Whether you identify as an atheist, an agnostic, a humanist, or a theist; a monotheist, a naturist, a liberal, a conservative, or a Christian; a Pagan, a Buddhist, a Muslim, Judaist; still uncertain, or contemporarily referred to as a “noner” with no specific religious identity, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Corvallis will welcome you. No renouncing, denouncing, or converting required.
Every Sunday, the Unitarian Universalists commence with a welcome script, assuming there are always new faces: “Whatever religions you have known, whatever god you accept or deny, whatever your heritage or culture: you are welcome here. Whoever you are, whomever you love, whatever body you live in: you are welcome here.”
For Ann Marchant, raised Presbyterian, the UUFC became a 30-year refuge.
“To me, this is a safe place to explore thoughts about ethical living, Unitarianism is very applicable to daily life,” said Marchant. “The difference here is the respect for diversity of all people and cultures—no one culture has all the answers. It’s not necessary to leave that background at the door.”
Interim Minister Rev. Joel Miller asserted Unitarianism is often misunderstood, judged for being unstructured and based on people’s feigned beliefs, despite the reality. There are specific demands for committed UU’s; they’re just not as formal or absolute. Even doubt can be joyful, and sometimes downright revelatory.
During his “Faulty Failures,” sermon, Miller addressed these misconceptions. “I’m personally not interested in a religion that allows us to believe in anything we want,” he said. “I want a great deal more from my religion. So while I cherish the openness of our religion and the way we encourage each other to infinite possibilities of beliefs and doubts, I also need my religion to call from me—even demand from me—my best self.”
Member Viki Shilaos, compared the UUFC community to an extended family where her children now have the freedom to find their own path.
“For me, it meant a place to be in a religious community without having to follow a creed,” Shilaos said. “I wanted my children to have that experience, too.”
Unitarianism does have definition even when it doesn’t seem to be defined at all, a movement Miller believes remains unwritten, in order to be lived.
“Unitarianism is a constellation of virtues,” Miller said. “They’re not as easy as they sound to follow; all of them come with obligations.”
Voluntary obligations like observing seven basic principles that the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) implemented; yet even those are subject to interpretation, resembling more of an honor code acknowledging, “the inherent worth of every person; justice, equity, and compassion in human relations; acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations; a free and responsible search for truth and meaning; the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large; the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all; and respect for the independent web of all existence of which we are a part.”
Some of the UUFC’s 316-member UUFC congregation follow the seven principles, some don’t. Raised a Unitarian Universalist, ordained by his hometown congregation in Columbus, Ohio, Miller believes Unitarianism is ultimately about curiosity—asking profound questions of one another, the world, establishing deep familial and community relationships, compassionately co-existing, social justice, and discovering a true spiritual path.
“Everybody has a ministry in our movement,” he suggested. “Some people have a ministry to fix a building, some have the ministry of caring for children, some people have a ministry to witness and address social justice in a community.”
Unlike the hierarchical structure or a transmission of authority between bishops and priests amidst the Catholic Church, for Unitarian Universalists, there is no higher body than the congregation. The UUFC claim that their association is a liberal religion, historically tied to Jewish and Christian European roots, “a religion that keeps an open mind to the religious questions people have struggled with in all times and places.” They believe that, “personal experience, conscience, and reason should be the final authorities in religion, and that in the end religious authority lies not in a book or person or institution, but in ourselves.”
Repeatedly, Unitarianism is tarnished by its lack of a true book. “I would argue that if anyone thinks they can write down the rule of life in a book, they are gravely mistaken,” Miller said. “The Bible is a spiritual history of a specific movement, all these different periods of history that come together, as a written stream of traditions, and I see it as a recipe book that the writers never intended to be used the way it’s being used by other organized religions.”
Miller also subscribes to the liberal designation of the UUFC. “We are liberal in the original meaning of the term: being generous or open… as beings who want to live moral lives, who want to meet each other with kindness.”
