Revising the Principles

The Commission on Appraisal’s draft revision of the Unitarian Universalist principles is available here. (Click through to the “Article II Draft” pdf or take the survey.)  I read it last night and had a few first impressions:

1. The Sources section now sounds like a  book report on Unitarian Universalism.  And not a good book report. More like a Junior High kid trying to explain our faith tradition.  With some big grammatical problems and the elimination of all the poetry. It just sounds…well..boring.  We’ve lost all the action and moved to passive tense.  Not to mention we don’t do anything anymore, it does. (What is it anyway? And how does it draw, engage, trust and recognize?) Oh wait, at the end, there we are again–striving to avoid misappropriation.


(OLD) Unitarian Universalism (UU) draws from many sources:

  • Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
  • Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
  • Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
  • Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
  • Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.
  • Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.

(NEW) The living tradition we share draws from many sources.

Unitarianism and Universalism are grounded on more than two thousand years of Jewish and Christian teachings, traditions, and experiences. Unitarian Universalism is not contained in any single book or creed. It draws from the teachings of the Abrahamic religions, Earth-centered spirituality, and other world religious traditions. It engages perspectives from humanism, mysticism, theism, skepticism, naturalism, and feminist and liberation theologies. It is informed by the arts and the sciences. It trusts the value of direct experiences of mystery and wonder, and it recognizes the sacred may be found within the ordinary.

Wisdom and beauty may be expressed in many forms: in poetry and prose, in story and song, in metaphor and myth, in drama and dance, in fabric and painting, in scripture and music, in drawing and sculpture, in public ritual and solitary practice, in prophetic speech and courageous deed.

Grateful for the traditions that have strengthened our own, we strive to avoid misappropriation of cultural and religious practices and to seek ways of appreciation that are respectful and welcomed.

2. The didactic explanations of each principle are a terrible idea.  We already see the principles used in a way that is quasi-creedal.  By adding institutional explanation of what each principle “really means” we move toward the creation of orthodoxy.  I don’t think it’s up to the insitution (the COA or even the General Assembly) to define the principles for us. In fact, I think it contradicts our commitment to freedom of belief.

I do understand, however, that the COA seemed to be trying to change the language of the principles from statements of belief to statements of covenant (behavior) and I think that impulse is a good one. By keeping the original language and adding “explanations” the new draft seems to attempt to codify common understanding of what the principles mean, rather than truly shifting them from ontology to ethics or belief to behavior. I think that if we all agree that we need to emphasize that the principles are a covenant, not a creed, we need to change the language even more dramatically:

We covenant to respect the unearned and irrevocable worth of every person.  Valuing freedom, we understand that all people are capable of both good and evil, yet we choose to commit ourselves to treating all people with dignity.

We would need to be very clear who the “we” is–because in our tradition (so far) we choose to bind the congregations, not individual members in covenant. (Part of the reason for the confusing “it”in the draft, I think.) I personally believe that there are no congregations apart from the people, so it’s a bit silly to insist that by asking our congregations to join in covenant, we have somehow avoided binding individuals.  But that’s a whole ‘nother conversation…

3. There seems to be a big change in the attitude toward democracy contained in the relatively small changes in that section.  Here are the proposed changes:

(OLD)  The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;

(NEW)  The right of conscience and the use of democratic processes

We seek to ensure that all voices are heard, especially those often left out on the margins. We are called to promote fairness, accountability, honesty, and transparency.

I would guess the writers are responding to two things: The growing use of various forms of consensus governance and the current U.S. administration’s use of democracy as a reason for invasion and war.  I hope this leads to a real discussion about governance in our congregations and democracy as an “ideal” rather than a lived covenant.  (I’m a fan of democracy, but not so much of Robert’s rules…again, that’s another conversation.)

That’s enough for now.  I think this conversation could be very interesting and if we do it well, could be powerful for our association.  The Commission on Appraisal has done good work, if only in providing us the opportunity to have this conversation.


4 thoughts on “Revising the Principles

  1. “I personally believe that there are no congregations apart from the people, so it’s a bit silly to insist that by asking our congregations to join in covenant, we have somehow avoided binding individuals. But that’s a whole ‘nother conversation…”

    Indeed it is. It’s a whole ‘nother conversation that I have been having with U*Us for years now. . . A congregation is not an abstract entity set apart from the individual people who comprise the congregation, no matter how much some individual U*Us would like to pretend otherwise in an effort to avoid being bound to the “covenants” expressed in the Seven Principles of U*Uism. . . It is beyond silly for some U*Us to insist that the Seven Principles that U*U congregations “covenant” to affirm and promote are not binding upon the individual U*Us who are members of U*U congregations. It is outrageously hypocritical. . . Yet individual U*Us, including prominent U*U bloggers, repeatedly try to make this fallacious argument in order to avoid being bound to the effectively empty “covenants” of U*Uism’s Seven Principles.

  2. I disagree with Robin. A congregation is governed by its own defined process, usually by majority vote at a duly called meeting. It does not necessarily speak for each of its members, but for the organization. It certainly is “an abstract entity set apart from the individual people who comprise the congregation.” The bylaws of the UUA represent a covenant among its member congregations, and are not binding upon the individuals within the congregation. We still hold to the freedom of the individual conscience.

    Art Ungar
    former member of the UUA Board and the COA

  3. If you disagree with me Art you equally disagree with Sean who said –

    “I personally believe that there are no congregations apart from the people, so it’s a bit silly to insist that by asking our congregations to join in covenant, we have somehow avoided binding individuals.”

    A statement that I obviously very much agree with.

    You can pretend that a congregation “certainly is “an abstract entity set apart from the individual people who comprise the congregation.”” all you want but I expect that most people of intelligence and conscience will disagree with you and be more inclined to agree with Sean and I that there are no congregations of any kind that are apart from the people who comprise the congregation. If a congregation as a whole “covenants” to “affirm and promote” or indeed “honor and uphold” any particular principle or ideal then each individual member of the congregation is party to that covenant whether they actually agree with it or not. . .

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