Unitarian Universalists: What Do They Believe?

Note: The video Phil showed in the service can be found on YouTube here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pur9Hi-GwV4&feature=related

Philip Douglas

Philip Douglas is a retired UU minister living in Oklahoma City after serving the UU congregation in Corpus Christi, Texas.  Since retiring, he has been active in denominational affairs and is an active leader in his local church.  Tulsa is his home town, so he is especially excited to be invited to preach here.

His sermon is entitled “Unitarian Universalists: What Do They Believe?”  And it’s an exploration maybe not so much what UUs believe as how.  He very much looks forward to being with you, albeit virtually, and showing you his kitchen.

The service will be delivered via Zoom. Subscribe to our weekly newsletter to get the link and other news from Hope on Friday!

Order of Service

Opening Words

Our opening words are from William Shulz:

Come into this place of peace
And let its silence heal your spirit;
Come into this place of memory
And let its history warm your soul;
Come into this place of prophecy and power
And let its vision change your heart.

Lighting of the Chalice/Invocation

May the light we now kindle
inspire us to use our powers
to heal and not to harm,
to help and not to hinder,
to bless and not to curse,
to serve you, Spirit of Freedom.

Come let us worship together.


Welcome and Introduction

Good morning!  And Welcome to Hope Unitarian Church of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Welcome to our public worship, which we celebrate each week in accordance with the principles of a free faith!

As religious liberals, we are a people of faith who gather in covenant.  That is to say, we don’t all believe alike, but we do believe that we can live in right relationship with one another, with nature, with all we consider sacred, and with our tender selves.

As my esteemed colleague, the Reverend Burton Carley put it, “we covenant with one another to seek what is good, true, just, wise, lovely, and holy, and to know what is required of us by them.  Thus we bind ourselves to walk together in the paths of love to grow our own souls and to stand against everything that would diminish the Human Spirit.”

And even as we gather in covenant, we are also aware that the members of our community are scattered all over the place, that we are meeting virtually, because we cannot be all together and be safe.  We are further aware that evil forces would drive people apart and exploit that separation for their own venal purposes.  Let us rejoice in the fact that diversity is strength and that Black Lives Matter.

Perhaps I should introduce myself.  My name is Philip Douglas. I’m a retired Unitarian Universalist minister, living in Oklahoma City since 2014 after serving the UU congregation in Corpus Christi, Texas.  Greg asked me to preach this morning, so I didn’t just show up of my own accord.  Tulsa is my home town.  I grew up and went to school here, so it’s especially exciting for me to be here with you, or is it you here with me in my kitchen? 

Let me remind you that Hope Unitarian Church has a practice of generosity.  Each week the congregation donates its plate offering to a Generosity Recipient chosen by the congregation and the Outreach Committee.  This month, the Generosity Recipient is the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, an organization of longstanding and historical good works.

Spoiler alert:  I’m going to be mentioning generosity later on.

First Reading:  #657, It Matters What We Believe (Responsive)

Some beliefs are like walled gardens.  They encourage exclusiveness, and the feeling of being especially privileged.

Other beliefs are expansive and lead the way into wider and deeper sympathies.

Some beliefs are like shadows, clouding children’s days with fears of unknown calamities.

Other beliefs are like sunshine, blessing children with the warmth of happiness.

Some beliefs are divisive, separating the saved from the unsaved, friends from enemies.

Other beliefs are bonds in a world community, where sincere differences beautify the pattern.

Some beliefs are like blinders, shutting off the power to choose one’s own direction. 

Other beliefs are like gateways opening wide vistas for exploration.

Some beliefs weaken a person’s selfhood.  They blight the growth of resourcefulness.

Other beliefs nurture self-confidence and enrich the feeling of personal worth.

Some beliefs are rigid, like the body of death, impotent in a changing world. 

Other beliefs are pliable, like the young sapling, ever growing with the upward thrust of life.

Prayer for August 9, 2020

Once again we gather,
once again we set aside our weekday cares and come to sit, and stand, and sing, and be silent with friends and welcome guests,
once again we gather to worship.

