By Rev. A. Powell Davies D.D.
April 4, 1954
An inclusive, not an exclusive faith, based on individual freedom of belief, with appreciation for the enduring values of the Bible and other great scriptures, and of the teachings of the man, Jesus, finding salvation not through someone else’s martyrdom, but by education and the disciplines of democracy, a positive faith starting with human experience, which leads to the realization of a something-not-ourselves which many call God, and to a conception of religion as useful righteousness, a faith which can unite the world.
The Unitarian Church, if it be true to its principles, cannot be sectarian. As Channing put it, in words that became famous, the Unitarian is a member of the Universal Church the church from which no man can be excommunicated “but by the death of goodness in his own breast.” It was Channing’s hope, as it was that of many others, that it would not be necessary to form a Unitarian denomination. All that was necessary was that existing churches should remove the barriers raised by creeds and receive into fellowship all who sought the good life as Jesus and the bible prophets taught it.
At one time, this seemed entirely possible. The new spirit of freedom that had given birth to the United States as a nation could also have made freedom the basic tenet of the Protestant churches. It was with this in view that Thomas Jefferson expressed the hope that within a single generation the people of the United States would become Unitarian. “I rejoice,” he wrote, “that in this blessed country of free inquiry and belief, which has surrendered its creed and conscience to neither kings nor priests, the genuine doctrine of only one God is reviving, and I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian.”1 But it was not to be. Both Channing and Jefferson were over-optimistic. And so the Unitarian faith, although opposed to sectarianism, was obliged to maintain itself through its own distinctive churches. That is how the Unitarian denomination came to be. It was founded in 1825 by reluctant people who had come to see that there was no other way if religious freedom as they understood it was to be maintained and extended.
But is it true that a church can be founded upon individual freedom of belief and still possess a common faith? Will it not happen that the variations in belief will be so wide that no common faith is possible? The answer is, in the first place, that freedom itself is the basic precept of the Unitarian faith. Instead of people being bound together as a society of those who all believe – or are supposed to believe – the same things, Unitarians are united by their faith in freedom. This is a far larger faith than anything that is defined by dogma. What it means is this: that we can put our trust in freedom, both for ourselves and for one another, believing that we shall come closer to truth if our minds are unfettered.
What the churches of authoritarian belief are based upon – or if not based upon it, then restricted by it – is the fear that if people are allowed to think freely they will arrive at wrong and harmful conclusions, and therefore they must be told what they must believe. This certainly puts much less trust in human nature than does the Unitarian faith in freedom.
Perhaps, however, this trust may go too far. Suppose that in a given situation, an individual Unitarian insists that he is right and all the others wrong. The answer is that this can be a very healthy situation. Such a Unitarian is entitled to do all he can to prove that he is right – which, of course, he may be. It has happened frequently in history that one man has been right and all others wrong, as for example, in the case of Semmelweiss, or even of Copernicus. And if he is not so much right as eccentric, no harm will be done. Unitarians are not afraid of eccentricity.
This, then, in the first place: freedom is itself the basic precept of the Unitarian faith, both because it is the natural right of every individual person and because it is, as history proves, the best basis to go upon: and in reliance upon freedom, Unitarians are united.
But there are other respects in which Unitarians are united – united, be it noted, not by requirement or compulsion but because, having used their freedom, they have come to similar conclusions. Unitarians, for instance, go to the Bible expecting to use discernment and without forsaking their common sense. They do not think the Bible is a supernatural revelation, but most of them do think that it contains great insights and messages of enduring value. Most of them think that the scriptures of the other great religions are of similar value. And that the scriptures were not closed when the canonical Bible was selected, but are still being written. In other words, the Unitarian faith is inclusive of what is found good in any religion – and nearly all Unitarians so believe.
Another opinion held by nearly all Unitarians is that Jesus is a great prophet but not a person in a trinity. This is so widespread a Unitarian belief that many people who do not know our history regard it as our basic faith. For that reason, they think our faith is negative. But they are wrong on both counts. Our basic faith is in freedom of belief, not in a particular opinion about the person of Jesus. But our use of freedom has led us to the conclusion about Jesus that I have stated – not a negative conclusion but a very positive belief that Jesus means far more as a man that we can try to understand than as a supernatural figure who must remain remote and incomprehensible. Moreover, we believe that it is a more positive use of the intellect to come to a rational conclusion than it is to accept a doctrine passively which common sense tells us is unlikely to be true.
Other elements of the Unitarian faith at which we have arrived in freedom are: a greater reliance upon science and modern knowledge than upon the dogmatic teachings of the past; a belief that we have within ourselves the power of our own salvation and that reliance upon salvation through some else’s martyrdom is superstitious and immoral; the opinion that it is better not to assert something of which you have no real knowledge or experience and that when you do not know, you should say so.
