The Gospel According to Christopher Reeve – Unitarian Universalism

The Gospel According to Christopher Reeve – Unitarian Universalism

We are all familiar with Superman, right? Well, nobody has played the character better on TV or in the movies than Christopher Reeve.

Reeve was born into a family who raised him in the Presbyterian church. When he became an adult, though, he pretty much dropped out of church. His early church life did not inspire his faith in God at all. Beyond that, he, at one point, did dabble in Scientology, but that didn’t last very long. In fact, throughout much of his life he primarily considered himself an atheist.

It wasn’t until after his famous horseback riding accident that Reeve gained a heightened sense of need for a spiritual dimension to his life. To meet that need, he ended up joining the Unitarian Universalist Church (UUC). In an interview with Reader’s Digest, he was asked why he joined the UUC. In that interview he replied that, “It gives me a moral compass.” In his search for a spiritual foundation, he wanted to his faith tuned in a particular way. He wanted to believe in a God who is good and mankind who is inherently good. The UUC allowed him this kind of belief.

History

Unitarian Universalism is known officially as the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations in North America and is headquartered in Boston, Massachusetts. Originally, Unitarianism and Universalism were separate entities and developed separately, with both having roots dating back to the early 1500s in Europe. There are those who believe that its history goes back even further, to some of the heresies of the early Christian church.

The American expressions of these philosophies emerged with the American Unitarian Association, founded in 1825 and The Universalist Church of America, officially established in 1793. Over the years, the two groups grew progressively closer until they officially merged in 1961 to become the Unitarian Universalist Church.

In its modern incarnation, Unitarian Universalism is actually more like a society of free thinkers than a traditional “Christian” denomination. In modern times, the bond that holds these congregations together is not a shared theological belief system. Rather it is a set of common affirmations about how to approach life. The most important factors that bind them together are:

  • Shared values and principles,
  • Acceptance, respect and support for each other as individuals,
  • A desire to take religious questions seriously, and
  • A commitment to social justice and public witness.

Up until about the time of the merger, Unitarian-Universalists were largely considered the most liberal of Christian denominations. Since then, the beliefs of the association have become so diverse that many now consider it to be an entirely separate religion. They now assert that they have no particular religious belief or creed, and their main sources of spirituality are: Christianity, Earth Centered Religions (African-American religions, Native American spirituality, Wicca, and other Neopagan religions), Humanism, Judaism, other world religions, various prophets, and “the direct experience of mystery.” Fewer than ten percent of Unitarian Universalists identify themselves as Christians.

Unitarianism

In America, the religious liberalism that became known as Unitarianism emerged from within the Congregational churches of Massachusetts. The main focus of its teaching is that there is one God, but that he is not a Trinitarian being. Thus the name, “Unitarian” as opposed to “Trinitarian.” This group arose as a reaction against the revivalism of the Great Awakening and flourished among the Harvard elite in the late seventeen hundreds. It finally emerged as a full blown rational, mystical, liberal religion in the early eighteen hundreds.

The Unitarians believed that man was not only morally perfectible, but that education was the only true way to salvation. Since they believed that evil was caused by ignorance, poverty, and social injustice, they were convinced that only a good liberal education, provided by the government at no charge, would solve society’s problems.

Universalism

The basic premise of Universalism has emerged at various times throughout the history of the Christian church. It is the theological doctrine that all souls will ultimately be saved and that there is no such thing as hell. Universalism also denies that there is any such thing as miracles and reject any reference to them in Scripture. As do their Unitarian brothers, they also reject the Biblical doctrines of the total depravity of man and the Trinity.

There are currently about 200,000 Unitarian Universalist members in the United States and Canada, with most of those concentrated in the states of Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Maine. There are about another 90,000 around the world with small concentrations in Romania, Hungary, Great Britain, other parts of Europe, and small groups in India, the Philippines and Nigeria.

Well known Unitarian and Universalist names from the past include people like Clara Barton, Susan B. Anthony, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Benjamin Rush, Albert Schweitzer and Horace Greeley.

Basic Beliefs and Practices

When the Unitarians and Universalists decided to merge, they rejected the idea of establishing a creed for member churches to adhere to. They did, however, establish a set of principles that set the boundaries within which each functions. These affirmations are, obviously, expressions of a Christian way of thinking, but are divorced from a specifically Biblical authority source. These principles include the following affirmations.

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person.
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations.
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in individual congregations.
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.
  • The right of conscience, and the use of democratic process in individual congregations and in society at large.
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.
  • Respect for the interdependent web of existence, of which we are all a part

Essential Beliefs

God

In the UUC, there is no single belief about God. Some adherents are non-theists and others are theists. They prefer to speak about “reverence for life,” “the spirit of love or truth,” “the holy,” or “the gracious” rather than express ideas which would represent an objective person called God.

