Religious Authority

"Religious Authority"? Do Unitarian Universalists have any? UUs place a lot of emphasis on the authority of individual conscience. We have no authoritative creed, nor any ecclesiastical counsel that declares what a faithful UU must believe – for, after all, for us, one’s religion isn’t about what one believes. (It’s about the ethics and values that guide one’s life, the community to which one commits, and the experiences one has of transcendence.) We are not only creedless, but canonless. That is, we do not particularly privilege, for instance, the 66 books of the Protestant Bible among sources of spiritual insight and wisdom. In being creedless, UUs are joined by such other heirs of the Protestant Reformation as Baptists, Disciples of Christ, and Churches of Christ. In being canonless, however, UUs are distinct among the heirs of the Reformation -- and, indeed, among the heirs of Abraham.

While we have no closed canon of religiously authoritative texts, we do have an open, evolving and loosely-defined tradition of thought. Sources from ancient sages to Transcendentalist writers in the 19th century to contemporary ecospiritual writers inform our Unitarian Universalist tradition. You’ll find their names in the index of authors in the back of our Singing the Living Tradition hymnal. These are “religious authorities” for our tradition – voices of wisdom that we UUs collectively celebrate. For now. The next edition of our hymnal will doubtless add some new names and remove some of the ones currently cited.

Our liberal religious tradition has insisted for centuries that no one turns over the authority of her own conscience to anyone else at the church door. Yet your, and my, individual conscience isn’t always trustworthy. This isn’t because any other single source is reliably more trustworthy. It’s just that there is such a thing as path toward deeper wisdom, and there are such things as guides along that path – not guides that tell you what to think or do but that offer pointers for how individual conscience might work a little better – better for you, better for the world (if, indeed, there’s a difference – a proposition which grows increasingly untenable along the path of deepening wisdom).

Synchronicitously, our Community Unitarian Church decreed a religious authority for itself just in time for “religious authority” month. The authority that we decided to be guided by is our mission: to nurture spirituality, foster compassion, and engage in service to others.

At a recent UU forum, the question was raised, “Who owns the congregation?” Most of us immediately think of the members as the owners. In that forum, however, a beautiful point was made: the mission owns the congregation. The mission brings the members together; the mission is the reason the members joined; and the mission is what the members are there to serve. In the liberal religious tradition, we make our own authority, which is quite different from having none. Having made, or found, our authority, we must now heed it.

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