Advantages and Pitfalls of Flexible Faith
This study confirms previous research which determined that strong beliefs are linked to church growth. Unity offers an example of how to maintain a strong belief system while at the same time respecting and acknowledging the validity of other philosophies. This dichotomy of respect for individuals' freedom to choose within a religion which sets limits on organizational teachings is the result of Unity's doctrine of individual choice. Questioning is encouraged and disagreement is accepted. But although it may respect other religions, Unity is not so flexible that it will teach another philosophy that directly contradicts itself.
The church and the movement must continue to wrestle with the difficulties that the Fillmores faced in the early years regarding how much limitation to put on the movement. Charles Fillmore labored over the dilemma of whether to keep the teachings pure or go against his belief in an individual's ability to choose by limiting the organization. Nevertheless, he did have a breaking point at which the movement's message took precedence over individual choice. Likewise, Unity as an organization must decide what breaking point it is willing to enforce. Although the organization distances itself from some beliefs and practices, the churches continue to enjoy considerable leeway in what they accept. Given the fact that Unity is in competition with the New Age movement for the same group of religious seekers, Unity must decide whether it wants to maintain its separate identity or be perceived as an institutionalized carrier of New Age religion. Thus far, Unity has succeeded because it has found a market niche which is more limiting than New Age. If the movement waters down its philosophy in order to expand that niche, however, it could find itself losing the people it originally attracted. For example, Maria has dropped out of the Unity church, but not the movement as a whole, because she disagrees with the New Age direction she has seen her local church take. "I did not feel that the Unity church was the right place for me," she said.
The flexibility of Unity, along with the perception of no dogma and rules, was the third most common reason given by survey respondents for participating in the movement. But while flexibility was named by 14 percent of respondents, 66 percent said they participate because Unity's beliefs are aligned with their own. So although flexibility is a desirable trait, the movement's doctrine and beliefs are a much more powerful magnet for attracting new participants. Therefore, Unity should take care not to put its central beliefs in jeopardy by placing more importance on flexibility than is necessary. Of course, one of Unity's beliefs is the doctrine of individual choice, and this doctrine can continue to provide flexibility to individuals within the movement. Unity as an organization, however, should be prepared to protect its teachings from becoming mere notions or possibilities rather than confident answers which convey real meaning.
© 1997, Rebecca Gittrich Whitecotton
All rights reserved by the author.
Reprinted with permission.