Ventura County Star
February 1, 2003
Freedom to search
Unitarian Universalists find liberation in individual interpretations of God
Tom Kisken; email@example.com
Who or what is God? In a Unitarian Universalist religion that prides itself
on challenging questions, this one is a doozy. It's sparked by a national
controversy spiced by allegations of faulty journalism, the temptation to
pin labels on the infinite and the role of divinity in a faith community
where belief in God is optional.
Howard Bierma, of Thousand Oaks, says he uses the word sometimes, maybe
after someone sneezes or when he has banged a finger, but not to express his
spirituality. He is an atheist and humanist who has been a member of the
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Conejo Valley for about five years
and defines religion as interaction among people aimed at improving
He answers the question of the day this way: "Creation is all random, so I
wouldn't define God."
Bierma's take is a reflection of the spiritual breadth of the 200 or so
members of the Thousand Oaks church and certainly not a cloak identifying
the community. Those attending the weekly services include people who
identify with Christianity, Judaism, pagan religions, Buddhism, humanism,
Taoism and varied combinations. Some prefer phrases like the holy, ultimate
importance or reverence to God.
Their Sunday service is so eclectic that members sing "Amazing Grace,"
the line "that saved a wretch like me," and later discuss the concept
people are born saved. The minister's caveat -- "whatever that means to
you" -- fits virtually every word spoken.
Lee Anne Christensen, of Thousand Oaks, joined because of the church's
openness, because the other members don't tell her how to think. As a child,
she was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She
believes in God as someone or something that provides solace.
Dennis Weiher isn't sure about God but knows he doesn't think of the concept
as a tangible entity. "God is something that is within us all. It's that
part of us that makes us human and connects us to each other," said Weiher,
who is board president for the Conejo Valley church and has been a Unitarian
Universalist for about 40 years.
He sees his religion's diversity as freeing. "It allows people to search
their own spirituality and be supported by others in the community," he
said. "It absolutely gives you the freedom to search without fear of being
castigated or being looked down upon."
The UUs, as they call themselves, came to be 42 years ago when two separate
churches -- the Unitarians and the Universalists -- merged. While
Christianity asks its members to believe in the trinity and Muslims base
their beliefs on the teachings of the Quran, the UUs have no single,
They do ask their members be sympathetic with stated Purposes and Principles
that include an affirmation of the dignity of every person and also a call
of respect for the interdependent web of all existence.
That signature statement was wrapped into controversy when the national
president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Rev. William
Sinkford, noted in a January sermon that the Principles lack religious,
reverential language. He called for people to identify the aspect of faith
that some label as God.
"Put a name to what calls you," he said.
The Forth Worth Star-Telegram newspaper covered the sermon and published a
story that was picked up by papers across the nation, including the Ventura
County Star. It said Sinkford was pushing to include the word, God, in a new
UUstatement of principles.
The Rev. Betty Stapleford, minister of the Thousand Oaks church, received 45
e-mails about the story, ranging from people who liked the God proposal to
those who said if it was true they would have to leave the religion.
Sinkford sent out his own e-mail saying he was misquoted. The paper printed
a clarification acknowledging the association president did not call for a
God amendment to the faith's statement of principles.
It was a big deal because pinning one name on what people believe is holy
constitutes a limit in a community that doesn't believe in limits and
reaches unanimity with the frequency of a solar eclipse.
"If you get together two UUs, you have at least three opinions,"
said. "It would have said, 'This is what you have to believe.' "
Stapleford is walking, talking advertisement of the diversity that
symbolizes her faith family. The doctoral student at Claremont School of
Theology was a Methodist who became a humanist and is now a panentheist,
meaning she sees God as a force that is within every living thing and
connects all life. She's influenced by Taoism and, at her home, has a large
stone Buddha and the kind of gong used in Bali to call Hindus to faith.
She defines being a Unitarian Universalist as not just accepting diversity
but supporting differences in people and together tackling life's biggest
questions whether or not finite answers are possible.
Stapleford doesn't want to limit conversations within her church to one
perception of what is holy or divine. But like Sinkford, she doesn't want to
exclude God either.
