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Adaptable Religion

Americans do not like to be limited. In a country based on freedom and capitalism, this disdain for limitation extends to religion as well. For this reason, Bloom (1992) contends that, "Creeds do not suit the American spirit" (p. 46). Perhaps it was this American spirit which inspired Charles Fillmore when he wrote, "He who writes a creed or puts a limit to revelation is the enemy of humanity. Creeds have ever been the vampires that sucked the blood of spiritual progress in the past, and life can only be kept in the present moment by latitude of thought tempered always by the power that moves the world, namely Love!" (Bach, 1982, p. 80-81). The New Thought idea that God is constantly revealing himself in new and different ways helps to make it a "creedless" religion. In addition, Unity members are not asked to profess faith in certain principles in order to become members.

This flexibility makes it difficult to categorize and fully understand Unity, according to Dell deChant (1993), a Unity minister and professor at the University of South Florida. He writes that

The first, and effectively only, doctrine of Unity is the doctrine of spiritual freedom. Unity is perhaps the largest religion in the world without canon, creed, or doctrine. In principle and practice, there are no normative teachings. The looseness of Unity doctrine means that the literature of and about the movement gives only a partial picture of Unity's actual practices, (p. 105)

While there is considerable flexibility in the movement, deChant's claim that there are no normative teachings in Unity is an exaggeration. It is true that there is no Unity Book of Doctrine or Unity Creed, but the very existence of a Unity pamphlet What Unity Believes points to the fact that there must be something that all Unity churches believe in common.7 The book Lessons in Truth by H. Emile Cady is also considered to contain the backbone of the Unity message.

Unity is creedless, then, not so much because there are no normative teachings, but because the philosophy is open-ended and flexible. This allows for shifts in the religion when there are societal shifts in culture. Rosemary Fillmore Rhea, granddaughter of the founders and an administrator for Unity School, said she has seen Unity shift focus as times have changed while maintaining its basic message. "There is a natural flow of change. Unity is an American religion. I see the changes that come through Unity as similar to the eras in America's history." For example, Unity started in the late 1800s as a spiritual answer to physical needs. Rhea said major changes took place in American culture starting with the atomic bomb, and those changes were reflected in Unity through the Vietnam era. Unity sponsored encounter groups, meditation workshops and self-awareness seminars. "This was a big time with drugs and LSD, and everybody was into this new idea of turning inward and meditation, whereas everything before had been outward," Rhea said. The traditional concepts of Unity returned in the late 1980s. "Ever since then it's sort of been the status quo. It's sort of like people are waiting for something, some new enthusiasm or something to show them what the next step is, and I think that's pretty much where our country is right now. I think people are pretty uncertain about what the future is."

Perhaps it is in this uncertain time that many people are drawn by a religion which leaves maneuvering room in its answers. Several studies have found that fundamentalist religions are appealing to many because they offer distinct, concrete answers to life's questions (Ammerman, 1987; Hoge et al., 1994). For Americans who want options rather than one view which cannot be questioned, however, Unity provides a freeing contrast. For example, a 65-year-old female homemaker wrote that "Unity's teachings are guideposts and directions, not fence posts and boundaries. There is no dogma or 'have-to' beliefs. This leaves one free to grow in spirit" (respondent no. 13).

According to Unity, this adaptability is aligned with the primitive Christianity which Jesus taught. Barrette (Dec. 15, 1996) provided a Biblical interpretation in a sermon which justifies how the flexible nature of Unity follows the teachings of Jesus. He explained that Jesus frequently differed in opinion with the Pharisees, who had laws which applied to everything. Jesus broke many of these laws, such as not working on the Sabbath, to show that laws do not apply well to every situation, and that there must be flexibility to adapt as needs change.

This freedom to choose contributes to why people view Unity as creedless. Unity is, in general, not dogmatic about whether or not someone believes what it teaches. Unity is very conscious of the individual, and does not impose rigid structure on its participants. On the other hand, this does not mean that Unity does not make its beliefs known to its constituents. For example, during a children's sermon Barrette asked the children what Jesus used love for. One child said "to fight the Devil." Barrette explained that Unity as a church doesn't believe in the existence of anything opposed to good, but that what we perceive as evil is really the absence of good. Barrette made it clear that the Devil does not fit with Unity beliefs, but he attempted to do so in a non-threatening manner.

In addition to flexibility of belief, the malleability of the organization itself is required in the American religious marketplace. In the paradigm outlined by Warner (1993), American religion is structurally adaptable as a result of the competition which grew out of the disestablishment of religion. One example of this adaptability is the development of the congregational form of leadership in which the local congregation has the real authority for church governance (p. 1065). Like the Baptist Church, Unity uses this congregational form of governance and is therefore able to adapt to the communities it serves. As deChant (1993) suggests, Unity's extreme flexibility from community to community hinders uniform presentation of the message. However, this adaptability also contributes to the marketability of the church in different communities. The difficulty for Unity is finding a balance between the flexibility necessary to meet the expectations of the community and the limitations needed to present a unified message on a wider scale.

Another way that Unity has been able to show structural adaptability is in the separation of the church hierarchy (the Association of Unity Churches) from the publishing and prayer ministries (the Unity School of Christianity). While both organizations are based on the same philosophy, they have different goals and therefore different areas in which they can show flexibility. Silent Unity, which is run by the Unity School, has a mission to serve as a worldwide prayer ministry to people of all religions. Only 4 percent of the 2.2 million calls to Silent Unity each year are from people who are involved in a Unity church. Therefore, Silent Unity is flexible by giving leeway to its prayer associates regarding whether to invoke the name of Jesus with each caller. The "universalizing" of the message has resulted in many more calls from Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, Baha'is and other members of non-Christian religions (Jafolla, 1997). "Since we've done that, it has opened the floodgates for all these other people," said Mary Alice Jafolla, Silent Unity's co-director. "This is just proliferating at a tremendous pace. We like it because Silent Unity is the non-denominational part of Unity." On the other hand, one debate within the Association of Unity Churches is whether to institute more guidelines and rules for its churches in order to present a more unified and consistent message. Although this debate is likely to continue, it seems that this situation might provide an opportunity for the movement as a whole to have the best of both worlds by allowing different levels of fexibility in different areas of each organization. The benefits and difficulties of this situation will be discussed in Chapter VI.

  1. Some of these common beliefs are outlined in Chapter II.

© 1997, Rebecca Gittrich Whitecotton
All rights reserved by the author.
Reprinted with permission.