CommonPlaces Breaking60 TravelingNotes UU Exploration Belief and Practice

SEVEN PRINCIPLES, revisited 2007


These are the seven principles that Unitarian Universalist congregations affirm and promote:

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • 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.

The first six were developed and agreed when the Unitarian and Univeralist congregational associations merged in the 1960s; the seventh was added later in recognition of the strong role of earth based elements in the faith practice of many individuals.   When a congregation joins the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), it covenants to respect, affirm and uphold these principles and the values they reflect.   When a person joins a UUA member congregation, by signing the membership book, it is generally understood that, although these principles are not a creed or a statement of faith, the new member is in at least general agreement with them.

Now (Fall, 2007) the UUA has begun a consultation process to re-evaluate; that is, revisit, these covenantal principles to determine if they are a good expression of the values of the current congregations and individuals within its association and if not, to amend them in an evolutionary process.   This is a good time to ask the more fundamental question of what role these principles play within a faith organization centered not on creedal belief but dedicated to a continued individual and collective search for truth and meaning.   That is to say, modern Unitarian Universalist practice is more reasonably viewed as a process religion, one of search and change, rather than a product religion, dedicated to upholding and promoting revealed truth.

A good place to begin is a consideration of the sorts of questions whose answers religious practice seeks and (when found) promotes.

Perhaps the most fundamental of these is the primal existential query, "Why is there something rather than nothing?"   Why does anything exist and what is its' fundamental nature?   This question is of necessity answered on the basis of faith, either in religious terms, by appeal to a Creator or in scientific terms, by positing a Big Bang.

If we accept that we, and the physical world do exist, that our life experiences are real rather than illusionary, the next obvious question or series of questions focus on belief, or credo : What do we believe about our personal role in existence?   Where do we each come from, how is it that we arrived here and now and whither do we go from here?   Good questions for long, cold winter nights, when other matters are temporarily laid aside, but if we are wise we do not let these ruminations get in the way of more mundane questions of practice, of praxis : While we are here, how can we live a good enough life, one that will draw to a close with minimum regret?

It has been said of the seven principles that the first and the seventh, together, are the heart of UUism while the others (2-6) are commentary or conclusions that may be drawn from them.   Whether this is so or not, one can observe that, of the seven, the seventh is the only one that is vaguely existential , in that it pre-supposes a web of existence, while the first, being improvable, is clearly one of credo .   The remaining five outline desirable praxis , both as actions and, especially in the case of the fifth and sixth, goals.

What is the role of these seven principles in the life of UUs and their congregations?1   Paul2 often describes them as those values that most UUs hold most of the time.   However, he is known, some years ago, to have stood up in a discussion of the principles and their value and asked, "Is there anything (i.e. in the seven principles) that anybody here would die for?"   The subtler unspoken question was whether these statements are religious principles, reflecting deeply held values, or merely positive expressions of shared intentions.   One suspects the latter, since no one took up his challenge!

This failure is not trivial.   The histories of faith practices are replete with the lives of martyrs, the stories of people who died rather than forswear their religious principles and practices.   Even within Unitarian and Universalist history there are a few such persons but they are very rare and it is unclear, even suspect, that the values these heroes died to uphold are incorporated within the seven principles.   And there are no recent martyrs, despite the efforts to label several deaths in the US Civil Rights struggle as UU martyrdoms.  

Perhaps recognition that the seven principles are philosophical, rather than religious, statements can direct our understanding to their proper, and frequent, role:   as foundations for social witness and action, leading to increases in social justice.   This is not to denigrate that role: UUs, as Unitarians and Universalists before them, play and have played leading and important roles in the fight for social justice in many arenas.   However, one question that is frequently asked about these activists is, "Did they act as they did because of their religious beliefs or do we consider them Unitarians or Universalists or UUs because of the way they acted?"    The report is mixed: in some cases the former, in some the latter and in some, impossible to determine.

However, if we accept the seven principles as the philosophical, rather than religious, underpinning of UUism, we can observe the following:   they are excellent guides for actions to afflict the comfortable but poor guides for bringing comfort to the afflicted.   Paul, further on in the same aforementioned discussion, said that he doubted that anyone lay awake, in the black darkness of the soul, reciting the seven principles for comfort!

Thus I suggest the following: that the modern UU movement is like an unfilled doughnut: delicious in prospect but disappointingly unsatisfying in reality.   Instead of containing a rewarding center within the embrace of its seven principles, it contains....nothing!   In their desire to avoid even the appearance of a creed, of a binding faith statement that all adherents must subscribe to, UUs refuse to concede publicly that they all agree on any matter of belief, falling back on either appeals to reason, to rational process, or to the seven principles, when asked to address questions of existence or of credo .

