Conversations With A Cab Driver – Mike Knapp

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While at General Assembly this summer I visited the local river boat casino one evening. On the cab ride back to my hotel, the cab driver suddenly turned to me and asked, “So, just what is it that Unitarians Universalists believe?”

The question came out of left field, and left me scrambling for an answer.

“What?” I said.

“I said, what exactly is it that you believe?” he replied as we sped through the intersection.

“Well,” I said while buying time and searching for an answer to his question that had caught me off guard and unprepared.
How could I be unprepared? After all I was mid-week in a gathering of 5,000 UU’s from all four corners of the continent who had come to St. Louis to make a statement about their beliefs.

I had fallen into that awkward moment that most UU’s dread. How to articulate what I believe as a UU, let alone say what we as a denomination purport to believe.

Had I been in this conversation 40 years ago, I could have, as a president of the Luther League in the Lutheran Church that I was brought up in, simply launched into “I believe in God the father Almighty, maker of Heaven and earth, and in . . .well, you know the rote response that many of us learned while being taught what to believe in many mainline Christian churches.

Do I compound the complexity of my answer, by first explaining that while I am a Unitarian Universalist, I also consider myself to be an atheist?

And just how does that jive with my decision to spend a week at General Assembly surrounded in spirituality, ritual, and testimonials of faith by the largest gathering of Berkenstock shod religious liberals I’ve ever experienced.

Barbara Wells, one of the authors of “Articulating Your UU Faith,” (a workshop that will be offered here over the next five Wednesday nights) talks about how many people equate religion with belief and how most religious traditions are based on belief, either:

  • A belief in particular deity or god or in only one interpretation of that deity or god,
  • A belief in ritual as a means of salvation, or
  • A belief in a creed that specifies exactly what you must believe as true in order to belong or be saved,

Beliefs then, she goes on to say, are what holds or binds these individuals or groups together as a religion.

But belief is not, as Wells points out, the collective identity of what we as UU’s and a religion are about.

Rather, she asserts, it is our perspective or attitude towards life.

Whereas other religions are based on a particular set of beliefs, creeds or religious texts purported to be the “word of God,”

Unitarian Universalism begins with a set of affirmations about life and our role within the universe and humanity.

Think about it. As UU’s we affirm 7 basic principles

1. Principle #1: The inherent worth and dignity of every person

We hold that all human life is valuable. We don’t place people into groups of saved or unsaved.

As the saying goes “Unitarians believed that Man is too good to be condemned, and Universalists believed that God is too good to condemn Man.”

There are no “chosen people” in our view of religion – only people.

We are truly a religion that unites because of our diversity, not divides because of our differences.

2. Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations

Just as we hold all life sacred, we believe that all people should be treated with respect and in an equitable manner.

Women have long played prominent roles in our leadership and ministry. Our UU forebears stood up against slavery, worked for the rights of women and minorities, and have historically challenged those who would lead us blindly into war.

Being a Welcoming Congregation serves as a present day example of our commitment towards social justice. By saying we welcome all people regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, we advocate for their inclusion and access to full rights at all levels of our society.

3. Principle #3: Acceptance and encouragement to spiritual growth.

As UU’s, we are not told what to believe.

There is no Creed or requirement to accept any diety in order to be saved, born again or even reincarnated.

Your spiritual journey is a personal one — period. Our only role is to support each other in our personal spiritual quests.

Here we can find Christian based services happening alongside activities celebrating Earth-centered spirituality,

or the exploration of the Buddhist path, gathering of Humanists or any number of other activities that support people’s religious quests.

4. Principle #4: A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

We value the pursuit of knowledge, the balancing of science and faith, the use of rational thinking.

We believe, just as in science, that there is always more truth to be discovered.

While we are steeped in a Judeo-Christian heritage, we see the teachings of Christianity in the context of other world religions.

We teach our children to think and to form their opinions based upon their own experiences and not by the rote “word of God.” No one religion has the corner on what “truth” is or isn’t.

Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Confucius, the Bible, the Koran – all are valuable to our quest for religious truth and meaning in our lives.

5. Principle #5: The right of conscience and the use of democratic process

No one dictates what we believe. There is no centralized authority or “voice of God” on earth.

We are a denomination formed on congregational polity and the belief that everyone’s voice should be heard.

This is true from the local congregation to regional and national denominational levels. We covenant with each other as a congregation. We chart our course through congregational vote.

Our “Seven Principles” were the result of an extensive process and debate by UU’s just like ourselves at the local, regional and national levels.

6. Principle #6: The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.

As Unitarian Universalists, we tend to reject the concept of heaven and hell as the determining factor in our behavior.

While we do believe that we should be judged by how well we live our lives and serve others,

we believe that we should live moral and ethical lives out of a sense of responsibility to ourselves and to others,

not out of fear of eternal damnation.

UU’s have often played prominent roles in science, education, our social institutions and in social justice movements. A look at the poster of famous UU’s hanging in Fellowship Hall underscores our commitment to living in a more sane, peaceful, and just world, and to pass on a better world to our children and future generations.

7. And finally, Principle #7: Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

In the movie Close Encounters, a simple message was sent – that “We are not alone.” That simple phrase which captivated generations of sci-fi buffs, captures our beliefs in the interdependent web of life.

Today we recognize that our decisions and actions no longer occur in isolation or in a vacuum.

How we meet our energy needs, what we eat, what we buy, whether we use a roll on or aerosol deodorant–it all has an impact on the world around us.

As individuals and a denomination we have recognized our need to remain cognizant of this connection whether it be through our recycling efforts in our homes, how we invest our money, examining ourselves through Conscious Living, or involvement in the activities of our newly formed Green Sanctuary committee.

These Seven Principles serve as a guide about what we as individuals or collectively strive to attain in our lives and in the lives of our children.

In closing:

We do not dictate or define how or what you must believe. We do not require you to believe in a particular theology.

Instead we encourage our members to seek their answers from the insights to be learned from all religions, from nature, from history, from science and from the mysteries of the universe.

We do not condemn others to eternal damnation or exclude them for believing differently. We simply ask that we relate responsibly to one another, to our community, to our environment, and to choose our spiritual journey is a responsible manner.

This, not the literal interpretations of any one teaching or religion is where we draw our religious authority from.

This is what drew me as an atheist back to religion some 30 years ago. It what’s kept me here since.

Though, I must admit I do get a little chuckle every time I say, “Well, Unitarians came out of Transylvania and conjuring up visions of Vlad the Impaler or of Dracula.”

“So what is it the Unitarian Universalists believe?” the cab driver continued.

“Well, it’s a religion based on a belief that there is no one way to believe in a god. That it’s up to each individual to decide what meets their spiritual needs. Mostly we concentrate on how we make the world a better place to be in.”

“That’s kind of what I think,” he replied. “I don’t like it when someone says this is what I have to believe or I’m going to hell. Where do they get off thinking they’re so right, and the next guy’s not.”

“Here’s your hotel,” he said as he pulled the cab over to the curb.

“Keep the change.” I said as I exited the cab.

“Thanks—and hey, are there any of your churches in St. Louis? I might like to check one out.”

“Just look in the yellow pages under U,” I said. “We’re usually easy to find.”

And I turned and walked away, my step a little lighter feeling like I may have helped someone else discover that they are a UU.

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