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Unitarianism (part 1 of 2)

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Description: Unitarianism branched out of Christianity. Its early history and influence of Islam is traced along with comparison with Baha’i faith and Christianity.

  • By Imam Mufti (© 2015 IslamReligion.com)
  • Published on 20 Apr 2015
  • Last modified on 25 Jun 2019
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Introduction

Much like other branches of Christianity, Unitarianism is no exception to a wide diversity of beliefs, worship, and a complex history. In the US, Unitarianism has historically been closely related to Universalism and known as Unitarian Universalism or UU for short. Universalism, founded by an Englishman named John Murray, is a belief that God’s love will ultimately redeem all people from sin. In simple words, everyone will be saved. Some consider UU to be part of liberal Christianity, others don’t. UU is currently present in twenty-nine countries.

Early Historical Development

Unitarians go back to 325 CE and the Council of Nicaea in which the church voted that God and Jesus had a father-son relationship. Early Unitarians claimed to have the original, pre-Nicaea faith that was condemned as heresy. Arius (256-336 CE), a priest from Alexandria, claimed that Jesus was not God. His ideas were rejected at the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. Also, ‘universalism’ was condemned as heresy two centuries later in 553 CE at Constantinople at the Fifth Ecumenical Council.

Historically, Unitarianism had a global presence and Universalists existed only in N. America. Unitarianism has a long history dating back to the Italian humanist movement of the 15th century which created Unitarian churches in Poland, Britain, and British colonies.

Influence of Islam and Toleration of Muslims

Michael Servetus (1511-1553 CE) from Spain revived the idea that the trinity was not based on the Bible. He was influenced by the Muslims who lived in the Iberian peninsula at the time. He actually used the Quran, the Muslim scared text, to attack trinity in his book ‘The Restoration of Christianity’[1]  and denied the concept of original sin. He was eventually burned at the stake in 1553 CE. He is considered one of the fathers of liberal Christianity. Unitarians/anti-Trinitarians spread along the borders of Christendom with the Muslim Ottoman Empire as their people were forced to deal with other viewpoints and this made Christians in these areas more tolerant,[2]  and ‘because of the cross-cultural interactions with Islam, a type of Christianity could emerge whose prophet was not divine, but more like Mohammed.’[3]

Muslims displayed tolerance towards Unitarians. Suleiman I of the Muslim Ottoman Empire, supported the monarchy of John Sigismund, the only Unitarian king in history. Suleiman sent an emissary to witness Queen Isabella nursing the young prince after he learned of his birth in 1540. Then the following year, the sultan sent troops to rescue Isabella’s army in Buda as it was about to be defeated by Ferdinand of the Habsburg Empire. Historian Susan Ritchie argues that there is a direct influence of Islamic tolerance on the Edict of Torda, which was the "first modern articulation of the principle of religious toleration by Europeans at the level of state rule."[4]

Unitarianism & Baha’i Faith

In some ways, UU is to Christianity what Baha’i faith is to Islam. They both originated from a parent religion from which they borrow some elements and heavily borrow from other religions and philosophies. Neither has a scripture or creed[5]  to refer to. Both are a combination of humanism, religion, and other philosophies with a fairly small following.

Is Modern Unitarianism Christian?

Is UU Christian? The answer depends on the location and the individual. Around Romania, it is. In Britain and Ireland, it is generally Christian. In US and Canada, it is not. In US, the faith does not require belief in Christianity as means to salvation and promotes that other religions are valid. There are members who believe in God and there are members who don’t.

Unitarianism & Christianity Compared

Unitarianism is considered an ethical religion, not a religion based on a creed. UU is based on Christian ethics, but it is not traditionally Christian at the same time. Mainstream Christianity believes that the death of Jesus revealed God to humanity and the resurrection of Jesus is the cornerstone of their creed, whereas UU does not require a belief in the supernatural. Unitarians deny the trinity as unreasonable and non-biblical. Unitarians do not adhere to the Christian standard of accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. They are against infant baptism. That is why it is possible to be Buddhist Unitarian or a Hindu Unitarian.

UU lacks a visible structure. There are no specific prayers or rituals. Many do not use the Bible at all, some have infrequent Bible based services. Buddhist meditation and yoga is actively encouraged. Faith is shown through social work.

British Unitarian practice differs from American. In the US, there are some congregations that use prayers books and others that would not even say the word ‘prayer.’



Footnotes:

[1] Peter Hughes, "Servetus and the Qur’an," The Journal of Unitarian Universalist History, Volume xxx

(2005), p. 61.

[2] Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation: A History (New York: Viking Penguin, 2003), p. 255.

[3] ‘Introduction to the Unitarian and Universalist Traditions’ by Andrea Greenwood & Mark Harris, p. 21

[4] Susan Ritchie, "The Pasha of Buda and the Edict of Torda: Transylvanian Unitarian/Islamic Ottoman

Cultural Enmeshment and the Development of Religious Tolerance," Journal of Unitarian Universalist

History, Volume xxx (2005), p. 37.

