Continuing to reveal 10 stories I wish every Unitarian Universalist knew….here are stories 7-8.
Story 7: The Unitarians and the Universalists
Fifty years ago, in stuffy rooms and over dinners, and breakfasts, and coffee, and other drinks, people of goodwill and longings began to imagine what it would mean to combine their individual paths into a unified whole. But let me back up. In reality, the flirtation towards union of these good people began not 50, but nearly 150 years ago. Yes, way back in 1856, people were talking about the possible marriage of the Unitarians and the Universalists.
I mean, why not? By that point, the theological differences in these two strands of liberal Christianity were, as you accountant-types might say, immaterial. Both believed in theological freedom, in the benevolence of God, and soundly affirmed the inherent worth and dignity of every human being. They were, in so many ways, serving the same larger purpose, the call of liberal religion.
And based on these similarities, from the mid-nineteenth through the mid-twentieth century, the Unitarians and the Universalists took on all kinds of joint ventures. They cooperated in the publication of a shared hymnal, and in shared advertising and pamphlet production, and by the 1950s, they combined their youth movements into a common organization called the Liberal Religious Youth or LRY.
These joint ventures were a result of their many similarities. Their perceived differences, however, and their fear of those differences – well, at least initially, these obscured their sense of a shared purpose.
From the Universalist perspective, the role of religion was to spread the good news of Universalism to all. You may know the words of eighteenth century Universalist John Murray – “Go out into the highways and by-ways. Give the people something of you new vision. Give them not hell, but hope and courage; preach the kindness and everlasting love of God.” Universalism was a liberal Christian religion, oriented towards reaching out to others. Their sense of mission also led them to be social reformers, founding Universities and leading the prison reform movement. A mostly rural faith, and firmly anti-establishment, they were a “group” in only the loosest of terms.
For the Unitarians, on the other hand, religion was a matter of self-improvement in knowledge and ethical character. They wanted to serve – not so much the needs of people “out there,” but us, the gathered community. They believed in human progress, what nineteenth century Unitarian minister James Freeman Clarke called “the progress of mankind onward and upward forever.” Straying pretty far from their Christian roots by the late nineteenth century, Unitarians relished humanism and scientific rationalism. Yes, urban-oriented Unitarians were the “Boston Brahmins,” claiming a certain elitism, an intellectualism, as central to their ethos.
And for a long time, these differences kept the Unitarians and the Universalists in relatively separate spheres, despite their apparent shared sense of purpose to serve and grow liberal religion. But then, over the course of the first half of the twentieth century, the world changed. The world wars, the dropping of the atomic bomb, and the holocaust – all these things made the concept of “onward and upward forever” suddenly seem at the least, naïve, and at the most, dangerously wrong. And then, mainline Protestantism wasn’t talking all that much about hell, and so the Universalist message wasn’t holding as much evangelistic power as it once did.
Both the Unitarians and the Universalists started to worry more about their shared purpose than they did their personal and historical differences. And they started to see how they might need each other, need the ways they were different, if they were to live out their sense of a bigger mission. And so in May of 1960, the delegates of the American Unitarian Association, and the delegates of the Universalist Church of America voted, with an 82% majority, to consolidate and become the Unitarian Universalist Association, which was completed officially in May of 1961.Forty years later, in 2001, the Rev. John Buehrens reflected: “Unitarian Universalism is only now coming of age as a religious movement that is something new – more than the sum of two faith traditions that joined forces to form it.”
Only in the past decade, and especially as we approach the fiftieth anniversary, are we beginning to acknowledge and explore in a deeper way what it is we have created, what and who we are, more than just the sum of our parts. Though we are the Unitarians + the Universalists, we are also something else, a new thing, something unpredictable and wholly new, made possible only by our coming together in all our differences.We are liberal Christians and religious Humanists. And we are also Buddhists and mystics, Jews and Hindus. We are all of these, and we are also something other than each of these things in and of themselves.
We meet in small rooms and seek self-improvement and education, and we march in the streets, and work to transform the world. Perhaps most importantly, we are learning what it means for these two goals – healing ourselves, and healing the world, to be two sides of the same project. We believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all humans, and the interdependent web of which these individuals are all but a part. We are many, and we are one.
Most of all, Unitarian Universalists are a people who believe that the question: “Who are we?” is dynamic, and alive, and that the answer is never complete. We know we are always in the midst of being changed, of becoming, of growing into ourselves, the selves we are not yet, and somehow have always been.
 Much of this Unitarian Universalist history is informed by Warren Ross’ The Premise and the Promise.
