Are Unitarian Universalists Christians--Or What?

by Rev. Dr. Edward Frost

Presented 2011 September 11 to the congregation of Mountain Light Unitarian Universalist Church in Cherry Log GA.

There was no escape from it. Trapped in an aircraft seat beside one of those interrogator types he got it out of me: "I'm a Unitarian Universalist minister." "Unitarian, huh? Are you people Christian...or what?"

People ask because we certainly don't seem to be Christians. If the popular understanding of "Christian" is what one sees on television religious programming, it is noticeably absent here on Sunday mornings. The Bible is not in evidence anywhere. The preacher remains relatively calm and stable-- seldom, if ever, given to flights of passionate possession. In fact, in good New England Protestant fashion, he or she is limited to this small platform to discourage pacing or something worse, like spirit dancing. Far from being the subject of every sentence, "Jesus" is mentioned only rarely from this confinement. "Christ" hardly at all. "Sin" and "Salvation" are not fit sermon subjects. The congregation stays seated, hands in their laps. No shouted "Amens" "Hallelujahs" punctuate the preacher's pontifications. It's pretty poor theater. And, all in all, the service is not terribly exciting by some standards. It's not surprising, therefore, that anyone visiting us would be led to ask "Are Unitarian Universalists Christians--or what?" The question is always with us because we so obviously do not fit the common understanding of what a Christian religion is. We walk like a duck. We quack like a duck--but we don't act like ducks.

The question also comes up more frequently these days because of a relatively new phenomenon in Unitarian Universalist congregations and in the liberal religious movement--the avid if belated pursuit of Diversity. It has only been in recent years that Unitarian Universalist congregations have fervently embraced diversity as a religious value. Our congregations now strive resolutely to welcome of people of varied classes, traditions, races, theologies, sexual orientation--and even of the other political persuasion. When you start to add ingredients to the pot, you get a different flavor. The mix may be richer, stronger, better for you--but it's different and takes getting used to. A mere twenty-five years ago, when I was a minister in New England, our congregations were heterogeneous. People knew their place and went to it. Sociologists wrote books, like "Small Town in Mass Society," in which they demonstrated clearly that where one worshipped was determined not theologically, but socially. The owner of the mill, for example, was either Episcopalian or Unitarian. The manager was a Presbyterian. The floor bosses were Methodists. And the Baptists and evangelicals got the rest. Just a generation or two ago, most of our congregations were lilly white, middle class, college degree or better, democrat and damn straight. If they weren't damn straight they didn't tell and nobody asked. And--our congregations were made up of committed non-believers or, like our nineteenth century forebears, liberal Christians. There were no "welcoming congregations." There were no pagans. There were no Buddhist-Unitarians. There were no Jewish-Unitarians. At least, that's the way our congregations looked. And that's the way our congregations behaved.

The unspoken sociological intent of suburban religion was not pluralism or diversity but, at most, assimilation into the melting pot. That, after all, was what America was all about. There was no "L'Chaim group" in the congregations I served. There were no Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur Services. There seemed to be no reason to recognize Hanukah or Passover. We had no drum choirs, Kwanzaa celebrations, Rites of Spring or Zen meditations.

Then, not so long ago, our liberal religious movement came to the collective understanding--like our forebears welcoming the Lady of the Harbor-- that diversity is a good thing. Where once the colonial steeple bell was our summons, we are now called together from Concord, Massachusetts to North Carolina by the Buddhist singing bowl or maybe the African drum and our religious way is lighted by the chalice, the Advent candle, and the Menorah. People of Jewish heritage have been welcomed into our denomination by Jewish hymns, services and celebrations. Nature worship was welcomed by being voted into the denomination's byLaws. Sections of our hymnbook readings are devoted to humanists, buddhists, nature and goddess worshippers, Jews--and, yes, even Christians. And here we all are.

But, in all that diversity, what are we? I'm reminded of a greeting card a daughter sent me awhile ago. On the front is pictured a cute, furry, unidentifiable creature who is saying, "You tell me I should be what I am." Inside the card, the creature says, "But what am I?"

