Monday, December 31, 2007

Meaningful Religious Vocabulary In UU

Can Unitarian Universalists have a meaningful, common religious vocabulary as they have historically had difficulty with the various uses of religious language (Barker, 2004)? In the last few years, this question has brought on much discussion regarding different aspects of religious language and vocabulary within the Unitarian Universalist community (Barker, 2004; Muir, 2003; Arnink, 2003). This discussion has included issues such as what words are not acceptable to most Unitarian Universalists (Barker, 2004; Buechren & Church, 1998), words that are proposed for use within the Unitarian Universalist tradition (Arnink, 2003), problems implementing changes in language use (Latchkeys, 1974; Donovan, 1976), as well as what would constitute as being considered meaningful and how to emphasis that common meaning (Arnink, 2003; Barker, 2004).

One of the reasons why Unitarian Universalists are finding the subject of religious language an important one to talk about is that they are worried about retaining their members and attracting new ones (Barker, 2004). A common speculation regarding this issue has Unitarian Universalists wondering whether having a common language or talking about religion in a different way would help the religious movement to grow (Barker, 2004). As there has traditionally been tolerance for many religious viewpoints within the Unitarian Universalist faith, people fear that implementing a new vocabulary might have the effect of excluding their own personal beliefs (Barker, 2004).

Another reason that Unitarian Universalists seem to be longing for a common vocabulary could be due to the idea that religion would otherwise be a rather private experience without a common language (Donovan, 1976; Maslow, 1970). As most of our religious and spiritual experiences are experienced individually, humans have long had the need to create a language to express the emotions and the meanings behind those experiences (Maslow, 1970). If we cannot understand what someone is trying to explain regarding their personal religious experience, it makes it difficult for others to understand and relate to that person on a religious level. Binkley & Hicks (1962) mention that putting a meaning to our personal, spiritual experiences by the use of common words goes along with the reasoning that religious language helps people to understand religion itself.

Word Usage in Unitarian Universalism

Within Unitarian Universalism, the use (and non-use) of various religious words and phrases can be a blessing and a problem at the same time. So that everyone's beliefs can be acknowledged, many words that would commonly be used in various religions are rejected within the Unitarian Universalist community (Muir, 2003). For example, a word that is not commonly used within Unitarian Universalist language is the word "sin" (Buehren & Church, 1998). Buehren and Church (1998) go on to talk about the reason for this rejection regarding the Unitarian Universalist belief that people are born "good" and therefore they do not include the concept of original sin within their faith. It is also said that they typically chose not to use words like "sin" because of the associations of creed and dogma that usually come with the use of these types of words (Muir, 2003).

Another common word that is typically used in other traditions but is frowned upon within a Unitarian Universalist setting is the word "God." This can be demonstrated by the fact that the word "God" is not included in the Principles of Unitarian Universalism and people tend to get upset when there is any hint of people suggesting to include it into the Principles (Arnink, 2003). From my personal experience, the word "God" is not commonly used within church services; if the word is used, the speaker is often accused as being insensitive to the needs of those in the congregation who use other terms to describe their personal relationship with the divine (if they express their experience in such a way).

Instead of using words that are based in creed and dogma, Unitarian Universalists "dip into the language of science; [they] dip into the dictionary of psychology; sometimes [they] borrow words from politics, to describe what ordinarily the language of faith would be describing" (Muir, 2003, pg. 4). However, in recent years there has been a move towards a religious language that can be claimed by the Unitarian Universalist faith. An idea that has surfaced in the last few years is the idea of a language of reverence and it has become a hot topic in UU circles (Arnink, 2003). Arnink (2003) continues his discussion of a language of reverence by suggesting the word "mystery" for use in Unitarian Universalist language. Arnink (2003) talks about "mystery" as a way to describe personal experiences including those events that we have experienced in the past and those events that we could experience. At the same time, he suggests that we should not propose a particular "poetic image for this absolute Mystery" (Arnink, 2003, pg. 5).

Besides the offered suggestion of mystery, Arnink (2003) also suggests the use of metaphor for explaining our experiences to others. Arnink (2003) remarks that "when a metaphor 'grabs you' as somehow significant, meaningful, you can be assured that it is not speaking to you from the Great Beyond; it is speaking to you of some natural area of your experience" (pg. 9). In other words, metaphor is a useful tool to bring about and share the meaning behind our personal experiences. Arnink (2003) furthers this idea by mentioning that metaphors can be a way to confirm similar personal experiences as drawing associations between two perspectives which can be an effective tool in the understanding of someone else's experiences.

Implementing Change

While mystery and metaphor are only two of many examples of vocabulary changes that are proposed in the Unitarian Universalist language, there is also the issue of how to implement those changes. After all, each Unitarian Universalist church has a tendency to have a different feel to it in regards to congregational beliefs and the services lead by the minister of the church. With this in mind, it makes it difficult to create a language that is totally inclusive as what works for one group will not necessarily work for another. Therefore, any changes that are proposed to be included will bring about choruses of both yeas and nays.

Some problems with trying to create a religious language stem from the idea that we can not know exactly what other people mean as there can be many connotations and associations that go along with certain words. Rev. Victoria Safford (2007) mentioned this concept in a sermon when she said, "philosophers of language, linguists and theologians, argue a lot about the limits of what we actually can say to one another" (pg. 5). Unlike Maslow (1970), Safford suggests that it may be the language that comes before experience. She gives the example that "if you come from a tradition that has the word "forgiveness," then you are more likely to practice it or long for it" (Safford, 2007, pg. 5).

