First, the Seventh Principle

FIRST, THE SEVENTH PRINCIPLE
a sermon by the Rev. Paul Oakley
11:00 AM, Sunday, September 17, 2017

 

 

In 1885, at 75 years old and with just 3 more years remaining in his life, the Rev. James Freeman Clarke summarized what he saw as the commonly held Unitarian beliefs of that time. These five core beliefs were: “the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the leadership of Jesus, salvation by character, and the continuity of human development in all worlds, or, the progress of mankind onward and upward forever.”[1] It definitely was of its time. So the language through which Clarke states his highest understanding of what is important reinforces patriarchy, portraying God as a FATHER (though not as king), humanity as MEN and as BROTHERS, and progress belonging to MANkind. Excelsior! It was a good progressive statement of commonly held Unitarian beliefs in 1885 but did not disrupt the inherited ways of seeing the world. Clarke’s famous words are engraved in the stone walls of the sanctuary of First Unitarian Church in Baltimore.

 

It was too optimistic a vision to last. It certainly is oft lampooned as liberal Christianity through rose-colored glasses, and yet it presaged contemporary Unitarian Universalism’s optimistic, hopeful sense that even though we comprise less than five one-hundredths of one percent of the American population, we do not doubt that we can make a difference in increasing the justice in the world and that we are an essential part of the workings of progress.

 

In 1961, the Unitarians and Universalist consolidated their two movements in creating the Unitarian Universalist Association. But each denomination came to this marriage with its own formulations and styles and practices. So they had to negotiate a new statement of principles that would explain what that core is they aimed to accomplish. And, as was fitting for a denomination that came into being through the legal consolidation of two preexisting denominational organizations, these principles were a negotiated part of the association’s bylaws. They read:

 

In accordance with these corporate purposes, the members of the Unitarian Universalist Association, dedicated to the principles of a free faith, unite in seeking:

  1. To strengthen one another in a free and disciplined search for truth as the foundation of our religious fellowship;
  2. To cherish and spread the universal truths taught by the great prophets and teachers of humanity in every age and tradition, immemorially summarized in the Judeo-Christian heritage as love to God and love to man;
  3. To affirm, defend and promote the supreme worth of every human personality, the dignity of man, and the use of the democratic method in human relationships;
  4. To implement our vision of one world by striving for a world community founded on ideals of brotherhood, justice and peace;
  5. To serve the needs of member churches and fellowships, to organize new churches and fellowships, and to extend and strengthen liberal religion;
  6. To encourage cooperation with men of good will in every land. [2]

 

Among the leaders in this new denomination were some who found the reference to Judeo-Christian heritage, the love of God, and spreading universal truths as too restrictive for a free religion of their time. In 1961 there was still no self-awareness in the use of man when what hopefully was meant was humanity. The love of man. The dignity of man. The ideal of brotherhood. Men of good will in every land. The new denomination was as full of people devoted to the craft of wordsmithing then as it is today. But society had not yet moved far enough for many to recognize the possibility of non-patriarchal language and a society where the two recognized genders would be true equals rather than aspirational equals.

 

And so, it was through the leadership of Unitarian Universalist women via the UU Women’s Federation that new, non-sexist wording and a seventh principle were brought to a vote and approved by the Delegates of our congregations at the General Assembly of the UUA in 1984, and ratified a year later, as required by our bylaws. It was a long and difficult path to get from 1961 to 1985, and you can read about in articles tracing that history in the UU World.[3] But the result of this process was a set of seven principles as we know them today, as they appear on bookmarks and business cards and brochures and in the front of our gray hymnal.[4]

 

Because they comprise an official statement of all Unitarian Universalist congregation of the specific ground they share even if they do not share other things, they have been included in children’s religious education curricula and has been shaped into singable, memorable ditties. My favorite of these is the “UU Principles Song” by the Rev. Tony Larson, who has been the minister of Olympia Brown Unitarian Universalist Church in Racine, Wisconsin, for the 42 years.

 

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

 

I love it, and I also cringe a little bit at the way Larson uses the language of belief when the actual principles use the language of covenant. What is at stake is not what you give assent to in your head but what you give life to through action in the world. “We the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association covenant to affirm and promote” these principles. These are words providing a foundation for an action plan.

