What’s in a Name?
by Gordon B. McKeeman
In “A Midsummer-Night’s Dream”, Shakespeare wrote:“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet.”
Without arguing with the Bard, it might not be amiss to suggest that the name of our religious association/church is a bit unusual. Most churches’ names point to their governance (e.g. Presbyterian, Congregational, Episcopal), or a particular practice (e.g. Baptist, Methodist), or an historical origin (e.g. Lutheran). Our name denotes the two theological heresies that are the historical core of our religious faith, Unitarianism and Universalism. We exist today because our religious ancestors believed fervently that these two beliefs were important enough to preserve them, even in the face of strong opposition, persecution and ostracism. They deserve, at the very least, our attention and understanding.
Both were declared to be heresies, not in the earliest years of Christian history, but after three or four centuries during which various understandings of Christianity arose and vied for adherents.
It was not until Christianity became the official faith of the Roman Empire during the reign of Constantine (circa 300 C.E.) that minority opinions, including Unitarianism (the belief that Jesus was fully, completely and only a human being, and that God was a unity, not a trinity) and Universalism (the belief that a loving God would not condemn any of “his” children to an eternity of punishment for any reason whatsoever) were declared to be heretical.
Opposition, ostracism and persecution did not result in the disappearance of these heresies. It did make their adherents struggle to preserve them by going underground. They were saved form extinction by small groups who found them to be of vital importance to their understanding of Christianity.
Once the monolithic Christian Church was modified by the Protestant Reformation, many varieties of Christianity appeared (or reappeared) and still others arose. Unitarians and Universalists were among the sects that emerged. Both of these ancient heresies were now seen as the radical fringe of the Reformation. So our religious heritage has two vital components: the Unitarian core belief in the worthiness and dignity of every human being and the exalted possibilities inherent in each person; and the Universalist core belief that all humans share a common destiny and that salvation is not an individual achievement or a gift to be chosen, but an achievement of inclusivity and breadth.
The evolution of these core beliefs has proceeded. One consequence of our larger acquaintance with the religions of humankind has been a growing conviction that there are many different routes to a common destination. The religious journey of each is unique, but the fulfillment of the universal impulse toward wholeness (or “holiness”) will be the realization of each person’s inherent possibilities, the removal of obstacles to that realization, and the realization that the human family is one family and that salvation is a cooperative enterprise in which concern for the wellbeing of all of our brothers and sisters is a hallmark of our religious commitment.
American culture embraces the idea of individual freedom and responsibility. That image is captured in the aphorism “It’s every person for him/herself – and the Devil take the hindmost.”
Our religion has a grander end in view – our recognition of and commitment to the wellbeing of the whole human family – the vision Jesus emphasized: “… inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren (or sisters) ye have done it unto me.”
If we are true to our religious heritage, we have much to offer to those seekers who come through our doors. Yes, we offer freedom to those who need liberation from the narrowness and exclusivity that some offer in religion’s name. But we have much more to offer – a vision of one world in which the one human family lives in peace, in harmony and in plenty. That vision involves personal commitment, discipline and perseverance. And we offer the company, the support and encouragement of a group that cherishes the Unitarian and Universalist heresies and knows them to be different but complementary beliefs that give meaning, purpose and direction to the living of these days.
“What’s in a name?” In our case, I submit, a great deal, or perhaps a great ideal that we have to offer. I long for the day when we understand the true genius contained in our heritage and do not hesitate to proclaim it and live it – in season and out.
Gordon B. McKeeman is a retired parish minister and former President of Starr King School for the Ministry (1983-1988). He was a charter member of the Universalist Humiliati.
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