Another way

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 and 11:00 a.m. services. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2015 Daniel Harper.

We Unitarian Universalists are known for our openness to the beliefs and practices of other religions. But we also have our own native spiritual practices, and today I’d like to tell you about spiritual practices from our own tradition, rooted in the relationships between human and non-human beings. I have to warn you, though, that this native Unitarian Universalist spiritual practice is a challenging spiritual practice to follow; which might explain why we have mostly ignored it, and instead turned to popularized spiritual practices from other traditions that aren’t so demanding.

And this native Unitarian spiritual practice starts with the story of how Henry Thoreau, who was raised a Unitarian, went to live at Walden Pond.

When Henry Thoreau got out of college, he had to decide on a career. First he was by his home town of Concord, Massachusetts, as a school teacher. He lasted two weeks. A member of the school committee dropped in to see how the new teacher was doing, and told Thoreau to improve discipline by using more corporal punishment. Thoreau called on half a dozen students at random, beat them, and handed in his resignation that night. (1)

Next Thoreau went to work for his father in the family business of manufacturing pencils. But this was a job and not a vocation; so he also started writing regularly in a journal; and, along with the rest of his Unitarian family, he became an abolitionist, trying to abolish slavery in the United States.

Henry Thoreau still wanted a job that would be a calling, a vocation. So he and his beloved older brother John started their own school. This school, what we today might call a progressive school, was a great success. Their school only lasted for two years, until John’s tuberculosis worsened to the point where he could no longer teach, and so they closed the school. Over the next year, John started to recover from tuberculosis — but then he accidentally nicked his finger with a razor, contracted tetanus, and died a week later.

His brother’s death deepened Henry’s struggle to find his path in life. Henry drifted along, trying different things, until three years after John died, when he got permission to go live on a woodlot owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson, right next to the railroad tracks on the shores of Walden Pond.

Henry built himself a small cabin there. He cleared some ground and planted a garden. He spent much of his days outdoors. He read deeply in ancient Greek and Roman literature, in the Bible, and in the holy books of other world religions. In his journal, he wrote about what he had seen in the outdoors. He wrote a memoir about a camping trip he and John had taken, rowing down the Concord River to the Merrimack River, then upstream till they could go no further, then traveling by land to the White Mountains, then into the mountains and all the way up Mount Washington, the highest peak in New England.

Henry Thoreau didn’t got to Walden Pond to pretend to live in the wilderness; he didn’t live there to escape from the world. In fact, the opposite is true: his cabin on Walden Pond was a station on the Underground Railroad. Some people are embarrassed by Thoreau, saying: Oh, but when he was at Walden Pond, he went to his mother’s house to eat dinner and get his laundry done! Yes, and while he was at his mother’s house he plotted with Concord’s radical abolitionists on how to help slaves escape.

So far from trying to escape from the world, Thoreau got himself arrested while living at Walden Pond. He refused to pay the poll tax, which, he said, was an immoral tax because it went to pay for an unjust war against Mexico. He spent just one night in jail because someone — he never learned who it was — paid his poll tax for him, probably out of embarrassment that this Harvard graduate wound up in the town jail with drunks and uneducated bums.

Henry Thoreau lived at Walden Pond for two years and two months, keeping track of when the flowers bloomed, watching the trees come into leaf, and then he went back to live with his parents and sisters. He had finished the business he had to transact at Walden Pond: his spiritual path led him elsewhere.

I think Thoreau is very difficult for many of us Unitarian Universalists today because he is more concerned with transcendent reality than with his career. He made his money manufacturing pencils and working as a surveyor. But his real concern was not his paid jobs, it was his spiritual life.

Our priorities tend to be the other way around: we think our careers deserve more time than our spiritual lives; or maybe we think that our careers are a spiritual matter. Here in Silicon Valley, we worship our jobs, and we like the fact that we can brag about working seventy hours a week — actually, I’m now down to about fifty hours a week, most weeks, except when I work more than that — and we don’t like it when Henry Thoreau tells us, quite convincingly, that we need only work a couple of months a year to provide for the necessities of life. If we did this, says Thoreau, we could spend the bulk of our lives contemplating the divine reality that we mostly ignore. But rather than confront this embarrassing truth, we turn our attention to other, less demanding, spiritual paths. Take, for example, the current Silicon Valley fascination with mindfulness. “Mindfulness” turns out a mis-translation of the ancient Pali word “sati,” a subtle Buddhist concept that means something like “memory of the present.” (2) But we prefer our Westernized and mis-translated version of mindfulness because it demands so little from us. Mindfulness is pursued by executives from Fortune 500 companies, so it must be good. Mindfulness means we do not have to give up our seventy-hour-a-week jobs, because we can be mindful at work, which will make us more productive, and allow us to spend even more time at work.

