Unitarian Universalism: “It Means Whatever You Want it to Mean.” (A Christian Conservative Goes to College, part 20)

Stephen J Drain's picture

“He who stands for nothing will fall for anything” – Unknown.

“Groups that stand for everything stand for nothing or else they deceive” – a former Unitarian Universalist pastor who is now a full-fledged Humanist.[1]

For although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or give him thanks, but they became futile in their thoughts and their senseless hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools….” (Romans 1:21-22).

The World Religions class assignment was that each student attend the service of a religion that was not “one’s own”. I chose to attend a Unitarian Universalist church with my analytical Christian friend Chris. As mentioned in my previous column[2] I witnessed and investigated the hodgepodge of practices and beliefs that made up Unitarian Universalism (Humanism to American Liberalism, Zen Buddhism to Hinduism, Relativism to New Age). The entire service itself was wrapped up in the form of a Sunday morning Christian worship service though it was completely stripped of anything Jewish or Christian.

After the service was over there was a coffee hour meet and greet of which my friend Chris and I took full advantage. We ended up talking for almost three hours with four of them in particular, a couple who said they were “pagan and liberally minded”, a woman who said she believed in reincarnation, and a man who told us he was Wiccan. Let me state for the record that they were all very nice. Most of this time was spent asking one another questions, picking each others’ brains, and comparing belief systems. Friendly as the interact was, we had to challenge them on some logical and philosophical problems. If Unitarian Universalists did in fact embrace relativism, the belief that individuals define what is true and right to believe in this case, then they had to explain how they overcame the inherent contradictions within it. (A contradiction is something that CANNOT be true.)

The first to state his case seems right, until his opponent begins to cross-examine him” (Proverbs 18:17).

Much, but not all, of what I present below were included in my Power Point presentation before the World Religions, Philosophy 151, Class.

As mentioned in my other column, the songs the Unitarian Universalists sang during service and the songs in their hymnals were often completely ambiguous lyrically, prompting my friend Chris to basically say to me, “It seems they work hard at finding songs that have absolutely nothing to say.” The first song they sang during the service included the lyrics, “Spirit of Life, come unto me. Sing in my heart all the stirring of compassion. Blow in the wind, rise in the sea…. Spirit of Life, come to me, come to me.[3] So after the service Chris said, “The first song spoke of ‘spirit’. How does a Unitarian Universalist church or person define ‘spirit’? What do they mean when they use the word ‘spirit’?”

“It means what each individual wants it to mean,” he was told.

I am here reminded of our textbook in which we read about Zen Buddhism: “Whenever a certain master was asked the meaning of Zen, he lifted his index finger. That was all. Another kicked a ball. Still another slapped the inquirer.”[4]

No one slapped Chris, however.

We recounted to them that during the prayer, the recitation began with, “Source of Life, God of Love, Holy Unnamed….” So we asked, “What does a U.U. person or church  mean when using the term ‘God’?”

“It means what each individual wants it to mean,” they replied.

[The class chuckled at this point in my presentation.]

In a U.U. setting, however, in which they “welcome” all people from theists to atheists, what would the term “God” mean to the atheist? Does it mean something or does it mean nothing? If each term is subjectively defined by the listener, however he or she pleases, we enter a world of nonsense. For instance, if any of the U.U. members were teachers, I expect they allow the same thing from their students when testing them: “Under the United States’ Constitution, who is the Commander of the Armed Forces?”

Answer: “It is whomever each individual wants it to be.”

Would a U.U. teacher accept such an answer?

Would U.U. congregation answer, “all of the above” to every single question of a multiple choice test?

We countered their “it is whatever it means to you” idea with the fact that terms have meanings: “For instance, if I say, ‘There is a hill,’ there is a reality behind that word, an idea, but in what you are doing and saying, the word ‘hill’ then could also mean ‘plane’ or ‘valley’. That does not make sense.”

They didn’t budge. Each (obviously!) had their own opinion.

