Who Are We Now

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
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.

What do Unitarian Universalists believe? We believe that religion isn’t about believing. So what is it about? One answer that might occur to you is: Religion is about how you live. It’s about the ethics and values that guide your life. And that’s true. I’d say religion is about three things, and the first one is how you live, the ethics and values that guide your life. Second, religion is about community – the people you come together with, and share rituals to affirm your community connection. And third, 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. Beliefs are an incidental, peripheral, and ultimately unnecessary aspect of religion, of spirituality.

We are a people not of creed. Now, I need to be clear, having no creed doesn’t mean you can believe anything you want to. It does mean we respect freedom of conscience – that you can believe what your conscience requires without fear of censure. This distinction between believing what you want to and believing what your conscience requires is important. What you want to believe might be what is easy – a theology that is superficially attractive, doesn’t require much thought or creative work. You might want some belief that you can hold and gaze upon like a pretty crystal: beautiful and static. But hearing and heeding what your heart, mind, and conscience dictate requires effort.

Forty years ago, I was 24 years old, a graduate student at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and I was a member of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Waco, Texas. Members of this congregation, Paul and Jane Derrick, were also then members of that Waco fellowship, as was one Neecie Vanston, who was elderly then, and has since passed on. Neecie came up to about the middle of my chest. She was a long-time and dedicated member of that fellowship. She had been part of the small group that founded the Waco UU Fellowship back in the 50s. I was newly returned to the fold after having been unchurched since high school, and I didn’t understand that distinction between the easy and lazy believe-anything-you-want-to and the disciplined quest to discern your own heart and mind’s dictates.

One Sunday in Waco, during our holiest sacrament -- the coffee communion after the service -- I made the mistake of blithely blurting, “We’re Unitarian Universalists. We can believe whatever we want to.” Neecie overheard that remark. And she turned around. I will never forget it. It was a religious moment. “You think I believe in what I do because I want to?” she said. “I believe this because I have to. You think here, in Waco, Texas my life wouldn’t be a lot easier if I could be a Baptist? But I can’t. My conscience won’t let me. If this were about what I wanted to believe,” Neecie continued, “about what I found it convenient and easy to believe, you wouldn’t see my face here on Sunday morning.”

That was the day I learned that Unitarian Universalism is not about believing anything you want to. It does mean each of us is free to believe what we find we have to – because our conscience won’t let us believe otherwise.

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 apocrypha or 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 Unitarian Universalists 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 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. The eternal covenant, the timeless covenant is this promise to promise to each other – the covenant to be in covenant. More than that, and isn’t eternal.

As soon as we articulate – select language to express -- the content of our covenant, our promise to each other, then those words derive meaning from a particular time and place, an unfolding history, an evolving culture. Each generation must undertake anew the tasks of soul searching and of word smithing to shape in words the soul of the promise we discern in ourselves – for each generation, though formed and shaped by previous generations, must also understand its uniqueness and the unique time in which it finds itself.

In 1865, we Unitarians, although understanding ourselves as creedless, were struggling to articulate a covenant without harkening back to creed. The first National Unitarian Conference approved a statement saying that we "disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ" devoted to “the service of God and the building-up of the kingdom of his son." Even then many of us objected to articulating our promise to each other as a promise to uphold beliefs. But it took a generation for us to work out that what we really meant was – in the language of that generation -- “love to God and love to man.” We might translate that as something like love of this infinite creation and its infinite creativity, and love of each other. We had moved from defining content of belief to stipulating our core verb: love.

Whatever we might believe, our promise to each other is to love together: love each other and the reality in which we find ourselves. Then in 1887, William Channing Gannett laid out “Things Commonly Believed Among Us.” We notice, on the one hand, that he’s still trying to capture what we’re about in beliefs, but on the other hand, he takes it back by saying it’s not what we all believe, or what one has to believe to be a Unitarian – it’s just what is commonly believed among us. In that tension, Gannett, and the Western Unitarian Conference that adopted his statement that year, were essentially articulating the covenant of their time. That statement said it was common among us to hold that:
  • what is primary is loving the good and living the good, counting nothing good for self that is not good for all,
  • this is done only through working together,
  • reason and conscience are our authority,
  • we honor all inspiring scripture, and revere all teachers of truth, righteousness, and love,
  • we and our world are growing and evolving,
  • good and evil are their own recompense and heaven and hell are states of being,
  • the self-forgetting and loyal life awakens union with things eternal.”
In 1887, Gannett said this was commonly believed among us. No Unitarian had to believe it, or particularly resonate with that language, but every Unitarian did need to understand that they were throwing their lot in with a people who commonly believed this way. In that way, what Gannett gave to his generation was essentially an articulation of our covenant -- not a creed, since adherence to it was not a requirement, but a covenant, since being a Unitarian meant promising to support a community that was generally inclined to favor what Gannett had said.

After 1887 the flow of generations did produce their own articulations of our covenant. But none of the various articulations of covenant has ever been the whole truth of the people we are. Not the whole truth.

Here at First Unitarian of Des Moines we also express our covenant in our mission: to grow ethically and spiritually, serve justly, and love radically. That’s also an expression of covenant. But First Unitarian Church of Des Moines was a congregation held by covenant long before we adopted our current mission statement, or the one before that. And Unitarian Universalists have been a people of covenant from long before 1985 when we adopted our current set of principles, and before William Channing Gannett’s statement of 1887.

