Notes on our theological boundaries

These notes are addressed to my fellow Unitarian Universalists, although they may be of some interest to other liberal religious persons. I’ve been thinking about this question: Where do we draw our theological boundaries? Having some sense of where our boundaries are will help us to answer another questions: whom do we keep out, and whom should we be seeking out to welcome in? Mind you, these are just notes — which means your thoughts, reactions, and comments will be most welcome.

A. Do we have theological boundaries?

As Unitarian Universalists, we say that we don’t assume that we have the only correct answer to things. We are, however, torn between two ideas: (1) whether ours is ultimately the best religion, and thus all other people should want to be part of us; or (2) whether we are one religious community within a much larger society, and as such we are in dialogue with other, co-equal religious communities.

(1) The former idea probably comes from the Christian tradition out of which we have come, where many Christians have the idea that ultimately everyone reaches heaven through Christianity (although there are plenty of Christians who now say that there are multiple paths to salvation, see e.g. Mark Heim’s Salvations: Truth and Difference in Religions). Among Unitarian Universalists, this idea takes a somewhat different form, with people saying that our goal is world community where everyone is welcome — into our congregations.

(2) The latter idea assumes that we’re not the religion for everybody in the whole world, and then the contested area is how many “outsiders” want to become part of our religious community. In practice, the general answer to this last question is that we only allow in enough people to make up for those who die or leave UUism (since our membership numbers in North America have been essentially flat for years). However, it is also possible to hold that there are significant numbers of additional people in North America who would feel at home within our theological boundaries.

I hold with the latter idea: I don’t believe that we’re the religion for everybody, I don’t believe that we are the new, up-and-coming “universal religion” that all right-thinking people will soon join (and that all wrong-thinking people will soon have to join, like it or not), and I don’t believe that we can create some kind of religious community that everyone will feel welcome in. I do believe that we have a unique and important religious viewpoint that is very valuable for the world to hear; and I believe that we have a key role to play in promoting inter-religious dialogue in the world at large.

If you’re like me, and don’t believe that we’re the religion for everyone in the world, then we have to answer the key question: where do we draw our theological boundaries? Having some sense of where our boundaries are will help us to answer another questions: whom do we keep out, and whom should we be seeking out to welcome in?

B. Where do we draw our theological boundaries?

Let’s come up with a rough sense of where our theological boundaries lie.

(1) First and foremost, the use of reason in religion: we think that our reasoning faculty should play a key role in our religious life together. Intuition has also been important among us, at least since the Transcendentalist movement within Unitarianism and the spiritualism movement within Universalism, but intuition is a later addition whereas the use of reason in religion is a foundational principle. Blind faith, however, is deprecated or denied among us, and someone who insists on blind faith as a primary religious modality would not feel comfortable among us.

Of course, many other religious communities value the use of reason, but we seem to be distinctive in the extent to which we value the use of reason. Thus, I believe this is a useful theological boundary, which tends to keep in those who would use reason in religion to the greatest extent possible, and tends to keep out those who deprecate or deny the use of reason in religion.

(2) Secondly, feminist theology has been important for us at least since first-wave feminism. In North America, the Universalists were the first denomination to officially recognize the ordination of women back in the 19th C. The Unitarians may have been less influenced by first-wave feminism, but certainly a number of prominent first-wave feminists found a congenial home among the Unitarians, at least for part of their lives. Second-wave feminism became central to our theological identity in the 1970’s. The now much-beloved “seven principles” were a 1984 rewrite of older but quite similar principles, a rewrite deeply informed by second-wave feminism; the importance of the “seven principles” today shows the centrality of feminist theology among us. We could comfortably say that a person who believes that women and girls should play a subordinate role in religious communities would not feel comfortable among us. Thus, we have identified another theological boundary, which tends to keep in those who feel comfortable with feminist theologies, and tends to keep out those who feel uncomfortable with feminist theologies.

(3) Thirdly, the theology of the social gospel. We privilege saving the world through social justice actions, whereas we give less emphasis to individual salvation. This is in direct contrast to certain evangelical Christian communities that privilege personal salvation — when such communities take their religion out into the world, they would be likely to place more importance on converting other souls, as opposed to providing more concrete assistance.

