Religious symbols offer a means by which the underlying message or theology of a faith tradition can by conveyed absent words. Jesus probably had much the same idea in mind when he says, "Therefore speak I to them in parables; because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not; neither do they understand." [KJV, Mathew 13:13] Truth is revealed to each person at one’s own particular level of understanding. Symbols like parable hasten and abet that revelation.
Unitarian Universalism is not generally regarded as being a symbol-heavy denomination nor does it appear to have one particular symbol that conveys spiritual or ethical meaning to every Unitarian Universalist. Nonetheless, UU’s use symbols to convey a sense of history, ethical and moral values, and religious roots. The two symbols most frequently associated with the Unitarian Universalist faith tradition are the flaming chalice and the cross. The manner of their visual presentation has undergone gradual evolution over the years.
The symbol of Universalism, if such can be said, has generally been the circle. The circle is a traditional symbol of infinity because it has no beginning or end. It lacks boundaries and it 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 the Universalist faith tradition grew.
The equal-sided cross within a circle was created for the Universalist Church of Albany, New York and is customarily referred to as "The Old Universalist Cross." This type of circle-cross symbol predates Christianity and can be interpreted by both theists and non-theists as representing the earth, the seasons and eternity. Most are familiar with the use of the equal sided cross emblematic of the American Red Cross, the international aid agency. The founder of the organization was Clara Barton, a Universalist.
As Universalism changed, a new symbol was needed. An off-center cross was designed in 1946 to acknowledge the Christian origins of Universalism while leaving room for the growth of Humanism and the teachings of the many world faith traditions. The off-center cross within the circle symbolized the validity of the many different paths in quest of the Divine.
The flaming chalice has become the internationally recognized symbol of the Unitarian Universalist movement. It is the official logo of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations (UUA). Its origins date back to World War II when Austrian refugee Hans Deutsch designed the symbol for the Unitarian Service Committee (USC), now the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. Deutsch drew his inspiration from the chalices of oil burned on Greek and Roman altars. He is credited with saying that "The holy oil burning is a symbol of helpfulness and sacrifice." During the war, the flaming chalice became the underground symbol for those rendering assistance to Unitarians, Jews and other people fleeing Nazi persecution. After 1941, the artistic rendition of the flaming chalice symbol spread throughout the Unitarianism in America movement and continued after the consolidation of the Unitarians and the Universalist in the early 1960’s.
The flaming chalice symbol is often shown surrounded by two linked rings signifying the joining of the two UU traditions. There is simply no doctrinaire interpretation of the flaming chalice symbol. On one hand, it is a symbol of religious freedom. On another, it can be interpreted to mean all those men and women throughout history who sacrificed their lives for the cause of religious history.
The flame may also be understood as a metaphor for the lives of human beings both as individuals and within the community. The cup is a familiar object made to be held and passed around or shared. A flame by contrast is not an object per se. It cannot be weighted or measured. It is not static but a dynamic changing process.
The flame needs three elements to exist. The first of these is fuel which is a material comparable to the treasured buildings and books, money and documents of a church community. If a fire lacks fuel, it is said to be "burning low" like a candle in its final moments. Unitarians readily accept that like kindling for a fire, people in their private lives and collectively need the fuel of physical things.
The second element of the flame is heat. Heat is life itself which is distinguished from death; it is the spark of intelligence, the warmth of human encounter, even the occasional dissonance of disagreement. To develop as human beings, people need heat which is found in the vitality of congregational life and those activities which animate and engage – all outward signs of a healthy liberal religious community.
And lastly, the third element needed by the flame is air. It oxygenates the fire. The ancient Greeks and Hebrews compared air or wind to Spirit. To develop, people need air or the inspiration of the invisible.
Taken as a whole, the flaming chalice is not a burning bush, but something which must be lit and re-lit by every person. It requires an act of will, of purpose and of faith. Unitarianism allows persons to develop freely without the constrictions of perceived dogma in a non-creedal way. Darkness is the absence of light. Unitarians believe that the way to overcome the darkness is to figuratively light our lamps whenever we meet.
After the consolidation of the Unitarian and Universalist churches in 1961, various congregations began to consider ways to combine the Universalist Circle with the Unitarian Chalice. That which emerged from these considerations was a chalice off-set within a double circle (or some similar image). This depiction symbolized the two merged faiths and has become the most familiar image in UU churches throughout the country and the world.