Unitarian Universalism-Part 1
|By: Dr. John Ankerberg and Dr. John Weldon; ©2006|
|In the United States and Canada there are over 1,000 Unitarian Universalist (UU) churches within the parent organization, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). The UUA is strongly committed to theological liberalism, religious pluralism, “free-thinking” in all areas and radical social action. This month we begin a short overview of their practices and teachings.|
Introduction and History
In the United States and Canada there are over 1,000 Unitarian Universalist (UU) churches within the parent organization, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). The UUA is strongly committed to theological liberalism, religious pluralism, “free-thinking” in all areas and radical social action, the latter primarily sponsored through activism and the printed word. The UUA is a member of the International Association for Liberal Religion, and many of its ministers are trained at three principal universities: Harvard University, Meadville-Lombard (affiliated with the University of Chicago) and the Starr Ring School for the Ministry in California. A bi-weekly newspaper, the Unitarian Universalist World, was begun in 1970 and is sent 16 times yearly to over 100,000 families. Beacon Press, the publishing arm of the church, has hundreds of titles, which sell over a million copies a year. Heavily eclectic, UU organizations and committees are involved with dozens of topics, from abortion rights, environmental concerns and “social justice,” to experimental spirituality, feminism, children’s education and summer camps, to homosexual activism (for example, The Office for Gay Concerns) and psychic phenomena.
God: Ultimately undefined, but frequently seen in impersonal or quasi-personal terms, as in pantheism and panentheism, or as evolutionary process.
Jesus: A good man, for some divine in a super-human, panentheistic sense.
Salvation: Characteristically interpreted in political or social terms, such as liberation
Man: The apex of evolutionary wisdom, for many believers potentially divine.
Satan: A Christian myth.
The Second Coming: A Christian myth.
The Fall: A Christian myth.
The Bible: A fallible recording of the evolution of Israelite religion.
Death: Differing beliefs are held; in general the Great Unknown.
Heaven and Hell: Christian myths or states of mind, or personal conditions in this life.
The “Church of the Larger Fellowship” is primarily for those who do not have easy access to local UU fellowships or churches and includes membership from approximately 80 countries. The program provides monthly bulletins, a loan library for sermons and religious-educational programs for the family.
The modern Unitarian Universalist Association represents a merger of two older religious movements. The Universalists, organized in 1795, stressed theological universalism, the idea that salvation is universal and therefore everyone will eventually be redeemed to heaven. The Unitarians, organized in 1825, stressed the unity of the nature of God as opposed to His Trinitarian nature. Historically the two groups were divided by social and theological differences, and it was only after an arduous, painful road towards unity that the two merged in 1961. One historical factor in the growth of Unitarian Universalist thinking was opposition to the theological doctrines of election and imputation, the latter referring to man’s inherited depravity and legal condemnation in Adam (Rom. 5:12-19).
UU claims an impressive list of followers, which allow one to gauge its influence historically. Reportedly, UU members represent 25 percent of the names in the American Hall of Fame, and they appear more often in Who’s Who, proportionately, than the members of any other religious group.
Practices and Beliefs
If we could list five key beliefs that describe UU best it would be freedom, justice, tolerance, reason and pluralism. These ideals are interpreted from a UU perspective—individualism, rationalism, subjectivism, and liberalism so that Christian and UU interpretations and applications of these concepts would be markedly different in important ways. The UU website succinctly illustrates the UU ideals as follows:
- We believe that personal experience, conscience and reason should be the final authorities in religion. In the end religious authority lies not in a book or person or institution, but in ourselves…. We will not be bound by a statement of belief…. Revelation is continuous. We celebrate unfolding truths known to teachers, prophets and sages through the ages…. We believe people should be encouraged to think for themselves. We know people differ in their opinions and life-styles and believe these differences generally should be honored. We seek to act as a moral force in the world, believing that ethical living is the supreme witness of religion. The here and now and the effects our actions will have on future generations deeply concern us. We know that our relationships with one another, with other peoples, races and nations, should be governed by justice, equity and compassion.
According to their website, in 1997, the largest survey yet conducted had almost 10,000 Unitarian Universalists responding. The average membership was 16 years, and 92.5% of respondents were laypeople. The UU committee “Fulfilling the Promise: A Recovenanting Process for the 21st Century” is “confident [that] the 10,000 responses broadly represent our association.” Among its many findings: the largest category, 46.1%, describe themselves as “humanist;” 19% as “earth/Nature centered;” 6.2% as “mystic;” 13% as “theist;” 9.5% as Christian; 3.6% as Buddhist; .04% Hindu; 0.1% Muslim. In addition, a whopping 60% had considered leaving UU. Ninety-five percent of these listed four reasons for this: 1) “lack of spirituality, warmth and joy” (29.2%); 2) “congregational conflict” (24.3%); 3) “too arrogant and cerebral” (19.2%); 4) “too much political correctness” (19.0%). Still, 66% believe their UU congregation should actively seek to spread the UU faith to others. This is done in many ways, such as through the UU Department of Religious Education, which offers specialized programs to reach children and teenagers with then-proactive sex education and “anti-bias” propaganda, and through a variety of adult programs and resources.
