How Did We Get Here?


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“How did we get here?” a sermon on the Sources 

Rev. Brian J. Kiely

September 9, 2018, Unitarian Church of Edmonton

Sometimes I am asked why we have six sources in addition to the seven Principles. In one way, they are the second part of the answer to the question, “Just what is a Unitarian anyway?”

The Principles lay out our path for living well. But the Sources add another texture.  In the tradition of theological debate, it’s not enough say just what you believe, you also have to lay out why you believe it, you have to justify your faith statement.  Otherwise we could potentially all run around proclaiming ourselves God.  We need some base on which to construct the stricture of belief, maybe even some evidence.

Christians for example follow the Bible, often augmented by the teaching doctrines of their own denomination. Jews do as well, though supported by the midrash. Buddhists follow the five Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, Muslims follow the Q’uran supported by the hadditha.

The commission that crafted the Principles asked themselves that question as well, “In what do we root these Principles? From what sources to they spring?  How to we justify naming these particular ideas? ”  Why do Unitarians and Universalists believe what they believe?”

And since we are such a diverse group, as well as an ever evolving group, they came up with several sources, including all the world religious traditions, the rationalism that marks out humanism and so on.  And I will note, in the ever evolving category, that the sixth source, the one honouring the spiritual teachings of earth centred religions was only added a decade after the first five.

But how did we get there?  Why that list?

For that we have to wander a bit through our philosophical history.  And by the way, this is a bit of a preview to a course I’ll be offering later this Fall looking at the key documents of our evolved philosophy.

Though one can trace roots of Unitarian (meaning one God only) and Universalism (all will be saved) back to the first days of Christianity, really our story begins in the 16th century with the Reformation.

Back then, there was only one game in Europe, Roman Catholicism.  But enough people became annoyed with the physical excesses of the Church and its bishops that a revolution began.  In part the revolution was one of ideas. Hitherto it was a case of ‘believe what the church tells you and follow or rules or else. We will tell you what God says in the Bible”  

But with the rapid development of the printing press and the spread of relatively inexpensive editions of Scripture, clerics and scholars began reading the text for themselves and found that they had some pretty strong disagreements with Rome over interpretation.  A revolt of ideas accompanied the revolt against excess.

Now whenever a revolution begins, some people want to only change things a little, others want more, some usually want pretty dramatic change.  Those who would become Unitarians were at the radical end of the spectrum.

First, these scholars wanted to apply reason to the study of the Bible.  They saw that parts of it were contradictory. Even portrayals of God throughout the Bible were inconsistent.  Too much of doctrine was based on magical thinking. Choices of Scriptural passages were selective and often taken out of context, chosen to support teachings rather than being allowed to speak for themselves. 

These rationalist scholars wanted belief to make sense.  They wanted to look at why they were supposed to believe and  and not just ‘take it on faith’ anymore.

So reason was the first piece of this emerging liberal religious vision.

The second piece developed from the first.  An early thinker was Michael Servetus, a Spanish theologian and Physician who, in reading the Bible for himself, discovered, quite correctly, that there was no mention of the Holy Trinity – three gods in one.  It simply wasn’t there!  But the Trinity is a fundamental belief enshrined in the Christian creed. How could that be? His criticism was scathing.  But even for the reformers, this was too big a step. Not only did the Catholics condemn Servetus’ book, but so did most Protestants.  There were a lot of pretty radical reformers, but Servetus stood out in history.  Why?  Because he was burned at the stake for his heretical ideas in 1553.  And curiously, he wasn’t killed by the Catholic Inquisition, but by his fellow reformer, John Calvin.

This touched off what would be called the Toleration Debates that would rage for decades.  At its simplest, it was a bunch of nervous reformers saying, “Hey, if they could burn that guy, what’s to stop them coming for me?”  They argued for religious tolerance.  Over time – about a century and a half, European nations came to allow more than one religion to exist legally in their lands

Tolerance became the second piece of our story, and led naturally to our third key piece, freedom.

