An affirmation of faith

I never have liked the “seven principles” that so many Unitarian Universalists use as an affirmation of faith. It’s a legacy of my liberal religious Sunday school years, I suppose, but I prefer an older affirmation of faith:

We affirm:
The fatherhood of God,
the brotherhood of man,
the leadership of Jesus,
salvation by character, and
progress onwards and upwards forever.

That’s something that stirs my soul, and it’s something that’s easy to remember. But I don’t like the gender-specific language. Plus I’ve grown leery of that last phrase, both because of all the evil that was done in the name of “progress” in the 20th C. and because I don’t want to have to wait “forever” for progress to happen. So I wrote a new affirmation based on that old affirmation, to use with my congregation this Sunday:

Here we gather in covenant:
nurtured by that which is highest and best in life, which some call God;
bound together by common humanity;
led by the great spiritual teachings of the ages;
finding salvation in character;
to the end that we may institute true peace and true justice,
here and now, here on earth.

This affirmation isn’t nearly as good as the old one, but it seems to me it’s an improvement on the “seven principles.” The congregation I serve is distinctly post-Christian, a real stew of Christians and theists and pagans and humanists. A more Christian congregation could, I imagine, use a pithier affirmation, something like this:

Here we gather in covenant:
nurtured by God;
bound together by common humanity;
led by the teachings of Jesus;
finding salvation in character;
to the end that we may institute the kingdom of heaven,
here and now, here on earth.

I would love your theological thoughts and critiques (to say nothing of your poetical thoughts and critiques), as I continue to search for alternatives to the dreary, leaden, uninspiring “seven principles.” I would love to hear from religious liberals who are not Unitarian Universalists — what do you use as an affirmation of faith, and why?

21 thoughts on “An affirmation of faith

  1. Jay

    Hello! As much as I like being a rebel, and I do, I’m a “conservative” when it comes to the seven principles. I like them, and I object (ok, mildly) to the description of them as “dreary, leading, [and] uninspiring.” They’re not! They’re transcendent. And potentially powerful. And I hate that there’s such a movement to replace them.

    Think how the world would be different if more people would subscribe to our seven principles. Try reading them as new again. Don’t just hear them as familiar words. Hear them with new ears–as if you’d been living somewhere where “justice, equity, and compassion” weren’t valued. Or somewhere where the “inherent worth and dignity” of all was a radical concept. Isn’t it a radical concept? Isn’t it still a radical concept here? It sure as hell ought to be .

    Plus, the seven principles are something that a nontheistic humanist like me can proudly adopt. Your alternative affirmations here exclude me. (They might even exclude theistic non-Christians.) Don’t leave us out. Feed the humanists, too!

    Best wishes.

  2. Bill Baar

    Are the words of the affirmation important, or the fact we need to say them?

    Now, forgive me for answering my own question, but the words are important to me, but I would hesitate to quibble with someone elses choices…

    …that someone else does feel the need to affirm though would place them in higher esteem for me, then someone who sees no need at all.

    Hope that make sense…late at night

  3. Jean

    I must have been an inattentive UU kid (I know I was); I don’t recall those words at all. I remember mostly the central notion of valuing the dignity and worth of every person. That informs everything I do now. If ever there is an affirmation I need to repeat, it’s that one.

  4. Rex


    After posting to your M/L thread on Hogue, I was curious to see what else you had to say. (Incidentally, it is only because I have also posted to other blogs of this style that I was able to find my way to authorization to post–being sent to the log-in-your-blog menu had me thinking I had lost my way.)

    I’m not big on affirmations of faith. During my active years in ministry, I chose a different Unison Affirmation each Sunday depending on the context.

    I think of “faith” as personal, although it is also used to refer to one’s communal affiliation. In which of those alternatives do you feature your liturgical usage? If it is an “affirmation of membership,” I’d remind you of the story I only heard, after a near lifelong 72 years affiliation with UUism, that when Channing said that he would resign his pulpit if the congregation insisted on a loyalty oath for membership, the congregation told him, “Bye, bye.”

  5. Administrator

    Jean — I was pretty inattentive, too (mostly I remember graham crackers and apple juice for snack). But somehow I did remember that little saying, who knows from where.

    Bill — Easy for you to say. You go to a church that has an excellent covenant, which you folks say each week in common worship. Actually, if I had my way, the covenant of the UU Scoiety of Geneva would become the affirmation for the whole Association.

