In the Simpsons episode “Bart’s Girlfriend,” Jessica Lovejoy steals all the church’s money from the collection plate, leading Mrs. Lovejoy to call out, “Everyone turn around and look at this!” Grampa Simpson whips around saying, “What is it? A Unitarian?” And so the jokes go, back even to my seminary years. The Unitarians, however, are among the most intellectually honest of religions. I recently read David Robinson’s The Unitarians and the Universalists. Although the traditions approached their 1961 union from different angles, they had a common origin: concern over the Calvinism of colonial and early post-colonial New England. The majority religion of the northeast, various forms of Calvinism taught of utter depravity, human helplessness, and, that absolute affront to human intellect now being posited by some materialists: predestination (determinism, in secular terms). The Universalists couldn’t accept that a loving God would make anyone suffer forever. The Unitarians had trouble with several aspects of the theology, not the least of which was the Trinity (as a non-biblical concept). Early Unitarians based their beliefs on the Bible, which, as it turns out, does not support several Calvinistic concepts.
Like all religions, Unitarianism evolved over time. Eventually the unity of God became only one among many possibilities of what one might believe. In fact, doctrine was less important than ethics. It was a true Enlightenment religion. It allowed for the Transcendentalist movement that we all learned about in school, with Emerson wandering in the woods, and Thoreau never wanting to move out of them. They also had room for those who studied the Bible but expressed concerned that Jesus doesn’t really say that he’s God, although obviously some people interpreted it as if he had. Regardless of belief, meeting together was necessary, and eventually the Unitarian Universalist Association came to represent a widely liberal form of religion with Christian roots but rational sensibilities.
Among the marks of distinction of these groups is that, among Protestant denominations, they were among the first, if not the first, to ordain women. When you are less beholden to wooden tradition, all kinds of possibilities emerge. This book was kind of an epiphany for me. I’d been channeled into thinking that “orthodox” necessarily equalled “the good guys,” despite the treatment that I’ve repeatedly received at their hands. It sometimes takes a Gestalt phenomenon to see orthodoxy as not necessarily good. Perhaps the effort to preserve a tradition outdated by a couple of millennia costs far more than it saves. Perhaps we need to become more human, not less. I may not walk the forest with Emerson—he preferred to be alone anyway, from what I understand—but I’ll not be so quick to assume that tunnel vision is true vision either. Not in a world where the Simpsons can teach us as much as The Institutes.