Civil War historian Bruce Catton once said that if people are going to agree on something, any words will do, but it is an infallible sign of a coming fight when people argue over the precise wording.

In Syracuse, in late October 1959, the UUA was very nearly an almost thing, simply because of a fight over the wording of the Statement of Principles. As Warren Ross explains in The Premise and the Promise: The story of the Unitarian Universalist Association, there were three factions: traditional theists, who wanted to include references to our Christian heritage; Universalists who wanted references to prophets and teachers from all traditions; and humanists who wanted no God language at all. The first draft from the Merger Commission included God, excluded Jesus, and sounded like a creed.

No one was happy.

And the argument over this one set of words nearly derailed the entire endeavor. Ross says that subsequent revisions were proposed and defeated during an unscheduled session that went late into the wee hours of the morning. Even in the middle of the night, delegates were knocking on each others’ doors with proposals and better wording – finally ending with a very particular, specifically-chosen pronoun: not “our Judeo-Christian heritage” but “the Judeo-Christian heritage.”

Because of a pronoun, the endeavor was saved and the consolidation went forward.


Is it any wonder there is still a great deal of contention within Unitarian Universalism over what seem to be key issues regarding theology? Is it any wonder one of the most painfully fitting jokes about us is that we’re terrible hymn singers, because we’re always reading ahead to see if we agree with the lyrics?

In some ways, Ross’s book points to the very truth Catton spoke of; we have spent the last 52 years quibbling over some pretty big ideas that we are trying to encompass within our expansive denomination… and those fights get expressed in semantics. I recall a floor fight on a motion during the 2005 UUMN conference that was all semantics and ultimately got shelved thanks to some fancy interpretations of parliamentary procedure. We see it all the time within our congregations (“sacred” is okay, but not “holy”).

So what are we really doing? Are we fulfilling Catton’s belief that we have more to fight about than agree upon? Or are we the example that proves the rule – that our constant and abiding fights over semantics make us stronger and more united? I’d like to think our quibbles over language reflect our deep care for expression and inclusion.

It’s not a bad reflection on us. Words matter; let us be masters of our words so we can nurture spirits and help heal the world.



It seems that one of the debates we have in our denomination is between the theists and the humanists: theists long to express their various perspectives on God through worship, prayer, and praise – and stop with all the shrieking; while humanists want moral and ethical arguments without all the “God talk” that we came to UUism to get away from.

You would think that the theists and the humanists would have long parted ways; in fact, there are some who (if geography allows) choose one UU congregation over another because of its general theological mood. We know congregations that are ‘very humanist’ or ‘rather Christian’ or somewhere in-between. And this can cause some real struggle among parishioners, and even among ministers and seminarians. It seems that either your image of the divine is external, something bigger and greater than yourself, or it is internal, something exactly like yourself.

But what if it’s both? What if we recognize an external Divine that is not only bigger and greater than ourselves but is also made up of ourselves? What if God is, even in part, the collective unconscious, the best of ourselves, greater than the sum of us, intimately involved in our humanity and the entire interconnected web of all existence?

I think the “yes/and” answer is more common among us than we realize. Partly because humanism does not, as John Dietrich points out in “Unitarianism and Humanism,” exclude belief in God. Rather, one can believe in God and still “place faith in man, a knowledge of man, and our duties toward one another.” Yes, Dietrich suggests that humanism shifts religious emphasis from God to humans, but it doesn’t exclude God. Rather, it focuses our attention not just on God but onto the condition of human life “in order that by human effort human life may be improved.” He continues: “[Humanism] is really the same thing as faith in God; for, whatever God may be, it is quite clear that he can manifest himself only through man’s consciousness, and that we shall get more and more knowledge of him only by believing that our highest impulses are his manifestations, tempered by our capacity to receive them.”

Yes, we can be humanists AND theists. In fact, as Unitarian Universalists, even the most theistic among us are humanists.




Today, I read an essay by Aurelia Isabel Henry Reinhardt entitled “Worship: Its Fundamental Place in Liberal Religion.” Reinhardt explores briefly the history of worship with an eye to what we have inherited; that we have always sought public religion to unify us “in the common search for the Ultimate Good” and that we aren’t creators of something new, but simply reinterpreters of something ancient, “in the light of eternal truth and new knowledge.”

Reinhardt diagnoses some of the problems facing congregations – particularly in our denomination: that of a lack of beauty and significance. “Inquring as to the reason for monotony and threatened vacuity,” she writes, “one learns that it is the result of an effort to give a minority of the congregation due right. Criticism has eliminated the thing critized, but the creative processes have brought into being nothing to take the place of the rejected.”

