Seven to Three: What UUs Believe – guest post from Robert Thorson


The following guest post is from  Robert M. Thorson,  a Trustee of Channing Memorial Church in Newport Rhode Island. He has been a member or leader of seven UU congregations in five states. His special interest is the relation ship between human culture and geology.  A professor, author and columnist, there is much to explore on his UCONN hosted website. – Peter


Seven to Three: What UUs Believe

By Robert M. Thorson

Why do so few people join UU congregations?  My short answer doesn’t come from board retreats or district workshops. It comes from listening carefully to thirty-two years worth of statements from ordained ministers from seven UU pulpits from Fairbanks, Alaska and Newport, Rhode Island.  To this I would add my habit of reading the anthropological literature regarding the strong correlation between the size of societies and group norms for prosocial behaviors.

To make a long story short, I assert that the small size and slow growth of UU congregations (relative to other world religions) is due to their greater emphasis on the good goal of embracing differences, relative to the good goal of a sharing similarities.  This tilt toward non-exclusion — rather than toward inclusion — is embedded within the hyphenated name of our association, and the clear fact that we are an association, rather than a denomination.  Have we forgotten that — except for outliers — all taxonomic groups congeal around similarities and diverge around differences?

The closest thing UUs have to a statement of inclusion is our list of seven principles, with which I wholeheartedly agree.  The problem arrives when someone asks me the perfectly reasonable question of what we believe.   That’s when I struggle to remember all seven principles, not wanting to leave out something important.

I recently took a hard look at our seven principles while preparing for an Earth Day sermon for Channing Memorial Church in Newport, Rhode Island.  They read more like the Bill of Rights than a statement of “This I believe.”  Having spent the past seven years as an opinion columnist for a metropolitan daily, I instinctively focus and tighten texts I care about.  Hence, I couldn’t resist the tinkering with our seven principles, knowing that every word and every line has already been carefully vetted and voted upon by the combined intelligence of our national association.

I reworked the list simply to help me: explain who we are (rather than what we believe); condense the list from seven to three items; unify commonalities from disparate sentences; and eliminate a few redundancies.   However, after encouragement by Peter Bowden, a UU growth consultant, I decided to share it on his blog with the hope that someone else might be interested.   Now, when someone asks me what we believe, I can reply:

We are seekers – on a free and open path toward truth, meaning and spiritual growth.

We are supporters — committed to the worth and dignity of every person, the acceptance of differences, compassionate caring, the democratic process, the right of conscience and respect for the entire web of existence.

We are changers — working within ourselves, congregations, and societies to create a world of peace, liberty, and justice for all.

And if I can’t remember all that, I simply say “We are seekers of spiritual growth, supporters of each other, and changers improving the world.

4 thoughts on “Seven to Three: What UUs Believe – guest post from Robert Thorson”

  1. Hear, hear!

    Thank you for this wonderful post on the sociology of UUism. I’m not sure what we can do about it, but identifying the challenges is a good start!

  2. Well we at the UUFC in Corvallis, have summed ourselves up this way:

    a welcoming spiritual community
    where we study, serve,
    and celebrate life.

    I’m a little uncomfortable with the “changers improving the world” as I think one would have to have facts behind that.

  3. The mission statement of the First UU Church of Richmond VA
    We grow in search of wisdom,
    We care in support of community,
    We act in the service of justice.
    Adopted 2008

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