Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog


“Unitarian Universalism” and “Unity” Churches — similarities and differences

Sometimes people will ask me if UUism is the same as Unity.  It’s not the same, but there are several similarities. 

When I began a spiritual search as a young adult in a new city in 1985, I visited both a Unity Church and a UU Fellowship regularly.  I took a night class using the book The Story of Unity.  I liked both congregations, and though I retained a couple of friends in Unity, I was drawn to make a commitment as a member to the UU Fellowship.  At the time the UU congregation had a more explicit and regular mention of social justice and issues of the common good–a more external focus than an inward one.  Since then, I chose to pursue spiritual growth through various avenues, and our UU movement has expanded its embrace of spiritual and theological exploration, while never leaving behind the urge to build a more just world and promote understanding among different religions.   I think local Unity Church congregations may be less socially conservative than some of them used to be, and I know many of them have done good work in community service and interfaith relations.

Here is my take on the differences.  

Unitarian Universalism (UUism) has been more of an institution-based movement from the beginning, while Unity has been more of a message-based movement, with an extensive publishing outreach that touches people beyond its churches.  Of note is Unity’s “Daily Word” devotional booklet.

The Unity School of Practical Christianity was founded by a married couple in the late 1800s, as part of the New Thought Movement, which includes Christian Science.  Unity started as a movement, and became a denomination.  Its Unity Village headquarters is in Kansas City.

Unitarianism was a theological break within congregational churches, rejecting Calvinism, starting in the early 1800s.  While William Ellergy Channing delivered a foundational sermon in 1819, a manifesto of sorts, entitled “Unitarian Christianity,” there were many other founders of this liberal Protestant sect in the Congregational churches in Massachusetts.  The use of reason in studying scriptures, the humanity of Jesus, and the dignity of every person were founding ideas.  Less than 20 years later, the Transcendentalists added more ideas to the tradition.

 Universalism also was a revolt against Calvinism, and it started in the late 1700s.  It spread more like a movement of ideas, though new churches were started along the Connecticut River Valley.  Founding ideas were a denial of hell as a place for the dead and an affirmation of the boundless love of God as a loving, non-condemning parent.  Both denominations grew and spread across the continent, and merged in 1961.  Boston is the location of our denominational headquarters. 

Neither Unity nor UUism are considered orthodox or traditional expressions of Christianity, though both had Christian origins. 

Many conservative Christians explicitly say that both traditions are theologically and spiritually dangerous heresies.

Both UUism and Unity affirm goodness in everyone and divine love for all.  Both have a diversity of concepts of the divine in their literature and in their congregations.  However, there are very few UUs who like terms like Father or Lord, and Unity is often comfortable with it.
UUs include many self-describe Religious Humanists–who are atheists or agnostics and don’t respond to God language.  Most UUs, especially Humanists, disagree with the idea that there is a soul separate from the body. 

Unity, as a modern descendent of Gnostic theology, often includes expressions affirming that a soul exists apart from the body.  UUism does not have an official teaching on this, but I think most are not Gnostics.  Many UUs also are uncomfortable with the Course in Miracles, or would be if they took it.  It is popular in Unity and in Religious Science, another New Thought movement.

Unity and other New Thought churches affirm many of the spiritual ideas of the American Transcendentalists, many of whom were Unitarians, like Margaret Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson. 
But the spiritual philosophy of the Transcendentalists is only one thread of our heritage, and many UUs think it is too idealistic or too mystical for them.

Unity strives to be inclusive of the wisdom of all faiths, and so do we.   But Unity’s background and primary connection is Christian, and many of our Humanist atheist or Jewish UUs are uncomfortable with that connection on an explicit and regular basis.  While most UUs do recognize the liberal Christian origins of both sides of our UU heritage, they value our inclusive embrace of the wisdom of diverse traditions.  Humanists and theists and all others who are committed UUs join together in affirming the baseline of humanistic values in the UU faith tradition.

Most people who tried out a UU church and ended up in a Unity church made the move because they sought a more spiritual focus and spiritual practice, and explicit, regular talk about spirituality.  They may have found UUs too “cerebral,” and not “spiritual” enough–that is, with more head and less heart, and they found more heart in Unity.  I’m busy most Sundays, so have no recent eyewitness experience!

Unity affirms human possibility and human goodness, and we UUs strive to affirm that. However, Unity has a more optimistic view of human life which some UUs would find naive.
James Luther Adams (a minister and professor who saw the evils of the Nazi takeover first hand) and other modern UUs have stressed the tragic dimension of the human personality and human life.  In my experience, Unity teachings disavow evil as a real force in human life.

While many UUs would say that every event or accident or phenomenon has causes that can be explained, most of us would not agree that everything happens for a reason or according to a plan, while I often hear “Everything happens for a reason” in Unity and other New Thought traditions. Some things do not happen for a reason–they happen, and sometimes they are terrible.  We are here to reduce harm, ease suffering and help those to whom bad things do happen.

UU process theologians assert that there is an infinite variety of possible outcomes and events, rather than a plan for any person’s life or a plan for the planet as a whole.  Process theology imagines a Divine Lure toward the good, but the outcome is up to human choice, causal relationships in nature, and randomness.

I think the religious landscape is enriched by the presence of Unity churches and Unity publications.  We are not the same but our similarities are important and worth affirming.  Thanks to my Unity colleagues in ministry for all the leadership and care you provide. 

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1 Comment so far
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Congratulations on a concise and well written comparison of UU and Unity. I have often wondered about Unity, as many are attracted to the positive spirituality, and now I have some idea.

Comment by Robert Birch




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