Sermon copyright (c) 2022 Dan Harper. Delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. The sermon text may contain typographical errors. The sermon as preached included a significant amount of improvisation.
The first reading is the Principles from the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association:
We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote:
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;
Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
The second reading is the draft version of the revised Principles, Article II Study Commission:
Values and Covenant.
Love is the enduring force that holds us together. As Unitarian Universalists in religious community, we covenant, congregation-to-congregation and through our association, to support and assist each other in engaging our ministries. We draw from our heritages of freedom and reason, hope and courage, building on the foundation of love. Love inspires and powers the passion with which we embody our values. Inseparable from one another, these shared values are:
Justice. We work to be diverse multicultural Beloved Communities where all people thrive. We covenant to dismantle racism and all forms of oppression within individuals and our institutions. We are accountable to each other for this work.
Generosity. We cultivate a spirit of gratitude and hope. We covenant to freely share our faith, presence, and resources. Compassionate generosity connects us one to another in relationships of mutuality.
Evolution. We adapt to the changing world. We covenant to collectively transform and grow spiritually and ethically. Evolution is fundamental to life and to our Unitarian Universalist heritages, never complete and never perfect.
Pluralism. We celebrate that we are all sacred beings diverse in culture, theology, and experience. We covenant to learn from one another and openly explore the depth and breadth of our many wisdoms. We embrace our differences and commonalities with love, curiosity, and respect.
Equity. We declare that every person has the right to flourish with dignity and worthiness. We covenant to use our time, wisdom, attention, and money to build and sustain a fully inclusive and accessible community of communities.
Interdependence. We honor the sacred interdependent web of all existence. With humility we understand our place in the web. We covenant to care for and respect the earth and all beings by fostering relationships of mutuality. We work to repair the bonds we have broken.
[The full text of the draft revision of Article II, including the “liberty clause” and other material, may be found here.]
Sermon: “Revising the UU principles and purposes”
This morning I’m going to talk with you about the organizational bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association, the association of congregations of which we are a part. Now talking about bylaws is not everyone’s idea of an interesting sermon topic. But before you check out mentally, or decide to take a nap, I’m going to try to convince you that these bylaws can have a direct effect on your personal spiritual life.
Article II of the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association outline the principles and purposes of the Association. Since our congregation is a part of the Unitarian Universalist Association, that means that our congregation affirms those principles and purposes. And since each one of us is an individual member of this congregation, there’s a sense in which each of us affirms these principles and purposes.
And I hear people in this congregation frequently referring to one one section of Article II of the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association. That’s the section known as the “Seven Principles.” For many people, the “Seven Principles” help give shape to their ethical commitments in the world. For example, I have heard people in this congregation talking about the inherent worth and dignity of all people — a phrase that comes from the Seven Principles — and using that phrase to justify an ethical decision that they’re making. Since Unitarian Universalism is a practical religion, our ethics tend to be at the center of our spirituality, so this is an excellent example of how the Seven Principles might have a direct effect on your individual spiritual life.
For another example, my own spiritual life has as one of its centers “the Web of Life,” which the Unitarian Universalist theologian Bernard Loomer defined as follow: “the web is the world conceived of as an indefinitely extended complex of interrelated, inter-dependent events or units of reality.” The Seven Principles neatly summarize Loomer’s philosophical jargon in a more memorable phrase: “respect for the interdependent web of life.” So for my own individual spirituality, that memorable phrase helps me with my relationships with other people, and with my environmental commitments.
So it is that these Seven Principles, this section of the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association, actually have real-world effects. These Seven Principles actually help us with our spiritual lives, they help us shape our ethical commitments.
These Seven Principles have served as touchstones for many Unitarian Universalists since 1987. The current wording of Article II was approved by a unanimous vote at General Assembly, the annual business meeting of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Article II was then revised slightly in 1987. Those votes in 1985 and 1987 were the culmination of a years-long process to revise the original wording of Article which had been voted in place way back in 1961. That old version of Article II contained six principles, and they had to be revised for a number of reasons. Those old Six Principles used gender-specific language, such as using the word “man” to refer to all human beings of whatever gender. Those old Six Principles also referred to the (and I quote) “Judeo-Christian heritage,” a phrase that annoys Jews because Judaism is not some modifier of Christianity, it is a separate religious tradition on its own. (1) By the 1980s, it was clear to everyone that we needed to get rid of the sexist language, and we needed to be more respectful of other cultures and religions which were our close neighbors. (2)
It took about fifteen years for the weaknesses of the original Six Principles to become obvious. If we consider one generation to be about twenty years, that’s a little less than one generation. And there is a provision in the Unitarian Universalist Association bylaws that says that we shall review Article II, review our principles and purposes, at least every fifteen years — that is, we need to review our principles and purposes more frequently than once a generation. (This, by the way, is good advice for all of us; we should all review our individual principles and purposes on a regular basis.)
