The Strength of Unity's Authority
One of the amazing things that Unity has been able to do is cultivate a perception that there are no rules, no dogma, no ritual and no hierarchy in the movement. In short, it cultivates the perception that the church has no authority. Paul, for example, mentions this when he discusses why he became involved in the movement: "I really liked what a lot of the messages had to say. You know, that everybody is a child of God, that everybody is included, nobody is not included in the church. It's nondenominational and there really is no hierarchy or dogma. I really liked that."10 In reality, however, there is dogma and doctrine in Unity. But part of the dogma is that everyone is included, that everybody is a child of God, and that everyone can decide for themselves whether or not to accept the philosophy. To many who attend Unity, however, it doesn't feel like dogma because its presentation is the opposite of the exclusivist authoritarian message which may have turned them off in other churches. Therefore, the main reason that Unity maintains a perception of not having a dogma and not having strict authority is because Unity leaves ample room for the doctrine of individual choice.
Unity encourages individual choice not because it is uncertain of its teachings, but because it is so certain that its principles are true that it encourages individuals to test them in their lives. From the beginning of the movement, Unity has presented its teachings with great conviction. They are not simply teachings, but "Truth teachings." The affirmations which are so widely used in Unity are steeped in authority — not the authority of the church, but the authority of the individual who is connected to his or her divine center. Unity students do not ask God to give them health or prosperity. They unequivocally affirm that God has already given it to them and then expect it to appear. For example, rather than asking God to bring healing, a prayer during a Silent Unity prayer service said, "I am aglow with the realization that I am filled with Your presence. I know that I am expressing your healing love as I grow stronger each day" (Unity School of Christianity, February 1997). This confident, positive and affirming presentation of the philosophy provides an atmosphere of authority which the individual internalizes as he or she repeats the affirmations. By participating in affirmative prayer, then, the authority contained in the beliefs of the church is transferred to the individual.
Unity's doctrine of individual choice is perfect for the distinctive American free-market religious economy. It is no secret that in democratic America individuals have free choice to select their own religion and decide for themselves what to believe. By incorporating that freedom into its doctrine, Unity distinguishes itself from other denominations. In many ways Unity uses the religious marketing tactic of the salesperson who encourages consumers to shop around because she knows she has the best deal in town. Regardless of whether it actually is the best deal, Unity consumers buy for one of three reasons: 1) they have shopped around and also believe Unity is the best deal; 2) they reason that since the Unity salesperson is willing to let them shop around it really must be a good deal; or 3) they decide to take advantage of the unlimited free trial period, knowing that if they find a better deal later they can keep what they have already received as a free gift and cancel their participation at any time.
Unlike fundamentalist and traditionally "authoritarian" churches, Unity doesn't tell people how to live with specific edicts pertaining to human existence. There are no rules regarding sex before marriage, abortions, homosexuality, church attendance, who makes decisions in a household, etc. Unity does not belittle these decisions, but instead tells people to make decisions on how to live based on "inner work" or guidance from the Christ within. Unity teaches that God will directly guide a person through decisions if they affirm God's guidance by cultivating a relationship with their divine center. And although Unity teaches that a church is not necessary as an intermediary with God, they show people that a church can be a helpful tool in learning how to access God.
Just as churches are tools of the individual, Unity teaches that the Bible is a tool rather than the final authority. This view of the Bible as a spiritual or moral resource rather than a final authority is necessary for building a "church without authority" according to Hoge et al (1994). Unity teaches that although the Bible is a book inspired by God, it must be interpreted and is not meant to be taken literally. The following excerpt from one of Barrette's sermons explains how he uses the Bible in making decisions.
For me, I find the writings of Jesus in the Gospels, without a lot of the commentaries that follow thereafter, provide for me an anchor and a compass that really — even though I have to interpret it, I still have to go into my heart — really provide for me a way to guide my life. This still, small voice spoke to the people who wrote the Bible using their own symbolic language of their own individual minds and their own cultures. And this still, small voice also speaks to us. Whenever I have a big decision in life, ... I have tried to involve the still, small voice. I have tried to take a moment in prayer and to find out what the still, small voice is saying to me. (Oct. 27, 1996)
The authority, then, is not the church or the Bible, but God: the still, small voice. And since God can be found within each person, authority ultimately rests with the individual. Although this individual authority is paramount, Barrette cautions against letting the desires and needs of the ego — the human side of the individual — overshadow the message from the divine. He continues:
But I also try to temper that experience, that experience of divine guidance, with an understanding that I'm not always going to receive what's coming to me 100 percent accurately, because my subconscious isn't 100 percent clear. . . . We may think we possess a 100 percent clear receiver, but we don't. . . . We have our own inner fears, and our own inner yearnings, we have our own subconscious material, and these color our impressions. When I have an inner impression, what I try to do is take the time to ask again and watch my feelings. If my feelings grow more and more agitated, it's less likely that this is true guidance. But if these feelings become clearer, the guidance becomes clearer and clearer, then those are usually the wisest decisions. Those are the ones that are correct. (Oct. 27, 1996)
This inability of individuals to receive God's messages 100 percent of the time alludes to an important side effect of Unity philosophy. While Unity participants are completely free to believe what they want, they are also individually responsible for what they receive in the way of spiritual fulfillment, health and prosperity. If they don't get what they expected, it's not because the philosophy is wrong. Instead, several things can happen on the level of the individual. First, as Barrette suggested, an individual can act on divine guidance which is less than divine, which is colored by human subconscious debris. Second, although an individual may be asking for divine good, he or she may also focus on the negativity of the situation. This will attract negative results according to Unity's "law of mind action" which states that "thoughts held in mind produce in kind." And third, the pain or hardship which an individual endures may be necessary in order to grow spiritually. Unity teaches that when you pray for divine guidance in situation, the guidance might be that you go through hardship in order to learn a spiritual or physical lesson. While there are other explanations in Unity philosophy for why individuals don't get what they want or pray for, the responsibility for the philosophy's success lies with the individual.
