(Ask for a
show of hands for different categories of theology: Christian,
Pagan, Buddhist, atheist, humanist, agnostic.)
Faced with this theological diversity, sometimes we wonder
who we are. What is
our center? Our core
faith? What kind of
theology can possibly hold us all together?
Four years ago the delegates to General Assembly, our
yearly continental gathering of Unitarian Universalists, elected a
Commission of nine people to explore these questions.
This year the results of their study were published in a
book titled Engaging Our
They report that there is wide consensus among Unitarian
Universalists that our liberal message is important in this
troubled world, but that we have difficulty articulating that
message. The authors
wonder: Is our
theological diversity getting in the way, or have we just not done
the difficult work necessary to find our common ground and give it
I have to admit that I was troubled by the demand for some
central belief we could all cling to, something I feared would
allow us to draw a firm boundary line between us and “them,”
those strangers outside. UU
feminist theologian Sharon Welch expresses a similar concern. She writes: “What bothers me about the calls for common
ground is that this very concept of community is predicated on
denying what I see as the richness of community, a richness
created as much by difference and surprise as by similarity and
I love our diversity and I have felt that our seven
principles were enough glue to hold us together. And yet I too have felt the need to articulate our UU
identity in new and ever more inclusive terms.
Part of our problem with theology is the word itself.
The Greek roots mean the study of God.
We don’t find that topic very interesting because most of
us don’t believe in a supernatural God anyway.
At most we may use the term to sum up our highest ideals of
justice and love, or to acknowledge the wonder and mystery of the
universe. As a
scientist friend of mine used to say, for most of us “God is an
But classical systematic theology is really about the existential
questions we all face as human beings: Who am I? How do
I know what I know? What
is my relationship to the universe?
What is my relationship to other people?
In the past, and for some people today, God is brought in
to provide the answers.
The writers of this book rightly focused upon the questions and
how UUs in the 21st century tend to answer them. They
met with hundreds of UUs from all over the country, collected
survey data from hundreds more, and studied our history as
Unitarians, as Universalists and as Unitarian Universalists.
The theology that emerges, expressed in twelve statements,
is clear and not essentially different from our principles.
Here are the statements:
We are a grounded
faith. A faith
with roots, grounded in both the realm of history and the realm of
We are an ecological
faith. We have
placed the interdependent web squarely at the center of our shared
We are a profoundly
human faith. WE
wrestle with our ideas about human limitation and human power and
acknowledge that our understandings are imperfect.
We are a responsible
understand that humanity must take its responsibility for the
state of the world seriously.
We are an
experiential faith. We
are focused more on experience than beliefs.
We are a free faith.
We are a faith of heretics (from the Greek word “to
We are an imaginative
faith. Making a
place where creativity can flourish.
We are a relational
individual journey is grounded in caring community.
We are a covenantal
together by our chosen commitment to each other rather than by
creed or ecclesiastical authority.
We are a curious
acknowledge that our perspective is limited, that we could be
wrong, that we live in the midst of uncertainties, yet we are ever
open to new insights.
We are a reasonable
faith. We do not
ask people to check their rationality at the door.
We are a hopeful
faith. A faith of
possibilities, a justice-seeking faith.
A powerful vision, and one that can be claimed by all
strands of the UU tradition.
I was especially struck by two particular quotations in the
book. I believe they
are crucial in understanding what has changed in UU theology
during the past 30 years. The
first is by David Bumbaugh. He
writes: The heart of
a faith for the twenty-first century, I am convinced, is suggested
by the seventh Principle…Hidden in this apparently
uncomplicated, uncontroversial, innocuous statement is a radical
theological position. The
seventh Principle calls us to reverence before the world, not some
future world, but this miraculous world of our everyday
experience. It challenges us to understand the world as reflexive and
relational rather than hierarchical.
It bespeaks a world in which neither god nor humanity is at
the center; in which the center is the void, the ever fecund
matrix out of which being emerges.”
And Charlotte Shivvers writes:
“The very emptiness that is left in that central place is
neither weakness nor failure.
It can become a place of humility, acceptance, and
wonder—and a place where we all can meet.”
In looking back over this recent UU history I find I have a
rather large bone to pick with this book.
