One of the important aspects of Unitarian Universalist theologies is the belief that there is no one way to comprehend the ultimate source of all being. No book, no faith system, no single epiphany, no religious authority can capture the entire mystery of the cosmos, which some call “God.”
Unitarianism and Universalism merged as a unified religion in 1961. This merging was centuries in the making, as Unitarians, Universalists and their forebears carved a system of being and believing tied to our character and principles of relating to ourselves, each other and the ultimate. The inspiration for this way of being and believing began with Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus brought a new message into Palestine in an effort to reform the religious sensibilities of his time. He re-imaged God for the people as a being that operates through the power of love. Jesus preached ways of being with one another that would usher in the Kingdom of God on earth. He claimed that the seeds of this kingdom are within each being and that we have the sacred knowledge within to bring about the peaceable realm fostered by the principles of love, compassion, equanimity and justice.
Jesus challenged his followers to embrace the responsibility of bringing forth harmony of being. Jesus taught a theology that was so foreign that few, if any, fully grasped what he was trying to convey. When he was executed, his followers did not have a clear picture of how their lives had been changed, how the mysterious presence of God they felt could be invoked and what was supposed to happen next.
So for hundreds of years, people who wanted to keep the ministry of Jesus alive approached the wisdom from many different perspectives. There was no single standard of belief in Christianity for three centuries. In 325 CE, Emperor Constantine wanted to convert to Christianity. He was aware of a growing discord rising about the nature of Jesus, whether he was God or not entirely God, or completely human. Constantine called the first ecumenical council of Christian bishops to figure it out; whatever was determined would be the accepted religion of the Holy Roman Empire. It was at this council that the nature of Christianity shifted from an ethically based religion, claiming Christianity by the way you lived your life, to a creedal religion, claiming Christianity by what you professed to believe. The shaping of orthodox Christianity as a professed faith was really mandated by a politician.
In the 1560s, Francis David, court preacher of Transylvania, used the term “Unitarian” when arguing the case for the unity of God and the humanity of Jesus. In Transylvania, a country then nestled between a Catholic and Muslim empire, with adjoining Protestant, Greek Orthodox and Slav territories, the monarchy encouraged hearty debates amongst religious scholars. Seminal issues were discussed. What was the nature of Jesus: human, divine or a combination of both? Were rituals, like the Lord’s supper, symbolic events or manifestations of the divine? To whom do you pray: God, Jesus, saints? How does one know God, by a direct connection or through religious authorities? What is the nature of God, a trinity or a unity?
Universalism came into view as a religious sensibility in the 18th century in Europe and then gained a foothold in colonial America. The main thrust of Universalism is the vision of a Loving God, one that does not permanently damn people to hellfire. It is humans who create their own hell and fall victim to the consequences of their actions and attitudes.
“The spirit of love will be intensified to Godly proportions,” Universalist minister Dr. George De Benniville preached in 1740, “when reciprocal love exists between the entire human race and each of its individual members. That love must be based upon mutual respect for the differences in color, language and worship…we do not find those differences obstacles in love. Preach the Universal and Everlasting Gospel of Boundless Universal Love for the entire human race, without exception and for each one in particular.”
Roger Sanders is the Sheridan Unitarian Universalist Fellowship representative to the Sheridan Ministerial Association. This article is excerpted from a presentation by Rev. Lisa Ward at the Chautauqua Institute on July 19, 2013, titled “A Bit of the Sense of God in Unitarian Universalism.”