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Differences between UU (Unitarian Universalism) and Ethical Culture

Note: the original of this message was written in 1998 as a contribution to the AEU email list, Dialogue, in 1998.  I might write it somewhat differently today, but I’m still in general agreement with these past words.

In my experience, and from long and many talks with people who identify themselves as Ethical Culturists or Ethical Humanists who are attending UU churches because there is no convenient or well-functioning local Ethical Society: the key differences between the two are not theological diversity (Ethical Culture has almost as great a proportion of naturalistic deists/theists as does the midwestern Unitarianism in which I grew up) nor “creed” but the following:

1) UU ministers have to attend a theological seminary and obtain a master’s degree — this means that most must study in Protestant seminaries. There is a disincentive for nontheistic UUs to undergo such education and so the ministry is disproportionately theistic, compared to the people in the pews. (As someone who was a couple of generations away from identification with Christianity, I found the courses fascinating when I had to take them. Plus I was creative enough to take courses that were a bit farther from the center of Christianity.) This is further exacerbated by a self-reinforcing cycle, where the ministers on the certification body, the UUA Fellowship Committee, don’t have much background in humanist and freethought history, and so don’t add requirements for much of that into the curriculum. Ethical Culture Leaders who go through our homegrown curriculum study very little traditional Christianity, and far more humanism and freethought tradition. I will add, though, that in the UU History course I took at a UU theological school, Felix Adler, the Free Religious Association, and Ethical Culture were the focus for one full session among our ten class meetings. Many UUs, not understanding the more humanistic/free religious aspects of their own history, often mistakenly believe that Ethical Societies are actually members of the UUA.

2) UUs tend to be more comfortable with traditional Protestant format and words, even when they have redefined them almost 180 degrees. Thus, UUs would not generally mind the term “in the pews” even if their congregation has always had the same kind of separate chairs that an Ethical Society might have. Worship becomes “the shaping of worth” and is about human worth and dignity. “Church” becomes just a generic term and not a specifically Christian term. (My younger son at five years old called the Ethical Society in Chicago “Zero Church” after having been involved in Second and then First Unitarian Churches — little did he know how perceptive that was!)

The “hymn sandwich” format of Protestant services is often retained by UU congregations. Personally, I feel the format of most UU churches as heavily Protestant, though our own Ethical Culture format and the Reform Judaism format of the 19th century also borrow heavily from Protestantism, especially in featuring “the word” as the center of the program instead of rituals. UUs are thus far more comfortable with “responsive readings” in Sunday mornings than Ethical Culturists would be, though the words themselves may be just as comfortable or uncomfortable to an average UU as an average Ethical Culturist. (As an aside I’ll add: Both groups have significant problems with the term “spirituality” — both have many members who dislike the term and find it inherently linked to supernaturalism, and both groups have many members who use and hear the term in a naturalistic and humanistic sense and crave more of it in our community life.)

In summary: UUs tend to be more comfortable “translating” traditional terms — Ethical Culturists tend to be uncomfortable using such terms, particularly those which are assumed to be more Christian.

3) Most important, though, as a difference, I find this: even the most humanistic of UUs are focused primarily even in their congregational life on belief. It’s not that Ethical Culturists don’t talk in platforms about beliefs, but our main focus is not to clarify belief. In UU congregations that often seems the case. Even when social/ethical action is the topic, UUs tend to talk about what they think about it. At least a greater percentage of the time, Ethical Culturists tend to focus in platforms on what we do with our lives — if we talk about beliefs it’s to talk about how to reorient our lives so that we live more ethically. Ethical Culturists see the diversity of creed as a help to our own growth and development, as do UUs; UUs tend to see the benefit in the sharing of different ideas, Ethical Culturists in seeing that different belief systems can reinforce similar ethical commitments. It’s not that one group is more inclusive than the other — it’s that the inclusiveness is seen as having slightly different purposes. (By the way, many UU congregations take “deed not creed” as a central principle, too. I first encountered the phrase in my UU involvements. And the phrase “spelling God with 2 o’s,” a favorite of Felix Adler’s, goes back to an obscure Unitarian minister, about 1840, before Felix Adler was born. The original read “I spell God with 2 o’s and the Devil without the d.”)

4) Further, Ethical Culturists tend to see religion as a community exercise. We come together in congregations because we know that being with others will support us and challenge us in our work to be more ethical. UUs tend to emphasize more the individual quest; UU community is more a social community and a place to experience and bounce around different ideas and support each other as individuals.

There is a lot of overlap between the two, but there are important differences in both heritage and practice. And, perhaps signaling why I’ve chosen to be professionally involved in Ethical Culture as well as in UUism, I happen to think that the differences in practice really matter more.

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Copyright 1998 – 2009 Jone Johnson. All rights reserved.

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