Are we Christians. Or what? The question might be raised--here in this congregation and in Unitarian Universalist congregations around the country--mostly in relation to language. As I say, except in some old New England congregations, believing, practicing Unitarian Universalist Christians--even they heretics by any traditional standard--are these days a beleaguered minority. Which is ironic also because much of the language and the structure of our institutions, has remained decidedly Christian--which contributes to the identity confusion.

Within our congregations, we still talk and act, for the most part, like our nineteenth century forebears who, let us not forget, were Christian theists. Our European Unitarian sisters and brothers are still, for the most part, Christian theists. Unitarian Universalism has a Christian history, a Christian foundation, and a dominant continuing Christian worship form. Consequently, those who are offended by Christian references and by Christian terminology find it hard not to run into what they object to. Are Unitarian Universalists Christians?

First of all, let me put the question properly, which is to ask, "Is Unitarian Universalism, the institution, the movement, the religion, Christian?" A few of my colleagues might disagree with me but I think the answer is simple. No. There are Unitarian Universalist Christians, but not by any serious understanding of Christianity can Unitarian Universalism, the movement, be considered Christian. At the very least, traditional "Christians" are identified as those for whom Jesus, the Christ, is believed to be the Savior, The Son of God.

There are Unitarian Universalist Christians in our religion--none that Pat Robertson would embrace but self-identified Christians nevertheless. There are entire Unitarian Universalist Christian congregations. But the movement itself is not Christian. Unitarian Universalism is, however, I say undeniably, culturally Protestant. The religion of Unitarian Universalism is outside the Christian consensus but the sociology of Unitarian Universalism is Protestant.

Our institutional structure and practice, including much of our language, remain grounded more in Christian forms than in any other. Those who enter our congregations from a non-Christian background are entering an institution which is very much in process, stretching toward an identity not yet clear. Those who come to us from a non-Christian background may have come, to some extent, precisely because of an understanding that we are not Christian. Again, in some respects--in some important respects--that negative is true. True enough for most seeking an alternative religion to be comfortable among us. But it is not entirely true--often to the eventual uneasiness or disappointment of those who seek to make a home among us.

I feel quite comfortable in saying that, in orthodox terms, this is not a Christian congregation. At the same time, it is not a Jewish congregation. It is not a Buddhist or Wicca or Islamic congregation. Our Unitarian Universalism congregations exist in an era in which our ministers--even our youngest ministers--are trained in seminaries (a Christian term) which, while decidedly liberal in their perspective, are grounded still in the Protestant models of curriculum, worship forms, language and practice.

I was stripped of my traditional Christian faith by exposure to the academics of a liberal, Protestant seminary. But I was, nevertheless, sent into the world to minister with the institutional Christian church as the only model I knew and--outside of a couple of courses in comparative religion-- with Christian theology the only theology I knew. I am typical of the ministers of our congregations. Consequently, our worship forms remain essentially Protestant: we have hymns, prayers, offerings--and what in seminary we called "the hymn sandwich"--the sermon between two hymns. There is some experimentation here and there but, for the most part, most ministers and congregations rest into the known and comfortable forms and categories.

More than a hundred and fifty years ago, Ralph Waldo Emerson urged the students at Harvard Divinity School to breathe new life into the old forms of worship. But what that "new life" of worship might be still eludes us. Many of our congregations celebrate Yom Kippur and Rosh Hosanna, Passover and Hanukah. But what happens in most congregations in December is a whole lot of cultural Christianity, right down to the star and the Christmas tree. Dedicated humanists who decry any hint of Christian slippage during the year sit at Christmastime by candlelight eyes moist with tears as they sing of Christ-child and virgin birth.

