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.


As I was driving away from a nursing home this afternoon I realized that as I get older, transitions between the different demands of ministry (which are, in fact, the thing that keep this work so constantly rich and fascinating)are more and more difficult and depleting to achieve. There was a time when I could go from the bedside of a sick or dying person right to a committee meeting, home for a quick meal and then jump into the study to start some worship planning or writing.

I find to my dismay that try as I may, I simply can’t do that anymore.

Maybe it’s a good thing. Maybe it means that I’m more present where I am and that the wide chasm between the the energy in, say, the hospital and a church social event is too broad to jump with my old alacrity. I find that when I expect an instant transformation from pastor to Minister, I get disoriented and just want to hide out because I know I’ll do or say something insensitive or out-of-it. Honest to God, I don’t know how anyone does this work without theater training: I can’t think of how many times I’ve walked into a room absolutely pretending that I’m fine, ready, and truly present when I’m grieving some sadness shared with someone in the parish. Oftentimes the energy of the group inspires and rejuvenates me and I go home feeling up and connected, but that half-hour to hour of transitioning can be really tricky to navigate. For one thing, I look around the room and think “who else just came from some emotionally draining situation to be here tonight?” That can be very distracting, because as we get to know our congregations better and better, we learn that the answer can often be, “Everybody!” And yet the Church calls us out to do the work of the covenanted community, and we respond. Thanks be to God, and dammit it to hell, if you know what I mean.

How do you transition from one emotional setting to the next?

I find that it helps to schedule pastoral calls in the afternoon and then some mindless errands immediately after them, or to head home to prepare dinner. Instead of seeing three people, I now only try to visit one or two and then move quietly around the kitchen (careful with those knives!) preparing nourishing food before heading out for evening meetings or the study (or just winding down for the day when the schedule allows). Through my thirties I was able to make several visits back-to-back, rush out for take-out food, run home and check mail/e-mail and rush out the door for the evening. No way, Jose. Not any more.

Similarly, I’ve noticed that I’ve become less and less coherent and able to get much work done on Sunday afternoons. Thank God I am not asked to teach or attend meetings after church except on very rare occasions. After presiding over a worship service I am more blotto than I used to be — good only for one-on-one chats with people (I love to stand at the periphery of coffee hour and watch the crowd hum but I can’t for the life of me concentrate on conversations unless they’re at least a few feet away from the food tables). When I hear of ministers who are expected to lead worship service (or services!) and then attend board meetings in the afternoon I have utmost sympathy. I honestly don’t know how they do it.

Living in New England with such distinct natural seasons helps me to lean into this aspect of my aging with more acceptance and not to fight it too much. We have to know our strengths and weaknesses, and it’s also only fair to notice how we change through the passing of time. I was talking with a Methodist colleague this afternoon about maybe (just MAYBE) trying to adjust our expectations for winter time, encouraging our communities and ourselves to slow down as the days get considerably shorter and the dark and the cold urge us indoors for more reflective pursuits. I adore the busy buzz of autumn, spring and summer and tend to get mopey and lonesome in the winter, but maybe it’s time to lean into that reality, too.

I just finished reading Barbara Kingsolver’s marvelous book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, where she reminds us that it’s neither ecologically sound nor spiritually mature to insist on bananas in January in the northern hemisphere. This makes me think that if it’s not good stewardship of the earth to demand kiwi fruit in Massachusetts in December, it’s also not wise stewardship to demand springtime brightness from myself as October rolls in. Nor is it wise to expect a 42-year old to have the same resilience as a 29-year old, or to get hung up about it. That almost-42-year old knows a lot more than that kid in her late 20’s knew, has buried a lot more beloveds and somberly marked their names as “deceased” on the church rolls, and has hung around a lot more hours with Lady Death and Mister Trouble. I used to be able to get up from the table after a lunch date with them, leave a few bucks for the check and get right on to the next thing. Nowadays I linger over coffee, haggling over the bill, and arguing, always trying to get them to schedule our next lunch for a much later date than they have in mind.

The Pastoral Covenant

A case study we looked at in class today has got me thinking.

I know we’re trained as clergy to observe pastoral confidentiality, and that that’s part of the implicit covenant between us and our parishioners when they come to us for advice and counsel.

We are also expected to listen empathically and to represent God’s love to them. For non-theists, same general idea. Love is love and we’re expected to be in loving relationship with our people.

All good so far. Everyone knows those things.

But what about, for lack of a better word, chastisement? Or maybe I’ll say “spiritual correction?” Do we expect that these days? In the more liberal churches, I mean?

Here’s what I’m thinking. If I go to my minister and confess something I know is unethical, do I not, at some level of my being either expect or even secretly hope that he or she will bust me on it? I don’t mean in a judgmental, punishing way, but in an honest and theologically clear way? I think I would. If folks think of their clergyperson as someone they can tell anything to, that’s great! If they think their clergyperson will listen attentively to everything they say and never venture an opinion about it, I don’t think that’s so great.

In the case study today we looked at today, a female pastor (and D.Min. student) went to her seminary dean — a minister with whom she was friendly– and told her about the wonderful relationship she was having with a married man in the community. There’s a lot more to it, but that’s the gist. In this situation, the roles are very blurry — of course, the woman receiving this troubling information wasn’t the confessor’s pastor.
In trying to work this out (“why did she reveal this? what should the other minister have done?) the class considered Jesus’ question, “What do you need from me?”
Some folks thought that the woman needed attentive listening and understanding.
I thought she needed that, too, but also the proverbial smack upside the head. I figured that if she went to a minister with this confession, she must on some level be ready to hear a dissenting opinion on her decision to carry on a long-term affair. I figured that it would be most UNloving to deny her that, in fact.

Which led me to think about the unspoken covenant between parish ministers and their parishioners — isn’t part of the reason we join a church and stay with it to become well-known and loved by our pastors? And doesn’t part of the strength and mutuality of that relationship come from knowing that our pastor cares enough about us to actually try to help us stay healthy, whole and out of trouble?

I hope we haven’t lost that. While I don’t condone clerical shaming and judging, I think we’re like the tough old auntie on the porch who, when she sees you come home way past curfew, smelling like gin and with your shirt on backwards, whaps you upside the head with the magazine she’s been reading and says, “Girl, what ARE you thinking?” Then she pats the step next to her and you sit down and spill it all out how you’re seeing that bad boy Mickey Santelli on the sly, and she listens and goes, “mmmm hmmm” and when you’re all done she says, “Well, I just know you can do better than that, honey. And the next time you want to sneak out with ole Mickey, you just come see me and we’ll find something more productive for you to do with those hands of yours.”

Do clergy feel that they can be, not just listeners, but honest responders? Or is that too, I don’t know, authoritarian these days?