A Short Guide to UNITARIANISM

Every year on 18th September, Khasi & Jaintia Hills gets a public holiday for Unitarian Day, a day when Hajom Kissor Singh Lyngdoh Nongbri led the first real Unitarian church service in his home in Jowai in 1887. Apart from the small and influential population of Khasi-Jaintia Unitarians for whom the day has historical and personal meaning others just enjoy the holiday without knowing the historical significance of the Day. For a small faith group worldwide as well as locally, Unitarians suffer from ignorance of society at large. Are Unitarians Christians? What do Unitarians believe in? What does Unitarian mean? So here it goes – a short guide to Unitarianism for you to read this 18th September. Text source

Hajom Kissor Singh
Founder of Unitarianism in Khasi-Jaintia Hills

 

FREEDOM, REASON AND TOLERANCE

Unitarianism is an open-minded and welcoming approach to faith that encourages individual freedom, equality for all and rational thought. There is no list of things that Unitarians must believe: instead we think everyone has the right to reach their own conclusions.

We see different opinions and lifestyles as valuable and enriching, and don’t discriminate on grounds of gender age, race, religion or sexual orientation. Although Unitarianism has its roots in Jewish and Christian traditions it is open to insights from all faiths, science, the arts, the natural world and everyday living.

Unitarians characteristically:

  • base beliefs on rational enquiry rather than external authority;
  • accept beliefs can change in the light of new understanding and insight;
  • form principles from conscience, thinking and life experiences;
  • hold reverence for the earth and the whole natural system of which we are part.

We welcome anyone with an open mind who shares our tolerant and inclusive views, who embraces the freedom of being in a faith community that doesn’t impose creeds or specific beliefs, and who bases their approach not on dogma but on reason.

YOUR OWN PERSONAL FAITH, FREE OF DOGMA

Most Unitarians are happy to acknowledge the movement’s roots in christian tradition. Some are glad to call themselves free or liberal Christians. Equally, many find it difficult to come to terms with Judeo-Christianity. Among Unitarians you will find people who have Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Humanist, Buddhist, Pagan and Atheist perspectives – as reflected in our varied and diverse congregations.

Unitarianism encompasses a wide variety of beliefs and there is no creed or holy doctrine that Unitarians must follow or believe. Rather we think respect for integrity is preferable to the pressure to conform, and that the final authority for your own personal faith lies within your own personal conscience.

Our Faith page contains a more detailed information on Unitarian beliefs, including representative thoughts on ‘God’, Jesus and the bible.

A PROGRESSIVE HERITAGE

Throughout our history Unitarians have stood for inclusivity, reason and social justice including gender equality (we’ve had women ministers for more than 100 years), gay rights (we’ve performed same-sex blessings for more than 30 years) and the abolition of slavery.

The earliest organised Unitarian movements were founded in the 16th century in Poland and Transylvania following a move away from the traditional ‘trinitarian’ doctrine of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit towards favouring the unity of one God.

In Britain, Unitarianism was damned as heresy and the death penalty imposed on anyone who denied the trinity. Several early radical reformers professed Unitarian beliefs in the 16th and 17th centuries, some suffering imprisonment and martyrdom. The first Unitarian church in the UK was opened in London in 1774

COMMUNITY WITHOUT CREED

If Unitarians don’t necessarily believe all the same things then why bother getting together at all? Because to us sharing experience, perspectives, differences and ideas is a powerful way to explore and expand our personal ideas of faith. And where better to enjoy that exploration than in a diverse, tolerant community that welcomes each individual for themselves, complete with their beliefs, doubts and questions?

Most Unitarians are happy to acknowledge the movement’s roots in Christian tradition. Some are glad to call themselves free or liberal Christians. Equally, many find it difficult to come to terms with Judeo-Christianity. Among Unitarians you will find people who have Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Humanist, Buddhist, Pagan and Atheist perspectives – as reflected in our varied and diverse congregations.

Unitarianism encompasses a wide variety of beliefs and there is no creed or holy doctrine that Unitarians must follow or believe. Rather we think respect for integrity is preferable to the pressure to conform, and that the final authority for your faith lies within your own conscience.

To build and explore our individual faiths Unitarians are aided and inspired by:

  • the example and spiritual insights of others;
  • writings deemed ‘holy’ and ‘sacred’ by the various faith traditions of humanity;
  • inherited traditions of critical and philosophical thought;
  • the ongoing creative work of artists, musicians and writers;
  • the scientist’s search for knowledge and understanding.

