American Unitarian Conference

Promoting Monotheism in the American Unitarian Tradition


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Originally Published by the American Unitarian Association, Boston, Mass., date unknown, likely late 19th century.

"One hope, one faith, one love, restore The seamless robe that Jesus wore."

Sometimes a railroad train, moving rapidly, comes to a misplaced switch, and runs off on a wrong track. We can imagine it possible that, in a heavy fog, such a train might run for many miles on some branch road, far away from its true route, without the mistake being observed.

Christianity was switched off in somewhat this fashion, pretty early in its history, and has been running on the wrong track, for many centuries. Originally, it was a great spiritual movement, an effort to reform and regenerate human life. The genius of the race that gave birth to Christianity was intensely practical. The true Hebrew cared for no doctrine, unless this had an immediate application to character and life; to fear God and keep His commandments was the whole of religion. And Christianity was the child of Judaism, with Hebrew blood alone in her veins, full of the same intensely, practical spirit, and aiming at the same great object.

In the ministry of Jesus there is not the least trace of dogmatism, - that is, of insistence upon such doctrines as the creeds are made of. The truth to which he bore constant witness, even to a martyr's death, was not truth of doctrine, but truth of character (John xviii. 37). He rebuked all attempts to draw him into doctrinal discussion and turned the thoughts of his hearers to some practical subject, - as when he was questioned with regard to the mystery of Providence in such an accident as the fall of the Tower in Siloam (Luke xiii. 4). He opposed, not doctrinal errors, but the false spirit and life that were corrupting the nation (Matt. v. 20; xv. 7,14; xxiii. 13). It reveals the real aim of his ministry in the clearest light to observe that he only once (Matt. xvi. 3), and then simply on account of their hypocrisy, attacked the Sadducees, who were the doctrinal unbelievers of the time, - mere sceptics, who doubted immortality and were probably to a great extent what we should call today agnostics and even materialists; but he severely and often assailed the Pharisees, who believed enough, but were false-hearted and faithless. The only unbelief that he ever denounced was the unbelief of hypocrisy. (Compare "hypocrites" in Matt. xxiv. 51, with "unbelievers" in Luke xii. 46. "Doctrine," in Matt. xvi. 12, is "practical teaching.")

But when this great religious impulse, which his word and life originated, continued to extend itself after his crucifixion, it at last overleaped the bounds of the Hebrew race and rapidly spread through the civilized world of that time, which was all thoroughly Greek in mental habits. Christianity was then turned aside from the course which Jesus had intended. For five hundred years the Greek race had been intensely interested in speculative questions, and had developed systems of philosophy which have instructed the world ever since. This new spiritual movement, which we call Christianity, drew into its current many who were familiar with all these philosophic systems, and whose predisposition was very strong to look at the speculative instead of the practical aspect of life, -to theorize and explain rather than to rise to a nobler personal life. The intense earnestness of Christianity, which in the New Testament is intent on awakening in men a spirit of obedience and trust toward God, and thus regenerating human life, became a zeal for correct doctrines. And the emphasis that the New Testament lays upon "faith," or the right religious spirit, as the essential condition of the highest welfare here and hereafter, was changed to a bigoted insistence on correct belief as necessary for obtaining God's favor here and making sure of heaven hereafter.

As the very momentum of a railroad train, that will carry it swiftly and safely to its destination if it keeps the right track, may, on the other hand, hurl it to destruction and cause the most agonizing sufferings to the passengers, if it is switched off by mistake, so the tremendous earnestness that Christianity breathed into the hearts of its disciples, the zeal for saving souls and glorifying God, made the bigotry that the Church fell into, in consequence of this misunderstanding of "faith," a thousand-fold more bitter than it would otherwise have been, and made Christianity, thus perverted, one of the worst instruments of mischief and misery that the world has ever known, And still, as long as "faith " is understood to mean correct belief, dogmatism and bigotry and even persecution are logically inevitable. The Roman Catholic Church, with true consistency, has often asserted its supposed duty to compel assent to the dogmas of the Church, on the ground that correct belief is necessary for salvation, and that the Church is bound to use every means for the salvation of souls, even to the burning of the bodies of heretics, so that their damnable errors may be crushed, and the world be delivered from the frightful peril - as that Church regards it - of false doctrine.

But it is the plain duty of the Christian Church to return to the right track, from which it was so early turned aside. It must study the New Testament more intelligently, clearing its eyesight of the dogmatic prejudices which the influence of Greek philosophy first infused, and recognizing that, in true Christianity, doctrinal belief is of less importance, but the right Spirit and life are vital.

This has been the great aim of Unitarianism. It has been a protest against all these schisms which dogmatism and bigotry have created. It has been an earnest plea for Christian unity, for the only unity that history has shown to be possible, "the unity of the Spirit" (Eph. iv. 3). Eighteen centuries have conclusively proved that the Christian world can never be united on creed or rite. There are true saints in every branch of the Christian Church and even outside of the nominally Christian fellowship, who are all disciples of the one Master, but who cannot agree in their doctrinal beliefs or their modes of worship. These true disciples can be brought together in that "kingdom of God" which is true Christianity, the Communion of the Saints, only as they study more intelligently the words of the Master and receive his spirit. And when they can see that Jesus never required any uniformity of creed and never insisted upon any rites; that he left all these matters of doctrine and worship - the mere externals of religion - to every disciple's conscientious conviction, in absolute liberty, responsible to God alone; that he asked only the right spirit and life, of love to God and man; that a surrender of the heart to his spirit and a cooperation with him in his divine work, was what he meant by "faith" in him, and "following" him, and "believing" in him; and that, not a creed, but a life, not a doctrinal belief about him, but a practical acceptance of his divine spirit, an earnest loyalty to his divine ideals, and a taking sides with him in the great struggle of righteousness and love against worldliness and wrong, even though it be without any verbal profession of discipleship (Matt. vii. 21; xxv. 31-46), was what he meant in asking them to "confess" him to be "the Christ," - then they will understand the gospel as Jesus himself preached it, and become truly his disciples and fellow-laborers.

Unitarianism has been always pleading for this "unity of the Spirit," -not undervaluing the real importance of correct beliefs, but insisting that the right spirit and life are more important. Only by this sympathy in the Christlike spirit can all Christians be brought together to labor, as the Master would have them labor, for the salvation and uplifting of humanity. Therefore it is, that Unitarianism has protested against creeds, when these are made tests of personal Christianity and causes of division in the "body of Christ." Therefore it is, that it has insisted on character as more important than creed or rite; on the spirit of loyalty and trust as the essence of "faith;" and on the filial spirit toward God, "the spirit of adoption," in Paul's phrase, as the essence of Christian faith. It recognizes also the importance of repentance, regeneration, conversion; but it cannot insist upon any particular theory of these great experiences, or require that all Christian experiences shall be of exactly the same type. It is content, if it finds "the fruit of the Spirit" (Gal. v. 22); this is sufficient evidence of a true repentance and regeneration. It would, therefore, include in the Christian fellowship all in whom is manifested the spirit of Christ, and who are sincerely trying to be Christlike, - all who can sincerely offer the Lord's Prayer, which, rather than, any creed, is the true test of Christianity. For of such is the kingdom of God; and whom God accepts we cannot refuse.

"From scheme and creed the light goes out,
    The saintly fact survives;
The blessed Master none can doubt,
    Revealed in holy lives."

2003 American Unitarian Conference