From a practical point of view, insistence on the primacy of individual search for truth and meaning places UU religious practice within the doctrine called "Sheilaism" by Robert Bellah and colleagues. As discussed by Harold Bloom, in his influential analysis of American religious practice, The American Religion (1992):

"'Sheilaism'   (named for a young nurse Sheila Larson) urges us to love ourselves and be gentle with ourselves.   Bellah's group...chides this benignity, since Sheilaism would make us a nation of two hundred and fifty million sects..."

Can it be that this is the UU situation; that the rejection of public expression of commonly held beliefs (beyond general philosophical and ethical principles) has produced not a UUA but an AUU - an Association of Unitarian Universalists, each with their own singular sect?3

Let me suggest that there is no real defect or fault4 in the seven covenantal principles but that what is needed is an additional statement of what UUs generally believe to be true. Such a statement would focus and mold UUs into a true community of faith and, while not denigrating the necessity of a continuing search for truth and meaning, recognize that some progress has been made, some mileposts achieved and passed.   It need not be a creed or a test of faith, but, if properly drawn, might well serve to comfort the afflicted!

Is such a statement possible?   I strongly believe it is. Despite the unpopularity of universal truths, not relative to situation or condition, there is wide acceptance, in society at large if not yet within the UU movement, of the possibility of such truths, even if there may be disagreement on the details.   Robert Fulghum's well-known book All I Need to Know I learned In Kindergarten (1992) lists 16 concrete, action based principles.   While they are largely matters of praxis rather than credo , the implicit claim made, both in the book's title and the text within, is that there exist universals, that they are true, and we can learn them in kindergarten, when we accept matters, more often than not, on the basis of belief rather than through rational thought processes.

It is popular in UU congregations, especially as part of the preparation for coming of age ceremonies, for young people to be encouraged to prepare credo statements.   Unfortunately, in contemporary practice, these tend to be necessary but insufficient: they are largely recitations of what individuals disbelieve but are deficient of what they actually believe ; those beliefs, if pressed, that they might be willing to die for rather than foreswear.5

Thus, I think that what is needed, after thoughtful reconsideration of the seven covenantal principles, is a process leading from individuals to groups to congregations to the UUA General Assembly, resulting in a statement expressing those things we know (believe) to be true, not on the basis of rational analysis but by conviction, by, as it were, individual revelation.6   That there are such things and that such a statement is possible, however difficult to arrive at, arises from my profound understanding that we all, as human beings and UUs, are far more similar than we are different and that our paths lead along similar routes, converging on singular destinations, as suggested by Forest Church in his powerful metaphor of the Cathedral of the World:   One light (truth) shines through the many various windows of faith and faith practice.    Even if such a union of belief might not be achieved by UUs within our time, in the current environment of acute political and sectarian differences, the mere admission of the possibility of shared revealed truths and the pursuit of public declaration of them would benefit us all, individually and collectively.

Jonathan Black

August 2007

1 I skip over the congregational role, as the seven principles are rarely considered or discussed within congregations, except during initial consideration of affiliation with the UUA and during "new UU" classes.

2 Paul is a member of "the Congregation."   See: Foreword in Black, J: Belief and Practice (2003).

3 I note with interest the current vogue for "small group ministry" within UU congregations.   While there are no doubt other quite valid reasons for this trend, one might conclude that it is in part a response to growing 'Sheilaism' - being unable to bind congregations through shared faith, church leadership perceives that creating smaller groups, each with its own faith structure, even if unspoken, might be easier than solving the congregational problem posed by growing religious egoism.

4 There may well be room for editorial rather than substantive change.   Clare (see footnote 1) observes that UUs frequently interpret the fifth principle as being supportive of the United Nations, despite the recognized defects in its institutional and functional democratic processes and the fact that the majority of its member states are not democracies.   Further, she points out that the seventh principle tends to be interpreted in narrow environmental terms rather than in its apparent broader existential intention.

5 It has been more than half a century since our liberally religious forebears were overtly asked to die for their beliefs. In the current era, religious martyrdom is becoming increasingly frequent. I do not suggest nor should my comments be taken to imply that contemporary UUs should join in this process.   One hopes that such a moment will not come again; but if so, perhaps, at the least, we should be clear in our beliefs.

6 I would be remiss if I did not suggest a starting point for such a process.   Perhaps we could begin with a consideration of Emerson's ideas concerning "compensation" and his claim of the reality of internal reward/penalty for good and bad acts respectively, as outlined in the Divinity School Address and later essays.