Unitarian Universalism Needs Jesus

from Wikipedia on Unitarianism, "Part of a series on Christianity"
I will put my thesis on the table right away if the title did not put it out there already. If UUism is going to grow, it needs to focus more on the person of Jesus and his teachings. (Before you turn away, please note my emphasis on the person and the teachings of Jesus and not the divinity and the cross of Jesus.)

The Question of the Nones

Here is the dilemma facing organized religion which UU, like it or not, is – the quickest growing group of people when it comes to religious affiliation is the group who claim no affiliation at all, a group of people that have been labeled the “Nones.” (When asked their religious affiliation, they answer “none.”) The Nones have grown by a whopping 10% in the past 25 years, and 4% in just the past 5 years. They are the second largest religious group in the country, behind only Catholics in population.

At the same time, mainline denominations have been declining precipitously and exponentially. And UU is now beginning to feel that decline as well.

That UU is declining when there are more Nones might seem odd to some UUs. If there were a religious organization suited to the Nones, it would be UU. It is liberal, pluralistic, and welcoming of even atheists and agnostics.

But here is thing. Nones dig Jesus, but Jesus has left the UU building!

From some important qualitative research done by Elizabeth Drescher, research that includes actual interviews and engagement and dialogue with the Nones, there is a clear sentiment that counters UUs current culture. These Nones would sing with that Doobie Brothers song and mean it, “Jesus is just alright with me.”

In a terrific article in the online religious journal Religious Dispatches titled “No to Church, Yes to Jesus,” Elizabeth Drescher discusses her qualitative research of the “Nones.” Drescher’s research makes it clear that for the Nones, Jesus is a figure still very much admired and looked to. She states:

"…the Christian idiom—its narratives, rituals, symbols, professed ethics, and so on—remains a significant resource for [the Nones], whether they’re arguing against it or adapting it to alternative spiritualities. This was certainly the case for the majority of the Nones I interviewed across the country. Regardless of where they stood with regard to religious belief or unbelief, or attendant practices, the people I interviewed told me repeatedly how much they admired the Jesus of the Christian Gospel, radical defender of the poor and outcast."

What’s more, a survey by the Harris Interactive Company shows that Jesus “by a large margin holds the top rank on the list of individual heroes.” This is extra true, interestingly, for those of the Millenial generation. “While Millennials may have been less likely to display a belief in God, the results of this survey show that Millennials are significantly more likely than any other generation to consider God or Jesus to be a hero.”

A Gallup poll from several years ago confirmed this: “survey findings suggest that Jesus' impact extends beyond those Americans who call themselves Christians. When Americans of all religious backgrounds, or none, were asked what impact Jesus has had on their lives as a moral and ethical leader, only 7% of the total sample said, ‘hardly any’ or ‘none.’”

As Drescher further shows in her research, this sentiment of rejecting Christianity but sensing meaning and importance in Jesus is not uncommon. Drescher points to the 2008 Pew Religious Landscape Survey and states, “Seven-in-ten Nones emerge into Noneness from Christian backgrounds. So, it makes sense that [the language of Jesus and his teaching] would hold great influence still.”

So, there is a deeply ingrained affinity with Jesus and his teaching among the Nones. 

This makes sense. Though they do not affiliate with religious organizations, 7 in 10 Nones come from Christian backgrounds. In other words, 7 in 10 are leaving Christianity and not becoming UU.

I personally believe they are not becoming UU because they are looking for a new way to approach Jesus. But they do not find Jesus deeply offered anywhere in UU congregations. And when Jesus is talked about, it is usually in the negative, tied to the "bad Christians" or "the Religious Right."

I dare say a safe place to land for Nones would be a place that talks the language of Jesus but in an inclusive, open, and, yes, bravely heretical way.

The Question of Diversity

A couple years ago, I attended the Annual Gathering of the Alliance of Baptists, a group of progressive Baptists centered in the deep South. The Annual Gathering was in Portland, Maine, in “the deep New England.” I attended a Lunch-Box talk that made an impression. The presenter was an African-American minister and she was speaking to a 95% white crowd. Yet we shared something powerful in common – a name.