(4) and (5) Two emerging theological emphases among us include: anti-racist theologies (still iffy, but gaining momentum); and GLBT-friendly theologies (widespread, though by no means universal among us). GLBT-friendly theology is still very new with us (less than fifty years old), and quite a few Unitarian Universalists are still not entirely comfortable in religious communities that include gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered persons. Anti-racist theology has a long but problematic history with us — some early North American Universalists were preaching abolition in the 1770’s — but anti-racist theology quickly becomes political, especially in the United States, and there is little unanimity among us when it comes to politics (see below). Nevertheless, we are seeing significant movement towards anti-racist theology becoming central — the fact that we are the first historically white denomination to select an African American to head our denomination is symbolically very important.

(6) Often, what might be called political theology is used by political liberals in the United States to try to draw boundaries in practice in our local congregations. However, it’s quite difficult to draw meaningful boundaries based on some kind of alleged political theology. Most UU’s have centrist or somewhat liberal politics, but there are significant numbers of both conservatives and leftists among us. It may be safer to say that we tend towards the libertarian end of the political compass, although we also value order and organization over disorder and anarchy, and we tend to support democratic/republican governments while distancing ourselves from truly libertarian anarchy. On the political action scale that ranges from purity (think Greenpeace) to pragmatic (think Environmental Defense Fund), we tend to act pragmatically, willing to make strategic alliances, while talking as if we valued purity, i.e., talking as if we’re always “speaking truth to power” and never compromising our highest moral standards, so we oscillate between these two political poles. In short, our political theology is characterized by diversity more than anything else — while politically liberal/centrist Unitarian Universalists may use politics to exclude or marginalize conservatives and leftists (speaking as a leftist, I have direct experience of this), I don’t believe they can do so on defensible theological grounds.

(7) and (8) There are quite a few Unitarian Universalists who would say that we should have a theological boundary pertaining humanist theology, that is, lack of belief in God. Die-hard humanists have been known to say that no theists should be a part of their local Unitarian Universalist congregation. Less extremist humanists have been known to say that theism is dying out among us, or should die out among us. However, it has become obvious that there is no consensus on this issue among us. But UU humanist theologian William R. Jones described a humano-centric theology back in the early 1970’s that can unites UU humanists and theists. To oversimplify, Jones pointed out that humano-centric theists and humanists are united in their understanding that some father-figure God is not going to bail us out of all our troubles; therefore, said Jones, both humanists and humano-centric theists have to act as if we human beings are fully responsible for our own destiny. By contrast, theo-centric theists might tell us to “put our trust in God,” “God will save us from all our problems” — a theological stance that would not be particularly welcome, or would be less extreme and more nuanced, in a Unitarian Universalist congregation. Humano-centric theology could be considered a central theology among us, but humanism cannot be so considered.

C. Whom should we be seeking out to welcome in?

Based on the above arguments, I believe that our Unitarian Universalist religious communities could welcome significant additional numbers of persons. I suggest that there are lots of people who insist on using reason in religion, but who are not currently in our religious communities. Similarly, I suggest that there are plenty of people who think women and girls are just as important as men and boys when it comes to religion, and/or who value feminine images of the divine as much as masculine images of the divine. Similarly, I suggest that those comfortable with humano-centric theology will be welcome among us. Certain local congregations may be religious communities that welcome people who hold anti-racist and/or GLBT-friendly theologies.

However, I am only talking about theological boundaries here. Other boundaries will be at work, including political boundaries, socio-economic boundaries, race and ethnicity boundaries, boundaries based on liturgical style, etc.


I argue that we do have theological boundaries, as follows:
(1) We privilege the use of reason in religion, over such things as blind faith.
(2) Feminist theology is central to us, particularly second-wave feminism.
(3) Humano-centric theology is central to us.
(4) Anti-racist theologies, and GLBT-friendly theologies, currently represent weak boundaries, but they are growing in strength.

Based on these boundaries, I further argue that there are large numbers of persons who would feel theologically comfortable among us; however, there are other boundaries at work which may keep these people out.

10 thoughts on “Notes on our theological boundaries

  1. Rev. Jack Ditch

    Regarding your first set of bullet point, I think there’s a wide range of subtle stances that lie between the two options you highlight, even combining both those options. For instance, I would suggest that we are neither the best religious community, nor merely one of many religious communities, but rather that we consider all religious communities our one religious community. It’s not about waiting around for people to join “us”, but rather going out and joining with “them” wherever we are not turned away. Are there boundaries? Yeah, sure–when people refuse us entrance and shut us out of the church buildings they own, that’s an undeniable boundary. But why do you think we need to set up boundaries of our own? Why should we be shutting ourselves away from anyone who would otherwise join with us, despite our differences?

    A lot of the places where you then draw boundaries are frankly quite shocking to me. You say, “…although we also value order and organization over disorder and anarchy…” Who’s “we” here, beyond yourself and those people who agree with you? Because many of the local UUs I work with are explicitly anarchists, valuing creative disorder over destructive order, and I’m wondering what makes you exclude them from “we.”