I like the theological vision that the writers suggest we
have arrived at. I
don’t like their description of how we UUs got to this exciting
vision. I feel that
once again the contributions of women have been overlooked and
I have to tell you a story about my mother.
When I was about ten years old, a woman from the local
Methodist Church, of which my father was a member, came to visit
my mother. She wanted
to interest my mother in the women’s group at the church and she
talked at some length about the important work the women were
doing, raising money to support missionary work in Africa.
My mother listened and then asked “Why would you want to
do that? Don’t the
African people have religions of their own?”
My mother’s question has stayed with me and has popped up
many times over the years. It came to mind as I looked back over the past thirty years,
looking especially at the activities and accomplishments of women
and their impact on Unitarian Universalism.
There are some very practical, tangible achievements. In 1975 there were only 31 ordained women ministers, about
three and a half percent of the total.
Today more than half of our ministers are women.
And we now have new principles and purposes and a new
hymnal free of sexist language.
These are giant changes.
Only one is mentioned in the book, the increase in the
number of women ministers, and nothing is said about how or why
these changes came about.
The Women & Religion Resolution of 1977, passed at
General Assembly, is very briefly mentioned in the book.
It is not quoted and the description of it makes it sound
nice, and agreeable. The
book says it “aimed at bringing a set of values to the center of
our religious faith and practice: relationship, equity and
justice, inclusiveness, open process, compassion, and focus on
family and children.” The
actual resolution used much stronger language.
It spoke of women being overlooked and undervalued.
It demanded that we examine our theologies, our
organizational structure and our language so as to root out
sexism. It also
demanded that the President of the UUA report each year on the
progress made in implementing the resolution.
And that’s how we got the newly written
principles and the new hymnal and the huge increase in the number
of women ministers.
But I think UU women were also looking for something at
once more personal, more theological and more global.
There have been several continent-wide UU women’s
conferences during the past 30 years, but one stands out in my
memory. It was called
Womanquest and it was held at Lake Geneva in Wisconsin in 1990.
About 320 UU women from all over the continent were
gathered to share a week of worship services, spiritual
disciplines and workshops, and to draw up a vision for the future
and set some goals for Unitarian Universalism.
most striking aspect of the gathering was the pervasive use of
African, Asian and European pagan spiritual disciplines.
One worship service featured the African drumming and
chanting that one group had chosen as their spiritual discipline
for the week. Another
service included a meditation of graceful Tai Chi movements by
another group. The
final service began with a procession of women wearing the
beautifully decorated masks they had made.
One evening most of the women danced a spiral dance under
the stars. The earth
and its elements were honored again and again.
Those women who spoke from the pulpit, did so with a
passion and spirit not often heard then in our intellectual
I thought of my mother’s question.
And I wondered just what it was that was happening among UU
women. We seemed to
be saying, Yes, not only do other cultures have religions of their
own, not only do they have important truths to teach us—not only
that, but we are in fact hungering and thirsting for religious
experiences not available in most Western religion.
What was it that we needed? And
why were we finding it in African drums and spiral dances?
There are at least three aspects to our need and our
direction, and I would suggest to you that it is no accident that
this phenomenon arose so powerfully in UU women. Each aspect of our hunger and our journey can be related
directly to one of our cherished principles.
We needed first and most importantly to express our whole
selves as women—to celebrate our bodies, our minds and our own
particular spiritual journeys.
Secondly, we were deeply touched by the ecological crisis
of the earth and we needed to rediscover ways to re-link ourselves
to its cycles. And
finally, we live in a world full of violence, violence between
individuals and violence among nations, and we yearn for peace and
Opening day at Lake Geneva comes to mind when I think of
our need to celebrate ourselves as women.
After registering, each woman was asked to take a long
strip of brightly colored construction paper and to write her own
name in the middle. Then
on one end she was to write the name of a woman who was a mentor
to her and on the other end the name of a woman for whom she
herself was a mentor. A
large hanging consisting of a long piece of driftwood with
hundreds of strands of bright colored yarn dangling from it was
available and each woman wove her strip of paper into the strands
of yarn. The result
was a colorful hanging containing the names of almost a thousand
women. It was hung in
the large meeting room where all the worship services took place.