Strong words – words we need to hear. I know that some congregations are doing innovative things in worship, exploring ways to get out of the “two hymns and a lecture” pattern found on many Sunday mornings. Reinhardt’s words are vital reminders of what we’re facing as we enter the next fifty years of our denomination, as we look at the shifting demographics, as we continue to wrestle with making our socially-responsible outsides look like our Sunday morning insides.

Reinhardt is on topic – and she offers a great deal of hope. She reminds us that we inherit not just the idea of worship but thousands of years of prayers, songs, stories that can be used/reimagined for today. She reminds us that “worship is one of the sources out of which new creations in the art of living arise.” She reminds us that “a service of worship is a poem written by the lover of God, a song sung by the lover of God.”

Fresh, amazing thoughts for this religion of ours in this time and place.

Of course, it was written in 1936, for the Commission on Appraisal, in a AUA report called “Unitarians Face a New Age.”


So this new age we’re facing? It isn’t that far different from the new age our forbearers 75 year ago were facing. We have fixed some things, but we still have some of the same problems, the same concerns, the same pesky foibles.

Maybe… just maybe… we can do better this time around, so that the readers of essays in 2092 don’t identify so clearly. I know this is a huge part of my call; to Aurelia, I say “thank you for your eloquence” and “amen.”

Among the more striking characteristics of generational theory is the particular personalities of the four generational types; as Strauss &Howe explain, the cycle of historical events, parenting styles, and cultural shifts lead to a cycle of general generational traits. Of course, each person is different, and each specific generation is different, but there are patterns that emerge fairly clearly when we look at large cohorts over time.

In my work in generational theory, I’ve concentrated primarily on the currently living generations – how people who are living relate to each other, particularly in UU congregational settings. But in reading the first couple of chapters of Gary Dorrien’s The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progresive Religion 1805-1900, I began to see what Strauss & Howe are really talking about.

Dorrien’s first few chapters concern primarily the founding of Unitarianism and the Transcendentalist movement – key of course to our denomination, but also key to American liberal religion in general. Among the players in these early years are 

  • William Ellery Channing – born 1780 – Compromise Generation (Adaptive)
  • Andrews Norton – born 1786 – Compromise Generation (Adaptive)
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson – born 1803 – Transcendental Generation (Idealist)
  • Theodore Parker – born 1810 – Transcendental Generation (Idealist)

Now what we know about Adaptives is they are very invested in process, considering all sides of an issue, and bringing people together.  Idealists tend to be invested in vision, big ideas, and persuasion.

Thus, when Emerson and Parker catch fire with their transcendentalist thought, they are willing (Parker moreso) to throw firebombs; Parker was so horrified at the rancor at a meeting of the Berry Street Conference that he remarked “I intend in the coming year to let out all the force of Transcendentalism that is in me. Come what will come; I will let off the Truth fast as it comes.”

Emerson seemed a little less eager to rush into controversy; however, his Divinity School Address was a bold statement against the Unitarians, and he should have expected the firestorm that ensued. Norton fanned that flame; while he was an Adaptive, Norton saw Emerson’s – and the other Transcendentalists’ – passion as an affront to what he saw as the open arms of Unitarianism. Consensus challenged led Norton to fight for what was most important, coming together.

Channing, on the other hand, didn’t engage the fight as much as he worked tirelessly to find common ground, to bring everyone together. As Dorrien notes, this factional fight was what Channing spent the latter part of his career mediating. As a result, he was claimed by both sides – another charge often leveled against Adaptives, who just want everyone to get along.

I think about the parallels today – Harry Reid, the Adaptive, against John Boehner, the Idealist. Harry, accused of playing both sides – and John, so stuck in his resolve he won’t budge. And in our congregations, we see it: the over 70s who won’t leave leadership for fear of what will happen to the congregation they so lovingly nutured, and the Boomers who usher in big sweeping changes with great vision and excitement.

What will be interesting in the subsequent reading of our Unitarian and Universalist history – as well as the next decades of our congregations – is how the next generation of Nomads, those pragmatic, just do it types, affect and shift who we are and can become.


I learned this week that I am a radical Universalist.

I credit David Bumbaugh for this. In his book Unitarian Universalism: A Narrative History, Bumbaugh spends 20 pages outlining the beginnings of the Universalist church in America, from deBenneville’s sermons preached across Pennsylvania; to the founding of the first Univeralist church by Murray in Gloucester, Massachusetts; to the founding on the New England Convention of Universalists; to Ballou’s Treatise on Atonement. It’s a rich history, and a reasonably short one: only 44 years passed between the first universalist sermons in 1741 and the first Convention in 1785 – just 44 years to go from idea to denomination.

