The Seven Principles: my reflections

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Written and Delivered by Ginna Hastings in January 2010

To live with some sort of spirituality for many people means to try to make meaning out of the chaos of life.  Justice is not always done.  Bad things do happen to good people.  What is right in one situation isn’t right in another. For many, religion is a way to find answers.  Others fall onto clichés such as “it was meant to be” or “God closes a door and opens another one”.

I am not sure I need a defined god to determine what I need to believe.  After all, we never really know IF there is a god, and IF this god has a clear idea of what we should ALL do with our lives in this chaos we’re living in.  We can only surmise. I believe I need to decide life’s meaning for myself rather than have a theology dished out for me.             On the other hand, for me, ignoring the search for meaning, getting wrapped up in selfish material pursuits or political power also does not satisfy me either.  That’s why I come to church: to find inspiration.

I have come to the conclusion that LIFE IS A GIFT.  And, IT IS NOT THE DESTINATION THAT COUNTS SO MUCH AS THE JOURNEY.  With this conclusion I bless my grandmother, Virginia Hastings, who shared this wisdom with me at a young age – and her journey WAS difficult!

So why does Unitarian Universalism bring me a religion I can live with happily. As you know, our faith does not have a particular theology, nor does it exclude one. Yet UU’s are, to me, some of the most moral people I know. Unitarian Universalism does not stop at being humanist.  It gives me the Seven Principles with which to negotiate down life’s unpredictable journey. Through the Seven Principles I can find significant meaning among the chaos of this life.

On first inspection one could read the Seven Principles and see them as almost “motherhood” statements.  Most reasonable persons in a democracy would agree with them.  One is inclined to say, “Yea, yea, fine, so what’s next?”  Well, not so fast….  Which gets me to the topic of this talk, the Seven Principles .

Principle 1: We believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

Yes, but easier said than done.  In dealing with others we frequently find people who are disagreeable, and/or whose ideas we adamantly disagree with.  In our own self centered view, it takes mental discipline to still recognize the inherent worth and dignity of others. We can stand up to bullies, tyrants and principle-lacking individuals who manipulate matters to their own advantage and at the same time acknowledge the inherent worth and dignity in them.  It is indeed a challenge to acknowledge worth and dignity in those we don’t respect while at the same time standing up to their destructive behavior.

On speaking on the first principle, Jim Nelson, chief minister of Neighborhood Church in Pasadena, said, “In essence – be kind.”  Kindness seems to be a lost value in our society.  It is viewed as weakness.  It is viewed as getting in the way of pleasure, or of self-serving goals.  As UU’s, we can make kindness itself into a satisfying pleasure, a value, something worth doing.

This first principle gives us a belief, reactionary to Calvinism, that we are ALL worthwhile.  Now.  Incomplete.  Confused.  We do not need “saving” by a god.  Our individuality is to be celebrated, along with that of others.  It’s even okay to love ourselves. We don’t even need a specific god to love us to love ourselves.

With this great gift of the first principle comes an enormous responsibility as well.  It forces us to accept life with its confusing diversity and chaos just as it is, and still seek love, still acknowledge the worth and dignity in others and ourselves.  As UU’s we need not, indeed CANnot shrink from the endless exploration of the inherent worth and dignity of every individual in our lives.  Looking for the worthiness in others becomes a lifelong challenge.

Principle 2: Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;

It is easy to see all those poor people who are recipients of racism, sexism, economic injustice etc. etc.  We seek justice for them.  That’s a given.  The press tells us about it all the time.

But, are we limiting others by putting anyone – even those not obviously oppressed –  in boxes that limit them in our eyes?  Are we dismissing the need for justice and equity in others by blanket generalizations?  Without true, endless efforts to apply compassion to justice and equity, we are not living this principle.  It’s a challenging responsibility.

Charities these days are often complaining about “compassion burn out”. As Unitarian Universalists, we cannot afford to let compassion burnout hit our hearts.  Our religion is not just one of reason alone. It is one of an endless supply of heart and love as well.  This is its biggest challenge.

Unitarians in the past have been great initiators in movements to achieve human equality in our society. – the abolition of slavery, votes for women, laws against racism and sexism and so much more have been a result.  Indeed right now in the USA Unitarians ban together to educate society education society to understand and acknowledge  that denying the legal advantages of marriage to same sex couples denies justice, equity and compassion.  What are WE doing in this country? Are we speaking out on this particular issue loudly enough?  Ah, a challenge!

Principle 3: Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.

This is where we get to the “g word”.  Yes, I mean what most religions discuss: GOD. Understanding the divine as we understand what the divine is, or isn’t, is most definitely essential to our own spiritual journey.  We can’t escape it.  This is why Unitarian Universalism also presents us with the great traditions of knowledge and wisdom that come from all religions – even the Bible. These are the Six Sources of our Faith that come from all the world’s great traditions.  Therefore we Unitarians must be prepared to accept Muslim Unitarians, Buddhist Unitarians, even, dare I say it, Christian Unitarians among our midst as we head on our own spiritual journeys.  It’s okay to discuss God, but sometimes Unitarians try so hard not to offend those who do not believe in God that they do not mention God.  There is no solution.  It’s okay to mention God, and it’s okay to not believe in images of God that others have created, but as Unitarians we don’t have to.  That’s the key!

