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Friday, February 6, 2004

Questions the UUA Principles don't answer.

In a conversation yesterday with a fellow parishioner about how the Unitarian Universalist Association's "Seven Principles" don't quite cut it as answers to religious questions — we were talking about the difficulty of shaping religious education curricula for adolescents around the Principles — I finally gained some clarity about the problem:

As many other people have pointed out, the Principles express ethical (organizational) commitments. They commit UU churches to affirm and promote the inherent dignity and worth of every person; justice, equity and compassion in human relations; acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations; etc. But they don't really address basic religious questions.

The religious questions I'm thinking about include:

  • What am I grateful for?
  • What sustains me?
  • What evokes my praise?
  • What stirs me to wonder?
  • What binds me to other people?
  • What tempts me to betray people?
  • What do I cling to at my peril?
  • Why don't things work out as I want them to?
  • What propels me to acts of moral courage?
  • What inspires me to regard others with moral imagination?
  • Where do I turn when I am at my wit's end?

Our religious practices and spiritual disciplines give us ways to respond to questions like these by embodying them in stories or behaviors that help us be grateful, joyful, penitent, reflective, sorrowful, courageous, sympathetic, faithful, and so on. Many of our non-religious practices and behaviors do, too.

But because we're such a brainy bunch, we don't always notice that we are acting out stories and doing things that address our religious questions. Our cerebral, discursive, "goin' to a discussion about heaven" chattiness is itself a belief and a story enacted: We seem to think we'll be saved by dialogue, that intellectuals are the chosen people.

Our Principles are thin, "wholesome abstractions" unless they happen to be embodied in practices and stories and ways of life. But somehow we keep trying to start with the Principles, writing stories with one of the Principles as the moral. The problem here is that almost nobody acts because the UUA's Principles promote "world community" or "encouragement to spiritual growth." More than we might care to admit, our principles are rooted in our interests, and transforming a person's interests is a daunting task. People don't learn the liberal values that draw them to a UU church from the church; our motivations and values are more deeply rooted. The Principles may enhance or strengthen values that already shape our lives, but they are fundamentally secondary.

We grossly misrepresent our own religious motivations when we concentrate on the ethical dimension of our faith. The ethical dimension is very important — please don't get me wrong! — but unless it is deeply rooted in other motivations and realities, it won't have much spine.

I think we ought to start with a richer survey of what we already do (in church and elsewhere), what stories we already tell about ourselves (in church and elsewhere), with an ear for the basic human questions that our actions and stories try to answer. We may not be especially happy with what we find. As novelists know, many of the stories we tell about ourselves are lies, and many of our actions are evasions. But we might discover some extraordinary answers to our most basic religious questions.

What stirs you to wonder? What binds you to other people? What tempts you to betray people? What do you cling to at your peril? What evokes your praise?

Copyright © 2004 by Philocrites | Posted 6 February 2004 at 6:31 PM

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Next: Memes: The idea whose time didn't come.




John S. Morgan:

March 13, 2004 04:22 PM | Permalink for this comment

Why am I willing to do anything rather than clean up my desk although I crave a clean desk?


March 17, 2004 02:01 AM | Permalink for this comment

Since my wife and I started going to a UU Church about three years ago, we've wondered about this topic at times, wishing that the sermons didn't so avoid anything remotely doctrinal. But I think those seven values are in fact answers to religious questions.

My son and I recently reread The Three Questions by John J. Muth and Leo Tolstoy, in which a boy wants to be good and asks, When is the best time to do things? and Who is the most important one? What is the right thing to do?

It's not just that the answers are situational but that they are also changing. And there is a difference between the two ideas. In a way, I could look at the religious questions that you pose as needing something of a static answer. But consider that we're talking relationships, whether it's a "personal relationship" with God, a relationship with others, with the earth. And what do we know about relationships with people? All it takes is for one person to change for the relationship itself to change.

So, in a way, I can never firmly answer those questions. If I feel driven to continue to ask those questions (and a couple are compelling), I find those seven UU values actually helpful in answering the questions, however momentary and evolving the answers may be. Many, if not all, of the questions are different ways of asking "What do I value?"

