A couple of weeks ago, I witnessed a Unitarian Coming of Age ceremony for the first time, and I was reminded of nothing so much as my own high school yearbook.
Back when I graduated from high school, we were asked to write a statement of vision for the rest of our lives, but to keep it short - in 30 words or less. I rebelled against the narrow process. My statement of vision was this: "My vision for life is too large to be expressed in 30 words or less."
I realize now that, ironically, my statement actually did express a vision for life in 30 words or less. The vision of life is that individual purpose cannot be adequately contained by the rules that make society convenient.
I saw the same vision in the minds of some of the Unitarian youth. As part of their Coming of Age, the youth had been asked to write and present statements of their own beliefs. Among the guidelines were that each youth's statement would need to be three minutes or less in length when spoken.
Out of the ten youth that participated, three stood up and presented statements that their beliefs could not be adequately expressed in three minutes or less.
One could regard these statements as kind of cop-out, an attempt by teenagers to evade a task that they did not want to complete. That interpretation, however, misses the importance of the fact that the teenagers, after being guided for years by a church, decided that they did not want to go along with that church's rituals, and felt capable of standing up before the members of the church and saying exactly that.
That open rebellion, and the acceptance of it by the Unitarian church's membership, indicates something important about the character of Unitarian Universalism - that the church's central creed is the rejection of creeds as a means for the structuring of life. Indeed, Unitarian Universalism is structured upon a few general statements of vision, but among these statements is the statement that Unitarian Universalism cannot be defined by any of those statements of vision, and that no member of the church must accept any of the statements as true.
It is for this reason that Unitarian Universalist churches can contain Christians and atheists, Buddhists and Wiccans, humanist philosophers and people who have no label to describe their beliefs.
Many people make fun of Unitarians for this flexibility, accusing Unitarians of being wishy washy milquetoasts. These people perceive something wanting in Unitarians - a determination to lead a mentally disciplined life in which ideas are critically examined, adhered to if worthy and rejected if unworthy. This criticism does match the attitude of some Unitarians Universalists, who have chosen the church because they were raised as members of it, or because it provides a comfortable environment in which they never feel that they have to take a stand.
For other, more discerning Unitarians, there is in their flexibility something more than just an avoidance of the work of asserting and then adhering to a particular principle. These Unitarians align themselves with the rejection of principles as something akin to a principle in itself. That sounds like a contradiction, but it isn't, because these Unitarians don't follow the rejection of principles as an absolute principle. Even this is, for them, a suggestion of the right way to proceed, not a requirement.
Given the propensity of many Unitarians to talk about God, or even specifically Biblical characters like Jesus or Abraham, I have for a long time regarded Unitarians as somewhere between atheists and Christianity. Historically, this is the case. Unitarian Universalism arose out of Christianity, and some of its members still fall prey to the tendency to regard Christianity as a default of belief.
For those Unitarians who are able to think more broadly, the Unitarian Universalist position is a different one. People who describe themselves as atheists may regard themselves as further away from Christianity because they completely reject the idea of God. However, in its more broadly perceptive aspect, although it includes the freedom for its members to believe in a cosmic God and to focus life around that God, Unitarian Universalism goes further than atheism, asserting that whether or not God exists is not the point.
People who regard themselves as atheists remain defined in reaction to God belief. They name themselves according to their stand apart from belief in God. However, in a sense, that rejection remains accepting of the question of God as a central question in life.
For the person who truly does not believe in the existence of God, as opposed to someone who merely rejects the agenda of God-believers, the question of whether God exists is no more central than the question of whether dinosaurs went extinct because of an asteroid.
Contemplative Unitarians go further than atheism because they recognize that it is possible to organize a church that is not defined according to belief in God, or particular belief at all. That stance does not just reject Christianity. It demotes Christianity from the center, accepting that it will still be important for some people, but proposing that Christian belief no longer be given a special place above all other beliefs.
In doing so, the most reflective non-Christian Unitarians accomplish something that mere atheists do not: Instead of just rejecting the concept of God, they reject the frame that God-belief has placed upon the world. They are able to go further than atheists in leaving behind the hard lines of thought drawn around the all-defining idea of God. They are able to escape the canvas of Christianity in a way that atheists are not, and are able to move along dimensions of thought not imaginable to those obsessed with the question of whether God exists.
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