“As for work, we haven’t any of any consequence [says Thoreau]. We have the Saint Vitus’ dance, and cannot possibly keep our heads still. If I should only give a few pulls at the parish bell-rope, as for a fire, there is hardly anyone within hearing, notwithstanding that press of engagements which was his excuse so many times this morning, but would forsake all and follow that sound, not mainly to save property from the flames, but, if we will confess the truth, much more to see it burn, since burn it must, and we, be it known, did not set it on fire.” (3) Today we do not even need to leave to comfort of our cubicle to watch the fire, we just wait for someone to post a video on Facebook. And so we are distracted for a pleasant moment in our seventy hour work week.

Because he will cause you to doubt about the value of your career, I cannot recommend Thoreau as a spiritual guide. But if you are crazy enough to want to follow Thoreau’s spiritual and religious example, I’ll tell you about three life-changing spiritual practices recommended by Thoreau.

The first spiritual practice is to spend a great deal of time outdoors, closely observing the natural world. Thoreau spent hours each day outdoors, checking to see when the various species of flowering plants first bloomed each year, watching how dead animals decay, closely observing all the minutiae of life around him, and then recording his careful observations of human and non-human beings in his journal. I’ve tried this a couple of times recently — spend most of the day outdoors, observing the relation of humans to non-humans, the interdependence of living things, how living things depend on non-living things — and I can report more than just about any other spiritual practice, it has gotten me closer to a transcendent reality. The problem with this spiritual practice, however, is that it makes me a less effective employee of this church, because I begin to believe it as important to watch Black Phoebes build their nest under the eaves outside the door to my office, than answer the email you have sent to me.

The second spiritual practice is to read the holy books of the great world religions. Thoreau lived at a time when the scriptures of non-Christian religions were being translated into European languages for the first time. Of course he already knew the Western Bible, and the spiritual writing of the ancient Romans and Greeks. But he was also able to read deeply in books like the Confucian Analects, and make those stories become a part of him, as when he writes: “Kieou-he-yu (great dignitary of the state of Wei) sent a man to Khoung-tseu [Confucius] to know his news. Khoung-tseu caused the messenger to be seated near him, and questioned him in these terms: What is your master doing? The messenger answered with respect: My master desires to diminish the number of his faults, but he cannot come to the end of them. The messenger being gone, the philosopher remarked: What a worthy messenger! What a worthy messenger!” (3) So it was that Thoreau understood the place of humans in the universe: as much as we might like to think we are like gods, we are in fact limited fallible beings. Books like this keep us from thinking we are better than other humans, or thinking that humans are somehow better than non-human beings. Thus we open ourselves to the web of relationships of which we are a part. And the problem with this spiritual practice is that it is a blow to your pride, from which you may never want to recover.

The third spiritual practice is to find your own way to truth. Thoreau did think that everyone should go build a cabin on a woodlot borrowed from Ralph Waldo Emerson. He did not care whether or not we read the Confucian Analects. He was not trying to recruit us to join the Underground Railroad. He wanted us to come face to face with reality, to see the world as it really is, to ignore illusions of progress represented by commercial success. This has been the task of religion since the dawn of time: to get us to see things as they really are. But this is a dangerous task. Thoreau said: “If you stand right fronting and face to face to a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a scimitar, and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality.” And this is why you should ignore this part of our Unitarian Universalist religious tradition. It is safer to stick to the popularized versions of religion. Go take yoga classes, but do not delve into the depths of Hindu philosophy. Practice mindfulness, but ignore the difficult path of Buddhist enlightenment. Read leadership books that quote ancient Chinese philosophers, but do not attempt to diminish the number of your faults. Come to church here if you like, but do not take seriously the ravings of prophets like Isaiah and Jesus and Jeremiah who say we can make this world a better place.