"Church." That word. Some Unitarian Universalists who do not have a Christian heritage, drawn into our congregations by the promise of diversity, hear the terminology, such as "church," which, to them, seems to belie the promise. Those who have experienced or who have been raised in the knowledge of the centuries of Christian abuse, terror and genocide, are offended by the language of the Christian lexicon--language like "Church." I try to be sensitive to the sense of affront; but consider this, again in relation to the Protestant culture: the term "church," to most people simply refers to the place. Even in a New England congregation I once served, which called itself The Unitarian Society, the people still spoke of going to the church. They wouldn't have known where else to say they were going. The Society was the people, perhaps. But the building, the place was the church. If someone is looking for a Unitarian Universalist congregation and turns to the yellow pages, under what heading must they look? "Churches." What else? "Religious Institutions?" Fine. That would do--if we could get the telephone company and the entire American Christian culture to agree.

When I first came to Georgia, I discovered that wedding licenses here stated that weddings could be conducted by "Officials, Justices of the Peace, and Ministers of the Gospel." I fired off a letter to everyone from the governor to animal control pointing out that that language excluded me, since I certainly was not a "Minister of the Gospel"--to say nothing of the rabbis, Immans and others. Several years later, after suffering eight years of my harassment, officials finally adopted my simple suggestion and changed the wording from "Ministers of the Gospel" to the all-inclusive "Clergy."

We can change and we have changed our language where it offends and where it belies our claim to value diversity and our primary principle of inherent worth and dignity. We managed to stop saying him and he and Man when we are speaking of men and women. We managed to stop saying negro, and worse. We managed to stop talking about fags and queers. But all of us need to live humbly in toleration, understanding that even eight years is not long to change the language in which a culture has been embedded for two thousand years.

And my hope is that all of us will come to understand that diversity means inclusivity. In Unitarian Universalism, diversity does not mean replacing Christians or Christian language. Diversity does not mean replacing humanism or theism. Diversity in a liberal religious community means enriching the community, its life and vision, not by replacing but by adding. It is the essence of liberal religion that none of us holds the truth or has the one true way. We are a community of seekers. We have come to value diversity because we have learned that glimpses of the divine, glimmers of truth, intimations of immortality, come from all the ancient and new-found expressions by which we celebrate, seek, and summon the spirit.

How fortunate we are that, in our seeking, we have not just one Enlightened One to follow, not just one saint to hear, not just one story to tell. But we cannot invite the Buddhist to speak to us of the Buddha, if the Christian cannot speak to us of the Christ. We cannot invite one to speak to us of Mohammed if another cannot speak of the goddess. We cannot extol the wonders of science if we will not allow the singing of the spirit. You and I can, in love, fellowship, and respect, consider our language carefully .I can continue my effort to say "congregation," rather than "church" when speaking of our gathered people. But I'll forget sometimes. And, frankly, I don't know yet where to look for the replacement term when I tell my friends I'm going to a meeting at the...the... Well, we can work on that.

As important as the continuing effort to watch our language is the continuing effort to hold each other in high regard, to know that, however difficult,no matter how often we forget or fail, our intent, individually and communally, is to include, to embrace, to encircle and to leave no person of infinite worth and dignity outside our love and concern. I'm going to close with a passage from Moby Dick--probably one of the most theological of novels in English literature.

Ishmael, while waiting for the voyage of the Pequod to begin, finds himself sharing a room--and, to his horror--a bed with the "pagan" harpooner, Queequeg. On their second night at the Inn, Queequeg begins his ritual of worshipping his gods through a small wood idol. It is clear that he would like Ishmael to join him in his worship. Ishmael says,

I was a good Christian, born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church. How then could I unite with this wild idolater in worshipping his piece of wood? But what is worship? thought I. Do you suppose now, Ishmael, that the magnanimous God of heaven and earth--pagans and all included--can possibly be jealous of an insignificant bit of black wood? Impossible! But what is worship?--to do the will of God-- *that* is worship. And what is the will of God?--to do to my fellowman what I would have my fellowman to do to me-- *that* is the will of God. And what do I wish that this Queequeg would do to me? Why, unite with me in my particular Presbyterian form of worship. Consequently, I must then unite with him in his; ergo, I must turn idolater. So I kindled the shavings; helped prop up the innocent little idol; offered him burnt biscuit with Queequeg; salaamed before him twice or thrice; kissed his nose; and that done, we undressed and went to bed, at peace with our own consciences and all the world.