The Future of the Sources

a sermon by the Reverend Paul Oakley
11:00 AM, Sunday, May 26, 2019



Back in August last year, I began a sermon series on the statement on the sources of our living tradition that exists within the Bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association. This morning’s sermon is the eighth and last sermon in the series.


Over the course of this church year, we have explored the origin of the sources statement. We have thought about the importance to this statement held by the growth and mainstream development of women’s spirituality within Unitarian Universalism. And we looked at how the language and structure of each source told us something important about these six sources.


I have discussed the way I think differently about the sources now than when I first encountered them. At first, I saw them as expanded from a list of nouns that could be summarized as nouns that named other tradition of meaning making:


  • Direct Experience;
  • Prophetic People;
  • World Religions;
  • Judaism and Christianity;
  • Humanism; and
  • Earth-Centered Spirituality/ Paganism.


We have discovered another way of looking at the sources that finds them to be strongly connected with acting out our values in our lives. The Living Tradition we share grows from the acts of:


  • Renewing our spirits and opening ourselves to the Force.
  • Confronting evil with justice, compassion, and love.
  • Leading an ethical and spiritual life.
  • Loving our neighbors as ourselves.
  • Heeding science and avoiding idolatries.
  • Celebrating the circle of life and living in harmony with nature.


Our movement has seen an undue preference among many of our people for the Seven Principles. So much so, in fact, that some of our sticklers for lexical precision worry that others among us turn the principles into a creed, something we must each of us believe. Yet none of the principles is about belief but about values. There has been the well-intentioned attempt to create a new Unitarian Universalist winter holiday known as Chalica: on each of seven successive December nights, our members are envisioned in their homes or in their congregation lighting the chalice and reflecting on one of the Seven Principles through words and activities. For all their value and appeal, though, the Principles were not about beliefs but about broad, baseline values that our congregations have covenanted together to affirm and promote.


Similarly, there is a great deal of confusion among Unitarian Universalists about what the sources are. Some believe that the list of sources tells us of our history, the identity of the strands of our theological DNA. But that is not really true. Our historical roots are in the heterodox and heretical traditions of Eighteenth and Nineteenth-Century American Unitarianism and Universalism. In our spiritual ancestors’ rejection of Original Sin, their rejection of the Total Depravity of humanity, their rejection of Hell.


Our historical and theological roots, though, are not in the world’s religions. Yet our third enumerated source centers the resources gained from World Religions, for example. Others would point out that if we are not careful, we can misrepresent where we came from through acts of appropriation of other living traditions that are the birthright or adoptive home of others. Our tradition does not require us to renounce citizenship in another tradition to be fully Unitarian Universalist. But the hyphenation that comes from this reality is a different thing from saying that the heritage of other meaning-making traditions belongs to us.


Does our statement of sources – as it currently exists – mean anything that is not an appropriation of what belongs to some other identity? Is it a statement of our borrowings or influences in a world of inevitable borrowings and influences? I believe it tells us that the boundaries of our religious identity are porous. It means that our experience of the world includes all that we encounter deeply enough that it becomes an essential part of us. It does so even though we did not, as a group, create it or inherit it. It means that we adapt to emergent realities in our civilization, in our nation by transforming our minds as we encounter difference and grow from it. We develop as a religious identity, we develop within this religious identity, by doing, by practicing the lessons we have used to adapt to the constant evolution of the human spirituality.


It is this evolutionary, developmental quality that interests me most this morning, as we consider what the sources statement may come to be in the future. I keep going back to the fact that the Principles and Sources were composed and edited to be part of the bylaws of our association, not as basic or authoritative theology of our movement. Committees and delegates and bureaucrats are not the best place to turn to set your soul ablaze. But that is what we have. And the bylaws include evolutionary intent in the requirement that the section on the principles and sources be considered for revision at least every fifteen years. And with the intention of avoiding reckless revisions, the bylaws specify a two-year approval process for proposed bylaws amendments.


At the end of the first decade of this century, when I first started attending the General Assembly of our association, one of the issues being considered and voted on by the delegates was one of these periodic attempts to reimagine the section of the bylaws that includes the Principles and Sources. If you’ve never been to General Assembly, perhaps you do not know the fervor with which Unitarian Universalists argue over words. Which word or phrase best expresses our intention for how we are together, a people of faith. Imagine it like wedding vows, and the couple has decided not to go with the ancient words that everyone knows and expects and, instead, to create their own vows… ONLY… it is not just each one writing their own vows to the other but the two of them together creating vows for both of them to say. Not like that would be stressful or fraught! A team had put together their best effort based on lots of feedback from across the denomination. And then came the arguments of General Assembly.


