Call to worship (here)
Unitarian Universalism is a covenantal faith, not a creedal one. What does that mean?
Theodore Parker had this to say:
“Be ours a religion which like sunshine goes everywhere, its temple all space, its shrine the good heart, its creed all truth, its ritual works of love.”
Theodore Parker, a 19th century Unitarian Minister, is one of my favorites partly because it is said he wrote his sermons with a pistol on his desk because he usually had fugitive slaves hidden in the parsonage.
His ritual really was works of love. Naming our creed all truth was also a definite challenge to the religious mainstream of his day.
Being a creedless faith does not mean we don’t believe in anything.
Creed, by definition, is a system, doctrine, or formula of religious belief. The most famous is the Apostles Creed, the Roman Catholic version:
I believe in God,
the Father almighty,
Creator of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died and was buried;
he descended into hell;
on the third day he rose again from the dead;
he ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty;
from there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and life everlasting.
There are variations – the Lutherans say “Holy Christian Church” rather than holy catholic church, I guess to avoid confusion.
A creed is a statement of beliefs that are taken on faith. Members of religious institutions that have creeds are expected to agree with the beliefs specified in that creed. If you question the Virgin birth, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, or his unique divinity as the only son of God, you can be labeled a heretic. During the reformation, many were burned at the stake for that kind of questioning. Today, people are excommunicated from some faiths because they do not believe or follow all of a church’s teaching.
Parker’s line, “creed all truth,” was an affirmation that people should believe what is true and that truth is subject to testing, to analysis, to science as well as personal experience. Unitarian Universalists believe things. As individuals we all have beliefs, some of which we hold fiercely and passionately. There are also a lot of beliefs that we hold in common with one another. Those beliefs are not a creed, however, because they are not a requirement. They are also subject to change based upon new knowledge or new experience. “Our Creed all truth” but what that truth may be at any given time or for any given person is open to both questioning and doubt.
Some people consider our seven principles a creed. Many of us when we first read them, say, “oh yes, that is exactly what I believe!” Let’s look at them now if you will. They are on the back of the order of service. Please note the introductory lines. It does not begin with “I believe” like the apostles creed. It says instead that we covenant – and what does covenant mean? Simply, a covenant is just a promise. As Unitarian Universalists we make promises; promises to do things. The seven principles of Unitarian Universalism are not statements of belief, but rather action plans that we try to follow both as congregations and as individuals. Action plans! Don’t you love it?
What matters most is not what we believe, but what we do, how we treat other people and how we care for our planet. That is a lot harder work than simply saying you believe in the virgin birth.
Am I treating that person that bugs me with respect? Am I fair and just when I deal with others?
Am I working toward the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all?
OK, I guess you have to believe that these are good things to do, so beliefs are a part of it. But the key is not the belief, but the promise of action.
We are described as a covenantal faith because we are a promise making people. We make promises to each other and do our best to be faithful to those promises.
Many of our Unitarian Universalist congregations have also adopted congregational covenants that contain promises about how we will be together in a religious community. A sample is as follows:
“As a member of our Unitarian Universalist community, I covenant to affirm and promote our Unitarian Universalist principles. I am mindful, that as an individual and as a member of this community, I am accountable for my words, deeds, and behavior. Therefore, whenever we worship, work, or relate to one another, I covenant that I will:
Treat others with kindness and care, dignity and respect;
Foster an environment of compassion, generosity, fellowship, and creativity;
Share in the responsibilities of congregational life;
Speak truth as I experience it and listen to all points of view;
Practice direct communication. Speak to the individual –
not about them;
Act with respect and humility when I disagree with others;
Seek out understanding and wisdom in the presence of conflict;
Be true to my chosen path although the way may twist and turn, and support others on their journeys;
Resolve conflicts through intentional compromise and collaboration and, when necessary, request facilitation and/or mediation. “
Our board of trustees is in the midst of discussing adopting such a covenant for themselves, and is also considering proposing something similar for the congregation to discuss and then vote on. Such covenants have been proven to enhance the positive feeling of community and to reduce the rancor that can be involved in some conflict situations.
Speaking directly to each other and not about each other is probably the hardest promise in that covenant. What fun it is to complain to a sympathetic ear about something someone else has done! How much harder it is to tell the person directly that you don’t like what they did and why.
One point on that: it really isn’t necessary to tell people to their face every little thing we don’t like about them. We all have personal flaws and quirks that it would be a bit rude to have pointed out to us. We all make mistakes. But if we are upset enough about something that we begin to gossip or complain to others about someone else, then we need to express those feelings directly. It is about respect. It is how most of us would like to be treated. It also prevents misinformation from being spread and the community being torn apart by rumor and innuendo. Acting with respect and humility when you disagree with someone is also important. None of us can be right all of the time, and opinions expressed in arrogance are destructive in a religious community.
So no creed, but what do Unitarian Universalists believe? Has anyone here ever been asked that question? It can be a hard one, because there is not a simple answer to what is really the wrong question.
When someone asks that question, they are usually asking for a creed, for something that all Unitarian Universalists believe.
One way to answer is to say that we believe different things based on what makes sense to us as individuals. Some of us believe in God and some of us don’t. It can help here to say what you believe.
We don’t have a creed as a faith community, but as individuals many of us have personal credos. (kree- dough)
There is a curriculum for youth which includes drafting their own statements of belief, which is what a credo is. It is a good exercise for adults as well. What do you believe about God, about what happens after you die, about the purpose and meaning of life? Those are questions worth exploring.
Creeds, in and of themselves, are not bad things. It helps to know what you believe, because what you believe matters. Is all human life sacred? What does that mean to you in terms of supporting the death penalty? Are children born good, evil, or do they have potential for both? What does that mean to you if you are a parent or a teacher?
One of the especially sweet things about Unitarian Universalism is that we can have a wide variety of individual credos, a wide variety of beliefs, but can still decide to be together in religious community. You can believe in the Apostles creed that I read earlier and be a Unitarian Universalist.
You can be an atheist, a pagan, a Muslim, a Christian, a Buddhist, you can hold any theology that makes sense to you.
You can still be figuring out what you believe, and you can change your mind about what that is over time.
The question, “What do Unitarian Universalists believe?” as I said, is really the wrong question. A better one is perhaps, “What is Unitarian Universalism?”
The best answer is that Unitarian Universalism is a covenantal faith. We are bound together by our promises. Covenants are not contracts, but statements of intent. How we live into those promises, the actions we take in our lives and in the world are what matters.
Covenants also aren’t rules or laws. You don’t go to jail or get throw out of the community if you break your promises from time to time. We all break our promises sometimes. We are human and we do not always live up to our best intentions. But living according to covenant can bring us back to those intentions when we fail short. We can forgive each other and ourselves. Then, we can we begin again together in love.
Bottom line, the test of faith in a Unitarian Universalist congregation is not about believing the right thing; it is rather about doing what is right. May we all strive to live up to our highest aspirations for the good.