The UU First Principle

As I prepare the Ash Wednesday service for next week, I think about the reaction of the typical Unitarian Universalist to the imposition of ashes. “Too Catholic!” “Why in the world would you, who proclaim the inherent worth and dignity of all people, think it acceptable to participate in this ritual of sin and repentance!? Oh my gaw!”

Because, my friends, I happen to believe that our much vaunted first Principle, “[we covenant to affirm and promote] the inherent worth and dignity of every person” is a starting point for our theological understanding, not the end point.

Inherent worth and dignity, so often interpreted to mean “we should have no authority, no God and no Scripture because hey man, Truth is totally relative” is really an ontological claim, not a sociological one. It is actually a statement about grace, ie, that every person is created with an inviolable dignity, a claim which calls Unitarian Universalists to be guardians of that dignity and worth, and to promote such conditions as allow that worth to flourish. It doesn’t mean that every schmuck or schmuckette walking around should be pandered to or even tolerated. There are intolerable things; a fact we are lothe to admit (which often creates havoc on our congregations) because we keep banging our heads against a brick wall misunderstanding and misusing our first Principle.

Within our covenanted communities, we accept the essential humanity and dignity of a toxic person (sometimes ourselves!) even while refusing to tolerate her ideologies or behaviors. This ought to be our chief spiritual practice, in fact, and lead us to considerate and compassionate responses to conflict and dysfunction — not give us an excuse for flabby inaction. It is difficult and deep work, much different than broad-brushing all valid objections or concerns with the shrill cry, “tolerance! tolerance” and then going on to hate the guts of distant figures with a verve and clarity that leads to actual demonization (George Bush, anyone?).

Inherent worth and dignity does not mean that I’m Okay, You’re Okay. It doesn’t mean that everything I do is acceptable, even as I am ontologically, inherently acceptable as a human being. It means that even in the midst of our most heinous mistakes sins and failings, the glorious truth of our inherent worth and dignity can, in the words of the old song, “lead me home.”

It strikes me as so lazy to use the first Principle as our end point in theological understanding (“Hey! you got inherent worth and dignity! You’re done!”) when we ought to use it as the starting point, as in “thank the gods we are committed to the idea that we have inherent worth and dignity and are morally improvable beings, because ya’ll better get on that moral improvement part.”

When I have been to Ash Wednesday services and gotten smeared on the forehead, I have often looked around and thought, “I wonder how this feels if you don’t have a rock-bound belief in grace as the starting point for your theological understanding.” And I have been so grateful to be held within a faith tradition that believes I am capable of moral improvement, and that makes the claim that no matter how far I stray, I will indeed be restored to God at the last.

5 Replies to “The UU First Principle”

  1. Just wanted to post a comment to say “AMEN.” (Amen comes from the Hebrew word for truth and is said, traditionally, when you care to say, “I agree” or “I wouldn’t have been able to better say it myself.”)

    With love,

    Rabbi Brian

  2. Preach it, sister! That was beautiful.

    Traditionally, Unitarians taught not only that all human beings have inherent worth and dignity, but also that the way to “affirm and promote” our own inherent worth and dignity is not by postulating it but by searching the soul for it, cultivating it, refining it, purifying it, identifying and casting off all the dross, and then modeling worthy and dignified behavior — to each other and to outsiders. That’s a very different message than “I’m all right, Jack” or “Follow your bliss”, which seems to originate more from the late 20th-century self-esteem movement gone haywire than from anything inherent in our own religious tradition.

    As our denominational ancestor John Winthrop preached to the congregation that would eventually become First Church in Salem (Unitarian),

    We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. … For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely … in this work we have undertaken, … we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.

    That’s always been the Unitarian way to affirm our own worth and promote it in others. It’s done through humility and constant effort, not through smugness and easy self-congratulation.

  3. (Or would Winthrop’s congregation eventually become First Church in Boston? Or both? The Arbella landed first in Salem, but Winthrop and some of the other passengers later settled in Boston.)

  4. I have said frequently that we should respect people but have no obligation to respect ideas: there are BAD ideas!
    Sometimes people have said that that is the same as “love the sinner but hate the sin”. It doesn’t feel the same to me, but I can’t define the difference — is there one? Is it “idea” versus “behavior”?

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