Jesus, among UUC adherents, is understood to be a savior because he was a God-filled human being. He is not, though, recognized as deity. He is, rather, seen as an “exemplar” who has shown the way of redemptive love. Many honor Jesus along with other master teachers of the past like Moses or the Buddha.

Man

Man, in UUC doctrine, is understood to be inherently good and his purpose in life is to develop his personal character as best he can.

Salvation

Unitarian Universalists primarily conceive of salvation in terms of spiritual health or wholeness. The essence of that salvation is character development rather than faith in Jesus Christ. They assert that no one will be eternally condemned. They believe that there is no hell because it is unreasonable for a loving God to send people to a place of eternal torment. Humans suffer the consequences of sin in this life only.

Faith Foundation

1. What is the most fundamental reality? (Ultimate reality)

In Unitarian Universalism, there is no single answer to the question of ultimate reality. Humanist and atheist practitioners among them don’t believe there is a God. Some have a more deistic view of God, while others follow some form of nature religion or Far Eastern Thought faith system.

2. What is the nature of our material reality? (Material reality)

The view of material reality in the UUC varies based on the personal worldview beliefs of individual practitioners. Some hold a Naturalistic understanding of the material universe while others lean toward the view of a Theistic, Animistic or Far Eastern Thought platform.

3. What is a human being? (Humanity)

To UUC adherents, humans are generally seen to be children of God, made in his image – though some are atheistic and view man as merely an advanced biological machine.

4. What happens to a person at death? (Death)

Traditionally, Unitarian Universalists have believed in the final harmony of all souls with God; that is, everyone goes to heaven when they die. In modern times, though, some don’t even acknowledge an afterlife while others believe in reincarnation.

5. Why is it possible to know anything at all? (Knowledge)

In the UUC, knowledge is seen to be simply a part of the human condition. Theists within the group acknowledge that human beings were created by God with the capacity for knowledge. Non-theists have a view of knowledge based on their particular underlying worldview.

6. How do we know what is right and wrong? (Morality)

Unitarian Universalists stress the inherent worth and dignity of every person and the right of individual conscience in matters of religious faith and practice. While they draw wisdom from varied sources, they believe that the test of any religious position is an individual’s own personal experience. There is no unified belief concerning an authority source which would assert a definitive right or wrong.

7. What is the meaning of human history? (History)

The view of history among UUC adherents varies according to the basic worldview of the individual. There is no doctrinal stance regarding this topic. In individual cases it could be linear or cyclical, with or without meaning.

Authority

Unitarian Universalists acknowledge no particular official scripture as authoritative. They teach from the Bible, as well as the scriptures of many other religions. Each congregation is free to emphasize what they wish. Human reason and experience are acknowledged to be the final authority in determining spiritual truth.

While they try to be tolerant of all sincere beliefs, it must be noted that one of the strong underlying principles of UUC faith emerges directly out of Naturalism. That is, there is no such thing as objective truth as it relates to religious practice. While this ends up causing Unitarian Universalism to be a hybrid belief system, this particular belief related to relativism comes directly from Naturalism. It is also interesting to observe that most of their founding principles (especially the inherent worth and dignity of every person, justice, equity and compassion in human relations, free and responsible search for truth and meaning, the right of conscience, the goal of peace, liberty, and justice for all) all emerge specifically from a Christian worldview perspective.

Even with the strong foundational influence of Naturalism and Christian Theism, however, modern UUC practice still allows for the influences of any other worldview beliefs that its members wish to include. As such, you will find a great deal of variety among the various local congregations.

Evidence for the Authority

There is no authoritative basis for any particular belief that a Unitarian Universalist may hold. There is no appeal to any kind of objective truth or authority. Each person must decide for him or herself what they believe. The only basis for taking this approach is the arbitrary decision by church leaders that theirs is the right way to understand reality.

Summary

Unitarian Universalism began as two separate groups which both emerged specifically from Christian roots. The original theology was such that it had already stepped outside of a Biblical worldview but, at that point, still held on to a facade of being Christian.

The modern organization, however, has completely dropped the facade. It is now nothing more than a society of free thinkers who have no stated authority source and who believe that individuals are completely free to believe what they want. It has become a hybrid belief system with nothing to back it up except the assertions of its adherents.

In interacting with UUC members, you will tend to find very sincere people who claim to have an open mind concerning truth and are searching for it. However, you will also find that they have rejected Biblical Christianity out of hand. To share Christ with them effectively it will be necessary to break down their relativistic understanding of reality and share how our Christian faith matches up with reality.

© 2011 Freddy Davis