All week long every time I looked up at that hanging, tears
welled up in my eyes as I thought of all those women whose names
and lives we valued and celebrated with that simple hanging.
But why did we also turn so persistently to the traditions
of other cultures to celebrate ourselves as women?
I think it’s because the presence and power of women are
often so much more evident there than in our Western
traditions—even Unitarian Universalism.
Special ceremonies mark the life stages of women and the
wisdom of the ancient mothers is revered.
In the old mythologies women are the givers of life and
sometimes the takers of life as well.
They have power! Their
very bodies are held to be sacred.
Women of our dominant culture at this time in history have
probably all had experiences of being overlooked and undervalued.
It was exciting to see UU women finding special ways to
celebrate our own inherent worth and dignity.
The second aspect of our need is our growing fear for the
well-being of the earth. We
feel caught up in a lifestyle that is destroying the planet.
There are holes in the ozone layer, smog from our own cars
is choking our cities, life-giving forests are disappearing.
I heard on the radio that there has been a dramatic drop in
the number of migrating songbirds.
Governments and businesses do not respond and the damage
mainline religions have given man dominion over the earth
as well as over women and children.
We have looked upon this planet as a bundle of unlimited
resources at our disposal. As
women we too have been exploited.
We feel for our sister, the earth.
We seek a philosophy and a lifestyle that will put us back
in tune with the cycles and the realities of nature.
Earth religions, whether from African, Native American or
Old European traditions are based on respect for the earth and its
ritual honors the four directions, the air, the water, fire and
the ground itself. Animals
and rocks and rivers and trees
are rightly known to be alive with energy, and worthy of respect.
We have much to learn from such traditions, and as UUs we
are free to embrace truth wherever we find it.
The women at Lake Geneva were finding in African drums and
pagan dances ways to express their deep respect for the
interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
The third aspect of our hunger is a profound yearning for
an end to violence. Our
lives are often measured by the wars we manage to survive.
In the words of a song by Judy Small, “The first time it
was fathers and the last time it was sons, and in between your
husbands marched off with drums and guns.”
How shall we learn to stop killing people?
How shall we stop being carefully taught to hate?
We have learned to believe all kinds of terrible things
about whole groups of people.
We have condemned the religions of other people.
We have been taught that our way is the best.
As UUs we have a proud history of inclusiveness.
We have chosen again and again to widen our identity, to
walk together in more and more diversity.
And during the last 30 years UU women have been leading the
way. We are looking
in depth at many traditions, searching with all our hearts for
that universal impulse that we know resides in all religions.
Searching until we find our woman selves in the most
diverse traditions. If
we can explore the spiritual disciplines of other cultures and
find the universal meanings that cut across all the boundaries of
race and geography and politics, will we be so quick to condemn
and to kill?
I think it may be that part of our attraction to the dances
and songs, the drums and masks we experienced at Lake Geneva is
our deep longing to break through the many boundaries that divide
us as human beings. It
may be our way of moving toward that vision of a world community
with peace and justice.
So the women went home and came drumming and dancing into
our congregations, putting our chairs into circles, and creating
new more personal worship like the Candles of Joy and Concern and
the Water Ceremony. In
the Commission’s book these innovations are mentioned but
nothing is said about where they came from.
was the women who celebrated the inherent worth and dignity of
ourselves and our foremothers by bringing women’s history and
writings and music into our worship. One such song, Spirit of Life, is mentioned in the book, even
called the “standard UU anthem.”
The composer, Carolyn McDade is not mentioned whereas every
contribution by a man is credited by name.
It was the women who first rediscovered our sacred
connection to the web of life and advocated for the seventh
principle is celebrated in the book as a radical and vital shift
in theology, but the women are not mentioned.
And finally it was the women, hoping to bring the world a
little closer to lasting peace, who first learned to see ourselves
in the rituals of diverse cultures, opening our minds and hearts
to the very diversity that gave rise to the book.
But the book does not acknowledge the primary role of women
in creating this new theology.
“We too, shimmer with
expectation, exuding our own
illumination, color, pulse, and scent.
Vulnerable, still we venture our
lives courageously toward hope
and light, at once fragile and rooted.”