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.