    Rex — Not beginner’s unluck, rather it’s my luck. While I disagree with you that faith is merely personal (based on my understanding that persons are social beings), I do agree with you that I don’t particularly care for affirmations of faith. If this were my universe, I’d do away with ’em. But we are surrounded by a dominant culture that places high value on creeds and dogmas. For me, an affirmation of faith is a useful thing to have for many individual Unitarian Universalists who get cornered by coworkers and freinds and asked, “What is it that you *believe*, anyway?” I mean, the best response is, Who cares what we believe, it’s how we live our lives that counts! (but alas, not only would many of our interlocutors not comprehend that concept, but for many of us the way we live our lives would indict us). I’d say a close second choice would be for each and every congregation to have a meaningful covenant (see response to Bill, above), but that’s not likely to happen. So I draw on the Universalist side of our heritage, and say that maybe an affirmation of faith is a good idea.

    Jay — I actually said “leaden,” not “leading” because to me the “seven principles” (which I put in quotes because that’s not they’re proper name; they’re part of Article C2.1 Principles and Purposes of the UUA Bylaws) were not really written for use in a worship service as an affirmation of faith. David Bumbaugh has done a nice adaptation of them suitable for use in worship. Unfortunately, the “seven principles” do not reference God anywhere, which leaves out our Christian and theistic brothers and sisters, just as you feel left out by the fact that my affirmation above says that some people might like to refer to God now and then. You say “Feed the humanists, too!” but what I fear is that the humanist, still dominant in our association, are really asking that everyone else *not* be fed. I don’t mean to incite riots here, and I am not a UU Christian nor even a conventional UU theist, but I do feel that the humanists have to compromise and allow others to use the word “God” in common worship. (“Goddess” too for that matter.) At the same time, I hear you — the affirmation I wrote above just doesn’t cut the mustard either — proof that I am neither poet nor theologian enough to be able to write what I want. Sigh….

    But Jay, let me pose this question to you:– if it came to a vote at General Assembly where the majority was definitely in favor of changing the “seven principles,” and if you got put on the committee to revise them to include “God” language in some way shape or form, how would you do it? I know this is a difficult hypothetical, and I only pose it to you because I know you are committed to the democratic process, which is a part of the “seven principles.”

  6. Jay

    Dan, sorry about typing “leading” for “leaden.” I absolutely understood what you wrote; I just didn’t type it back to you very well!

    As for your question, it’s something I’ve obviously given quite a bit of thought. I find that I’m ok with “Higher Power”-type references, so long as we stay away from actual references to God (or Goddess, etc.). The language has to be inclusive and generic enough that a Humanist can be thinking of some transcendent value or philosophy while the Theist is thinking of something more explicitly spiritual. Likewise, language that could somehow appease both theistic and non-theistic Buddhists might be appropriate.

    At this point in our history, UUism is a grand coalition of liberal Christians, pagans, Humanists, Buddhists, and so many other groups. That’s part of what I love about UUism. The truth is, though, that Humanists sustained our coalition for much of the 20th century, and I hope the insistence of some of our co-religionists on God-talk won’t exclude us altogether in the 21st century.

  7. Rex

    Dan, Thanks for welcoming me, and time will tell which of us is lucky. I admit I wondered how Bill Barr was able to commute from St. Charles to the Cape to comment on the herring gulls.

    I no longer find it significant or necessary to be able to tell anyone about UUism while standing on one foot. Yes, I have some cliches to toss out if necessary. For PR purposes, we have a supply of pamphlets.

    My anxiety has been reduced by spending the last several years working on a degree in philosophy. There knowledge is ranked above belief. But the disagreements about what qualifies as knowledge are as fluid and complicated as even one of Emerson’s later essays. It had a familiar UU feel to it when I realized that, to exaggerate, most schools of philosophical thought have one member–whoever wrote a book. And one of the current concerns is “How do we stop doing philosophy, since it has come to an end?”

    In other words, if you ask a philosopher to tell you what philosophy is, he will tell you what he knows and what he believes.

    It is that relationship between knowledge and belief that I find of greatest interest. And I take some pride in our heritage as one that has insisted that our belief be informed by knowledge. In that regard, while in the thread above one poster finds our P&Ps (now called Principles and Sources, I believe) “transcendent.” Beyond knowledge? I don’t think so.

