Rev. Dawn Cooley with a new twist on an Old Question

Today I am welcoming the Rev. Dawn Cooley to the Lively Tradition.  Dawn is the minister of the First Unitarian Church of Louisville, KY.  
Is Unitarian Universalism a Christian denomination? Some say yes, some say no, but I am guessing most of us aren't really sure what the answer is. I have been tossing this question around quite a bit in my brain lately.

On the one hand, if you use the more orthodox definition of what it means to be a Christian – that is, the inerrancy of the Christian scriptures, and subscription to the Apostles Creed – then we are not. But the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) are in a similar boat – they may not be orthodox Christians, but they are trying very hard to make the argument that they are a Christian denomination.

On the other hand, our roots are in Christianity, our worship style is very Protestant, and I have met many liberal Christians who believe very similarly to what many Humanist UUs believe, but who use the Bible as their primary metaphor for interpreting and understanding the religious questions of life. So it really depends on how you define “Christian” and even Christians can't agree on this one.

It recently occurred to me that perhaps I am looking at it the wrong way. Perhaps the question is not “Are we a Christian denomination?” but instead “Are we a part of Christendom?”

The answer to that, I believe, is yes.

Let me explain. I live in Louisville, KY. In 2003, the city of Louisville merged with Jefferson County, expanding the city's borders and increasing the number of people who reside in Louisville. My spouse works in Okolona (red dot in the map below), not quite as far south as you can go and still be technically in Louisville, but close.  Okolona was its own town prior to 2003, but became a part of Louisville with the merger. If you want to write a letter to someone in Okolona, you can now address 
it either as Louisville, or as Okolona. 

Is Okolona a part of Louisville? Yes. It has all the same city services (schools, police, trash) as what was pre-merger the city of Louisville. Okolona is on the edge, but it is still a part of the city.

If we look at Christendom, the world of Christianity, there is the old orthodox historical center, but the world of Christianity has grown beyond its original borders. Unitarian Universalism may be like Okolona – on the border, but still within that world. We have not disassociated ourselves from Christendom.

Now, the town of Anchorage, KY (pink dot in the map below) decided not to join Louisville in 2003. They have kept their own school, government, etc. They basically disassociated themselves from the expansion of city services.

Unitarian Universalism may or may not be a Christian denomination, depending on who you ask. But we are a part of Christendom, because we have not disassociated ourselves from Christianity. Nor should we – it is an important part of where we come from and who we are today, and, I suspect, an important part of where we are going.

What does this mean pragmatically speaking? Being on the edge means that we get to be “both/and” instead of “either/or” when it comes to aligning ourselves religiously. It means we can speak the languages of secularism and religiosity. It means we get to enter into the conversations happening all around us in the world of Christianity, such as on the future of the Church, as both outsiders and insiders. It means that we have a place at the table, if we are willing to claim it – and I hope that we do claim it. This mystic humanist finds this location very exciting for the present and future of our faith.

(Some biographical data about Rev. Cooley:

  • Minister of First Unitarian Church in Louisville, KY since 2009.
  • Blogs at
  • Graduated United Theological Seminary in 2004.
  • Came to UUism as a young adult 20 years ago.
  • Has preached in 40 congregations in 8 states
  • identifies theologically as a mystic humanist
  • won the 2014 Universalist Heritage Sermon Contest
  • Prior to moving to KY, grew up in Fairfax County, Virginia, and then lived in Minnesota for 10 years.
  • Enjoys "getting up on the balcony" and looking at things from a system perspective
  • former skater for Derby City Roller Girls )


  1. George Beach10:40 AM

    So we UUs are Christians because we live in "Christendom"? I think the reasons are rather simpler: First, our basic value-commitments are rooted in the prophetic tradition of Judaism (love, justice, truthfulness, righteousness, and peace, and our understanding of ministry (lay and ordained alike) is modeled after a latter-day prophet named Jesus: teaching (preaching,etc.), healing (personal caring), and community organizing (gathering disciples, congregations, social action, etc.) Like Jesus we say, The realm of God is (right here) at hand! Be new-minded! Amen.

  2. Both/And is the answer to more and more religious questions these days.

  3. I have had this debate with members of our congregation, some of whom are adamant that we are not a Christian (or Christian-like) congregation.