One of the things said during the sermon was about “encouraging each member to seek and hold their own truth…” But what if the “truths” of the individuals are diametrically opposed? What if one is an atheist and one believes in a god? What if someone believes in repetitious reincarnation while another believes in one death, then judgment and hell as we see in the words of Jesus and the Bible? “How do you avoid the charge of relativism?” I asked.

Answer(s)?

“It’s irrelevant which is true and which isn’t,” said one.

“I don’t believe anyone could know the truth,” said another.

“It’s the journey not the destination.”

Wow, think through each of those answers.

“It is irrelevant which one is true and which one isn’t”? For instance, if I say that a person’s actions or lifestyle is sinful, it does not mean I hate that person; in actuality, what I say may be truthful and may be said in love. But the response is often, “You’re a hate-filled bigot!” which is tantamount to saying, “It’s irrelevant whether that is true or not.” Sadly, we see way too much of this today; many people are deceived into this kind of thinking (or lack thereof).[5] It’s based more on emotion than logic or reasoning or discussion. It’s been said, “Truth is the first casualty in war”[6] but in the case of religion, killing truth will prove deadly. This is a war with consequences that last eternally. Aren’t the answers to the ultimate questions important? I mean, is there a God or isn’t there? Is there a reason we are here or not? Does life have meaning or not? Was Jesus Christ who He claimed to be or not? Is it true that “people are appointed to die once, and then to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27)?

When someone answers, “It’s irrelevant which is true and which isn’t,” it means he or she is not even interested. They do not care to search for truth or God. Of course Scripture tells us that there is “no one who seeks God” (Romans 3:11).[7] But a lack of interest in truth shows a severe malignancy within a human being (and we all have this malignancy to a degree); it means that we prefer what we prefer, we favor what we want over what is actual, factual, good, right, righteous, and/or beneficial.

This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19, NIV 1984).

I am here reminded of the words of Jesus before Pilate: “For this reason I was born, and for this reason I came into the world – to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37).

But what of the statement, “I don’t believe anyone could know the truth”? This is a classic relativist statement. To demonstrate how a relativistic statement fails is to respond to it by asking a question: “Is what you just said true?” If they say that their statement was true, their statement then becomes false. It is self-refuting.[8] It is an inherent contradiction; it is a nonsense statement along the lines of saying, “I just saw a square circle.” So in saying “I don’t believe anyone could know the truth” they are saying, “Since I am included in the word ‘anyone’, I also, therefore, cannot know the truth; nothing I say can possibly be true; therefore, this very statement is false.” Think long and hard about what it means to say, “This statement is false.” This is what that person did.

And then we come to the statement, “It’s the journey not the destination.” The slide on my class Power Point at this point read, “Honest question: If anyone is legitimately seeking truth, wouldn’t the goal be to find it? Is it going to the restaurant or eating the food? Don’t we seek food so we can eat it? Is [the aim] searching for love or friendship or finding love and friendship? Why would anyone be seeking truth and not actually be interested in finding it? Is traveling to the Grand Canyon better than being there? Is the ‘it’s the journey not the destination’ answer legit or a non-answer?” Obviously the “It’s the journey not the destination” statement is also ridiculous. Is it preferable to fight a war for many long years or to finally win it? Is it preferable to go through chemo and radiation therapy or to be cancer-free? My point is made: “It’s the journey not the destination” = Epic Fail.

Along those lines, as one pamphlet at the church read: “We keep our minds open to the religious questions people have struggled with in all times and places.”[9] We keep our minds open to the questions? How about closing the mind on some answers? As G.K. Chesterton wisely said, “An open mind is really a mark of foolishness, like an open mouth. Mouths and minds were made to shut; they were made to open only in order to shut.” Food for hunger. Water for thirst. Truth for the quest for truth (John 14:6, John 18:37 again).

