What do you believe?

Duncan Howlett was minister here in New Bedford in the 1930’s, and later went on to a distinguished career as a Unitarian Universalist minister. In 1967, Howlett wrote a pamphlet for the Unitarian Universalist Association titled “What Do You Believe?” Today, in 2006, what Howlett said still rings true:

The heart of our faith, judged by the historical record, centers in things like the independence of the mind, freedom, and the pursuit of truth; in the rejection of fixed dogmas, fixed forms of worship, and ecclesiastical authority.

Therefore when a friend says, “So you have joined the Unitarian Universalists. Let’s see. What do they believe?”, our first task is to persuade the questioner that his [sic] question cannot be answered. At least, it cannot be answered the way he has asked it and the way he assumes it must be answered. His is like the old duoble question, “Do you still beat your wife?” It can’t be answered because it carries and assumption we are not willing to grant. The question, “What do Unitarian Universalists believe?” carries the assumption that we, like everyone else, have a set of theological beliefs to which we hold and by which we may be identified.

But that is just the point. We don’t. If we are going to be understood, we have to make that clear at the outset.

Today, some Unitarian Universalists have the mistaken notion that our faith has a fixed set of theological beliefs, a.k.a. “the seven principles,” which they can recite to their friends. But that’s not true. The “seven principles” are not particularly theological; they were written to apply to the Association not to individuals; and not all of us believe in them. I don’t believe in them, because, like Duncan Howlett, I don’t think it is possible to say that Unitarian Universalists can be characterized by a certain set of beliefs.

Maybe I can make this point clearer by quoting an anecdote from Howlett’s pamphlet:

One Saturday night some years back my telephone rang. It was about midnight. On the other end of the line was a young woman who had just recently joined my church. There was a good deal of noise in the background and it was easy to tell that a party was in progress. Obviously shouting, she said, “The Unitarians don’t believe in the Trinity or in the Virgin Birth or in the Divinity of Christ. That’s right, isn’t it?”

I said, “No, that’s not right.”

“Not right?” she exclaimed. “Look, I’m in a theological argument and they’ve got me cornered. What should I say?”

“Tell them,” I said, “that you can’t identify a Unitarian by his beliefs or lack of them.” There was a long pause while she thought that one over.

“But isn’t it true,” she insisted, “that we don’t believe in the Virgin Birth or the Ressurection or miracles or any of those things?”

“Yes,” I said, “it is true that most of us don’t believe those things, but you mislead people when you tell them so.”

“I don’t have to tell them,” she said, “they’re telling me. They say we don’t believe anything. Is that right? Don’t we believe anything?”

My answer to that young woman that night and later in detail in my office was this: Asked what they believe, Unitarians and Universalists have been trying to answer an unanswerable question. It can only be answered if you first take the question apart and show the questioner that he has built into it an impossible answer.

I suspect some readers of this blog will not be satisfied with Howlett’s contention, and like the young woman in the story will plead, “Surely we believe in something!” What is your response? Do Unitarian Universalists have a set of fixed beliefs? And perhaps if there’s any interest in this topic, later on I’ll post what Howlett answers when asked, “What do you believe?”

Update: Another post with Howlett’s statement of “belief” Link

5 thoughts on “What do you believe?

  1. beth

    This is going to come out all wrong. I can’t say I’m very good at expressing myself and I’m brand new to UU. I think the 7 principles are great, they’re worthy of discussion, contemplation, etc. etc. However, your post makes sense when I thought a while back that the principles just seemed to be there to “throw a bone” to critical outsiders like those at that party you spoke of.

    Sure, I have beliefs, and if you had a few hours to spare we could hash out what those beliefs are. But here’s the problem, my beliefs change. I learn something new every day. Each day is filled with new insight and new understanding for this crazy thing called “life.” I’m the ultimate flip-flopper! There are a few things which have remained constant and I feel that surrounding myself with UUs and UU-type discussions help me gain further insight, more insight than if I were to be at a church, shul, or mosque where oftentimes what has been “figured out” weighs more heavily on what remains to be understood.

    I “believe” that I have the strength each time I congregate within a UU atmosphere that I have the courage and strength to sit in a crowd where the person sitting next to me might not share those same “beliefs” yet we will both leave the setting better for it and more enlightened.

    I actually just want to say that if you want to post the rest of Howlett’s answers I’d be eager to see them. Thanks.

  2. Bill Baar

    I had have to run into the lobby and get one of those pamphlets to find the seven principles.

    My response to such a question, about what do I believe, would be to quote a recent column
    by in Neuhaus from First Things,

    The question is not whether one believes in believing or believes in religion.
    The question is how one responds to the truth claims proposed by traditions of
    thought–Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, etc.–that are conventionally called religions.

    And my response to those truth claims is to try to follow my Church’s covenant,

    Being desirous of promoting practical goodness in the world, and aiding each other in our moral and religious improvement, we have associated ourselves together: not as agreeing in opinion, not as having attained universal truth in belief or perfection in character, but as seekers after Truth & Goodness.

    My response shapes my beliefs. Tell me how you respond and I can tell you what you believe.

  3. Kim

    Dan — I agree with what you said elsewhere: the unifying belief is that we believe that
    love can transform the world.

  4. Administrator

    Kim — Howlett does include a paragraph on love in his pamphlet:

    “Believe in your own heart. Believe in the love that possesses you — not forgetting that you can make mistakes here too. Believe in the power of love to conquer hate and strife and in its power to suufuse your life with the glory and the sense of reality that love alone can give.”

    That sounds pretty good to me!

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