SHARED VALUES

Despite the wide variety of beliefs you will find among Unitarians there is broad agreement on what constitutes our shared values:

  • the nurture of life’s spiritual dimension;
  • the use of reason and honest doubt in the search for truth;
  • mutual respect and goodwill in personal relations;
  • constructive tolerance and openness towards the sincerely-held beliefs of others;
  • peace, compassion, justice and democracy in human affairs;
  • reverence for the earth and the whole natural system of which we are part.

We find that these values form a more effective foundation for true community than insistence on uniformity of belief and doctrine.

ONENESS AND ‘GOD’

We are called ‘Unitarians’ because:

  • we traditionally insisted on the oneness (unity) of God;
  • we affirm the essential unity of humankind and of creation.

Most Unitarians still affirm the oneness of God, but individual definitions of ‘God’ can vary from person to person. For some Unitarians, Christian language about God as a loving, personal power comes closest to their own belief. Others consider the concept of God to be the human ideal against which we measure ourselves, and some avoid using the word God at all because they consider it meaningless.

These are some of the different ways in which individual Unitarians have described how they perceive God:

  • a universal father or mother;
  • a unifying and life-giving spirit, reflective of both masculine and feminine;
  • the source of all being, within which the creative process is unfolding;
  • a primarily inward reality – the “still, small voice”;
  • a symbol for the noblest visions and aspirations of humankind;
  • a ‘great mystery’ about which little can be said.

More important than labels is the general unitarian acceptance that humanity is one and the human person is one. That ultimate unifying principle or spirit is what many unitarians mean today when speaking of ‘God’.

WHAT ABOUT JESUS?

Unitarians regard Jesus highly as a major figure, if not the central figure, in humanity’s spiritual journey.

Generally speaking, he is thought of as a powerful example of integrity, courage and compassionate living, fully and unequivocally human – not a deity – and divine only in the sense that his life and work came to symbolise the divinity and high potential inherent in everyone. Therefore while honouring him, we do not worship him.

THE BIBLE

The bible is valued by most Unitarians as a deep fund of wisdom and insight deserving both attention and respect. But we do not regard it as an unquestionable authority.

We believe the bible should be read in the light of reason, informed by the insights of biblical criticism and scholarship. When Unitarians accept something in the bible as true, we do so because it rings true in our own reflection upon it – not simply because it is in the bible.

Bible extracts are often incorporated in unitarian worship, as are readings from any sacred or secular literature or poetry which is felt to be appropriate and relevant.

HELL AND SIN

When Unitarians speak of hell it is in this-worldly terms. We may use the word to describe the very real states of spiritual desolation and alienation into which human beings can fall. Unitarians do not see Hell as a divinely ordained place of punishment. Indeed, we do not see it as a place at all. Similarly few, if any, unitarians think of the Devil as having any objective existence.

The notion of original sin – that humans inherit a burden of sin from Adam and Eve and are born sinners – finds no favour with Unitarians. A Unitarian view of sin might be the failure to act, speak or think in ways that one knows to be right. Or to fall short of the standards of conduct that our individual faith or ethical system regards as ideal.

The remedy for sin is a process of contrition, repentance, and forgiveness. That is, true regret, a turning away from what conscience condemns, and a loving acceptance of the sinner. The giving and receiving of forgiveness – including self-forgiveness – are necessary for healing to take place.

SALVATION AND LIFE AFTER DEATH

Many Unitarians are wary of the word “salvation”, tending to see it in this-worldly rather than other-worldly terms. We identify it with the deliverance from all that fractures our relationships with each other, with the rest of creation, and with our own true selves – and so from God. Unitarians identify the agent of salvation as healing, dynamic love. This is both channelled through others and derived from some wellspring within ourselves. It is love that brings wholeness and fulfilment through the dissolution of the barriers that divide us.

Unitarians hold a wide variety of beliefs on life after death. Some have a very firm belief in personal survival beyond death while others – probably most – are less categorical. They might talk in terms of the soul or spirit returning to God. They might say the essence of a person is rewoven into the spiritual life of the universe, just as the body’s constituents are reworked into the universe’s physical dimension. Some are interested in exploring the various theories of reincarnation. The persistence of a person’s ideas, genes and continued existence in the memories and lives of those who knew and loved them would be as much as many Unitarians would be prepared to concede.

Whatever our position, most Unitarians take the view that the focus of our attention should be this world. A life well lived is the best preparation for death, whatever may lie beyond it.

EXPLORING OTHER FAITHS

Unitarians recognise that there will always be different ways of understanding and interpreting the human condition. We regard the existence of many diverse expressions of faith as enriching, so we:

  • actively engage in dialogue with people of other faith traditions;
  • promote opportunities for different religions to share their spiritual treasures in worship and celebration;
  • are active locally, nationally and internationally in interfaith and interchurch organisations.