What freedom came to mean in our congregations was freedom to believe as individuals.  The Unitarian and Universalist churches that formed in the 18th and 19th centuries in England, the US and Canada never had creeds, but they were pretty formally Christian, especially in a time of Christian revivalism.

In 1819, however, William Ellery Channing of Boston preached a sermon to his colleagues that lit a fire.  Called “Unitarian Christianity”, the sermon, still very readable today, offered a strongly humanist focus.   

We object to the doctrine of the Trinity…that subverts in effect, the unity of God.”

He would argue that the idea of a Trinity contradicted Scripture and diminished God.  Then he continued:

“We believe… that Christ is one mind, one being, and, I add, a being distinct from the one God. That Christ is not the one God, not the same being with the Father.”

Channing all but dismissed the divinity of Jesus arguing that his message and his story and his death were far more inspiring if he were of ‘one mind’ i.e. fully human and not divine or semi-divine. 

We believe that all virtue has its foundation in the moral nature of (hu)man, that is, in conscience, or his sense of duty, and in the power of forming his temper and life according to conscience. We believe that these moral faculties are the grounds of responsibility, and the highest distinctions of human nature… We reject the doctrine of irresistible divine influence on the human mind, moulding it into goodness, as marble is hewn into a statue.”

There is is:  As we are free to form our beliefs, we are free from divine intervention and manipulation.  We are our own agents.  We are responsible for our lives and choices and therefore have the responsibility to make those choices carefully.

Many of us today might think his sermon pretty ho hum, but in refusing to accept the most basic principles of Christianity, Channing started us down the road of a creedless religious freedom.  And there we see a more recognizable form of the faith we have today.  We rule ourselves and decide the nature of our relationship with God and many other theological principles for ourselves.

This humanist sermon also opened doors for us to look at other religions and philosophies, for Unitarians now had the freedom to seek other ideas without intellectual or doctrinal limit.

Channing’s younger contemporary Ralph Waldo Emerson would soon introduce the US mainstream to Buddhist and Hindu thought.  In the next few decades scholars would argue about the need to consider the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Gospels as completely separate and not flowing one into the other. They also began to look at Scripture as a literary work opening whole new avenues for interpretation and understanding.

With Channing, and his colleagues, freedom of belief became enshrined in our tradition.

So now let’s jump ahead to the 1980’s.  Our North American movement was doing the work that led to the seven Principles.  As part of the process, the Commission looked at the things that inspired the beliefs of Unitarians and Universalists.

With our freedom, reason and tolerance, Unitarians had been able to look for meaningful ideas regardless of their source.  And with surveys and such it became clear that we looked at many religious expressions in forming our own.  Following a strong burst of humanist development following WW1, our church had become strongly intellectually focused with less emphasis on spiritual practice and prayer.  But as these shifts took place, some spiritual remnant stayed alive.  And so when we look at the sources we see nods to traditional belief systems, with perhaps special note given to Jewish and Christian traditions.  We do see humanism and science given special attention.  

And with a rediscovery of paganism and native traditions, we would come to see the needed to add earth based teachings as well.  All of these things influence our thinking and our approach to the Principles.  It’s a good list of Sources, one that many people could accept.

But there is one source that forms a unique statement in theological thought, and that’s the first one cited.  It’s first, because it has pride of place and speaks more about who we are  than any other phrase in the Principles and Sources.

“Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.”

Why do I think this is the most important passage?

Because it says that the primary source of faith is you.  It is your experience that determines your belief, your spirituality, your morality.  Preachers may influence or help you define your views.  Teachers might point out weaknesses in your arguments. Religious teachings might help shape your thinking.  But at the end of all that, it is your experience of the world, of its mysteries, of spirituality that counts.  No one tells you what to believe or how to practice your beliefs.

The Principles can guide.  The Sources can offer insight.  Congregations like this one can be safe havens lending encouragement for the search.  But your religion begins and ends with you.  That, to me, is the great gift of Unitarian Universalism, that respect, that affirmation.  You are enough.

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