The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, at 10:00 a.m. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2011 Daniel Harper.
Sermon — “Why the Seven Principles Must Change”
I’ll be talking this morning about Section C-2.1 of the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association, or the UUA. That section is titled “Principles,” and I’ll be talking about the first half of these principles, which have come to be known as the “seven principles.” If you’d like to see these principles while I speak, you can find this section of the UUA bylaws in the gray hymnal, on an unnumbered page just after the preface.
Let me tell you a little bit of the story of how the seven principles came into being. The first set of UUA principles were adopted in 1961 when the Unitarians and Universalists consolidated. In the 1970s, the feminist revolution swept through us Unitarian Universalists, and we came to realize the extent to which we had always envisioned liberal religion in male terms. By the late 1970s, it had become clear that the old UUA principles were clearly sexist in their language, and even in their assumptions. It was time to revise them.
In 1981, a revised version of the principles was presented to General Assembly, which is the annual meeting of elected representatives from congregations. This first revision had removed gender-specific language and, not surprisingly, given the preponderance of humanists within the UUA, had also removed all references to God. As you might imagine, this revision ignited one of the innumerable battles between humanists and theists, which threatened to mire the whole process in endless and acrimonious debate. So General Assembly voted to create a special committee to come up with another revision of the principles. That special committee sent out innumerable questionnaires, got lots of good suggestions, developed another revision of the principles, and then sent out that revision to be reviewed again, and got more good suggestions. They presented their findings at the next General Assembly, in 1982, and they led scores of small group discussions. They wrote another draft, sent that draft out to all congregations, created a new draft that was debated at the 1983 General Assembly, and then finally presented a final draft to the 1984 General Assembly, which was amended. Their painstaking attention to process paid off when General Assembly approved the revised principles in a nearly unanimous vote. Since this was a revision of the UUA bylaws, a second vote was required at the next General Assembly in 1985, and again the revised version of section C-2.1 of the bylaws passed with a nearly unanimous vote.
Since then, the revised principles have served the UUA reasonably well. But ten years ago, in 2001, Rev. Walter Royal Jones, who chaired that committee charged with drafting the new principles, noted that the principles might be due for some revision. Jones said, “We should not be surprised at some restiveness. On the one hand, some are uneasy with what they see as a kind of creeping creedalism in the way we use [the principles]. On the other there is a perception of incompleteness, with important, arguably necessary, empowering assumptions about cosmic reality and our particular place in it” that were left unsaid. Jones goes on to note that some people are dissatisfied with an overemphasis on with the emphasis on the individual, such that “the creative nature of community and interdependence are only tardily and inadequately acknowledged.” (1)
Or you might think about it this way. The 1980s was a decade when the selfish “Me Generation” of the 1970s was moving into the selfishness and extreme individualism of the 1990s and 2000s. Notions of some greater good to which humanity should aspire were replaced by naked greed and extreme individualism, and that naked greed and individualism led to crises like the savings and loan crisis of the 1990s, and the financial meltdown and Great Recession of the late 2000s. We adopted the revised UUA principles with the best of intentions in 1985, but they were a product of their times. So let us cast a critical eye upon them, and think whether they might need revision yet again.
1. Let me begin my gentle criticism by talking briefly about the literary quality of the seven principles: they haven’t any. The prose style reminds me of those mission statements that get generated by committees — you know, long involved mission statements where you try to please everyone, and include every suggestion that is made so that no one is offended. Of course, that’s exactly how the UUA principles were created: by a committee, who over a period of years tried to include every reasonable suggestion that was made so as not to offend anyone.
A lack of literary quality in such documents is not necessarily a bad thing. The seven principles are really a part of the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association, and we expect bylaws to have a certain legalistic quality to them. Reading bylaws should be like reading the book of Leviticus in the Bible — the legalistic precision necessary to set forth rules and regulations should result in a document which will put you to sleep when you’ve got insomnia. When you’re writing bylaws, you expect to sacrifice poetry for legalistic precision.
Unfortunately, the seven principles try to combine poetry into the necessary legalistic precision. The result is a document that can sound mildly impressive when you read it out loud, but the attempt at poetry interferes with legalistic precision, and so the principles never seem to call us to account. The mix of poetry and legalism leads to a long, involved, and imprecise statement.
Compare the seven principles to the five points of Unitarianism set forth in 1886 in a sermon by Unitarian minister James Freeman Clarke: “The fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the leadership of Jesus, salvation by character, and progress onwards and upwards forever.” (Clarke’s five point of Unitarianism, although never officially adopted by the American Unitarian Association, were adopted by many Unitarian congregations, and continued in use for most of a century.) There’s no vagueness in Clarke’s five points of Unitarianism. He says what he means with clarity, precision, and real depth of thought. Mind you, I would argue with every point he makes — I would never affirm the masculine fatherhood of God, for example — but I can admire the precision and economy with which he affirms that we have to refer to something that is greater and better than we are as individuals, and I can admire that he doesn’t beat around the bush. By contrast, I find a good deal of beating around of bushes in the seven principles.
Perhaps the primary virtue of Clarke’s five points of Unitarianism is its brevity. The problem with the seven principles is that they go on for so long that I always forget some of them; to make it worse, the seven principles are only half the matter, and then you have to read the six sources — the other half of that section UUA principles — as well. Because the seven principles go on for so long, it’s really hard to remember any of them. Usually, the only one we all remember is that one that says something about the inherent worth and dignity of each individual, which unfortunately tends to get reduced to, “MY inherent worth and dignity, and don’t you forget it!”
