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.