One thing I see as a weakness of Unitarian Universalists is that many are “smart” – often well educated, and intelligent. Sometimes pride in our own intellect and reason becomes our god.  The result is an arrogance that proves exclusive and contrary to the traditions.  The traditions, if read and followed thoughtfully, keep us humble.  We are all just “works in progress.”

Principle 4: A free and responsible search for truth and meaning

Yes, just recognizing and valuing the right we have for this free and responsible search for meaning has got us Unitarian Universalists into a bit of hot water, perhaps literally, over the centuries.  That we, and everyone, ARE free to choose beliefs is such a valued freedom.  UU’s tend to get almost high on this freedom.

With this right of personal spiritual exploration comes an enormous responsibility. We are responsible for thinking through what we know, hear, read and decide upon.  We are dedicated to thinking through carefully what we believe using not only logic and reason, but also intuition and compassion that comes from our inner soul.  This requires constant self-honesty with ourselves and with others. It takes time.  It requires courage.

For example, does one speak up at work about an injustice to a co-worker even if it threatens our own job?  Do we stand up to bullies rather than take a “peaceful” road of complacency?  Do we speak out at union meetings when we feel our union bosses are speaking for their own power rather than for the needs of the workers?  A free and responsible search for meaning means living what is meaningful. It is not simply an intellectual exercise. It takes enormous courage.

In our congregations we also need to learn from one another.  If what you learn and what I learn from our different experiences is shared, it makes us both richer.  Each different carefully studied belief or idea held by a member of our congregation adds to the fabric and strength of our Unitarian cloth and of each other.  It is what makes us unified in diversity .

Principle 5: The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.

Within our congregations, the democratic process may seem easy.  We propose, we discuss and debate, we vote, we decide, and we act.  Ah yes.

This principle does not, however, give us the right to ego.  Having things our own way may not be democratic.  Sometimes we have to cede to the wider community’s needs and wishes over our own to be heard.  Should our behavior prove destructive towards others then it is unacceptable. We need to be open to one another.

In the wider community we Unitarian Universalists have proven effective in using the democratic process to promote justice, equity and compassion by banding together and speaking out.  Many laws today exist because of just such work in the past. However, such changes took time, persistence and hard work. The democratic process cannot exist without an orderly society, and to this effect we must behave in an orderly way.

Principle 6: The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all;

Yes, right, when Superman comes again!  It is easy to dismiss this principle as another motherhood statement while being “pie in the sky” in nature.  It’ll never happen.  Well, it may not in our lifetime.  But if it is not our goal, it makes our journey meaningless as members of society.  By working towards peace, liberty and justice for all we may not win “the battle”.  But we don’t reach for this goal because it is achievable right now.  We reach for it because it is right, and it is right NOW.   Who says UU’s aren’t dogmatic?

Principle 7: Respect for the interdependent web of al existence of which we are a part.

This principle, the most recently added, is sometimes viewed in a narrower focus than perhaps was meant.  Some Unitarian Universalists are pantheists.  This is where their understanding of this principle stops.  Others boil it down to scrupulous recycling of their waste or buying or even voting Green.

The wider issues of this principle are also challenging.  Forrest Gilmore in Brandenburg says that understanding ourselves as part of the interdependent web of life is something even greater than being “green”.  The seventh principle reminds us that “we are what we have come from, and to what we belong.” (P. 112-113).  In itself, the seventh principle is an enormous statement of hope and commitment to the healing of our world, our human world as well as our environmental world. Perhaps I may now quote part of the Lords Prayer here: ‘thy kingdom come on earth”.

It requires us to change, grow and think differently for the sake of the interdependent web of life that we are a part of. It propels us to work to create a society of compassion, harmony, and justice with courage NOW and with hope in the future, and the future of our descendents.  It’s an ideal we may never achieve, but heading in that direction is what it’s all about.  To ignore this principle because it is probably unattainable is to deny hope in the basic capacity of human beings to improve.  One might as well give up on life as we know it as to give up on the seventh principle

I became a Unitarian Universalist because these Seven Principles challenge me to live thoughtfully and carefully, carrying the burden of a huge responsibility along with freeing rights.  I am responsible for my own conscience.  I am responsible for my own actions, while, at the same time, being very much a part of the wider society and environment.

The Seven Principles are, then not to be seen as rules or simple guidelines.  They are not an intellectual exercise alone. They are designed to motivate us towards an examined, purpose-driven life while at the same time achieving an acceptance of life’s complexities, with love, courage and hope.  The Seven Principles are there to challenge us individually and collectively.  They are what teach us to live as Unitarian Universalists.

Buber claimed that a community is defined by the centre that holds it together.  Without a center to hold it together it is like a doughnut, and will not grow or thrive. In Unitarian Universalism there is no central theology.  Nevertheless, we cannot discount the meaning and purpose that the Seven Principles bring to our lives and our community, for they are what our “faith” is about.

Perhaps in the new year we can all examine the Seven Principles and what they mean specifically in our lives.