By Greg Ryan
Unitarians don’t sing well,” a a 41-year-old Ithaca resident named “Doc” Kinne tells me. “Yep. They don’t sing very well, because they’re constantly reading ahead in the lyrics to make sure they agree with them.”
Kinne’s joke is a brief but telling summary of the Unitarian religion. Unitarian Universalism, more commonly referred to simply as Unitarianism, is known as the “catch-all” religion, a denomination with a theology so loose that Christians, Muslims and atheists alike find themselves worshipping together under one roof. In short, Unitarianism holds that every person has dignity and worth and that all of human life is interconnected. As long as you believe in those basic tenets, you would be accepted without reservation by the Unitarian community.
Or, as Kinne puts it, “If the search is leading you to good, however you define good, that will work for us.”
While such inclusiveness and acceptance is something painfully lacking in today’s world, it does seem to leave Unitarians with a unique problem. If you belong to a religion that accepts nearly everyone, regardless of creed, what, then, is your religious identity?
Identity is central to the concept of religion. People define themselves by their religions — millions of people have fought and died, and still do to this day, for their religious beliefs. In an otherwise unpredictable world, religion has been a spiritual and psychological bedrock for millenia. The way people live, work, eat, travel and fight has changed drastically in the past 2,500 years. The Ten Commandments, however, have not.
If most religions provide their constituents with a strong sense of identity, then Unitarianism would be diagnosed with multiple personality disorder. The Unitarians’ acceptance of so many diverse viewpoints has made them the greatest common denominator of all religions, a distinction that makes the Unitarian faith invalid to many Americans.
Ryan McHugh, a 16-year-old from Dryden who grew up Unitarian, puts it bluntly: “There are a lot of people who don’t support us because we don’t have a specified dogma.”
Nowhere is the Unitarian propensity for theological diversity more apparent than the First Unitarian Society of Ithaca. In one of the most liberal cities in America, the members of the Unitarian congregation hold beliefs running the full spiritual spectrum. The congregation, which worships in a beautiful brick church located in downtown Ithaca, is composed of 150 members, each belonging to a subset Kinne compares to a “special interest group.” While they all consider each other fellow Unitarians, their disparate beliefs reflect different backgrounds and religious experiences.
Kinne has had a long, winding religious journey. He was born a Roman Catholic, but his family did not actively practice the faith growing up, he says. When he was 18, a close friend died of congenital heart failure, the same defect Kinne himself had suffered from as a child. Feeling as though his friend had been scorned by an uncaring God, Kinne turned to Wiccaism, where he embraced the concept of reincarnation. He remained a pagan for 15 years, but eventually became interested in the eastern religions, specifically Buddhism. He adopted Buddhism as a philosophy, and then as his religion. Interestingly, it was around the time he adopted Buddhism as a religion that he became a Unitarian.
There are many similarities between Buddhism and Unitarianism, Kinne says. Above all, though, is the open nature they share.
“The Buddha was very, very specific on not taking anything on faith,” Kinne says. “If it works for you, fine, if it doesn’t, kindly move on. And that speaks very well of the Unitarian Universalist tradition.”
Many Unitarians consider themselves of only one faith — Unitarianism. Barb Blom grew up a Presbyterian but stopped attending services when she was a teenager. She became a Unitarian six years ago, because, as she puts it, she wanted religion, and the Unitarian church “felt like the least obnoxious place to go.” She now serves as the minister of the Unitarian Universalist church in Cortland and as the Unitarian chaplain at Cornell University, although she occasionally attends the services in Ithaca.
“Most people like me started going to a Unitarian church because of growing up in a church that was very strict, not finding anything there, and rejecting that whole idea,” said Blom. “When we go to church, we don’t want to hear much about God and Jesus, because it reminds us of when we were kids.”
Of course, there are those Unitarians who came to the faith by birth, not conversion. McHugh is one such person. Both of his parents are Unitarian and sent him to Sunday school until he was seven, when he told them he no longer wanted to go. Three years ago, he once again became interested in the religion and joined the youth group the Ithaca church runs.
In some ways, McHugh seems to be more attached to the few dogmatic aspects of Unitarianism than some of his adult colleagues. He has the Principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association tacked to the wall in his room and says he tries to live his life according to the seven principles.
To say Unitarianism did not possess any sort of identity would be false, of course. Even a superficial scan of the history of Unitarianism reveals a number of identifying qualities the religion possesses, beginning with its name. The term “Unitarian” does not refer to the “unity” of the religion’s theologically diverse members; rather, it is a reference to how the group formed. In the centuries following the death of Jesus Christ, Christ’s followers believed many different things about his life and divinity. Those Christians who rejected the Trinity — the idea that God was composed of three parts: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit — became known as Unitarians. Thus, Unitarianism was a Christian religion for much of its history, only evolving into its modern form in the last century.
History also shows the Unitarians’ strong sense of social justice. In the 1800s, in the shadow of the Great Awakening and the idea that people were predestined to go to heaven or hell, the Universalists declared that anyone could go to heaven, a revolutionary idea at the time. (Unitarians and Universalists did not join together until the 1960s.) Unitarians and Universalists also played key roles in the push for greater rights for women, African-Americans and homosexuals in the 20th century and today pride themselves on their support of progressive causes.
Having a history and a strong sense of social justice does not make a religious identity, though. A lot of people who aren’t Unitarians share a similar history, and a lot of non-Unitarians are liberal. Identity, by nature, is exclusive. Every identifying characteristic I have is in some way a differentiation of myself from others — Jewish people believe in something others do not; humans possess qualities other living beings do not. To belong to a religion that is defined by its inclusiveness, then, a person must surrender that aspect of their religious identity.
What Unitarians do, then, is retain the most important part of identity—the sense of belonging it brings—without surrendering what they believe is our right to practice religion however we may see fit.
“I think Reverend Ford says it best—‘Buddhism is my religion, but the Unitarian Universalist community is my tribe,’” says Kinne. “It’s an accepting, supportive community that supports and understands individual religious searches, almost wherever they go.”
A visit I made to a Unitarian service in downtown Ithaca one downcast Sunday morning only confirmed this. Any evidence of cohesive theology was severely lacking. The minister mentioned God several times in his sermon but quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson more than any religious prophet or sage. I recognized some of the hymns as Christian in origin (if not actual lyrics) but heard announcements and read postings regarding meetings of pagans.
Yet, despite the lack of common belief, an overwhelming sense of community permeated the service. Every member of the congregation wore a nametag, and I was immediately swarmed by two or three elderly women when the service ended, imploring me to stay for coffee. All visitors and new members of the congregation were encouraged to carry around a green coffee mug at the post-service coffee hour, so that other members could easily identify you as someone they needed to welcome. In fact, I found the request that visitors take a green cup was stressed more than anything else in the entire service.
In a building of religion, an institution historically defined by the significance and seriousness of its icons — the cross, the Bodhi tree, the burning bush — the most important symbol was a green coffee mug.
Greg Ryan is a junior journalism and psychology double major who also doesn’t sing very well (it’s true). Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.