‘My twelve-year-old was on the playground recently with her Jewish and Catholic friends. The topic of religion came up, and they asked her what Unitarians believe. She found it hard to respond. Is there a playground-ready answer to this question?”
This is a very difficult question, and it was recently my assignment to answer it. At the start of the church year, I was asked to contribute to a new publication being produced by the Parents’ Association of the religious education program at the church I serve in New York City.
Unitarian Universalism often plays better to a graduate-school crowd than a middle-school crowd. Part of the reason for the enigmatic nature of our theology is that we haven’t worked hard enough to make it clear and simple. I am reminded of a minister who, when asked why he preached a 45-minute sermon, replied, “Because I didn’t have enough time to write a 20-minute sermon.” But there is another reason why this question is difficult. If your child’s friends (and their Muslim playmate) answered the same question about their own faiths, they would probably talk about a God who is revealed through a written scripture (the Torah, the New Testament, the Qur’an) and represented on earth by a prophet or messiah figure (Moses, Jesus, Mohammed).
Unitarian Universalism has none of these concrete and uniquely defining elements. Instead, our prevailing—dare I say orthodox—view insists on our freedom to believe whatever we want. Indeed, I asked my very own daughter what Unitarians believe, and her answer was orthodox to a fault. Zoë replied, “We believe whatever we want to believe.” This answer is not good enough, and it certainly doesn’t work on the playground. It’s as if your daughter’s friend asked, “Where do you live?” and she responded, “I’m free to live wherever I want.”
Although Unitarian Universalists today cut a wide swath theologically, my own tendency when describing our faith is to stay close to our theological roots. Here’s the adult version of my answer to the question of what we believe: “As Unitarians, we believe all names for God point toward the same mystery. As Universalists, we believe all creation shares the same destiny.” One divine spirit within and around us, and one destiny before us.
My answer runs against the view that everyone is entitled to his or her own set of beliefs. I commit this heresy because I have two problems with our current approach. One is practical: It doesn’t work. Our numbers as a movement may not be plummeting, but a growth rate of 1 percent a year means that we are slowly dwindling as a percentage of the faster-growing larger population. If we have any sense of mission, we need to be able to say what we believe in language that is positive, relevant, and even playground-friendly.
By positive, I mean that we must talk about something other than freedom, which is the absence of something such as coercion. People may be attracted to Unitarian Universalism because we don’t believe in a doctrine they find abhorrent. But they won’t stay because of what’s missing. (People don’t go to Carnegie Hall because of what they won’t hear.) By relevant, I mean that our message must speak to a nation where, whether we like it or not, more than 90 percent of people asked say they believe in God. And by playground-friendly, I mean precisely that. Karl Barth, perhaps the greatest Protestant theologian of the twentieth century, was once asked if he could sum up all Christian doctrine in a single sentence. He thought for a moment, then said, “Yes, and the sentence is this: Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” He wouldn’t have written his fourteen-volume Dogmatics if he thought the playground answer was adequate for adults, too, but he knew children (and most adults) don’t read theology even though they need one.