Seven Guiding Tenets
Rev. Douglas Taylor
August 22, 2004
If you are new, or if you’ve been around for a while and just haven’t noticed yet, I must tell you – Unitarian Universalism is different from a lot of the religious options out there. For one thing, we don’t have a creed or central doctrine that everyone must agree to before they can be a part of the congregation. You are not required to believe in a particular thing to be among us. What we do have is a set of seven principles that serve as a statement of what brings us together.
And I need your help this morning. I would like you to turn in your hymnals to the page right before the first hymn. (If you’re flipping from the front you’ll need to go past the two title pages, the table of contents, the preface and than one more title page.) I want you to find that page which lists our Seven Principles. It begins with the line, “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote:” Then you will see what we call our seven principles followed by our six sources. It is really the top half of that page I’m interested in today: Our principles.
Scott Alexander, a colleague I met down in the Washington D.C. area, once wrote out a list I will share with you entitled “Seven Reasons NOT to be a Unitarian Universalist.” This is not an attempt to drive anyone away. It was, of course, just a fun little rhetorical gimmick Scott used to talk about the seven principles. Sometimes, however, it is enlightening to glance over to the negative version of positive statements to regain a perspective. So, you may want to follow along with the real seven Principles as I share with you these seven reasons NOT to be a Unitarian Universalist.
You should not be a Unitarian Universalist if you have AN ESSENTIALLY NEGATIVE AND PESSIMISTIC VIEW OF PERSONS AND THEIR POTENTIAL FOR DIGNITY, DECENCY AND WORTH.
Secondly, you should not be a Unitarian Universalist IF YOU THINK THE INJUSTICES AND INDIGNITIES OF OUR SOCIETY AND WORLD ARE EITHER INTRACTABLE…OR SOMEONE ELSE’S RESPONSIBILITY.
Thirdly, you should not be a Unitarian Universalist IF YOU IMAGINE YOURSELF CAPABLE OF HAVING A FULL AND SATISFYING RELIGIOUS LIFE ALL BY YOURSELF (IN SOME SORT OF SPLENDID SPIRITUAL ISOLATION).
Fourth, don’t be a Unitarian Universalist IF YOU WANT SOMEONE (FROM SOME DOGMATIC, HIERARCHICAL PLACE) TO LAY OUT A COMPLETE, CUT-AND-DRIED, TRUE FOR ALL TIMES AND AGES FAITH SYSTEM THAT REQUIRES YOU TO BLINDLY FOLLOW AND OBEY.
Fifth, don’t be a Unitarian Universalist IF YOU FIND DEMOCRACY AND THE DEMOCRATIC PROCESS TO BE A TEDIOUS AND FRUSTRATING WASTE OF TIME.
Sixth, don’t be a Unitarian Universalist IF YOU’RE ONE OF THOSE AMERICANS WHO FEELS THAT WE CAN (AS A PEOPLE AND A NATION) LIVE RESPONSIBLY AND SUCCESSFULLY UPON THIS PLANET BY ISOLATING OURSELVES FROM THE PROBLEMS AND PAINS OF THE REST OF THE WORLD’S PEOPLE.
Seventh, and lastly, don’t be a Unitarian Universalist if YOU THINK HUMANITY CAN BASICALLY CONTINUE TO LIVE (SANELY AND SUCCESSFULLY) ON THIS FRAGILE PLANET OF OURS, SELFISHLY DISREGARDING THE TENDER BALANCE AND VERY REAL RESOURCE LIMITS OF MOTHER EARTH.
(“7 Reasons NOT to be a Unitarian Universalist” by Scott Alexander, River Road Unitarian Church, Bethesda, MD. Oct. 2000)
Sometimes when we look at the principles of our religion we can think, “Those are so obvious, anyone can agree to those.” I’ve heard people say our principles sound more like the guidelines for public radio than a religious community. When we think like that we are forgetting that there really are various other religious perspectives out there that do present a negative, pessimistic view of human nature, or that do suggest you can have a full and satisfying religious life all by yourself, or that do declare the earth to be the dominion of humanity. There really are other religious perspectives out there that dogmatically and hierarchically lay out a complete, cut-and-dry, true-for-all-time faith system that requires you to blindly follow and obey. Our principles are not just pretty words, they mark a distinctly different way of doing religion, and they describe what we as Unitarian Universalists cherish.
In our reading this morning, Ed Frost said “a religion needs to be able to say to the world what it is that its adherents believe.” Unitarian Universalism is not an easy religion to explain to your neighbor, co-worker, or brother-in-law. It is difficult to encapsulate our complex faith tradition in a few sentences. And our non-creedalism, our commitment to the individual freedom of religious conscience, is in no small way responsible for a great deal of that difficulty. How do you say what we all believe when everyone believes different things? How do you describe the central beliefs of a faith tradition that has no creed or dogma?
