Creeds vs. Principles

Because we don’t have doctrine, we Unitarian Universalists often have the hardest time saying what we’re about to people. It’s a bit more complicated than citing a doctrine, or some particular ritual. Liberal religion is the affirmation of the possibility of spiritual depth, spiritual maturity, spiritual growth – without binding that possibility to any particular doctrine. It’s an open road, with no closed doctrine. Don’t even let your own doctrines be closed: don’t believe everything you think.

It’s not always easy. Liberal religion prescribes a difficult path. Certainly, there is a lot of hope in our theology, a lot of comfort and support and sustenance. This faith we share has seen me through dark times. Though it is hopeful, and sustaining, and joyous, it is also difficult. Yet for those of us who walk that open road, no other path will do. We do it because we have to. Our conscience requires it.

We don’t have doctrine, but we do have teachings. We’ve got these seven principles of Unitarian Universalism:
  • Affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every being.
  • Affirm and promote justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.
  • Affirm and promote acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth.
  • Affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.
  • Affirm and promote the right conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.
  • Affirm and promote the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.
  • Affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part.
That is what we teach. And when we’re at our best, that is what we practice.

The difference between creed and principle is this: Principles are general and meant to be inclusive. Creeds are meant to be exclusive.

Creeds are drafted in response to some belief that the drafters want to exclude. Take, for example, the Apostle’s Creed, which asserts that God is an almighty father who created heaven and earth; had exactly one Son, “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again." This creed emphasizes the humanity of Jesus, including the material body. There was at that time a group of people saying Jesus was a pure spirit being -- a kind of holographic projection from God. The Apostle’s creed was written specifically to exclude that view. It was written to emphasize that Jesus was a material body that suffered, was crucified, and died. It was written to exclude the Gnostics, who thought of Jesus as immaterial spirit.

While creeds are written in order to exclude, principles, such as ours, aim to include. Nevertheless, to accept our seven principles and to take seriously the project of constructing a life based on them makes an enormous difference. A day spent with an orientation toward dignity, compassion, acceptance, and recognizing interdependence is a different sort of day from one spent oblivious to that call. It makes everything different. It starts with fewer intentional cruelties and leads, with continued devoted practice at truly living by our principles, to fewer accidental cruelties. It leads to becoming spiritually more whole, morally and emotionally more integrated and complete.

These principles are sufficient as a basis of what a religious community must hold in common. To develop your religion, you build your own theology fleshing out our seven-boned skeleton. It is as if, in affirming these seven principles, we implicitly were affirming also an eighth. And the implied eighth principle is that these seven are enough. We don’t have a monopoly on affirming the inherent worth and dignity of all beings, or promoting justice, equity, and compassion, acceptance of one another, truth and meaning, world community, or even respect for the interdependent web. Even conservative religions – most of them – also affirm and promote those things. What makes the difference is that conservative religions – doctrinal religions -- don’t think that’s enough. Conservative religions add extra stuff: you’ve got to believe the creed, or bow this way, or wear this, or not eat that, or chant this chant – adopt the tribal markers so we know you’re in our tribe. Our implicit eighth principle is that we don’t need anything more. We don’t need added-on exclusivist doctrine.

Institutionalized doctrine conflicts with a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Any failure to insist that each person is worthy of working it out for herself is also a failure to affirm each person’s inherent worth and dignity. It’s a failure to accept one another for all our differences, a failure to encourage spiritual growth beyond that creedal doctrine, whatever it may be; it’s a failure to affirm the right of conscience.

Illiberal religion cannot affirm that our seven principles suffice for faith community -- for as soon as they said that – as soon as they said that their distinguishing particularist doctrines were optional, were unnecessary for either religiousness or community – they would in that very moment have become religiously liberal. They would have forsworn their prescribed course and joined us, afoot and lighthearted, on the open road.

Liberal religion affirms the possibility of faith community – caring for each other and about social justice; challenging one another’s theologies, and challenging social institutions to be more fair – all without shared particular doctrine, only shared general principles.

* * *
This is part 3 of 5 of "What Is Liberal Religion?"
Next: Part 4: "Suspicion of Dualism"
Previous: Part 2: "Love Is the Doctrine of This Church"
Beginning: Part 1: "An Open Road Song"

No comments:

Post a Comment