Spirit of Life and Love,
may this time together bring us comfort,
Too often our lives are rocked by tumult, by stress, by circumstances beyond our knowledge or control,
may we find here together kindness and care and understanding.

May this time together bring us challenge,
may we be unsettled by what we hear in this place,
at least a little,
at least enough to point us to our best selves.

May this time together bring us meaning,
may this worship give each of us the space to understand and to shape the stories of our lives,
as only we can,
as only we have the power and privilege to do.

May we find or make here the forgiveness and strength we need, in the measure we need them.

ever quenching well,

Let us meditate in silence for two minutes.
And let the whole church say “Amen.”

Second Reading

From YouTube – Louis Schwartzberg on Pollinators


Sermon: Unitarian Universalists – What do they believe?

Did you ever have a stranger ask you where you go to church? In many other parts of America, that would never happen. You would much more likely be asked about your job, or your hobbies, or maybe even your politics. But here in the South, after introductions, you just might be asked, “And where do you make your church home?”

This happened to me a lot, because I was a pastor. What is it you do? I’m a minister. Oh, my. What church do you serve? The Unitarian Universalist Church of Corpus Christi. Unitarian Universalists(?): What do they believe?

Did you ever get stumped with that one? I would start out trying to explain that UUs are not organized by belief but by covenant. And then I would need to explain that “covenant” is actually meant metaphorically, and that it referred to the idea that as a congregation we make promises of how are to be with one another. 

If their vision had not clouded over and cast about the room for somebody who makes sense, they might ask, So do you believe in Jesus.

And I would answer, well, Unitarian Universalists have many different ideas about Jesus of Nazareth. Some UUs consider him a teacher, others think he was a preacher, or a prophet, or a healer. 

So you don’t believe in Jesus?

Well, not in the traditional way, I guess. Although some UU’s consider themselves to be followers of Jesus in one way or another. 

How nice.  Bless your hearts.

I’ve been a Unitarian Universalist now for more than 35 years, but I’ve never really gotten over the problem of believing. The Reverend Craig Roshaven, my minister, mentor, friend, and former boss, was fond of quoting Mark Twain: “faith is believing what any fool knows ain’t so.”  Unitarian Universalists scoff at beliefs, sometimes saying that we don’t believe anything, sometimes saying we can believe whatever we want to.  Or we place the problem of believing beyond the realm of Unitarian Universalism by asserting that beliefs are in persons, not churches. Beliefs, according to popular Unitarian Universalist lore, are either not important or not our problem.

This stance toward beliefs has troubled me for a long time. It isn’t true to my experience and it doesn’t make sense. That is to say, in my experience, groups of people, and congregations especially, embody beliefs, regardless of whether those are explicitly expressed. And further, it doesn’t make sense to me that Unitarian Universalist would be shy about talking about our beliefs. When did we get shy? Well, so. Because I have thought about beliefs and struggled with them for such a long time, I have come upon a way of thinking about believing that makes sense to me, and it may resonate with other religious liberals, like all y’all. It’s based on two cornerstone ideas from Ralph Waldo Emerson. 

When I started out on this journey about beliefs, I was what you would call a reluctant participant. At seminary I was said to have practiced a hermeneutics of skepticism. 

Then I found out that for my Systematic Theology class I was required to write a 30-page paper called a Credo. Credo, of course, means “I believe.”  And I was required to write what was for me a big long paper about what I believe about the classic subjects of systematic theology, most of which end in ‘ology’—Theology of God, Christology, Pneumatology, Soteriology, Eschatology, Missiology, Ecclesiology, and some others. My more spiritual friends in seminary told me that this was an example of God having a wicked sense of humor.

So, I wrote it. I mean I got through it, but it was not a particularly good paper, and not adequate to reconcile me to the notion of belief.

Even after I became a minister, the problem of believing things continued to haunt me. And I ran into it once again in an unexpected and rather perverse way. It involved a contest I got into with my best friend Steven Hagstrom, seeing how many television Westerns we could name. 