Internationally, we are proud to have been founder members of the International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF) in 1900. This has member groups from all the world’s major faith traditions and a few more besides. Its activities include interfaith dialogue and social action in many countries.

SPIRITUAL AND RELIGIOUS EDUCATION

Unitarian children and adults can participate in thought-provoking and enjoyable religious education programmes, free of doctrine and dogma. The programmes encourage spiritual awakening and development through:

  • helping people to understand and evaluate inherited beliefs and values, and those of others;
  • providing a forum for the free and respectful interchange of ideas and insights;
  • encouraging people to ‘build their own theology’ out of the bricks of heritage, experience, intuition and reflection;
  • explore ways in which spiritual values can be applied to life in the world.

Religious education for children is specifically designed to:

  • build on a child’s natural sense of wonder;
  • channel positively the impulse to enquire and create;
  • share stories from our religious inheritance and from other faiths.

History

EARLY UNITARIANISM

The roots of the Unitarian movement lie mainly in the reformation of the 16th century. At that time people in many countries across Europe began to claim the right to read and interpret the bible for themselves, to have a direct relationship with God without the mediation of priest or church, and to set their own conscience against the claims of religious institutions.

Many people came to question orthodox Christian doctrine and to affirm beliefs of their own. These included:

  • the unity or unipersonality of God, as opposed to the doctrine of the Trinity – hence the name ‘Unitarian’;
  • the humanity, as opposed to the deity, of Christ;
  • the worth of human beings, as opposed to ideas of original sin, inherited guilt and innate depravity;
  • the universal salvation of all souls, as opposed to the doctrine that most of humanity is predestined to damnation.

The earliest organised Unitarian movements were founded in the 16th century in Poland and Transylvania. In Britain, Unitarianism was damned as heresy and the death penalty imposed on anyone who denied the trinity. With Unitarianism seen as heresy and specifically forbidden by parliament’s Toleration Act of 1689, several early radical reformers who professed Unitarian beliefs in the 16th and 17th centuries, suffered imprisonment and martyrdom.

The Unitarian approach to looking at God as one became more widespread in the Church of England in the 17th century. John Biddle, a Gloucester school-master often called the father of English unitarianism, wrote and spoke extensively on his views and died in prison in 1662. Samuel Clarke, Rector of St James’ Piccadilly, came under severe censure when his book, The Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity, appeared in 1712 in which he argued that supreme honour should be given only to God, the Father.

For the rest of the century Unitarianism spread significantly amongst dissenters from the established church, later known as nonconformists. It was then that Unitarian thinking in the UK began to express itself in a church organisation. Some English Presbyterians, whose churches were amongst the oldest in dissent, adopted Unitarianism in the second half of the 18th century, to be followed by the old General Baptists, whose Assembly had been formed in 1653. The term applied to Unitarians at this time was ‘rational dissenters’.

MODERN UNITARIANISM

Joseph Priestley (pictured top of this page), the famous scientist and discoverer of oxygen, was the organiser of modern Unitarianism although not before Theophilus Lindsey, Vicar of Catterick, Yorkshire, left the Church of England to found the first avowed Unitarian church in Essex Street, near the Strand in London in 1774. The site remains to this day the headquarters of Unitarianism in Britain.

Unitarianism’s opposition to the state church and its support for the principles of the French Revolution was not popular in Britain, which led to renewed persecution in the 1790s. In America, Unitarianism was a growing force in New England in the late 18th century, where it had evolved out of congregationalism. The USA was to provide the most potent examples of Unitarian thinking and leadership in the first half of the 19th century.

Unitarian churches in the UK were still attacked by orthodox Christians and Unitarianism did not become legal until 1813. It was possibly the only church organisation in the 19th century Christian fold not blown off course by the Darwinian revolution; in fact the movement embraced the new thought as it has, in the main, subsequent scientific advances.

In the 19th century, James Martineau revolutionalised the sterile thinking associated with traditional Unitarian reliance on Biblical texts, taking it forward to a new faith based on reason and the enlightened conscience. Denominational structures were also developed during the 19th century, finally uniting in the present General Assembly in 1928.

Unitarian movements exist in many countries around the world. Most originated independently by process of spiritual evolution similar to that which occurred in Britain. Many are now linked through the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU), founded in 1995.

What Unitarians stand for?

Throughout our history Unitarians have stood for inclusivity, reason and social justice including gender equality (we’ve had women ministers for more than 100 years), gay rights (we’ve performed same sex blessings for more than 30 years) and the abolition of slavery.

We support equality of respect and opportunity for everyone. We totally oppose all oppression and discrimination, including on the grounds of any arbitrary or accidental factors such as race or gender, sexual orientation or religious belief.