Clearly no one can argue the UU faith has not been spread far and wide in modern America. Professor Alan Gomes describes their influence when he observes:
- [The] philosophy they champion pervades the religious and political left, and is nearly ubiquitous on college campuses. Anyone who has been told that truth is relative; that “tolerance” of “alternative lifestyles” and beliefs—including homosexuality, radical feminism, and abortion on demand—is the highest virtue; that reason, conscience, and experience are the ultimate guides to truth; and that the Bible is a myth and Jesus Christ but one of many inspirational (but fallible) teachers, has encountered cherished Unitarian Universalist dogmas.
[The] UUA is presently engaged in a militant program of expansion and growth, seeking to increase their ranks by spreading the Unitarian Universalist vision of their politically correct good news.
Although UU is clearly a religious movement, and although the history of the two movements comprise an ongoing chronicle of theological concern and speculation, a good number of members today are noncommittal or unconcerned about religion one way or the other. A brief study of the forerunners of the movements reveals an entirely different worldview from that of the average, modern Unitarian Universalist.
Their forefathers utilized both the Bible and human reason in formulating their worldview and theological arguments, although they were never considered Christian by orthodox church leaders. Modern UU members appeal to the Bible only casually, if at all, and they are much more swayed by secular, rationalistic philosophy and thinking and “political correctness.”
Over a period of several centuries, we can trace their increasing rejection of the Bible as an authority. Starting with the claim to accept the full authority of Scripture (although often denying this in practice) one biblical doctrine after another was placed under the microscope of human “reason” and then discarded. The Universalists did begin with at least some biblical teachings, such as that Christ died for our sins and the Trinitarian nature of God, but they rejected the concept of eternal punishment on what to them were rational grounds. They also allowed the prevailing intellectual climate of the day, during an age of enlightenment and reason, to mold their conscience and interpretation of Scripture. They did not allow divine Scripture to assess the validity of the various theories, cultural fashions and theological trends then in play. Thus, once eternal punishment was deemed “unreasonable,” it was only a matter of time before miracles, the Fall, the atonement, the deity of Christ, the Trinity and so on were also found to be deficient according to human “reason.” UU theologians and philosophers had, in effect, decided beforehand what was “reasonable” or acceptable, and then they used all the powers at their command to make the Bible conform to their conclusions.
This was a gradual process. For example, in 1847 most Universalists were attempting to refute “the latest form of infidelity,” the beginning of the Unitarian denial of the New Testament miracles. Ralph Waldo Emerson had “begun” the Unitarian
tirade against miracles in 1858, in his noted Harvard Divinity School lecture at Cambridge. Reflecting his transcendentalist view of the primacy of intuition, he stated: “And thus by his holy thoughts, Jesus serves us, and thus only. To aim to convert a man by [belief in] miracles, is a profanation of the soul. A true conversion, a true Christ, is now, as always, to be made, by the reception of beautiful sentiments.” In the end, however, the Christian approach to miracles was labeled “a Monster.” For their part, the Universalists reacted by defining the standard for Christian ministry as a belief in “The Bible account of the life, teachings, miracles, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.” The Unitarians, however, were the more liberal of the two, and were more willing to abandon whichever aspect of Scripture was unreasonable to them; in fact, their impact on Universalist thought eventually influenced the latter away from belief in the Trinity. (New England Transcendentalism, in part, developed out of the theological speculation inherent to Unitarianism. The majority of its early adherents and leaders were Unitarian clergy.)
Modern Unitarian Universalists, then, bear little theological resemblance to their forbearers, although, practically speaking, they are in full agreement that human “reason” and, paradoxically, sometimes mysticism, are to be the final judge of any purported divine revelation. Mystic George De Benneville (1703-1793), for example, “validated” universalist theology by means of an out of body experience, reported in his Life and Trance, and became a pioneer of universalism in America. Today, although only 6 percent classify themselves as mystical according to the most recent poll, a significant minority of UU members, perhaps 15 to 20 percent, could be described as mystical or mystical leaning when we consider the mystical potential in other categories. The tragedy was that in both camps the final result of rejecting one major doctrine of Scripture was the eventual abandonment of them all. Unfortunately, the current trend in many evangelical churches and institutions to abandon belief in inerrancy on the basis of “reason” is equally tragic and could have similar results down the road.
UU members are proud of their liberalizing influence upon Christianity, and indeed it has not been small. As noted earlier, Booth declared that “perhaps the greatest achievement of the Unitarian Universalist movement has been its liberalizing effect upon the theology and outlook of other churches throughout the years.” For example, liberal giant Paul Tillich said of UU theologian James Luther Adams that “without him I would not be what I am, biographically as well as theologically.”