I have always been fascinated by universalism, have always found it one of the most hopeful aspects of our faith. But it was in reading this treatment, seeing the varying theological differences within universalism, that I saw my place, standing with Caleb Rich and Hosea Ballou in believing that we pay for sins in this life – that “God doesn’t need to be reconciled to humanity; rather, human beings need to be reconciled to God.” I stand with them in understanding God as a loving deity and that Jesus’s ministry is largely about how to “grow into harmony with the Divine.” I stand with them – Ballou especially – in believing that “God would not endow humanity with reason and then present a revelation that was incompatible with that reason.” I also stand with Ballou in rejecting the Trinity and instead embracing the unity of God.

(I also, by the way, appreciate Benjamin Rush’s assertion that faithful Universalists must commit to social justice, which he calls “an unescapable consequence of Universalist faith.”)

Rich’s theology was called “Death and Glory”; unlike other Universalists who believed there is some punishment for sins after death but then eventual reconciliation with God, Rich said no – a loving God doesn’t want to see us suffer. In a world where a loving God exists, we have room to reconcile to each other, to work out our issues, to confront our sins, knowing that every step we take toward the good is another step toward the Divine. For me, it’s encouraging to think I don’t have to rely on some magical thinking to be saved from a mythical hell. Every mistake I make, every trauma I suffer, every sin I commit – everything I do to heal, reconcile, rectify, brings me closer to God and those around me.

Some find this theology too freeing – if there’s no eternal threat, why do good, they suggest. And I know it’s an issue people have long debated. But what I know is that it is human nature, for the most part, to do good – to act in altruistic ways, to nurture, to help, to want to improve the world. People want to be in right relations with other people. And when we do this, we create a more harmonious space. Universalism tells us that this isn’t an exclusive club, where only some go to heaven, and the only way you get in is by believing and/or doing exactly the right things. Univeralism tells us we’re all part of the club, and we have to do right by ourselves and each other in this world, while we can. And this is what I think the creator-creating God (see process theology) wants too.

So maybe I’m a radical process Universalist. Whatever the label, with this set of theological perspectives I feel loved, and compelled, and nurtured, and yes, in awe of the expansiveness of the Divine and of human potential.

I’ve spent the better part of the last two days puzzling over Theodore Parker’s “The Transient and Permanent in Christianity”… and I honestly have no idea what to make of it.

I am with Parker when he talks about the permanent being truth, which he identifies as finding in God and Jesus. I see what he means when he argues that ritual, dogma, even biblical texts are transient, and we shouldn’t use them as our barometer for truth.

But what I am struggling with is the inevitable conclusion – that we don’t need ministers telling us what the scriptures mean, that we don’t even need scripture to know the truth of Jesus, that we only need our own experience. I want to ask Parker how we can know about Jesus if we discard the New Testament.. are we to only seek our particular, individual impressions? Rely on faulty oral tradition with a healthy dose of skepticism?

In my youth, I was highly attracted to the transcendentalists – I was all about the personal, individual experience of the transcendent God. And maybe I still am to some degree. But I find as I get older that we have rituals, stories, knowledge that we can share through the ages – traditions passed down through the collective conscious/unconscious – that are valid and crucial to being humans freely seeking.

I am willing to have my thoughts on Parker disproved – it may be that my interpretation is wrong. But I find myself in reading him, longing for something to hold on to.

This week, in our UU polity/history course (taught by the marvelous Rosemary Bray McNatt), we looked at our history, in particular our European roots.

This stuff is important, because context matters. It matters that theologians, ministers, and other thinkers – in different times and places – questioned the validity of the doctrine of the trinity. It matters that they puzzled over the freedom to practice religion for themselves. It matters that no matter how hard people tried, these anti-trinitarian and free church thoughts kept cropping up… in Spain, in Switzerland, in Poland, in Transylvania, in England.

Why does it matter? Why should we care about context?

To me, if we don’t know where we came from, we can’t know what formed us and what we bring into the future. Sure, on a daily basis, it doesn’t matter that John Bidle wrote unitarian tracts that got volumes of argument in response. It doesn’t matter on a daily basis that beliefs we hold sacred were considered such heresies, people were actually put to death.

But we must remember our history; we must embrace the fact that we are heretics, daring to question the status quo, so that we have the strength to question the status quo in our modern world – the status quo who claims to be Christian but doesn’t act like Jesus, the status quo who turns a blind eye to the world’s woes in order to focus on the self, the status quo who fears being called out for the sin of certainty.

When we talk about exemplars and pioneers in our congregations, we are often talking about people like James Reeb, Harriet Tubman, Albert Schweitzer, and Dorothea Dix – people who stand out in our relatively modern American history. But we should also be talking about Michael Servetus, Farenc David, John Bidle, and others who dared to stand up even in the midst of major Christian reformation and call for more freedom and more reason.