I find myself restraining myself again today in an attempt to focus on the positive side of the 7 Principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Many consider this to be our most essential Principle, and it is definitely the one that dominates the public perception of our movement. I think I can safely say that it is my least favorite. It uses words that cannot be defined in the context in which they are used, and it leads to the false belief that anything goes in the UU movement. Anyone who has been reading my blog knows that this is the Principle I have addressed directly the most frequently, and so I will try to leave criticisms out of this post from here on. Wish me luck.
The idea behind this Principle, and in fact most of the Principles of the UUA, comes from James Luther Adams’ “5 Smooth Stones of Liberal Religion“, distilled from his “Guiding Principles for a Free Faith“. The “Stones” are ideas that can be used to argue in defense of, and thus to help define, liberal religion in a broad way. The ideas are presented in sections, and section number one begins:
“Religious liberalism depends on the principle that ‘revelation’ is continuous. Meaning has not been finally captured. Nothing is complete, and thus nothing is exempt from criticism.”
From this we get the basic idea that humanity, in our constant exploration of creation, is never done learning and assimilating new ideas and facts into the collective pool of human understanding. No single person can ever understand all of creation, and so no one can say that they hold absolute truth. Everyone has the right and the responsibility to find their own place in creation and to live out the truths that are revealed to them throughout their lives.
It is easy to see where the “free” part of the fourth Principle comes from, but that last phrase in the quoted section gives us a hint at what might be meant by the word “responsible” in the fourth Principle: nothing we believe can be free from examination and scrutiny, and that part of our commitment to encourage “one another to spiritual growth” might include having our beliefs questioned by our ministers, both professional and lay, in an effort to make us aware of inconsistencies and possibly-harmful assumptions. We ought to look out for each other by looking at the theologies and even the scientific understanding of our fellow UUs, and helping them explore their own truth more completely, while adding their perspective to our own.
In this way, the fourth Principle is almost a restatement of the third, but it makes it clear that we not only accept who you are when you arrive, but we continue to accept you as you grow in your own life, even as we work with you on your spiritual growth. As long as you participate in a healthy way, you will not be forgotten or chastised, but you will be engaged to the limits of what you allow, and you will be enticed to examine your world view, and occasionally even prodded to refine or widen it.
In short, we in the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations will not tell you what to believe, but we will not simply allow you to believe anything. We owe it to one another to ensure that we share the whole of revelation with one another. Science should not be ignored in favor of either traditions or fads. The wisdom of the new millennium will not be ignored for the wisdom of ancients, or vise versa. We will not ignore your personal revelation, but neither will we ignore our own. We are not all doctors, ministers, or farmers; nor are we all destined to be Christians, Buddhists, or Earth-centered pagans. The whole of human experience is too wide for any of us to understand, much less to live out, and there is room for us to each exemplify our own revelation while respecting the right and the need for others to have their own.