What is Unitarian Universalism?

That's the question many Knoxvillians were asking last week—here's the short answer

Q: Why did the Unitarian Universalist cross the road?

A: To support the chicken in its quest to find its own path.

That's a little in-joke, of course, but it points to an essential truth about Unitarian Universalism: There is no essential truth.

Or, perhaps it would be better to say that there are many truths, none of which are essential. Unitarian Universalism is a faithless faith of sorts, one that requires of its members only that they be open to a rational examination of spiritual life, a commitment to social justice, and a belief in the inherent goodness of human nature. "Unitarian Universalists have no creed—we don't require our members to pledge allegiance to any one idea," says Miriam Levering, Ph.D., a professor of religious studies at the University of Tennessee and member of Knoxville's Westside Unitarian Universalist Church. "What we believe is that all our members have the right to believe what they want. Our main source of inspiration is our own direct experience of transcendent mystery and wonder."

Unitarian Universalism is a thoroughly modern religion; it was founded in 1961 when the Unitarian and Universalist churches merged. Both traditions had roots in early American Christianity, evolving in the 18th century out of the reform-oriented Congregationalist Churches brought to the country by the pilgrims themselves. Universalism held that salvation is for everyone, and hell is for no one, reasoning that a loving God would never condemn anyone to eternal damnation. Unitarianism was founded on the belief that God is one, that each person has direct access to the divine, and that no one was born into a state of depravity (aka Original Sin). Add those two ideas together, and you get today's Unitarian Universalists, who see Jesus as an enlightened spiritual teacher, not as the literal son of God. They do not believe in the holy trinity, and reject the Nicene Creed.

"That's a big difference with most of the Christian churches in this area," Levering notes. "Many Christians feel that it's impossible to be good without salvation based on faith in Jesus. They think the only thing you can do to help a person is to bring them to Christ. Unitarians believe that through intellect and belief in a higher power, anyone can return to essential goodness. You get there on your own, with help from your community."

UUs may identify themselves as Christians... or not. Ruth Horton has been a member of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church for over 20 years. Having held several leadership positions (including president of the congregation), she frequently teaches classes for newcomers to the church—and lets them know that all backgrounds and all ideas are most welcome.

"I was not raised a UU; I'm actually a Jewish UU," Horton explains. "I tell people I didn't leave my old faith, I brought it with me. There is no conflict. Unitarian Universalism is very much an opening of the mind and an opening of faith. On any given Sunday, you might find the speaker at our pulpit talking about Buddhism, Islam, or Judeo-Christian ideas, or they might be talking about the wisdom of The Simpsons or Star Trek. We look far and wide for sources of inspiration and truth."

The church is decidedly liberal, Horton says, in the best sense of the word. "We believe strongly in social action—not just talking about social issues but doing something about them," she says. "Our church was very active in the Civil Rights movement. We were very involved in the emancipation of women, and in fact ordained the first female minister in America. We actively protest the war in Iraq—every Sunday morning, you'll see us at the corner of Concord and Kingston Pike holding signs asking for peace. After 9/11, our minister was the first to reach out to the Muslim community here to say, ‘What can we do to keep you safe?' We knew that what happened was not what they believed."

Of more newsworthy note, the church has also provided a safe haven for those who are lesbian, gay, and transgendered, particularly teenagers who can meet weekly at the Spectrum Café, Horton explains. "We knew it would be controversial, but we made a conscious decision to be a welcoming place for lesbians, gays, and transgendered individuals. We educated ourselves about the gay community, and learned about ways in which we might be discriminatory. We've done the work, and know what it means to not draw differences between a man holding a woman's hand and a man holding a man's hand."

Because its cosmology is so vast and open-ended, there are no easy answers for why it happened that an angry man came here one Sunday and started shooting. "We don't think it happened because we did anything wrong," Horton says. "We don't believe in retribution. We are working to understand what motivated the individual. We feel tremendous sympathy for a man who was so damaged by society, by the world, that he was driven to do something like that. Of course we're angry, but we feel very sad for him. This person was not able to get what he needed as a human being. His inherent worth and dignity was not honored. He was not nurtured—otherwise, how could he have done what he did?"

Figuring out what it means will be the work of the church this year, Horton says. "The church will seek to find compassion for this person."

Levering puts it another way: "We aren't going to hate him, we are going to love him. This isn't easy, and won't be accomplished in one day. But nothing good comes out of denying love to someone. He's just like us; we've all felt angry and frustrated and victimized—just like he did."