In her talk, the minister stated that Black people love Jesus. They love him so much that they can simply say the word “Jesus” three times in a row and start feeling their faith deeply. This was one of the few times a significant segment of the 95% white Baptist crowd gave a real, from-the-heart “Amen,” and not simply a polite and fake "white" one. I certainly gave an inward “Amen.”

We shared Jesus. We shared a progressive vision of Jesus. We shared these roots going deep. We shared the profound feeling that “there’s something about that name.”

Where does this visceral, shared connection to Jesus come from? Why the automatic emotion when just saying his name? Because Jesus is such a foundational part of our stories, our upbringing, and our earliest memories. To those born and raised hearing Jesus linked to the most important things in life, he is like our original ancestor. Even in American society, religious or not, he remains a cultural icon.

For the African-American story, add in the layer of a people identifying with the suffering, with the unjust and unrighteous persecution of an innocent (and brown) Jesus who proclaimed good news to the poor and liberation to the captives. The result is an unmatched and unbreakable bond between a people and a person. In Jesus, the African-African church sees themselves. And of course, Jesus wasn’t blond and blue-eyed. He was as brown-skinned as many African Americans.

As for the third largest demographic group of Americans, Latino Americans, their tie to Jesus (and Mary) is just as strong. We need to look no further than the popularity of naming boys Jesus and girls Maria.

In other words, Unitarian Universalism cannot expect to grow in diversity if it ignores the person of Jesus whom African-Americans, Latino-Americans, and Asian-Americans experience in profound ways every day.

The Question of Non-Creedalism and Inclusivity

Of course, the big problem with focusing predominately on Jesus for UU’s is their adherence to the “doctrine of non-creedalism.” Now, the mere statement “doctrine of non-creedalism” is paradoxical. Isn’t the statement “we have no creed” the equivalent of a creed? A creed in the negative, but a creed nonetheless.

That aside, non-creedalism is central. And for the radically inclusive tradition, focusing solely on Jesus would amount to a contradiction of what UU is, many would argue.

I am sensitive to this, for sure. But I would submit that the resistance is too often based on a limited and antiquated view of how people understand Jesus. Attend any progressive or liberal mainline seminary and one quickly sees that it isn’t your grandfather’s Jesus being talked about there. There are radically diverse takes on Jesus to be found at these seminaries and in many edgy, innovative mainline churches. Yes, there is a fair critique that these radically diverse takes on Jesus do not cross the boundaries of the seminary nor arrive at most of the mainline churches. That doesn’t mean it can’t or doesn’t ever happen.

Indeed, bringing the Jesus learned about in progressive seminaries into churches is a need. It is a huge need. People are looking for a Jesus nowhere to be found in the vast majority of churches, including UCC sanctuaries -- the radical, non-violent, justice-seeking Jewish teacher named Jesus, the one not tied to a doctrinally-correct church past or to institutional abuses beginning with first Constantinople and later with Calvin.

In fact, UU could meet a great spiritual, theological, and ecclesiastical need, and create a niche for itself at the same time.

Jesus - "All Things to All People"

What we have in Jesus – evidenced by the myriad ways Jesus is seen – is the epitome of non-creedalism and pluralism. Introducing this non-creedal, pluralistic Jesus would be a gift to the world. It would also be a gift to the thousands like myself who once looked for a community offering this Jesus.

Just in case one wonders about this diversity of views, it is easy to find a Christian theological work or theology related to each of UU's six sources. 

The first source describing, in one word, mysticism? Read Pseudo-Dionysius, the Christian thinker from the 5th to 6th century who described God as “Deep Darkness” and Christ as a way to negate the many positive affirmations about God. Or read Meister Eckhart, the 12-13th century monk who claimed God as the ground of being and who described the spiritual path as that of humans like Mary bearing Christ.

It is easy to find a connection between the progressive Jesus tradition and the second source, the prophetic tradition. The honorary UU saint, Dr. Martin Luther King, points to a UU understanding of the Christian prophetic tradition. Prophetic Hindu saint Gandhi experienced Jesus as central to his work. Liberation Theology, the most important theological movement of the past century, is rooted in Jesus.

