As I mention elsewhere on this site, UUs try to live by Seven Principles or ethical guidelines. These are not creeds or statements of faith but aspirations of behavior. A covenant, a promise, of how we’ll behave with each other. The one that caught my interest when I first started going to church was the Fourth Principle―we affirm and promote the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. It seemed absolutely revolutionary to me. It is revolutionary.
My personal theory is that the Fourth principle is the one that ropes most of us in. So many UUs are refugees from other faith traditions―and its still so early in the denomination’s history―that we can be surprised to meet someone born-and-raised. Many UUs are, theologically, the walking wounded, bearing the scars of dogma that made no sense to us, or worse, actually harmed us. How many Christians, or former Christian, women would like to string Paul up by the cajones for creating a culture of second class citizenship for us? I recently heard a Jewish UU talk about the liturgy of his youth in which every prayer just seemed to be a competition for which could most highly exalt god―the Highest on High, the Almighty Lord, most Holy of Holies. This became nothing more than a barrier for him against connecting personally with this divine, this source, this god.
So I think a lot of UUs come limping in on the crutch of the Fourth Principle and only, over time, as we heal these wounds and begin to discern our own theology, do we open to the rest. I also think we focus a lot on the word free over the word responsible when we first begin our search. I’ve had some interesting conversations with folks who’ve expressed their frustration with a sense by people outside the denomination―and sometimes within it―that for UUs, anything goes. That we’re ok with anything and, hence, don’t really have a discernible moral compass just be cause we don’t have definable dogma. Relatedly, they worry about cultural and religious misappropriation. Worry that in our free yet not very responsible search, we UUs stroll through other world religions like our own private gardens―admiring the pretty colors while ignoring the thorns, picking randomly hear and there, the flowers that we like best. I think this is a fair and reasonable concern. On the other hand, I like what Sera Beak has to say on the subject of “Miz Appropriation” in The Red Book (pg. 34-36):
“ . . . many traditionalists and politically correct types believe that such divine face-lifting is very disrespectful. They argue that it’s just horribly inappropriate to take part (or even all) of a religious practice, belief, or deity from a well-established religious tradition (as I did with Kali) and use it for one’s own selfish, pseudospiritual, or psychotherapeutic needs. I’ve heard it all: It’s theft. It’s misappropriation. It’s imperialistic and neocolonialist. It’s Western-centric, white woman-centric, horribly individualistic, highly egotistical, abusive, and, along with a host of other negatives, just plain wrong.
Ironically, I used to strongly agree, at least intellectually, with parts of these arguments. I knew that these perspectives, although somewhat uptight, provided the belief systems in question with an important theological weight in the West, especially in regard to their effort to control the rampant shallow consumerism that is often applied even to things spiritual throughout American culture.
But what do you do when the spirit becomes stronger than the rational brain? When divinity ignores what is “proper” or “culturally appropriate” and just shows up in whatever crazy form you need most? This is what happened to me. Here I was, plodding my way through grad school, intellectually tsk-tsking those who “misappropriated” spiritualities, but then I’d close my eyes at night and get my head chopped off by Kali in a crazy dream. . . . Should I have shut off all this divine twinkle? I sure as hell tried to, at first. But deep down, I knew I was missing out on what these energies were trying to teach me. I finally learned, despite my initial resistance, the importance of not limiting how the divine shows up in my life and, perhaps most important, not judging how it shows up for others.”
Share something of your search for truth and meaning. If you’re a UU, what principle spoke most to you in the beginning? And how do you think those adjectives in the Fourth Principle, free and responsible, should influence that search?