A Heated Debate Flares in Unitarian Universalism

New York Times, May 17, 2003

Humanism has been on the wane as an intellectual and political force in America for many years, as more people question whether reason and science are adequate portals into the mystery of life. But humanists alarmed by the rise of religion in American politics and culture have at least been able to turn to certain liberal domains for comfort and confirmation.

One has been Unitarian Universalism, a liberal religious movement that pitches a large enough theological tent to include atheism, religious humanism, liberal Christianity, non-Christian theism and much else. Which may be why the Rev. William G. Sinkford, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, sparked such a reaction this spring when he posed a challenge to its members.

Mr. Sinkford, who was elected in June 2001, has been urging the nation’s 225,000 Unitarian Universalists to reclaim a “vocabulary of reverence.” He has called the effort a main goal of his presidency of the noncreedal association.

In recent sermons, talks and articles, Mr. Sinkford said he was struck by the fact that the association’s Purposes and Principles, or mission statement, “contain not one piece of traditional religious language, not one word.” The statement has inclusive generalizations about human dignity, justice and “the interdependent web of all existence,” but omits mention of God. It serves well as a broad ethic, he said, but does not do much “to capture our individual searches for truth and meaning.”

Explicit religious language would better acquaint people with life’s “religious depths” and “ground them in their personal faith,” Mr. Sinkford said in a recent interview. It would also help liberals wrest religious language back from the religious right, he said.

In the interview, Mr. Sinkford, a 56-year-old onetime businessman and former “card-carrying atheist” who turned to ministry 10 years ago, said he was not formally proposing to change the principles, which are bylaws of the association and require a five-year process to be altered. Nor is he saying that any new language, wherever invoked, must mention God, so long as it “allows us to capture the possibility of reverence, to name the holy, to talk about human agency in theological terms.” But it is clear that he is comfortable with that word. After his son recovered from a coma in 1997, Mr. Sinkford began to develop “a prayer life centered on thankfulness and gratefulness to God.”

Mr. Sinkford describes his own faith with a reference to the merger, in 1961, of Unitarianism, a liberal offshoot of Puritan Calvinism that gradually shed its Christian identity, and Universalism, a small denomination that preached a theology of grace. “The Unitarian side tells us that there is only one God,” he said, “one spirit of life, one power of love. The Universalist side tells us that God is a loving God, condemning none of us, valuing the spark of divinity that is in every human being.”

Officials of the association say Mr. Sinkford’s initiative has generated more e-mail, letters and telephone calls than any other issue in its history — a big statement for a contentious group that has had some huge blowups over race, war and gender issues.

“It’s tender territory,” noted Mr. Sinkford, who said he was talking with hundreds of individuals or groups on the topic. “But it’s a conversation I think we need to have.” He called it part of the process of Unitarian Universalism’s “growing up” into “a more confident maturity.”

Rhoda Miller of Concord, Mass., a member of the Unitarian Universalist church there who calls herself a rational atheist, said Mr. Sinkford’s plea “makes me feel that atheists are less welcome in Unitarian Universalism.”

The Rev. Kendyl Gibbons, minister of the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis and a leader of a national Unitarian Universalist humanist group, said that “some humanists certainly feel threatened” by the initiative. But she said she did not see the association slipping away from humanists. “I don’t think Sinkford’s use of theological language means he’s unwilling to be disciplined by reason,” she said.

One former president of the association, William F. Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA, said he viewed himself as a religious humanist but supported efforts to use a “wide lexicon” of religious language. “I’ve long been critical of the position of some humanists that would sanctify secular language and lock us into a calcified rationalism,” he said.

Mr. Sinkford’s first sermon on the topic, in Texas in January, set off a firestorm of protest from humanists, who flooded a humanist chat room with cries of “creeping credalism” and warned of a “mass exodus” from the association. That was partly a reaction to a newspaper article that erroneously said Mr. Sinkford had called for including the word “God” in the principles.

In an open letter responding to that outcry, Mr. Sinkford said he would not twist anyone’s arm to speak of God. “After that,” he said in the interview, “people notched down their anxiety.”

Mr. Sinkford said the flexible language of the mission statement dated from efforts in 1961 to find wording acceptable to Unitarians and the more traditional Universalists, and he noted that the culture had changed since then. “I think we are seeing a historical cycle,” he said. “I sense a gradual shift in Unitarian Universalism,” away from the Unitarian pole of doubt and toward its pole of faith.

Mr. Sinkford was asked what he thought of the coincidence that his initiative came amid the 200th anniversary of the birth of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who is often linked to Unitarian skepticism. “I’m delighted by that convergence,” he said. “Emerson was deeply spiritual, of course, and he wanted people to think for themselves about these matters. I see this as the next stage in the conversation he initiated.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday May 22, 2003.
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