These are a few of the elements – many would class them among the more important ones – of Unitarian faith. They are not imposed upon us. No individual among us is compelled to believe them. But most Unitarians do believe them – and believe them because the free use of their own minds has persuaded them that these beliefs are true.
A further commitment of the Unitarian faith is to democracy – not merely as a political system but as the just and brotherly way in human relations. We do not think that in a church some should command and the rest obey, as is the case with a hierarchy; we do choose leaders, but we choose them freely. And we hold that each individual has his own place in the councils of the society. We think that discussion – which Thomas Masaryk said was the essence of democracy – is the path to true agreement. We are educators one of another, and all can learn from each.
We are well aware that democracy can be a discipline – and sometimes a harsh one. But this is part of its value. We grow by learning to get along with other people. We grow even more when we learn to respect and like each other, to have a concern, each for all, in the words of the New Testament, to “love one another.”
Again, let it be noted, this is a positive faith. It is true, of course, that it does not start with the creedal affirmations. But this only means that it does not begin by saying what we believe on subjects about which we know the least. It begins where we really are, and with life as it comes to us, life as we may choose to live it. What is there really positive about beginning with the ultimate mysteries – and indeed ending with them, as the Apostles Creed does? This, actually, is an escape from the positive. It negates the reality of our ignorance, the reality of the struggle to know and understand, the reality of the hard-won truth by which we live. It does so by flying off into assertions which, even if they were true, are detached from the world of experience. Surely, it is the faith that truly contends with life – and upon the basis of reality – that is positive.
But, it will be asked, should not religion begin with God? The answer is that it should – in the same way that breathing begins with air. In that sense, most Unitarians would have no difficulty in agreeing that religion begins with God. But it should not begin with what we know about God. For we know too little. There are indeed Unitarians who prefer not to use the word God, because it seems to them to indicate either something that tradition has so falsified that there is nothing to do but abandon it, or else something too indefinite to be named. This is their privilege as Unitarians – using their freedom of belief.
The position most agreed upon by Unitarians, however, is that we should begin with experience, including spiritual experience. This means man’s power of moral growth, “of loving and creating beauty; and through spiritual awareness, great intensities of insight and imagination.” This will lead in many cases, perhaps in most, to using the word God in its truest and most evocative sense.
It may be of interest that in 1943, when last a very wide canvass was made of Unitarian belief, the category about which it was most difficult to secure agreement – agreement, that is, to the extent necessary for preparing a statement of faith and purpose – was the one concerned with God. But the statement was eventually written, and this is the paragraph concerning Unitarian faith in God:
“We believe experience reveals a Mystery more sublime and wonderful than
human life, and which exceeds our understanding. In this we see the source
of mind and spirit. We recognize that each of us must name this Mystery as
his thought directs, but that the language of the heart has called it God”2
Many Unitarians would want to go farther than that; a few would be unwilling to go so far. Most, no doubt, find common ground within the language of this affirmation. But for any of us the emphasis should always be the spiritual in experience – revealed as truth, radiant as beauty, compelling as righteousness, and warm with love.
Religion, however, is more than faith. It is also moral purpose. And for Unitarians this cannot be mere piety. It must be useful righteousness. I think it often has been. Two Unitarians – Thomas Jefferson and John Adams – wanted the abolition of slavery written into the Declaration of Independence; and Unitarians worked continuously against slavery until it was abolished. Horace Mann, a Unitarian, founded the American public school system. Dorothea Dix was a pioneer in prison reform and in care of the insane. Henry Bellows was the chief founder of the American Red Cross. Levi Leonard founded the free public libraries. Henry Bergh inaugurated the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Margaret Fuller, Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Julia Ward Howe were foremost leaders in the struggle to obtain equal rights for women*This is our tradition of social vision and moral purpose.
But, we must now remind ourselves, before concluding, that the one great task of religion today is to save the world from oppression and tyranny – and from the threat of catastrophe – and to turn it towards peace and freedom. What kind of religion is sufficient to this task?
Certainly not the religions of worn-out creeds; or religions that are themselves tyrannical and make exclusive claims to empire over the souls of men. Only the religion of freedom can do it, the religion with the circle that takes men in, not the religions that shut men out – the religion of the Universal Church from which no man is excluded who yearns for truth and righteousness and love.
And the Unitarian faith – although it has its Unitarian institutions – belongs not to them but to this Universal Church: this church which, as yet, is largely vision and hope but which, some day, will draw the world together and all mankind will bow before one altar.
1. In a letter to Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse, June 26, 1822.
2. “The Faith Behind Freedom.” A Declaration of Faith and Purpose, first presented at the United Unitarian Advance Meeting, Boston, Massachusetts, May 27, 1943.