A survey was released recently about religious habits in the US. To the surprise of many over there, the results showed that about half of Americans have changed their religious affiliation at least once in their lives.
The reason for the surprise in the US is that there is an expectation that people will be born into a religion and stay with it from birth to death.
It seems almost like a different world from here, doesn’t it? In the US, religious affiliation and regular attendance is the norm. Here, it is the exception. There, joining a church, temple, synagogue or mosque seems like the natural thing to do and it is generally expected that you will identify with some specific faith or denomination. Here, the question of faith affiliation doesn’t come up much at all and joining or identifying with a particular faith? That probably feels like a big step indeed…
Against the background of the near disappearance of religion from most peoples’ lives in the UK, I want to talk about what we are doing here, in this place and this community. In many ways, I think it is fair to say that we in this congregation and congregations like it are actually engaged in reinventing religion.
That while we clearly continue from a long-standing tradition, we are engaged in a process of stripping away old religious baggage that no longer serves us. Instead, we set our sights on the essentials – on what is most important about religion – the way it changes us, supports and empowers us, and its promise to bring more freedom, justice and love in the world around us. And this reinvention is not possible in most religious communities – it can happen here because of the very unusual and special religious tradition that is our foundation – Unitarianism.
So, today, as I said earlier, I want to address the questions: ‘what is a Unitarian?’ and ‘how do I know if I am one?’
Unitarians usually don’t take themselves too seriously, so here are a few light-hearted answers:
Q: What is a Unitarian?
A: Someone who believes in life before death.
A: A Quaker with Attention Deficit Disorder.
A: Someone who approaches every question with an open mouth.
You many be a Unitarian if…
• you think socks are too formal for a Summer service
• you think the Holy Trinity is "reduce, reuse and recycle"
• when you watch Jaws you root for the shark ("Hey, sharks have to eat too!")
• you think "Whatever" is a valid theological point
• you think a Holy day of Obligation is your turn to bring coffee hour treats
• Your sacraments are Doubt, Argument, and Voting.
• you know at least two people who are upset that trees had to die for your church to be built.
What is a Unitarian? I have to warn you first that this will be just one way of characterising it. The nature of Unitarianism is such that it can never be fully defined, at least not for all time since it is a faith that is both open to individual interpretation and a faith that is free to change over time.
To speak about Unitarianism, I have to begin with freedom. One of the strongest strands in the long history of Unitarianism has been the insistence that we are free to think for ourselves and find our own way in matters of spirituality and religion.
In her meditation this morning, Annette spoke of Unitarian martyrs. There have been many. Francis David and Michael Servetus were two who died because they placed their commitment to freedom higher than their concern for their own safety.
The earliest Unitarians were just a bunch of particularly troublesome Christians. We denied the Church’s teach of the doctrine of the trinity because, having read the bible for ourselves, we decided that it wasn’t supported by scripture and, in any case, it just didn’t make sense to us.
We were also the ones who said ‘sod that’ when told we had to use the Church of England’s prayer book. We refused although we knew we would be persecuted, and that history is part of what brought Unitarians to places like Newington Green – havens for free thinkers.
Unitarians continued to think for themselves through the decades and centuries that followed. We refused ever to establish a creed – a code of beliefs – and so our beliefs were set free to change and develop as individuals and our congregations saw fit.
In the late 19th Century, with the influence of the Transcendentalist movement, we rejected the absolute authority of scripture and turned to individual experience as a source of inspiration – particularly in the natural world.
And I suppose we can thank the Transcendentalists for the sign that was supposedly seen on a Unitarian notice board: "Bible Study after service today. Bring your own bible and a pair of scissors."
In the 20th century, Unitarian congregations began to include non-Christian belief systems; humanist, Buddhist, Jewish, Hindu, Pagan and other influences were welcomed into the fold. We were no longer a Christian faith, but increasingly, we were becoming a Universalistic one – a faith that welcomes teachings from all of the worlds religious traditions and knows too that wisdom comes not only from religious teachings but from philosophy, psychology, sociology, the arts, and of course, from our own personal experience.
