Every now and then, I encounter a situation where my thoughts return to the question of “What is Unitarian Universalism?” The most recent occurred when a conversation I was involved in turned to the topic of one person switching churches. She had moved from a church in a nearby small town to Shoreline. The reason she gave is her previous church had done away with the smaller touchstone groups commonly used in large churches so its members do not feel lost in a crowd. A few more comments were spoken about the purposes and uses of such groups and the topic shifted again as conversations tend to do. I came away from that conversation pondering, not the topic of churches and religion, but the attitudes and assumptions made by the others in the group.

The first is the unsurprising (given where I live) assumption that everyone you meet is Christian. The second is that everyone goes to church. No one asked anyone else, “What church do you go to?” or even “Do you go to church?” From there, my mind wandered a bit and it eventually landed back on the question, “How do I define Unitarian Universalism?”

One of the first things I keep coming back to is, while the words “unitarian” and “universalism” can be defined, Unitarian Universalism can only be described. There is no central creed, though there are principles by which we follow our path. This has caused lots of problems in creating dialog with those of other faiths. Here’s a simplified example conversation I’ve had many times:

Other person: “I believe in Christ the Redeemer. What do you believe in?”

Me: “I believe.”

Other: “Believe in what?”

Me: “I believe.”

You can imagine how frustrating this can be for both sides. I recently came up with two analogies, one for the religion and one for the church.

Members of a UU congregation go through life as though going on a hike with a bunch of friends. No one person experiences the same hike, though they go through the same terrain. One may focus on the trees, one may focus on the creeks they cross, one may focus on the sky or the mountains in the distance. It is not the object of focus, but the hike itself that brings enjoyment.

As for the church itself, think of greeting cards. There are lots of greeting card companies, each with its own type of artwork, its own character of message. I tend to view many churches in this way. “Here is what we offer,” they say, “and here is how we approach life and the divine.” Walking into a UU church is far more likely to be like walking into a crafts store than walking into a Hallmark. “Here is everything you need to make your cards. Try not to tear up other people’s cards to get your materials.”

Does this mean we believe whatever we want? No. Our beliefs follow seven principles we call “basic”. (That doesn’t mean they’re easy.)

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part


What do these have to do with God? Nothing. What do they have to do with religion? They are the boundary markers for how we search for, express, and tie ourselves to that which is beyond ourselves and our total comprehension.