Free and Responsible

a sermon by the Reverend Paul Oakley
11:00 AM, Sunday, January 21, 2108



This church year I am preaching an eight-sermon series on the Principles of Unitarian Universalism. In September, I preached on the Seventh Principle, concluding that the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part brings the paradox of independence and belonging, autonomy and need into our expressions of commitment. In November, I preached on the Fifth Principle, concluding that the reform of our voting system to include every adult citizens in our formal decision-making process is not just a good idea, a just idea, a compassionate idea, it is a mandate of our faith. Then last month I preached on the Sixth Principle, about being part of a great world community that is covenanted to nudge, to urge the world to an evolving greater love, which will overcome hate because we trust that the moral arc of the universe can be bended toward justice. It is a long game, and it defines us. Today we are on the fourth sermon in the series, in which we will take up the Fourth Principle: “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”


I’ll admit to you, when I first became a Unitarian Universalist this was the principle that didn’t seem very important to me. It was the one I actively pooh-poohed. I mean, I spent 20 adult years away from religion before I made my way to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Mt. Vernon, Illinois, where I found a kind of religion that worked for me. But I didn’t come in seeking. I wasn’t trying to figure things out. Over the five years before joining, I had done extensive thinking that resulted in a six-page overblown personal credo about all manner of stuff. I certainly was willing to evolve in my thinking. But I knew where I was. A principle that committed Unitarian Universalist congregations to affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning made me yawn. And a principle that some people took to mean that we had an obligation to be constantly seeking annoyed me.


Of course, the principle is not a commandment to be seekers. Rather it is a commitment to supporting any seeking we and others may find a need to do as free minds and souls – so long as it is done responsibly. One of the Unitarian Universalist curricula that have been helpful to many UUs has been Building Your Own Theology, in which participants in a group setting and in individual “homework” figure out what they believe about important things. What are the important questions? Do you think about them the same way you did a decade ago? It is a curriculum that allows free people to discover their beliefs rather than merely accepting beliefs that were taught at previous stages of their lives or that someone might ask require them to believe now. It provides a platform on which participants can reexamine beliefs and values after life experiences have reforged us, whether we were intentional about that development or not.


In the back of our hymnal there is a reading by 20th-Century Unitarian Universalist educator Sophia Lyon Fahs that goes like this:


It matters what we believe. Some beliefs are like walled gardens. They encourage exclusiveness, and the feeling of being especially privileged. Other beliefs are expansive and lead the way into wider and deeper sympathies. Some beliefs are like shadows, clouding children’s days and fears of unknown calamities. Other beliefs are like sunshine, blessing children with the warmth of happiness. Some beliefs are divisive, separating saved from unsaved, friends from enemies. Other beliefs are bonds in a world community, where sincere differences beautify the pattern. Some beliefs are like blinders, shutting off the power to choose one’s own direction. Other beliefs are like gateways opening wide vistas for exploration. Some beliefs weaken a person’s selfhood. They blight the growth of resourcefulness. Other beliefs nurture self-confidence and enrich the feeling of personal worth. Some beliefs are rigid, like the body of death, impotent in a changing world. Other beliefs are pliable, like the young sapling, ever growing with the upward thrust of life. It matters what we believe.[1]


I love that. But my personal history caused me at first to read Sophia Lyon Fahs’s words as referring to specific beliefs I was raised with, that felt restrictive to me. For some of you, perhaps you hear an echo of the teachings of some specific World Religion in her words. Or a World Economic System. Maybe for some, Islam seems to be the narrow belief set. Or Christianity for others. Socialism and Capitalism are beliefs-and-values systems that each promise to cure all ills as understood by the initiated convert while repelling others. And the longer I thought about it, the more I realized that the words of this reading are not just about beliefs in the sense of teachings of a religion or other meaning-organizing group or philosophy.


Name me a belief in the sense of a doctrine or dogma specific to a tradition. For many raised in Christianity it is not hard to think first of the Nicene Creed – even if they don’t remember the words anymore. “I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible…” Did you grow up reciting a shared statement of belief like this? Many of us inherit a great many such beliefs from multiple sources. For Muslims there is the Shahada, the statement of faith, the testimony considered so central that its believing recitation is all that is required to become a Muslim: “There is no god but God. Muhammad is the messenger of God.” Implied in it is the core of the five basic articles of Islamic faith:


  1. Belief in Allah as the one true God.
  2. Belief in angels as the instruments of God’s will.
  3. Belief in the four inspired books: the Torah of Moses, the Psalms of David, the Injil (or Gospel) of Jesus, and the Qur’an, of which the Qur’an is the final and most complete.
  4. Belief in the twenty-eight prophets of Allah, of whom Muhammad is the last.
  5. Belief in a final day of judgment.


