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Word Choice: Why Do UUs Use Religious Terminology?

By Paul Smith

A friend recently asked me:

“At Harmony, you have 20 minutes after every sermon when people are allowed to discuss the sermon in small groups and disagree or even offer alternative ideas. That sounds more like a philosophy or debate club. Why do you use words like ‘church’ and ‘sermon’?”

That’s not an uncommon sentiment, so I thought I’d share my response:

All good questions. Yes, there is certainly much of what goes on at Harmony that could be described as a philosophy or debate club—things like the 20-minutes of small-group discussion after every sermon, or the monthly discussion group meetings where we discuss and debate an important topic of philosophy, theology, or politics.

But there is also much that would seem more similar to a traditional church service—things like singing songs, rituals, the group recitation of a common statement of belief, the personal theology group meetings, the children’s religious exploration (i.e., “Sunday School”) classes, and the fact that one of our purposes for organization is to provide an environment for people to have a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” Meaning being something that is typically provided by religion and faith.

The “truth” part in there is the part that might seem more like a philosophy or debate club, and that’s on purpose. Part of our statement of purpose includes the words, “a balance of faith and reason.”

We also have Christmas and Easter celebrations, we’ve had a Wiccan Spring celebration, we have interfaith visits where we attend services at a Muslim mosque, a Jewish synagogue, a Buddhist temple, or a Catholic church. And we’ve had representatives of those faiths lead our sermons on occasion.

And many of our sermons are very theological in nature. Some of my favorites are ones where a single topic is discussed from the point of view of several faiths, quoting scripture from various holy books and comparing the teachings. And there are practicing Catholics, Muslims, and Jews who have and do attend our church.

Perhaps the main reason we use religious words to describe what we do (like the word “sermon”) is simply historical. The Unitarian-Universalist church came from the merger of two Christian churches (the Unitarians, Christians who asserted the Unity of God and rejected the concept of the Holy Trinity; and the Universalists, a Christian group believing that all of human kind will eventually be saved and granted access to Heaven, not just people of one faith or another).

So, we are part of an historically religious organization. And much of what we still do is religious. We just practice it in what I think is a more responsible way. That is, without any coercion to join or stay a member, and without insisting that our beliefs are somehow true of the objective world and anyone else’s beliefs are therefore objectively wrong.

Paul Smith is a member of Harmony and the best-selling author of Lead with a Story.