  8. Jay

    With respect, Rex, my dictionary indicates that “transcendent” means, inter alia, “extending or lying beyond the limits of ordinary experience” and/or “universally applicable or significant.” For me, the seven principles satisfy those requirements. I wish it weren’t true, but my “ordinary experience” doesn’t include the continual feeling that every person is of inherent worth and dignity. It’s something I believe, of course, but the world surely isn’t structured that way. Likewise, as much as I strive to incorporate “justice, equity[,] and compassion” into my own life, and I do, I sure don’t see enough of it around. To think of “justice, equity[,] and compassion” as “universally applicaple or significant” is a very radical thing to do in our world.

    I could say something similar about each of the remaining P&Ps. So, yes, for me, the seven principles are transcendent. When I hear them recited, I get goose bumps, and I think how interesting the world would be if more people adopted them as touchstones. Sadly enough, at that point in human history, the seven principles are a bit utopian. That utopian quality, though, justifies calling them “transcendent,” I think.

    Enjoyable discussion, everyone!

  9. Administrator

    Hi again Jay — This morning while leading worship, I never mentioned God at all (my mistake, I had it written in as part of the affirmation as above, but skipped over it when I read it [and if you want to attribute my forgetfulness to my own subconscious motivations, you might be right]) — needless to say, I was gently reminded by one of the UU Christians after the service that I never seem mention God, with the distinction implication that they feel left out. Do I need to add that the UU Pagans want me to say Goddess now and again? This is the life of a working Unitarian Universalist minister. Fortunately, the humanists in this congregation don’t mind if I say God in worship (although, as one of them put it, “Just so long as you don’t say it when you do my memorial service”).

    Hi again Rex — My undergrad degree was in philosophy, so we speak some of the same language. Not sure I’d agree that philosophy has come to an end, as much as I admire Heidegger et al. — these days, I find myself more in line with the American pragmatists (Rorty, West, et al.), who are quite happy to keep doing philosophy.

    Within the pragmatist tradition, I’m not sure that knowledge is always ranked above belief — maybe it would be safer to say that they’re co-equal: if you know something, you believe it. Thus Charles Saunders Peirce, in his essay “The Concept of God,” says that we all have direct experience of God, we all know God, we pretty much all believe in God. Thus Richard Rorty has said repeatedly that he is “religiously tone-deaf,” has no direct experience of anything transcendant, thus does not believe in or know God (but doesn’t rule it out for others). Mostly, though, the pragmatists aren’t particularly worried about metaphysics, so they sort of gloss over the intricate unending arguments about God. That’s about where I am. In my experience as a minister, I have seen God work true little miracles in the lives of some people (not mine, I’m afraid), so as far as I’m concerned God exists, at least for those people — *and* I have seen other people who had no need of God, for whom God clearly didn’t exist, so as far as I’m concerned God doesn’t exist, at least for those people — *and* these two are not contrary statements, especially given Peirce’s warning about the vagueness of vernacular words like “God”.

    A more interesting argument, for me anyway, comes out of the analytical tradition of philosophy, specifically out of Godel’s incompleteness theorem. Godel shows that any logically consistent system must have axioms that are not provable from within that system. This concept has some interesting implications, namely: that we can’t come up with a logical system that accounts for everything for there must always be axioms that are unproveable; and that different logical systems may wind up having different unproveable axioms. I’ve come to think of God as an axiom that may be unprovable but necessary from within certain logical systems, whereas other logical systems needn’t rely on God as an axiom, and of course there would possibly be still other logical systems where God is provable with an appropritate choice of axioms. It’s an interesting thought experiment for a post-Christian world, isn’t it?

    Finally, I’ve been reading a recent interview with Jurgen Habermas (“A Conversation about God and the World” in Time of Transitions, Polity Press, 2006), where Habermas discusses the tension in Western thinking between Jerusalem, Rome, and Athens. Habermas says: “Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome — this is the charicteristic tension between monotheism, science [Wissenschaft] and the republican tradition which the West has always to endure, without assimilating one to the other.” Habermas says the tensions between these various traditions are unavoidable, e.g., “in the relation between philosophy and religion, for the existential meaning of the liberation of the individual soul through the salvation promised by God the Redeemer cannot be assimilated to the comtemplative elevation and the intuitive fusion of the human mind with the absolute.” Then Habermas takes it a step further, adding: “Things are much the same at the global level with the tension among the various cultures and world religions. Particular cultures can only make a contribution to the emerging world culture if their distinctive character is respected. This tension must be stabilized, though not resolved, if the threads of intercultural discourse are not to be broken.”

