The Sources of Unitarian Universalism

a sermon by the Reverend Paul Oakley
10:00 AM, Sunday, August 19, 2018



In 2005, the Rev. Jason Shelton and the Rev. Kendyl Gibbons began an artistic collaboration that sought to do something really ambitious. They were prompted by a report from a commission of the Unitarian Universalist Association that asserted a potentially dire opinion that provided room for hope. The report claimed that for our small denomination to survive and thrive, we had to figure out what holds all our theological diversity together.[1] Over a nine-month period, Jason Shelton wrote the music and Kendyl Gibbons wrote the words to a cantata in seven movements, one for each of the six sources of our tradition that are enumerated in the bylaws of the Association, plus a concluding movement. I have selected these brief quotes that give a sense of the flavor of the thoughts and language of the movements of the cantata:[2]

I. In the Beginning

Kingdom of marvels,
terror and splendor,
Province of dust and breath;
Woven in time of
promise and hunger,
Heaven on holy earth.

II. Transformation

Clouds of witness surround us,
honored prophets, faithful workers, daring leaders
speak the truth, heal the world, light the dawn.
And we journey together, in the struggle,
make connection, find forgiveness
through the work, through the pain, moving on.
We must build for the future peace and plenty,
truth and justice, hope and freedom,
not oppress, not destroy.

III. All Lifted Hearts

Many windows, one light;
Many waters, one sea;
All lifted hearts are free.

Shanti, shalom; hasiti, salaam;
Heiwa, dohiyi; pax, paco, mir

IV. On Wings of Praise

Who is my neighbor, who is my brother,
Who is the holy mother and child?
Nation of covenant, kingdom of righteousness;
Home of the long exiled.

God of justice…
Soften our hearts and teach us repentance,
Turn us from reckless pride and willful ways;
Loving and humble, fit for true service,
Lift us on wings of praise, of praise!

V. No Other World

Create my salvation in earth’s endless wonder;
Everything nature provides;
Let me be honest, and wise in compassion;
Make reason and conscience my guides.

VI. The Sacred Circle

Perhaps it was at the dawn of the world, that great gathering; Perhaps it continues to this very day. In the wind and thunder, the voices still sound, for those who will hear:
Patience…strength…respect…let go…joy…

VII. The Promise

Truth is a beacon to guide our journey;
Hope is a story to feed our soul;
Love is a song of the human spirit;
What makes us whole is the promise.


The cantata is beautiful and also a challenge for any church choir to perform, with its mix of musical styles and an accompaniment involving multiple instruments, multiple musicians. And it is an artistic, inspirational take on the bylaws language we looked at earlier. It is, after all, a simple fact that bylaws are not written for their inspirational qualities but for their organizational values. The question that motivated our cantatists to create these words and their music was the question that is suggested in the section of the bylaws that are on the back of your order of service this morning, the part commonly known as the Principles and Sources. That question – What holds all our theological diversity together? – is, indeed, answered by the Principles and Sources, but not in a way that will inspire people the way the arts can. And the bylaws are subject to reductionism in a way that a song or a whole cantata is not.


When I first became a Unitarian Universalist, I knew about the principles and more-or-less understood them. The sources, though, did not settle in to my consciousness so easily. And when they did, I organized them in my mind as list of nouns: 1) Direct Experience, 2) Prophetic People, 3) World Religions, 4) Judaism and Christianity, 5) Humanism, and 6) Earth-Centered Spirituality, or Paganism. Indeed, if you visit the online Unitarian Universalist collection of worship resources known as the WorshipWeb and are looking for readings drawing from one of the six sources, you will find just such a list to help you find a reading you want to use in a service. But it challenged me to think of it this way. What does “source” mean here?


Well, it did not necessarily mean “historic lineage.” In the explanation of the Rev. Tom Schade:


First of all, they are ahistorical. They do not describe the actual historical process of our formation. You would think that a “sources” statement would describe an intellectual history. There is a when and a where and a who behind each of these sources, which is not explained.[3]


The lineage of Unitarianism and Universalism in America was, in fact, Protestant Christian, but, more specifically, a reaction of the children and neighbors of the Puritans against Calvinist doctrines that defined God and humanity in ways these next generations could not accept. So if you wanted to boil the historic lineage down to a reductive list, you would have Anti-Calvinism or Liberal Christianity on your list. The Unitarian and Universalist movements in this country went through intellectual and spiritual developments that relate to some of these reduced sources. In the 1820s and 30s, the Transcendentalist movement, though not exclusively Unitarian, centered the importance of direct experience of the transcendent over conformity. Soon thereafter, Unitarians and Universalists grew in their individual involvement in abolitionism, though it was never adopted as a denominal position and was long divisive. But prophetic words and deeds grew in importance. In the early-mid-twentieth century, Unitarians were key developers of religious humanism in this movement and the writing of the Humanist Manifesto. And in the mid-twentieth century, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s call to Selma solidified the importance to our movement of prophetic action for social justice. From the 1980s on, a movement within Unitarian Universalism found grounding in the cycles of nature and neo-pagan traditions.


