Unitarian Universalism 101

By Eric Burch

Delivered at First UU Congregation of Second Life

On Nov 30, 2008

>> Chalice Lighting.
The flaming chalice is one of the symbols of Unitarian Universalism.
Many Unitarian Universalist gatherings start with the lighting of a chalice and the recitation of some words,
not only services, but meetings and even informal dinners in homes.
Every month, the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists has a "Global Chalice Lighting"
and distributes a reading that many congregations use for one service every month.
The following is the November 2008 chalice lighting:
 ---
Que este cáliz, que encendemos juntos aquí, impregne e ilumine este lugar,
aclarando en nuestros corazones la dirección a tomar, que solemos olvidar durante la semana que va a partir.

Que sus haces de luz brillen profundamente en el alma,
prendiendo en su interior sabiduría nueva y nuevos proyectos.  
Que simbolicen la luz del deber y el entendimiento y el esplendor de la justicia, la verdad, y que nos den calma.

May this chalice, that we are lighting here together, pervade and light this place,
showing in our hearts the right direction to take, and that we not forget during the following week.

May its rays of light shine deeply in our souls,
kindling new wisdom and new projects inside us that
symbolize the light of duty and understanding and the magnificence of justice and truth,
and bring peace to us.

 -—from the Coruña congregation, Unitarian Universalist Society of Spain

>> Opening Song.
Music is an important part of UU services.
The communal expression of ideas, sung in a group, binds us together.
Unfortunately, SL isn't the best place for us to try to sing together; small groups have sat and sung here, but more than about 5
simultaneous people on voice chat causes problems.
We do have some recordings made in UU churches, and we're going to use some from Nashua, New Hampshire.

Our welcoming song "Come Come Whoever You Are" is sung many places to gather the congregation; the words are from
the 13th century Sufi poet Jalalud'din Rumi.
This next song "Spirit of Life" was written about 25 years ago by Carolyn McDade, and many UU congregations, including my RL
church, sing it every week as a sort of doxology.
In just a few lines it manages to express a hint of the emotion that binds our community:

http://www.koober.org/19Oct08/spirit_of_life.mp3

Spirit of Life,
 come unto me.
Sing in my heart all the stirrings of compassion.
Blow in the wind,
 rise in the sea;
Move in the hand,
 giving life the shape of justice.
Roots hold me close;
 wings set me free;
Spirit of Life,
 come to me, come to me.

>> Joys and Concerns.

Now is the time of the service when we say our Joys and Concerns.
If there is something that has recently happened you wish to share, happy or sad, you may say it now.


We know that there are joys and sorrows in our hearts not said here.
Hold them, and use the power of this community to help you in your time of need,
or with your joy may it be increased.

>> Offering.

The operation of this fellowship, like any UU fellowship, depends on the time and talents people give to help out.
Not only do we have the services here, but you can drop in at times and find people just hanging out and chatting.
Being here, now, is a great contribution.
Another way you can help is to send some L$ our way.
There is an offertory basket in the front the sanctuary, always available for your donations.

If you are interested in leading a service or other event here at UUSL, there is a yellow box you can touch for information, behind you.
You can lead a discussion group, or a "hang out and gossip"--whatever; we have a meeting circle that a few groups have used.
If you want to lead a service, our free pulpit welcomes interesting discussion.
You can IM me anytime; in fact, there are seven logical follow-ons to this service that I can help you with:
if you are a UU and have a story about one of the principles it could become an interesting service.

>> Reading
The reading is the "Principles and Sources" of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations:

We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote
    * The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
    * Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
    * Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
    * A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
    * The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
    * The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all;
    * Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

The living tradition which we share draws from many sources:

    * Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures,
which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
    * Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice,
compassion and the transforming power of love;
    * Wisdom from the world's religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
    * Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
    * Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us
against idolatries of the mind and spirit;
    * Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and
instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.

Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith,
we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision.
As free congregations we enter into this covenant, promising to one another our mutual trust and support.

>> Homily "Unitarian Univeralism 101"

We have a few new avatars attending services here, and one of the most frequently asked questions is "What is Unitarian Universalism?"
I think it may even be asked by some of the people who have been here for a while, and I would
say we ask the same questions at times in our Real Life congregations.

