Are Unitarian Universalists Christian? Some are. Some aren’t. The question is as old as the religions themselves, going back to their forming and founding. The answer depends on who gets to answer. If orthodox (that is, “conforming to approved doctrine”) Christians get to determine, then no, we’re not. We’re heretics, which word comes from “those who choose,” because we choose to see and say our truth, our Christianity, as our religion. That’s older than the Protestant Reformation, for the early Christians differed too, some claiming to win and own the authority to say who’s in and who is out. Before it was even called Christian, it was the Jesus Movement, a set of those enthused by the story of Jesus, and they differed too. There’s differences right there in the scriptures between the apostles and disciples. The only one who would know what it meant to be a Christian would be the Christ Himself, that is, or was, Jesus. Would Jesus worship himself? Would he want or allow others to worship him? Would he demand to be believed in and exalted, or be a bit more humble? Would he tithe? Would Jesus be a Christian?
Well, I’ve wandered back to the source to illustrate there have always been various sorts and forms of “Christian.” Who gets to say who’s in and who is out has always been a hodgepodge of grabbing and grasping, some saying they get to say, others saying it otherwise. It’s a simple claim of definition and, hence, contention.
There have always been those who claim to have the authority to say what is orthodox and what is heresy, who is in and who is out, and there have always been those who say what they say has no sway and “we’ll do it our way.” We’re in that tradition.
Historically, of course you remember that both the Unitarian and the Universalist religions were Christian. Each claimed scriptural rationale to restore their Christianity, Unitarian meaning “God is one, not three,” and Universalist meaning there is no hell, for “God loves all.” Both did so amidst the ire of scorn and even the fire of the stake from other Christians.
Dogmatism transcends Christianity, but Christianity has often been dominated by dogmatism. Since the earliest to today it has been met by others doing what they want anyway. There are thousands of Christian religions. It isn’t as though the Protestant Reformation created only a few more orthodox faiths. The diversification goes on. We’re part of it.
Before we got labeled “Unitarian” in the Boston area in the earliest nineteenth century we were called “Liberal Christian.” The Universalists got to be known as the “no-hell Christians” and were one of the largest faiths on the expanding U.S. frontier.
So we’re Christian by historical roots in both Europe and America, but we’re also part of a larger, if undefined, tradition of trying to see and say the truth as best we can. That and the affirming of the wisdom of our freedom to think, say, and live as we choose is part of the larger human endeavor. Freely saying the truth is trans-religious. It resides in the heart of science, literature, and all art. It is at the core of who we are.
So if we UU’s still consider ourselves Christian, it includes honoring the wisdom of freedom in us as we are to think and speak the truth as best we can. This of course differs greatly from those Christians who claim they know the teachings of God and are willing to impose them. They’re also part of a trans-religious phenomenon in humanity: presumptuous bullies.
Well, that’s an extreme. There is always that kind of person in all cultures. Fortunately, we’re protected from them by our secular First Amendment. And more importantly, most Christians are not the scary dogmatists we remember or fear. Most Christians are decent people trying to do what they deem is right. More Christians see through and put up with the dogmatism of their religions than say so. People think for themselves whether encouraged or allowed or not. We happen to be in a tradition of making tradition as we go, trusting a dynamic, pluralistic process that lets us think and speak for ourselves and differ more than most Christian religions tend to do. We’re the liberal Christians who let Humanists, Pagans and Atheists in, and we like them.
It should also be said that our congregations vary in how Christian they are. Some UU’s very much claim their Christianity. Others do not consider themselves Christian at all. Many incorporate it as part of our history and culture along with elements of other faith and philosophical perspectives. The east coast often appears more traditional in form, and the west more experimental, but even that is a generality. And within any congregation are a variety of faith perspectives. Within any one person’s life there is variation over time and even within one’s private perspective and belief.
We could ask whether we want to be considered Christian. Some would; some wouldn’t. I suppose it depends on what Christian means.
If it means the only way to be saved from hell is to have faith that Jesus is the one and only incarnation of God, I doubt there are many Christian UU’s. If it means having faith saves you and that you’ll then be forgiven no matter what you do, and you will probably be bad anyway because you’re born under the curse of Adam’s sin, I doubt many UU’s would say they’re Christian. If it means voting for any sort of candidate who is against abortion and for war, all with an attitude of self-righteous conviction, then I doubt many UU’s are Christian.
But if being Christian has less to do with Paul, Augustine, and the tradition grown on them, and more to do with Jesus and the way he was, then more UU’s will be Christian. One of the more enduring and hopeful aspects of Christianity is Jesus. His daring honesty and kindness, his wide inclusiveness, his challenging teachings – all these call us to be us more fully, like he was, fully.