It all started innocently enough. Steven and I were talking about something or other that inspired me to sing a line from the theme of Have Gun Will Travel: “Your swift gun for hire heeds the callin’ wind.” And Steven responded: “A soldier of fortune is—Paladin.” So naturally then I had to sing: “Paladin, Paladin, where do you roam?” And then we sang together: “Paladin, Paladin, far, far from home.” I could almost hear our spouses in the next room rolling their eyes. So then we had a contest to see how many we could remember. We were able to name Have Gun Will Travel, Gunsmoke, Rawhide, Wagon Train, Bonanza, Maverick, Sugar Foot, Bat Masterson, Johnny Yuma (The Rebel), the Rifleman, and some others. We must have named more than a dozen.

Thinking that we did pretty well with our cataloging effort, I looked up television Westerns on Wikipedia, the definitive source of all information.  And…

I counted one hundred and eighty-nine television westerns and mini-series.  One hundred and eighty nine! Astonishing! When I was growing up, this genre was an obsession in American culture. I guess it’s been replaced now by cop shows, but the more things change, etc. TV Westerns, of course, are based on a meta-story about how Americans see themselves, rugged individual characters in the Myth of the West. In the Myth of the West, a good guy with a gun rides into town, kills the bad guy, and then rides out, leaving the work of cleaning up for somebody else to attend to, most likely the womenfolk.

An essential feature of the Myth of the West is the location of evil. Evil is located outside one’s self, in an evil object, animal, or person. That is: evil is objectified. I think this idea was most succinctly expressed by H. Ross Perot, when he was running for president in 1992. “At EDS, he said, when we see a snake, we kill it.” Nothing Biblical about that.

The Myth of the West is a testament to violence. Violence is deeply ingrained in the idea of what it is to be an American. Watching the Michael Moore film Bowling for Columbine, I was struck by the fact that Canadians have as much access to firearms as Americans, but the scale of American gun violence dwarfs that of Canada and virtually every other country and culture.

My confrontation with the Myth of the West led me to realize that America’s cultural obsession with violence resonated with my long-held issues with believing. Because the American obsession with violence is what belief is all about. A wise man once told me that belief is where you place your hope.  In our culture, we believe in violence, because it separates us from the evildoers. We believe that violence is salvific, that violence is cleansing, and that violence is an effective way to solve your problems. I want to emphasize here the relationship between the belief (the practice of violence) and that which is held as ultimate value (Salvation). Belief is not just some parlor game, not just holding some splendid notion. Sophia Lyons Fahs was right; it matters what we believe. What we believe as a culture has profound consequences. 

So we Americans practice violence, our deeply held cultural belief, that we pursue in spite of persuasive evidence that it doesn’t work, because it leads to the ultimate value of Salvation. And we Americans get an emotional payoff from this kind of salvation that I will name as justification. By practicing violence, we demonstrate to the world that evil is not in us because, like H. Ross Perot, we have killed it. 

But by practicing violence and giving ourselves this emotional payoff, we are also training our emotional selves; we are cultivating our emotions.  The lesson that the belief in violence teaches us and our emotions is callousness. To pursue our belief in violence, we must teach ourselves to be indifferent to things like collateral damage, to our own complicity in all our conflicts, to all the problems that violence does not solve but rather engenders.

Yup. Belief is serious business. Because our culture so tenaciously adheres to its belief in violence, we are willing to see the murder of tens of thousands of innocents every year.

A Positive Example

Fortunately, some beliefs are better than others.  That’s what the second reading was about.

Did you catch what Louie Schwartzberg said in the video? After filming flowers and their pollinators for over thirty-five years, he came to the conclusion that “beauty and seduction are nature’s tools for survival.  Because we will protect what we fall in love with.” I find that idea refreshingly countercultural! Rather than the dominant idea of survival of the fittest, which is often interpreted as survival of the biggest, baddest, most ruthless, most violent, least compassionate actors, Schwartzberg proposes survival of the most beautiful. His experience informs him that beauty seduces us, that beauty has our number.

