I read the following story on my colleague Dan Harper’s website:

A newcomer took a seat in one of the pews at First Unitarian. When the minister began preaching about liberal theology, the newcomer became more and more enthusiastic, and finally shouted “Amen!” when the preacher definitively proved the use of reason was essential to religion.

There was a long-time member of the church in the next pew, who leaned over and glared at the newcomer. “In this church, we do not shout ‘Amen’ during the sermon,” hissed the long-time member.

The newcomer, looking flustered, said, “But I’ve got religion!”

“Well,” hissed the long-time member, “you did not get it here!

I don’t know that I’ll prove definitively that the use of reason is essential to religion, but if I do, you’re welcome to say, “Amen!”


Reason has been in many ways the hallmark of Unitarianism since its beginning. In his famous 1819 sermon, William Ellery Channing argued for the use of reason in the interpretation of the Bible. This sermon is considered the beginning of Unitarianism as separate from the Congregationalism it came out of.

Reason has been essential to Unitarian identity, if not Universalist. Earl Morse Wilbur, author of a massive 2-volume history of Unitarianism, writing in the mid-20th century, noted that the principles of freedom of belief, tolerance, and the use of reason in religion have always been at the core of our religious tradition. (Loadman-Copeland, Touchstones) For a long time, his trinity of “freedom, reason, and tolerance” was the commonly accepted characterization of liberal religion.

Much of religion, in Channing’s day as in ours, asks us to suspend reason and to believe things that don’t make sense to our minds. This has never been acceptable to Unitarians. We have never felt a disconnect between science and religion, and all of our beliefs must pass the test of reason. No superstition, no supernatural beings, no miracles—other than the miracle of life itself.

Humanism, which swept through Unitarianism and Unitarian Universalism in the 1900’s,  takes the role of reason in religion even further.  As Rev. Bill Murray says in the reading Steve just shared, “Traditional humanism emphasizes the importance of intelligence and the use of reason and critical thinking in determining what is true or valid.” Many humanists today are attracted to the writings of the so-called “new atheists”, who see all religious belief as dangerous. These writers equate all religion with superstition and irrationalism, and urge that it not be tolerated, especially when it exerts influence in education and politics.

This seems to me to be going a bit too far. While I believe Reason is essential to religion (though I can’t definitely prove it!), religion is not science, and it can help us live better lives in ways that Reason can’t.

The way the word “reason” is used today, it is synonymous with intellect or intelligence. Webster defines it as: (1) : the power of comprehending, inferring, or thinking especially in orderly rational ways, (2) : proper exercise of the mind, and (3) (in all caps) : SANITY.

So the opposite of reason is insanity?

I’ve noticed in my reading in philosophy that the word hasn’t always meant pure intellect. Some philosopher from the past—I can’t remember who—distinguished between Reason and Understanding, with Understanding meaning more narrowly intellect, and Reason meaning something much broader, encompassing feeling and intuition.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, our Unitarian forebear, talked about reason quite a bit. But his conception of “Reason” is broader than intellect, and includes perception, insight, and even emotion. My impression is that the term has changed over time to mean something more like logic today. Something Spock would approve of.

But just like Spock, Unitarian Universalism feels sometimes like it’s all head and no heart. The emphasis on reason over emotion also feels somewhat patriarchal. Men have for ages put women down for being emotional and not as perfectly reasonable as they are. You can watch My Fair Lady for a great example of this.

Maybe it’s no accident that the introduction of ritual and the talk of spirituality came into Unitarian Universalism through the women as the second wave of feminism took hold by the 1980s. As I just mentioned last week, the water communion that we all participate in at the beginning of the church year was started in 1980 in East Lansing, Michigan at a Women and Religion Convocation. Since then, other rituals—such as lighting a chalice in the service—have come into Unitarian Universalism, and we are becoming more tolerant, more accepting of a diversity of religious beliefs and language.

As important as reason is to our Unitarian Universalist faith, it has its limits.

If we focus on reason as the exclusive faculty to be used in religion, it can be a dull and lifeless religion.