Now one of the statements I wrote down from the sermon was about the need to “educate our youth to follow their own truth…” What a horrible thought. To “educate” means “to lead out” from darkness to light, from something worse to something better, from what is not true to what is true. To “educate” would mean there are things children or youth need to know. Would that not be pointing out “truths” to the youth? I gave all this to the class and then asked how such a statement would work out in real life. Consider these “truths” that “youth” might decide to follow: Hitchhiking or taking a ride from a complete stranger will get me home quicker. “I know I’m drunk, but I’ve never gotten into an accident or hit anyone before.” I know he would stop hitting me if I was his wife. What their own truth or belief involves life, politics, or business being “survival of the fittest” and/or “might makes right”? What if their truth means suicide, joining the white supremacists, or dumping a baby in the trashcan at the prom? None of these can be condemned if we “educate our youth to follow their own truth” and they firmly believe there is nothing wrong with doing these things. You may disagree, but when they say, “what’s true for you is true for you and what’s true for me is true for me.”

In order to drive the point home I continued beating the dead horse named “Double U”:

What if the youth simply wanted to do what feels good at the moment or to do all manner of things that we know would not be wise or might have horrible, even life-long repercussions? What if their own truth says, “It won’t happen to me”? The answer given in the sermon was, and I quote: “Well we give them all the info they need and tell them what would be the best; but they’re going to make their own decisions.” While it is true that they will make their own decisions, they U.U.s just contradicted themselves again by mentioning “what would be best.” If all is relative, if each person makes up or judges their own truth, then there is no “best”. “Best” implies a standard. We have five test scores: 33, 67, 48, 100, and 20. Which one is best? We know which one is best because there is a standard that is true. 100% is perfect. The closer one gets to perfect, the better. 100% is best.

U.U.s love to use the word “truth” a lot, but refuse to admit that it exists and can be objective. From the U.U. web-site: “There is always new truth, whether it be moral, physical, or emotional. It may be a new scientific discovery or it may be a change in our own souls, so that we must come to relate to the world in a different way. It may be the changing morals of society. Whatever the case, truth is not constant. Experience is ongoing. Revelation, as the Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams taught us, is not and can never be sealed. There is always new truth.”[10]

Using this quote, I presented the class with the following thoughts: Is what he says here true? How do we know a new “truth” that makes this statement false will not arise later? If it does arise would it be retroactive and show that this statement had always been false [making it currently false]? Since truth is not constant (as he says), if what he says is true, then it will not be constant and may not remain true. In fact, there’s probably a very good chance that what he said was not even true when he said it. Here it is necessary to quote the Soul singing philosopher, James Brown: “Like a dull knife, just ain't cutting… Just talking loud, then saying nothing.”

In the sermon we heard the following: “…when we do this, we answer the spirit’s call” and “the world cries out for a prophetic voice of spirit; so its up to us…” Again the question had to be posed: “What do you mean by ‘spirit’ in this context?”

Answer?

(You should all be able to say it by this time.)

“It means what each individual wants it to mean.”

[The class was no longer chuckling, but was actually outright laughing at the nonsense by this point.]

If a tree falls in a forest, does it make any sound? If a person is talking nonsense, are they saying anything?

I read what appeared to be this U.U. church’s mission statement in the bulletin (which I believe they often opened their service with):

“This is a free, creedless religious congregation. In the discipline of truth and the spirit of universal kinship, we join together in a cooperative quest for religious and ethical values, seeking to apply these values to the development of character, enrichment of the spirit, and service to all. You are welcome here, whatever your age, gender, or physical or mental capabilities, social graces, beauty of body or spirit, sexual orientation, ethnic origin, or position in life.  Join us as we journey toward peace and justice for all persons.”

Now let us define two terms (if such a thing can even be done when referring to anything U.U.):

Creed: “any system, doctrine, or formula of religious belief, as of a denomination…”[11] So the statement tells us, “This is a free, creedless religious congregation.” In another place I read, “We uphold the free search for truth. We will not be bound by a statement of belief. We do not ask anyone to subscribe to a creed.”[12] And yet in the lobby I pick up a little pamphlet/card the title of which is, “What do Unitarian Universalists Believe”[13] in which it lists 10 things they believe. “The principle of affirming no creed is, I believe, less than forthright,” writes a former U.U. preacher.  “Groups that stand for everything stand for nothing or else they deceive.”[14] So they claim to have no formulated ideas or beliefs that they follow, except the formulated ideas and beliefs which they follow. After all, there must be something outside of them, not subjective, not individually chosen or judged, by which they are seeking to unite in “kinship” (as was mentioned in their statement above):

