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A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, April 3, 2011

A Meditation on Unitarian Universalism’s Principles & Purposes

The Way that can be followed is not the eternal Way.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the origin of heaven and earth
While naming is the origin of the myriad things.
Therefore, always desireless, you see the mystery
Ever desiring, you see the manifestations.
These two are the same—
When they appear they are named differently.

This sameness is the mystery,
Mystery within mystery;

The door to all marvels.

— Tao Te Ching, Chapter One, Charles Muller translation

This week I’m drawing again on that fascinating treasure trove, the pile of queries left over from our question box Sunday, where, if you recall, members of the congregation were asked to write questions you thought I might be able to address. Or, at the very least that might make me look silly trying to answer. Last week I addressed the most repeated question. There were, however, other repeated questions. One asking about our UU Principles and Purposes and whether they are a creed and, whatever they are, what do Unitarian Universalists believe anyway? This is what I’ll try to address today. It’ll be up to you to decide whether this was something I can answer, or just what makes me look silly.

I know I mentioned this before. But it’s particularly relevant for today’s reflection to repeat right at the beginning of this exploration. Back when I was preparing for the Unitarian Universalist ministry, like all such aspirants pretty early on I was required to see a psychologist and undergo a battery of tests. Near as I could tell, this was mainly to make sure our candidates are unlikely to be axe murderers. Frankly, given the various aggravations of parish ministry, this is probably a good thing. All in all it was an interesting experience. For instance it was my first actual encounter with the Rorschach test, which until that time I’d only encountered in comedic skits. The main course, however, was something called the California Psychological Profile, which is an abbreviation of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, a comprehensive survey of character and quirk.

The results were printed out as a long graph with a mid-line and two outer limit lines. Along the way were markers for the various personality traits they tested for. In between the lines, all was cool. Outside the lines, well, it depended. As it turned out, and as many of you probably have already figured out, I’m what might be described as a strong personality. In most categories I would bounce along just on the “acceptable” side of the top line. With one interesting exception, at least I think it interesting. When it came to conformity, the graph spiked way down. Turns out I was nonconformist, seriously nonconformist.

Now the psychologist who ran these tests did it for clerical candidates for a number of denominations, and was quite familiar with differing expectations. When we came to this point about nonconformity, he looked up at me and said, “You know, Mr. Ford, if you were an Episcopalian, this would be the end of the ride.” He paused and then added, “However, as a Unitarian Universalist, I suspect you may go far.”

How goes that popular paraphrase of old Will Rogers? I don’t belong to an organized religion; I’m a Unitarian Universalist. As such, I suspect as a spiritual crowd I’m kind of describing most of us here. We, largely, don’t like to be fenced in. We’re, for the most part, not going to be told what to believe. Not by a church hierarchy. Not by the minister. And certainly not by some ancient formula meant to be recited liturgically. No creed. No “We believe.” Now, according to that test this suits me to a “T.” And, I’m pretty sure, suits most of us here, as well. If you don’t like organized religion, welcome. We’re the barely organized religion.

Still, our barely organized crowd, the Unitarian Universalist Association, consisting of some thousand congregations, a couple of hundred thousand adults and many more children and youth, are all banded together to some purpose. And there hangs the question. What exactly is the purpose of this gathering of spiritual nonconformists? These are the questions. Who are we? And what is it we’re about?

Now, in our Western culture we are inclined to think a religion needs a good summary statement, a creed, if you will. Something you can point to and say, you believe it and you’re golden. You don’t, and well, you aren’t ours. In fact as a “not ours,” we probably need to assign our ethicists to consider whether we can hurt you. This isn’t our game. No test of belief to join this crowd.

Not that we don’t sometime try. One of the more distressing lines I’ve heard over the years is “That’s not UU.” Usually addressed at a fellow UU holding views that the speaker disagrees with. Natural enough. But also it is an attitude very much contrary to our deep inclination to resist hard definitions, to resist creeds.

Of course this resistance is confusing, when speaking of religions it is counter intuitive. After all in the West everyone has a creed. It’s a central marker of a religion. “I or We believe in One God…” “Hear, oh Israel…” “There is no god but God…” However, if one pulls back just a bit we discover these summary, proscriptive statements describing sheep and goats are actually pretty rare. Hindus don’t have such a thing. Nor do Taoists. Nor do Confucians. Some would say the Buddhist four noble truths is a creed, but that only became a way Buddhists commonly identified themselves in response to Christian missionaries in the nineteenth century. Bottom line, not having a creed is much more common among religions than having one.

Still, we’re Westerners, and even nonconformist, even full on anti-authoritarians as we might be, we still like summary statements, so long as they’re descriptive rather than proscriptive, that is so long as they are a snap shot of what we think, most of us, right now, and are not to be construed as a test for eligibility to join us.

