Probably the most widely available introductory text on Unitarian-Univeralism is A Chosen Faith, by Revs. John Buehrens and Forrest Church. As such, it serves as the primary face that UUism presents to outcomers before they actually visit a church–and there’s little doubt that the book was designed with this purpose in mind. Likewise, one often hears from the pulpit that Unitarian-Universalism is a religion of “heretics,” with heretic etymologically defined as meaning “a person who is able to choose.” Many ministers and lay preachers are proud to assert that UUism is a chosen faith–not chosen in the sense of selected by God (i.e the chosen people) but chosen by its practitioners in the pews.
This is apparently meant to distinguish Unitarian-Universalism from other religions, which are thereby represented as being unchosen faiths. UUs choose what faith they adhere to and what religion they belong to, while others (the other in UU discourse always meaning “Christian,” whether or not it is explicitly referenced, but also often including additional religions such as Islam, Judaism, etc) do not choose their tradition or their beliefs. The implication is that choosing your faith is the superior mode, of course.
Because this rhetoric is so widespread, it is worth meditating on a little further. For one thing, it seems likely that a great many other people also choose their faith. 40% of Americans switch to denominations other than those they were raised in. Even when this means changing from one form of Christianity to another form of Christianity, surely these people have chosen their faith in a meaningful sense. Some people would argue that all religious faith is chosen to a certain degree, since no matter how you are raised, if you decide to stick with your childhood training then that is a choice–you might just as easily decide not to remain active with your tradition once you reach adulthood.
On the other hand, there is the matter of people born into Unitarian-Universalism. If you grow up UU, and continue to be UU, without any particular interest in leaving the fold, do you practice a chosen faith? If not, are there two different Unitarian-Universalisms, one of which is not a chosen faith? And if so, are such people disenfranchised by triumphant language from ministers that proclaims the desirability of choosing over mere inheriting? Or perhaps there are degrees of choosing that all UUs share, cradle or convert; but this again raises the question of how then UUs differ in this respect from any other religious body, especially Christianity and Islam, the two religions that put greatest stress on conscious choice to profess membership in a religion and have the largest bodies of converts among the world’s religions.
The first edition of A Chosen Faith was actually titled Our Chosen Faith–and here much may hang on the matter of a single small word. When Buehrens and Church talked about the faith that they as individuals had chosen (neither was raised UU), there was less implication for defining an entire, diverse religious movement. But when it shifted to representing itself as describing the type of religion they were talking about (the chosen type), the meaning shifted from autobiographical to broadly representational and definitional. It becomes now a statement about what UUism, rather than what sort of UUs the author are.
Is Unitarian-Universalism indeed a chosen faith? If so, is this true for all Unitarian-Universalists? And how does it differ from other religions in this way, such that it can be significantly labeled as a chosen faith? Despite the confidence with which it’s chosenness is proclaimed, these questions still seem very much to be open ones.