UU’s true liberal origins, however, and its link to the Puritans surprise many. “We are literally the Puritans, part of them anyway, Unitarians and Congregationalists were once together, we didn’t call ourselves the Puritans then, but we were the standing order in New England.”
What spiritual investment people want from Unitarianism, they get. Many coming from other religious traditions realize they desire more structure, more absolutism, and depart.
“Typically what happens when we lose people, it’s because we have a disagreement around theology, or because someone longs for more Christianity, more ritual, or they want a more mythic system, they don’t want it so open, “ Miller explained. “I respect that.”
Other than a thick hymnal entitled Singing the Living Tradition, there is no formal book for UUs. Like so many in his congregation, Rev. Miller’s beliefs shift from day to day for various reasons. Some days he believes in God, some days he doesn’t, but he maintains a relationship regardless. Miller is comforted that either way he fluctuates, God doesn’t care.
“If I’m feeling more in a scientific mode, God doesn’t seem so relevant. If I’m feeling more in the web of life, and all the amazing connections I see, I can find God everywhere.”
Each Sunday, services are theme-based, which Miller prefers to think of as “extended conversations with his community as well as with certain individuals.” Miller admits pleasing all UUFC members is difficult because they’re so diverse.
In a recent service, Miller encouraged his members to practice hope and become propellants for change, “Take chances, make mistakes, and get messy,” believing that statement is representative of the perfect Universalist call to action.
“I confess that I like it because it’s such a subversion of orthodox thinking that demands victory at all costs and praises domination over cooperation.”
“We don’t have a religion based on belief,” Miller said, “But we certainly have one on the quality of the relationships that we build, the ones that require active engagement, and for so many of us that act of engagement looks like caring for the Earth, or looks like working in a homeless shelter, or may look like supporting a healthy political system, such as the League of Women Voters.”
Miller asserted that the UUFC members tend to lean more heavily towards humanism—they’d much prefer a poem over a prayer, meditation and quiet reflection, a podium over a pulpit, and a fellowship hall over sanctuary. Their demographics vary. Many of the attendees are college professors, older members who grew up in other religious traditions, younger members reared without any tradition, or who were raised Unitarian Universalist. Every service starts and ends with song. Weekly, the sacred chalice is lit, and Joys and Sorrows are imparted among willing members.
Historically, and continuing today, UUs have been subject to persecution, their tax exemptions have been threatened, they’ve been criticized, ostracized, ridiculed, and dubbed, “wishy washy milquetoasts,” for their broad-based beliefs and traditions, or what some see as the sheer lack thereof. They’ve been labeled the “ship of fools, cultish heretics.”
“ It’s just very different from the vast part of the Christian movement, we don’t gather around creator belief; it’s just for us, it’s an incorrect question,” Miller stated. “Like the Buddhists would say, it’s not a helpful or valid question.”
UUs are often accused of replacing the worship of God with the worship of self.
“Critics are correct in a sense that we are too much based on personal hopes, that’s a sharp and true critique, so… mea culpa.”
Many UUs have faced controversy for believing everyone will receive absolution for their sins, for denouncing eternal damnation, and for rejecting the existence of the Holy Trinity. Miller himself does not believe in the afterlife; he places more trust in the relationships between what is. “I feel like my ancestors are always around, the spirit of my descendents; I’m linked to them,” Miller stated. “But if someone asks me if I believe in Heaven—meaning the little place in the clouds with all the angels playing with the harps—no, I do not.”
Having earned a master’s in divinity from the Thomas Starr King School for the Ministry, and aware that Unitarianism has been deemed paradoxical by some, Miller will continue to defend the movement and its intrinsic worth.
“Being Unitarian is about developing a lifelong practice; that’s really what we are trying to teach, something we’re learning how to do in some way, everyday,” Miller said. “Even in the worst moments, it’s the gratitude of being alive, seeing the world. It’s so amazing we’re here.”
In Rev. Miller fashion,
“Amen. So be it. Blessed Be.”
Story and photos by Brenna Chapman