Freedom is an essential emphasis of Unitarianism. We can see it in the 4th principle of American Unitarianism as we read earlier, which enshrines the importance of searching freely and thoughtfully for our own truths and meanings.
“What happens when you cross a Jehovah's Witness with a Unitarian?
You get someone who knocks on your door, but has no idea why!”
Yes, freedom is essential… But Unitarianism is not simply a religion about freedom. If it were, it would be almost nothing at all, as that joke would have it. It would be simply an anything-goes social club without purpose or cohesion.
More important than freedom itself is the understanding that lies behind this emphasis. We insist on the freedom to choose because we believe deeply that every person is worthy of that freedom. We have moved away from the pre-enlightenment ways that are present still in most religions. We abandoned a kind of religiousness where only certain inspired people can be trusted to think for themselves and that the rest of us must accept what these priests and books and dogmas and creeds tell us.
The first principle we read together earlier speaks of this deep faith in human nature. We agree to affirm and promote ‘the inherent worth and dignity of every person.’ And this first principle represents no easy faith – to accept that we ourselves have worth and dignity is one thing, but just bring to mind that difficult person who makes your life miserable and you’ll get a glimpse of the challenge this represents.
And from this great principle comes much more. When we accept the worth and dignity of each person, it becomes our religious duty to treat people in a way that recognises it. How does this demanding belief call us to act in the world?
Some guidance can be found in the seven principles. We need ‘justice, equity, and compassion in human relations’ as the 2nd principle describes. The 5th encourages democracy as a means where all people have a voice in the matters that affect them. In the 6th principle, we recognise all people need and deserve peace and liberty and justice throughout our world.
Acceptance and encouragement and support of growth is the message of the 3rd. Or, to put that one another way:
Q: Why did the Unitarian-Universalist cross the road?
A: To support the chicken in its search for its own path
These are principles too that some Unitarians have placed above life itself. Norbert Capek died in a Nazi concentration camp because he insisted on staying with his congregation rather than accepting an offer to flee to America. White American minister James Reeb died after being brutally beaten by racists in the American south when he marched with Martin Luther King in support of civil rights.
And finally, Unitarians recognise that we are not alone and separate in the world but interconnected. What affects other living things affects us too and, in the 7th principle, we recognise the interdependence of all living things and to take our place respectfully in that web of life.
This is Unitarianism: a faith that values people so much that it insists upon the freedom to think for ourselves, that demands justice, equality, and peace, that calls us to accept one another and assist each other in community toward spiritual growth, that calls us to know and respect the greater fabric of life in which we partake.
It is a religion that changes from congregation to congregation, from person to person, and from year to year, but it holds ever true to its great faith in the worth of each individual, the power of community, and the importance of our greater unity with the human family and all life.
And so, are you a Unitarian? Part of the answer to that is, of course, whether you find yourself in agreement with the Unitarian approach and with Unitarian values… You must search your own heart on that score.
But, perhaps the more difficult part of the question has to do with how you define yourself. Becoming a Unitarian is no more difficult than deciding you are one… and no easier than making that same decision.
Unlike the US, religious affiliation is rare here. And we tend to bring the same approaches we know from the consumer society we live in: if a restaurant or shop offers what I like, I will frequent it. When it doesn’t, I’ll move on. Just because we might buy a shirt from the Gap doesn’t make us think about becoming a ‘Gapian.’
But faith is different, especially one like Unitarianism that is directed not only to our personal spiritual search but also toward the way we are with each other in community. Community, like other relationships, works because of commitment. Community is not only for the good times, but about working to change things and to overcome problems together.
Are you a Unitarian? You are welcome here as a full participant in this community whatever your answer may be.
Personally, I hope that your answer will now or someday be ‘yes’ because a ‘yes’ means that we will enter more deeply into community together. It means that we can count on each other. It means we are committed and that we can look forward to sharing the work of growing individually and communally and of reaching out to offer others the freedom, understanding, and possibility that we find together here.
May it be so.