[5] ‘Introduction to the Unitarian and Universalist Traditions’ by Andrea Greenwood & Mark Harris, p. 3

 

 

Unitarianism (part 2 of 2)

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Description: Separation from God, emptiness of worship, lack of reliance on prophetic teachings and resulting lack of religious identity among Unitarians is the focus of this article.

  • By Imam Mufti (© 2015 IslamReligion.com)
  • Published on 27 Apr 2015
  • Last modified on 25 Jun 2019
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Absence of God & Emptiness of Unitarian Worship

Unitarianism2.jpgControversies about belief in general, even in God, has created confusion among Unitarians.  Philip Hewett, long-time Unitarian minister from Vancouver, British Columbia says, "The real reason why it is so difficult to define Unitarianism in a few words is that its distinguishing characteristics are not to be found in the realm of beliefs and doctrines at all...Within traditional Christianity, this authority is found in the Bible, or in the Church, or in the recorded sayings of the founding fathers.  Unitarians find it in the reason and conscience of the individual."[1]  Thus, there can not be theological unity when the main guide for finding truth is individual experience. 

In 1967 many Unitarians and Universalists agreed that the term "God" did not represent a supernatural being.  28 percent of the denomination in America considered the concept of God "irrelevant," with an additional 2 percent calling it "harmful." In a UUA publication, "Unitarian Universalist Views of God," Robert Storer said that, "for more than a century this personified God has been declared inadequate by the... churches."

Consequently, Unitarians also struggle for religious identity.  How can it be a faith and a universal one? A faith has to have some boundaries, some notion of right and wrong, and some teaching on transcendental truths.  Unitarianism struggles in these areas.  Islam, conversely, solves the dilemma of being a universal faith that speaks of truth and reality.  Muslims believe that Islam - worship and submission to God - was taught by all the prophets including Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad, peace be on them all.  Their true followers were all Muslims.  Understood in this manner, Islam is truly a universal faith whose essence has remained unchanged with time.

Separated from a meaningful notion of God, Unitarian worship is usually devoid of emotion.  Ralph Waldo Emerson, famous American poet, accused it of being "corpse-cold."[2]

A lack of tradition and rituals, no hint of a better life, or progress to a heavenly ideal, not even a God to worship, keeps membership rather limited.  The faith is not thriving.  The two largest congregations in the world are the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) and International Council of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU).  Officially, there are 160,000 members in UUA and half a million in ICUU the world over.

Modern Unitarians have difficulty passing on their faith to their children.  The Unitarian dilemma is that how can an institution provide children with a religious identity if that identity must be freely chosen?

Unitarians emphasize reason over revelation and the material world and action taken in it is the source of all meaning.  Engagement in this world is the primary focus rather than the next life.  Islam, on the other hand, balances this world with the next.  While social work and service to humanity is emphasized in Islam, it is tied with reward in the life to come.

Religious tolerance is a central tenet of Unitarians.  Thus, they treat all faiths as valid.  An enticing idea, but nevertheless with serious problems.  How can religions with contradictory claims be all true? As an example, Christians claims Jesus to be the son of God who died and was raised from the dead; Islam is absolutely clear in it’s stance that God has no son and Jesus was a prophet.  Both cannot be true at the same time because they are contradictory.  That is not to say that Muslims and Christians cannot or should not have a tolerant, civil dialogue about their religious understanding.

Fundamental Issue

Unitarianism suffers from a fundamental flaw, and an understandable one: lack of belief in prophets.  Precious little is reliably known about Jesus from Christian and non-Christian sources.  Even the Bible is not an agreed upon document among the Christians; the Catholic Bible being bigger than the Protestant one.  Naturally, every sect and denomination interpreted ‘scripture’ based on their understanding.  Unitarianism is the natural result of giving up on revelation and substituting it with reason while maintaining a rather empty belief in God, if at all. 

Muslims have completely preserved the teachings of Prophet Muhammad because they have good reasons to believe they possess the truth.  Muslims rely on the supremacy of revelation without suspending rationality.  Revelation from God, according to Muslims, shows right from wrong, truth from error, and guidance from misguidance.  To Muslims, sending revealed guidance was the promise of God to humanity at the time of the ‘fall’ of Adam.  The essence of Islamic understanding is that God communicates to humanity and the final message (i.e. the Qur’an) has been preserved.  It has guided Unitarians in the past and can do it again today.



Footnotes:

[1] Phillip Hewett, Unitarians in Canada (Don Mills, on: Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 1978), p.  2.

[2] Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Heart of Emerson’s Journals, ed.  Bliss Perry (Boston, ma: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1926), p.  218.  This reference is from May 1, 1846.

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