  2. dwight

    I certainly prefer the ‘creative disorder’ option, Jack. In fact, i’ve often thought of UUism as the “anarchist” of religious denominations…no strong, central authority, no mandatory rituals, no official creed, etc.

  3. UU Jester

    On the topic if drawing a line around/near organiazation vs. disorder, I have say I too prefer creative disorder over destructive order. Of course, I think you’d be hard pressed to find may who wouldn’t. I also prefer creative order over destructive disorder. Sounds like a false dichotomy you’ve set up, Jack. I prefer creation to destruction wherever they fall on the order/disorder scale.

    I think we tend (stress on the word “tend”, the word Dan used in his origional post) to lean towards organization rather than towards disorder and anarchy. What do I offer as support of this observed tendency? We actually do organize. Into congregations. Into districts. Into an association. With other religions and denominational bodies. There “tends” to be more movement towards connecting and building relationships, including the use of existing societal structures/institutions. Are we good at it? No… most of us are not. Probably because it is only a tendency and we have a wider diversity of belief/attitude/practice in that particular arena (another point Dan expressed.)

  4. Jeff W.

    Dan, I agree with the substance of the points you make. But it does surprise me that in an alleged treatment of theology, no mention is given to explicit Unitarian and Universalist theologies. These are what I was brought with as the core of who we are: we believe in Jesus as an important but non-divine prophet and teacher and in the universal salvation of all souls by an infinitely benevolent God. Reasoned theology, feminism, anti-racism, and so on, are the highly important but therefore second-order results/implications of those core theological beliefs; you might say that they are HOW we practice that core theology. Furthermore, believing fiercely in the right of individual conscience and that required adherence to a formal creed is spiritual tyranny, we welcome people to explore religion and even join in our activities if they don’t wish to affirm that core theology. But they are nonetheless in relationship to that theology, even if it is in the role of non-subscribers. It is perhaps the partial jettisoning of that core theology in favor of the second-order practice that has resulted in much of the confusion, theological sub-group competition, and bitterness found in some UU circles today.

  5. Bill Baar

    Thank you for posting a sorely needed comment on boundaries! This is really excellent. Just acknowleding that we have boundaries is important.

    If what you knew about UU’ism came from what some of our leaders write, I think you’d wonder.

    If what you knew came from membership in a UU community, you’d realize we certainly do draw boundaries. Common sense ones that permit healthy spiritual communities thrive (at least the good Churches do — I think — … I’ve only really belonged to two of them!)

    I don’t believe we’re a religion for everyone nor should we try to me. We serve a needed niche… the four threads you’ve identified are the core for me at least although I think our seminaries, preachers, and thinkers have their work cut out for them to flesh these out.

    We’re ridculed with parodies like this one posted on my bog. It’s riducle we don’t deserve but I fear we set ourselves up for it sometimes.

  6. Dan

    Jack — You write: “we consider all religious communities our one religious community…” You express a valid stance, but it’s not one I feel at all comfortable with. I have seen that stance take UUs down the path of cultural misappropriation. And from my far left frame of reference, it sounds a little too much like imperialism.

    Dwight — Part of my implicit argument here is that we are not nearly so anarchistic as all that. And if you look at, e.g., how the second-wave feminists put feminist theology front and center, it was through very well done grassroots organizing on a grand scale.

    UU Jester — I’d say we’re actually quite good at organization. Given our small size, we have an ambitious agenda and do quite a lot — which implies organization.

    Jeff — I’m quite aware of the historic Unitarian and Universalist ideas you set forth. On the Unitarian side, the unitarian beliefs you mention weren’t really central to early 19th C. Unitarians, and really the name is an epithet pinned on us by theological opponents — but it was by no means central. As for early Universalists, while universal salvation was a key concept, many historians have argued that it lost its distinctiveness in the late 19th C. as lots of other denominations basically adopted it — and when I talk about universal salvation today (which I do, quite often), I mostly get blank stares from today’s UUs — so no, I don’t think it is a core theology at all any more.

    By the way, I don’t get what you mean by “second-order” — are you using that term in the sense that Gordon Kaufman does? If so, I’d have to say what I am doing is third-order theology.

    Bill — You write: “I don’t believe we’re a religion for everyone nor should we try to be…” I suspect that you and I are part of a quiet majority on this point….

  7. Rev. Jack Ditch

    UU Jester writes:
    Sounds like a false dichotomy you’ve set up, Jack.

