The Unitarian tradition is of unique value to free and rational people everywhere. It is a religious tradition that emphasizes the importance of reason in religion, tolerance and the unity of God. However, the Unitarian movement in North America has gone seriously awry as we enter the 21st Century. The stewards of the Unitarian tradition are allowing the most valuable part of the tradition — the part that is nourishing, fulfilling and true — to wither away.
The American Unitarian Conference is an attempt to reclaim and preserve that part of the Unitarian tradition that is uniquely valuable. The Conference will help build a fulfilling religious community dedicated to the free and responsible search for truth, meaning, communion and love within the Unitarian tradition. The principles of the Conference represent a return to classical Unitarianism. But it is our contention that classical Unitarian principles are fully consonant with modern times and modern life. Indeed, classical Unitarian principles will, in our view, best enable people to lead a rewarding, fulfilling life in a seemingly unanchored, chaotic world. These principles meet the needs of people today better than traditional Christian teaching and better than the “religion” being offered by most Unitarian-Universalist clergy today.
Knowledge and understanding are progressive in a free society. We do not start anew with each generation but instead we build on what those who have gone before us have learned and wrought. Most often, we progress by refining their understanding or extending the frontiers of their insights. Rarely does the truth lie in totally jettisoning what has come before. Reason and experience tell us that centuries of religious tradition, learning and experience should not be lightly jettisoned. There are things to be learned from our religious tradition, whether the Judeo-Christian heritage of the West or our more recent American Unitarian tradition which is an outgrowth of both that broader Western heritage and the Enlightenment.
Because knowledge and understanding are progressive in a free society, our understanding will never remain static. It will evolve as we learn. Because, however, not every novel idea or refinement of existing ideas is true or constructive, no matter how promising it may have seemed, we will sometimes explore pathways that lead nowhere and have to turn back to a previous understanding. We will not always be moving closer to the truth, though that be our purpose.
Just as liberal education is education designed to better prepare the young for the critical thinking necessary to be citizens of a free republic, liberal religion is religion for free men and women exercising their God given rational faculties in assessing the deepest questions about the human condition, our relationship to one another and our role in the Universe.
Many Unitarian Universalist clergy today are uncomfortable even mentioning God in a Sunday service. They are uncomfortable defending reason. They are uncomfortable with the proposition that people are responsible for their own actions, preferring not to be judgmental or critical but to offer therapeutic intervention instead. They prefer to avoid fundamental religious, ethical or moral questions about right or wrong, our purpose in life or how we should treat one another.
A tolerant and inclusive faith need not be devoid of religious or ethical principles. Indeed, a religion in which virtually anything goes is a religion that either despairs that truth can be known or collapses in a destructive relativism in which all moralities and all religious principles, no matter how inconsistent with reason, experience or human nature they may be, are equally worthy. Religion should help people seriously grapple with the most basic issues in life. It should not abdicate this responsibility by saying that there is no right and wrong, that there may or may not be a God or greater force or a higher purpose than our own wants or desires, that all religious impulses and all religious practices are equally true or worthy.
This said, a deep humility is in order when addressing religion. This humility is an integral part of the Unitarian tradition and one aspect of what distinguishes it so fundamentally from other religious traditions. We know that we see through the mirror dimly. We know that we can but rarely pierce the cloud of unknowing. This humility, I think, comes more naturally to those that seek a religion that is consistent with the evidence we as a species have so laboriously compiled about the nature of the universe and that does not require the suspension of our rational faculties – a religion, in other words, that fully embraces the scientific enterprise and modernity. It is humility that is doubly warranted when we examine the evil that has been done in the name of religion, or quasi-religions like Marxism, when a group becomes too sure it has a monopoly on insights about the truth.
Our Unitarian faith is a religion, not only a philosophy. It is a religion, not a therapeutic method. The Unitarian tradition is a spiritual tradition that affirms our spiritual nature and affirms the truth of religious experience that is ineffable, beyond the ability of reason to fully describe. It is a religion that affirms the existence of something beyond ourselves — a God or force or divinity that we can actually encounter and draw sustenance from. A God that created the universe, and gave us the gift of free will. This gift enables us to choose which path to follow, just as God chose the nature of the universe and laid down the laws of nature.
It is incumbent on us to use our reason and the inspiration we draw from religious experience to create a life that has purpose, to live well and to lead a life that is morally upright. It is the purpose of religion to help us better paint that canvass. By exercising our free will, we create the fabric of our lives and therefore become co-creators of the Universe. It is in this sense that we are indeed created in God’s own image.