So I will close by telling you this: Don’t read Thoreau. He will only cause you trouble. If you are young, he will tempt you to drop out of school and go hike the Pacific Crest Trail (which is our North American version of the pilgrimages to the holy land), and then you will not get into Harvard and your life will be ruined. If you are trying to raise children in Silicon Valley, he will tempt you to tell your children: “Stop doing homework and spend time outdoors!” and then they won’t get in to Stanford and their lives will be ruined. If you are retired, he will tempt to become like the retired admirers of Thoreau I once knew who devoted their time and money to social justice causes and filed their bills as follows: Bills To Be Paid; To Be Paid When There’s Money; Refuse To Pay for Ethical Reasons. Trust me, this is a recipe for trouble.

No, you should stay away from people like Thoreau. He will make you crave only reality. He is like all those religious prophets, telling us that we need not live the way we do now, that we can follow a better way.

Notes:
(1) The facts of Thoreau’s life are taken from the standard scholarly biography: Walter Harding, The Days of Henry Thoreau: A Biography, enlarged and corrected edition (Princeton University Press, 1982).
(2) For the origins of the word “mindfulness” in English, see Virginia Heffernan, “Mind the Gap,” New York Times Magazine, April 19, 2015, p. 14.
(3) Walden, “Where I Lived and What I Lived For.”
(4) Analects Book 14.26.1-2. In James Legge’s translation: “Chu Po-yu sent a messenger with friendly inquiries to Confucius. Confucius sat with him, and questioned him. ‘What,’ said he, ‘is your master engaged in?’ The messenger replied, ‘My master is anxious to make his faults few, but he has not yet succeeded.’ He then went out, and the Master said, ‘A messenger indeed! A messenger indeed!’”

A curious incident on the road to Jerusalem

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 and 11:00 a.m. services. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2015 Daniel Harper.

In the story for all ages this morning, I told you about how Jesus came to Jerusalem, and about how for some people he may have symbolized the hope of spiritual leadership against the occupation of Judea by the foreign Roman Empire.

Now I would like to tell you story of a curious incident that happened while Jesus was traveling to Jerusalem. We Unitarian Universalists are quite comfortable with the idea that Jesus was a religious leader who fought for social justice, like Martin Luther King. We are much less comfortable with the story of this curious incident. But since I am a Unitarian Universalist, I feel we should look carefully at that which makes us uncomfortable.

So here’s the story of the curious incident:

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. Of course he knew he was taking a risk by traveling to Jerusalem: that his visit could be perceived as defiance to the Roman empire, and that his visit could be perceived as challenging the religious leaders at the Temple of Jerusalem. When we remember that we Unitarians insist on the full humanity of Jesus, and when we remember that the we just recognized the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s march to Selma, you and I will be tempted to draw parallels between Dr. King’s religiously-inspired social justice movement, and whatever it was that Jesus was doing.

But —

According to the old stories, Jesus was also a faith healer.

On their way to Jerusalem, Jesus and his many followers traveled through the city of Jericho. As they were leaving Jericho, according the book of Christian scriptures called the Gospel of Mark, a blind beggar sitting by the side of the road called out to Jesus. When you imagine this blind beggar, call to mind someone who is wearing cast-off clothing, someone who is dirty, someone who lives on the streets because there is no other place for him to live, someone who is as low in the social hierarchy as you can go. If you’re thinking about a street person that you might see in the city, go lower still: there were no social services in Judea, there was a much wider divide between the haves and the have-nots, and physical disabilities were most often perceived as the result of a person being taken over by a demon. No, this blind beggar that called out to Jesus was lower in the social hierarchy than a street person is in the United States — and that’s saying something.

This blind beggar calls out to Jesus, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Many among the followers of Jesus tried to hush him up. Here’s how I imagine the conversation: “Dude, what are you doing, we’re on our way to JERUSALEM! Jesus doesn’t have TIME for this right now. Look, here’s a piece of silver [that would be a lot of money to give a beggar!] — here’s a piece of silver, now hush up.”

Imagine if Martin Luther King Jr. were on the march to Selma, doing that arm-in-arm social justice walking thing with some heavyweight social justice leaders — as in that famous photograph that shows Dr. King with John Lewis, Ralph Abernathy, and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel — imagine if Dr. King were walking along like that, when up pops this homeless disabled guy and says, “Dr. King, heal me!” All the organizers of the march are going to converge on that homeless guy, slip him twenty bucks, and get him to shut up so that Dr. King can proceed to Selma without being delayed.