Literally, "Unitarian Universalist" represents the merger of two Protestant Christian denominations in 1961.
Christian Unitarians are "anti-Trinitarian"--there are no three manifestations of one God; Jesus is a great teacher, but
had no more divine nature than anyone else.
(Note how I worded that: we all have a divine nature.)
Ultimately there is only one God.
Christian Universalists believe in universal salvation, that Jesus died for the redemption of all sins.
All of us are going to heaven--everyone.

The Unitarian movement started in Eastern Europe in the 16th century--indeed today there are many Unitarian churches where worship appears
to be identical to the Catholic mass--about the only external difference is married clergy and some different hymns.
Joseph Priestly, who first isolated oxygen, was a English Unitarian minister forced from his home in 1791 and
founded the first Unitarian church in the United States near Philadelphia.
Congregationalist churches in New England, where the members of a church determine the nature of their worship,
started accepting the Unitarian ideas soon after; throughout the Northeast the denomination spread.
The First Parish Church of Plymouth, Massachusetts today is a Unitarian Universalist church--Thanksgiving in the USA
has acquired Unitarian Universalist roots!
Unitarians, questioning the dogma that was the core of orthodox Christianity, started to question other aspects of their faith.
Knowledge revealed to only a few was discarded--starting about 125 years ago the denomination was becoming less Christ-centered.
Today, maybe the most theological thing you could say there is "one God"--but the definition of "God"
is subject to thoughtful and open discussion.
I like to say that sometimes God is a set: for Trinitarians, a set of three; for Jews and Muslims, a set of one;
for Atheists, the null set; and for Buddhists, possibly the set of everything, or no set at all.

The Univeralist church started in the United States in the late 1700's.
It spread thoughout the US Midwest as the country moved westward; in 1830 it was one of the larger religious denominations.
Univeralists were early abolitionists and advocated women's rights; the first woman to attend a seminary, Olympia Brown,
was ordained a Universalist minister in 1863.
There have been several universalist movements through the ages, and not only Christian universalists.
Writing and revising statements of common Principles has been a Universalist tradition for over 100 years.

The Unitarians and Universalists had been cooperating for nearly 75 years before the merger in 1961.
Before then, they shared a common youth group and a common religious education program,
and cooperated in ventures such as the Service Committees.

For a small denomination, there have been many notable Unitarians and Universalists.
Samuel Adams and John Molson were Unitarians--I'll drink to that!
There is currently one UU in the US Senate, and two in the House of Representatives; a lower number than usual.
And even though we are traditionally a pacifist denomination, two of Clinton's Secretaries of Defense (Bill Perry, Bill Cohen) are UU.
 - - -

There is no creedal test for being a Unitarian Universalist; no one set of words is sufficient to describe any one person's beliefs.
Indeed, one common religious education class UUs attend at many churches is called a variation of "Writing Your Own Theology."
If anything, we try to live a principle-centered life, and the seven principles enumerated in the reading is one set.
The lawyers among us will note that the covenant statement in the reading applies only to the congregation as a whole, and not any individual.

We call ourselves theologically liberal; we are proud that our denomination is open to consider new ideas.
Since 1970, we have been openly supporting the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgenered community;
many of our congregations are "Welcoming Congregations" where we actively support GLBT causes.
There are many other interest areas with support groups in the UU world,
including Humanist, Christian, Buddhist, Earth-Centered, and Mystic.
Our services range in flavor from Christian to Buddhist to Jewish to Earth-Centered; we celebrate a holy day a few times a month.

In future weeks we can consider each of the Principles individually.
Collectively, they describe a set of related values, expanding from the individual to all existence.
The Sources reflect our heritage, and the various streams that have merged to make up our denomination.
 - - -

People who study "church polity" will tell you that most religions have three different models for how they are structured:
 - Episcopal:  Clergy, with a hierarchy of bishops, guide doctine,
 - Presbyterian:  Laity, with a hierarchy of elders and some clergy, guide doctine, and
 - Congregational:  Every congregation stands alone, with no overall doctrinal guidance.

Unitarian Universalists are congregational: each congregation calls its ministers, and each congregation is free to determine
its own theological direction.
Some congregations are "fellowships," which traditionally do not have a professional minister, but instead depend on the members
to minister amongst themselves, or depend on the assistance of a minister from another congregation; UUSL is more of a fellowship.
Not all UU congregations call themselves "churches", but some use the term "society," "community," "fellowship," or "congregation";  
in Oak Park, Illinois you can find Frank Lloyd Wright's "Unity Temple," erected while he was a member there.