    I suspect that this view comes from folks who grew up in congregations dominated by conservative theology, politics or both. My own background is that I was an occasional churchgoer growing up and into early adulthood. Most of those churches were Catholic or liberal Protestant. While it was clear when I started attending a Unitarian church that it wasn't Catholic (no communion, Catholic liturgy etc.) even after a few visits I assumed that it was a liberal Protestant church based on the stylistic resemblance to denominations I had visited. The clergy are called ministers rather than priests, rabbis, etc., worship is on a Sunday, there's a sermon interspersed among hymns and a collection, and a coffee hour. The biggest turnouts are for Christmas and Easter services. It wasn't until I was there for a few months that I even became aware of the Christian/non-Christian debate.

    To me the importance placed on this question is in itself evidenced our connection to the significance of our Christian (and perhaps Jewish as well) roots. We don't talk about exactly how Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist we are or aren't because no one perceives our rituals and traditions to be Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist.

  4. Elisabeth Booth-Barton3:47 PM

    I am troubled by what I see as UU preaching now that the choice is
    Christian and Humanism.
    This preaching leaves out those of us who believe in God, but don't believe that Jesus was the Christ, that is, God's only child, the savior of the world. I may be narrow-minded, but I hear "Christian" and I hear "believe in Christ" and when I hear "Humanism", I hear "don't believe in God."
    Mr. Beach's view seems more compatible with mine. (I'm just curious about the phrase "realm of God at hand". For me God is, has been, and always will be present in everything.)

  5. Kathy Park8:18 PM

    Hey, Dawn,
    I love reading posts that give me a new perspective. Thank you! Best wishes to you, John, and the girls.

  6. No one can make a statement trying to define the relationship between Christianity and UUism without being immediately challenged by someone else. There is not statement that all would agree on.

    What is the frame? If you are making a theological statement, then we are indisputably a part of what Dawn calls "Christendom". Theology is really a subcategory of intellectual history -- and you cannot explain Unitarian Universalist development without speaking of it as a particular historical development within Christian thinking. In fact, most of the history of theological thinking in U/U history is precisely about this question -- how are we Christian and how are we not? It is our founding question: people accused our forebears of NOT being Christian and they fought back with all their intellectual powers.

  7. This is Dawn - will try to fix this blogger profile later tonight when I have more time. But for now, I don't think this is an either/or between Christianity and Humanism. Not at all. Where our faith tradition is located is not necessarily the same as our personal theological locations. And that is good! It provides a creative energy that keeps it all fresh and alive!

    In the meantime, I wrote a "why does this matter" blog, available at

  8. I respectfully disagree with the assertion that, "We have not disassociated ourselves from Christendom." I believe that we have or, at least, have been in the process of doing so. Ask the average Unitarian Universalist in the average congregation and I suspect she or he would say that we are not a Christian movement -- that our ancestors were, but that we are not. One way to think about it is that when Unitarianism and Universalism merged they gave birth to modern Unitarian Universalism which shares some similarities with its parents -- as all children do -- yet is its own distinct entity.

    I have said before, and will no doubt keep saying, that I think modern Unitarian Universalism is analogous to early Christianity. Back then a liberal, perhaps even progressive strain of Judaism merged with Greek and Roman philosophy and gave birth to a distinct tradition. I would suggest that in us liberal/progressive Christianity has merged with Humanism and is in the process of birthing something new.

    If that's at all a useful analogy, then we can take it another step. It was in the early 50s of the nascent Jesus movement that Paul was summoned back to Jerusalem to answer for the ways in which he was adapting the movement's Judaism so as to include newcomers. If modern Unitarian Universalism was born in 1961, then we, too, are in our 50s. And, so, the same question is before us: do we expect newcomers to "convert" and become like traditional UUs, or does our movement adapt itself to a new multiracial, economically diverse reality.

  9. Elisabeth Booth-Barton10:19 AM

    The edges of faith and theology blur in this discussion. I'm coming at this question from the faith side. For a number of years, I have been unable to find a UU worship community nearby as the nearest groups are Humanist. They feel inhospitable to this God-believer (and could be the same to Christian UUs). This climate contributes to my feeling of being left out of the Christian both/and Humanism theology (if that is even the right term.) Thank you, Dawn (for parts 1 and 2) and Tom for nudging my mind around.

