This book is an introduction to Unitarian Universalism. I’m always interested to investigate different religions, and I know an Anglican minister who recently left the Church of England to join a Unitarian church, so this (among other things) sparked my interest and I decided to buy an introductory book about the movement.
Unitarianism refers to a belief in the unity of God, and is to be contrasted with trinitarianism. Universalism affirms salvation for all people. The two concepts aren’t directly related, but nevertheless the two different churches amalgamated in 1961 to form a single religious body.
Unitarian Universalism (UU) is a relatively small movement, with approximately 200,000 members in North America, 80,000 in Romania and Hungary, around 10,000 in Great Britain and scattered elsewhere in Europe, and small indigenous groups in India, The Philippines, and Nigeria.
The doctrine of Universalism can be traced back to Origen of Alexandria, who was a second-century theologian. But in more recent history, it denotes a distinctive religious movement in America that emerged in the 19th century as a response to Calvinism. In simple terms, Calvinists believe that only an elect group of Christians will be saved, whereas Universalists, as I mentioned, believe everyone will be saved (and no one will go to hell).
The book has two authors, John A. Beuhrens and Forrest Church, who are both UU ministers. Chapters written by Beuhrens and those written by Church alternate throughout the book. It’s an accessible read and at just over 200 pages long it’s not too daunting.
What the book taught me about UU is that it’s an incredibly liberal church. There is a major focus on social justice and also on embracing a wide range of different religious traditions and perspectives. It seems to me that the church is reluctant to say that God exists; instead they use rather vague terms like ‘the forces that create and uphold life’ and ‘the ground of being’ to refer to what Christians, Jews, and Muslims would call God.
It’s interesting that the church uses a lot of Christian language, but substitutes certain words and phrases to water them down. It seems as though to mention the name of God would be considered offensive within the church. For instance, Buehrens writes “…we are all sisters and brothers on this earth, children of one great mystery”. Quite how a mystery can have children I don’t know!
Another example of this is when Buehrens is describing what he says when conducting a marriage ceremony: “May the blessings that rest on those who truly love rest on you and fill you with all love’s grace, both now and forever.” Whereas a Christian would naturally says ‘God’s grace’, here the term ‘love’s grace’ is used which I dare say is confusing at best.
The authors pick and choose Christian scriptures somewhat erratically and they are often used out of context, or even misquoted, for instance on p207 Buehrens quotes Ephesians 4:6 as saying “One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all”. The word ‘you’ here seems to be an addition to the text; I looked up a few translations they all say ‘in all’ rather than ‘in you all’. Maybe I’m being pedantic, but it does change the meaning of the text so is a significant error.
Don’t get me wrong, this book isn’t all bad, and I shouldn’t let my discussion become too theological as this is just a book review rather than a dissertation. On the whole the book is very well-written and gives a great overview of the UU church, pretty much answering all the important questions about the history of the church, its approach to community, ceremony, and worship.
The church is trying to achieve something very difficult in embracing pagan religions alongside the Abrahamic religions and Eastern religions. How can a church that embraces such diverse religious perspectives stand for anything meaningful? On the other hand, there are many liberals that embrace just this kind of all-encompassing approach to spirituality, and they will find much to enjoy in this book.
If you’re interested in Comparative Religion and don’t know much about UU, then I would recommend this book as a good introduction to the church. But if you’re more conservative and believe in the God of the Bible I will just warn you that you might find the approach of the church, as described in the book, somewhat difficult to fathom.