Along with the use of particular words, phrases, and abstract ideas, the use, and sometimes misuse, of religious language has sometimes been known as the "language game" (Raschke, 1974; Donovan, 1976). This term was used by some philosophers as a way to understand how we use religious language (Donovan, 1976). Donovan (1976) says "learning a religion and understanding the language is rather like learning to play a game," (pg. 88) where we learn the rules first and then learn to put those rules into action. To further our understanding of "the game," we need to put the knowledge of "the rules" into use as it brings on a whole different level of understanding (Raschke, 1974).

Meaningful Language

It is a common understanding and set of meanings that is ultimately what Unitarian Universalists are striving for (Muir, 2003). But what constitutes the idea of a meaningful religious language? Muir (2003) mentions three criteria for understanding the "relationship between our reality and the words we use to describe reality" (pg. 1): words that retain their integrity throughout many years, "understanding when our experiences exceed our vocabularies" (pg. 2), and that there are times when there are no words to describe our experiences. Even with these three guidelines, religious language is difficult as the words are often tied to dogma, especially Christian dogma (Muir, 2003). Because of Unitarian Universalism's rejection of dogma, there is a tendency towards using more secular (and scientific) language (Arnink, 2003; Muir, 2003).

Another point that Muir (2003) mentions in regards to making religious language meaningful is that since Unitarian Universalists are such a small percentage of the world's population, they need to incorporate other faith dictionaries instead of rejecting language that is already know. It is this that will help to bring about understandings between faiths rather than creating barriers by creating a whole new vocabulary for faith communities to learn (Muir, 2003). In other words, we need to keep ways of communication open between all faiths to bring about understanding.


Even though this is a subject that is being discussed more often in recent years, there is still much to consider before Unitarian Universalists can create and implement a common religious language. Issues such as word usage (including what is acceptable and what is not), the meanings of the new vocabularies and how to use them, as well as how to bring about the discussed changes to the general populations of Unitarian Universalists will require much more discussion before they will feel comfortable with making any changes. In the end, it could be that the Unitarian Universalist Association will have to decide on changes that will not be approved by everybody involved within the tradition. As Safford (2007) said near the end of her sermon, "The dream of a common language is only that at best - a wispy ideal that cannot hold or celebrate complexity" (pg. 8).


  • Arnink, D. (2003). Religious language: The language of reverence. Retrieved 03/01/07 from
  • Barker, L. (2004). Language of reverence. Retrieved 03/01/07 from
  • Binkley, L.J. & Hick, J.H.; (1962). What characterizes religious language? Journal for the scientific study of religion. 2(1); 18-24.
  • Buehren, J.A. & Church, F. (1998). A chosen faith. Boston: Beacon Press.
  • Donovan, P. (1976). Religious language. New York: Hawthorn Books, Inc.
  • Maslow, A.H. (1970). Religions, values, and peak-experiences. New York: Penguin Compass.
  • Muir, F. J. (2003). Watch your language. Retrieved 03/01/07 from
  • Raschke, C. (1974) Meaning and saying in religion: Beyond language games. The Harvard Theological Review. 67(2). 79-116.
  • Safford, V. (2007). Dreams of a common language. Retrieved from


Erik said...

It's an interesting question, and one that I am increasingly coming to think simply doesn't have an answer (and perhaps doesn't need one).

I know that in my own church, it would be nigh impossible to define a single set of terms that would describe my experience as a theistic pagan and that of the militant atheists... to say nothing of those who just think that any beliefs at all are stupid and a waste of time. And, honestly, I am coming to believe that even if we *did* manage to define a single "language of reverence", we would lose more than we gained because then we would be forcing everybody's unique religious experiences into the same descriptive mold - and I think we gain more from hearing about how and why others' experiences *are* different.

Morninghawk Apollo said...

This is an important and difficult debate. My concern with what the UU church is trying to do with developing a new vocabulary is re-invent the wheel. There are many religious experiences that already have terms to describe them.

It seems to me that many in the UU community (and Pagan community too) have issues with many religious terms, such as "God" and "sin" because they are trying to run away from their religious upbringing.

I think it is better to develop a deeper understanding of the existing terms and then decide how, and if, they relate to one's beliefs. I touch on this in a post I wrote on Pagan Sin.

I fully agree that if the UU church develops its own vocabulary for common religious experiences, then it will create many barriers for people outside of that church to relate and understand them (and vice versa).

Ligeia said...

I have such a "debate" with my mother-in-law monthly. She considers herself a Christian and can't begin to comprehend my faith. When she says, "I know you don't believe in God..." I interrupt her and say, "I don't believe in your god." And her, "I know you aren't religious..." I correct her and say, "Yes, I am; just not in the traditional sense."

There is too much Christian baggage connected to words such as religious, god, faith, spiritualism, prayer - at least in US society. I can understand the desire of the UU to get away from such heavy words - but, when we talk to those of other religions about our communication with Supreme Being(s), perhaps we are the ones with the hang-up about using the word praryer?

Wonderful entry! Your writing is so interesting!