I’ll Take Door #4

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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?

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5 responses »

  1. By yoking free and responsible, I believe we’re being reminded that our freedoms are not so much freedom from but freedom for: engaging in dialogue with each other and with people in other traditions about what moves them and why; appreciating deep differences and loving places of shared connections; being whole people who can risk and make mistakes and have practices of forgiveness and reconciliation; humility; awe, wonder, and ecstasy, fear, anger, grief, emptiness, tranquility, joy, love, and hope; and, understanding and appreciating our whole tradition, including accepting and taking responsibility for the lasting unhappy legacies as well as the happifying ones. I also believe we have a freedom and responsibility to let the search rest, to have and make spiritual home, too. If we don’t stick with something because it feels difficult, we can lose out on a number of spiritual truths and insights, as well as cultivating responsibly patience, endurance, and acceptance.

    No one promise in our covenant drew me in or leads me. They work together for me, in a way that they do not work one by one. Particularly important to me about the fourth is the way the third promise tugs at it and shapes it in uncomfortable ways.

    • Rev. Naomi, thanks so much for stopping by and for adding to the conversation! This is such a deep and thoughtful response and I’m grateful.

      Thank you for bringing up the 3rd Principle as a foil. While it’s the 4th Principle that brought me in, I’d say right now the 1st and 7th are powerful forces in my life and I definitely see them as book ends, or Janus heads of the same coin, working together. In a comment on another post here, I mention that I think the 3rd and 4th principles work similarly, feeding each other, supporting each other, informing each other.

      Come back soon!

  2. As a lifelong UU, I’m not sure I identify with your questions. My spirituality is not defined by my search or my pain, but rather by what I love and my community. I wouldn’t remain a UU if my faith didn’t offer me a community worth more in challenge and tribute than I thought I deserved.
    As for the principles, I think they are shallow discussion points of a complex faith. My faith is not designed by the UUA’s principles because being a Unitarian Universalist is NOT the same as affiliating with the UUA. I am, and forever will be, a UU by blood. I have known nothing else, and seek nothing else. But the principles do not define my spirituality, they are nothing but a passive reminder of the mere basics of my faith.
    I would live my faith without the UUA happily, because I don’t need it (and to twist the purpose of your post), I don’t think very many other UU Young Adults and Youth need the UUA. Instead, the UUA, the theologians, and the converts need us to define themselves.
    So in conclusion, I think that the principles of the UUA aren’t really what defines our faith, but rather attempts to define the relationships we have with one another from an overly vague perspective.

  3. When I first came to my Unitarian Universalist Congregation, I definitely found the “free & responsible search for truth and meaning” to be a keystone. And yes, it related to prior religious wounds. I was raised a Lutheran and gravitated toward an independent Pentecostal church in my adolescence. In the final analysis, Christianity did not stand up to critical thinking. So in looking for a religious home, free inquiry was important to me. But since a UU church is not college, one does need something more.

    One ingredient of the something more is affirming “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” Christianity tends to promote an “us and them” mentality, the most extreme expression of which is the idea that some people, and perhaps vast multitudes, will end up being sentenced to eternal suffering by their Creator. In contrast, I had moved toward a humanistic philosophy that posits the essential equality of all human beings in the face of the universe. Part of that essential equality is that human understanding is fallible and incomplete, and that we all struggle with moral questions to which reality often does not permit clear or easy answers. There is therefore no basis on which to form a final judgment of a human being, and certainly not an eternal one. To speak of worth and dignity is to speak of the more positive qualities of humans, some of whom may not have much of either. So this principle challenges me aspire to worth and dignity and to look for it in others. It encourages me to stand up tall and raise my sights to that which is best in myself and others, and to do better.

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