Other World Religions, the third source? Read Thich Nhat Hanh’s Living Buddha, Living Christ, or the Catholic mystic Thomas Merton’s work on Sufism, Islam’s mystic tradition, and you will see a profound connection between the progressive Jesus tradition and the acceptance of and confluence with the World Religions.

The last three sources may appear a harder sell. Judaism, Humanism, and Earth-based Spirituality, for various important reasons, may seem to have a more tenuous connection to the progressive Jesus tradition. But it is there, and strongly so. Let me simply give a bibliography for each of these sources.

"Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;"  

  • The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, by Amy-Jill Levine, 2007
  • The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ, by Daniel Boyarin, 2013
  • The Jewish Gospel of John: Discovering Jesus, King of All Israel, by Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, 2015
  • The Brother of Jesus and the Lost Teachings of Christianity, (about Ebionites, Nazoreans, etc.) Jeffrey Butz, 2008
  • The Earliest Christologies: Five Images of Christ in the Postapostolic Age, (includes discussion of early Jewish-Christianity) James Papandrea, 2016
  • Children of the Same God: The Historical Relationship Between Unitarianism, Judaism, and Islam, (includes discussion of Adorationists and Sabbatarians, in Eastern Europe) Susan Ritchie, 2014
"Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit;"  
  • Christianity without God: Moving beyond the Dogmas and Retrieving the Epic Moral Narrative, by Daniel Maguire, 2014
  • Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age, by James Carroll, 2014
  • Christianity without God, by Lloyd Gehring, 2003
  • Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower: Finding Answers in Jesus for Those Who Don't Believe, by Tom Krattenmaker, to be released Oct. 2016
  • Jesus for the Non-Religious, John Shelby Spong, 2008
  • Transforming Christian Theology: For Church and Society, Philip Clayton, 2009 
  • Theology for a Scientific Age: Being and Becoming Natural, Divine and Human, Arthur Peacocke, 1993 
  • The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, ed. by Thomas Jefferson, 1820
"Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature"
  • Jesus Through Pagan Eyes: Bridging Neopagan Perspectives with a Progressive Vision of Christ, Rev. Mark Townsend, 2012
  • Original Blessing: A Primer in Creation Spirituality, Matthew Fox, 1983
  • Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing, Rosemary Radford Ruether, 1994
  • Struggle to Be the Sun Again: Introducing Asian Women's Theology, Chung Hyun-Kyung, 1990
  • Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys: A Native American Expression of the Jesus Way, Richard Twiss, 2015 
  • A Celtic Christology: The Incarnation according to John Scottus Eriugena, John F. Gavin, 2014
A Google Search

UU's need to find Jesus and the progressive Jesus tradition again. No, not in an evangelical sense or even in a mainline sense. I mean embracing Jesus in a completely innovative sense, embracing Jesus as Teacher and Poet of the Way of Love. A kind of Resurrection. A new way of being and beginning again.

On one level, this shouldn’t be that hard. UU’s already feel an affinity and a connection with Jesus, more so than anyone else. I recently did a word search on the UUA website’s custom Google search which scans the whole UUA website. I searched religious figures’ names – Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, and religious approaches – humanism – and the results may be surprising:
  • “Lao Tzu”, 1.4 million results 
  • “humanism,” 1.5 million 
  • “Confucius”, 2.8 million results 
  • “Moses”, 14.3 million 
  • “Krishna”, 17 million 
  • “Buddha”, 18.1 million results 
  • “Abraham”, 27.6 million 
  • “Muhammad”, 33.3 million results 
  • “Jesus”, 110 million results 
Searching for the names of actual religions shows a similar result – Christianity is by far the most searched-for religion. These data searches point to UU’s great interest in Jesus, an interest far more evident than any other religious figure. This is understandable. Jesus has been with both Unitarianism and Universalism since the beginning. When you’ve been with someone that long, you cannot simply walk away.

