Fourth Principle: Free and Responsible Search For Truth and Meaning

I am working on a sermon on the fourth UU Principle: “we covenant to affirm and promote…A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”

In agreement with Paige Getty’s fine essay on the principle in the new collection, The Seven Principles in Word and Worship, I am focusing on Unitarian Universalism’s love of freedom in religious inquiry and practice but lack of understanding or agreement about what constitutes “responsible.”

In the older six principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association, the free search for truth and meaning was the first principle. It read,

To strengthen one another in a free and disciplined search for truth as the foundation of our religious fellowship.

Now isn’t that interesting? What I love there is the use of the word “disciplined,” which, to my ears, rings with a kind of integrity and commitment that the murkier “responsible” does not evoke.

For those who see UUism as a smorgasbord of world religions, this seems a particularly important principle. For instance, how do we “responsibly” or in a disciplined way engage with Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Sufism, Native Americans spirituality in our congregations and as individuals? Is it responsible for me to include a Muslim reading in worship? I like to think so. However, it is important for me to take responsibility for the fact that many Muslims would vehemently disagree with me. Therefore, as part of my religious discipline I am obligated to study and try to understand more about the various religions I am quoting or referencing of a Sunday morning beyond convenient “we are the world” sentimentalism.

It’s hard work. And it’s work we don’t do well enough.

It seems to me that UUs have yet to acknowledge the fact that while we have made it our “good news” to affirm and proclaim the essential harmony between world faith traditions, we have done so with little or no input or consultation with adherents of those faith traditions. We therefore operate on the assumption that religions “belong” to everyone and anyone who wants to claim them. I wish this was so, but it is not. Religions can only be responsibly understood in their time, place and cultural context. If we want to be a world religion religion, we must take the study of them far more seriously and make education in world religions a staple of our adult religious education offerings. I know that some congregations do this, but not many. Nor has the UUA provided curriculum to help with this knowledge deficit.

While much of the religious world is entering into dialog based on an assumption that the specificity of tradition means something real which no parties to the conversations desire to minimize or ignore, Unitarian Universalist liturgical materials are still a happy mash-up of phrases, readings and sound bites taken entirely out of a context we neither have the time nor the interest to fully study. Our worshipers go away with the sense that we are a delightful Chinese buffet of beliefs respectfully culled from all the world traditions. It would be more honest to say that we have rather taken attractive bits and pieces from various traditions and employed them in the service of our liberal vision.

Is this wrong, unethical, and sinister, as our opponents charge? Or is it merely optimistic, creative, and charmingly anachronistic?

For all the Unitarian Universalists out there who define our faith tradition as a kind of new world religion among world religions, how can we responsibly theologically educate the next generation of UUs (both youth and come-outers) to participate in that vision?

I ask because I do not see UUism as a world religion, but as an essentially humanistic religious community that gathers in covenanted community to do the work of individual and societal transformation guided by its foundational liberal Christian values, more contemporary Humanist wisdom and the theological insights of various world religions. The insights of various world religions, in my opinion, comes primarily from serious students and practitioners of those world religions, not from the general UU community.

I’ll stop there and let you comment.

12 Replies to “Fourth Principle: Free and Responsible Search For Truth and Meaning”

  1. I think it is great to find the wisdom in multiple faiths, but without immersing yourself in the full context from which those pearls of wisdom emerged, it is a little like religious fast food. Not very fulfilling, although it allows one to pat ones self on the back for being so marvelously eclectic.

    Two quotes that I like are worth considering in this context: one from Spong, the other from Borg. First, from Borg:

    When a Christian seeker asked the Dalai Lama whether she should become a Buddhist, his response, which I paraphrase, was: “No, become more deeply Christian; live more deeply into your own tradition.”…By living more deeply into our own tradition as a sacrament of the sacred, we become more centered in the one to whom the tradition points and in whom we live and move and have our being.

    A Christian is one who does this within the framework of the Christian tradition, just as a Jew is one who does this within the framework of the Jewish tradition, a Muslim, within the framework of the Muslim tradition, and so forth. And I cannot believe that God cares which of these we are. All are paths of relationship and transformation.