The last time we revised the Principles and Purposes of the Unitarian Universalist Association was in 1987. That was 35 years ago. There have been quite a few changes in the world since 1987. While the Seven Principles have held up remarkably well, it does seem like it is time to review them carefully, to see if we can still fully affirm them.
Personally, I think it is past time to revise the Seven Principles. I feel the Seven Principles had problems from the very beginning. Back in 1995, I was teaching a Sunday school class of fourth and fifth graders, and we spent one class looking at the Seven Principles. As we went over each principle, talking about what it meant and what it implied, the children began to notice that there were some seeming contradictions between several of the principles. I remember a child named Will — who was, to be honest, a bit of a troublemaker, because he was very bright and a good thinker and willing to say what he thought — Will pointed to the first principle, “The inherent worth and dignity of every person,” and the fourth principle, “the use of democratic process in our congregations,” and said these two principles could get in the way of each other. If there’s a close majority vote on an important issue, are we sure we’re respecting the inherent worth and dignity of those on the losing side? Will’s comment got at two important points: What do we mean by “democratic process”? and How do we reconcile the inherent worth and dignity of all individuals when one person’s needs or desires might directly conflict with another person’s needs?
I remembered Will’s questions many years later when a level three sex offender, someone considered to be at high risk of re-offending, wanted to join the Unitarian Universalist congregation I was then serving. We made a rapid decision that we were not going to accept him in our congregation, because all the parents of children in the congregation said if he came, they would leave. The Seven Principles did not give us much guidance in this difficult situation.
More recently, I’ve been thinking about unspoken assumptions that underlie parts of the Seven Principles. Take, for example, the principle that says we affirm “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” Of course we all support that general notion. But in recent years I’ve become increasingly aware of how this kind of principle can be perverted by ideologues. An ideologue can say that they’re simply engaging in a free and responsible search for truth, that they’ve found the truth, and that they refuse to work with anyone who believes differently than they do. That is what has been happening in the House of Representatives this past week, where a small group of ideologues, certain that they have found the truth, stalled the vote for a new Speaker of the House. So we might want to revise the notion of a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning” to make it less individualistic, to make it more relational. You really have to be a good listener, you have to engage with other people, before you engage in a personal search for truth and meaning. I’ll go further and say that your search should be for truth and meaning and goodness. Any search for truth and meaning should include ethical commitment, it should take into consideration all of humankind. If it’s just a personal, private search for truth, we are now seeing how that can create ideologues.
In recent years, I’ve also become aware that the Seven Principles don’t really take into account the multicultural reality of the United States in the present day. This is perhaps best exemplified by the fifth principle, which affirms (in part) “the use of the democratic process … in society at large.” There is no question in my mind but that I support democratic process. But which kind of democracy? The largest democracy in the world is India, and India has a significantly different form of democracy than we do here in the United States. This becomes an important question because the sixth principle says that we affirm “the goal of world community.” Personally, I would assume that our goal of world community does not mean that we’re going to try to impose American-style democracy on India — but the Seven Principles don’t say one way or the other.
That’s an example of an unexamined assumption in the Seven Principles. I’ve come to feel that there are many such unexamined assumptions in the Seven Principles. It is time we examined them.
I trust you can see how all this has an impact on our personal spiritual lives. For starters, I certainly don’t want my personal search for truth and meaning to make me look like an ideologue — which makes me wonder whether my search for truth and meaning supports the greater good, or whether it can be divisive.
So now you know why I, and quite a few other people, feel that we need to think about revising the Seven Principles. And that brings us to the Article II Study Commission, and their rough draft of a new set of Unitarian Universalist principles.
The Article II Study Commission was established by the Board of Trustees of the Unitarian Universalist Association back in 2017. The bylaws require the Board to do this. Section C-15.1.c.6 of the bylaws states, “If no study process of Article II has occurred for a period of fifteen years, the Board of Trustees shall appoint a commission to study Article II for not more than two years and to recommend appropriate revisions, if any, thereto to the Board of Trustees for inclusion on the agenda of the next regular General Assembly.” (3)
Back in 2017, the Board of the Unitarian Universalist Association did what the bylaws required them to do, and appointed a study commission to examine Article II. As a part of their charge to the Article II Study Commission, the Board asked for a specific focus. I quote: “We [the Board] therefore charge this commission to root its work in Love [that’s with a capital “L”] as a principal guide in its work; attending particularly to the ways that we (and our root traditions) have understood and articulated Love, and how we have acted out of Love.” We heard the new proposed draft of Article II as our second reading this morning, and clearly the Commissioners listened when the Board said to make Love-with-a-capital-“L” the focus of the draft revision.
