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The Pentacle Meets the Flaming Chalice: On Being Unitarian Universalist and Pagan

Author: Jeffery Johnson
Posted: July 3rd. 2011
Times Viewed: 4,352

When I first began treading the Pagan path, I never imagined I'd consider joining a church again. Churches, with their crosses, stained glass and hymnals represented everything that I despised about society. Churches have for the most part given me little more than various psychological wounds from which I have yet to heal. Therefore, as is the case with many Pagans, the word "church" tends to have negative connotations for me.

Imagine my delight, then, when I found a church that preached a message that as a Pagan I can agree with, and that will not only allow, but also encourage me to continue with my Pagan spiritual practices. I've been curious about Unitarian Universalism for some time. When I was a teenager, the local UUs met in a tiny pink church next to the restaurant in which I worked. Despite my curiosity, I never mustered the courage to visit the pink church, mostly because at that time I was still in the grips of conservative traditional Christianity. Frankly, I was too scared to enter a church that questioned the teachings I had been taught were a matter of spiritual life and death.

Earlier this year, I attended my first UU service. I saw no cross on this church's altar, but a flaming chalice--the flame representing the light of reason, the chalice a reminder to share the "drink" of hospitality with our fellow creatures--surrounded by two overlapping circles, the official UU symbol. One of my few complaints was that the service did have a sort of fluff-and-smiles feel to it. Yet, I enjoyed other aspects of the experience. I heard nothing about needing to "get right with God" or "find Jesus" (They lost him again?) , nothing about the evils of occultism, relativism, secularism, socialism, atheism, nihilism, feminism and Darwinism, nothing about the biblical solution to these societal evils, which usually consists of something like a return to family values and reinstating the mullet as an aesthetically pleasing fashion statement--the usual nonsense you might hear at your local church, or on some Christian radio or television program. What I did hear were interesting talks about various subjects, and performances by some gifted pianists that left me awestruck.

Some time later, I took several classes at All Souls Church, now at a different location (the pink church is currently a tattoo parlor!) , and met a few members. I learned that the Unitarian Universalist religion had an interesting and rich history, a progressive outlook on life and the world, and a message I decided was worth embracing.

Until 1961 when a merger created the Unitarian Universalist Association, Unitarians and Universalists were separate Christian-based denominations in the U.S. (the overlapping circles that often surround the chalice symbol represent these two traditions) . Unitarians derived their name from their belief in God's unity--in other words, their denial of the trinity and of the doctrine that Christ was uniquely divine. Technically, ‘unitarianism’ as a concept goes back as far as Arius, a priest of the Eastern Church who was condemned for his disbelief in the godhood of Jesus.

In the sixteenth century, just under fifty years after the Malleus Maleficarum was published, Spaniard Michael Servetus would resurrect the Arian "heresy”, making lifelong enemies of both Catholics and the fledgling Protestants when he wrote On the Errors of the Trinity. Servetus managed to evade capture for twenty years before Reformed Calvinist Christians burned him at the stake in Geneva in 1553. Church authorities would imprison another Unitarian martyr, a Polish woman named Katherine Vogel, for a decade before she went "boldly and cheerfully" to her execution in Krakow in 1539, according to eyewitness accounts.

Some centuries later across the ocean, the Unitarian faith arose on American soil, claiming among its membership a number of U.S. presidents, writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, as well as numerous other people whose names grace our history books. Clarence Darrow, the lawyer of Scopes Monkey Trial fame, regularly attended Unitarian services, though he never converted. American Unitarianism seemed to have a social respectability its older European counterpart lacked.

On the other hand, Universalists were conspicuous because of their belief in universal salvation. Christian Universalists wholeheartedly rejected belief in hell, to the displeasure of traditionalists. Universalism is not a new idea, and traces of it are found in early Christian figures such as Origen, and Isaac of Syria. In the late eighteenth century, English native John Murray first preached this innovative belief in America. Needless to say, he won no popularity points among his neighbors; on one occasion, a rock thrown through a window of Murray's church during a service barely missed his head.

An alternative to strict orthodox faiths, the Universalist teaching was uplifting, devoid of the gloom of the Calvinist Puritan theology that had helped shape the young nation. Another interesting fact to consider is that Universalism was the first Christian-based group, at least in modern times, to ordain women. Olympia Brown became a minister in the church in 1863.

At this point, I hope you can see some commonalities between Unitarian Universalism and the Neopagan movement. UUs have been involved in issues that are important to many Pagans: environmentalism, animal rights, laborer rights, advocacy for the mentally ill and the poor, religious freedom, and others. In fact, the UU tradition has been at the forefront of progressive causes from its inception. As an illustration, Unitarianism has always promoted tolerance of other faiths. History's first and only Unitarian king, John Sigismund, made religious freedom the law of the land during his reign in sixteenth-century Transylvania.

In America, Unitarians and Universalists took part in the anti-slavery movement, among them Theodore Parker, a pastor from Boston. In the twentieth century, UUs played a roll in the racial civil rights movement, combating segregation. Among them were A. Powell Davies, and James Reeb, a UU minister who in 1965 would give his life for his convictions when he was beaten to death in Selma, Alabama. On the other side of the ocean in the last century, Norbert Capek, the Czech pastor of what was then the world's biggest Unitarian congregation, died in a concentration camp for opposing the Nazi regime.

UUs can also claim a number of early feminists as their own, including Susan B. Anthony, a Unitarian, and Universalists Mary Ashton Rice Livermore, and Judith Sargent Murray. Additionally, UUs have long been vocal in their support of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Like the UU faith, the Neopagan movement has had a number of activists whose bravery has helped secure newer generations of Pagans some of the rights and advantages we enjoy today, including the increased recognition of Wicca and other forms of Paganism as valid religions--people like Z Budapest, Starhawk, the late Dr. Leo Martello, and Rev. Selena Fox, among others. Both Pagans and UUs have realized the importance of taking public action to educate and better our world.

What else do UUs and Pagans have in common? Most obvious is the fact that both have suffered for their beliefs, sometimes even dying by the decree of religious authorities, as did Vogel and Servetus. Unitarian Universalism is not all fluff and smiles, but a faith that has been built on sweat and blood. Also, like most Pagan religions, UUs do not believe in creeds, everlasting punishment after death, or the existence of a religion that has some "fullness of truth, " to the exclusion of all others. Finally, UUs and the Craft have the chalice in common as sacred objects used in ritual, as well as flame (e.g., Beltane bonfires, candles lit in ritual) .

A UU may be Christian, Deist, Hindu, Taoist, Druid, Spiritualist, agnostic, or eclectic. The UUA gives members the space to be the masters of their own spiritual lives. An organization even exists for UUs of an Earth-based persuasion called the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans. According to its official website, CUUPS "is an organization dedicated to networking Pagan-identified Unitarian Universalists (UUs) , educating people about Paganism, promoting interfaith dialogue, developing Pagan liturgies and theologies, and supporting Pagan-identified UU religious professionals."

All in all, the UU tradition has an admirable history of religious tolerance, open-mindedness, and bravery in the face of oppression. Although its origins lie in Abrahamic monotheism, the modern UU religion has expanded to include humanistic, Buddhist, Earth-based, and other spiritual points of view. As a Neopagan and student of the Craft, I am happy to incorporate Unitarian Universalism into my path, as I feel it compliments my Paganism. The pentacle and the flaming chalice are two beautiful symbols of faith, and I proudly claim them both.

A Chosen Faith: An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism. John A. Buehrens and Forrest Church. Beacon Press, 1998.

Official UUA website.

Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans.


Jeffery Johnson

Location: Luverne, Minnesota

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