    One of my goals is to stabilize the tension between various views of God that exist within Unitarian Universalism — but not to resolve them. I guess that’s what I’m really trying to get at in creating an affirmation of faith — something that stabilizes the tension without reolving it. Charles Lyttle, a Unitarian theologian and minister of the mid-20th C., tried to do something like this in his words to a doxology, where he drew four equivalences between humanist concepts, and the concept of God:

    Praise God, the Love we all may share
    Praise God, the Beauty everytwhere
    Praise God, the Hope of good to be
    Praise God, the Truth that makes us free.

    Lyttle was a humanist, but the congregation he served had theists and Christians. This doxology was his way of saying, “Look, quit arguing, you’re both right, you’re just using different words.”

  10. Jay

    I don’t object to (a reasonable amount of) talk about God in church, Dan. I realize, of course, that many of my fellow UUs think in those terms, and that’s absolutely ok with me. That’s an entirely different subject, though, than what ought to be in our fundamental principles. There, of course, we need to be as inclusive as possible, and I think that means being quite general about Higher Powers.

    Best wishes!

  11. Rex

    Jay, If your dictionary resembles mine, somewhere as part of the definition it will make mention of Kant, who deserves great credit for beginning the critique of metaphysics that continues with a roar in our day. Admittedly, metaphysics is resilient enough to have discovered some avenues it finds still defensible. But it’s mostly backing and filling.

    Kant’s famous disputation in terms of denial of the “Ding as sicht” intends to undercut the notion that humans are capable of knowledge of something “beyond experience.” There’s no “beyond” to beyond experience–at least not as any kind of recognized knowledge. It remains in the same realm as Harvey, the giant rabbit.

    I had occasion to write to a colleague just recently and muttered my disapproval that Kant produced his revolutionary study (at least according to his own estimate and that of no less than P.F. Strawson in our day) in the 1780s, yet UUs remain enamoured of the Platonic notion (via Aristotle, of course) of ‘reason’ as some kind of holy vapor that can be counted on to inform human experience–crowning us the “rational animal.”

    Where UUs refer to reason, we’d be a much firmer ground to understand that, if not even better refer to it, as knowledge. If ‘reason’ can be resurrected, I’d be interested to know who’s able to pull of that little trick, and it had better be a answer to Kant. But until it is, to turn “transcend” to the pedestrian uses you assign leaves a lot to be desired.

    If you mean “extraordinary,” say so. If you mean “higher” or “more” than, OK. But transcend is a loaded term and deserves careful handling.

  12. Rex

    And, Jay, a quick PS. One of the reasons I am interested in Emerson is because I have been persuaded by Stanley Cavell that RWE more than gives Kant a run for his money. I am still struggling to unravel that. RWE’s transcendentalism is usually dismissed as a perversion of Kant. (Kant substituted “transcendental” for “transcendent,” after his scathing critique of the latter.)

    Cavell suggests that maybe RWE was challenging Kant and doing so with excellence. Part of it hangs on the flip-flop the Romantics gave to the concept of “intuition” after Kant, which influenced RWE a lot. The Romantic notion of some mystical human faculty does not compare to Kant’s use of intuition to refer to what we might call sense experience. So with that monumental twist of fate and history, it is no surprise we find ourselves confused–well, I admit to confusion, anyhow.

  13. Rex

    Dan, I shall look forward to your comments, then. If the above represents your interests, we do have a lot in common.

    One thing I learned in my study of Kant is that he is the one who established the idiom that “existence is not a predicate.” That is, to say that “God exists” is to say nothing more than “God is God.” Anything and everything imaginable can claim “existence,” so it is an empty claim. Fat chance of getting anyone to pay attention to that; it’s too obvious.

    “God as an axiom that may be unprovable but necessary” is coherent with Kant. His resolution requires the two: what is known and what is necessary. There is no weaker position in philosophy than to argue from necessity. It allowed Kant to keep his job, however.