After all, the expression of the covenant is not the covenant. The word "moon" is not the moon. The expression of the covenant is some set of words. The covenant itself is the mysterious force that holds us together and is ultimately beyond words. The covenant of love, of fidelity to one another, the sacred promise to walk together – the whole truth -- is eternal. The ways that we give expression to that eternal must fit the particular culture and time.

In 1961, when Unitarians and Universalists came together to form the Unitarian Universalist Association, our initial documents included a set of principles. One generation later -- right on schedule -- we engaged a process to re-write them. So, four generations – about 100 years – after William Channing Gannett’s 1887 statement, Unitarian Universalists adopted our current denominational covenant. I’ll recite it.
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.
By the time this was approved, I had moved from Waco and was living in the Atlanta area. I don’t recall hearing much about it at the UU Congregation of Atlanta, and I didn’t pay it any attention. I think most UUs at the time didn’t regard the specific wording of the UUA’s article II bylaws as very important. But over the course of the next 10 or 15 years, the principles started to catch on among us. More and more of us started referencing them, and learning to recite them – as I just did.

The seven principles started showing up in the literature and the pamphlets and hand-outs and wallet-size cards of more and more of our congregations. It took a while, but the seven principles got into our hearts. They got into mine. Did they get into yours? Can you recite them? If you’re new here, I’ll give you a pass – you’re off the hook -- but if you’ve been around for 10 years and can’t recite the seven principles, why not?

Another generation went by, and that brought us to the late aughts. For two years, our congregations were enjoined to discuss possible revisions to our Article II by-laws, which includes the principles, and submit ideas to the Commission on Appraisal. I remember leading classes and meetings about that at the congregations I was serving at the time, back in 2008 and 2009. The Commission received the input and produced a proposed revision, which came before the General Assembly in 2009 in Salt Lake City for initial approval. Initial approval would have sent the proposal to the congregations for a year of discussion, with final approval subject to vote of the 2010 General Assembly.

The proposed changes in the principles themselves were slight. There would still be seven of them. The third principle was shortened from
“acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations”
to simply
“acceptance of one another and encouragement of spiritual growth.”
The fifth principle was similarly shortened from
“the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large”
to simply
“the right of conscience and the use of democratic processes.”
The seventh principle changed
“respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part”
“reverence for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”
The other four principles were not changed at all.

A more substantive change was proposed for the preamble to the seven principles. It would have changed from:
"We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote:"
"Grateful for the gift of life, we commit ourselves as member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association to embody together the transforming power of love as we covenant to honor and uphold:"
The proposed changes to the sources section was much greater – it would have replaced our six sources with three descriptive paragraphs.

Moreover, the proposal added a paragraph after the principles, and then added a section on inclusion to replace a section on anti-discrimination with a fuller expression of commitments to antiracism and multiculturalism.

I was there in Salt Lake City, 2009, when moderator Gini Courter called for the vote on the Article II bylaws change -- and the yellow voting cards were held aloft by those in favor, and then by those opposed to the proposed revision. It looked like the same number on each side. So she called again for the Pro to raise their voting cards, and this time the GA counters systematically went down the rows tallying the votes, and then the same was done for the Con. When the final tally was in, 573 delegates had voted to send the proposal to the congregations – and 586 voted not to.

I voted for the revisions, but the stronger feelings in the room tended to be on the Con said – and most of it was related to the change in the sources. A few years later, however, in 2013, we did adopt that new section on inclusion – what you see on your blue hand-out as the current section 2.3.

And in 2017, we tweaked the second source from “words and deeds of prophetic women and men” to “words and deeds of prophetic people.”

But now a more substantial change from the language adopted now almost forty years ago is before the denomination. The covenant is eternal. The words we choose to express the covenant must address the needs of the time – while also honoring our heritage.

Seven values replace the seven principles. They are represented as a flower, with love at the center and the six other values as the petals. If you haven’t been able to learn the seven principles, you’ll find it easier to learn the seven values: love, interdependence, pluralism, justice, transformation, generosity, equity.

The proposed version appears to be longer, because each of those seven values has two or three sentences about it – but the part you meaningfully learn to recite is actually shorter: love, interdependence, pluralism, justice, transformation, generosity, and equity.

Our current principles don’t have the word “love” anywhere. In the late 19th-century, we Unitarians resolved a dispute we’d been having by declaring that what our religion actually boiled down to was simply “love to god and love to man.” Today we wouldn’t say “man” and maybe wouldn’t say “god” – but we understand that the crux of the matter then was love. It is what we’ve always been about – and I think it feels good to put that back in the center.

And if you are devoted to the seven principles, and can recite them, then they are still available as a handy way to give a summary of what Unitarian Universalism is all about. They aren’t going away. For that matter, William Channing Gannett’s words from 137 years ago have never gone away, and are to this day not a bad way to summarize what we’re all about.

As each Unitarian Universalist generation finds its Unitarian Universalist voice, the past articulations don’t go away. They move into being the nourishing ground on which we can stand to proclaim our voice to a new day.

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