Now whether you or I believe any of those things or not, it is impossible simply on hearing the beliefs to know how they fit into Sophia Lyon Fahs’ explanations of the different ways beliefs affect the people’s lives. But think on it. The core creedal beliefs that, on the one hand, rendered someone like Dorothy Day or Mother Teresa into Christian saints respected far beyond the bounds of their faith, living lives of service to humanity, those beliefs are the same core beliefs that, on the other hand, lead some others down the path of racism and sexism and homophobia and heterosexism and transphobia and classism and ableism. The same beliefs that led some to become avatars of goodness in the world led others to join the Ku Klux Klan or, perhaps drive a car into a crowd. Similarly, many Americans have varying degrees of Islamophobia. They are unable to see beyond the examples of Islam-inspired terrorism of Al Qaeda or ISIL. And yet, those of us who actually know Muslims probably know among them highly moral individuals committed to helping those in need, committed to raising upstanding children, committed to justice in the world, committed to freedom to be who they are and to other people’s freedom to do the same. No, clearly Sophia Lyon Fahs is talking about something more than doctrines and dogmas, whether religious or secular. You can’t tell from someone’s beliefs how they will use those beliefs. Fahs seems to be talking about meta-beliefs – beliefs about beliefs. You can be a good person, working for good in the world, from a grounding in many very different belief systems, or you can convert those beliefs to the service of oppression and injustice. It matters what you believe about what you believe.


A Unitarian Universalism that is committed to affirming and promoting the free and responsible search for truth and meaning is a Unitarian Universalism committed not to being institutionally concerned about beliefs per se, but with the way your beliefs about those beliefs flower into actions grounded on those meta-beliefs. Where do your beliefs lead you? Where do your neighbors’ different beliefs lead them? Even together in this room, we may find our grounding in different ideas and practices than the person next to us. Only you can find your truth.


So what’s the deal with “free and responsible”? I think of this as the pairing of the paradoxical yet mutually supportive First and Seventh Principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association. The inherent worth and dignity of every individual can only bear its natural fruit in a state of freedom while we exist, we live and breathe, we become who we are in relationship, in community. Freedom is, in this sense, a properly unhindered existence of the individual, who receives it as their human birthright, while responsibility is a function of the ways we are interdependent with each other and with the larger world.


Our Fourth Principle can sometimes feel exclusively Unitarian Universalist. But with a different flavor and with varying self-understandings, it shows up in other times and beliefs, as well. The 17th-Century philosopher Blaise Pascal astutely observed that, “People almost invariably arrive at their beliefs not on the basis of proof but on the basis of what they find attractive.”[2] Today, the algorithms and user choices inherent in social media and consumption of news based on how likely one is to hear what one already believes to be true means that many limit their potential to learn and grow merely because it is easy to do so. For a majority of people, whether you watch Fox News of MSNBC is a function of the political and social beliefs you already have. Much of our interaction is within silos of sameness without the pursuit of relationship with what is different. Pascal also wrote that “God only pours out his light into the mind after having subdued the rebellion of the will…”[2] Taken together, then, these quotes seem to encompass the autonomous individual, or the free soul, who, left to their own devices, comes to a conclusion but not to truth, but when the autonomous individual is in proper relationship rather than merely alone, then truth may enter in the place of mere attractiveness.


Pascal was not a Unitarian Universalist, and he casts his concerns in specifically God-centered approaches. But he presents a form of free and responsible search. And I refer to him here because I do not believe that a responsible search involves something similar to the rigorous application of the scientific method alone, where proof is valued over relationship. Science explores and explains within its theatre of operation. But the human spirit also plays in the not solely rational areas, works with the intuition, and is driven by values not easily quantified. What renders this activity “responsible” is staying in right relationship.


We might more easily grant that a philosopher and mathemetician like Pascal might point in some of the same direction as our “free and responsible search.” But the impulse to finding one’s own truth reaches more widely than that. In 1617 Marco Antonio de Dominis, the Archbishop of Split in what is now Croatia, coined a phrase that became quite popular in Protestant circles: “unity in necessary things; freedom in doubtful things; love in all things.”[3] It was a phrase used in the Fundamentalist tradition of my upbringing to argue against creeds despite rather tightly drawn boundaries of what was believed true even without adhering to a creed. Freedom and love parallel the free and responsible descriptions of the search for truth and meaning. It is always in relationship we find truth and meaning. We may well find facts independent of relationships, but responsible meaning is socially arrived at. We are inextricably connected with the rest of reality, the rest of humanity. And, in our connection, we have the opportunity to find meaning.


We covenant, then, to affirm and promote the meaning-making and truth-ascribing actions of free individuals in right relationship with each other. The broader your circles of interdependence and right relationship, the greater chance you have of parlaying the power of your freedom into a core of truth, meaning, and value.


Simplifying our principles to help children and others commit them to memory, my first internship mentor’s own internship mentor, the Rev. Tony Larsen, who has just retired after serving a single church for 41 ½ years, puts the focus on believing in “a free and open search for truth to find the way to go.” Even in its simplified form for children. This principle is about action, not mere belief.


Oh I believe in every person’s
worth and dignity
In justice and compassion
I believe in equity
Acceptance of each other
Encouragement to grow
A free and open search for truth
To find the way to go

Affirm the right of conscience
and affirm democracy
The goal of world community
With peace and liberty
Respect the web of nature
Of which we are a part
These are UU Principles
I hold close to my heart [4]


[1] “It Matters What We Believe” by Sophia Lyon Fahs



[4] “UU Principles Song” by the Rev. Tony Larson, who was the minister of Olympia Brown Unitarian Universalist Church in Racine, Wisconsin, for the past 41½ years.


© 2018 by Rev. Paul Oakley