    No, I’m right there with you. Are you familiar with the Principia Discordia? Because I’m pulling my terminology right from that book (available free online, just google & see page 63,) and you echo its reasoning precisely.

    But the problem is, the institution IS the order. Organization is what makes it an institution. Thus, if we define the religious path we’re following solely in terms of the institution, then we define it to be order, making it a source of both creation and destruction. We must propagate an understanding that Unitarian Universalism transcends the UUA, if we are to preserve creative disorder’s claim to the name.

    Jeff W mentions the idea of the universal salvation of all souls by an infinitely benevolent God, claiming that the use of Reason in theology flows as an implication from that core belief. But it seems to me, rather, that such a move is a rather Un-Reasonable thing for God to do. Reason says to reject the guilty and save only the innocent. Universalism, on the other hand, springs from God’s irrational love of sinners. Infinite benevolence is an emotion, carrying the person or deity expressing it well beyond the orderly boundaries of reasonable justice and into that state of transcendence wherin they would choose to hang on a cross rather than lift a finger against the people who hung them there. I don’t think it’s coincidence that Universalism gets short shrift in this kind of discussion of UU theology…true Universalism comes at the expense of Reason, and we cling to Reason instead.

    Dan writes:
    You express a valid stance, but it’s not one I feel at all comfortable with. I have seen that stance take UUs down the path of cultural misappropriation. And from my far left frame of reference, it sounds a little too much like imperialism.

    It’s not the viewing of outsiders as insiders of our Church that makes it a cultural misappropriation, it’s the manner in which we treat them as members of our Church. You look at the mistakes we might make when considering every church a Unitarian Universalist church, and you see a reason not to think of them as fellow Unitarian Universalists. I say, rather, we should seek to stop making those mistakes with poeple we think of as Unitarian Universalists. Let’s treat our fellow Unitarian Universalists with the dignity we show towards other religions, and let each member decide for themselves what the baseline for their theology is to be.

    The sin of imperialism is not that they conquered, but how they conquered, and why. Let’s conquer with love and forgiveness of the people we disagree with. As a gay theologian, I shudder to think that “GLBT-friendly theology” would go hand in hand with rejection of people who aren’t friendly towards GLBTs. Your Reason tells you that you must choose one or the other; let’s make that transcendence into the irrationality of God’s infinite benevolence, which teaches it’s both or none.

  8. Rev. Jack Ditch

    One other thing I wanted to clarify.

    Dan, you write:
    it’s not one I feel at all comfortable with

    I just wanted to recognize this discomfort, separate from the reasons you give for it, because what I’m preaching is pretty inherently discomforting, so it’s entirely valid that you’re discomforted. I mean, the great prophet Jesus, whom I consider to be one of the finest Universalists ever known, met with grisly death as the consequence of these ideals. This isn’t about being comfortable, it’s about accepting discomfort out of love and benevolence.

    If you don’t want this discomforting message mentioned on your blog, please just tell me, as I can’t tell if your previous response to me was an invitation to continue conversation or an expression of the desire for me to stop. I have tried to be respectful in my disagreement, but if I am not welcome here, just say so and I’ll leave. You’ve already mangled/deleted two of my comments to this blog, and I just want you to know that you don’t have to do that for me to go away.

  9. Jeff W.

    Dan, didn’t mean to imply in ant way that you were unaware of classical Unitarian and Universalist theologies. I was just surprised that they played no role in establishing boundaries or touchstones of any kind. I read the historical record differently than you about how important these ideas were in the 19th century, and I know anecdotally that these ideas do continue to have power for many lifelong UUs.

    If they’re no longer core theology (they were in the historic New England UU church where I grew up, but I recognize that it’s only one example), then perhaps it’s time we change this long and unwieldy name that only seems to confuse people (such as those who think “universalist” refers to affirming all religions in a mushy kind of way). There was a push in the mid-20th century to call ourselves “The Liberal Church.” If questioning dogma and advancing feminism, anti-racism, and gay rights are much of what we’re about at this point (rather than theology in the traditional sense of ideas of God, something that used to be our marker of boundary), then perhaps we should consider once again adopting that title. I don’t think we gather many in anyway through the use of the term “Unitarian-Universalist,” so maybe a change in marketing strategy is needed.

  10. James Field

    I really like Rebecca Parker’s take on this. One version can be found online at: (which I found via Steve Caldwell via Hafidha Sofia). Another version is .

    Here use of the house metaphor and asking “what are the walls of our theological house?” and “what are the doors?” is very useful to me.

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