You’re looking at the “Bible Castle” of Vicksburg, Tennessee. You’re not looking at all of it because it won’t all fit in the frame. When Margaret Rogers married Reverend H.D. Denison in 1979, they began painting and scrawling over the property of Margaret’s grocery store as a sprawling testament to God’s love. It’s locked nowadays but visitors can peek inside the windows the bus to see the pews and pulpit inside. This whole property is the sign and the message. In one place it reads, “God is love, he loves all, his black brothers and white sisters… welcome Jews and Gentiles.”
I love hand-made faith-based signs because they let you know exactly how the sign-maker feels. It’s not a calculated move on behalf of a religious lobbying group or a mega-church or someone who’s trying to proselytize, or profit, or both -- it’s just a human hailing life from the bedrock of who they are. It’s as honest a sign as you can find.
Religion is complex to express. I dread the moment when people find out I’m Unitarian Universalist (UU) not because I’m not proud of it, but because explaining a religion to someone who’s never heard of yours is hard. It would be simpler if UU were just a sect of vampirism. Then I could say, “It’s basically just vampirism” and this person, who thought a party was a good place to talk about religion, would say, “Ohhhh, I’ve heard of that before. With the blood and the necks and all that...”
“Exactly,” I would say.
“So you don’t believe in sunlight?” they would ask.
“You’re on the right track,” I would say. And then I could change the subject.
UU is not vampirism. It’s an abstract set of semi-optional principles that is difficult to compare to anything besides Burning Man, Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Books, The Matrix, and C-Span. For this reason I’m going to do my best to lay out the general tenets of Unitarian Universalism for the layman. I have no interest in proselytizing. I have every interest in hacking a way out of surprise conversations about religion. The next time I’m at a party and someone says, “I hear you’re Unitarian, what is that?” I will say, “I will answer your question by directing you to a video loop of an abandoned bible castle accompanying a rambling essay that predicted this exact situation,” and they will say, “WHAT!?” and I will say, “Exactly,” and they will say, “Unitarians are weird,” and I will say, “You’re on the right track.”
It’s a pretty arrogant thing to try to reduce the faith of millions to a couple lines, so I hope it goes without saying that this is all my personal perspective and that everything stated below should be taken with a pound of salt. What I’ve seen, let alone what I’ve perceived, could never, ever be confused as the entirety of UU. UU is different in every church for every person at every time in their lives. My church raised me to believe I should never speak for others, and I have no such intention. I’m not writing to declare what UU is. I’m writing to explain what I have absorbed, personally, because I’m pretty sure the abstraction of UU is what keeps so many people from trying to find out more about it.
That being said, I’m going to try to reduce the faith of millions to a couple lines:
Do your thing.
Don’t hurt anyone.
The “don’t hurt anyone” thing is kind of universal throughout religion. UU’s are not ground-breakers in that realm. It’s the “do your thing” bit that tends to draw in people looking for a new place of worship. The only thing you “had to” believe at my church was that you didn’t have to believe in anything. Do your thing. Just don’t hurt anyone. You can see how this might be a relief for people who have been told at some point that who they are, or what they want, or how they love, is wrong. A lot of UU’s are or have been black sheep in their families.
“So… like… what did you do at church? Who’s in charge? Who’s your god? What kind of snacks are there?” Ok, there’s more to it than a couple of lines. There are actually seven official UU principles and I’m going to list, translate and expand upon, as I understand them.
THE FIRST PRINCIPLE: The inherent worth and dignity of every person
Translation: Everyone deserves to do their thing
My church wants you to find your thing, whatever that is. If you find and do that thing then you will be living life the way ___________ intended. The blank there can be filled in according to whatever your thing is. If you want to fill in the blank with “God”, “The Universe,” or “Howard Taft,” you can do that.
My church goes to such great lengths not to tell you what to do that we stripped out most of the things you expect in a place of worship. For example:
• There’s no dress code. For the most part everyone looks like they’re going to a restaurant somewhere between five-star and The Olive Garden. There’s no enforcement on this, though, because we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every outfit. If your thing is showing up to church in a squid costume, and you really, truly believe that is your calling, then do your thing. I’ve seen muumuus and pajamas at church. In the mid-nineties there were a lot of little dudes wearing “No Rules” shirts which were probably just their public attempts to make the awkward leap from childhood innocence to the mandatory indifference of middle-school masculinity, but looking back, I think “No Rules” is actually a pretty good summation of the UU principles.
* UU halls of worship almost never have any religious paintings, scriptures or iconography. I think that's because religious symbolism makes a statement about what that church is, and therefore what it is not, and UU is supposed to be whatever you need. This makes it tricky to have an official symbol like the cross, crescent, star of David, etc. We do have an official symbol. It’s a fancy candle stick called a chalice. Even the Unitarian Universalist Association tries to downplay the permanence of this symbol though. They claim,
“Our current official UUA logo was designed to offer a visual representation of a modern and dynamic faith. Unitarian Universalist congregations are free to use the UUA's logo in their congregational work, but they are not required to do so.”
