Friday, June 24, 2005

The UU-FAQ II: UU Principles

Aren’t there any common beliefs in Unitarian Universalism?

Yes. The Unitarian Universalist General Assembly has adopted the following statement of its principles:

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;
* Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Why isn’t that a creed?

Creeds are designed to be membership tests. The original purpose of reciting a creed during church services was to force heretics to perjure themselves, and creed recitals still serve to make less-than-orthodox believers uncomfortable – maybe uncomfortable enough to leave.

The UU Principles make a crummy membership test, because billions of people who don’t consider themselves UU’s can pass it. The principles describe the center of Unitarian Universalism rather than its boundaries. They provide a focus for our attention, not a way to differentiate ourselves from the infidels. Moreover, the principles are in no way sacred. We are pledged to revisit them from time to time, and they will undoubtedly be changed or reworded from one generation to the next.

Finally, you can deny the UU Principles from top to bottom and not get thrown out. The principles are affirmed and promoted by the member congregations of the UUA, not necessarily by every individual in those congregations. If you do deny the UU Principles, people might reasonably ask why you want to belong to a congregation committed to promoting them. But if you think you have reasons to stay, that’s your decision.

It’s not obvious what some of the principles mean. Take the first principle, for example. What does it mean to affirm “the inherent worth and dignity of every person”?

Individual UU’s interpret the principles differently, and this principle probably has more interpretations than any of the others. One sure way to start an argument is to ask a roomfull of UU’s whether or not Adolf Hitler still had worth and dignity in 1945, and (if he did) what kind of treatment that worth and dignity entitled him to.

Historically, Universalism was a radical rebellion against the Calvinist doctrine of predestination – the idea that people are chosen for Heaven or Hell before they are born. The first principle reflects this history by expressing the belief that no living person is irretrievably lost to Evil. The decision to oppose another person and work for his or her defeat should always be taken in sorrow rather than anger, and we should always be as aware of our own failure to find and reach the good inside another person as we are of our opponent's failings.

The first principle also cautions us against negligence. Much suffering in the world results not from malice, but from allowing ourselves to ignore the interests of others as we make our decisions. One unfortunate but very human tendency is to divide the world into an Us, whose needs and desires count, and a Them, whose needs and desires don’t count. Historically, many groups of people have fallen through the cracks of societal concern because of their race, gender, class, religion, nationality, sexual preference, or some other factor that made them seem less worthy than other people. The first principle calls on us to be aware of the worth of all people, not just the people who are like us or who currently have the power to make their needs and desires felt.

What is a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning”?

As we said previously, neither the UUA nor the individual Unitarian Universalist congregations will discipline an individual’s expressions of belief. Nor will they prevent an individual from reading, praying, worshipping, meditating, thinking, or doing any other legal act in pursuit of understanding and spiritual growth.

That’s the free part. But what about responsible? Any religious authority who tells his or her followers what to believe is also taking a certain amount of responsibility for those beliefs. Followers have a right to expect that the belief system has been vetted or authorized. They trust that someone else has considered the consequences of having large numbers of people follow these beliefs for long periods of time. (Sometimes that trust is misplaced, but that’s a separate issue.)

The fourth principle reminds us that just as the community does not limit or discipline our search for truth, it also does not authorize the answers we come to. If we are satisfied with self-serving or self-destructive beliefs and practices, we are responsible for the harm they cause.

People who have grown up under a strong religious authority (whether it be an individual, a book, or a single-minded community) sometimes have trouble grasping this concept. For example, a Mormon may chafe under his religion’s ban on alcohol, and may feel liberated to join a UU church that has no such restriction. But he can’t excuse his perpetual drunkenness by saying, “It’s OK for UU’s to drink.” Unitarian Universalism doesn’t authorize his drinking, it merely provides the freedom for him to reach his own conclusions about it.

Are there other common beliefs?

One popular summary of the UU ideological commitments is: Freedom, Reason, and Tolerance. Freedom and Tolerance are amply represented in the UU Principles. Reason is mentioned in another important list sometimes referred to as the UU Sources. Unitarian and Universalist history revolves around the struggle of people to think for themselves about more and more issues, rather than have their inquiry constrained by dogma. Consequently, the commitment to Reason runs deep.

What do you teach your children?

The UU Principles. Freedom, Reason, and Tolerance. The history of our tradition. The goal of UU religious education, however, is somewhat different than in most other religions, because our tradition of free thought is not compatible with rigorous indoctrination. We are attempting to raise children who will make intelligent choices, and not necessarily children who will grow up to be like us. While many do remain UU, it is not unusual for a child raised as a UU to choose another religion in adulthood. (Actually, it’s not unusual for a child raised in any religion to choose a different one in adulthood.) Unlike most religious groups, we’re OK with that. Good people can be found in any religion, and if our children grow up to be those people we’ve done our job.

Consequently, our religious education program includes a lot of discussion, a lot of material about other religions, and comparatively little indoctrination. Most UU congregations have some kind of “Coming of Age” program for teens. Unlike a Protestant confirmation, Coming of Age typically culminates in a Sunday service in which the teens tell us what they believe, rather than repeating back what we’ve told them to believe. Such a service is inspiring in a uniquely UU way. The youths sometimes put forward the most bizarre ideas, but we rejoice in the fact that those ideas are their own. The content of their credos is secondary; we celebrate their commitment to a lifetime of thinking for themselves.

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