Organizationally, Unitarian Universalist congregations have membership in the Unitarian Universalist Association, or "UUA."
The UUA provides organizational advice and structure, ministerial certification (or "fellowship"), tax-exempt status, and
religious education programs member congregations can use.
The UUA maintains programs and participates with various organizations, seminaries, and international organizations.
It runs a publishing house (Beacon Press) and a magazine (UU World, online at http://uuworld.org/ ).  
Congregations who enter into covenant with the UUA are bound by the Principles, and other obligations.

Whereas other religious groups have a cathedral or other "mother church" as their headquarters, if you visit the main
offices of the UUA, at 25 Beacon Street in Boston next to the Massachusetts State Capitol, you will find that the
first floor is a bookstore.

As congregations, we meet every year in "General Assembly" to discuss the business of the denomination and other things.
One difference we have from other denominations is that we review the basic statements of our faith.
This year the Commission on Appraisal is completing a two-year-long review of the Principles and other foundation statements,
and this summer during "GA" we will vote on updating these statements, including the Principles.
(If you are RL UU perhaps I may see you in Salt Lake City this June 24-28.)

Not all groups that call themselves Unitarian Universalist are member conregations of the UUA, like this little fellowship here in SL.
But there are people in the UUA who are watching what we are doing here, now: we have a few UU ministers
and members of the UUA staff who drop by SL, and possibly even sitting in our little group right now.
Many, but not all, of the principals running this little fellowship are RL UUs.
This virtual church has been written up in the UU World magazine, and has been featured on some UUA web sites.
 - - -

I was raised a Catholic; I have a few uncles-x-times-removed who are priests; my grandmother was nearly a nun and
a few close male relatives went to seminary to become priests, dropping out just before they took their vows.
I'm one of the few non-Catholics in my extended family; when I visit my parents I sometimes attend Mass with everyone else.
I really had a serious problem with "revealed knowledge"; accepting something as true blindly, especially when
it seemed to not really make any sense, and that made the whole dogma start to collapse for me.
Yes, as a child you blindly accept what is told to you, but once you nibble at the tree of knowledge
the old tales, while perhaps teaching a moral lesson, no longer make sense as being literally true.

People have said to me that "well, string theory in physics also requires a leap of faith."
That may be true; I rely on people who may have dubious purposes to present those ideas.
But no-one was every thrown in jail for saying "plate tectonics is how the earth was shaped" or "protons
are composed of quarks, which are further decomposed into vibrating strings."
Yes, notable people were put under house arrest by saying "the earth moves around the sun," but that was by a
religious court: the earth does not move, if you interpret some Bible verses. (Psalm 19:6, I Chronicles 16:30, Ecclesiastes 1:5)
We have observed speciation caused by natural selection; some religious folks are upset because that is thought to contradict the
literal reading of the first two stories of the Bible--but I digress.

Unitarian Universalism works for me two ways:

First, it answers the question "How does one live an ethical life?"
Some people claim that there are absolute moral and ethical rules for living life.
I would say that is not true; take "thou shalt not kill."
Governor George W. Bush signed execution orders for 152 inmates;
his direct, conscious actions led to the deaths of those individuals.
Some would argue that his actions were moral and justified; others would disagree.

The Seven Principles have given me, as an individual, guidance for making correct choices.
The first two, especially: "affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every individual"
and "justice, equity, and compassion in human relations."
All person have inherent worth; I must always look beyond how someone presents themselves at first.
The second Principle tells me that I should strive to counter disadvantage with justice,
treat my peers with equity, and when I encounter injustice by others, to use compassion in sanctions.

The second thing Unitarian Universalism gives me is a community to live my values in the world.
As an individual, I can live the Principles, but with minimal effect on the world at large.
I want the world to live my Principles.
The Unitarian Universalist Church of Rockville, Maryland gives me opportunities to help the world at large, and the UUA allows the
quarter-million Unitarian Universalists in North America to speak as a united force for living our Principles.


>> Discussion.
Smaller UU fellowships, and here in Second Life, many times will follow the homily with a discussion.
In larger congregations, the discussion will wait until the coffee service.

If you are a UU, how do the Principles guide your life, if at all?

If you are stumbling into UU, would you like to see the Principles again?  

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