A Principled Path @ UUCM 1/6/19
This month’s worship theme is on covenant. A covenant is essentially a promise, but it is a deeper and more faithful promise than an ordinary one. It is not easy or thoughtless.
Socrates, the ancient Greek philosopher that lived in 400 BCE is quoted as saying that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
I am not sure that I completely agree with him on that. Life, all life, has value. There are animals that do not have a capacity for self-reflection, but their lives are worth living. Those of you who have shared your lives with special animal friends know this to be true.
But Socrates’ point is a good one. Because we have thecapacity to examine our lives, it can be a waste to simply live them without ever thinking about their meaning.
The 20thcentury Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams took Socrates’ statement in a different direction. He said:
“An unexamined faith is not worth having, for it can be true only by accident. A faith worth having is faith worth discussing and testing…
No authority, including the authority of individual conviction, is rightly exempt from discussion and criticism.”
Adams was also pretty blunt when he said:
“The free person does not live by an unexamined faith. To do so is to worship an idol whittled out and made into a fetish. . . . the faith that cannot be discussed is a form of tyranny.” (Adams, The Prophethood of All Believers 1986, 48).
An unexamined faith is not worth having.
So how do we, as Unitarian Universalists, examine our faith? How do we examine our lives and learn how to follow a principled path, one that makes us feel more alive and one that can help us make a positive difference for our world?
We don’t have a common creed, a set of particular beliefs. As individuals, we have many different ideas about God, and we have a wide variety of opinions about almost everything.
We do have some things, however, that we have agreed upon. Anyone want to hazard a guess as to what those things are?
Yes, we have our seven principles.
In case you can’t remember them, they are listed in the front of the grey hymnal. It might be useful to turn to them. Note the words at the beginning, “we the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association covenant to affirm and promote.”
The UU Congregation of Marin is one of those member congregations. We have, as a religious institution, covenanted, or promised, to affirm and promote the seven principles.
Some people consider our seven principles a creed. Many of us when we first read them, said, “That is exactly what I believe!” I did that.
But let’s examine those principles. Note that the introductory line doesn’t say “we believe.” It says that we covenant – that we promise to affirm and promote those seven things. As Unitarian Universalists, we make promises; promises to do things. The seven principles of Unitarian Universalism are not statements of belief, but rather constitute an action plan that we try to follow both as congregations and as individuals. Action plans! Don’t you love it?
What is your favorite principle? Call it out!
The majority of Unitarian Universalists are most strongly drawn to either to our first principle or to our seventh. They are certainly the most often quoted in sermons and in conversations when you are trying to explain to someone what Unitarian Universalism is all about.
And while people can certainly have favorite principles, I believe it is also important to examine them together.
Our first principle uplifts the rights of the individual and asks us to respect everyone’s inherent worth and dignity. The seventh principle, respect for the interconnected web, asks us to remember than we are all part of something much larger than ourselves.
(Holding up hands) The first principle is about the individual and the seventh is about community. Individual – community. How do we hold those two in balance? We can sometimes struggle with the tension between those two principles. I know I did as a supervisor and as a new Unitarian Universalist. I had to weigh the needs and problems of an individual employees with the needs of both the larger work team and the mission we were charged with accomplishing.
The tension between these two principles can also surface within our churches.
How does a congregation respond to an individual whose behavior is truly disruptive, maybe someone who makes racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic or sexist comments? If we can’t find a way to call them back into covenant and remind them of our first principle, what do we do?
Do we ignore it, or do we find ways to encourage them to change their behavior so that we can create the warm and welcoming religious community we all want and need?
Being welcoming to all does not necessarily mean being welcoming to all types of behavior.
Sometimes the balance has to shift from the individual toward the interconnected web, or community side of the equation. It is never simple. This isn’t an easy faith.
Sometimes it can feel like there is an inherent conflict between our first and seventh principles. Maybe we should just choose one and be done with it.
It gets easier if you consider them in relationship with each other.