"If we give up the right to talk about God, we've let someone else define
what it means for us," she said.
That it means many things to different people is evidenced by one in a
rotation of sayings that accompany the opening page of the Unitarian
Universalist Association Web site.
"You don't have to see God as straight, white and a man," offers the
At least a few UUs would define God as omniscient, said the Rev. Jan
Christian, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ventura. Others
would say the traditional concept isn't relevant to their lives.
And some use the word as a verb.
"God is how we are to each other," said Christian. "God is
Some UUs talk of holiness as they talk of everything else, with varying
shades of ambiguity. Everything is a question.
Christian acknowledges a few in the faith family know more about what they
don't believe than what they do. But she doesn't buy the notion that
Unitarian Universalists can believe anything. Their beliefs have to be
pointed toward goals that are pursued not only as individuals but as a
"Religion is something that binds people together in community in a search
for ultimate meaning, truth and an ethical way of life," Christian said.
So back to the question. Who or what is God?
Before Christine Blasman of Newbury Park answers, she offers a
clarification. It's not God in her mind; it's Goddess -- a multifaceted
energy that surrounds and encompasses people. She believes in an Earth-based
faith and calls herself a pagan. She was raised a Christian. Her husband was
Jewish. They joined the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Conejo
Valley about seven years ago. They wanted their then-13-year-old daughter to
go a church that taught youth to understand not just one religion but many.
Some at the Thousand Oaks church say they experience the holy as a feeling,
not an intellectual concept. Three members try words to pinpoint their
definition of reverence or of God. Then they try sign language.
Finally, a visiting UU from Manhasset, N.Y., offers an observation that
brings a chorus of agreement.
"We pray," said Sydelle Lopez, "to whom it may concern."
Ventura County's UU churches
There are three Unitarian Universalist churches in Ventura County. Each has
a unique personality. They are:
Universalist Unitarian Church of Santa Paula; services at 10:30 a.m. Sundays
at 740 E. Main St., Santa Paula, 525-4647.
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Conejo Valley; services at 10 a.m.
Sundays at Goebel Senior Adult Center, 1385 E. Janss Road, Thousand Oaks,
Unitarian Universalist Church of Ventura; services at 9:15 and 11 a.m.
Sundays at 4949 Foothill Road, Ventura, 644-3898.
Here are the seven core principles of the Unitarian Universalist
n The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
n Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
n Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our
n A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
n The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our
congregations and in society at large;
n The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all;
n Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a
On the Net: For more information, try www.uua.org.
GRAPHIC: The Rev. Betty Stapleford of the Unitarian Universalist
Fellowshipof the Conejo Valley welcomes Rhami Christian Ryon Alsadek, 2,
into thecongregation as proud daddy Abdallah Alsadek looks on. Stapleford
wantscongregants to feel free to discuss views of God or what some call
ultimateimportance but not to be forced to accept someone else's
Dana R. Bowler / Star staff
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Floridians turn on the heat.
People in Michigan plant gardens.
50 above zero:
Californians shiver uncontrollably.
People in Saginaw, Michigan sunbathe.
40 above zero:
Italian &English cars won't start.
People in Michigan drive with the windows down.
32 above zero:
Distilled water freezes.
The water in the Detroit River gets thicker.
20 above zero:
Floridians put on coats, thermal underwear, gloves, wool hats.
People in Michigan throw on a flannel shirt.
15 above zero:
New York landlords finally turn up the heat.
People in Michigan have the last cookout before it gets cold.
People in Miami all die.
Michiganders close the windows.
10 below zero:
Californians fly away to Mexico.
People in Michigan get out their winter coats.
25 below zero:
The Girl Scouts in Michigan are selling cookies door to door.
40 below zero:
Washington, DC runs out of hot air.
People in Michigan let the dogs sleep indoors.
100 below zero:
Santa Claus abandons the North Pole.
Michiganders get frustrated because they can't start the Mini-Van.
460 below zero:
ALL atomic motion stops (absolute zero on the Kelvin scale.)
Michiganders start saying..."Cold 'nuff fer ya?"
500 below zero:
Hell freezes over.
Michigan public schools are closed.