Respecting others, recognizing our interdependence, having compassion for others--these help me to answer those religious questions of value, especially as we are always in a state of becoming. How we come to the answer can be just as important, if not more, as the answer itself; in fact, the how may be the answer in some cases. Those seven UU values appear to me to part of how we can answer the questions.


March 17, 2004 10:10 AM | Permalink for this comment

Interesting, bubba! I had thought I was formulating questions that couldn't be given "static answers," but which required acknowledging relationships that continue to change. Asking these questions on a daily basis can yield some surprisingly different answers. I agree that the Principles — as embodied in our actual religious and personal lives — do help us answer these questions.

But I think we start out with experiential questions and then turn to ethics (like the Principles) as tools for action, ways of focusing our responses and practicing our values, when we also need a way to experience and celebrate our values. Respecting other people is an ethical act; the experience of being moved to respect people more deeply than one had thought possible is sometimes integral to ethical action, but it is also sometimes a response to worship, art, or personal reflection. We need to do both, and it seems to me that our religious communities could be more explicit about celebrating the wellsprings of our ethical lives (in worship, for example), without at all diminishing the value of our ethical principles that serve to guide and shape our actions.

You're right that these questions are all versions of "What do I value?" Since I happen to think that our values are shaped in large part by our communities and cultures, it matters what our communities do and what values they in fact celebrate and enact. That's why I think religious liberals should spend more time paying attention to our real values (not just the ones we talk about, but the ones we act out), and finding ways to reframe the questions we ask ourselves and each other.

Thanks for your thoughtful comments!


March 17, 2004 05:40 PM | Permalink for this comment

I didn't mean that your questions were necessarily static.

Your point about attending to the values we act is an excellent one. Sometimes, I find myself living a different value, sometimes quite deliberately, than what I think of as my "real" values.

And your questions are good heuristics for our seeing what we actually value. Growing up a Southern Baptist, I have an idea of what religious relationships are, an idea that I want to change.


March 20, 2004 08:59 AM | Permalink for this comment

Dale at The Right Christians asks some related questions, which he learned from biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan: "What is the character of your God?" and "What is the function of your worship?"

Again, I'd suggest asking both what we think our answer is — God is love, for example — and how we actually answer in our living. In Unitarian Universalist worship, we might say things like "Love is the spirit of this church, and service is its law. To dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another: This is our great covenant." But is this what we actually do?

Religious liberals talk about freedom and personal responsibility and the prospects for the future and even about our historic affirmations of God's universal love, but I've been struck by other comments from UUs that suggest that many of us are deeply pessimistic. "I don't know why we're always talking about the meaning of life," one long-time Unitarian told me. "What meaning?"

I've heard many others express varieties of social Darwinism — snobbery and elitism in sundry forms — that turn into perfectionism and personal anxiety on a pretty deep level. We believe in the inherent dignity and worth of every individual, but we act out some profound anxieties about our own worthiness all the time.

So I'd suggest that one way to think about the character of the God we worship is to ask both what ideas we hold (or want to hold) about God — or about the meaning of life — and what our behavior suggests our real motives are. Sometimes our motives can be reshaped by our beliefs — the ethical compass bubba points to — and sometimes our motives can help us sharpen and refine our beliefs.


April 4, 2005 02:15 AM | Permalink for this comment

All in all, most of us don't have a lot of insight into our deep motivations. We often claim them to be one thing and then act like they are another. I think we hold competing and conflicting values often. But, that's the human condition. We can work on it, or ignore it. I'm for working on it.
It seems to me that our seven principles are more descriptive than prescriptive.
I think that stories, mythologies, world view are very important when it comes to acting. The culture we are surrounded with tells us teaching stories, and we unconsciously absorb the attitudes they teach, and then act them out when we are responding unconsciously. This is why the movies and TV are so important -- they are the shamen of modern culture, with no shamanic training, and the values they teach are often shallow; greed, violence, selfishness, non-verbal, non-introspective action, lack of respect, etc. We need to be careful what we subject ourselves to -- I don't think there is any such thing as "just entertainment" -- it all affects us.

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