Soul Seeds: The Chalice and Off-Centered Cross

What are ten things that all Unitarian Universalists need to know about their faith community? Ten things that are distinctive and unique? Each month, we’re counting down, from Number 10 all the way down to Number 1, as a way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Unitarian Universalist Association in May 2011.

Last month, Number 10 was 325AD and 544AD. This month, we’re looking at Number 9:

Flaming Chalice Off Centered-Cross

The image to the left is already familiar to you—it’s the Flaming Chalice, the official symbol of our faith tradition. But do you know the history behind it? And, did you know that a part of that history includes the existence of other powerful symbols, which can also speak to us today? We’ll take a look at one of those alternate images, the Off-Centered Cross.

Both symbols emerge out of the events of the 1940s. Let’s take a look at the circumstances surrounding the creation of the Flaming Chalice first (and for this, I’m drawing from Dan Hotchkiss’s article “The Flaming Chalice“).

The story begins with the formation of the Unitarian Service Committee (USC), founded to assist Eastern Europeans, among them Unitarians as well as Jews, who needed to escape Nazi persecution. The nature of this work was cloak-and-dagger dangerous, involving a secret network of couriers and agents. Given this, the newly-formed USC faced a difficult challenge up front. It was fresh on the scene, a virtual unknown, but for its work to succeed, it needed to establish trust quickly across barriers of language, nationality, and faith. In particular, it needed to establish a system of signs and countersigns that people could immediately recognize.

Enter the Flaming Chalice. Commissioned by USC head Charles Joy, he described this symbol as follows: “It was a chalice with a flame, the kind of chalice which the Greeks and Romans put on their altars. The holy oil burning in it is a symbol of helpfulness and sacrifice…. This was in the mind of the artist [Hans Deutsch]. The fact, however, that it remotely suggests a cross was not in his mind, but to me this also has its merit. We do not limit our work to Christians. Indeed, at the present moment, our work is nine- tenths for the Jews, yet we do stem from the Christian tradition, and the cross does symbolize Christianity and its central theme of sacrificial love.”

The 1940s also saw the creation of the “Off-Centered Cross” (and in describing this, I’m drawing from the New Massachusetts Universalist Convention website):

The off-center cross was invented in late April, 1946, in a hotel room in Akron, Ohio, during the Universalist General Assembly, where a number of Universalist ministers pooled their ideas. Here is how two of the symbols’ originators later described it:

The circle is drawn to represent the all-inclusive faith of universalism which shuts no one out. In that circle is placed the cross, symbolizing the beloved faith out of which our wider insight has grown. We feel that universalism is not the product of any one cultural or religious tradition, but is in fact implicit in all the great faiths … we consider ourselves to be “Universalists of Christian descent.” (Rev. Albert Ziegler)

The Circle is a symbol of infinity–a figure without beginning or end. The Cross is the symbol of Christianity. It is placed off-center in the circle of infinity to indicate that Christianity is an interpretation of infinity but neither the only interpretation of the infinite nor necessarily for all people, the best one. It leaves room for other symbols and other interpretations. It is, therefore, a symbol of Universalism. (Rev. Gordon McKeeman)

The New Massachusetts Universalist Convention website goes on to say:

The circle, a traditional symbol of infinity because it has no beginning or end, represents the universe. The empty space at the center represents the mystery at the heart of the universe that people call ‘God.’ The cross represents Christianity, out of which Universalism grew, and which is the path toward God that most religious people in North America are brought up to follow; but it is placed off-center, to leave room for other points of view and to acknowledge the validity of other paths toward God.

And there you have it. Two symbols of our faith, born in the 1940s under very different circumstances, reflecting essential aspects of who we are. The Flaming Chalice comes from our Unitarian side, and reflects our heart for service. It also only “remotely suggests” our historical roots in Christianity. The Off-Centered Cross, on the other hand, comes from our Universalist side, and it telegraphs the message that in our search for meaning, we are responsive to our human heritage of all the great world religious traditions. God is too big to be the possession of any single religious way. The Off-Centered Cross also explicitly acknowledges our historical roots in Christianity, even as it says that we are now post-Christian.

Today, barriers of language, nationality, and faith still exist. At times, conversations with other people (conversations with friends, co-workers, and family!) can feel fraught with danger, and can feel cloak-and-dagger. Which symbol, for you, is the most effective sign and countersign enabling you to share your faith with others—and to understand it best for yourself?

The Flaming Chalice and the Off-Centered Cross: that’s Number 9 in our UU Top Ten List. Next month: Number 8!

Rev. Anthony David, Senior Minister