A Facebook friend and colleague recently posted this excerpt from Bill McKibben’s latest novel:

“Back to stories,” said Maria. “Unitarians are probably the best people in the world. If there’s a good thing going on in any community, chances are some Unitarians are doing it. But most people aren’t Unitarians, because there’s no story. There’s no Jesus, there’s no Moses, there’s just doing the right thing. It’s like their Scripture is Bartlett’s quotations, and only the nice quotations. And for most people that’s not enough.”

“Are they Christians?” Cass asked

“They were once,” said Maria. “But now they’re . . . everything. What do you get if you cross a Jehovah’s Witness with a Unitarian?”

“I don’t know,” said Cass.

“Someone who knocks on your door but can’t remember why. I mean, there’s 300,000 of them in the whole country. And compare that with—there are like 5 million Mormons. Mormons have a story—it’s kind of an odd one, but it works. What I’m trying to say is, as you study at SGI, your job is to think about how to make campaigns into a story that makes people drop what they’re doing and come. Think about Moses. Think about Jesus—the story of one guy getting executed for no reason, that’s still driving people all over the world today. Some of them are nuts and some of them aren’t, but they’re all thinking with that story. Whatever the fight is—someone wants to build an incinerator in your neighborhood? You need the facts, but you need the story. That’s your job.”

What is our Story?

We need facts, yes, but we also need story. We need reason, and we also need imagination. We need emotive content, we need poetry,  to give our faith some depth.

In January of 2003, our then-UUA-president the Rev. Bill Sinkford, speaking of our UU Principles and Purposes, said that the “UU Minister who headed the committee largely responsible for their current wording, wondered aloud how likely it is that many of us would, on our death bed, ask to have the Purposes and Principles read to us for solace and support.

He then said, “I would like to see us become better acquainted with the depths, both so that we are more grounded in our personal faith, and so that we can effectively communicate that faith—and what we believe it demands of us—to others. For this, I think we need to cultivate what UU minister David Bumbaugh calls a “vocabulary of reverence.”

 “We have manned the ramparts of reason and are prepared to defend the citadel of the mind,” Bumbaugh writes. “But in the process of defending, we have lost…the ability to speak of that which is sacred, holy, of ultimate importance to us, the language which would allow us to enter into critical dialogue with the religious community.”

(from Bill Sinkford’s message on the language of reverence)

Ultimately, religion is about something that science can’t talk about. We need another language, a language of poetry, a language that speaks from heart to heart, while not leaving reason behind. We need stories more than we need facts when it comes to religion.

My colleague Kirk Loadman-Copeland says the language of poetry “touches that part of religion experienced by the mystic and the spiritual pilgrim. In part, they approach the deeper reaches of reality not by empirical means, but by intuition.”

We need the poetry, but we need Reason too. There is so much irrationality in the world, so many beliefs that seem to defy Reason. Crazy conspiracy theories run rampant these days.

Rev. Sandra Fees says, “In contemporary times as much as in earlier times, reason serves as an antidote for the irrationality, superstition, and fanaticism in the world. Unitarian historian Earl Morse Wilbur said “we use reason in religion to help prevent fanaticism and to cast out superstition.””

We need reason, but we need poetry and stories too. We don’t have to choose. As in all things, what is required is balance. Bringing more reverence, more poetry, more stories into our language of faith doesn’t mean abandoning Reason. Reclaiming a language of reverence and stories from our heritage, as well as creating new vocabulary and stories, could help us deepen our faith. It could attract others to our faith.

We can grow beyond our reputation as a Birkenstock-wearing, granola-eating white-haired activists. We can find a deeper religion within that experiences beauty and joy in the world, guided by Reason without worshipping Reason.

Who knows? Maybe we could even grow as big as the Mormons!

Rev. Jane Thickstun

Upcoming Services

What is Your Train Moment?

May 26 @ 10:30 am - 11:45 am

Gandhi’s passion for justice was ignited after facing discrimination and being ejected from the train to South Africa.  What fuels your passion for truth and justice?