    I have not read the Habermas you refer to, but it is in a similar vein to Kant that I might try to understand his, “in the relation between philosophy and religion, for the existential meaning of the liberation of the individual soul through the salvation promised by God the Redeemer cannot be assimilated to the comtemplative elevation and the intuitive fusion of the human mind with the absolute.” What people need ain’t necessarily philosophically defensible.

    Two personal comments: Lyttle still made appearances at Meadville when I was a student, mostly coming to use the library. I was too shy to have had personal contact with him. And you may be aware that Rorty, since he’s been at Stanford, no longer refers to himself as a philosopher. He “teaches literature.” The American philosophical community is still pouting over that.

    Oh yes, and the Godel. In hermeneutics, a similar issue is called the “hermeneutic circle.” All that means is that everybody has to start someplace, so all arguments are circular. But some circles are ‘vicious’ and go nowhere, and others are able to wind their way forward. (However, when it comes to logic, I am a nerd. I got a gentleman’s B in intro and had to take symbolic logic twice to pass it, as both are required for the degree I am seeking.)

  14. Administrator

    Hi Jay — You write: “That’s an entirely different subject, though, than what ought to be in our fundamental principles.” But you see, that’s actually precisely the issue for many theistic UUs — some of them want God language to appear in a statement of fundamental principles, just as you don’t want God language in that same statement. Whereas I’m of the opinion (at least, this week I’m of the opinion) that we need to hold both those things in tension in whatever set of fundamental principles we choose.

    Hi Rex — You write: “Rorty, since he’s been at Stanford, no longer refers to himself as a philosopher. He ‘teaches literature.’ The American philosophical community is still pouting over that.” –Heh, heh, heh. I’ll bet they’re pouting. Good for Richard Rorty for telling the truth about what philosophy really is. …And come to think of it, as a minister, more and more I have come to realize that doing theology with my congregation is really all about teaching literature. (Or maybe I’m just a hermeneuticist at heart.)

  15. Rex

    Dan, All I have left for my MA is the thesis, and I have tentative approval for my topic and am working on it–slowly.

    I am seriously thinking of applying to the English department when I finish philosophy, because literary criticism not only includes my interest in Emerson but it is going forward whiz bang with textual analysis…and it is free from some of the confines philosophy feels required to impose in order to defend its holy traditions.

    Rorty continues to crank out good stuff, so maybe he’s on to something.

  16. Doug Muder

    Parts of the Seven Principles ring for me: “worth and dignity of all people” I take to say that we refuse to let our religion define an us-versus-them battle for dominance, and that while injury to others may sometimes trade off against good results (like crime deterence), it’s never a good in itself, no matter what the injured others may have done to deserve it.

    The “free and responsible search for truth and meaning” also rings for me, which is why I took the title of my blog from it.

    My congregation recites a covenant statement in each service. The line that rings for me from it is: “to seek the truth in love”. That’s an arduous spiritual commitment if you take it seriously.

    Mostly, I like the de-emphasis of affirmations of faith. I like that we pledge our loyalty to each other rather than to ideas. But if I were to take a stab at a faith statement, I would affirm:

    * the unity of humankind
    * the diversity of individuals in their search for fulfillment
    * compassion for all life and stewardship of the biosphere that sustains it
    * continued growth in human knowledge and understanding

  17. Rex

    Doug, I just took a look at the seven P&Ps to refresh my recollection, and find I prefer your faith statement. While the P&Ps make reference to “in our congregations” etc., except for that, one can find the equivalent content in any number of do-gooder voluntary organizations.

    What one cannot find, except for a suggestion in the “web of interdependent existence,” is some version of “All are one.” (BTW, is that correct? Or is it “All is one”? The former is Universalist? And the latter is Unitarian?)

    That is our insight into wholeness from which comes a ground for identification of the holy.

  18. Rex

    Incidentally, I already met Bill Baar on the Meadville/Lombard theological blog, but if you have not yet caught it, give it a try. I shall probably confine myself to it (as I have other interests I post to). Hope to see some of you there.

  19. Administrator

    Doug — Can I steal your four-line statement and use it in a worships ervice (with attribution, of course)?

  20. Mollie F Mathes

    “Let beauty, truth and good be sung
    Through every land by every tongue”

    BE KIND! ! !
    1. to yourself
    2. everyone else

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