There is a connection here to influences that made their way into our movement. Judaism, as a source, seems to relate more to people who made their way into Unitarian Universalism than to deep theological positions. And World Religions? Unitarian Universalism borrowed readings from the wisdom of other traditions, sometimes editing them to meet our own sensitivities, perhaps not always completely faithful to the origins of what was borrowed, but well placed within our worship. And individuals and subgroups had intellectual affinities or affinity of practice with various world religions, with the emergence, for example, of Buddhist meditation groups and inclusion of Buddhist perspectives of reality and the challenge of being human within this faith of historically Protestant origins.


But Tom Schade, one of our most deeply thinking living Unitarian Universalist intellectuals points out that this telling of the history through a list of sources is not intellectually honest because it hides the conflicts that over and again threatened to split the denomination. It spins those traumatic disputes into a list of sources in a sort of “pluralistic agnosticism” that amounts to a “a menu of theological traditions that allows each person to pick and choose their truth.”[4] But this list of options approach is not a static reality; it describes a push and pull between what we do in the world and what we believe in our hearts. As Schade explains:


While the diversity of theological perspectives has become a centrifugal force in Unitarian Universalism, it has been offset by the centripetal, or unifying, force of our public theology. Our public theology is our theological understanding of our work in the world, or mission. Our public theology is expressed in the Seven Principles, which have also continued to be developed over time. The most important development in the Seven Principles has been the further commitment to become an anti-racist, anti-oppressive, multicultural religious movement.[5]


This tension between this understanding of the Sources and the Principles is informative. Schade’s call to uncovering the hidden narratives of unresolved theological disputes is important and probably should be the basis of an adult education curriculum for Unitarian Universalists who want to go deeper. I will, though, set aside that project for another time.


But if we combine our origins, our lineage, the internal developments of our movement, our persistent external influences, and the influx of new members from other traditions, the influence of spiritual practices from beyond this stream, we might be able to see these sources – or resources – in a significant and meaningful though not normative way. Yet, statements in bylaws mostly aim at shaping an organization and grounding its action. Bylaws may have to surmount historical issues, but the bylaws do not exist for teaching those issues. And this reductive list I imagined as a new Unitarian Universalist, this list that turns each of these six statements into a single noun does little to direct action. It is not normative. You may remember than last year in my eight-sermon series on the principles enumerated in the Association bylaws, my focus in each one of them was not belief but action and commitment. To me, it makes sense in this bylaws section focused on the covenant of the member congregations of the Association, that we continue to think about our sources as grounding for and commitment to action.


We have a list of six sources. Let’s look and see if there is any action to be had here. In the first-listed source, we find these words: “Direct experience” – there is our summary noun that was on our list of nouns – “direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures” – and there it is expanded, given more substance, not all experience of every sort, but this particular kind of individual and communal transcendental experience – and here comes the action: “which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.” In other words, this first of six sources is not simply a noun, a static reality, it is about a specific kind of action. Each of the six sources ends with a clause that begins with the word “which,” wording that names the kind of action that is based in the noun:


  • … which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
  • … which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
  • … which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
  • … which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
  • … which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit;
  • … which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.[6]


And because that impulse that initially led me and many others to reduce each source to a single noun for ease of memory and processing is a sometimes helpful impulse, how might we further summarize the action involved in each source?


The Living Tradition we share grows from:


  • Renewing our spirits and opening ourselves to the Force.
  • Confronting evil with justice, compassion, and love.
  • Leading an ethical and spiritual life.
  • Loving our neighbors as ourselves.
  • Heeding science and avoiding idolatries.
  • Celebrating the circle of life and living in harmony with nature.


It is not just a menu of other traditions we may be inspired by. It is a program for meaning and happiness in our individual lives and the life of concentric and overlapping circles and spheres of movement.


This sermon is the first in a series of eight sermons that will spread through the year, including a sermon on each source and a sermon on the future of the sources. I invite you to think more deeply about the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Congregations that is on the back of your order of service. What value do these words present to us in 2018?










© 2018 by the Rev. Paul Oakley