    And now from Spong:

    I do not believe that I contribute to the interfaith dialogue by seeking to master a faith tradition other than my own. While I certainly do not think that God is a Christian, I believe the ultimate pathway to religious unity comes through my willingness to go so deeply into Christianity that I escape its limits. Only then can I bring to the interfaith table the pearl of great price that I believe Christianity has to offer. I hope that all religious people of all traditions will be equally dedicated to discovering the essence of holiness that that their faith tradition possesses so that they can share with me the essence, the pearl of great price that they have received from their life in Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. My goal is to enrich the world with the essence of Christianity even as I am being enriched by the essence of other worship traditions.e

  2. I think that it is more accurate to say that we find some poetic inspiration in the literature and language of many of the world’s religious traditions. Our interest in Rumi is, for the most part, a poetic interest, not a theological interest in Sufism. Really, you could say the same thing about our interest in George Herbert and John Donne.

    I think that you actually describe our theological position accurately when you say

    ‘an essentially humanistic religious community that gathers in covenanted community to do the work of individual and societal transformation guided by its foundational liberal Christian values, more contemporary Humanist wisdom and the theological insights of various world religions’,

    although I question whether we have incorporated any theological insights from other religions, at all. Perhaps Buddhism.

    We do, however, read from a broad reading list of world literature, much of which was written within specific religious contexts. What we like among all our readings is those texts that support our religious stance — broadly religious humanistic, communitarian, transformationist, universalistic etc.

    I believe that where UU’s are is one place that Christians who dig deep into Christianity can find themselves — setting aside all the ways that Christianity has made an idol of itself and retaining only the ethical and moral teachings and some of the forms of the church. I think it is a great place to be, not because it is the start of a new world religion, but because it turns us toward reality and toward the future and toward the freshest possible language of meaning.

  3. It seems to me that UUs have yet to acknowledge the fact that while we have made it our “good news” to affirm and proclaim the essential harmony between world faith traditions…

    Where to do UU’s proclaim this? [I grew up hearing it as our central message, I hear it in our congregations and among our laity all over the nation, and I see it in older pamphlets that we’re still distributing.When I say “harmony” I mean harmony between the essential teachings of the various world traditions. This often gets expressed as “once you take away the doctrines, we’re all worshiping the same things, really.” – PB]

  4. I believe that the responsible search for truth and meaning should lead to somewhere. I don’t think there is any real value in being a UU. A UU should finally choose a path and then walk that path. It is the working and worshiping with people who are on different faith-walks that makes a person UU. If one doesn’t choose a religious story or path, then they just become a lifelong, practicing UU and what is that really? A person who can quote the nice words of a bunch of prophets but knows nothing at all about any religion.

    There is something very elitist in the UU position that we can just pick out the parts of ancient faith traditions that make us feel all warm and fuzzy and proclaim that to be “truth” and a better way to live.

  5. While there may not be sufficient curricula for adults on world religions, in many churches the kids and youth are getting so much on them that they come away without any kind of firm foundation of what Unitarian Universalism really is. And then they’re asked, in their senior year, to write a “credo” statement based on what they’ve learned in church — and they have no idea where to start except to maybe pick a tidbit they learned about an exotic world religion.

    I think if UUs in general had a firmer sense of identity as UUs, as a specifically religious community of seekers that grew out of particular approaches to theology rather than a smorgasbord, then asking our people to commit to a deeper study of theology of all kinds wouldn’t be such a big deal. We have a logical roadmap, but we shy away from it.

    The Wellspring program at Rochester is doing a marvelous job of working on this — I only wish for a more accessible model for smaller churches.

  6. I always took the “responsible” part to mean something more on the lines of “An it harm none, do what ye will” sort of tone-to be responsible means to not harm others or yourself.

  7. I’m skeptical in general about the use we’ve put the principles to — to my mind they’ve taken on an idolatrously creedal cast: “Here’s what we believe.” This is only made worse by the fact that I think some of them are pretty deeply flawed. The mealiness of the word “responsible” has been noted.

    I also like the idea of discipline, and I will say two other things for the old formulation: (a) It is in the active voice, and (b) it has a relational element that the new one lacks.

    (a) Note that the new search is disembodied; there is to be a search, but I sure can’t tell who’s supposed to do it. Scientists? Theologians? Everybody? The Pope? Richard Dawkins? Polka-dotted midget unicorns? The old version has us ALL called to search.

    (b) The old version also has us in community with each other while we do it. The old version is thus not just about theological freedom, but about our ecclesiology — about what we think it is to be a church. The newer one has lost all that, and I miss it. We seem to have a lot of trouble these days talking about our churches.

