What is a Unitarian?
Most Unitarians are happy to acknowledge the movement’s roots in Christian tradition. Some are glad to call themselves free or liberal Christians. Equally, many find it difficult to come to terms with Judeo-Christianity. Among Unitarians you will find people who have Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Humanist, Buddhist, Pagan and Atheist perspectives – as reflected in our varied and diverse congregations.
Unitarianism encompasses a wide variety of beliefs and there is no creed or holy doctrine that Unitarians must follow or believe. Rather we think respect for integrity is preferable to the pressure to conform, and that the final authority for your faith lies within your own conscience.
To build and explore our individual faiths Unitarians are aided and inspired by:
- the example and spiritual insights of others;
- writings deemed 'holy' and 'sacred' by the various faith traditions of humanity;
- inherited traditions of critical and philosophical thought;
- the ongoing creative work of artists, musicians and writers;
- the scientist's search for knowledge and understanding.
Despite the wide variety of beliefs you will find among Unitarians there is broad agreement on what constitutes our shared values:
- the nurture of life's spiritual dimension;
- the use of reason and honest doubt in the search for truth;
- mutual respect and goodwill in personal relations;
- constructive tolerance and openness towards the sincerely-held beliefs of others;
- peace, compassion, justice and democracy in human affairs;
- reverence for the earth and the whole natural system of which we are part.
We find that these values form a more effective foundation for true community than insistence on uniformity of belief and doctrine.
Oneness and ‘God’
We are called ‘Unitarians’ because:
- we traditionally insisted on the oneness (unity) of God;
- we affirm the essential unity of humankind and of creation.
Most Unitarians still affirm the oneness of God, but individual definitions of ‘God’ can vary from person to person. For some Unitarians, Christian language about God as a loving, personal power comes closest to their own belief. Others consider the concept of God to be the human ideal against which we measure ourselves, and some avoid using the word God at all because they consider it meaningless.
These are some of the different ways in which individual Unitarians have described how they perceive God:
- a universal father or mother;
- a unifying and life-giving spirit, reflective of both masculine and feminine;
- the source of all being, within which the creative process is unfolding;
- a primarily inward reality – the "still, small voice";
- a symbol for the noblest visions and aspirations of humankind;
- a 'great mystery' about which little can be said.
More important than labels is the general unitarian acceptance that humanity is one and the human person is one. That ultimate unifying principle or spirit is what many unitarians mean today when speaking of ‘God’.
What about Jesus?
Unitarians regard Jesus highly as a major figure, if not the central figure, in humanity's spiritual journey.
Generally speaking, he is thought of as a powerful example of integrity, courage and compassionate living, fully and unequivocally human – not a deity – and divine only in the sense that his life and work came to symbolise the divinity and high potential inherent in everyone. Therefore while honouring him, we do not worship him.
The bible is valued by most Unitarians as a deep fund of wisdom and insight deserving both attention and respect. But we do not regard it as an unquestionable authority.
We believe the bible should be read in the light of reason, informed by the insights of biblical criticism and scholarship. When Unitarians accept something in the bible as true, we do so because it rings true in our own reflection upon it – not simply because it is in the bible.
Bible extracts are often incorporated in unitarian worship, as are readings from any sacred or secular literature or poetry which is felt to be appropriate and relevant.
Hell and sin
When Unitarians speak of hell it is in this-worldly terms. We may use the word to describe the very real states of spiritual desolation and alienation into which human beings can fall. Unitarians do not see Hell as a divinely ordained place of punishment. Indeed, we do not see it as a place at all. Similarly few, if any, unitarians think of the Devil as having any objective existence.
The notion of original sin – that humans inherit a burden of sin from Adam and Eve and are born sinners – finds no favour with Unitarians. A Unitarian view of sin might be the failure to act, speak or think in ways that one knows to be right. Or to fall short of the standards of conduct that our individual faith or ethical system regards as ideal.
The remedy for sin is a process of contrition, repentance, and forgiveness. That is, true regret, a turning away from what conscience condemns, and a loving acceptance of the sinner. The giving and receiving of forgiveness – including self-forgiveness – are necessary for healing to take place.
Salvation and life after death
Many Unitarians are wary of the word "salvation", tending to see it in this-worldly rather than other-worldly terms. We identify it with the deliverance from all that fractures our relationships with each other, with the rest of creation, and with our own true selves – and so from God. Unitarians identify the agent of salvation as healing, dynamic love. This is both channelled through others and derived from some wellspring within ourselves. It is love that brings wholeness and fulfilment through the dissolution of the barriers that divide us.
Unitarians hold a wide variety of beliefs on life after death. Some have a very firm belief in personal survival beyond death while others – probably most – are less categorical. They might talk in terms of the soul or spirit returning to God. They might say the essence of a person is rewoven into the spiritual life of the universe, just as the body's constituents are reworked into the universe's physical dimension. Some are interested in exploring the various theories of reincarnation. The persistence of a person's ideas, genes and continued existence in the memories and lives of those who knew and loved them would be as much as many Unitarians would be prepared to concede.
Whatever our position, most Unitarians take the view that the focus of our attention should be this world. A life well lived is the best preparation for death, whatever may lie beyond it.
Exploring other faiths
Unitarians recognise that there will always be different ways of understanding and interpreting the human condition. We regard the existence of many diverse expressions of faith as enriching, so we:
- actively engage in dialogue with people of other faith traditions;
- promote opportunities for different religions to share their spiritual treasures in worship and celebration;
- are active locally, nationally and internationally in interfaith and interchurch organisations.
Internationally, we are proud to have been founder members of the International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF) in 1900. This has member groups from all the world's major faith traditions and a few more besides. Its activities include interfaith dialogue and social action in many countries.
Spiritual and religious education
Unitarian children and adults can participate in thought-provoking and enjoyable religious education programmes, free of doctrine and dogma. The programmes encourage spiritual awakening and development through:
- helping people to understand and evaluate inherited beliefs and values, and those of others;
- providing a forum for the free and respectful interchange of ideas and insights;
- encouraging people to 'build their own theology' out of the bricks of heritage, experience, intuition and reflection;
- explore ways in which spiritual values can be applied to life in the world.
Religious education for children is specifically designed to:
- build on a child's natural sense of wonder;
- channel positively the impulse to enquire and create;
- share stories from our religious inheritance and from other faiths.
Many Unitarian congregations offer religious education programmes for both young and old. Other educational events are organised at a national or district level; for example, children come together from all over the country to participate in the National Youth Programme. Religious growth and learning are the lifeblood of the unitarian movement.
The Unitarianism FAQs contain even more detailed information on all things Unitarian.