Now at this point I suppose I could offer some my personal opinions about the draft revision of Article II. But I don’t think I should do that. I’m going to follow the lead of one of my predecessors in this respect. Back in 1959, Roscoe Trueblood, then minister of this congregation, gave a sermon on the proposed merger between the Unitarians and the Universalists, which were separate denominations in those days. Roscoe Trueblood was very careful not to express his opinion on that subject, saying that he thought it best to present the issue and let the congregation decide for itself how to vote. So instead of offering my personal opinion, I’ll summarize arguments for and against adopting the draft revision.
The reasons why we should revise Article II are fairly straightforward, and I outlined some of those reasons earlier. The current Seven Principles haven’t been revised since 1987, and they have begun to sound a bit dated. Most importantly, the Seven Principles do not take into account the new multicultural realities of the United States.
The reasons why we should not undertake a major revision of Article II are also fairly straightforward. The Seven Principles have served us well for 35 years, and they continue to serve us well. Rather than the major revision proposed by the Article II Study Commission, incremental revision, or even no revision, makes the most sense.
There are also reasons why some of us may not worry too much about this one way or the other. If you have been a Unitarian Universalist since before 1985, you may remember the old Six Principles, and you may remember that even though not everyone completely agreed with the new principles, the transition went pretty smoothly overall. If you’ve been a Unitarian or a Universalist for a really long time — longer than I have — you might even remember the old five points of Unitarianism, or the old Winchester Profession of Universalism, or one of the other affirmations of faith we used to have. Over the centuries, we have changed our statements of our religious principles a number of times. And each time, we seem to have survived pretty well.
This brings me to my second-to-last point. None of our historic statements of religious principles has been perfect. Each of them has had some flaw, or several flaws. We should expect that of anything developed by human beings. We humans are limited, fallible beings; we can never make anything that’s perfect or permanent. Rather than expecting perfection, the best we can ever hope for is to make something that’s good enough.
Since that is the case, whatever revisions we make of the principles of the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association only need to be good enough. Or we may look at proposed revisions and decide that the old Seven Principles are good enough. I hope this makes the revision of Article II seem more manageable.
The next steps are up to the members of this congregation. You may decide that some or all of the members of this congregation should learn more about the proposed revisions to Article II. Perhaps you’ll decide the members should vote on the issue at our congregation’s annual meeting. On the other hand, you may decide that the members of this congregation do not have a strong opinion about revising the Principles and Purposes of the denomination’s bylaws. If that’s the case, then you really don’t have to do anything — although remember that taking no action is a kind of decision.
Now let me come to my final point. I would like to suggest to you that democracy and the democratic process are actually central to the spiritual lives of all Unitarian Universalists. We are committed to democratic principles precisely because we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of each and every individual; or, to use the terms of the draft revision, precisely because of how we understand love, because of how we act out of love.
Democracy is central to our spiritual lives because the ideals of democracy show us how we might live in a more perfect world. Yet like most everything that has to do with our spiritual lives, democracy is not easy. It is not easy to act like everyone matters. Democracy is not neat and tidy. It is not neat and tidy to work with other human beings to try to live up to our ideals. Democracy is really all about learning how to be together with other human beings, how to work together even with the people we don’t like all that much, to live up to our shared ideals.
Democracy can be one of the most difficult of all spiritual tasks, and also one of the most rewarding — because if we get it right, if we really are able to work together and co-exist together, we can actually create a better world. That’s sort of the ultimate goal in any spiritual practice, isn’t it? — not just to make our selves better, but to make the whole world better.
Tons more information from the Article II Study Commission can be found here.
(1) For reference, I’m including the six principles from the 1961 UUA bylaws as an end note (outdated language is unchanged):
“In accordance with these corporate purposes, the members of the Unitarian Universalist Association, dedicated to the principles of a free faith, unite in seeking:
1. To strengthen one another in a free and disciplined search for truth as the foundation of our religious fellowship;
2. To cherish and spread the universal truths taught by the great prophets and teachers of humanity in every age and tradition, immemorially summarized in the Judeo-Christian heritage as love to God and love to man;
3. To affirm, defend and promote the supreme worth of every human personality, the dignity of man, and the use of the democratic method in human relationships;
4. To implement our vision of one world by striving for a world community founded on ideals of brotherhood, justice, and peace;
5. To serve the needs of member churches and fellowships, to organize new churches and fellowships, and to extend and strengthen liberal religion;
6. To encourage cooperation with men of good will in every land.”
(2) The Article II Study Commission offers their summary of Article II history here.
(3) The full text of the UUA bylaws are online here.