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What's your elevator speech about Unitarian Universalism?
By William G. Sinkford
March/April 2003 3.1.03

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I spent some time recently rereading our Purposes and Principles. You may well think that I can recite them by heart, but periodically I make it a point to read them again. It is a good discipline to revisit our foundational language occasionally. We are having so much success making our faith more visible in the world that more and more of us are getting asked the question: "What's a Unitarian Universalist?" When most of us answer, we tend to go first to the Seven Principles.

The UUA Commission on Appraisal is currently studying theological fragmentation within Unitarian Universalism, and is seeking input on the question, "Where is the unity in our diversity?"

What struck me as I reread the Principles was that they contain not one piece of traditional religious language, not one single word. And this is a wonderment to me.

Our Principles serve us well as a covenant, presenting a vision of a more just world on which we agree and our promise to walk together toward that vision, whatever our theology. But I wonder whether the language of the Principles is sufficient to capture our individual searches for truth and meaning. For this, I think we need what the Rev. David Bumbaugh, a Unitarian Universalist minister and religious humanist, calls a vocabulary of reverence. "We have manned the ramparts of reason and are prepared to defend the citadel of the mind," Bumbaugh writes. "But in the process . . . we have lost . . . the ability to speak of that which is sacred, holy, of ultimate importance to us, the language which would allow us to enter into critical dialogue with the religious community."

Our resistance to religious language, I believe, helps to account for the struggle that so many of us experience in trying to say who we are as Unitarian Universalists. I always encourage people to work on their elevator speech, what you'd say when you're going from the sixth floor to the lobby and somebody asks you, "What's a Unitarian Universalist?" You've got forty-five seconds. Here's my latest: "The Unitarian side tells us that there is only one God, one spirit of life, one power of love. The Universalist side tells us that God is a loving God, condemning none of us, valuing the spark of divinity that is in every human being." So my version of what Unitarian Universalism stands for is, "One God, no one left behind."

Many of you, I know, are bothered by the use of the word "God." I understand. I called myself an atheist when I came to Unitarian Universalism and was a devoted humanist for years, although my spiritual path has taken me elsewhere. But "religious language" doesn't have to mean "God talk." David Bumbaugh observes that a vocabulary of reverence is implicit in humanism, with its emphasis on human study and understanding of the natural world:

"Humanism . . . gave us a doctrine of incarnation which suggests not that the holy became human in one place at one time to convey a special message to a single chosen people, but that the universe itself is continually incarnating itself in microbes and maples, in hummingbirds and human beings, constantly inviting us to tease out the revelation contained in stars and atoms and every living thing."

This is truly religious language. As Bumbaugh says, it "whispers of a larger meaning to our existence," and carries with it implications for how we should live.

Your elevator speeches may be very different from mine. Hone them. Put a name to what calls you, and to what you find yourself called to do in response. Practice telling it to others. We have Good News for a world that badly needs it. But we may need to expand our vocabularies if we want others to hear us.


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