Thirty-five years ago I first attended a Unitarian Universalist worship service. As the midmorning light filled the sanctuary of that meeting house and laughter spread through its room, I knew that I had come home.
But I remember a very different light, in the glare of a television camera, a few years later. I had just finished my theological study and begun an internship in Atlanta, Georgia. Somehow, early on, I fell into being interviewed about our tradition on a local religious cable television program. I had never appeared on television, nor did I know that I would face a less than friendly interviewer. I was a deer caught in the headlights.
"What do you mean it's a 'free faith'?" Well, we have no dogma. "You mean you don’t believe anything?" No, I don’t mean that. "What do you believe?" It varies from person to person. (Dead silence.) "Do you believe in God?" Some do. Do you believe in Jesus? Not in the way you mean. Do you believe in salvation? Depends on the definition. "Are you really saying you just believe whatever you want to?"
I will spare you the embarrassment of more. Perhaps it wasn't as bad as I recall; it was a long time ago, and memory makes good stories out of awkward but unremarkable events. I can tell you this. I swore to myself that from that day forward I would be able to say what we mean by a free faith and what I believe.
Most fundamentally, free faith means that congregations govern themselves. No mother church dictates theological doctrines or rituals, tells the congregation who to call as minister or whether to sell or buy property. It is the religious version of "Think locally." Historically, our free faith in this country dates back to 1737 when thirty families in Dedham, Massachusetts wanted to start a truly independent church. Their theology was Puritan, but they determined they would create a covenant that would allow self-governance in mutual support. A few years earlier the Salem congregation had said it this way, "We will walk together." Sixty-five congregations in Massachusetts and Connecticut adopted the agreement, known as the Cambridge Platform. Twenty one of those congregations are Unitarian Universalist today.
Since then, free faith has come to mean freedom of conscience for the individual. In other words, we are, each of us, the arbiter of our own theology and commitments. Again, what defines us within a congregation is not doctrinal belief, though we share principles, but a commitment to relationship, in other words a covenant. A covenant is a series of promises by two parties in which what they promise is the quality of the relationship itself. In that one way, it's like a marriage or a relationship between a called minister and a congregation.
Nearly everyone who participates in our communities values that freedom of conscience. But sometimes we don't know where to go with it in developing or communicating our faith, which takes me back to my television interviewer's question: Does freedom mean believing whatever you want to?" Like choosing vanilla or chocolate? No. Our religion is one in which you are free to embrace what you are compelled to believe by your experience, your reason, and your heart.
Let me give you an example. I grew up Southern Baptist, but I had first cousins, children of my mother's sister, who, along with their father, were devout Roman Catholics. I will never forget when my Sunday School teacher at Lincoln Park Baptist Church told my class that Catholics are not Christians. Say what? I thought of the crucifixes on my aunt and uncle's walls; how often the father and the girls attended mass; how they offered prayers at extended family meals; how the teachers and administrators at the girls' school were priests and nuns. They seemed way more Christian than my own lackadaisically Baptist family. So I read up on Catholicism in a book on my parents' shelf and learned about mortal and venial sins, the seven sacraments, and the strange notion of papal infallibility. I couldn't see myself becoming Catholic, but everything I learned told me my cousins were Christians. It was heresy in my church, but it was truth to me, and I was compelled to believe it.
A few years later, I left the faith of my childhood. I was free. But I had no idea of what could come next, and I let my spiritual life go untended for years. It was in Unitarian Universalist communities that I found what I could be free for: an active commitment to respecting other people's paths; to accepting with some humility that the path of reverence and spiritual growth for someone else may be right without making your own wrong; that creating a more just and compassionate society is some of the holiest work we can do. The early encounter with a Sunday School teacher's doctrinal assurance helped me learn to trust the authority of my own experience and mind to know truth, but it was the discipline of a free faith meeting together, sharing common principles to ground us while challenging one another that pushed me to grow a spiritual life.
People sometimes ask me, "But how do you Unitarian Universalists hold it all together if you don't believe the same thing?" The question reflects the basic difference between a doctrinal religion and a covenantal religion. What holds us together is our mutually agreed on covenant to support and respect one another on our journeys. You see, for spiritual fulfillment, most of us need more than freedom. You can be free to work for justice and equality in how people treat one another; you can be free to find healing through Jesus' teachings and the example of his life; you can be free to evolve a more mindful path in keeping with Buddhist wisdom; you can be free to deepen and nurture your connection with this earth and find a sense of oneness with the rest of life. You can be free for any of those or more, and you can do it within this tradition, so long as you participate in that covenant of mutual respect and support.
Although the rooms of our spiritual dwelling are wider than the Jewish and Christian traditions, we need to articulate what we are compelled to believe about the traditional questions because they are part of our heritage. If that camera light of years ago were shined on me today, here is what I would say.
Do you believe in God? I am compelled to embrace a creative power that is greater than all of us and includes us that is, finally, beyond our naming or describing. That power is expressed in many images, but it goes beyond gender, race, or species. I call it God.
Do you believe in Jesus? I am compelled by history, text, and study to believe Jesus was a remarkable prophet and wise person whose teaching still lives. He was an activist who radically challenged a political and economic order of oppression and gave people hope. The years of his life and death became a time when the remarkable exploded into daily life like a nova into the universe of meaning.
Do you believe in salvation? I am compelled to believe people are saved all the time – by sobriety, by love, by generosity, by courage, by each other, and by communities. At those times we are saved from the hell we create here on earth, a place of isolation and despair.
So yes, I believe in God, and I believe in Jesus, and I believe in salvation, all in my own way. But I would also tell that interviewer that the most important affirmations of my faith, like Victoria Safford, grow out of this world now. I believe that revelation is open, that truth is constantly revealed through new knowledge and experience, and that it is a good thing. I believe that conscious beings on this earth bear not original sin but original blessing – that being born in this fabulous, beautiful universe on this complex and delicate planet is a gift and that we are called to express our gratitude through careful stewardship. I believe the most important faithfulness we can show to any god or ultimate concern is through compassion for our fellow beings and for ourselves.
I do not need the people sitting next to me at a board meeting, or in a chalice circle, or at worship to find the same content for religious freedom that I do. But I do need them to respect that my path can be just as meaningful for me and as true as their path is to them. And I will not settled for less. To me, that is the contemporary meaning of free faith; that is the heart of the practice of Unitarian Universalism bound in covenant with others.
Being in the spotlight in an Atlanta television studio that time taught me to be an evangelist for this faith. Many years later, I was to have a minor medical procedure done under light general anesthesia. As I was rolled out of the operating room a while later, I woke and noticed the nurse beside me laughing. "Do you remember any of that?" she asked. I had no idea what she meant.
Apparently, after they put me under, someone mentioned that I was the minister of the local Unitarian Universalist church. My doctor then said she had once attended a UU church somewhere, but that they didn't seem to believe anything. According to two of the nurses, I immediately sat up on the operating table and said, "That's not true" and proceeded to try to tell her what we believe. God knows what I said, but conscious or not, at least I didn't freeze.
Know what you are free for. Embrace it with confidence, for now. Be open to new truth. And all the while, walk together in love.
Copyright Susan Milnor 2017
Wright, Conrad. Congregational Polity: A Historical Survey of Unitarian and Universalist Practice. Boston: Skinner House Press. 1997.