    A very interesting topic, PB. Thanks for writing about it. I wish I had more time to join in on the discussion. [Well, I really appreciate what you did have time to write, so don’t apologize! Your insights are goin’ right into my sermon, under the topic “Great Minds Think Alike!” – PB]

  8. This often gets expressed as “once you take away the doctrines, we’re all worshiping the same things, really.” – PB

    That one I’ve heard. I don’t care for it much.

  9. “Is this wrong, unethical, and sinister, as our opponents charge? Or is it merely optimistic, creative, and charmingly anachronistic?”

    It’s the history of humanity and the reality of culture. We don’t question the mix of ingredients that created Christianity, or Judaism for that matter. No one thinks it’s wrong for the Japanese to grab a burger at Mos Burger (OK weird name aside) or for a white guy like me to feast on Indian food. Our language is a mish-mash of other languages. Ideas from one human culture interact with ideas of another and sometimes something new is created.

    Alfred Hall said it well in his work “The Beliefs of a Unitarian::

    “Instead of saying that the Bible alone contains the word of God, they [Unitarians] hold that every true ad uplifting word is inspired by him.”

    “Unitarians believe that God has inspired the saints and prophets of religions other than Christianity, especially the great religious teachers of the East.”

    To find, use and appreciate wisdom from other traditions is a good thing; to practice those traditions in a superficial way is disrespectful (for example, having a “seder” or celebrating “diwali” without any real tie or understanding of these holidays). However, in order to appreciate other tradition’s wisdom I believe one must have, as an earlier poster mentioned, one’s own tradition (framework) in which to work. Since much of UUism does not have a common theological framework this may be more challenging.

  10. Doing a service for our congregation on Principle 4 – would love to see your final version if it got committed to text…?

  11. “I ask because I do not see UUism as a world religion, but as an essentially humanistic religious community that gathers in covenanted community to do the work of individual and societal transformation guided by its foundational liberal Christian values, more contemporary Humanist wisdom and the theological insights of various world religions.”

    That has to be one of the best definitions of Unitarian-Universalism I’ve seen yet. Bravo!

    Adrian

    P.S. Love your blog!

    [Thanks, Adrian!! – PB]

  12. Well, given what’s going on right now with the proposed changes to the UUA bylaws, this is a very important topic. The proposed language reads: “Grateful for the traditions that have strengthened our own, we strive to avoid misuse of cultural and religious practices while seeking ways of appreciation that are respectful and welcomed.” James Ford brings up some valid concerns with this in his letter to the board, posted on his Monkey Mind blog. Namely, who decides what constitutes misuse?

    PB, you must have a very different congregation than mine. If I have the audacity to even mention Jesus in a Sunday message, it’s a surety that a few members are going to berate me for it during discussion time. “I don’t believe in the Bible, and we aren’t Christians so why talk about Jesus?” being the typical form of response. While UUism may have come from liberal Christian spirituality, that’s not where it is today, at least not everywhere in the UU world. Attempting to focus too much on our Christian roots is sure to alienate large numbers of our members.

    And we should keep in mind that the harmony between religions is not an idea unique to UUism. Many mystics, especially those of the east, have claimed that all religions, minus the exterior ritual trappings, are essentially different vocabularies for one reality. Sri Ramakrishna and Guru Nanak spring to mind.

    And who’s word are we going to take in determining whether or not we’re making use of the wisdom traditions of other faiths in innappropriate ways? There are many strains and schools on interpretation in all the religious traditions. Should we take the Taliban or the Sufis as representative of Islam? The Baptists’ or the Lutherans’ interpretation of the meaning of scripture?

    I spend a lot of time at an ashram in Nepal. When a brahmin priest visits and refuses to touch me because, as a westerner, I’m classed as an untouchable, while Baba has no such compunctions and teaches that there is no such thing as caste, who’s Hinduism should I listen to? Which one should I bone up on and make sure I pay respect to when I make use of Hindu philosophy in a service.

    I agree with NDM that a UU church celebrating a holiday or performing a ritual from another religion is distasteful and disrespectful, but so far as the wisdom of these traditions is concerned, I see no problem in making free use of them. There is an underlying unity and universalism in the mystical philosophies of all the religions. To my mind, this is a valid focus of UUism. Of course, as UUs we also have a long history of our own wisdom to draw on.

    And, one last thing, I don’t so much see UUism as a world religion as an American religion. A melting pot, just like this country.

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