Characterizing the core identity of any religion or tradition is fraught with difficulty. Yet, gaining a sense of what teachings are seen as distinctive and vital is an important endeavor for any spiritual group of people. Religious communities throughout history have found enhanced meaning and solidarity by discerning a shared theological identity. While this identity may shift and change over time, embracing it with both commitment and openness is a crucial way to honor that which unites a particular people of faith in a common vision and purpose.
For many of us in Unity, pinpointing the core of our theological identity is often confusing, frustrating, and/or daunting. How many times have you been asked to boil the complexities of our movement down to a two-minute elevator speech for people inquiring about what Unity is? How many times have you had to clarify, “No, actually we’re not Unitarians”?
Even as we give informed answers, we cannot truly claim to speak for the entirety of the movement, since there are so many different varieties of understanding. Our cherished heritage of respecting the freedom of individuals to shape their own spiritual journeys comes with the downside of pronounced ambiguity—and often disagreement—about who exactly we are as a positive path for spiritual living.
As a Unity theologian, I recognize five key spiritual teachings that shape our distinct identity:
1) God as Universal Principle. While there have been some instances of non-personal God ideas in Christian thought, God has largely been seen as personal. Alternatively, on a Unity view, God may be personal to and personalized as each individual human, but is ultimately not a person. God is not like a human being writ large. Rather, God is understood as absolute unchanging Principle that is universally present and accessible. Seeing God as Universal Principle shapes the way we pray.
2) Affirmative Prayer. If God is unchanging Principle, everywhere present and available, then there is no need to beseech or petition God to grant answers to our prayers. We pray affirming that God-Mind already holds the good that we are seeking. Our work is to open up and attune to God, trusting that the answers we need are unfolding in the right time and way. As the greatest form of mind-action, affirmative prayer involves releasing counterproductive thoughts of lack and separation, and embracing the spiritual truth that God-Mind is fully present within as abundance.
3) Humankind and Salvation. Unlike those forms of religion that insist human nature is fundamentally flawed and sinful, we in Unity claim the inherent integrity and worth of each individual human being as a dynamic expression of God. In other words, our essential nature isn’t depravity but divinity. Our purpose is to continually demonstrate this innate divinity, which we call our Christ nature. When we more fully awaken to our Christ self, God more fully manifests in and through our lives. Salvation is not a once and for all event that occurs after death—you know, the whole “pie in the sky when we die, by and by” adage. It is instead a process of spiritual transformation that happens here and now. As we take responsibility for ourselves by choosing God-aligned thoughts, words and actions, we experience greater unity and love in our lives.
4) Metaphysical Bible Interpretation. The Bible was vital to the teachings of the founding Fillmores. They understood the biblical scriptures to represent humanity’s evolution into greater expression of Christ consciousness. Our metaphysical approach to the Bible in Unity is really a type of allegorical interpretation, which has been a central part of scriptural insight in our Christian heritage since its beginnings. Yet, for the past century conservative forms of Christianity have focused on the literal sense of these texts, often almost totally abandoning their rich symbolic significance. What metaphysical Bible interpretation does is uncover the “more-than-literal” meaning by inviting us to see how the people, places, events, and relationships in the stories represent aspects of an individual’s consciousness. This allows the Bible to become more spiritually relatable and applicable in daily life.
5) Jesus as Way Shower. There is no doubt that Jesus is important in Unity theology, as he is in the wider Christian world. However, there are many different ways to grasp his influence in the life of faith. Jesus isn’t a cosmic rescuer swooping in to save us from our wretched selves. He is our Way Shower who fully demonstrated for us the Christ nature. As we often say, he is the great example of our spiritual potential, not the great exception. Through his teaching and living of universal truths, we have a concrete illustration of what the perfect pattern of divinity looks like in human life. Progressive Christianity also holds to this Way Shower view of Jesus, but Unity’s emphasis on it is a distinct part of our theological identity.
We may wonder what the best way is to get congregants on board with knowing these characteristic Unity teachings. It’s important that we don’t assume congregants and board members are uninterested in Unity theology. Often they simply aren’t aware of avenues through which they may enrich their understanding, or distinctly Unity teachings are not being communicated. While there is no universal or “one-size-fits-all” answer, perhaps one effective way of approaching this is to integrate these basic theological principles into practically everything we do at church. Sure, our preaching and teaching in talks and classes are the most obvious ways to educate people about what makes Unity special. Yet, we might also think about incorporating our theology more explicitly into other less obvious arenas, such as ecumenical or interfaith activities and board training.
When our local congregations participate in ecumenical and interfaith interests (e.g., councils, prayer services, and/or charitable work) this becomes an opportunity for leaders and congregants to not only learn about other faiths but also inform those other faiths about Unity. Teaching is also a form of learning. So, while Unity congregants are preparing for and presenting Unity in interfaith exchange, they naturally deepen their understanding of their own Unity faith perspective. This is especially the case when guided by a devoted ministerial leader committed to teaching Unity principles.
Board members usually already have a strong commitment to the spiritual community and may have a better working knowledge of Unity than most congregants. However, ministers and spiritual leaders can (re)orient board members to our Unity theology by intentionally and openly assimilating our principles into board training. This takes a greater commitment, but is worthwhile in the long run. Ministerial leaders could also invite the board members to lead a “Unity 101” or “Unity for Me” type of class a couple times a year for new members. It could be guided by either a minister, LUT, or even a board member with a familiarity with Unity basics and who is adept at facilitation. This kind of project would give board members a chance to enrich their appreciation of Unity theology.
Pinpointing our core Unity theological identity is not easy. We tend to be “decidedly eclectic” in our theology, to use the words co-founder Myrtle Fillmore once wrote about her own theological views. Yet, there are definitely some theological basics that unite us. The more we are able to name them and find ways to further incorporate them into our practice of ministry, the greater unity-in-diversity we will find in our identity. So, friends, let’s stand strong in our unique Unity theology!