For those who are raised in Unitarian Universalist communities, Unitarian Universalist values are in their DNA. For those who come to Unitarian Universalism from other religious traditions or none, Unitarian Universalist values are typically an expression of what they already believe. In a sense, UU is in their blood too. Those newer to UU express this as the experience of discovering that they were Unitarian Universalist all along but didn’t know it, or as a feeling of coming home. So whether raised inside or outside Unitarian Universalist communities, for those who become members, UU is part of who they are. It becomes part of their identity.
And yet, claiming this identity can be another matter altogether. Anyone who has tried to explain Unitarian Universalism to someone else soon learns the challenges. We do religion differently from more orthodox traditions. There is no single sacred source and no shared creed. There aren’t rigid dogmas or absolutes or commandments. There is no one way to express what we value. Part of our Unitarian Universalist religion is its openness. This is the part that often confuses people, including Unitarian Universalists.
It’s a beautiful and freeing aspect of this faith. It’s also part of why we can find ourselves challenged to articulate our UU identity. It isn’t automatic. Unitarian Universalism doesn’t offer easy answers. Instead it asks us to define our spiritual path. Unitarian Universalism doesn’t hand us a set of ready made beliefs nor does it stay the same. Instead we must each do the work of examining our Unitarian Universalist identity on a regular basis. This examination and reflection is first and foremost for ourselves, for our own healing, well-being, understanding, and enlightenment. What I’m talking about is taking our faith to heart in order to function wholeheartedly in the world with the strong foundation of our values. It requires that we take our faith seriously and spend time understanding what it means to be Unitarian Universalist.
This means understanding our core UU values and beliefs and also being able to articulate how that translates into everyday life. Think about it for a moment. How is UU part of your identity? What does it mean to you to say: “I’m a Unitarian Universalist”? What does that look like in how you live your life?
There’s an often quoted challenge attributed to Rev. Dr. Harry Meserve. He asked, "If You Were Arrested for Being a Unitarian Universalist, Would There Be Enough Evidence to Convict?" What this quote means to me is that religion isn’t meant to be separate from the rest of our lives. It isn’t a Sunday morning thing. It’s meant to inform who we are and how we are. If it doesn’t, if those around us and the world aren’t aware of or touched in some way by those beliefs, then something is out of sync.
If we aren’t sure what our values are or what our religion means to us, when events happen in our lives, we aren’t likely to be able to respond or respond well. We won’t have the tools we need in a time of greatest need. Those tools include our principles and sources. They aren’t creeds or commandments. And they aren’t a set of ideas we are meant to memorize. Instead we are asked to engage them, to consider what they mean to us, and what it means to live from them. Our principles of human worth and dignity, equity, compassion, acceptance and growth, truth seeking and meaning-making, the right of conscience, peace-seeking and world community, and interconnectedness are values we can draw on. Our sources of sacred experiences of wonder and awe, prophetic words and deeds, world wisdom, God’s love, reason and science, and earth-centered spirituality are the core traditions we can draw from. These principles and sources, along with the rituals and relational nature of our spiritual communities, are there to offer solace, encouragement, strength, hope, courage, and the call to justice. If we learn to claim them and make them our own.
Eboo Patel’s story reflects the power of claiming one’s religious identity. He was raised in Chicago in a Muslim family that had immigrated from India. Patel captures a pivotal moment of failure. As a young person, Patel was unable to articulate his Muslim faith. This caused a Jewish friend tremendous pain. Patel remained silent. He says, “We were not equipped with a language that allowed us to explain our faith to others or to ask about anyone else’s. Back then, I thought little about the dangers lurking within this absence.” For Patel, it was one of the greatest failures of his life that he remained silent while his friend endured anti-Semitism. When he reconnected to his own Islamic faith, Patel recognized that his silence was a betrayal of his friend and also of his own Muslim faith and identity. (Eboo Patel, “Introduction” to Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim)
He had failed to live his faith, which called on him to be courageous and compassionate in the face of injustice. He had failed, he says, to commit to faith and social action. There was not enough evidence of his religious identity in the way he was living and acting. He had not claimed the grounding, the roots, on which he might have relied for compassion and justice in an oppressive circumstance. Ultimately, Patel’s failure was a moment of enlightenment that led him back to Islam and the values that would allow him to embrace interfaith and justice work.
