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Unitarianism: Universalism Unlimited by Naomi Chasek-MacFoy

 

Unitarian Universalism (UU), the modern-day American version of Unitarianism — a religious tradition with a nearly 500-year history — is an open, multi-denominational religious tradition.

It lacks scripture and centralized authority, focusing rather on the individual spirituality of each believer. Although Unitarian Universalism emphasizes freedom, it does have several integral principles of belief. Perhaps the most basic of such notions is the idea of the absolute oneness of God. From this conception of fundamental unity, which is believed to exist both in God and humanity, comes the name “Unitarianism.” Overall, the notion of oneness defines Unitarian theology and thought. This religious tradition exemplifies a strand of uniquely American thought and belief.

The Unitarian church combined with the Universalist church in 1961 to create the Unitarian Universalism we know today. Though its roots are Christian, today’s UU churches lack structural authority — one of the most striking differences between Unitarian Universalism and other religious traditions. Besides the absence of a clergy class, no UU scripture exists. UU thought is unaffected by the codified prescriptions of religious texts. It is virtually unlimited. For the most part, divine authority is also absent from its doctrine. Because of the extreme focus on individualism and its myriad connotations, many Unitarian Universalists avoid the term “God” altogether, choosing rather to regard the divine as a spiritual force, perhaps akin to Christianity’s Holy Spirit. The structure of Unitarian Universalism allows for freedom not only religiously, but socially as well. Their vision for society is utterly un-dogmatic. As long as liberty and reason are protected, almost all is acceptable. This emphasis on independence is in stark contrast to the patterns that have established themselves across the arc of history.

Traditionally, there has been an inextricable connection between religious hierarchy and sociopolitical authority in monarchical governments. Unitarian Universalism bucks these historical trends, supporting a secular society whose governing structure is separate from religion. Throughout the course of history, religion has been the defining force in societies across the globe. Kings have claimed sovereignty under the auspices of God, Popes have waged wars and governed states, monarchs have served dually as religious and secular leaders. Religion imposed universal laws with powers derived from the intensity and pervasiveness of religious belief. In addition, the social power of many religions shares an underlying structure with politics. In Catholicism, the relationship between the pope, clergy, and lay people mirrors that of a king, nobles, and commoners. In fact, most religions with a clergy share this structure. Unitarian Universalism, however, is egalitarian, emphasizing individuality and the power of reason. In many ways, Unitarian Universalism is a rejection not only of traditional religious hierarchy, but of established sociopolitical roles as well.

Unitarianism’s rejection of traditional sources of authority mirrors that of the United States, one of the countries where it has had the most impact. The American struggle for independence was a rejection of the power of the British Monarchy and a move to a democratic state. Although the Revolutionary War and did not abolish social or political hierarchies, it allowed for the creation of an alternative structure based on equality. Our founding documents, although seemingly unrelated to Unitarianism, preach a doctrine of equality mirroring Unitarianism’s.

The most profound instance of Unitarian influence in American culture is in Transcendentalism, an influential American spiritual, philosophical, and literary movement of the early nineteenth century. Prominent Transcendentalists include Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman. American Unitarians of the early nineteenth century regarded reason as the foundation of their religious tradition. Transcendentalism sprang from this tradition and then broke from it, emphasizing instead the individual’s immediate, intuitive spiritual relationship with the divine at any time and place, a concept we see later incorporated into Unitarian Universalism.

Another profound area of connection between Unitarian Universalism and American culture is the realm of social justice. Unitarian Universalism often attracts individuals with a strong sense of social responsibility — supporting justice, equality, and compassion is one of the seven principles that today’s congregations affirm. Although it may perhaps seem unrelated to the idea of universal harmony, social justice is in fact connected to unity. It can help to knit the divisions fragmenting our society back together. Thoreau in his essay “Civil Disobedience” argues that individuals should stop paying taxes in protest of government wrongdoing. He claims, “government is best which governs least,” echoing an individualist sentiment characteristic of strands of both Transcendentalism and Unitarianism — a sentiment that also promotes social justice. Thoreau also claims the inherent goodness of individuals: “The character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished.” This is in keeping with the UU idea that individuals are innately good. It also captures the idea that individuals are ideal agents, which is the basis for self-reliance, the positive force in a Transcendentalist conception of society.

Ultimately, Unitarian Universalism parallels some of the most important trends in American society, both politically and socially. Historically, it has witnessed and withstood some the most important events in our country’s history, from the Civil War to women’s rights to same-sex marriage debates, managing to maintain its core all the while. The Unitarian tradition has not merely stood, however, as a bystander alongside the rolling tide of history. It has participated actively, and its ideals have been echoed throughout the society. The liberty, unity, and rationality that characterize Unitarian Universalism have all become uniquely American. Overall, it is a tradition that could be cast as an essential version of all the main American ideals, from freedom to civil disobedience; it is the epitome of what this country can be.

