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