FAQs About Unitarian Universalism:
Our children are taught to think for themselves, while receiving guidance on moral and ethical behavior. At times they learn Bible stories and talk about them, allowing their individual beliefs to unfold without a dogmatic interpretation. We present them with thought-provoking themes and allow them the space to develop points of view and convictions. Our church school often has a chapel service, where children lead and participate in their own service and find their spirituality. We include the children in the first part of our main worship service so that they can take part in a children’s sermon and a few hymns. Children learn about the beliefs and practices of the world's major religions. They are encouraged to respect differences in theology-many even spend a year visiting other churches, mosques and synagogues in their area. We have an award-winning, age-appropriate sexuality education program called Our Whole Lives for our youth, and a Coming of Age program in which we foster the transition from youth into young adulthood. Please see our section on Religious Education for more details on classes.
The chalice and the flame were brought together as a Unitarian symbol by an Austrian artist named Hans Deutsch during WWII. He, like many others, had to flee his home as the Nazis marched through Europe. He eventually landed in Portugal where he met and joined the newly formed, and therefore much unknown, Unitarian Service Committee (USC). The Service Committee was founded in Boston to assist Eastern Europeans, among them Unitarians as well as Jews, gypsies and homosexuals who needed to escape Nazi persecution. Deutsch was asked to create a symbol for refugees needing identity papers that would help establish trust quickly across barriers of language, nationality, and faith which could mean life instead of death. Thus, Hans Deutsch made his lasting contribution to the USC and, as it turned out, to Unitarian Universalism. With pencil and ink he drew a chalice with a flame. The director of the USC wrote, "a chalice with a flame, the kind of chalice which the Greeks and Romans put on their altars. The holy oil burning in it is a symbol of helpfulness and sacrifice..." This was in the mind of the artist.
We don’t know why Hans Deutsch chose the symbol of the chalice, but the symbol first came to promenance in association with the Hussites, a movement named after Czech religious reformer Jan Hus (1369-1415) who read the Bible to his congregations in their native language, whereas the Catholic Church demanded that the Bible only be read in Latin. Also, the practice of the church at the time was that during communion, the chalice was reserved for the clergy, the laity only receiving bread. When a church council condemned the practice of some priests who were giving the chalice to their congregants, Hus refused to support the condemnation. After his execution by burning in 1415, Hus' followers adopted the "lay chalice" as an important symbol of their movement.
Today, the flaming chalice is the official symbol of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee and the Unitarian Universalist Association. Officially or unofficially, it functions as a logo for hundreds of congregations. A version of the symbol was adopted by the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches in Britain. It has since been used by Unitarian churches in other parts of the world. Perhaps most importantly, it has become a focal point for worship. No one meaning or interpretation is official. The flaming chalice, like our faith, stands open to receive new truths that pass the tests of reason, justice, and compassion. It is a part of worship in many congregations -- services often begin by lighting a chalice while saying some brief reflective words. There is no one official meaning of the flaming chalice. Like our faith, it stands open to new and ongoing interpretation and significance.
No. One could not be considered a Unitarian Universalist and believe that subscription to specific doctrines or creeds are necessary for access to God or spirituality or membership in our congregations. Unitarian Universalists could not believe that God favors any group of people based on any inherent qualities, such as skin color, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability, etc.-or that any group of people is more worthy of access to opportunities than any other as a result of these qualities. We don't believe that autocratic, undemocratic or overly hierarchical systems are appropriate methods of organizing our congregations or the larger society. We don't believe that humanity has the right or moral authority to exploit the environment or other life forms with which we share this planet.
Among Unitarian Universalists we find the entire panoply of theologies from atheist through pantheist to theist. So no one can speak for all of us. In our services at Horizon we hear many names for the Ultimate: God, Holy Spirit, Spirit of Life and Love, Creative Love, Mother Father of us all, Goddess, Source of All, and the list goes on. What is important is that among us a spirit of tolerance allows the free expression of devotion to the divine. Some Unitarian Universalists are nontheists and do not find language about God useful. The faith of other Unitarian Universalists in God may be profound, and no other word quite satisfies like “God.” In our church, all expressions are encouraged and we find that people are always redefining what they mean by God. What is more important than what people believe about God is how they behave as a result.
