Collecting Our Thoughts


RUUF Members Share Their Thoughts

                              A Living Tradition

We sometimes refer to our Unitarian-Universalist faith as a "living tradition".  I like the phrase.  It combines two terms that, at first glance, appear to be contradictory.  'Living' suggests something ongoing, current, and therefore constantly changing and adapting.  A living faith is flexible and constantly evolving.  In contrast, 'tradition' suggests something that is anchored in the past and changes very little if at all.  A traditional faith is unchanging, consistent, enduring and time-tested.  Combining these words to create 'Living Tradition' results in ambiguity that we UU's relish and is further evidence of our schizophrenic nature.  But it makes perfect sense too.

Tradition by itself is not a complete foundation for the kind of personal faith that is the hallmark of Unitarian-Universalism.  Tradition, to us, is a source of inspiration but not the final result.  It is a starting point but not the finish line. We reject traditions that are limited to the rote repetition of creeds and rituals.   Tradition simply for the sake of tradition can entrench ideas and behavior that, in the worst case, propel forward into current generations prejudice and bias that should have withered away long ago.

Now, stating why we do not wholly adopt a religious tradition is the easy part.  And it seems that UU's have no problem stating what they believe in negative terms.  But when we do that we are guilty of the same mental lassitude that we assign to those who do embrace a tradition without hesitation or exception.  

We are so occupied with our criticism of  religious traditions that we fail to remember that we have our own!  Both the Unitarian and Universalist traditions started during the protestant reformation.  Both were firmly Christian but with enquiring minds that challenged traditional theology.  The Universalists did not accept the notion of eternal punishment and substituted a loving God in the place of the judgmental Old Testament version.  Unitarians rejected the confusing notion of the holy trinity and instead emphasized the humanity of Jesus. 

The terms 'Universalism' and 'Unitarianism' were used by the main stream protestants to describe these heretical views.  Unfortunately, we did not have the opportunity to choose a name for our faith; we inherited the terms created by our detractors.  And there was no lack of detractors!  In a time when differences in theology were punished with burning at the stake it took courage to be a Universalist or Unitarian.

One minister who was critical of both the Unitarians or Universalists offered this brief summary of their theology:  “The Universalist...believes that God is too good to damn him forever; and the Unitarians believe that they are too good to be damned.”

The Universalists and Unitarians were both firmly grounded in the Christian tradition but they made Christianity a living tradition by interpreting scriptures according to their own conscience.  Ellery Channing, a prominent Unitarian minister in the early nineteenth century,  described his views on the interpretation of scripture as follows.

"We feel is our bounden duty to exercise our reason upon it; to compare, to infer, to look beyond the letter to the spirit, to seek in the nature of the subject and the aim of the writer the true meaning; and, in general, to make use of what is known for explaining what is difficult, and for discovering new truths."

Channing's is not the only voice speaking for a living interpretation of the Bible.  Theodore Parker, another Unitarian minister, wrote the following in his famous sermon: 'The Transient and Permanent in Christianity'.

"The end of Christianity seems to be to make all people one with God…It allows perfect freedom.  It does not demand all people to think alike, but to think uprightly, and get as near as possible as the truth; not all people to live alike, but to live holy, and get as near as possible to a life perfectly divine."

Thomas Jefferson was a Unitarian certainly in thought if not in practice.  He communicated with Benjamin Rush and Joseph Priestly, both well known Unitarians at that time, about his personal beliefs.  In a letter to Rush he said:

"I am a Christian, in the only sense he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other."

Jefferson admired the moral teachings of Jesus but did not embrace the theology that surrounded them.  He believed that many stories in the Gospels: miracles, virgin birth, resurrection, divinity of Jesus, and others, detracted from the moral lessons.  He was so keen to extract what he felt was the essence of Jesus' teaching that he purchased four copies of the New Testament (Greek, Latin, French, English), cut out the sections that encapsulated the teachings, and combined them to create what we call The Jefferson Bible.  And he did this in the course of two evenings in the White House after completing his duties as president.  A daring intellectual undertaking that few contemporaries knew about which is fortunate considering the outrage it would have created.  Can you imagine what would be said if President Obama took a pair of scissors and cut up the New Testament?

Jefferson's actions exemplify the discipline of creating your own living tradition.  He did not abandon his Christian heritage - his tradition.   But, at the same time, he did not unthinkingly  accept it in its entirety.   He exercised his right and his obligation to examine the tradition he inherited and create a new tradition. 

Being part of a living tradition is hard work.   Some of this burden is lightened through the help of others in the fellowship when they provide support and inspiration.  But, in the end, it is each person's solemn life-long duty to thoughtfully examine our inherited traditions and make them our own.  Don't throw away the books; just take out your scissors and get to work!

John Vosburgh - December 2010


Life is a Leaf

Dick Skutt

February 2014

I saw a leaf fall today. I saw it fall from where I lay.

I’m the only one who saw it fall, and why do I even care at all?

Maybe because we both may share, a common here, a common there.

I felt a kinship to that leaf, and wondered why I felt such grief.

“Goodbye” seemed a silly thing to say, but still I said it anyway.

We live awhile and then we die, and neither one of us knows why.

Many of its atoms will soon be found, in another leaf on this same ground.

And there’s a certain probability, that some of them will be part of me!

Maybe it’s just atoms that enjoy eternal life, free from earthly toil and strife.

But from what I know about atoms and such, they don’t enjoy it very much!

Should I stop now and thus imply a similar fate when it’s my turn to die?

Well if I have to make a guess, my brain would say the answer’s yes.

And yet in scientific investigation, what’s true can change with new information.

Maybe there’s a dimension beyond our brains’ comprehension!

Well at least I can say, I’ll send “billions and billions” of atoms on their way!

And where will all these atoms go? 

Good grief

Some into another leaf!