Kinship: “a close connection marked by community of interests or similarity in nature or character…”[15] “Similarity”? How so when everything is defined by the individual? As we read, “We believe that personal experience, conscience, and reason should be the final authorities in religion. In the end religious authority lies not in a book, person, or institution, but in ourselves.”[16] Lest one think that “ourselves” means our group, let this statement clarify it: “The ultimate arbiter in religion is not a church, nor  document, nor an official but the personal choice and decision of the individual.”[17] One must then laugh when the same author writes, “The validation of experience requires the confirmation of peers…”

And what of “ethical values” that they so often mention? They are values “pertaining to or dealing with morals or the principles of morality; pertaining to right and wrong in conduct…”[18] Ethical values speak of right and wrong conduct. Right and wrong depend on a standard that is not defined by the individual! As one web site reads, “We do not ask what you believe, or expect you to think the way we do, but only that you try to live a kindly, helpful life, with the dignity proper to a human life.”[19] If no one must believe or think the same way, then they would also be accepting of those who would not try to live a kindly, helpful life, correct? In fact, they should also validate such people, should they not? If not, then they must somehow insist that individuals believe or think a certain way, because the way individuals believe and think leads to how they live, act, and behave (Matthew 15:19, Luke 6:45).

In one of my favorite books on the subject, “Relativism, Feet Planted Firmly in Mid-Air” by Francis J. Beckwith and Gregory Koukl, we read, “Relativists can’t hold meaningful moral discussions…. What’s there to talk about?”[20] They continue by saying, “[Relativism] can only be consistently lived out in silence.”[21] After all, with relativism there can be no good or evil, bad or better. “If relativism is true… evil vanishes. There is no true evil to discuss, only differing opinions about what is pleasant or unpleasant…”[22] It would all be as inconsequential and ridiculous as talking about what is the best flavor of ice cream. 

The new dilemma is the question, who in the U.U. will define for us the meaning of “ethical values” or of “justice” if these are truths defined by the individual? A group of U.U. members cannot make that decision for each individual. If all but one U.U. members decided on what was good and right (democratically subjectively for the U.U.s), the one U.U. member who disagreed with their definition would still have to be correct, true, and right, according to the U.U. belief that the individual is the final arbiter of those things. Thus the decision that murder is wrong and murder is right would be valid beliefs within this institution. (Interestingly enough, I am curious as to whether they are pro-life/anti-abortion as I read many statements in their writings such as “”We believe in the worth and dignity of each human being.”[23] Such a statement would demand an anti-abortion stance.)

As Chris and I left the U.U. church that day we discussed all we had heard and talked about. Chris said, “It appears that, simply, as a group of people, they’ve decided to gather together and only consider their points of commonality and agreement and they choose to ignore their differences.”

“So basically,” I responded, “We could do the same thing at a bowling alley or a bar and find out we are having a Unitarian Universalist meeting.”

My conclusion for the class was essentially this:

If, as the class textbook reads, religion begins in authority and ritual and then calls for explanations to the fundamental questions (“From whence do we come, whither do we go, why are we here?”[24]), then Unitarian Universalism fails to even qualify as a religion. They have one ritual (lighting a chalice) and seem to try and answer one fundamental question: “Why are we here?” Their answer being, “To do good things for humanity.” (Why does the movie Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure come to mind here? “Be excellent to each other.”) They provide no answers to: What is truth? Why is there evil? Why am I sinful? How can one be saved from their own sinfulness? Is there a God? Is there life after death? Where did the universe come from? Why is there a universe? If it is all going to end eventually anyway then what was the point? Their only answer seems to be that there is no actual answer. So why bother with Unitarian Universalism, why not just watch TV? 

