I recently read the three books on Unitarian Universalism: American Universalism, by George Huntston Williams, A Pocket Guide to Unitarianism, edited by Harry B. Scholefield, and Our Chosen Faith: An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism, by John A. Buehrens and F. Forrester Church. Although I have attended a Unitarian Universalist church for awhile, I had not given that much thought until recently to what it meant to call Unitarian Universalism my “religion” or “faith.” A few months ago, I inherited these three books from my grandmother, and I thought it was a good time to learn a bit more about it.
The first of the three that I read was American Universalism, a monograph that Williams wrote for the Universalism Bicentennial in 1970. It is quite dense and I had the sense that likely the vast majority of readers are theology students. It is not written for the general layperson. Williams goes into quite a bit of detail about the beliefs and actions of specific individuals in the history of Universalism, with many references to various published writings and theological terms that I am unfamiliar with. Frankly, I skimmed a bit, but I did get a sense of what Universalism was all about for most of its history. I knew already that Universalism was a religion of universal salvation, in contrast to Calvinist predestination, but it was interesting to see what this really meant in practice. For most of the history of Universalism, it was distinctly Christian, and the universalist part of it was that Christ, as the son of God, died for our sins and therefore we are all already saved. I felt, while reading this book, that the Universalism I am familiar with today, as part of Unitarian Universalism, does not have much relationship to the Universalism of the past. At the same time, I think that learning more about the roots of Universalism is useful to me in better understanding Unitarian Universalism as a whole.
The second book I read, A Pocket Guide to Unitarianism, is quite different from American Universalism. It was published in 1960, just before Unitarianism and Universalism merged, and was intended as a guide for the layperson. Each chapter is by a different minister, covering beliefs, worship, religious education, putting religion into practice, history of Unitarianism, organization of the religion, and the question of how strong this religion is. I found the book mildly interesting, but somewhat bland and dated. Much of the content is consistent with my understanding of what Unitarian Universalism is today, but at the same time it felt distinctly placed in the context of the time period. For example, both the organizational structure and the core set of principles officially adopted by the Unitarian Universalist Association have changed, although I think in both cases the spirit is the same as in 1960. Overall, the book was worth reading for me as it provided me with yet another perspective on this multi-faceted religion, but I wouldn’t particularly recommend it if you are looking for an introduction to the Unitarian Universalism of today. (Note, however, that the UUA may have published a more recent pocket guide that is more relevant to today.)
The third book I read, Our Chosen Faith, was by far the best. It was written in 1989 for the layperson, as an introduction to what Unitarian Universalism is all about. Unlike A Pocket Guide to Unitarianism, it does not try to break down the religion into neat little pockets, laying things out in black and white. Instead, the book is as multi-faceted as the faith. It is structured around the five sources of Unitarian Universalism, with one chapter by each of the two authors on each source. The chapters stand alone, each one a complete essay on one aspect of the faith, complementing each other with their differing perspectives. The writing is accessible to the layperson, but it challenges the reader to think about what they are reading, and to think about what religion and faith mean to them. At the same time, I felt that overall the individual essays in the book come together to present a good picture of what this religion is all about. If you have thought about attending a Unitarian Universalist church before, but you are not really sure if it is for you, I highly recommend this book. (Note: I believe that there is a more recent edition of this book called A Chosen Faith. I don’t know how different it is, but if it is the same authors I’m sure it is just as good). I will leave you with a few quotes from it:
Religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die.
If angels may be defined as the incarnation of the divine in the ordinary, awakening to the miracle of life entails not so much a discovery of the supernatural, but rather a discovery of the super in the natural.
It does not really matter what we may think of the politics or the religion of our fundamentalist neighbors. All that matters is whether we are willing to live up to the promise and power of our own faith. Morality not proved in deeds is always betrayed by words, however right-minded, lofty, and sage. I call this sin.
As important as science is, however, a sound integration of mind and spirit means that the world cannot be saved by mind alone, nor by science alone, nor by reason, nor by technology. As our nuclear age and our ecological crisis so painfully demonstrate, without a larger sense of purpose and relatedness, the products of science and the human mind can themselves become dangerous idols. These relational issues, and issues of purpose, are spiritual in character. At the same time, the various warring sects of religion testify that the products of the human spirit can also become dangerous idols if not brought within a wider and more reasoned perspective.