Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Exploring the Unique Courses of the Universal Life Church

Not long ago I wrote about the courses available through the Universal Life Church headquarters in Modesto, California. These courses were put together by Rev. Kirby J. Hensley and his wife Lida many years ago. Completion of each course, along with the proper donation, results in a diploma with a rather ostentatious title. For example, you can obtain a Doctor of Biblical Studies, Immortality, or Motivation, among others. As for me, I recently completed the Doctor of Philosophy in Religion. I won't be updating my LinkedIn profile to reflect my newfound status, though! These courses fill a need that is common among religious groups. As I said in that earlier post:

"Religious organizations are free to offer coursework in their beliefs without regulation. It may not be accredited by a regional accreditor or the Association of Theological Schools, but it's valid within the boundaries of the religion. Other denominations do the same thing, though they don't necessarily use such august titles. One good example of this is Community of Christ, a global denomination based in the midwestern United States and descended from the Latter Day Saint tradition begun by Joseph Smith, Jr. They have what they call their 'Temple School,' offering courses in such things as 'Introduction to Scripture' and 'Priesthood Ministry.' The intent of these courses is to provide basic training especially for people who will be assuming leadership roles. Another denomination doing something similar is the Unitarian Universalist Association, which operates the UU Institute to educate and empower members for various forms of leadership and ministry. Course offerings include 'Developing and Managing a Music Program' and 'Unitarian/Universalist Colonial Legacy: Are We an Imperial Faith?'"

To that list I would also add the Humanist Studies Program offered through the AHA Center for Education.

This particular course I recently took through the ULC relied on an interesting little book published by the denomination. It's a "Holy Bible" that consists of an abridged Old and New Testament, as well as a section Rev. Hensley called the "Testament of Today." It was published in 1977. But what purpose does it serve?

In the Universal Life Church, as in a denomination like the Unitarian Universalist Association, it isn't assumed that the ordained minister will have a deep familiarity with the Bible. Each minister is free to believe whatever they like, and people come from a wide range of backgrounds. Some are Christians, others Buddhists, many are probably nonreligious, and there are certainly atheists among the clergy as well. The only unifying tenets are the charges to do only that which is right, and support freedom of religion. In this context, a book like this abridged Holy Bible can really come in handy.

Although I didn't read it cover to cover, I think a person could easily read the condensed Holy Bible within a week, with just an hour or so of daily reading. Doing so would give a person a broad understanding of the themes of the Bible, with key events. Certainly no one will become a published scholar based on what is learned from this book, but a ULC minister with limited familiarity of the Bible will find it very useful. The "Testament of Today" is also an intriguing snapshot of Rev. Hensley's theology as of the late 1970s. I doubt many would agree with his perspectives today, and indeed some aspects are very odd. It isn't expected that the reader will agree, only that they be made to think. 

The Universal Life Ministerial Formation Network is coming into being to promote more formal education for ULC ministers who desire it, either for professional or personal reasons. That does not mean, however, that the courses available through the ULC HQ should be set aside. These are core documents of our tradition, and they serve a useful purpose. Both those seeking advanced degrees and those who have no intention entering a degree program can benefit from the ULC courses. Try one out and see what you think. 

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