Principles and Promises, part 1

We are Unitarian Universalists. We are a people of passion and intelligence – of moral imagination, creativity, and engagement.

We are a people NOT of creed; we are creedless. In this regard, we are not unique. We have this in common with, oddly enough, the Southern Baptist Convention, which is officially creedless, as is the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

We go a little further in declaring not only that we have no creed, but that, for us, religion itself is not about what one believes. Beliefs are an incidental, peripheral, and ultimately unnecessary aspect of religion, of spirituality. For us, religion is about three things:
  • Religion is about how you live: the ethics and values that guide your life.
  • Religion is about community – the people you come together with, and share rituals to affirm your community connection.
  • And religion is about experience – the experience of awe and wonder, of mystery, transcendence, oneness – the experience of simultaneous intimacy and ultimacy.
Believing – holding certain declarative sentences to be true – may be a part of one’s approach to religion, but it is optional. What is essential are moral values, community, and direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder.

We are a people not of creed. We are also a people not of canon. We have no canonical bible. Of all the words and writings offering insights, telling the story of who we are as people, of how reality is – powerful words of wisdom and inspiration – we do not select a few of them to designate as our holy scripture while all else is, at best, supplement or commentary, or else entirely secular.

For Jews, the canon is the 39 books of the Tanakh, and especially the 5 books of the Torah. For Catholics, those 39, plus 7 more, plus the 27 books called the New Testament, making 73, are canonical. The Orthodox Bible adds 6 more books, for a canon of 79 books. When the Protestants came along, they pared back to just 66 books: the 39 books of the Hebrew Bible, plus the 27 New Testament books.

We are canonless as well as creedless. We look to all the world’s traditions for wisdom and insight, and are ever open to new work that we may find limns the ineffable, reaches for what cannot be grasped, or points us a way. Our canonlessness more radically separates us from other Western faith traditions than our vaunted creedlessness does.

We are a people neither of creed nor of canon, but of covenant. We are bound, and bound together, not by common belief, nor by common scripture of study, but by a common promise. Covenant – in the religious sense – is not like a contract, where if one party doesn’t live up to their part the other side doesn’t have to live up to theirs. Covenant continues to bind us even when we break covenant.

To live the way of covenant is to be constantly breaking it, to be constantly failing, and to be constantly called back, or called forward, to the promise of our promise. The Sufi mystic Rumi expressed this in a poem well-known to us in its Coleman Barks translation.
Come, come, whoever you are,
Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving.
It doesn’t matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
These are the words of one of our hymns in our hymnal, but it is not the full poem. The rest of Rumi’s poem adds:
Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times.
Come, yet again, come.
The covenant continues to call and to compel, to beckon us toward the promise of a life constituted by promising, no matter how many times we may have broken or will break our vow.

Also unlike a contract, which might lead the parties into court where a judge will render a ruling on what the contract’s terms mean and whether the party’s actions satisfy the terms, you alone are final arbiter of what the covenant requires of you now. We are each properly informed by our community and its collective discernments -- our understanding of the covenant's meaning is a product of our community engagement -- and then it's up to you to discern what the covenant means to you.

And what is our covenant, the promise that binds us, that fashions us into a people? I could tell you it is here in our principles set forth in the bylaws of the Association:
We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote:
  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person [or: every being]
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
I could tell you that is our covenant, and that would be true. Those are words that call to us as Unitarian Universalists, that we experience, in proportion to the role that our faith has in our lives, as compelling and beckoning. Those are the promises that we keep as we can and sometimes break, that we orient our lives by – the vows that point our way, howsoever we stray.

It’s true this is our covenant, but it’s not the whole truth of the people we are. Not the whole truth.

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