My ideal of Unitarian Universalism is that we find it easier to communicate the relatively small number of things that are wrong, rather than trying to pin down in a recitable form only those things that are right. That is the difference, to me, between our Principles and a creed. We have a covenant to be good people, defined by the Principles of universal worth and dignity, a respect for all life, and the right of all people to find their own place and passion in the world. Everything else is fair game.
It is often said that Unitarian Universalism is a “Non-creedal” religion. It is also often said that this negates our claim as a religion, often from those with a Holy Book, but occasionally from proud UUs who think that religion is a bad thing and that the UUA should get out of the business all together. I disagree, of course, though I think that the Unitarian Universalist Association has had a lot of trouble declaring its religious intent for fear of frightening anyone away from the pews.
The fact is that what we have is a broad and reasonable religious pasture that expands farther out to the horizons than some people can see see from their religious perch. It allows for a wide exploration of the universe, with trees to climb and deep caves to explore, wooded areas with narrow and leaf-covered paths as well as broad trails where seeming parades of seekers roam arm-in-arm. We have built a fence of some of our Principles that tell us not to venture into the thorns of dispassion or callousness, and to stay out of the mire of privilege or convenience at the expense of others or the environment. But the things we deny ourselves are relatively few, because we believe in a Universe of possibilities and wonder, and we claim no right to restrict anyone’s desire to learn the how or why of a situation as long as they do so responsibly and with regard to the rights of others.
This is in defiance of so many other religious traditions in the US, that prefer to set a narrower track for their adherents to venture on, to see only that portion of the Universe visible from the hills that well-trod lanes take them across. They think the Universe is inherently against humanity. Some actively teach that it is a trap, meant to ensnare our very souls in the evils of reason and doubt, marking out not just a path, but metaphorical stepping stones upon which adherents are expected to stay. Though many others have widened their paths such that people can look out and see different sides of certain theological hills without leaving the acceptable walkway, they still feel that the idea of simply letting people walk on the grass is akin to theological anarchy. In almost all traditions, there are people who risk institutional rebuke in order to feel the grass between their toes. Americans long for religious liberation, even as they hope to remain part of their communities and traditions.
This, to me, is the essential difference between “Creed” and “Covenant”. We ask our members to make promises to each other and to their communities such that they can all run free without fear, knowing that each will lookout for the other and lend a hand when someone gets in over their head. A Creed tells you what to think, and rather than giving you the promise of aid, it gives one the feeling that you will be judged for allowing yourself to wander out of bounds. The idea that people are required to believe in the supernatural, ultimately unquestioningly, or be excluded from the body of the congregation, is unfathomable to Unitarian Universalists. We question those beliefs that seem to contradict science, and we ask people to consider real facts and likely outcomes; prayer can’t hurt, but it can’t help more than real effort, either.
So, I am proud to be part of a tradition, even a young one, where people are respected and allowed to build their own lives without fear of reprisal for anything other than being asked to defend the logic and consistency of your theology. You may be counseled in a way intended to further your spiritual growth. You will not be turned away, though, as long as you keep your covenant with the congregation.