Some Thoughts on Unitarianism

It’s now been a little more than two years since we resigned our memberships in the local Unitarian fellowship. In a previous posting, I summarized the reasons behind our decision. As you might guess, there’s a lot more to our story than that. At various times, I’ve been tempted to go into more detail. But I never quite see the point in dredging up history. However, occasionally I do still think about my own beliefs, and how they fit in with Unitarianism. This post is a somewhat rambling collection of semi-related thoughts and musings.

I’ll start by mentioning one reason behind our decision to move on. Over time, as atheist humanists, we felt less and less of a connection to the congregation as it seemed to move increasingly towards more of a focus on spirituality. Ultimately, there were specific events that forced the issue, and by April 2017, we pretty much each had at least one foot out the door already.

Here’s an important point about Unitarianism. As a “creed-less” faith, the term “Unitarian” really doesn’t say much about one’s beliefs. There always seems to be the need to qualify the term, as in Humanist-Unitarian, Christian-Unitarian, Buddhist-Unitarian, etc. I don’t call myself a Unitarian, but if I were to, I’d have to say that I was a “Seven-Principles Unitarian”. That is, although I may no longer belong to a Unitarian fellowship, I still place great value on the Seven Principles.

And that leads to my next point. Many congregations have a particular focus. For example, many congregations in the US are distinctly Christian. Indeed, some Unitarians in the US can be more accurately described as anti-trinitarian Christians instead of Unitarians. Other congregations have a temperament that could be described as anti-Christian, where people cringe upon hearing the name “Jesus”. All of this fits within the umbrella of Unitarianism, since the faith gives its followers the freedom to develop their own personal theology.

That freedom to develop one’s own personal theology is clearly stated in the Seven Principles. Specifically, the third and fourth principles:

3. Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
4. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;

Note that there’s an important consequence of these particular principles. As I often state, if you truly accept these principles, you must accept the possibility that your own search for truth and meaning may well lead you away from Unitarianism.

In a sense, Unitarianism is not so much a faith, but rather a process. We are all on some sort of spiritual journey. Even if we don’t consider ourselves as especially spiritual, we all have values. And over time, these values may well change and evolve.

I’m now reminded of one thing that bothers me about the third principle, the term “spiritual growth”. The word “growth” implies a value judgment. When one says that they are growing spiritually, it implies that they are somehow better, or rather, more enlightened than before. And often, the conceit that they are more spiritually “awake” is accompanied by the arrogance that others should follow in their path. Although this conceit seems more common among followers of the more conservative denominations, Unitarians are not immune to this way of thinking. I’ve seen it among some of them as well.

One of the biggest challenges for any Unitarian congregation is finding a balance between different factions. The person most responsible for dealing with this challenge is the minister, who must not be seen as favoring one group over another within a congregation. Ideally, in my opinion, a congregation is best served without a minister. After all, the main reason most people join a congregation is to socialize with like-minded people. I’m sure many will take issue with that, but I stand by that statement. For us, meeting with some wonderful people every Sunday is the thing we miss most about our local fellowship. And just because we’ve left the fellowship doesn’t mean our own spiritual journeys have ended. It just happens differently now.

For me, I now find spiritual meaning in music. As Jimi Hendrix once said, “Music is my religion”.

If a congregation truly takes the Seven Principles seriously, it must be able to deal effectively with conflicting personal theologies. Members of a congregation must accept differing beliefs and values, while at the same time feel free to express their own beliefs and values. Members must not feel shackled by some tacit covenant in order to be seen as playing nice with others. While Unitarians talk about welcoming everyone, that must include giving everyone the freedom to express their beliefs and opinions, and to challenge others in a respectful manner.

That’s enough rambling for now.

Cheers! Hans


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