When he was told that everything in the universe eventually wears out, he said, “I realized that nature had invented reproduction as a mechanism for life to move forward as a life force that passes right through us and makes us a link to the evolution of life.” And so he concluded, “Always take time to smell the flowers and let it fill you with beauty and a sense of wonder.”

Louie Schwartzberg practices the belief of paying attention; or what the Buddhists call simply presence. He does that to experience the beautiful.  Beauty fills him with awe and wonder. And I would add that in so doing he has taught his emotions to be reverent.

Now, let’s compare these two beliefs. Like in the Brylcreem commercial, let’s comb and then let’s compare combs. One of our combs is clean and the other one has greasy kid stuff on it.

Am I the oldest one in the room?

I mean, it’s obvious to me that the kind of salvation you get from violence is an idolatry, that is, it’s treating something that is not divine as if it were.  Practicing violence makes us a worse people; practicing attention makes us a better people.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, who a learned colleague called the founding saint of American Unitarianism, observed that human beings, or as he called us, men, have a moral sense. That is to say, we humans have a sense that the world (as it is) is not as it should be and also that we (just as we are) are not as we should be in it. And therefore, it is our responsibility and challenge, as moral creatures, to change ourselves and the world, in that order. 

I cannot name you a person that I have met of know about who does not live in some kind of moral universe. Even Donald Trump behaves as if the world as it is needs to be put it better shape, so that it better serves Donald Trump. So let’s begin by thinking about our moral universe.

Also, Ralph Waldo Emerson taught, I have it from another learned friend, that there are two ways of human knowing: first, by our senses, which Emerson called reason, but also by our intuition, which he called transcendental. I found this insight to be profoundly true and helpful. It seems to me that these two ways of knowing things are part of our biology:  we can know about the world by exploration of it through our senses, but we already have knowledge that we are born with, written in our DNA. It stands to reason, then, that we can verify what we sense through testing and experimentation. But also, we can verify what we intuit, I think, particularly through examination of our emotions. 

That’s what I have been wondering about beliefs. As we as individuals and as institutions progress in our moral quest to be better people and better institutions, how do our reason and our intuition inform one another. So, here’s my case: I think that the practice of particular beliefs tends to train our emotions to draw us closer to transcendent values, like beauty, which can be sensed intuitively.

An Experience of the Holy

So, where would I go to find transcendental values?

I used to lead workshops at the Dwight Brown Leadership Experience, a kind of boot camp training for religious volunteers. In one of the foundational tasks of DBLE, we asked participants to describe an experience of the Holy, and what they were doing when it happened. Then they were asked to name the Holiness they experienced. Participants often used words that can only be known through intuition:  LOVE, PEACE, FREEDOM. They clearly reached for transcendence.

So, based on my own experience and intuition, and on the honest witness of trusted others, I kind of audaciously named seven of these transcendent aspects of the Holy. They are LOVE, TRUTH, BEAUTY, FREEDOM, JUSTICE, POWER, and PEACE. I noticed that love and justice are in your description of your congregation. I don’t mean to offer this as a definitive list.  Because it’s foolish to try to define God. (I have Sufi friends who have told me that there are actually ten thousand transcendent attributes of God.) But I think these seven deserve our attention.

Filling in my Table

Then I set about the task of figuring out the beliefs and the emotional links to my list of transcendent aspects of the holy. I ran into a number of obstacles, and it took a lot of time. So I won’t go into all that, but instead tell you the results. I made a little table.  Here, I’ll show it to you:

It starts with a practice, and an ethical choice. The practice cultivates your emotions, both as an individual and as an institution. As you grow closer to the transcendent aspect of the holy, you receive a gift. 

Here are seven beliefs, along with their relationship to a transcendent value, the emotional state they tend to cultivate, and the emotional gift that seems to come from the transcendent value:

I believe in the practice of kindness, because practicing kindness brings me ever closer to the transcendent value of LOVE. As I practice kindness, particularly with people who I don’t like, who are different from me and my friends, who are troublesome to me, who threaten my worldview and politics and complacency, I become more compassionate, and I become more aware of the grace that is always being offered to me. I also know that practicing disrespect (so practicing disrespect is kind of the opposite of practicing kindness) shuts off my ability to be compassionate, and I keep myself from the source of grace.