But whatever Jesus’s followers said to the blind guy, he wouldn’t shut up. He shouts out: “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Son of David, indeed! Here’s this blind beggar shouting out his feeling that Jesus is descended from the line of kings of Jerusalem. Talk about deliberately provoking the Roman authorities!

And what does Jesus do? He stops, and tells his followers to bring the blind guy over. The blind beggar makes his way through the crowd to Jesus, and Jesus says to him: “What do you want me to do for you?”

The blind man says, “My teacher, let me see again.”

To which Jesus responds: “Go; your faith has made you well.”

Upon which, the blind man regained his sight and… (1)

 

Upon which — my Unitarian Universalist skepticism kicks in. (Did you notice the same thing in yourself? Did you notice your skepticism kicking in?) The blind man regained his sight? — I don’t think so! Modern medical science would not be able to cure someone of blindness just by saying “Your faith has healed you”; so there’s no way some wandering, semi-literate Judean religious teacher could cure blindness in this way.

And here we might get into arguments with our conservative Christian neighbors. There are many conservative Christians in the Bay Area who do believe that Jesus made it so that this blind man could see again. We might also get into arguments with some of our more liberal neighbors, people inspired by the New Age, who are not conservative Christians, but who do believe that such miracles happen. We might also get into arguments with our liberal Christian neighbors who don’t believe in the literal truth of such miracles but who see miracles as metaphorically true, or who choose not to impose anachronistic twenty-first century Western worldviews on first century Middle Eastern stories. Being Unitarian Universalists, we find it easy to get into arguments with lots of different people!

But personally, I’m not particularly interested in getting into such arguments. I am especially not interested in arguments that aim to debunk this story of healing because it is unscientific. I am not interested in such arguments because from my point of view, there’s a big difference between curing someone, and healing someone. In a perfect example of what I mean, I can point to hospice programs. A hospice program cares for people as they are dying. Hospice programs do not cure people, nor keep people from dying. But I can tell you from personal observation that hospice programs do provide some sort of healing benefit to people. My mother was in hospice before she died; my partner’s mother was in hospice before she died; my father is currently in hospice. In each case, from the point of view of the dying person, hospice helped them to become more whole as persons, to be healed even as they moved towards death.

There is a difference between what dying feels like to the person who is dying, and what an objective scientific observer would report from the outside. An objective scientific observer who is confronted with a terminally ill person is going to conclude that death is — let’s say — 99% likely. That’s the objective viewpoint. From an objective viewpoint, we might say that if there is a one percent chance that the person might actually recover, then we should keep that person in a scientifically-run hospital with all the latest technology, hoping to prolong their life as much as possible. But the dying person might have another viewpoint; they might prefer the quality of life they get in hospice care, avoiding what appears to them to be intrusive medical procedures.

There is a difference between curing and healing. The science of medicine now has a great deal of technical know-how, and medicine can cure many ailments that would have baffled the people of Jesus’s time. Thank God for that! I for one am glad that we can cure so many ailments.

But healing is a different matter. If you are healed, as opposed to cured, the final result will be different. To illustrate what I mean, let me tell you another brief story from early on in Jesus’ ministry. Here is how the story is translated in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible:

“Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told [Jesus] about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And [Jesus] cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons.” (2)

Feminist Bible scholars have pointed this translation is wrong. Instead of saying, “she began to serve them,” the translation should read, “she ministered to them.” In the original text, the word used for what the woman does is “ministered” — the same word that is used to describe what the male followers of Jesus get to do. In other words, this woman engages in the same kind of religious leadership that the male followers of Jesus do. Unfortunately, the sexism that pervades our modern culture always tends to obscure the religious leadership of women. In fact, this woman does more than many of Jesus’s male followers: her house becomes the place where Jesus does even more healing. (3)

(And if I were in a snarky mood — OK, OK, I am in a snarky mood! — since I am in a snarky mood, I could go on to point out that, like Biblical scholarship, supposedly-objective science is also pervaded by sexism. We all know that science is sexist, we all know that women are underrepresented in the hard sciences, we all know how medical science is more likely to research specifically male medical problems than specifically female problems. All this can be objectively proven. And beyond sexism, we know that science is pervaded by racism, beginning with the Enlightenment attempts to provide scientific “proof” for race and racism, proceeding through the twentieth century with scientific eugenics, up to the present day is ways we may only dimly recognize but which will no doubt embarrass us when the next generation points it out to us. That’s enough snark for now, and so I’ll return to the sermon.)