UU as the Prodigal's Parent

I end this think piece with what I think the biggest issue is when we talk about UU’s relationship to Jesus. The biggest barrier is not theological irreconcilability or the UU creed of non-creedalism. The biggest barrier is psychological, both on the individual level and the collective level. 

Heather Beasely Bowle in a recent article in the UU World titled, “Blurring Denominational Lines,” puts it succinctly paraphrasing Prof. Jennifer Howard Peace: “many UUs struggle intensely with Christianity. The tension arises from their drive to differentiate themselves from Christians and from some UUs’ negative, sometimes traumatic, experiences growing up Christian.”

There are indeed a myriad of views about who Jesus is and what Jesus means. But it is also true that there is a great level of emotional and spiritual pain tied up in the "American Jesus." The Conservative Christian movement not only got Jesus wrong but branded Jesus with that ignorance and with arrogance. It has been powerfully effective in defining Christianity and Jesus himself, hurting so many along the way. Myself included.

But I dare say, and I say this aware of the pain: maybe for UU to really grow, in every way, it needs to go to where the hurt is. Maybe for healing and for healthy differentiation, there needs to be some kind of reconciliation with UU's Liberal Christian forebears. Maybe to continue in a thriving way there needs to be a re-connection to and a continuity with the past from which the UU tradition sprang. 

Healthy differentiation, helpful reconciliation, and historical continuity are crucial for well-being, both individually and collectively. UU is missing all of these things.

I am not talking here about UU as some sad prodigal son limping back home to the Christian fold. I am talking about UU as the parent in the Prodigal Son story, the parent grieving the loss of her child and seeing that child return. The prodigal son in this take on the story is the true Jesus, the Jesus who preached the Sermon on the Mount, the Jesus who said love God by loving your neighbors and even your enemies, the non-violent Jesus who was killed for his non-violence and his preaching non-violence, the radical, expansive Jew who called for the same kind of Judaism. This Jesus, tempted by the wealth and power of institutions and governments, was lured away from his home and his true self, reaching bottom in the distortions and exclusions of the Religious Right. That Jesus wants to return to his true self, to his radical and expansive Jewish way of being. Will UU embrace him and give him a feast and welcome him back home?

The prodigal in this story is also the Millenial admirer of Jesus. She is on the last straw with her church and its complete disregard for the Jesus of the gospels, his extremist-for-agape-love teaching, his non-violence-to-the-very-end Way, his forgiveness-at-all-costs practice. She like Gandhi is saying to herself, “I love Christ, but I do not like so many Christians around me and in power.” She is also questioning some central teachings and institutional ties of her church – hell, the Trinity, the traditional language used by rote. This prodigal daughter in spirit has one foot out the door of her church, yet worried about what she will lose – the good feelings that swell in her when singing "Fairest Lord Jesus," those childhood memories of feeling belonging, the deep sense of community. Will UU’s embrace her and give her a feast and a spiritual home?

Now, there is no one mandating that Unitarian Universalism be that parent. Maybe UU will say, "I can’t be that parent. The prodigal Jesus is too far gone. The prodigal Millenial can find a progressive UCC church. We are a new religion born in 1961, a new religion that is post-Christian and post-Jesus. Sorry."

That is the choice UU has taken. How well is it going?


  1. This is a wonderful piece that I think a lot of people need to hear. I am a member of the UUA (through CLF), but also a member of the Christian Universalist Association (christianuniversalist.org), which is, I think, trying to do a great deal of what you call for here in terms of making Jesus accessible to those who are being disillusioned by, or outright driven out of, mainstream modern American Christianity. I would love to see more formal contact and cooperation between the UUA, the CUA, and other groups promoting radically inclusive understandings of Jesus (Christopagans, Christian Sufis, left-leaning Baha'is, etc.).

  2. Thanks so much Race. I appreciate your comments. I am with you about the desire to see more contact b/w UUA, CUA and other groups.

  3. Thanks so much -- and, like The Art Reynolds Singers and The Byrds, long before The Doobie Brothers, "Jesus Is Just Alright With Me."


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