One of the challenges at Tree of Life is that we are a religious community that consists of a lot of “come-outers” (people who come to us from other faith traditions.) Our congregation itself began in Congregationalism and moved away from a more traditional Christian identity–first to universalism, then to Unitarian Universalism. This means that we don’t always know much about Unitarian Universalist history or feel connected to its roots. Even those who were raised Unitarian Universalist sometimes learned more in our Religious Education classes about other faith traditions than our own.
It’s easy to forget that Unitarian Universalism is not new. Though our current configuration and polity were established in 1961 by the merger of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America, the story of our faith is much longer and deeper. People held unitarian and universalist beliefs for centuries–perhaps from the very beginning of Christianity–but because these ideas ran counter to the orthodox faith of the powerful, it was dangerous to try to organize a community around them.
So what are the roots of our faith? What were the powerful ideas that people were willing to risk their lives for? What are the ideas that endured and that still hold us together? Earl Morse Wilbur, famous for the epic volumes of Unitarian and Universalist history he wrote in the early 20th century, named three: “Freedom, Reason, and Tolerance.”
We might choose slightly different language today, but these three ideals remain the roots of our unique theology and practice. They are heretical ideas in the classic sense, because they do not rely on the authority of others—the orthodoxy—to tell us what to believe. (The etymology of the word “heresy” leads back to the root “to choose.”) Instead, they invite and challenge us to wrestle with our own beliefs. The early Unitarians and Universalists faced imprisonment, excommunication, and death rather than let someone else determine what they would believe. Our commitment to Freedom is one of the taproots of both our congregation and our tradition.
Reason is the root that keeps us balanced as a faith. We measure our beliefs against the discoveries of science and humanity’s ever-increasing knowledge. We don’t enforce a separation between the mind and the heart. We know that when our beliefs are challenged, that is a good thing because it keeps us thinking, growing, and stretching. Reason is a way of making sure our beliefs stay relevant and don’t slip into superstition. Yet we also know and honor that there is plenty of Mystery left, plenty of powerful metaphors and stories, plenty of love, hope, and other immeasurable qualities that are a part of a meaningful life and faith. We balance head and heart, reason and imagination, what we can know and what we cannot.
“Tolerance” is the name for the root that nourishes and enriches our communities. It is an old word for a concept we still cherish: the idea of acceptance of all and celebration of difference. We do not reject and exclude people who believe or look or live differently than we do. We often summarize this “root” idea with words attributed to Francis David, “We do not have to think alike to love alike.” Instead of fearing or rejecting those whose beliefs or lives are different from our own, we know that we can learn and grow by being in community together.
These three ideas–Freedom, Reason, Tolerance–have upheld our communities and tradition for centuries, even as they set us apart and sometimes even endangered us. These days, they don’t seem all that radical and in fact, many mainstream churches embrace them, at least in part. We have and will continue to grow in our understanding of Freedom, Reason, and Tolerance as well, never doubting that these roots will continue to nourish our lives and congregations well into the future.
Sam Harris, one of the most vocal critics of religion and author of The End of Faith said in an interview with the UU World, ““If I could wave a magic wand and make everyone a Unitarian Universalist,” he began, “I’d be tempted to do so, because I doubt that people would then fly planes into buildings, blow up children at street corners, or bend U.S. foreign policy to conform with biblical prophecy.” But he also cautioned us not to allow our belief in tolerance to silence us in the face of dangerous extremism. Freedom, Reason, and Tolerance are beliefs that call us to act on behalf of those who do not enjoy them. Former President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, Rev. Bill Sinkford warns us similarly when he says, “the voice of the religious right has been enabled by our willingness to be silent for so long.” He describes his hope that, “we can begin moving toward a way of being religious people, which doesn’t mean striving to be right, but which understands that the pluralism within which we live could enrich all of us.”
May it be so.