I believe in the practice of honesty, because practicing honesty brings me ever closer to the transcendent value of TRUTH. As I practice honesty, particularly with unpleasant, ambiguous, paradoxical, counterintuitive, or countercultural information, I find I must necessarily become more courageous. (I am encouraged by the examples of Copernicus, DaVinci, John Lewis, and Jesus, just to name a few.) And as I delve more deeply into the pursuit of TRUTH, TRUTH offers me yet more mystery. Distorting information for my own short-sighted ends, for the illusion of certainty, or to deceive myself or others will undoubtedly take me further and further away from TRUTH.

I believe in paying attention, because by paying attention, I come closer to BEAUTY. BEAUTY fills me with awe and teaches me to be reverent in its presence. By allowing myself to be distracted, especially by practicing the Empire’s ideal of being busy and anxious all the time, I separate myself from BEAUTY.

I believe in practicing generosity, freely giving of my substance in service to the betterment of all, because generosity brings me closer to the transcendent value of FREEDOM. FREEDOM bestows joy and teaches me to be grateful. Attachment to my stuff, or to an ideology, or even to a notion of my personality, is a sure way to abandon gratitude and joy, and to lose the path to FREEDOM.

I believe in the practice of righteousness, that is, being in right relationship with other people, with the earth, with God, and with my tender self. Being in right relationship requires me to know who I am and what my responsibilities are, especially with troublesome and challenging relationships. But putting forth that effort teaches me empathy and draws me closer to the realm of JUSTICE. And every step toward JUSTICE fills me with hope.

I believe in the practice of prayer, or maybe you would prefer to say spiritual practice, that is, through silence, song, poetry, lament, and praise, actively or quietly, alone or corporately, to work out my relationship with the Ultimate. Becoming more attuned to this relationship trains my emotions in assurance, a kind of confidence not in oneself, but in the Ultimate. Prayer is the way to legitimate POWER, to knowing who you are and what you want, to acting authentically and ethically in the most trying of circumstances. The God of POWER rewards me with the gift of faith.

I believe in forgiveness, but not the cheap stuff. I believe in the kind of forgiveness that requires me to account for my own part in a conflict, to ask and offer forgiveness, to atone for and repair (if possible) the damage I have done to others. Forgiveness requires humility. But forgiveness is the path to PEACE. Of course, it’s easy to reconcile with people you get along with. What’s really hard is to lay down your weapons and find a way to make PEACE with people with whom you have fundamental and deep-seated differences. And a return to health is the gift of PEACE.

Now, I told you all of that so that I could tell you this. I mean, I hope you don’t think that I came here today to tell you that I have figured out what you should believe and why. What I really want to point out is that, as a congregation in search for a settled minister, you are in a wonderful liminal place where the great gift of self-examination is available to you. You can be asking yourself, Hope Unitarian Church, what do we believe? You can be asking yourself, what transcendent values are most important to us? You can be asking yourselves, what disciplined behaviors are we practicing?  Are there disciplines we need to start? Are there behaviors we need to extinguish?

James Luther Adams restated Aristotle’s maxim that the unexamined life is not worth living by saying that the unexamined faith is not worth having.  You are on a journey of discovery and hope, and I am happy and fortunate to have a small part in it. Let me say that I firmly believe that you are up to it, and that such resources are available to you so that you should be ultimately optimistic about the outcome.


Extinguishing the Chalice

We extinguish this flame but not the light of truth, the warmth of community, or the fire of commitment. These we carry in our hearts until we are together again.


Our benediction comes from the Reverend Tom Schade:

There is a power at work in the universe,
a creating, sustaining, and transforming power,
not made by human hands.
You can trust that power.
It will uphold you
whenever you take risks
for love
for justice
for peace
for life.
It will carry you when you fall,
and revive you when you fail,
forgive you when you err
and give you another chance.
You can trust that power with your life,
so live with hope and courage.
Go in peace!