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.

Training for Faith


Training for Faith
Originally uploaded by Peacebang.

Last week in my doctoral seminar I was trying to explain to the room of mostly very conservative Christians about Unitarian Universalists, and presenting my plan to write a dissertation on the relevance of covenant to our contemporary congregations.

People tried to be respectful but when I initially described our theological pluralism, their faces were studies in bewilderment. A religion where everyone is free to search for truth and meaning? A religious tradition that welcomes atheists and makes no effort to convert them? Whaaaat? (When someone asked the inevitable question, “But why would an atheist want to go to CHURCH?” I replied, “I don’t have time to try to answer that,” earning chuckles from the few liberal Christians in the room who are acquainted with UUism.)

I tried to steer the conversation away from feeling I should offer apology for Unitarian Universalism’s mere existence and into a place where I could get feedback from the group, who are a lovely and earnest people (and who represent six different nations).

At the end of my presentation, a Baptist peer offered this: “I get the image of training wheels. Is Unitarian Universalism a sort of training ground for faith? After they begin with your church, do they then leave you?”

I was so furious I could not answer beyond a “No, they don’t leave.” His question was specifically asked in the context of covenant process, as in “After you all develop a non-Theist covenant together, do they take off in droves, hungry for the Living Word?”

I mean, of course some of our people leave. I’ve been hollering about that for years and years — especially about how our children leave in droves because we give them nothing substantive within the great wilderness of FREEDOM.

His inquiry deserves a fuller answer, though, and I’m finally getting calm enough to give it.

No, L., they don’t leave our congregations. In fact, quite the opposite. They have left YOUR congregations to come to Unitarian Universalism. They are not riding the training wheels of faith. They have taken OFF the training wheels of the creedal, doctrinal faith traditions that would seek to fill their heads with proscriptions, superstitions and unproven certainties, and now they’re riding free and upright.