 From John Buehrens’ introduction to Ross’ The Premise and the Promise.
Story 8: The Good Life
About 2,500 years ago, in land over 8,000 miles from here, a young King and Queen were expecting a child. As with most other parents – then and now – as they waited for their baby, they dreamed: What kind of life would their child have? Would he be happy? Would he be kind? Would he be wise?
Just as their baby boy was born, they were offered some guidance into their child’s future. One particularly well-reputed wise man made a prediction. This child had a special calling, he said. He was chosen by the Universe for great things.
The parents were thrilled, and started anticipating the good life their son would have. They thought of riches, and power, wisdom, and luxuries – and they beamed with pride.
Except, see, there was one little issue in this wise man’s predictions. Though he was clear that this child would grow to be very successful – he could only predict this success would occur in one of two ways: On the one hand, he might grow to be a great King – ruling over vast lands and peoples – a King of Kings. On the other, he might follow a spiritual path, renouncing material wealth and worldly power in favor of spiritual wisdom and religious truth.
You can imagine which path the parents preferred – which path they thought really represented a successful life, a good life. And no, it didn’t include hours of silent meditation and begging for food.
Although no one could say for sure just how much influence these parents would have on shaping their child’s ultimate destiny, they certainly gave it their best shot, just in case. They did whatever they could to ensure their son would become the King of Kings, so that he could have not just a good life, but the best life.
To start, they offered him a name which they felt signified his true destiny: Siddhartha – that is, one who attains the goal, or one who is successful. Next, they decided to shelter him always from any and all pain and grief, from old age and sickness, from death and loss. They thought if they could just keep him from knowing suffering, he would surely lead a happy life.
But, just as they were concocting this plan, it seemed to fall apart. Tragedy struck – the Queen died, suddenly, just a week after she gave birth.
Though some might take this as reason to doubt the wisdom in their plan, the King persisted – so much did he want for his son a great life. He asked another woman – another of his wives, and the Queen’s sister – to step in as the child’s mother.
They never told young Sid about this early loss, and instead continued on, creating for him a life of pleasure and joy. As he grew, he was offered a great education, access to all kinds of things – archery, martial arts, wrestling, languages, and had lots of friends and servants – and he was given plenty of freedom to follow his whims – as long as they kept him within the palace walls.
See, within the walls, the King had outlawed any old or sick people – as well as any religious people, just in case. It was a perfect world within those palace walls, perfect for creating his son’s perfect life. Perfect, that is, until…one day…Sid was curious.
He wanted to see beyond the palace walls, see the city he was to inherit. The King agreed, and started transforming the streets immediately.
Old people, hide! Sick people, stay inside! Clean the streets, plant new flowers, paint the buildings. Let all that is ugly be made beautiful! With the streets made safe for his son, the King happily invited the Prince into the city. And all was going well, until a frail old man crossed their path, and began to beg for food.
The Prince saw him, and went into shock. He stared at him, not believing his eyes. Where were his teeth? Where were his clothes? Why was he bent over? Why did he not have all the food he needed? Was he born this way? Were there others like him?
The Prince’s assistants quickly whisked him away, back to the Palace. But it was too late. The spell was broken. He knew his own ignorance, and from then on, he relentlessly tried to understand what he had seen.
In the coming days, the Prince kept leaving the Palace, and each time, he encountered another person who challenged all he had believed about the world – he saw a sick person, and then, he saw a dead person.
With each encounter, his knowledge grew, and he was transformed. The pain and grief that he always felt inside himself, but couldn’t name, came bursting out, hungry and desperate for attention. Until finally, one day in his travels, he encountered a nearly naked man, quiet and still in prayer.
Watching this man, he finally knew what it would mean for him to “attain the goal.” He could no longer live behind high walls, pretending to be beyond the reach of suffering, for suffering would ultimately come to all, palace walls or no.
And so he left palace life, he left his father, his new wife, a newborn son. He left riches and beauty and power, and he set out to start anew, in search of the real, the full, the truly good life.
The parents of this man, Prince Siddhartha, who we now know better by his title of reverence, the Buddha, may seem to us foolish or cruel. But from all accounts, they were kind and intelligent rulers, compassionate and well-intentioned. They simply wanted for their child what we want for ourselves, what we most often want for one another: A good life.
And they took their best guess as to what that would be – a life ignorant of suffering, a life away from pain or struggle. Doesn’t that sound about right? But as Prince Siddhartha discovered, as he may have always known, as perhaps we all know, deep down, a life in ignorance is no way to experience the good.