Most Americans are Unitarian Universalists. They just don’t know it. Only 0.3 percent of Americans identify as members of the denomination, but its belief system has come to define our culture. The central message of the UU church is that you can believe anything you want—except that there are objectively right and wrong beliefs.
It’s an appealing message for a society that has lost its faith in God. But just because we no longer believe in a higher power doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Human beings have a Creator. Like any other crop or plant, we are meant to produce good fruit. There will be consequences if we produce bad fruit, even if we don’t want to admit it.
Consider the parable of the vineyard in Isaiah 5.
Vines and Rights
In the first four chapters of Isaiah, the prophet lays out why the Assyrian army invading Judah was an instrument God was using to judge his people. The invasion had spiritual undertones: the Jewish people had walked away from their Creator and ignored his commands, and he was punishing them for their rebellion, just as he promised when he initially gave them the Promised Land.
It was a harsh punishment, which is why Isaiah made a point to remind his people about God’s goodness in spite of what was happening around them. To further illustrate that point, he introduces the parable of the vineyard. Like Jesus, Isaiah understood that people could see things clearer when a new context was put around a familiar story:
Let me sing for my beloved my love song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; and he looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. (Isa. 5:1–2)
As Isaiah goes on to explain, Judah is the vineyard, the Promised Land is the fertile hill, and God is the one who planted it. The good grapes were righteousness; the bad fruit was sin. God’s creation had gone bad, so he was going to tear it up and start over: “And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down” (Isa. 5:4).
The key to understanding this parable is to look it at from the point of view of the vines. Why should they have to produce good fruit? Don’t they have the right to do what they want? Who is God to tell them what is or is not bad fruit?
The answer to those questions is where Christianity conflicts with the way most Americans view the world. Our culture places a huge emphasis on independence. No one can tell us what to do or what to think. We determine the course of our lives. Anthony Kennedy, the recently retired Supreme Court justice, summed it up in one of his most famous opinions: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of the meaning of the universe and the mystery of human life.”
For the most part, God agrees with Kennedy. We are free to believe anything we want about this world. The difference is God doesn’t leave open the question of what the right answer is.
It comes back to first principles. If the universe is the product of random chance, and humans are nothing more than self-aware animals with the same value as any other creature on earth, then there is no point to our brief existence other than what we make of it. Conversely, if the universe has a Creator, and human beings are formed in his image, then the point of our lives is to know and experience him. If you start with that belief, then good and evil are not things we can define for ourselves.
Later in Isaiah, the prophet pokes fun at the idea of created things questioning their Creator:
“Woe to him who strives with him who formed him, a pot among earthen pots! Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’ or ‘Your work has no handles’? Woe to him who says to a father, ‘What are you begetting?’ or to a woman, ‘With what are you in labor?’”
Thus says the LORD, the Holy One of Israel, and the one who formed him: “Ask me of things to come; will you command me concerning my children and the work of my hands? I made the earth and created man on it; it was my hands that stretched out the heavens, and I commanded all their host.” (Isa. 45:9–12)
My Unitarian Universalist Childhood
Because my parents raised me in the UU church, I have lived both sides of this debate. The history of the church is fascinating. The Unitarians believed in the unity of God (i.e., not the Trinity; Jesus was just a human being) while the Universalists believed God would save all humanity regardless of whether they believed in Jesus. The two groups eventually merged into a religion whose primary tenet is that we are free to believe anything so long as our beliefs don’t harm anyone else. It is a church for people who want church without religion.
We took comparative religion classes in Sunday school. The New York Times was our Bible. This was our version of the Lord’s Prayer:
Love is the doctrine of our church.
The quest for truth is its sacrament.
And service is its prayer.
To dwell together in peace.
To seek knowledge in freedom.
To serve humanity in fellowship.
Thus do we declare.
The “quest for truth” is like the “pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence. The implication of searching for something is that you haven’t already found it. Just like the Founding Fathers couldn’t promise happiness to the citizens of their new nation, the UU church fathers didn’t promise truth to their parishioners.
Objectively Good (and Bad) Fruit
I didn’t remain in the UU church as an adult; in fact, only 12.5 percent of kids raised in the church end up staying. That’s because it’s already the default option in American life. Why go on Sundays if you live it 24/7?
The only way to actually leave is to opt out and join a different religion—one that gives answers about the world, and about your identity, that exist outside of yourself and what others think of you. In my experience, the most powerful part of becoming a Christian was learning that my identity comes God. I don’t have to impress anyone. I have value beyond my place in society. God loves me and died for me on the cross.
Unitarian Universalism is already the default option in American life. Why go on Sundays if you live it 24/7?
The flip side is that God decides what is right and wrong, not me. I don’t have all the answers. No Christian does. The choice everyone is given in this life is to either believe in an objective truth or go searching for a subjective one.
Just because you don’t believe in good and evil doesn’t mean they don’t exist. That’s what Isaiah was trying to tell God’s people. There is objectively good and bad fruit in this world—go to a supermarket if you don’t believe me. No sane person is going to plant a vineyard and live with bad fruit forever. It may seem cruel to the vines to tear them out of the ground, but it’s better for them. They were created for a reason, to bear a specific type of fruit.
This is why the truth of the gospel is such good news for the UU world. We don’t have to come up with answers to life’s most difficult questions on our own, or wonder why they don’t actually satisfy us. There is a recipe out there for a fruitful life. It was given to us more than 2,000 years ago.