Inherent Worth And Dignity: The Starting Point

I thought I’d share this excerpt from a sermon I gave in 2006 since there seems to be a broader challenge to those who persistently and conveniently misinterpret our First Unitarian Universalist Principle to mean that they should not be taken to task for their egotistical and obstructionist attitudes in our community. It has fresh relevance today in our broader conversation about white supremacy.


Unitarian Universalists share a set of seven principles. The first among them is a commitment to affirm and promote “the inherent worth and dignity of each person.” I think this is a beautiful principle, and I am happy to see that Unitarian Universalists take it seriously enough to invoke it on a very regular basis in the wider denominational context.

But Houston, I think we have a problem. When it comes to the notion of moral or ethical failings, also known as “sin,” UUs tend very often to jump right to the first principle and to say, “Remember, that person has inherent worth and dignity!” It’ s as though that’ s it, that’ s the final truth, and therefore, we must not delve at all into the question of whether or not there is some moral or communal failing or problem that needs to be named and fixed.

Our mistake is in seeing our first principle as a kind of sociological and psychological claim rather than an ontological claim. (An ontological claim is a claim about the nature of reality itself.) To use simpler language, we have often insisted that because each person has “inherent worth and dignity,” they can really do no wrong, in the final analysis, because to accuse them of doing wrong is akin to accusing them of being wrong and unacceptable in some basic way. This kind of attitude really stymies conversation and stifles healthy conflict. It says, “There’ s no such thing as sin, because we’ re all inherently worthy!”

Well, of course we are inherently worthy. But we are also occasionally terribly wrong and terribly harmful. The first principle should not be the ending point for our view of human nature, and a conversation stopper, it should be the starting point – the first assumption — for our work toward spiritual growth and ethical commitment. The first principle should be the optimistic claim that starts us on our way knowing that we can ascend higher on the ladder of moral evolution.

That first principle was written to remind us that there are many people who voices have been silenced, whose humanity has been denigrated, and whose full participation in the notion of God’ s grace has been questioned. Our first principle calls us to serve as guardians for the humanity and dignity of those people especially, and to promote such conditions for all people as allows that dignity and worth to flourish. It was never intended to be used as a defense plea for my sins or yours, but as a rallying cry toward an ethic of universal kinship.

– from “Inherent Worth And Dignity, The Starting Point”  Delivered to the First Parish Unitarian Church in Norwell, March 12, 2006, The Rev. Dr. Victoria Weinstein

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