Recently I had the privilege to attend a training for Religious Educators. The training was on Unitarian Universalism, specifically UU identity. I thought it would be nice to share some of what I learned, and share some of my own personal story. When the Unitarians and Universalists merged in 1961, the association agreed upon 6 principles. At the General Assembly in 1981, a committee was charged with setting up a great process which would involve thousands of people in congregations all across the continent. Over the next two or three years, in churches, fellowships and societies, large and small groups met to wrestle with questions like, should we change our principles? Should we even have any formal principles? What does it mean to have principles in our by-laws? What is missing? What doesn’t belong? What kind of language should we use? Who is included here? Who is left out? What ideals and values are really important to us?
After all the years of study and work and preparation, there was still arguing and amending, and wrangling, as you can imagine, like a congregational meeting a hundred times over, but in the end, there was agreement. At the 1994 General Assembly, a new covenant was born and a new solemn promise to ourselves and to each other about what we value most and how we will strive to live. The original principles were created with the intent that they would be revisited every 15 years for review.
It’s always interesting, and at times even amusing, to witness other UU’s as they explore the gray areas that are commonly found in our religion. Unlike other religions, there is no black and white, no doctrine, no creed, no single source, but if a person were looking for some structure, I believe they could find it within our Principles.
When I was growing up and people asked me what religion I was, I told them I was Catholic and the response was usually the same, an “oh” with a knowing nod of approval, well, at least it felt like approval, but it may have just been an affirmation of familiarity. However, in my adult life, much like the Facebook option for relationships, my response to the “what religion are you”, became, “it’s complicated”.
I am a former Catholic who has been practicing Zen Buddhism and attending a UU church for over 14 years. I have since been told that I am therefore a Buddhist Unitarian Universalist. Having completed all the Catholic rites of passage, suspect I will also always carry the Catholic imprints on my soul, so I am told.
We, as Unitarian Universalists, have history, we have structure, and most importantly, we have purpose; to affirm and promote our covenant, and to live, to the best of our ability, by our Principles.
Contrary to what some UU’s claim, we really can’t “believe in anything we want”; after all, we have principles to affirm and promote. What people usually mean by such a statement is that you can come to a UU church no matter what your religion, and even if you don’t claim to be a specific religion. So, since there is no baptism, no specific rite of passage to make someone “officially” Unitarian Universalist, what does a person need to do to become one? In my opinion, you simply claim it, you declare it for yourself. If it is a good fit, usually it happens soon after experiencing a UU church, you get a feeling similar to coming home. My recollection of my first visit to our church was that there must be some catch, this religion can’t be for real, it’s too good to be true, I was skeptical.
It wasn’t until I embraced the Principles and made every effort to live by them, that I felt comfortable identifying as a UU, a Buddhist UU, and since I still embrace some of the beliefs I learned growing up as a Catholic, a Buddhist, Christian Unitarian Universalist, now there’s a mouthful and an earful, but with our religion, it’s not uncommon to sound complicated. The truth though, is that our religion is pretty simple, explaining it to others, now that could get “complicated”. My advice is, if you don’t already have one, consider working on an “elevator speech”, that will certainly simplify things, simple is good.