Six Sources and Seven Principles in Seventeen Minutes
Some folks think that Unitarian Universalists are very wishy washy, very mushy, and very boring about what we believe. That’s not true; individual Unitarians are very able to speak about their personal beliefs. As congregations we covenant (that’s promise) to affirm (that’s publicly declare) and promote (that’s tell people about) our Seven Principles.
I don’t think there is anything mushy about the Seven Principles. Other religions have catchier declarations of faith. Ours don’t have the power of the Shma of the Jews or the Nicene Creed of Christians or the brevity of the Shahaadah of Islam. What our principles represent instead is a stage in the evolution of our church’s understanding about what is important. Unitarians as a rule are quite happy with the Sources and Principles, but most of us would be horrified at the notion that it could never change. We know it will; we’re okay with that. Anyone searching for a religion which will never improve or discuss its principles would find U*Uism quite troubling.
So what DO we believe?
The children’s version of our principles goes like this:
1. Each person is important.
2. Be kind in all you do.
3. We’re free to learn together.
4. We search for what is true.
5. All people need a voice.
6. Build a fair and peaceful world.
7. We care for Earth’s lifeboat.
We want to tell everyone in the world that we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Every person has value and rights. This was recalled to me quite firmly when I mocked George W. Bush at a U*U event and a church elder — whom I knew didn’t like him very much — said I was being disrespectful. Whatever the private feelings and speech of individual Unitarians, as congregations — as publicly accountable religious bodies with special tax status — we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person. And that’s everybody, including people we may have reason not to like.
We believe in justice, equity and compassion in human relations. Justice means that the wronged have meaningful recourse, equity means that laws and rules are applied equally to all within the jurisdiction, without reference to race or religion or disability, to orientation, sex or media coverage. Compassion means not enacting justice with a view to applying cookie cutter rules to everyone; it means taking the long view, and being humane and sensible and supportive in both the development and the practice of the rules by which we live together, both in the church and in the larger world.
We want the world to know that we believe in acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations. That seems really obvious; in practice it’s damned hard. U*Uism is a religion which encourages a very broad spectrum of personal belief, from theists to atheists, from pantheists to Santeria practitioners, to meet in the same room and learn from each other. I believe that a valid worship experience takes you to the place of awe, thankfulness and simplicity, and there are a thousand, thousand ways to get there. I am reminded that the religious experience across the human family is immense, and the more I can do to breach that gap, the more I am doing to make the world a better place, and one in which the individual spiritual and religious experience is honoured.
The next of the seven principles: we believe in a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Free means we don’t tell you what to think, as you walk along your path of consciously trying to be a better person, which ideally is what religion should be, at least in my view. Responsible means you don’t mock, injure, or undermine others as they walk beside you. So Unitarians are loath to comment on the piety or religious practices of others; we want for others what we wish for ourselves, and commit to providing a religious environment in which this difficult balance is not only possible, but an essential part of who we are.
We believe in the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large. We are all welcome to speak our truths — with love, with respect, with conviction, with passion — and to democratically bring about changes and improvements as we move forward together through time and with faith.
We believe in the goal of world community with peace liberty and justice for all. Not world government. World community, in which we are all participants in a great world of dialogue, learning, mutual support with each person enabled to reach potential in safety and freedom from tyranny.
We believe in having respect for the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part. Unitarians do not participate in a creed which says God gave us the world and we can do what we like with it. We are part of that world; an injury to the world will sooner or later be an injury to us, as a spider can feel holes being torn in its web without necessarily being immediately in peril.
Unitarians have a living tradition. We look back to a magnificent tradition of prophets and seekers, and we look forward to expanding and building on it. Some of those traditions include:
-direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
In other words, we believe in your individual experience of transcendent wonder, and your right to it however it is experienced;
-words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
And we believe this because without the example of the prophets, saints and troublemakers of this and other eras, we may lose encouragement in our struggles to make this world a better one, and because we don’t offer our members the promise of heaven and the threat of hell;
-wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
Which sometimes gets us in trouble, since it opens us up to the criticism that we are a pick one from column a and one from column b kind of religion, but which enlivens our church life immensely and is one of the things I like best about my church;
-Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbours as ourselves;
We haven’t thrown the Bible out with the bathwater; the Bible is still important to us, but it has been many long years since the U*Us thought it was the inerrant word of God.
-Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit;
To expand on this, I can do no better than quote Rev Paul Beckel of First Unitarian Universalist Church of Wausau Wisconsin:
What are idolatries of the spirit? Believing that we have a handle on God. Believing that our understanding of God is sufficient. Believing that God can do it all.
What are idolatries of the mind? … reason itself can become an idol. And likewise science, without ethics.
Unitarians also draw upon one last source:
-Spiritual teachings of Earth-centred traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.
That can sound like New Age nonsense. But as I have myself learned, sometimes to celebrate the sacred circle of life, I must learn from the elders of the human family. From the First Nations of Canada to the mountains of the Andes, from the hills of Madagascar to the steppes of Russia, there are earth centered traditions which have raised my eyes from my rational comfortable life to a more subtle appreciation of the joy and challenge of this splendid burgeoning of body, soul and intellect, this beautiful and painful life we share.
Unitarianism has forced me to think very long and hard about what I believe, and why I believe it. It has forced me to confront my unconscious prejudices against people of faith. It has humbled my intellect, without diminishing or belittling it, and filled me with nourishment — physical, spiritual, musical, emotional. May it do the same for all seekers who make it their church home.