The story of Mary Ellen Giess, a Unitarian Universalist, reflects a similar identity crisis. Her religious identity crisis left her at a crossroads. She found herself in a critical moment being unable to claim and draw on her roots of faith.
Giess was raised in a Unitarian Universalist congregation. During college, Giess had an experience that challenged her faith. She came face to face with very conservative Christianity in her friends and also pro-life demonstrations. She describes a particular day when, she says, "there were two men on campus holding huge signs listing all of the people who were condemned to hell: Muslims, feminists, Jews, Democrats—the list went on and on. I was shocked, hurt, humiliated, and angry. I saw myself on that list, and not only that—I saw people I cared about. Furthermore, I didn't feel that I had a strong response to their argument—I had never been forced to defend my own beliefs before."
She also found herself questioning whether religion is itself dangerous. With the help of a campus minister, who she says “was adamant that the kind of Christianity that [she] saw on campus was not representative of all religious belief or even all Christian belief,” she was able to reflect on the complexities of religion and religious belief. This caused her to reexamine her own beliefs. She says she was able to “reclaim [her] Unitarian Universalist identity, which transformed [her] into a more understanding person and has become a real source of strength in [her] life.” (Mary Ellen Giess, UUA Tapestry of Faith, A Place of Wholeness: A Program for Youth Exploring Their Own Unitarian Universalist Faith Journeys, www.uua.org/re/tapestry/youth/wholeness/workshop11/167998.shtml)
This experience ultimately helped Mary Ellen Giess take pride in her religious roots as a Unitarian Universalist and to draw on those roots. Her story demonstrates the strength and pride that can come from claiming one’s religious identity just as Patel’s experience did. Ultimately being able to claim and articulate their religious values made it possible for them to assess and navigate challenging ethical and unjust situations.
Doing that work of understanding what Unitarian Universalism means to us can likewise give us the strength and grounding we need in our lives. It can give us the rootedness that enables us to act in the world in ways that are consistent with what matters most to us.
Unitarian Universalism roots us in times of crisis and heartache. It offers us courage and hope to frame an understanding and response when hundreds of Christians are killed in bombings in Sri Lanka, when Jewish worshipers at the Tree of Life Synagogue are killed, when historically black churches are burned in Louisiana, when immigrants are locked up in detention, when young African American men are shot by police, when transgender people are banned from military service, when the opioid crisis continues to escalate, as millennials are overwhelmed with burgeoning debt and economic issues, when climate change and deregulation devastate the environment, and when there is loss, depression, broken relationships, and other heartaches.
Unitarian Universalism also offers roots in times of celebration. Our faith is rooted in joy. Part of being a Unitarian Universalist has to do with our commitment to beauty, appreciation, enlightenment, wonder, celebration, love, hope, and joy--and it reminds us even amid tragedy of what this life has to offer.
We celebrate the human spirit. We honor births, graduations, retirements, weddings, and the lives of those who have died. We celebrate the cycles of nature, the magnificence of the universe, the awesomeness of the divine, the mysteries of life, the unfolding of wisdom, the achievements of science, and the creativity of art, literature, and music. Unitarian Universalism celebrates pluralism and diversity. It celebrates the cultivation of the mind, body, and spirit. Our ideas, our physicality, and our spirituality are honored as integral aspects of faith.
I haven’t said much about the wings of our faith. For me, the wings are the ways that Unitarian Universalism changes over time and encourages me to change and grow. Revelation is not sealed. As new learning occurs--whether individually or collectively as a spiritual community or as a society--we weave that in. As we learn more through science about the universe and our own minds, as we learn more about what it means to be a truly inclusive community, and as we confront the challenges of our age, our religion changes to reflect what we have responsibly accepted as truth and the meaning we have made. The wings of our faith have meant that we have incorporated new understandings of the divine into our religion, expanding our conception of the sacred and bringing many names for God as well as none. Our religion is lived and evolving. That’s why we call it a living tradition, a tradition that has wings as well as roots.
The work of claiming our faith and allowing it wings is lifelong. In the words of our UU song that many know by heart:
What are your UU roots? What are your UU wings? We need both roots and wings to be whole. We need to know who we are as UUs and what it means to us to say I’m a Unitarian Universalist. And we need to be open to the ever-unfolding nature of the cosmos. May it be so. Amen.