  10. RevWik writes: "Ask the average Unitarian Universalist in the average congregation and I suspect she or he would say that we are not a Christian movement -- that our ancestors were, but that we are not."

    You may be right. I think that a rigorous poll of UUs would be fascinating, and I imagine that you as clergy know more about greater UUdom than I. The one survey I saw of my own church suggested that there was nothing close to a consensus.

    As a member of a congregation known for its humanist/secular orientation what I see is that rather than an uninterrupted progress toward Humanism that there has been an increasing openness toward "God talk" and other traditional language in our church and outside our congregation as well.

    If this is the case I'm not sure if we are moving away from liberal Christianity, or toward an informal merger with its most progressive wing -- with the amount of movement on one side or the other left as an open question. While this future is uncertain, I would ask what the point is of explicitly separately ourselves from liberal Christianity? Do most newcomers demand that this break be made clear? That's not my sense of UUs I meet in their 20s/30s.

    Instead, my feeling is that the best approach to our connection with Christianity is Dawn's suggestion that we acknowledge that we are part of the culture of Christendom. That doesn't mean adopting a specific theology, which I don't think is necessary. There's nothing close to a single, coherent, public theology of Christianity in world where its adherents include such diverse figures as Jim Wallis and Franklin Graham. Given this reality, I'd rather see us continue to be part, on the outskirts admittedly, of the discussion of the parameters of Christianity (or Judeo-Christianity) than to simply run off into our own world, separate from the larger discussion.

  11. I wonder, Peter M, why the "larger discussion" has to do with "the parameters of Christianity"? There is, I'd contend, an even larger conversation about what it means to be human in the world we live in today. The Dalai Lama isn't part of the conversation about "the parameters of Christianity," but he sure does have some interesting things to say about what it means to live a full life! And to continue my analogy, the earliest followers of Jesus were involved in a discussion about the parameters of Judaism. Eventually they broke off when it became clear that their conversation was about something beyond that. (Not "better" or "larger" or "more important," but most certainly in a different sphere.)

    So my question is: what does it do for us to identify as "part of Christendom"? Given that the vast majority of the Christian communion wouldn't recognize us as such, doesn't it just mean that we need to spend a fair bit of energy explaining why we really should be at the table before we ever get to say something of value? If, however, we accept the claim that we are "other," then we can speak directly from that vantage point as, for instance, Buddhists, or Hindus, or Jews can do. Not Christian, but religious, and with something to say.

    I want to be clear that I'm not anti-Christian. That's actually the theology that's closest to my own heart's path. And I think that were I around during the early days of Christianity I'd probably have sided with the Jerusalem Church and said that Paul should have been requiring circumcision. But from my vantage point today I see that I'd have been on the wrong side of history.

  12. RevWik,

    I just stumbled across your response (and suspect you may never see this unless some how you're notified).

    If being part of the Christian communion means having a coherent theology based on the Old and New Testament and interpretations of same I would agree we you.

    If being part of the Christian communion means having a cultural association with Christianity -- celebrating Christmas and Easter, seeing weddings/funerals as sacred events to be observed in churches, calling clergy "ministers" etc. -- then I think we are part of the Christendom, at least more than we part of any other "dom".

    When I first started going to a UU church I assumed it was a self-identified Protestant congregation. That was because, although I was basically "unchurched" -- it had a format that reminded me of services at liberal Methodist or Presbyterian churches I'd attended. Hymns followed a sermon on a matter of personal ethics or social justice followed by a collection. While I had only been to a single Hindu service it did not remind me of that.

    I may have been slow on the update and eventually did recognize the cleavage between a UU church and a mainline Christian one, but I think that defining ourselves as "other" will only serve to alienate UU Christians and, frankly, lessen our ability to take part of the larger cultural, political, religious conversation.

  13. Usually when someone has asked me are Quakers Christian? I always answer with a follow-up question.How do you define being a Christian? Using metaphors from this article,many Quakers if not the vast majority are at the old orthodox historical center.Others are in Okolona – on the border, but still within that world. Like the Unitarian Universalism,Quakers have not disassociated ourselves from Christendom.


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