Tag Archives: Duncan Howlett

What do you believe? — part two

In an earlier post [link], I quoted from an old Unitarian Universalist pamphlet by Duncan Howlett, titled “What Do YOU Believe?” In the portion I quoted, Howlett wrote that Unitarian Universalism is not concerned with traditional belief systems. Indeed, Howlett explicitly rejects traditional belief systems (I’ve silently updated gender-specific language):

What then do we tell our friend who asks us what the Unitarian Universalists believe? We tell our friend in the first place that we reject all doctrines and creeds and theologies if they pretend to any finality. We think the fabrication of such systems valuable, but we do not believe one or another of them.

For me, that statement sums up the core of Unitarian Universalism. If you have the so-called “seven principles” posted in your church building, maybe you should take them down and replace them with a poster bearing the above quote. But you might want to add a positive statement about what we stand for (again, language silently updated):

A Unitarian Universalist is not an unbeliever. In fact, a Unitarian Universalist believes a great deal. Our beliefs are of a different order, but they are nonetheless real. The first of them is belief in humanity…. When we say that we believe in humanity we mean that we believe that human beings are endowed with the power to move toward truth. We believe that human beings are endowed with the discrimination by which to tell the difference between truth and falsehood and error. Yet we know human beings are fallible. We know that individuals make mistakes. Thus when we speak of humankind or humanity we mean the interaction of mind upon mind, experience upon experience….

We believe humanity is to be trusted — not each human being, but humankind taken together, with the testimony of each checked against each. We believe that humankind can find truth, know the right, and do good — again, not each individual, but taken together, with each checked against all the rest. We believe human life has meaning, that the high purposes of humanity may be achieved and the spiritual nature of humanity indicates something about humankind and the cosmos as well. In this faith we live, by it we labor, and through it we find the courage to carry on amidst all the tragedy, misery, and stupidity of life.

You could make all that into a poster — or into an “elevator speech,” a short spiel about our faith you could give to someone with whom you happen to be sharing a ten-second elevator ride. Either way, I find Howlett’s statement to be a far more satisfying (and accurate) summation of Unitarian Universalist “beliefs” than the “seven principles.”

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

Religion online

You’ll find today’s sermon is now up on the Web site of First Unitarian in New Bedford. [Note: no longer on Web site.] I ad libbed more than usual this morning, so if you were here to hear the sermon, you’ll find the written version is significantly different.

I remain ambivalent about making sermons available in written form, because I don’t think of them as a written genre, but rather as an oral genre. I found a little booklet of a sermon series preached here at First Unitarian in 1943 by Duncan Howlett, and they are prefaced with this note:

Through the generosity of one of our members, the series was taken down stenographically. As theses sermons were delivered without notes or manuscript, it has been necessary to rework the material for printing. The spoken word rarely makes good reading.

The last sentence expresses my thoughts exactly; I’d only except a few of Jonathan Edwards’s sermons. Nor do I feel audio recordings do justice to sermons. There’s something about a sermon which requires you to be there, to be a part of the congregation. You’re not just listening to a sermon, you’re sitting there with other people, you’re singing hymns together, the sermon is just one little piece of an entire worship exeperience.

Yet at the same time, there is a long American tradition of sermons serving as a means for exchanging theological ideas. Maybe that’s why I am ambivalent about reading contemporary sermons: too many contemporary sermons do not address theological issues at all.