2. This brings us to my second gentle criticism of the seven principles. Walter Royal Jones put it this way: in the seven principles, “the creative nature of community and interdependence are only tardily and inadequately acknowledged.” I would put it this way: the seven principles come across as overly individualistic and selfish.
I will admit that a good bit of the selfishness of the seven principles comes from the uses to which we put them. I have witnessed more than one fifth grader say that they should get to do whatever they want because of their inherent worth and dignity. I have witnessed more than one adult say that their congregation should bow to their individual wishes because affirming the democratic process means they get to have their way. And that principle that encourages of spiritual growth in our congregations often gets interpreted to mean that other people should grow so that they can reach our lofty spiritual level. In short, much of the selfishness in the seven principles comes from the way we misinterpret them.
But this problem in turn arises because of the ease with which the principles are misinterpreted. Compare the seven principles to the Washington Declaration of the Universalist General Conference of 1935, which ends with the bold statement that we avow faith “in the power of men of good-will and sacrificial spirit to overcome evil and progressively establish the Kingdom of God.” This is a short, bold, and unambiguous statement that is more difficult to interpret for selfish gain; I would love it if the seven principles said that we are people of good will would are willing to sacrifice much in order to overcome evil.
Actually, Section 2 of the UUA bylaws does include one distinct and direct call to action, which sadly never gets quoted. That call to action comes in Section C-2.4, the non-discrimination clause, and it reads as follows: “The Association declares and affirms its special responsibility, and that of its member congregations and organizations, to promote the full participation of persons in all of its and their activities and in the full range of human endeavor without regard to race, ethnicity, gender, disability, affectional or sexual orientation, age, language, citizenship status, economic status, or national origin and without requiring adherence to any particular interpretation of religion or to any particular religious belief or creed.” If we took this clause seriously, we would be a different congregation. For example, if we took this clause seriously, every door and every room on this campus would be accessible to wheelchairs at all times. Right now, they are not. Until we revise the seven principles, we would do well, I think, to pay far more attention to this non-discrimination clause.
3. This brings me to my final point today: the seven principles don’t adequately address what I might term the Miss Marple philosophy of life. Miss Marple is a fictional detective, the literary creation of mystery writer Agatha Christie. In Christie’s books, Miss Marple directly confronts evil and what she calls “wickedness.” Here’s a brief taste of the Miss Marple view of life, taken from the novel A Pocketful of Rye:
“‘It sounds rather cruel,’ said Pat.
“‘Yes, my dear,’ said Miss Marple, ‘life is cruel, I’m afraid.’”
Miss Marple knows that often life is cruel, that evil and wickedness are abroad in the world, and that it is up to persons of high moral and ethical standards to do battle with evil and wickedness. Miss Marple understands that life might be a little less cruel if we would all stand up to evil and wickedness.
Actually, I think all of us would agree that evil and wickedness are abroad in this world, even if we wouldn’t use Miss Marple’s terms. This is why so many of us in this congregation work so hard for social justice. I’ll give you some examples of how people in this congregation fight against evil and wickedness in the world. Homelessness is an evil, and every September our congregation fights homelessness by hosting Hotel de Zink, an emergency shelter for people who are homeless. Global climate change is an evil caused by us human beings, and our congregation fights global climate change through our Green Sanctuary program — and you will notice that we now have photovoltaic panels on our roof to help reduce our carbon footprint. Loneliness and lack of human contact are an evil endemic in today’s isolating society, and we fight those evils together with our various small groups and our caring network. So you see, in our congregation, we are already fighting evil and wickedness.
While the seven principles do include weak statements to support our existing work of fighting evil and wickedness, I would prefer a stronger statement. If Miss Marple were rewriting the first of the seven principles, she would say:
“…It’s very wicked, you know, to affront human dignity.”
Or we could simply make a more general statement, something along the lines of the Washington Declaration of the old Universalists: “We affirm the power of people of good-will and sacrificial spirit to fight and to overcome evil, and to progressively establish an earth made fair and all her people one.”
Fortunately, we do not have to wait for the seven principles to be revised. Here in our congregation, we have our own unofficial affirmation of our faith, our own reason for being. We say that we aim to transform ourselves, each other, and the world. We take it as a given that we are transforming ourselves, each other, and the world, for the better. In Miss Marple’s terms, we are standing up to evil and wickedness in the world. But we also aim to strengthen our selves, and we aim to support and strengthen those around us. This fight for a better world, for an earth made fair and all her people one, is not an easy fight. It requires strength and courage.
If you find the seven principles to be useful to you as you fight against evil and wickedness in this world, I hope you’ll continue to rely upon them for strength and courage. We need to draw on strength wherever we can; my gentle criticisms are not intended to do away with the seven principles, but rather to revise them so that they may strengthen and encourage us even more. We are all in this together — you, me, and even Miss Marple — we are all standing up against evil and wickedness, we are all drawing courage from one another, we are all struggling together for that earth made fair with all her people one.
(1) History of adoption of the seven principles from Warren Ross, The Premise and the Promise, Boston: Skinner House, 2001, pp. 91-100. Jones quotes on pp. 99-100.
(2) Miss Marple quotes taken from Agatha Christie, A Pocketful of Rye, 1953.