Naomi Chasek-MacFoy

Naomi Chasek-MacFoy is a 10th grader currently attending Bard High School Early College. She enjoys reading, playing soccer and sewing. Naomi lives in Brooklyn, New York.
  1. This is an exceptional piece of writing both for its accuracy of information and obvious passion of spirit. I hope Naomi goes on to writing as a career.

  2. If you are interested in some new ideas on universalism, pluralism and the Trinity, please check out my website at http://www.religiouspluralism.ca. It previews my book, which has not been published yet and is still a “work-in-progress.” Your constructive criticism would be very much appreciated.

    My thesis is that an abstract version of the Trinity could be Christianity’s answer to the world need for a framework of pluralistic theology.

    In a constructive worldview: east, west, and far-east religions present a threefold understanding of One God manifest primarily in Muslim and Hebrew intuition of the Deity Absolute, Christian and Krishnan Hindu conception of the Universe Absolute Supreme Being; and Shaivite Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist apprehension of the Destroyer (meaning also Consummator), Unconditioned Absolute, or Spirit of All That Is and is not. Together with their variations and combinations in other major religions, these religious ideas reflect and express our collective understanding of God, in an expanded concept of the Holy Trinity.

    The Trinity Absolute is portrayed in the logic of world religions, as follows:

    1. Muslims and Jews may be said to worship only the first person of the Trinity, i.e. the existential Deity Absolute Creator, known as Allah or Yhwh, Abba or Father (as Jesus called him), Brahma, and other names; represented by Gabriel (Executive Archangel), Muhammad and Moses (mighty messenger prophets), and others.

    2. Christians and Krishnan Hindus may be said to worship the first person through a second person, i.e. the experiential Universe or “Universal” Absolute Supreme Being (Allsoul or Supersoul), called Son/Christ or Vishnu/Krishna; represented by Michael (Supreme Archangel), Jesus (teacher and savior of souls), and others. The Allsoul is that gestalt of personal human consciousness, which we expect will be the “body of Christ” (Mahdi, Messiah, Kalki or Maitreya) in the second coming – personified in history by Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Buddha (9th incarnation of Vishnu), and others.

    3. Shaivite Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucian-Taoists seem to venerate the synthesis of the first and second persons in a third person or appearance, ie. the Destiny Consummator of ultimate reality – unqualified Nirvana consciousness – associative Tao of All That Is – the absonite* Unconditioned Absolute Spirit “Synthesis of Source and Synthesis,”** who/which is logically expected to be Allah/Abba/Brahma glorified in and by union with the Supreme Being – represented in religions by Gabriel, Michael, and other Archangels, Mahadevas, Spiritpersons, etc., who may be included within the mysterious Holy Ghost.

    Other strains of religion seem to be psychological variations on the third person, or possibly combinations and permutations of the members of the Trinity – all just different personality perspectives on the Same God. Taken together, the world’s major religions give us at least two insights into the first person of this thrice-personal One God, two perceptions of the second person, and at least three glimpses of the third.

    * The ever-mysterious Holy Ghost or Unconditioned Spirit is neither absolutely infinite, nor absolutely finite, but absonite; meaning neither existential nor experiential, but their ultimate consummation; neither fully ideal nor totally real, but a middle path and grand synthesis of the superconscious and the conscious, in consciousness of the unconscious.

    ** This conception is so strong because somewhat as the Absonite Spirit is a synthesis of the spirit of the Absolute and the spirit of the Supreme, so it would seem that the evolving Supreme Being may himself also be a synthesis or “gestalt” of humanity with itself, in an Almighty Universe Allperson or Supersoul. Thus ultimately, the Absonite is their Unconditioned Absolute Coordinate Identity – the Spirit Synthesis of Source and Synthesis – the metaphysical Destiny Consummator of All That Is.

    After the Hindu and Buddhist conceptions, perhaps the most subtle expression and comprehensive symbol of the 3rd person of the Trinity is the Tao; involving the harmonization of “yin and yang” (great opposing ideas identified in positive and negative, or otherwise contrasting terms). In the Taoist icon of yin and yang, the s-shaped line separating the black and white spaces may be interpreted as the Unconditioned “Middle Path” between condition and conditioned opposites, while the circle that encompasses them both suggests their synthesis in the Spirit of the “Great Way” or Tao of All That Is.

    If the small black and white circles or “eyes” are taken to represent a nucleus of truth in both yin and yang, then the metaphysics of this symbolism fits nicely with the paradoxical mystery of the Christian Holy Ghost; who is neither the spirit of the one nor the spirit of the other, but the Glorified Spirit proceeding from both, taken altogether – as one entity – personally distinct from his co-equal, co-eternal and fully coordinate co-sponsors, who differentiate from him, as well as mingle and meld in him.

    For more details, please see: http://www.religiouspluralism.ca

    Samuel Stuart Maynes