There is one interesting addition I’d like to make here:

In reviewing the church’s web-site, I ran across a sermon in which I found an admission that humanity has a sin problem:[25] “Anyone who claims he/she doesn't do wicked things is either trying to fool others, or trying to fool themselves….. You cannot be a Unitarian Universalist if you're not willing to admit that about yourself…. a little bit of hypocrisy and selfishness and deceit, you'll do fine. We're not asking you to try to develop those qualities, because you don't need to. Each and everyone of you already has them…. by sinning I mean doing things to hurt people….”[26]

He continued, “Looking over our hymnal one day, I was startled to discover we had confessions but no absolutions! There I was, a UU minister, and I found myself saying, ‘What kind of religion is this? We get to hit ourselves over the head with our personal or collective guilt, but we never have the chance to say, ‘that’s okay, I forgive you; I forgive myself? …. Part of renewing our sense of dignity and renewing our lives is finding some process of atonement, some way of coming to peace with our errors and our wrongs. There are times in every life when we feel alienated from people we love, or people around us, or ourselves, or from the world as a whole. Perhaps we feel alienated from God. Maybe we have been wronged, or we have behaved in some way that embarrasses or shames us. Maybe we simply have not lived up to the expectations we place on ourselves.”[27]

So we find the admission of sin, but no certain “process of atonement” as it must be individual decided. If it is to be individually decided, some might simply ignore their sins and others might try doing good things so the good outweighs the bad, some might try appeasing their gods through incense, prayers, and rituals while others might just wait on reincarnation, and then some might find that killing infidels guarantees them a free pass to paradise. If you individually determine your path and your religion, all are valid. But if there is a reality, objective truth, or a true religion, one had better find it out.

In our conversation with those folks after the service, we did talk about salvation and Jesus Christ. We brought this up as we discussed the relativistic nature of their organization. When one of them said, “Unitarian Universalism was like Hinduism, leaving open the possibility of many paths to the same place,” we responded by saying, “Christianity teaches one way exclusive of all others. Jesus saying, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life, no man comes to the Father but by me’ [John 14:6]. It teaches that all other gods are just demons.”[28]  And Jesus taught that there is a narrow path to life and a broad path to destruction (Matthew 7:13-14).

Unfortunately in their literature we read, “The word God is much abused….” And they go on to say why. “Whatever our theological persuasion, Unitarian Universalists generally agree that the fruits of religions belief matter more than beliefs about religion—even about God.”[29] Of Jesus they say, “Classically, Unitarian Universalist Christians [?] have understood Jesus as a savior because he was a God-filled human being, not a supernatural being, He was, and still is for many UUs, an [example]. Among us, Jesus’ very human life and teaching have been understood as products of, and in line with, the great Jewish tradition of prophets and teachers…. Many of us honor Jesus and many of us honor other master teachers of past or present generations, like Moses or Buddha.”[30]

The sad part is that if the U.U.s ignore what the Gospels and Scriptures clearly teach about Jesus, if they take out of the Bible the teachings that Jesus was a “supernatural being”, then they gut the Gospels and hollow out the Bible, essentially making it untrustworthy and yet they must turn to the Bible in order to say that Jesus is an example (because where else do you find Jesus’ example but in the biblical accounts?). Therefore, the U.U.s once again demonstrate the uncanny ability to saw off the very limbs on which they are sitting. Their feet are firmly planted in mid-air.

It is very sad to say the U.U.s ignore Jesus’ clear teaching that the two greatest commandments are to “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. The second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the law and the prophets depend on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40). The U.U.s talk as though the second of these two commandments is the most important and they completely ignore the first. Jesus tells us that all the laws hang on these two, not one. In fact, attempts at upholding the latter while ignoring the former, makes people into worshipers of humanity and makes humanity god (the essence of Humanism). This is idolatry. Though one may love and serve humanity, if they do not worship God, then there is no expectation of anything other than wrath and hell in the end. This is the inescapable consequence.

Yes, the Bible speaks of hell and a disavowal of those who do not do good by loving and serving others (Micah 6:8, Malachi 3:5, Matthew 7:15-23, Matthew 25:31-46, John 5:28-29, James 1:27, James 2:14-26, etc.) but one cannot ignore the fact that the Bible most certainly speaks of hell and disavowal of those who do not properly honor and worship the Creator and Savior (Proverbs 1:29-32, Isaiah 1:28, Micah 6:8, Malachi 1:6, Malachi 2:2, Malachi 3:5, Malachi 3:16-18, Luke 12:5, John 3:17-18, John 3:36, John 5:21-23, John 17:3, 1 John 5:1, 1 John 5:9-12, Romans 1:18-32, Hebrews 10:28-31, etc.). There is no righteousness apart from God (see Romans 3:18-22, etc.)