Raymond, for example, participates in Unity's prosperity program, which advocates tithing 10 percent of an individual's income, with the expectation that it will result in that individual's spiritual and monetary prosperity. "It's like paying taxes. You give back to your government and I think it's normal to give back to the essence what you've gotten. And it apparently comes back to you 100- to 1000-fold. I haven't experienced that yet, but who knows, maybe some day. It makes sense." Although Raymond doesn't feel prosperous yet, he doesn't fault the philosophy, which he says "makes sense."
Because the church transfers the authority, as well as the responsibility, to the individual, it appears to many participants that Unity has no rules, dogma, ritual or hierarchy. Interestingly enough, many of the people who say there are no rules and no dogma — like Raymond, Barbara and Paul — are also the ones who most closely adhere to the church's teachings and who provide examples of the very things they say Unity doesn't have. Barbara and Raymond, for example, participate in the 4T prosperity program which presents tithing as a "spiritual law," a term which sounds relatively dogmatic. The reason this can come across as undogmatic is because spiritual laws are not presented as Unity's specific laws, but as laws of the universe. This excerpt from Unity magazine serves as an example:
God may be thought of as a person, but God is a person who acts like law. Today most educated people believe that the world is ruled by law. This is the age of science; as scientific knowledge increases, we see that what we once thought was ruled by force and chance is really ruled by law. . . . Religions that conceive of God as law often think of themselves as sciences more than as religions. God becomes impersonal Principle, and life is governed by the law of cause and effect, sowing and reaping. (Freeman, 1996, p. 44)
This view that Unity is not a religion is held by Raymond and Barbara, who are both members of different Unity churches. Since it is not perceived by all to be a religion, it does not necessarily carry with it the negative baggage that other long-established churches have. Raymond explained in his own words:
Interviewer: So you don't see Unity as a religion?
Raymond: No. It's not a religion.
Interviewer: What is it?
Raymond: It's a truth center.
Interviewer: Is that what they call it?
Raymond: Legally it's a church. That doesn't mean it's a religion. Most people associate church to religion. It's not a religion. It's a truth, a learning, a teaching center.
Interviewer: Explain to me why.
Raymond: Well, there's no dogma involved. No set rules like in other churches, religions, where you have this dogma and commandments and teachings where this is it, this is the way we do it and the other guy's way is not good. Here they accept people from other religions, because it's not a religion. It's a truth center, which has its faults because it's composed of human beings and we all have our faults. It's not going to be perfect, but it's the closest to perfection that you can find.11
Barbara also said Unity is not a religion because it has no dogma and few rituals. The sticking point for them seems to be that Unity's doctrine is not exclusive or dictatorial. In regard to rituals, Barbara said, "If they do have a ritual it's so renewing and refreshing that I don't think of it being a ritual." It is true that there are no rituals that require one to go in front of the church to participate, like communion. The one exception is a Burning Bowl Ceremony, which is held in many Unity churches on New Year's Eve. Since this is not a regular Sunday service, only individuals who want to participate attend. The everyday ritual which is present in Unity churches is not ostentatious. Group affirmation, for example, is a ritual. Many of the rituals at Christ Unity Church in Albuquerque are enmeshed in songs. The opening song is always the same: "I Behold the Christ in You," a song which reaffirms Unity's central principle of the spark of divinity inside each person. Likewise, the closing songs are always the same: "The Prayer of Protection"12 and the "Peace Song," a popular song from the '60s which was written by a Unity member and begins, "Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me." The Peace Song is sung at the end of the service at nearly every Unity church, making it one of Unity's most pervasive rituals. Ironically, it was Unity's few rituals which appealed to Barbara when she first attended a Unity church.
Interviewer: Thinking back to when you first went there, what was it that felt right?
Barbara: The Prayer of Protection really drew me. I had read it in Unity literature, but it had never really made an impression. I mean, I liked it, but when I heard the minister pray that prayer, I felt like somebody just put their arms around me. . . Also the Peace Song. That was very emotional for me. The first time I was there, I cried.
Clearly, Unity's ability to maintain the perception that there is no dogma, ritual and rules contributes to the church's ability to transfer the perception of authority to the individual. Barbara summed up the perceived authority of the church, God and herself as an individual when asked how much authority she felt Unity had over her life. "I don't think they have authority over it," she said. "I think they have a lot of influence. I don't think I would make any decisions about doing anything without consulting God first. At least I hope I won't."
- Ironically, later in the interview Paul discussed his misgivings with the hierarchy that he found while he was working at a Unity church. Interestingly, though, Paul seemed to distinguish between the hierarchy which resulted from human failings and the lack of hierarchy which was intended in the movement.
- Again, note that the faults result from human failings rather than a flaw in the philosophy.
- The Prayer of Protection, written by James Dillet Freeman during World War II, is perhaps Unity's best-known prayer. It reads: ""The light of God surrounds me/us/you. The love of God enfolds me. The power of God protects me. The presence of God watches over me. Wherever I am, God is." This prayer was carried to the moon by astronaut Edwin A. Aldrin. It is interesting to note that although Freeman is one of the best-known personalities in the Unity movement, he is not a member because he said, "I did not know I was supposed to join. Nobody asked me to" (Freeman, 1996, p. 44).
© 1997, Rebecca Gittrich Whitecotton
All rights reserved by the author.
Reprinted with permission.