Protestant Unitarianism has traditionally been about shedding traditions, for example the traditional belief in the Trinity. Churches that take the name “Unitarian” have generally rejected these traditions because they fail to stand up to reason, while other groups with Unitarian theologies (like the Jehovah’s Witnesses) reject them on the grounds that they are not found in scripture.
For example, the Unitarianism of St. Lucian of Antioch, whom Reform Unitarians honor on the anniversary of his martyrdom on January 7th, was of the latter variety: unfortunately drawing justification from the idolatrous concept of scriptural inerrancy.
The Reform has recognized, however, that traditions serve a valuable cultural function in drawing a community together with shared metaphors and a common language in which to discuss spirituality, morality, and justice. Over the past two centuries, American Unitarianism has abandoned its commitments to tradition and, in the process, reduced a once-powerful movement to a religious curio.
Thomas Jefferson believed that Unitarianism would convert all of America within a generation, but the faith of our Founders now shares a single percentage point of American believers with the Universalists, with whom it joined in 1961. Universalism itself, also a tradition-shedding faith, has begun to lament the fact that its former status as sixth largest denomination in the U.S. was lost alongside its fidelity to a common creed.
In the 1800s, Unitarians began to assert the idea that there are many roads to Truth, of which Christianity was only one. The Reform reasserts this idea as part of our core principles. However, while focusing on the word “many” quite a few Unitarians have failed to understand that a key part of this realization is in the word “roads.” The fact that there are many valid roads to Truth does not rationally justify absolute creedlessness. It merely necessitates a shift in our understanding of what it means to have a creed: community creeds should serve an idiomatic rather than a dogmatic function.
There are many roads to Truth, but if you want to make any progress you need to find a road. The critical role of conversion and commitment in the organization of an effective religious community was central to the thinking of the greatest Unitarian theologian of the 20th Century, James Luther Adams, yet the full implications of this reality is still lost on mainstream Unitarianism.
Sadly, many Unitarians reacted to this 19th Century zeitgeist in a way that reveals that they had not truly absorbed its wisdom. Asserting that there are many valid paths to Truth, they immediately scrambled to denounce the path they were on. Like Animal Farm in reverse, the implication was that all sectarian animals are equal, but Christianity is less equal than others. This subtle anti-Christian sentiment, and the contrarianism which informs it, continues to corrupt the generally open-minded culture of Unitarianism even to this day, hobbling its noblest efforts to seek social justice.
Fully accepting the wisdom that many roads lead to the same Truth, there is no reason to leave the road you’re on. Just make sure that you’re following it in the right direction. (For, if many roads lead to Truth it must also be the case that each one can lead away from it, too.)
In essence, Unitarian Reformers want to retrieve the baby we threw out with the bathwater: the rich culture of spiritual metaphor and narrative that makes other denominations such rewarding and powerful places to be. At the same time, we retain an emphasis on rationalism and open-mindedness by clarifying the idiomatic nature of our credal traditions: you don’t have to reject Hannukah, Kwanzaa, or Ramadán in order to celebrate Christmas.
We further emphasize this idiomatic definition of creed and tradition by zealously insisting on the voluntary nature of sectarian identity. With religious freedom enshrined in law, creedlessness is no longer necessary. In fact, it ceases to be a virtue and becomes a redundant extravagance hindering the creation and maintenance of a strong, nurturing community.