So often people’s religious beliefs only serve to alienate them from others. We do not find any theology that alienates us from each other to be useful in making us better people or our world a better place.
Unitarian Universalists do not teach that Jesus is God, although we are free to believe what our inquiry tells us. Most Unitarian Universalists are far more concerned with the teachings of Jesus than about his nature. Historically Unitarian and Universalist Christians taught that Jesus was the Messiah, chosen by the divine will to bring a saving message to the world. Classically, Unitarian Universalist Christians have understood Jesus as a savior because he was a God-filled human being, not because he was a supernatural being. He is for many UUs an exemplar, one who has shown the way of redemptive love, in whose spirit anyone may live generously and abundantly. Among us, Jesus' very human life and teachings have been understood as products of, and in line with, the great Jewish tradition of prophets and teachers. Many of us honor Jesus, and many of us honor other master teachers of past or present generations, like Moses or the Buddha. As a result, mixed-tradition families may find common ground in the UU faith without compromising other loyalties.
Our children learn Bible stories as a part of their church school curricula. It is not unusual to find adult study groups in the churches, or in workshops at summer camps and conferences, focusing on the Bible. Allusions to biblical symbols and events are frequent in our sermons. The Bible is read as any other sacred text might be-from time to time, but not routinely. We have especially cherished the prophetic books of the Bible. Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and other prophets dared to speak critical words of love to the powerful, calling for justice for the oppressed. Many Unitarian and Universalist social reformers have been inspired by the biblical prophets. We hallow the names of Unitarian and Universalist prophets: Joseph Tuckerman, Dorothea Dix, Clara Barton, Theodore Parker, Susan B. Anthony, and many others. We do not, however, hold the Bible-or any other account of human experience-to be either an infallible guide or the exclusive source of truth. Much biblical material is mythical or legendary. Not that it should be discarded for that reason! Rather, it should be treasured for what it is. We believe that we should read the Bible as we read other books (or the newspaper)-with imagination and a critical eye. We also respect the sacred literature of other religions. Contemporary works of science, art, and social commentary are valued as well. We hold, in the words of an old liberal formulation, that "revelation is not sealed." Unitarian Universalists aspire to truth as wide as the world-we look to find truth anywhere, universally.
That depends on which Unitarian Universalist you ask. Some do, some don't. Our congregation doesn’t require members to say grace before eating. As with all religious practices, the decision about whether to adopt this ritual is left to the individual. A small collection of UU table graces can be found in the Handbook of Religious Services, available from the UUA Bookstore. Here are some sample graces from that collection: “Bless the farmer who grew this food. Bless the cook who made it good. Bless the sun that made it grow. And bless the fertile earth below. Bless the rain and bless the seed. And bless the hungry ones in need. Bless our kith and bless our kin. And bless this house that holds us in.” "May the love we share around this table with family and friends renew us in spirit. May the spirit of hope, joy, peace, and love dwell within our hearts this day and forever more. Amen." "A circle of friends is a blessed thing; Sweet is the breaking of bread with friends; For the honor of their presence at our board We are deeply grateful."
Unitarian Universalists put less emphasis on formal beliefs and more on practical living. Our interest is in deeds, not creeds. We appreciate the biblical text, "Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only." Our members have been active leaders in the struggles for racial equality, civil liberty, international peace, and equal rights for all people. We work as individuals, in congregational social action, and in other groupings, including such denominational efforts as the UUA's Social Justice and the UU-UN Office. We also work with the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, which brings critically needed social change to many parts of the world. For even more information please visit the section of our website entitled “Community” and the Unitarian Universalist Association.
Yes and no.