The change to a single word in the Seventh Principle, using the word “reverence” in place of “respect,” was contentious. And the fight was on! “How dare theists put religious words in “our” sacrosanct secular document!” some argued. But the changes to the Principles were minor, really, while the Sources completely restructured its thoughts, starting with the fact that the proposed wording started with the explicit acknowledgment of the religious identities and values that consolidated in our association in 1961. It begins like this:


Unitarian Universalism is rooted in two religious heritages. Both are grounded on thousands of years of Jewish and Christian teachings, traditions, and experiences. The Unitarian heritage has affirmed that we need not think alike to love alike and that God is one. The Universalist heritage has preached not hell but hope and courage, and the kindness and love of God. Contemporary Unitarian Universalists have reaped the benefits of a legacy of prophetic words and deeds.


Now, I’m a Unitarian Universalist too, with just as much propensity as others to nitpick and wordsmith. There was a lot that I loved in that opening salvo, but I also found some of it sketchy. “Thousands of Jewish and Christian teachings, traditions, and experiences” sounded like historical revisionism. Our historical roots did not honor Judaism any more than the rest of Western Christianity did. This was lip-service to an ahistorical ideal used as cover story. This is the same story that goes into the widely used phrase “Judeo-Christian,” which presents a unity where our history shows oppression. And tacking the legacy of prophetic words and deeds onto the end of the paragraph about the separate roots in Unitarianism and Universalism just felt tacky.


Unitarian Universalism is not contained in any single book or creed. Its religious authority lies in the individual, nurtured and tested in the congregation and the wider world. As an evolving religion, it draws from the teachings, practices, and wisdom of the world’s religions. Humanism, earth-centered spiritual traditions, and Eastern religions have served as vital sources. Unitarian Universalism has been influenced by mysticism, theism, skepticism, naturalism, and process thought as well as feminist and liberation theologies. It is informed by direct experiences of mystery and wonder, beauty and joy. It is enriched by the creative power of the arts, the guidance of reason, and the lessons of the sciences.


Like the first paragraph of the revised sources, this tumbles a lot together that I could appreciate but in a jumble with what I find more problematic. It seems more broadly to say the named outside religious traditions are our historical heritage in this movement. And I have been arguing against this approach as the core of this year’s sermon series. But did you notice the way this version of the statement of sources incudes the arts? No more hard science and cold reason, but a fleshed out image of humanity which needs art, music, emotion… And then there is the inclusion of specific theological approaches left out of the current sources: “mysticism, theism, skepticism, naturalism, and process thought as well as feminist and liberation theologies.” Are these sources of our tradition? Or are they personal perspectives that do not contradict our tradition? I don’t know. The arguments were intense and interesting, and I could have lived with the new wording. But ultimately the changes lost out more than anything because of the one word “reverence” in the proposed revision of the Seventh Principle. The Sources and Principles stayed as they were.


There have been additional attempts since then to make changes to our sources statement. One effort led by the Rev. Craig Moro in 2017 sought to add Islam to fourth source. He offered a few different wordings: “Jewish, Christian, and Islamic teachings,” “Jewish, Christian, and Muslim voices,” and “Teachings of the Abrahamic faith traditions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam),” as three alternatives he offered. He did so because of his belief that the sources aim, primarily, to show potential ally organizations or individuals walking our doors that Unitarian Universalism welcomes them and honors their origins. He saw the effort as a way to tell Muslims in an Islamophobic time and place that we care, that we are on their side against bigotry. The effort is right-intentioned, but it seems based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what the sources are.


Last year and the year before, our two-year revision process honored the greater inclusion of transgender folx by changing the second source from referring to “prophetic women and men” to saying “prophetic people,” a change that coincides with the decision to change “he or she” pronouns in the bylaws to “they.” Currently ideas are being floated that the Principles and Sources should be removed from the bylaws to a separate, stand-alone document referenced in the Bylaws. Who knows whether that idea will gain momentum.


In the Sources cantata, collaboratively created from the music of Jason Shelton and the words of Kendyl Gibbons, the words at the center of the seventh and last song, the song about what the statement of sources is all about, says:


The promise is justice, together we make it;
The promise is wonder that flows into praise.
The promise is freedom, no falsehood can shake it;
The promise is meaning in all of our days.


The song ends with the words: “What makes us whole is the promise.” Its wording reminds me, in some strange way, of the 19th-century Unitarian watchwords of “Freedom, Reason, Tolerance,” with the addition of Wonder. Tolerance morphs to a truer Justice. Freedom remains. Reason morphs into Meaning or perhaps meaning-making. Justice, Wonder, Freedom, and Meaning! These are postmodern watchwords of our faith.


The joy and the challenge is that ours is a collective and personal faith that is intentionally in flux, not accidentally so. Our strangely most sacred documents – for now our association’s bylaws – require us to constantly reevaluate, recalibrate, and reestablish our work in the world that is – in order to move us toward the best that we might be – as we make the world that can be. This is not a statement of ideals but a requirement that we act, that we never desist from our sacred task.


Amen and Blessed Be.




© Copyright 2019 by Rev. Paul Oakley