All that said, somehow, we’ve pulled it off, we’ve in fact managed to come up with a common statement. You’ve seen it, the Principles and Purposes. However, getting to it, as you might imagine, has been a rough process. In brief, in 1961, at the time of consolidation, when representatives of the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association struggled to write some statement of common purpose, the whole thing nearly fell apart over how to express our historic connection to Judaism and Christianity.

The specific question was how to acknowledge that ancient line about Love of God and neighbor attributed to numerous sources and enshrined in the New Testament as Jesus’ great commandment. The Universalists for the most part were quite clear on their debt to Christianity, while the Unitarians for the most part thought not so much. For a while it looked like the whole thing was going to fall apart. After an all day meeting that became an all day and all night meeting, at pretty much the very last possible minute, a final compromise was found, shifting this acknowledged source from being “our Judeo-Christian heritage” to being “the Judeo-Christian heritage.”

Considering all the turmoil and even hurt surrounding the adoption of an inaugural summary statement of common principles, when it came time for a revision, and as it is a summary statement of what the majority among us currently think, it does need to be revisited from time to time, its surprising how easy, relatively speaking that revision was.

The initial impulse was correcting the relentless masculine by preference language of the original document drawn up, as it was in the middle of the century. In 1977 the UU Women’s Federation called on the Association to draft a revised document. No good deed goes unpunished and they were charged with coming up with some language. In 1981 a revised draft Principles & Purposes document was presented to the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly. The responses revealed many of the same tensions around the place of God and that same troubling and compelling great commandment that proved thorny the first time around. This time the compromise placed the phrase along with other sources as a sort of appendix.

With that compromise a final document quickly came into place and with a single major change was passed by votes in the General Assembly in both 1984 and 1985. That the final vote registered a single no is something that probably counts as a UU miracle.

But there was something else, something really, really important. The single major shift from the document as presented in 1984 was changing the seventh principle from a statement about ecological concern to that phrase we probably all know now, “respect for the interdependent web of existence, of which we are all a part,” a line offered from the floor. And with this a startling theological assertion was made. Even more startling, perhaps, was that we embraced it with considerable enthusiasm. It spoke our truth.

In my opinion the first and seventh principles articulate the genius of Unitarian Universalism as a spiritual path, as a way of life. We acknowledge the uniqueness and preciousness of the individual, while noting our individuality births out of, is sustained by, and finds it’s the ultimate source within some mysterious, radical and complete interdependence. Those and the fourth principle, which calls us to a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, and which, I believe, hints at the methodology of free religion, give us a sense of a real spiritual path. If you will, as I said: a way of life.

Time passes, and remember this is not a creed, but rather a description of what most of us see as commonly held among us at some given moment. And so toward the end of the first decade of this century, a standing committee of the Association, the Commission on Appraisal, was charged with exploring and possibly bringing forward a new draft statement of Principals and Purposes.

I was drawn into the debate fairly early on as an opponent of draft language enshrining the phrase “cultural appropriation” as unethical behavior. That could make for another sermon. And someday, may. I was, however, increasingly enthusiastic about most of the other possible changes, including a trending toward a more spiritual cast of language throughout the document. This more spiritual cast turned, most controversially, on the substitution of the word “reverence” for the word “respect” in the phrasing of the seventh principle, calling us to reverence for the interdependent web. The proposed revision failed by just a few votes to achieve the super majority that was required at the 2009 General Assembly. So, we’re good with the current language for another decade or two.

I would have preferred that change, but absolutely can live with the current statement. Because, I think it calls us to something we know deep within us as who we are and what it is we’re about. Whether we are Humanist, Christian or Jewish, Buddhist or Pagan, our major self-identities, or whatever miscellaneous other, and there are a lot of those, as well; we’re for the most part all of us tied together by an intuition of deep interconnection.

And what’s so powerful about this, I feel, is that we can come to it any number of ways. We can bring our heads into the matter, investigating how we emerge in the great evolutionary arc and understand our existence is completely contingent upon a great and ultimately fragile web of relationships. Or, we can follow our hearts and look into our beings and at each other and find there some deep sense of family, of relatedness with all of life.

If we consider the interplay of our individuality, precious, unique and so fragile, emerging out of the web of connections, of causes and conditions that tie us all together, a whole raft of ethical considerations emerge. How we need to walk gently upon this planet, and how we are related to all things. If you know ants and birds are cousins, how do you treat them? If you know the very soil is made up of your ancestors, how do you choose to walk on it?

Bottom line. We don’t need no stinkin’ badges. We don’t need no stinkin’ creeds. Yes they can have limited usefulness. But ultimately we don’t need anything written down on a piece of paper. This wisdom that is our way is written on our hearts, it is a body knowing. All we need to is open our eyes, open our ears, open ourselves, and we can find what we need. Everything we need.

It is all here.

This, dear ones, is what I understand is Unitarian Universalism.