A world tour of Unitarian Universalism
by Rosemary Bray McNatt
At a time when the world seems to grow ever smaller, it may be some comfort to note that Unitarian Universalism's reach grows ever larger. Liberal religion and its message of hope, courage, and freedom have taken root in cultures as far away from Boston as Latin America, Ghana, and India. The varieties of liberal religious experiences prove that freedom of belief and conscience know no borders. Yet we often forget that the United States is neither the only locus of our religious past nor the single engine of its future. The following books provide snapshots of our faith on a global scale, and offer a timely reminder that North American Unitarian Universalism is only one strand in our interdependent web.
No one could possibly recommend this text as light reading. Yet it provides for the patient reader a glimpse into the sacramental universe of our Transylvanian forebears. Gellérd creates a roadmap of Unitarian theological development from our radical roots in the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s through the Counterreformation and the Enlightenment, and serves to remind us just how much we take for granted about our faith. We assume, for example, the unity of God that is, if we are not attacking the notion of God altogether. Yet Gellérd's writing a combination of theology and biography helps to shed light on just how revolutionary and how dangerous it was to proclaim the unity of God and the humanity of Jesus in early modern Europe.
Gellérd writes of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century ministers prepared to die on behalf of such notions, yet who patiently taught their congregations liberal Christian doctrines and shaped what we now recognize as the left wing of the Protestant Reformation. We no longer engage in dialogues about revelation, the true church, or scripture. Yet these things assumed great importance in the world of spiritual leaders born and bred in Hungary. By the time of the Enlightenment in the late 1700s, Gellérd writes, "The two-and-one-half-century evolution of Unitarian theological ideas, its views about religion and the object of faith, its ethics, and its homiletical and educational system, had prepared it to welcome the Enlightenment." The book might have been strengthened by more direct reference to some of the sermons Gellérd discusses, in place of his summaries and interpretations. But as it is, Judit Gellérd has succeeded not only in honoring and preserving her father's memory, but the distant memory of Unitarianism's formative years.
We know ourselves to be an ever-evolving faith; over the years, we've learned to count on it. But embedded in our assumption is the notion that such evolution will follow a predictable and recognizable path, rooted in the Western history and culture with which we're most familiar. But what if Unitarian Universalism were to evolve quite differently? What if there were an indigenous Universalism with roots in a culture that, though it shares several elements with the North American context, is almost wholly different? In Maglipay Universalist: A History of the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Philippines, we learn the complex answers. Written by the Rev. Fredric Muir, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis, Maryland, Maglipay Universalist relates the birth and struggle of Universalism in the Philippines, a society marked by centuries of Spanish Catholicism, decades of Western imperialism, the prominence of close-knit communities known as barangays, and a profoundly poor and oppressed people.
But the reformation continued. Toribio Sabandija Quimada was raised on the island of Negros as a traditional Philippine Catholic. Quimada had no direct contact with the Bible until he and his wife moved in with a Presbyterian cousin in 1937; it was that direct encounter with scripture that led him to leave the Catholic church and eventually to join a local congregation known as Iglesia Universal de Cristo. As his faith deepened, the ministry beckoned, and Quimada was ordained by the church's leadership.
In 1951 Quimada stumbled upon information about the Universalist Church of America, and he began a correspondence with what was then the Universalist Service Committee. He read and used books, hymnals, and religious education materials he received from them and found his theology changed forever. By 1954, he had been excommunicated from Iglesia Universal de Cristo, but the nine congregations he served had followed him. By 1955, he had founded the Universalist Church of the Philippines (renamed the Unitarian Universalist Church in 1985) and began his evangelizing work on the island of Negros with help from the Universalist Service Committee. Increasingly active in a justice-making ministry to the poor farmers of his communities, Quimada was murdered in 1988. The investigation into his death remains at a standstill, but his church continues under his daughter Rebecca's leadership.
Fred Muir tells the story not only of Quimada's life and tragic death but also the story of a hopeful and energetic community burdened by a long history of oppression. One distinctive feature of the faith of our Unitarian Universalist brothers and sisters in the Philippines may be found in their acceptance of faith healing. It's likely that even the most liberal among us will take a deep breath at such a prospect, and the fact that most UUCP members are uneducated and poor may conjure stereotypes about the validity of their faith. Yet Muir does not let readers off the hook about our affluent Western biases. Faith healing, he observes, "is about empowerment, independence, and protest, and it provides an authentic substitute to modern medicine. It is a religious and social phenomenon by which many UUCP members find Unitarian Universalism appealing and sustaining."
For many of us in North America, such claims seem sensational, and the decidedly Christian nature of their faith may be anathema here. But in the lived experience of the Filipino communities visited by Muir, the liberal Christianity of the UUCP is life and spirit giving. "Like western Unitarian Universalists, they have a deep and profound desire to know truth and meaning, and they don't believe that there is a single way for finding it. They have a thirst to know and do what is right. . . . [Their social, economic, and political] conditions might lead many westerners to cower and turn away . . . but for Filipinos, the depths and richness of their emerging Unitarian Universalist tradition is broad and eclectic, and holds promise." Anyone ready to be challenged about the nature of our faith and about the reach of our good news will be well rewarded by reading Muir's fine book.
The British General Assembly recently revised what it calls "the Object of the General Assembly." Akin to the Principles and Sources of the UUA, the revised object notably affirmed the liberal Christian tradition within Unitarianism. The inserted words "to uphold the liberal Christian tradition" was viewed by some as "an unnecessary concession to theological conservatism." But the Rev. Andrew Brown, minister in Bury St. Edmunds, sees "the authentic words and deeds of Jesus . . . in accord with the aims and Object of our own General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches, as well as those of our North American sister church, the Unitarian Universalist Association."
In another essay, George Chryssides, a senior lecturer in religious studies at the University of Wolverhampton, asks directly what many of us in the United States discuss with wary laughter: Has Unitarian Universalism become a cult? Referring again to the Revised Object, Chryssides writes of the dilemma facing the future of British Unitarianism: "Are Unitarians to regard themselves as an essentially Christian group, emanating from the radical edges of the Protestant Reformation, or are they a movement dedicated to exploration and innovation? And if the latter, are there any limits to spiritual enquiry?" Perhaps an answer lies within the essay written by the Rev. Dr. Richard Boeke, currently ministering in Southern England, who sees Unitarianism not "as a diluted form of Christianity whose defining identity is the rejection of creeds. Rather, I see us as a bridge, linking religions and even atheists in the common quest for a future worth living."
If tomes of history and thoughtful essays can't persuade you, simply peruse the rich and varied voices in One and Universal: Prayers and Meditations from Around the World, edited by John Midgley, president of the British General Assembly. This small but valuable resource is collected from member congregations of the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists, founded in 1995. Offerings from the United States are present, but the great gift of this work lies in the voices raised in prayer and celebration, voices rarely heard among us: a chalice lighting from Pakistan; opening words from the Khasi Hills; a morning meditation from New Zealand; an interfaith prayer from Nigeria. A total of fifty prayers from seventeen nations are represented here additional testimony that our liberal religious tradition can transcend culture and geography.
The Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt is a contributing editor for UU World and minister of the Fourth Universalist Society in New York City.