Isn’t part of respecting someone’s worth and dignity letting them know when they are doing something that diminishes or damages another person or group of people? Sometimes it is more respectful to speak the truth and offer the possibility of change, than simply saying, “Oh, that’s just the way they are; they always do that.”
Similarly, the seventh principle respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part is about a lot more than respecting the environment.
It says we are all connected. It says every individual with all of their inherent worth and dignity is connected to every other individual.
Sometimes we forget that we have seven principles, not just two, and that they are all interrelated. The first and seventh principles are like bookends, and we need to take the time to read the books as well.
What’s in the middle of the bookshelf? What is our 4th principle? It is OK to look it up.
Bingo. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning is the correct answer.
I would argue that the 4thprinciple is the most important one and that the other 6 lead us there, supporting us on the path of examining our lives and our faith.
Our second principle, justice, equity and compassion in human relations points to the sixth, the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all;
The second principle is about how we promise to treat individuals, while the sixth is what that means on a larger scale. It is the same as the relationship between the 1stand seventh. Individual — community.
The second and sixth also define the goals or mission that follow from the first and seventh principles: positive and respectful relationships between all people and all nations.
The third principle is acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations and the fifth is the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
Those two contain some of the specifics of the action plan. Accept one another, encourage spiritual growth, respect the right of conscience and use the democratic process when making decisions.
They tell us what to do as we engage in a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.
Free (one hand) Responsible (other hand)
Individual – Community
Our principles contain the essence of dramatic tension. Everyone who wants to live ethically, in right relationship to other people and to the world, to examine their life and their faith, struggles with contradictions. How do we search for truth and meaning? How do we discover the meaning of our lives and what we are called to do with them?
Today is Epiphany in the Christian tradition. One definition of epiphany is a, usually sudden, perception of the essential nature or meaning of something. As we examine our faith and our lives, sometimes we are looking for an epiphany, an understanding that will help lead us on our life’s journey.
But how can we begin that search for truth and meaning?
The Buddha sat beneath a tree waiting for enlightenment. Moses climbed a mountain. Jesus went into the wilderness. They were seeking truth and meaning, wondering what their lives were really about, what their “action plan” should be.
Haven’t we all experienced that feeling? We wonder why we are here, if our life has any purpose, any meaning beyond whatever societal success we might attain or not. What is the point?
Does it really matter what we do and how we live?
To find the answers to those questions, we have to go deep, very deep, inside of ourselves. We have to look in the mirror and see our whole selves, our failings as well as our gifts. Who am I? Why am I here? What am I called to do?
Who are you? Why are you here?
What will you do with your one wild and precious life, as the poet Mary Oliver asks?
Sitting with those feelings can be scary.
Fear has so many dimensions: fear of failure, fear of success, fear of ridicule, fear of power, fear of the unknown.
But while we are sitting beneath the tree, while we are wandering in the metaphorical desert, while we are drawing in whatever wisdom we can find, we also need to be turning ourselves inside out, and finding a path into the world.
The Buddha did not stay beneath his tree, he was called by the suffering he saw around him to go back into the world. Moses came down from the mountain to lead his people to the Promised Land. Jesus came back from the desert and began casting out demons and healing the sick. Harriet Tubman went back down south to free more slaves.
Howard Thurman said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
There is a place, deep within each of us, that knows what will make us come alive. We can follow a principled path.
I will end with these words by Leslie Becknell:
“What kind of case could be made to convict you of full-fledged whole-hearted Unitarian Universalism? What do you do when life calls on you to live out your principles? When someone’s opinion is different than yours. When someone at the committee meeting interrupts and goes off on a tangent. When your beloved doesn’t take out the trash. . . . When you request that your employer make a policy change. When you are living your life every day.
I won’t challenge you to memorize the principles. I invite you to learn them by heart and be willing to back them up with the life you lead”
From: “Learning the Principles by Heart” Leslie Becknell
Amen and blessed be