritances of the Unitarian and Universalist movement. The Jesus whom we have followed, according to the gospel accounts, did not bind people to articles of faith, or lay down creeds, or tie people in knots over matters of Old Testament law. He saw the bigger picture: that Love fulfils the law, that the sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath, that ritualism and legalism poison and corrupt the heart of religion, which should be to live well, or, as he put it in the Great Commandment, to love the divine and to love others.

Moreover, just as Unitarian-Universalists’ deep commitment to democracy stems from the spiritual principle that the Holy Spirit lives and moves and breathes within us all, so likewise our commitment to liberalism and freedom of conscience stem from the spiritual principle that no one person has all the answers. We affirm that truth does not appear as once-and-for-all dictation, but emerges from a discursive processes, informed by evolving experience. We see this evolution within the Bible, from the brittle legalism of Leviticus to the social justice prophecy of Amos and Micah. We see it in the extra-biblical development of theology, as insights from science and nature cause us to have a better understanding of reality, and invite us to re-examine our believes in the light of superior knowledge to that possessed by the authors of scripture.   We take seriously the injunction to ‘test all things, and hold fast to that which is good’.

But liberalism is not, and cannot be, an end in itself. Testing all things does not mean accepting all things. A free and responsible search for truth is a mandate for ’empirical theology’: not a license to believe and do what one likes, but an obligation to think clearly and critically, and with a sincere spirit to follow truth where the reasonable examination of the best available evidence leads.

While theological empiricism, and liberal, rational, critical approach to religion, should rightly lead us to reject many of the claims made about Jesus as the mythological inventions of a superstitious age, the heart of Unitarian Universalist Christianity is the belief that the evidence leads us to find truth, salvation, hope and purpose in the radical teachings and the moral example of Jesus of Nazareth.

I believe that Jesus called us to live out that  radical Way, to transform ourselves and the world around us, to build ‘Kingdom of God’, ‘Loves Dominion’, or the ‘Beloved Community’. It is a call not just to personal salvation, but to joining in the work of profound social, economic and political change, to ending systems of oppression, to bringing good news to the poor, binding up the broken hearted, setting the captives free, and making real all the promises of Isaiah 61, of the Magnificat and of the Beatitudes. That is the core of the Gospel: all else is cultural packing, irrelevance, idle speculation, or the corrupt imposition of priestly guile, preached-up by tithing pulpit-squatters for the enslaving of the people, and for the diminishment rather than enhancement of the Gospel.

The question is whether such a radical gospel can be preached and practiced within the Unitarian-Universalist movement. Can radicalism and liberalism be held together in a creative tension, or has it gone to the point where the radicalism of Jesus is too ‘offensive’, and where liberalism has slipped into a lazy lack of intellectual and moral discrimination? In the eyes of evangelicals and creedalists, Unitarian-Universalism has always been dangerously heretical. We are comfortable with that. We are a people who can live with questions and uncertainties. But has it slipped from critical, radical ‘heresy’ to outright apostasy?

The Unitarian Universalist Association in the United States has become almost wholly the latter – it has largely abandoned the centrality of Jesus in favour of becoming a new age syncretic religion, whose only absolute standard is that there are no absolute standards. The General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches – the governing body of Unitarians and Universalist congregations in the UK – contains more variety, although the general trend (anecdotally, in my personal experience) is for congregations to move further and further away from identifying with Jesus to avoid upsetting those who would identify as pagans, atheists or Buddhists within our ranks.

My plea is not for boundaries. We do not need a creed or a statement of faith, and certainly not one that becomes a idolatrous totem or a test of fellowship. We are Unitarians and Universalists because we refuse to leave our conscience at the door, and we could never recite or sign binding statements of that nature. Instead of boundaries, this is a plea for a centre. Not a marker of who is in or out, but a beacon of the common direction to which we are, from our different perspectives, heading. I know this sounds dangerously radical (and perhaps a little too illiberal for some) but I believe that we should re-assert the centrality of Jesus within Unitarian Universalist congregations. Of course we should not worship Jesus. Of course we should not repeat the mistake of the early church in deifying their martyred prophet and founder. But we should make the teaching of Jesus the centre of our teaching, the mission of Jesus the centre of our mission, the Way of Jesus the centre of our way, the passion of Jesus for the Kingdom of God the centre of our passion for its realisation.

This general affirmation of the centrality of Jesus (however and in whatever form of words it is adopted) should reinforce, and not detract from, our distinctly liberal, rational and inclusive faith. It should acknowledge that there is no monopoly of truth, and the same Holy Spirit that was in Jesus might also be found in all of humanity’s honest strivings for the Good. It should embrace freedom of conscience and not require uniformity of belief. Yet it should unequivocally put God at the top, put Jesus at the centre, and put the practical work of the church as a radical and restorative social movement at the foundation, of everything we do.

It might not be possible to do this. Unitarian and Universalist congregations are mostly small, elderly and struggling. The refining fire that was in the movement in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (when it did preach and live out the radical teaching of Jesus) died out in the twentieth, and now we see only smouldering embers. In practical terms, getting the bums on seats is necessary if we are to repair the old roof, so we don’t want to scare the moon-worshippers and the rune-scryers away.  If this is the case, then I see no case for remaining within the existing denominational structures. Our beautiful old Unitarian meeting houses going back to 1662 should be abandoned, and we should set up independent congregations and house churches (perhaps under the aegis of the Progressive Christian Alliance) that will be committed to the radical message and transforming work of the Gospel.