For there will be a time when people will not tolerate sound teaching. Instead, following their own desires, they will accumulate teachers for themselves, because they have an insatiable curiosity to hear new things. And they will turn away from hearing the truth, but on the other hand they will turn aside to myths” (2 Timothy 4:3-4).

 

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Feel free to read columns I have written elsewhere here:
http://www.examiner.com/christian-perspectives-in-philadelphia/stephen-j-drain

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[4] “The Illustrated World Religions, A guide to Our Wisdom Traditions” by Huston Smith, text copyright 1991, 1994 by Huston Smith, published by HarperCollins, pages 87-88.

[5] Other examples from today’s headlines: When a politician patently lies, subverts his or her oath of office, or blatantly violates the law in order to achieve some goal, many today seem to say, “That’s irrelevant; the ends justify the means.” If someone breaks our laws and enters our country illegally, must those who oppose the government helping them stay be automatically labeled hate-filled and racist? Can someone criticize the President’s policies and reasonably not be a racist? “It is irrelevant what is true and what isn’t.” Was a certain verdict just or unjust based on the evidence presented? “It’s irrelevant; it doesn’t matter. We have demands.” As the saying goes, “Truth is the first casualty in war” which means, “Truth must be subverted and falsehood made to look true in order to empower group/party/faction interest (or self-interest).” (Remember Isaiah 5:20.) But if you live and believe like this, remember, those who disagree with your group/party/faction interest but share your “truth is irrelevant” beliefs may one day use the same tactics against you, and if they gain the upper hand, you will have no appeals to what is true or right, because you yourself took part in saying truth was irrelevant, in killing it.

[6] See footnote above.

[7] Which, of course, renders the whole “Seeker Sensitive” movement null and void, a deviation from Scripture. We are in need of the God of Scriptures who opens blind eyes, deaf ears, and calls forth the dead.

[8] “Philosopher J.P. Moreland defines self-refutation: ‘when a statement fails to satisfy itself (i.e. to conform to its own criteria of validity or acceptability), it is self-refuting….” As quoted in “Relativism, Feet Planted Firmly in Mid-Air”, copyright 1998 by Francis J. Beckwith and Gregory Koukl, published by Baker Books, page 82.

[9] “We Are Unitarian Universalists” copyright 1999 Unitarian Universalist Association, written by Marta Flanagan.

[12] “We Are Unitarian Universalists” copyright 1999 Unitarian Universalist Association, written by Marta Flanagan.

[13] By David O. Rankin

[16] “We Are Unitarian Universalists” copyright 1999 Unitarian Universalist Association, written by Marta Flanagan.

[17] “What do Unitarian Universalists Believe” by David O. Rankin.

[18] Dictionary.com

[20] “Relativism, Feet Planted Firmly in Mid-Air”, copyright 1998 by Francis J. Beckwith and Gregory Koukl, published by Baker Books, page 67.

[21] Ibid, page 68.

[22] Ibid, page 63.

[23] “What do Unitarian Universalists Believe” by David O. Rankin.

[24] “The Illustrated World Religions, A Guide to Our Wisdom Traditions” by Huston Smith, text copyright 1991, 1994 by Huston Smith, published by HarperCollins, page 67.

[25] Not sure how they do this when morality and goodness, even “sin”, should be judged and defined by the individual within U.U. Yet we know no one can hide from the light of God (Romans 1:19 and on, Psalm 19:1-4, etc.)

[27] Ibid.

[28] The latter statement based upon Deuteronomy 32:17, Psalm 96:5, 1 Corinthians 10:20, Revelation 9:20, etc.

[29] “Our Unitarian Universalist Faith”, copyright 1997 Unitarian Universalist Association, written by Alice Blair Wesley.

[30] Ibid.

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