Plus, now that we know more about those primal Jesus Movement groups of the first and second centuries, the more human and humanistic we see the followers of Jesus were. The gospels of Philip, Thomas, and Mary speak to our intelligence, openness, and heart. (See Elaine Pagel’s exploration of these fascinating pre-canonical writings.)
Buried for two thousand years and discovered only in 1945, the scriptures unearthed at Nag Hammadi showed a Jesus who was more concerned with illusion and enlightenment than sin and repentance. He not only let Mary Magdalene preach, he would kiss her on the mouth. Peter was jealous of Mary and disputed her place as teacher, claiming the lineage for men only, especially himself.
We forget that “Christ” was a title, not Jesus’ last name. Jesus did not claim it for himself; it was applied to him by others, especially John and Paul. Paul never knew Jesus, yet he claimed to know Christ.
Centuries later, Augustine would expand on Paul to justify the sacraments and the authority of the church. When Constantine converted to Christianity in 313, it was partly a political move building on Augustine’s teachings that God rules through the bishops and the emperor. Because we are fallen beings, we need to be ruled, Augustine reasoned. Yet, John Chrysostom argued that we are created in the image of God. It is by our free and common decision that we arrive at self-rule. Living under the emperor was the result of sin, not its fix, Chrysostom explained. Government rules by force, he complained. We, however learn how to live with liberty and justice.
We know that Augustine prevailed and that Christianity soon became the established religion of the empire, imposed by decree. Dogmatic force became the way of the church, from forming the canon to the Inquisition. Christianity came to resemble the Roman soldiers more than Jesus.
It took eons for sensible religion, humanistic freedoms, and science to emerge from the certitudes of the church. The Unitarians questioned the inflated status of Jesus and pointed out that the Trinity, so important in the rituals of the Catholic Church, was not scriptural. Nor was the concept of hell, the Universalists explained. Like the trinity, hell was a construct in the minds of some. It was the ultimate fantasy of cruel, dogmatic minds.
Christianity had come to insist death could be overcome by belief in Jesus as the Christ. It cited miracles in the Bible as evidence of this assumed truth. “If he did not rise,” said Paul, “our faith is in vain.” But Emerson mocked this reliance on miracles and advised the young ministers at Harvard that the miracles of the bible were as some monster while the miracles of natural existence spoke constantly around them and in them. “Historical Christianity,” Emerson said, “has dwelt, dwells, with noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus,” blocking the spontaneous love in us, resulting in “the friend of man is made the injurer of man.” Rather, he urged, “always the seer is a sayer.” He bemoaned the result of not having primal religion in us. “Genius leaves the temple to haunt the senate or the market. Literature becomes frivolous. Science is cold… Society lives to trifles…” Rather, we need to know and show that “God is, not was.”
The young Theodore Parker expanded this, teaching that the truths of Christianity rested not on fantastic miracles but the truths of the Christian frame of mind and heart itself. Emerson and Parker were scandals of their time, heretics. They sought to awaken souls to the miracles of the natural world and the wonders of the inner. Come alive in this life, they taught, not some fancied afterlife.
Decades later, Kenneth Patton developed an inspiring set of readings and rituals designed to relate us to the natural world, both outer and inner. His church depicted an atom at one extreme, a galaxy at the other, with worshipers in between. The free-thought and humanist aspects of an honest, living religion found home in our Unitarian and Universalist churches.
If Christianity rests on dogmatism and miracles then UU’s aren’t Christian. If Christianity rests on inclusivity, rationality, kindness, forgiveness and being alive in one’s being like Jesus was alive in his, then UU’s are more likely to be Christian. If Jesus was tuned into God in a way that all humans can be, UU’s can be Christian.
If Christianity is owned by those who wish to keep it a matter of belief in Jesus as God in a way no one else is, the Bible as complete and inerrant, and the sacraments a magical way to fix our sins, then I suppose not only would we not be Christian, we wouldn’t want to be. Why identify with and support that which you don’t believe and wouldn’t recommend? But to leave the definition to the dogmatists is also to mock the life of Jesus and all those who tried to come alive in the ways he showed us to live. Because Paul claimed to know Christ in his way doesn’t mean we can’t in ours.
If Jesus was one with God like mystics of the western and eastern worlds also experience, if he cared for humans despite their labels, if he spoke his truth despite pressure, if he invites us to live so totally, then we can identify with him. If “Christ” means that in us that is of God that we relate to and activate because of his inspiring example, then we’re more likely to want to be Christian.
The long and short of it is that this consideration is an old one. I do not resolve it for us. We decide and declare as we go. All told, after all the history and the persistent notions of sin and salvation, after all the other strains that have come into our fold, from humanistic to pagan, I would suppose we were Christian but have grown to something beyond it. What label to call it, I leave for you to decide.
For the UU’s of Grants Pass
© March 7, 2010