I’ve bolded all the submissively irresolute words in there that are intended to remind you that even the UUA can’t tell you how to be a UU. If you showed up to a UU church and announced that you don’t respect the chalice and will henceforth consider the symbol of UU to be Howard Taft riding a narwhal, people would absolutely support you in that decision. And so would I. UU’s want your church to be, and look like, whatever you need. This, I believe, is why nearly every UU church I’ve seen is filled with windows overlooking nature. It’s hard to take offense to trees, although UU’s are really good taking offense so I’m sure it’s been attempted.
• There’s no easy way to tell who’s “in charge”. How can a human be “in charge” anyways? Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiight?! Ok, the reverend is in charge (some churches say minister. Some say some say tomato, some say tomahhhto, some say Howard Taft). The reverend is often hard to pick out of a crowd because their official flowy robes and scarves look like the unofficial flowy robes and scarves that a good third of the congregation wears habitually. UU’s tend to prefer clothing that is as unrestrictive as our religion.
The reverend takes control of the service only after the entire congregation is invited to take the mic to say whatever they want, after the children are paraded up to hear a liberal interpretation of Where the Wild Things Are and the lessons about colonialism that we should and should not draw from it, after the choir sings songs from eight different continents and after someone reminds everyone where they can and cannot park. It is only at this point that the reverend begins what is essentially a 45-minute liberal arts lecture that usually combines current events, quotes from an assortment of religious scriptures and anecdotes about dogs. The Reverend will not give you explicit instructions on how to live your life.
These examples are all just surface-level functions of the “do your thing” philosophy that you might find in a congregation.
The best example of how UU’s have lived out the first principle is in UUA’s work with, and as, civil rights leaders on the national front. On the local front, UUA’s progress in championing gay rights has drawn in many LBGTQ individuals and families. I am not LBGT or Q so I can’t explain what it’s like growing up that way in a UU community. I can explain what it’s like growing up straight in a community where nobody gives a damn if you’re straight. I like to think our country is headed in that direction, so for those of you who did not spend a lot of Sundays, retreats, road-trips, voting rights tours and summer camps in communities where someone coming out of the closet is celebrated as if they just got into Yale, here are some things your children or grandchildren can expect:
• Your male friend from last year will be physically equipped to go bra-shopping with your female friends this year
• You will wake up after a party wondering who is hooking up behind the couch and have no real idea what genders are involved
• Your friends will angst their way through their parents’ breakup, which is in every way as awful as a “real” divorce
• You will roll your eyes as your friends waltz through the will-they-won’t-they build up to a relationship that will be as beautifully catastrophic as every heterosexual three-week high school relationship;
• AND SO MUCH MORE!
The Second Principle: Justice, equity and compassion in human relations
Translation: Don’t stop others from doing their thing
Love thy brother etc., etc. This tenet is pretty standard fare as far as religions go. If the first principle is for hammering home the “Do your thing” idea, this principle hammers home the “Don’t hurt anyone” idea.
The Third Principle: Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.
Translation: Do your thing with other religions
This is where I usually lose people in my explanation: UU’s don’t have to come to church. UU’s can, and do, practice other religions. If your thing is in another church, you should go there. If you come to a UU service once a month because the other three weeks you are rotating between a synagogue, a mega-church and a temple-for-one that you carved into the trunk of a dead sycamore where you keep bird claws and pictures of Howard Taft, that’s cool. There’s nothing in the UU philosophy about “false idols.” We’re down for all idols.
The question that usually comes next is, “So if you don’t subscribe to one religion, what scriptures do you read?” I think it’s time for a convoluted metaphor:
Imagine religions were bands. Imagine that church was a concert and your band were your religious leaders. UU's tend to be the types who want to listen to as many bands as they can. UU's are not ones to pick side. They're rarely the types to get militant in the "Beatles vs. Rolling Stones" debate because UU’s find tremendous wisdom in both Sgt. Pepper and Sticky Fingers. UU services will feature songs from both bands, but after each one they'll pause to make lots of clarifications and caveats about how we should or should not use this song to guide our lives. For example, if UU’s were going to play some Beatles "songs", those “songs” might be qualified as follows:
I Am The Walrus (...maybe. You should really determine for yourself who, if anyone, is the Walrus)
Rocky Raccoon (would have been better served with a non-violent approach)
Strawberry Fields Forever (is now a misnomer because they’re a rapidly-depleting resource)
Here Comes the Sun (although, according to heliocentrism, we are coming to it)
We All Live in a (differently-colored, but equally valuable) Submarine
UU services draw from all sources. UU’s don’t just draw from religious sources either. A UU service could quote anyone from Ghandi to Kurt Cobain. UU is the worship of humanity and the amazing things it has written and done, no matter who wrote or did it.