Of course, ancient Judea was also pervaded by sexism and racism, and Jesus himself certainly appears sexist by my standards (though he seems to me to be less racist than anyone living in the United States today). But the feminist interpretation of the story makes the point that when the woman was healed of her fever by Jesus, she immediately turned around to engage in ministry herself. She was healed, and then she became a religious leader; and the way she became a religious leader was to minister to others, to even heal them of their weariness and their hurts and their self doubts.

This I believe is really the point of Jesus’s healing ministry. Did he actually cure people of physical ailments? We have no way of objectively answering this question two thousand years after the fact. Many of us skeptical Unitarian Universalists would say — no, he didn’t actually cure people.

But did he heal people? Oh yes. Yes indeed. I think Jesus healed people in much the same way hospice heals people who are dying: they are still going to die, but instead of being emotionally overwhelmed by death, they are healed to that they can more fully experience the love that surrounds them. So it is that when Jesus heals the blind beggar, Jesus may not cure his eyesight, but Jesus does heal his soul. And so the blind beggar “followed Jesus in the way” — he followed in the way of love and kindness, and by so doing he both loved and experienced the love of others. When Jesus healed the woman with the fever, she in her turn took on religious leadership, and in her turn helped to heal others; and that makes two miracles: a woman in religious leadership, and a person following in the way of love and kindness.

When we can see this difference between curing and healing — where curing can be objectively measured and subject to scientific rigor, while healing must be judged by the subjective viewpoint — when we can see this, we might better understand some otherwise intractable problems.

Let’s take for example the problem of racism in the United States. We can provide cures for racism through laws and regulations, through addressing objective mechanisms that perpetuate racial bias; we can even provide cures for racism through physical actions like marching on Selma and protesting Ferguson and writing letters to elected representatives. But we also need healing, and therein lay the brilliance of Martin Luther King Jr.: he not only worked toward a cure for racial bias, he helped heal people of racism.

Let’s go on to the problem of death and dying. In the end, medical science cannot cure death: my father is in hospice, and he will not be cured. But he is in hospice care, and that has helped to bring him some healing — not a cure, but healing.

We could go on to many other problems that face us. For some of the problems that face us, it is not enough to cure the problem by finding a rational, scientific solution — we also need healing. And for some of the problems that face us, a cure may not impossible — but healing may be possible.

As a skeptic, I do not believe that the blind beggar was cured by Jesus. Jesus did not repair whatever physical ailment afflicted his eyes or his nervous system. In fact, the Gospel of Mark says only: “Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.” His faith made him well; he was healed, not cured. As a blind beggar, he had been kicked to the margins of society; but Jesus helped heal his soul, so that he could once again see love and kindness. No wonder he followed Jesus in the way. No wonder he joined a religious movement that promised to spread love and kindness throughout Judea, even to Jerusalem, even to the place that embodied oppressive foreign rule.

And we may all hope for this kind of healing in our own lives. Each one of us probably has problems or pain or sorrow that we wish could be cured, but where we know a cure is difficult or impossible. Yet even when a cure is impossible, we may still be healed. And if we are healed — even if we get just a little bit of healing — we may find ourselves like the blind beggar, getting up off the side of the road, and following in the way of love and kindness. We may find ourselves like the woman with a fever, who was healed, who got up, and who continued her healing by ministering to others. For this is how healing works: when we begin to be healed, we are no longer isolated in pain or difficulties, we are returned to the web of interdependence of all beings, we are returned to love.

 

Notes

(1) Retold from Mark 20.46-52, New Revised Standard Version translation.

(2) NRSV, Mark 1.29-34

(3) For a concise statement of this viewpoint, see Mary Ann Tolbert, “Mark,” The Woman’s Bible Companion, ed. Carol A. Newsome and Sharon H. Ringe (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Know Press, 1992), p. 267.

Why the Seven Principles Must Change

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.

Notes:

(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.