No. Unitarian Universalists are not Christian; if by Christian you mean those who think that acceptance of any creedal belief whatsoever is necessary for salvation. Unitarian Universalist Christians are considered heretics by those orthodox Christians who claim none but Christians are "saved." (Fortunately, not all the orthodox make that claim.)
Yes, Unitarian Universalists are Christian in the sense that both Unitarian and Universalist history are part of Christian history. Our core principles and practices were first articulated and established by liberal Christians. Some Unitarian Universalists are not Christian. For though they may acknowledge the Christian history of our faith, Christian stories and symbols are no longer primary for them. They draw their personal faith from many sources: nature, intuition, other cultures, science, civil liberation movements, and so on.
The following is from a workshop on prayer our minister has given. It gives a sense of the ways of devotion that such a diverse faith can take.
ELEMENTS OF PRAYER
1. Emptying: Breathing. Paying attention to breathing, posture. Listening. Hear the sound of the singing bowl as it fades into the silence. The sounds of nature, wind chimes, meditative music, silent prayer. Here we are preparing the way, letting our prejudices and preconceptions be set down for a time. Here we make room for prayer.
2. Praise: Appreciation. We reflect on the beauty of the world, the awe inspiring complexity of life, its ever-changing face. For theist prayer, God is the object of our devotion, our praise. For archetypal prayer where an identity such as the Buddha, Tara, Quan Yin, may represent, not a being, but a quality of being—to which we refer, acknowledge and are inspired. The saints are such objects of devotion in archetypal prayer. For panentheistic prayer, there is a humility and sense of awe to be witness to such enormity and mystery. Again, Nature may be personified. In the same way, theistic prayer can be deconstructed and re-mythologized as mystery personified, creative power personified, etc.
3. Thanksgiving: The object of prayers of gratitude is to experience gratitude, to reflect on the reality that life is a gift, each day a gift to be opened. We reflect on the abundance in which we live. For panentheistic prayer there is a sense of gratefulness, interdependence, the sense of walking on sacred ground where each step becomes a prayer. For theistic prayer, God is the object of our gratitude. For post-literal theistic prayer, there is the reality of this life and a need to address our thanksgiving to an otherness. Bounty personified. Sustenance and mercy personified.
4. Confession: The object of confession is to admit our shortcomings, to own our imperfection, and to open ourselves up to forgiveness, acceptance, reconciliation through acts of contrition and atonement. We admit we are short of patience, wisdom, self discipline. We admit we are quick to anger, etc. We open ourselves to the possibility of change in us. For atonement, we need to be willing to address the ones we have offended and to make amends if we can.
5. Supplication: Is the object of prayers of supplication to have our wishes granted? Are we saying prayers so that God will do our bidding, grant our wishes, change the course of nature, bail us out of a jam, do magic on our finances or make a cute person fall in love with us? Or is it to ask for the courage to carry out our atonement, to confront the perpetrators of harmful behavior, to become more patient and forgiving, etc.? To have a “friend” like Saint Francis or Tara or Gaia to give encouragement and witness to our struggle is comforting and can give us the strength to continue.
6. Avowal: We promise what we are willing to do. We set goals—to be more aware, more faithful to our pathway, to the Way. It may be for only a day or an hour, depending on the issue, goal or task. If we are breaking a bad habit of thought or deed, we may want to enter into prayer each time we are tempted, or fall into the negative emotional state.
7. Repetition: The objects of repetition, chanting, mantras, rosaries, etc. are to reinforce our sense of the sacred, our vows, the creation of sacred space and time, and the creation of a transformed state of mind in which peace replaces stress and negative emotions. “Om mani padme om.” “Dear Mother of us all, blessed be, and blessed be we, the fruit of thy womb.”
8. Walking, working meditation: Like repetition, weaving prayer into our daily life by making each act a prayer is reinforcing of the sense of the sacred. Dietary laws such as orthodox Jews keep fulfill this function and remind us of our identity or vows as servants of God—or however we may conceive of our calling.