Rev. Marilyn Sewell's Take on UU Theology

Back in 2011, Rev. Marilyn Sewell, published a post on Huff Post entitled "The Theology of Unitarian Universalists".  In summary, we Unitarian Universalists do have a theology:
  • We believe that human beings should be free to choose their beliefs according to the dictates of their own conscience.
  • We believe in original goodness, with the understanding that sin is sometimes chosen, often because of pain or ignorance.
  • We believe that God is One.
  • We believe that revelation is ever unfolding.
  • We believe that the Kingdom of God is to be created here on this earth.
  • We believe that Jesus was a prophet of God, and that other prophets from God have risen in other faith traditions.
  • We believe that love is more important than doctrine.
  • We believe that God's mercy will reconcile all unto itself in the end.

Peter Bowden recently asked for "a reality check" on this formulation over the UUGrowth Lab Group Page on Facebook, and the comments are pouring in.

My take:

First of all: her statement is not a summary of what most UU's believe, expressed in the terms with which most UU's think.

I would say it is an liberal reinterpretation of Christian doctrine through the lens of human agency and greater free will.  If one starts from a belief that human beings everywhere have the power to make effective choices which will either improve the human condition or not, and then applies that understanding to Christian doctrine -- what you get is pretty close to what Rev. Sewell proposes.

UU's do this a lot.  One of the most common covenants of our churches is a similar reinterpretation of traditional Christian theological categories. It's like an equivalency chart.

Love is the Doctrine of this Church,
the quest for truth its sacrament,
and service is its prayer, etc.

You ask about our "doctrine"; we say "love".  You ask about our "sacraments", we say "quest for truth".  How do you UU's "pray"?; we do "service".  Etc.

I think that it necessary, especially for our ministers, to be able to explain what we believe in terms that the wider Christian community can understand.  It's an absolute necessity for our seminarians if they intend to graduate from a Christian seminary. And there are lots of communities in the USA where a UU religious professional simply has to explain what we think to regular people who think in those traditional terms.

But the results are not a UU theology that sums up UU religious and spiritual thought.   Its an exercise in working backwards from current UU positions about the human condition to answer  the historic questions in Christian theology in ways that will support our conclusions.  It's like when august bodies of Church leaders think hard and come out with statements that say that hot sex is a gift from God.  It's pretty clearly stating what they already thought in the language of the Church.

We believe that people can make effective moral choices.  We really do.  So, we will have to reinterpret the doctrine of original sin into something else.  Same with the fallen nature of humanity, and the necessity of salvation from without, the existence of heaven and hell and the divinity of Jesus as being necessary for our salvation.  None of those doctrines can serve as premises for a full belief in human agency.

To be blunt, we like the Ballou's because we are already universalists.  We like Channing because we were already very doubtful about the divinity of Christ, usually because we were doubtful about the divinity of God.

Unitarian Universalists who are not interested in Christian theology will find little of value in Rev. Sewell's comments.  And they will say that UU's don't need or want a theology, if you define that word as a structured and internally consistent system of understanding of Christian thought.

Notice that Rev. Sewell's piece tries to answer the misconception "you can believe anything you want and be a Unitarian Universalist."  I think that it sometimes it would be more accurate to say "you can't believe anything and say it out loud as a Unitarian Universalist without offending some other UU, who will let you know."

It looks like Rev. Sewell just found that out.


  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. Though i wouldn't characterize the comments flooding in as having anything to do with offense. Within the context of our group dedicated to exploring Unitarian Universalist growth issues I raised the question of how various congregations would respond to her articulated theology. Not because it is wrong, or offensive, but because we need to understand who we are and who we are becoming as our congregations evolve.

  2. As an anything-but-Christian UU, I find the "we've-got-to-be-conversant-in-the-language-of-the-Christian-majority-and-express-ourselves-in-that-lingo-and-in-that-theology" approach to moving forward in the world tedious and even offensive. A majority of the people in Europe and North America are postmoderns. They don't speak that Christian lingo anymore except on Christmas and Easter (if then). Unless you are just wanting to talk to the fundamentalists, who will never be impressed or fooled by our use of "their" lingo, postmodernity is the paradigm, postmodern the language in which we can converse with the world around us. And I think postmodern is what most UUs already speak.

  3. Paul, like I said, clear statements of a theological perspective are in UU circles, usually met by someone being offended. RIght on cue, you arrived.

  4. To be clear, I am not offended that Christian UUs express their theology. Or that non UU Christians express their theology. I am offended that I frequently encounter the opinion that those of us whose theology is not from that paradigm can only communicate if we start talking like we are Christians - all the more since that is the last thing the majority understand anyway.

  5. I think the problem is that Rev. Sewell began by saying "We UUs have a theology . . ." It's not a matter of being offended, it's a matter of finding it inaccurate. Her theology is certainly meaningful to some UUs, but is not an accurate reflection of the theology of the people in my congregation. As to how many throughout the UU world would subscribe to this, I could not begin to speculate.

  6. I was a friend and then became a member of UUFG in 2009. I have found that there are many different avenues of thought. We debate over which theology, dogma, crede etc is best. Instead of saying what we are NOT, why not say what we are? We are a Fellowship/Congregation of many beliefs. One's beliefs are important only to each individual's spiritual path; whatever that path may be. What is important, or should be important, is the way in which we treat ourselves, each other and our environment. I feel this is imperative to the UU Fellowships/Congregations well being, both now and in future.

  7. As a longtime UU, the best way I have to answer when somebody asks me if we have a theology is "yes- how many do you need?"


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