NUUF in the News

 

Tell Me About Unitarianism

 

Pine and Lakes Echo Journal, February 25, 2014

 

“Tell me about Unitarianism. What is it, exactly?” Unitarian Universalists get this a lot. Most people asking have preconceived notions of a fringe cult or some undefined vague belief system, or some old fashioned ideas that died out years ago. So what does one say?

 

Unitarian Universalists agree on certain principles for living, the seven big ones. They are the signposts that govern behaviors, attitudes, and values held in common in benefit to human relations. In these principles, we affirm: the inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity, and compassion in human relations; acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations; a free and responsible search for truth and meaning; the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large; the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all; and respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

 

Unlike some religions, UU is non-creedal. Rather, what we share as a religious community is a common approach to how we seek truth and relate to other people and the world around us. The omission of a statement on God allows for broad definitions of belief for members, from traditional Christian and other major religions, to spirituality, agnostics, and atheists. Each person comes from a different place, a different set of life experiences, and so each of us brings to UU our own understanding of the spiritual dimension of our lives. As a community, we accept and support each other’s journeys in spiritual growth. A rational extension of this is that we respect individuals’ right of conscience, both in our congregations and in our society.

 

What about our relations with others? Historically, the “social gospel” was central to Unitarianism, and modern UU churches continue in that tradition by asking, how do we conduct our lives in accordance with our beliefs? These principles are more than simply words on paper. We strive to live out these principles in our daily lives by working for justice in the world around us. For that reason, our congregations place a heavy emphasis on changing our corners of the world to be more just places. Love and respect are at the center of our faith, embodied in the seven principles.

 

One way that these principles are taught by some UU parents is through the celebration of Chalica, a winter holiday in which a day is dedicated to each principle. For example, on the second day – celebrating justice, equity, and compassion in human relations – families might offer time volunteering at a soup kitchen or another activity in service to others.

 

As Michelle Richards suggests in her blog on uuworld.org, “Unlike other winter holidays, celebrating Chalica or some variation of it … highlights and celebrates our living tradition….an emphasis upon handmade presents and acts of service can provide comfort to those parents who are uneasy about the materialism inherent in many of the modern holiday celebrations. This can only serve to further emphasize our deeply held personal values of generosity, gratitude, and moderation.”

 

On our human journey toward understanding of life and developing value systems, we share concerns with many others in their religious realms. Unitarian Universalism stops short of defining a supreme being, leaving that understanding to the individual conscience. In the great tapestry of human society we do share the dream of love, justice, and peace for all fellow travelers on our beautiful earth.

 

The First Principle: Treat Everyone with Respect

 

Lake Country Echo and Pine River Journal, May 28, 2013

 

Of the seven principles of the Unitarian Universalist Covenant, the first is the most difficult and demanding in understanding and practice. It says, “… we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”

 

In light of the recent senseless bombings and loss of life in our country, it is hard to find within ourselves belief in the worth and dignity of perpetrators of such horrendous acts. How can we defend the notion that a bomber or torturer is such a person? How easy it is to dehumanize those responsible for acts of terror, how easy to say they have forfeited their worth and dignity by their inhuman acts.

 

Yet, even in the face of their incredible wrongs, our principles stand. We must grapple with them, wrestle with them and let them guide us. Every person has value, every life is precious. This radical idea is the foundation of America; the heart of democracy means every person is important. If even in our terror and anger we continue to uphold life’s value, terror has not defeated us. Inherent worth is an ethical idea. Our principles are not statements of how the world is; rather they are statements of the world we are trying to create.

 

So how do you find inherent worth in people who commit evil acts? We believe there is a spark of divine in each of us, and our religious purpose is to grow in love. We recognize people do evil things. But if you cast away your ethical commitment to the worth of a human being, you let them take away the basis of your ethics. All our principles urge us to value life; all life. Denying inherent worth is the first step in evil masquerading as good.

 

We tend to think of people as deliberately evil. Yet diverse factors – prenatal alcohol exposure, mental illness of chemical addiction (for which there are genetic predispositions), and brain injuries – have been linked to people who commit mass shootings and other violent crimes. Dr. Marsha Linehan, in her text “Dialectical Behavior Therapy Treatment for Borderline Personality Disorder,” suggests that dysfunctional behavior arises from the confluence of a baby’s congenital emotional hardwiring and environmental invalidation. Could it be that “bad” behavior is much more complex than we thought?

 

We like to think that we are fundamentally different from them, that we would never do evil. Yet how many people participated in the Holocaust? How many stood by and allowed it to happen? Or a thousand thousand other injustices that have occurred, that occur every day? Just as all of us have committed wrongs, all have inherent worth and dignity, even those who have committed heinous acts.

 

What resources do Unitarian Universalists have to deal with human monsters? Belief in man’s depravity allows us to feel all too good about snuffing out evil-doers or removing those who are problematical. Belief in worth and dignity of every person forces us to own our violence as evidence of our own failure in the quest for the divine. The First Principle is really hard. As Rev. David Sargent has written, “It is not a get-out-of-jail free card. It is not an affirmation that all people are good. But it is a call to make the world better by treating everyone with respect and trying to get others to do likewise, for the sake of all of us.”