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The Unitarian Christian Shahada?


Matt Grant


In the Islamic faith, someone who wishes to become a Muslim is asked to take what is known as the ‘Shahada’. The Shahada, one of the five pillars of Islam, can be viewed as a declaration of belief or confession of faith that begins their entry into the Muslim Ummah. The statement of Shahada in Arabic is:

“Ashadu la illaha il Allah, wa ash-hadu anna Muhammadur rasul Allah."

This can be translated into English and reads as follows:

“I bear witness that there is no God but Allah and I bear witness that Mohammed is His Messenger”

The beauty of this statement of faith is its simplicity. Certainly it takes a great deal more to live one’s life as a Muslim than uttering a sentence and those that do lead the life of a Muslim are generally very committed people with a deep, resounding faith.  However, the point is that this simple statement not only provides a very clear starting point for Muslims on a personal level but also, within the wider Islamic world, it acts as a clear point of unity.

What struck me on reading about this some years ago was whether I had my own statement of faith that could be summed up so easily. I became a Unitarian around the age of twenty. I had in fact always been a Unitarian. However, it was only on investigating the doctrines of Anglicanism, Methodism and the Salvation Army (all of which I had previously attended and felt some allegiance to) that I realised I was not a Trinitarian. After some further research, I became aware that my beliefs were very much Unitarian. Throughout my entire life I have always felt that my faith began at One God and the love of a man called Jesus who lead us towards God and showed us how to live. I have never knowingly believed in concepts such as the trinity or original sin and certainly could never get my head round the idea that God, the loving sculptor of such a fantastically beautiful world, had to stoop so low as having his main man killed so he could forgive the rest of us.

As with most Unitarians, I constantly question and conduct research into my beliefs. I would say that overall my beliefs are very much in a fluid state. I can readily admit that I am not sure about the resurrection and sometimes feel that Jesus may have survived the cross. At other times, I will read something that makes me think he simply died for his beliefs and that was that. On yet other occasions, I’ll gladly entertain the idea that he was resurrected, either as a spirit or metaphorically in that his persona lived on through the thoughts, memories, words and actions of his followers. I have the same approach for God, I had thought ‘God is everywhere’ but always pictured him (yes I thought he was a man) seated up in heaven. However I have recently gone into the idea of God in much more detail and have debated ideas with fellow Unitarian Christians. I now think God is without gender and see the presence of God everywhere and in everything. I even have a technical term for this, which I can show off to my friends. “It’s called Panentheism,” I often tell them authoritatively.

Despite my questioning mind and my ability to regularly think myself into confusion, one thing holds certain—there is One God. Another certainty is that a historical figure named Yeshua existed and—just like the rest of us - lived on this earth as a human being. A further certainty that I feel is true is that this man had an insight into the meaning of this world and our lives that no other known person has managed to encapsulate. Again, I still have many questions that remain unanswered. These include whether he was ‘sent down to earth’ as a direct intervention by God or whether he actually earned for himself the position of Messiah through his own thoughts and actions which, in turn, brought him close to God.

The point I’m making is this: We can ask many questions whilst still having a core faith, whilst still having certain unshakeable beliefs that we are confident are the truth. Belief in One God; the view that all creation is one; and a faith in the human Jesus as the greatest leader, teacher, and exemplar humankind has seen, is my Shahada. Despite all the questions, all the uncertainties over my faith, all my moments of doubt; this is always the starting point I return to. It is the foundation of my belief system and the basis of my perspective on life.

It is also what unites me with my Unitarian Christian colleagues. We are all brought together through our belief in the One God and the recognition that Jesus offers the best way to fulfil our purpose in life. We may have differences in how we see God and what exact role we think Jesus played, what teachings we find most relevant, and how we think his life panned out, BUT we still have a core belief that unites us and binds us together as a community of faith.

Much has already been said on this site about the division and lack of direction that the mishmash ideas of post-Christian Unitarianism have brought. It is my opinion that for Unitarian Christians, we don’t have this problem and can prevent it from occurring by adopting formally such a statement. We should limit the statement to just a few lines and develop an equivalent to the Islamic Shahada. We must learn from the Muslims on this point and develop a formal statement that unites us as a community and gives us a clear starting point in our faith. Here is a suggestion:

We believe that there is One God; we affirm the unity of all creation and take the example and teachings of the Human Jesus as our Way in life.”

The beauty of such a statement is that it does not bind Unitarian Christians to a long contract of doctrine and, at the same time, does not silence debate or stifle free thought. However it is a shared starting point, a unifier for our community and a simple message that will appeal to people looking for a faith group.  One of the main reasons people do not attend church is that, having grown up in a free-thinking society and been given a high level of education, they have developed questioning minds, and fitting them into a straitjacket of dogma suppresses them and often leaves them confused and feeling alienated.

However, the problem with Unitarianism in its current state is that whilst allowing for discussion and freedom of thought, there is nothing else that binds us around a common cause and a shared sense of community. A Unitarian Christian Shahada would remedy this; it would allow our tradition of inquiry, debate and open mindedness to continue, but strike a healthy balance by keeping a cohesive community.

A further point is that such a statement sets out our position so we can say to Jews, Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus: "Look, our common ground is the belief in One God. We choose to try to know God and lead a productive life primarily through Jesus and take him as our guide, whilst you take a different guide. However, we are all trying to get to the same goal."

Straightaway, we can let our friends in other faiths know where we stand, let them know exactly who they are dealing with, and develop a relationship of trust based on common ground. On hearing this, most reasonable adherents of the great world faiths would immediately see that at its most basic level we are actually co-believers, colleagues in a community of ‘One Godites.’ Again, this is an exciting prospect.

© 2005 American Unitarian Conference