 

And so today, in this first sermon of a series of eight on the principles that will spread through the church year, I want to look briefly at the seventh principle, the one that didn’t make it onto the list in any form until 1984. “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” This congregation, though its membership in the UUA, joined other congregations in a promise to affirm and promote respect for existence. In this principle, existence is seen as a web of the totality, including everything and everyone, with no separate status for humanity except as dignified through our belonging to that whole. And suddenly were in a place that feels incompatible with the traditions of a Christian orthodoxy that taught through millennia that humanity comprised a special creation, unique possessors of a God-given soul and God-breathed spirit, God’s appointed caretakers and dominators of all Creation. In the words of the Psalmist, quoted later by the Christian writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews:

 

You have made [humans] a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet…[5]

 

But there is no dominion to be found in our seventh principle, but belonging. There is no special glory for humanity, only the mundane the glory of being an infinitesimally small part of something as magnificent and awesome as the totality of all existence through all space-time. If we were to think of this in the language of belief, perhaps we would come up with an expression that I access through other parts of my theological, philosophical self, something like: “God is all there is.” The late Lubavitcher Rebbe, the reigning guru of the Hasidic Jews of Chabad, taught:

 

When we focus on the level of Divinity that is the simple and intrinsic oneness of God, God is not simply one with the world; there is no independent world—everything is God and God is all there is.[6]

 

It is a mystical approach that flows through Hasidism on through the modern Jewish Renewal movement and is not an unusual understanding in some parts of Judaism. And in this way of sensing, of feeling the universe, a human is an expression of the God that is all. It is also a common expression in the theology of the New Thought Movement, which includes Unity and the Centers for Spiritual Living. As I was writing this sermon, I listened to Rickie Byars Beckwith sing her inspiring song “God Is All There Is.”[7] I listened to a sermon by Dr. Moira Foxe of the Redondo Beach Center for Spiritual Living with the same title.[8] And Unitarian Universalist singer-songwriter Jim Scott provides these words from that poetic Venn intersection of the mystical and the scientific:

 

Far beyond the grasp of hands, or light to meet the eye, past the reaches of the mind, there find the key to nature’s harmony in an architecture so entwined. Like the birds whose patterns grace the sky and carry all who join in love expanding, the message of peace will rise in flight taking the weight of the world upon its wings, in the oneness of ev’rything.[9]

 

Indeed, it was the familiarity of the UU women’s movement with earth-centered spirituality that supported the image of oneness and interdependence in the seventh principle.

 

But all of these beautiful expressions of totality are from the area of belief while our principles are structured to call us to action. We covenant to affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. And why, if these are action words, do they seem to be in conflict with the first principle, which is “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” The essence of the first principle was already in the 1961 principles. It presents the autonomous, worthy, powerful, self-sustaining individual, an important corrective to some Christian teachings of the unworthiness of the individual to receive God’s love. The other five principles relate to the social and political connections of these worthy, autonomous individuals. But what the seventh principle added in 1984 was a commitment to the paradoxical truth that these powerful, good independent beings are, in a deeper reality, interdependent with each other, with the larger society, with all beings, with nature, with the environment, and, indeed, with the whole cosmos.

 

So I ask you, what are we called to do to make respect for the interdependent web of existence a reality in the world?

 

__________

[1] http://www.uuworld.org/articles/clarke-transformed-congregation

[2] http://www.uuworld.org/articles/the-uuas-original-principles-1961

[3] http://www.uuworld.org/articles/how-uu-principles-purposes-were-adopted

[4] http://www.uuworld.org/articles/the-uuas-principles-purposes-1985

[5] Psalm 8:5-6 NRSV, quoted in Hebrews 2:7-8

[6] http://www.chabad.org/parshah/article_cdo/aid/1010410/jewish/Chassidic-Insights.htm

[7] https://youtu.be/xqrVR4bSh-Y

[8] https://youtu.be/q0u50gOKaHM

[9] “The Oneness of Everything” words and music by Jim Scott ©2002: #1052 in Singing the Journey: A Supplement to Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA, 2005).

 

© 2017 by Rev. Paul Oakley