Obviously the impact of UU has not been upon theology in a vacuum, for in crucial ways as the influence of biblical theology declines, so does the culture. As Rushdoony points out: “In a remarkably brilliant and telling study, Ann Douglas, in The Feminization of American Culture (1977), has shown the effects of Unitarianism and religious liberalism on American culture. From a God-centered emphasis… a man-centered focus emerged.” (By the turn of the millennium, the damage inflicted by feminism and its offshoots alone upon Christianity was difficult to calculate.)
Today the sad results of blendism are everywhere evident. Indeed, if UU is fond of referring to the witness of history as to the alleged “horrors of religious intolerance,” we should keep in mind that, put bluntly, from the perspective of salvation in Christ, the witness of eternity will be to the genuine horrors of religious liberalism and Unitarian Universalism. To be damned through the church is a far greater tragedy and mockery of God’s love than any supposed religious intolerance.
Our next section begins a discussion of contemporary UU theology. Before we turn to that, a brief sampling of the views of a few sixteenth and seventeenth-century forerunners of the UUA will give us an idea of their beliefs and a basis for comparison. According to The Epic of Unitarianism, an edited compilation of basic writings in the liberal tradition, we find the following views.
Michael Servetus (1511-1553). Servetus apparently believed in the virgin birth, but somehow denied the trinity that undergirded it as “blasphemous.” Christ in the flesh was man; in the spirit He was God; the Holy Spirit was “the activity of God in the spirit of man,” but He did not exist apart from man who was at least in some sense divine. Servetus authored On the Errors of the Trinity (1551), in which he stated, “Your Trinity is the product of subtlety and madness. The Gospel knows nothing of it.” According to Blunt, in his impressive Dictionary of Sects, Heresies, Ecclesiastical Parties and Schools of Religious Thought, Servetus ended up a pantheist.
Francis David (1510-1579). David was a noted spokesman for Unitarianism in Transylvania. His arguments misconstrued Christian philosophy on the Trinity as “a belief in four or five gods”: one substance, God, three separate divine Persons, and one man, Christ. Thus for him the Trinitarian view of Christ was “human invention and superstition.”
Faustus Socinius. Socinius is frequently termed “the architect of modern Unitarianism.” While calling the Old and New Testaments “holy Scripture,” he declared that the deity of Christ “is repugnant not only to sound reason, but also to the Holy Scriptures.” Like modern Arians (Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christadelphians and others), Socinius would quote from the Scriptures teaching the human nature of Christ (his dependence upon the Father and so on), but conveniently reinterpret those that declared Jesus’ deity.
Many other examples could be given, illustrating how the increasing acceptance of rationalism produced the increasing rejection of biblical doctrine. As human minds were divinized, God’s word was humanized. Mendelsohn observes that the doctrines of the Trinity, Jesus as the God-man, original sin and election were all eventually abandoned. The subsequent consequence was not difficult to predict: “Finally the notion of ‘vicarious atonement’—that Jesus provided salvation by paying for the sins of mankind—was examined and discarded.”
- Waldeman Argow, “Unitarian Universalism: Some Questions Answered,” UUA pamphlet, p. 13.
- Unitarian Universalist Association Online Pamphlet, “We are Unitarian Universalists,” Marta Flanagan
- Alan W. Gomes, “Tolerate This! Answering Unitarian Universalist Pluralism,” Journal of Christian Apologetics, Vol. 1, no. 2, p. 35.
- Conrad Wright, Three Prophets of Religious Liberalism: Channing, Emerson, Parke (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1978), pp. 97, 99.
- Ernest Cassar, Universalism in America (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1971), p. 168.
- Michael Moran, “New England Transcendentalism,” The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 5, p. 480.
- John Booth, “Introducing Unitarian Universalism,” UUA pamphlet, p. 27.
- Back cover quote on the 1977 Beacon paper edition of J. L. Adams, On Being Human Religiously (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1976.)
- R. J. Rushdoony, “The Heresy of Democracy with God,” Chalcedon Position Paper No. 6, P. O. Box 158, Vallecito, California 95257.
- David Parke, The Epic of Unitarianism Original Writings from the History of Liberal Religion (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1969), p. 6.
- Jack Mendelsohn, Why I am a Unitarian Universalist (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1966), pp. 51- 52, cf. Parke, pp. 4-6.
- Parke, pp. 3-6; John Henry Blunt, Dictionary of Sects, Heresies, Ecclesiastical Parties and Schools of Religious Thought (London: Rivingtons, 1874, rpt. 1990), p. 556.
- Philip Schaff, History of the Church, Vol. 7, pp. 20-22.
- Ibid., pp. 24-27.
- Mendelsohn, op. cit., p. 47.