By Rev. Ellen Debenport, Vice-president, Content & Media Strategy, Unity World Headquarters
People new to Unity often confuse it with the Unitarian church. Here's a crash course on the differences:
Unitarianism was founded largely on the idea that all knowledge comes through the five senses. We learn and know through reason.
Unity insists that human beings can “know” without physical evidence, and particularly, we can know the divine without proof or demonstration.
Unitarians believe in one God. “Uni” means one. They reject the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Unity teaches one power and presence but also utilizes the Trinity. Unity usually switches to a metaphysical trinity of Mind, Idea, Expression or sometimes Spirit, Soul, Body. As for Father, Son, Holy Spirit – yes, all are divine, but so are everything and everyone else in the universe. It’s all God.
Unitarians say God is good and benevolent. Just look at the order and harmony in the universe, all for our good. Humans glimpse God through the works of creation.
Unity says God is Absolute Good. We live and move and have our being within the energy that is God. We can know intimately our oneness with All That Is.
Unitarianism exalts human reason and moved the center of authority from the church body to individuals.
Unity’s forerunners and founders were almost anti-intellectual. They exhorted us to put down the books, take a break from teachers, and spend time in the silence. Unity seeks direct knowledge of the divine.
Unitarians reject the idea of Jesus as a savior appeasing an angry God. They see him as a teacher who showed humans how to use their minds, their reason. Jesus is not divine.
Unity would say Jesus is divine, and so are you. Jesus was showing what is possible for human beings as expressions of God. He was a great teacher, and the spiritual use of our minds was one of his lessons. But our creative power begins in Spirit.
Unitarians say all revelation, like the Bible, must be subjected to reason. If something in the Bible doesn’t satisfy your reason, it doesn’t have to be accepted.
Unity would say that we read the Bible intuitively rather than analytically. If something doesn’t speak to you, it can be left behind. Or it can be reinterpreted metaphysically, which adds a new layer of meaning to Bible passages that we know cannot be literally true.
Unitarians might describe God as a clockmaker who set a clock in motion and assigned human beings to keep it oiled and running smoothly. God is not actively participating in the world. (Hence their pursuit of social justice. Solving problems is up to us.)
Unity would describe God as a creative force that is always available to us in the universe. Problems won’t be solved permanently until human beings raise their consciousness to a level in greater alignment with the divine.
Unitarianism is nearly 300 years older than Unity. It first surfaced in the 1600s in the wake of the Protestant Reformation in Europe and was established as a denomination in the early 1800s.
Unity grew out of the American Transcendentalist movement in the mid-1800s, which specifically refuted Unitarian rationalism. Transcendentalists (Emerson, Thoreau) believed the ideal state for humans is spiritual and transcends the physical or empirical. Such a state (or consciousness) is realized through intuition or gnosis, knowledge of spiritual truth.
Both believe God is good.
Both believe humans are good and reject the notion of original sin.
Both believe humans can be whatever they want to be and create their own heaven or hell on earth.
Both believe in the ability of humans to use their minds creatively, whether through reason or divine power.
When I lived in Little Rock, Ark., the Unity and Unitarian churches were about a block apart, so you can imagine the confusion every Sunday! A Unitarian friend and I observed that people who ended up joining the Unitarians usually had decided Unity was too Christian. And those who stayed at Unity thought the Unitarians were not Christian enough. That’s why there’s a church on every corner. Something for everyone!
This is not an exhaustive or nuanced list. If you have Unitarian friends, they might or might not agree with these tenets. For that matter, you might or might not agree with the ways I have described Unity. I find attractive ideas in both churches.
I have to thank Rev. Philip White for his clarity on this topic through a 1984 series of lessons on the Background of New Thought. It’s fascinating how church history fits together, each new group trying to improve upon the last. Click here for those recordings.