Thankfully, about twenty years ago, the Unitarian Universalist Association voted during it’s General Assembly to adopt a very well put together set of principles. The seven principles do not line out what all Unitarian Universalists believe. If they did, it would be a creed and we do not have a creed. Instead, these seven principles serve as guiding statements to help us in our attempts to articulate and understand what our religion is all about.
“We the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association covenant to affirm and promote The inherent worth and dignity of every person; Justice, equity and compassion in human relations; Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations; A free and responsible search for truth and meaning; The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large; The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all; and Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”
I wonder how many people in the congregation could recite these by heart? I bet some of the kids would try. Maybe I should give out prizes to anyone who can recite the seven principles by heart! The thing is, I’m not sure how long they will last. This current set were drawn up about 20 years ago because people felt the previous ones were out of step with the times. In large part it was a group of women in the late 1970’s who started pushing for gender-inclusive language and non-hierarchical concepts. The previous statement had been a contentious and strenuous exercise to bring the two separate traditions of Unitarianism and Universalism together in 1961. Apparently it took them twenty years to lay down some of those old issues and notice that the resulting statement was a bit stilted and clunky.
The Seven Principles you have in your hymnal were crafted over the course of a couple of years with the input of whole lot of people. I think at least one member of this congregation, Ed Ware, was at those General Assemblies when people were debating and amending and voting on these words.
One of the most wonderful aspects of these principles is the way they come together as a whole. These are more than simply a list of seven things we managed to agree upon. These seven principles don’t read like something created out of a committee. This list has both a logical and poetic structure. The first of the seven, “the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” this radical statement declaring that every individual has an innate worthiness, is in several respects mirrored or balanced by the seventh principle, this remarkable call to honor this deep and varied connectedness we have with all life, “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” These two, the resounding cheer for individualism and the deeply compelling assertion of our interconnected dependancy, balance each other elegantly. Historically Unitarianism and, to a slightly lesser degree, Universalism have been very individualistic traditions. Freedom of the individual conscience in matters of religious belief has long been a guiding tenet of both of the now merged traditions. And this emphasis is echoed in the first principle.
Interestingly the seven principles seem to move as if along a continuum from the integrity of the individual to interconnectedness of all existence. The second and third principles speak of values to be used in one-to-one human relations and within our congregations. The fifth and sixth principles speak of processes and goals for society at large and indeed the world community. Both sides of this balance reach toward the middle where we find our fourth principle: the free and responsible search for truth and meaning.
One colleague, Barbara Wells, suggested in her workbook Articulating Your UU Faith that the seven principles could be visualized as an arch supported by two pillars. The first and seventh principles serve as the supporting pillars for the other five principles, with the center principle about the search serving as the keystone to the arch.
These principles embody the central guiding tenets that bring us together as a religious community. Take a look at them again and think about your life.
Looking at these principles, do you hear the message that you are accepted and welcomed? Do you see the basic worth and dignity within yourself? Can you see it in others, even when it is deeply hidden or denied?
In thinking about the relationships you are in, is there compassion and equity? If not, can there be some justice? What would need to change for to have justice equity and compassion in all your relationships? What can you change?
How are you doing at accepting other people and encouraging them? Are there roadblocks that keep you from helping others become the best they can be, and is one of those roadblocks an inability to be truly accepting? What does it look like to be truly compassionate and accepting? How does that fit with having justice and equity in your relationships?
Do you exercise your freedom to uncover meaning in your life? Have you been held back from seeking out truths and meaning that make sense? Have you held yourself back? Do you ever find yourself squandering that responsibility to figure some of these important things out?
Have you ever found yourself frustrated with the messy process of democracy? Do you speak out? Do you add your voice to the rich patterns of conversation and debate, or do you hold back?
What can you do to promote peace and justice in the world? Does it help to know that there are a couple of hundred people just in this congregation alone that are doing this work with you? Has your life and action brought us closer to that goal?
Do you feel the tug on the web when you act for peace and justice? Can you sense that there is a grand system around you and that your life and love impacts that grand whole in countless ways. Can you feel your impact along the lines of connectedness?
Do you hear the message that you are accepted and welcomed? Do you hear the message that your voice and your deeds matter? Do you hear the message that the gifts you have to offer the world are desperately needed? Do you hear the message ringing out from these lofty and beautiful principles that were written a generation ago for you?
In a world without end
may it be so.