Love Beyond Belief

by Reverend Dr. Marlin Lavanhar


When you have a church that is bound together by a promise rather than a belief system, you free people to be honest about what they believe and don’t believe. At All Souls Unitarian Church, in Tulsa, over 2,000 members are united by a covenant of love and service. That means that we have Christians, Jews, Buddhists, agnostics, and people who draw from a mixture of faiths and philosophies, all together in one community.

One member said recently, “After listening to the sermons for two years, I realized it isn’t Jesus that I don’t like; it is the version of Jesus that my mother-in-law used to shove down my throat that I can’t stand.” Another person said, “I don’t believe in God, but I never knew there was a community where there are others like me and that accepts people who base their values on a human, scientific, and naturalistic worldview.” A woman who years before had suffered a brutal attack and was left blind and with scar tissue covering her face came to me one morning after church and said, “Pastor, I’ve been sitting in the back of your church for a year now and I want you to know that you have given me back my relationship with God. After I was assaulted, so many people told me that ‘it was God’s will,’ that ‘God has a purpose for everything,’ and I so stopped believing in God. What kind of God would do this to me or let it happen? Your church has taught me that God did not do this to me, another human being did it, and that God loves me, because God is love.”

Unitarianism is associated with the Revolutionary War era and Americans like Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams and with abolitionists and social reformers in the fields of public education, mental health care, medicine, women’s rights and civil rights. It is also the home of great writers and thinkers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Charles Dickens, Walt Whitman, and Beatrix Potter. It is the commitments to free inquiry and service to the common good that brings together people from all walks of life and who hold many theological perspectives into one community. Even though the tradition began in Europe during the Protestant Reformation in the era of John Calvin and Martin Luther, it exists today as a very modern church. As the world becomes smaller and more and more people are in relationships with people of different faiths and are learning about different faiths and cultures through the Internet, there is an exodus happening from churches that espouse exclusive truth claims. Still, many people are looking for a community that takes ethical and moral issues seriously and gives people the freedom to think, learn, and discover without the confines of dogma. We encourage our members of all ages to explore the truths of science and other religions and philosophies, while also drawing on their own direct experiences and the arts, to know and connect with what is ultimate in life. For people who are looking for a church with religious leaders who have all the answers to life’s mysteries, we are not that kind of community. For people who are filled with questions that they want to explore in an environment where such freedom is welcome and supported and for people who want to work for justice and the transformation of society with others in an intergenerational, interracial, interreligious community, those are the kinds of people who are attracted to our church. The most common phrase I hear almost every week from newcomers: “I had no idea there was a church like this.”

All Souls is the largest Unitarian Universalist Church in the country and has a national and international following online. We frequently host groups from around the United States who come to learn about how we sustain such a diverse and free community. People are often surprised to find such an inclusive and progressive religious community in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It has always been my contention that in a city with so many conservative and fundamentalist churches, All Souls is an oasis of progressive thinking that offers the kind of rational, relevant, and engaged spirituality that many are looking to find. All over our church you will see the words “Love Beyond Belief.”  At All Souls love is at the center of our church and we feel strongly that people do not have to believe alike to love alike. The only test of faith one will encounter at All Souls: “Do your beliefs or lack of beliefs lead you to love others.” We are much more interested in what you do and less concerned about what you say you believe.

Originally published in This Land: Summer 2015.