PERSONAL MORALITY

Unitarians consider that unless your moral standards are truly your own, then they do not really constitute morality. If they are imposed on you, then they are just a means of social control and nothing more. Of course, a commonly accepted moral framework must exist in any human society. But that is not enough if people don’t also have a personal morality.

Unitarian acceptance of the underlying unity and connectedness of humanity is also important in this context. We are all individuals, with a right to our own beliefs, but we are also members of society with a responsibility to help make it work. As such it is incumbent upon each of us to behave in ways that respect others and make our community, and our world, a better place for everyone.

THE ‘UNITARIAN POSITION’

It is impossible to give the Unitarian position on specific ethical and moral issues. First, there are too many to deal with. Second, Unitarians do not impose a moral orthodoxy any more than a theological one. Individuals are encouraged to arrive at their own conclusions.

On many things, though, there is a near universal consensus. Even then the right to dissent is fully respected and such statements are not seen as binding on all Unitarians, either in the present or the future.

Unitarians approaching any moral issue will seek balance and a stance that affirms love, life, compassion, and justice. We will be conscious, though, that our personal decision is ours alone. We will recognise that other sincere people may reach a different conclusion. Where there are differences, Unitarians seek respectful dialogue. Where there is consensus, we will speak and act together as the times demand.

EQUAL LGBT RIGHTS

Unitarians see human sexuality as a perfectly natural and healthy dimension of our existence. We recognise and value its role in bringing intimacy, tenderness and pleasure to loving relationships.

For the most part, Unitarians take the view that the natural spectrum of sexuality includes both homosexuality and bisexuality. We therefore affirm that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual people have the exact same rights as anyone else, including when it comes to getting married.

We have played an active and leading role in campaigning for equal marriage rights, including emphasising our support for it during a meeting with the Prime Minister at Downing Street in 2013. We are delighted that same-sex marriage legislation has now been passed in England, Wales and Scotland. A list of Unitarian churches currently registered for same-sex marriages is available here.

ENVIRONMENTAL RESPONSIBILITY

As people who place their primary religious concern on life in this world, Unitarians are generally interested in environmental issues. Historically, we have been deeply interested both in the scientific study of our natural environment and in seeing it as a spiritual.

This remains the case today. Many Unitarians are active in environmental and conservation organisations. Unitarian worship often reflects spiritually on these subjects, and also celebrates the natural cycle of the seasons.

Unitarians regard the maintenance of a sustainable, diverse and beautiful environment – natural and human – as essential both for our survival and for our wellbeing as a species.

WAR IS NOT THE ANSWER

Unitarians affirm the values of peace, justice, forgiveness and reconciliation. Some call these divine values. They are held to be necessary for the wholeness and happiness of any human community, from the family to the nation and the world.

On pacifism, as on all issues of personal conscience, each Unitarian is free to come to his or her own conclusions without fear of judgement or censure. So although there are many Unitarian pacifists, there is no explicit requirement or implicit expectation on the matter.

Unitarians do agree that war is wrong, but a wide range of opinions as to its necessity exist. Some rule out the use of force entirely, believing that it can never be justified in any situation. For others there are sadly, tragically, situations in which the use of proportionate force is necessary in order to prevent or defeat a greater evil, particularly to defend the innocent and the weak in immediate peril. A unanimous position is that humanity must find better ways than war and violence to resolve conflicts and disputes.

While recognising the need for armed forces and respecting servicemen and servicewomen, we do believe that the minimum age for armed forces recruitment should be 18 years old. We have campaigned and will continue to campaign for that, as well as for ending the practice of armed forces recruitment in Welsh schools.

POLITICS

As a movement, Unitarians are religious, not political. But our religion has political implications, and our politics have a spiritual foundation.

Although many Unitarians are active in the social and political sphere, as a movement we are not aligned with any political party or single-issue political organisation. Unitarians can be found across the whole spectrum of democratic political parties, sometimes as dedicated activists. They can also be found in all manner of groups campaigning on humanitarian and environmental issues. In this we make no claim to be different from many people in other denominations and faith traditions.

In as much as these matters are political in the broadest sense, then Unitarians do mix religion with politics. This means, for some, active involvement in campaigns, marches and demonstrations. It may mean lobbying politicians and making legislators aware of Unitarian concerns in particular areas of policy. It certainly means using one’s democratic rights responsibly and purposefully for the common good.

Unitarians are interested in the whole range of challenges facing our society and our world. We believe that our liberal religious ethos, our affirmation of human dignity and our one-world vision have something truly valuable to offer in that regard.

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