Reading #1: Reflection on the First Principle
“Reverence and respect for human nature is at the core of Unitarian Universalist (UU) faith. We believe that all the dimensions of our being carry the potential to do good. We celebrate the gifts of being human: our intelligence and capacity for observation and reason, our senses and ability to appreciate beauty, our creativity, our feelings and emotions. We cherish our bodies as well as our souls. We can use our gifts to offer love, to work for justice, to heal injury, to create pleasure for ourselves and others.
“‘Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy,’ the great twentieth-century Rabbi Abraham Heschel wrote. Unitarian Universalists affirm the inherent worth and dignity of each person as a given of faith—an unshakeable conviction calling us to self-respect and respect for others.”
—Rev. Dr. Rebecca Ann Parker, minister, theologian, and author
The following quote was written in the wake of September 11, 2001, by Rev. Sean Parker Dennison of South Valley UU in Salt Lake City, Utah.
In a time like this, it is important to remember that "inherent worth
and dignity" is not the same as blamelessness or freedom from
accountability. If we uphold the inherent worth and dignity of every
person we are not saying that whatever they choose to do is somehow
okay. What we are saying is that unlike the people that planned and
carried out these horrific events, we value human life—every human
life. When people behave cruelly and with hatred we will intervene,
but we will do so in ways that protect and preserve life. Even when
we are enraged and seek to redress a horrible wrong, we will measure
our acts by the standards of dignity, honor, and justice. Even in the
face of tragedy, we must not forget that every life—American, Arab,
Persian, Afghani—is precious. May we not waste a single one.
Inherent worth and dignity is not something we confer upon people
when they are good and rescind when they are bad. Inherent worth
and dignity is not something that resides in the other, but
something that is demanded of us.
As Unitarian Universalists, we don’t have specific creeds that we must all agree upon and follow. Instead, our Seven Principles provide guidelines for us to live by. Growing up, when friends would ask about the church I attended and our beliefs, I would struggle with how to respond, but usually, I said something related to the importance of “being a good person.” In my opinion, the Seven Principles are the foundation for UUs to be good people. Knowing that UUs may have different beliefs than me about the existence of a god or gods, heaven, hell, etc… I generally understand that UUs share the Seven Principles as a common foundation, which is comforting to me in a very diverse religious community.
Today’s presentation will be kicking off a second cycle of a series discussing our Seven Principles. To begin, I wanted to discuss the Seven Principles in general, before specifically focusing on the First Principle, promoting the inherent worth and dignity of every person.
In preparation for this sermon, I found an article that resonated with me and made me think of the Seven Principles in a slightly different way. I would like to share some excerpts from it. In the Summer 2014 issue of UU World, in his article titled “I don't 'believe in' the Seven Principles: I don’t think of them as beliefs at all…” Doug Muder writes, “The absolute worst of the common answers [to the question of what UUs believe] is “[that we] can believe whatever they want.” In fact the exact opposite is true. Maybe more than any other religion, Unitarian Universalism pushes us to ask: “Is that really true or is it just what I want to believe? Precisely because I am a UU, I question ideas whose primary virtue is that I want to believe them. Once you step around that pothole, discussions tend to gravitate towards the Seven Principles. As a list of things that our congregations are committed to affirm and promote, the Principles have at least a formal resemblance to the creeds of Christian churches; we teach them to our children, introductory books are organized around them, and so forth. So if someone comes to a UU congregation looking for the Unitarian Universalist creed, the Principles seem to be it. But if you’ve ever tried to present the Principles to creed-seeking newcomers, you’ve probably seen their disappointment. “And?” their expressions seem to ask.
I can relate to this feeling. In telling my friends that my religion promotes “being a good person,” I feel like I fall short of some deeper meaning. Is “being a good person,” really such a great feat for us to strive for? Do we really need a religious community to remind us and encourage us to be good people?
Muder continues, “The Principles fail as a creed because they’re too easy. Billions of people who literally would not want to be caught dead in a UU church can nod along with them. Take the Second Principle: “Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.” Does some other religion take a bold stand for injustice in human relations? People may argue about what “justice” means, but everybody is for it.
The Principles are littered with feel-good terms like that: “spiritual growth,” “democratic process,” “search for truth and meaning,” “world community,” “peace,” “liberty.” If all Unitarian Universalism wants you to do is approve of such concepts, that’s not very demanding, is it? In addition to thinking that they describe a really wimpy religion, I have an even more serious objection to the Principles as a defining set of Unitarian Universalist beliefs: I don’t believe in them. In fact, I don’t think of them as beliefs at all. I think of them as visions.
“The point of putting the Principles in the front of the hymnal and teaching them to our children isn’t to assert their truth, or even to encourage you to nod along with the idea that they should be true. Unitarian Universalism is a commitment to envision a world in which the Principles have become true, to envision it so intensely and in such detail that it becomes a genuine possibility, and to join with others in making that possibility real. That’s how the Seven Principles turn into a challenging spiritual path. So, do I believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person? No. I am committed to envisioning it. Together with others, I hope to imagine it so well, so convincingly, and so beautifully that the vision becomes viral and takes over the world.
“That’s much harder than just believing the First Principle is true, because truths can take care of themselves. The difficulty of our task is why Unitarian Universalists need each other. If the point of Unitarian Universalism were just to believe the Principles, I could do that on my own. But the path of not believing—or believing that the First Principle is not true yet—is more challenging. I can’t do it by myself. If I’m trying to envision the Principles into existence, then I need my congregation and all the other congregations and all the help they can muster. So what do Unitarian Universalists believe? We’re not committed to beliefs, we’re committed to visions. That’s much harder.” [End quote]
So, looking more specifically at our first principle, we as Unitarian Universalists we “covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” According to Merriam-Webster, “inherent” can be defined as “belonging to the basic nature of someone or something,” “involved in the constitution or essential character of something,” or “belonging by nature or habit.” The definitions of “worth” include “the value of something measured by its qualities or by the esteem in which it is held,” “moral or personal value,” or “usefulness or importance.” Finally, “dignity” is defined as “the quality of being worthy of honor or respect.” Putting all of these terms together, the first principle, to me, means consistently and deliberately recognizing and promoting the importance and value that is essential to each person’s very being. According to our first principle, each person is unconditionally worthy of honor and respect. Building off Muder’s assertion, this may not be true in our world yet, but we are envisioning a world in which all people are treated with unconditional honor and respect. That is, indeed, much more challenging than just believing that it should be the case.
Even this can potentially be a struggle for some of us when we encounter stories of crime, racism, terrorism, or even just a difficult co-worker. How do we reconcile the inherent worth and dignity of people with their sometimes careless, hurtful, or downright tragic actions? How do we treat people with respect, honor, and compassion, when we don’t feel they are offering the same treatment to others? To skip ahead a bit, I’ll tell you now that I don’t know the answers to these questions, and I struggle with thoughts like these. When challenged by a person I can’t seem to understand or with whom I cannot find common ground, I want to make a greater effort to treat that person with kindness. I try to remind myself of the quote, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” By acknowledging that every person is complex and that any number of factors can contribute to his or her beliefs or behavior, it is slightly easier to remember their inherent worth and dignity. Beyond this, how can we commit to building a world in which this is, undeniably, the case? I don’t know, but I feel that in coming to our services here and reading more about UUism, I feel closer to that reality.
Finally, part of honoring every person’s inherent worth and dignity must be applied to the ways in which we perceive ourselves. On the UUA website, a downloadable cell phone wallpaper reads, “Remember your inherent worth & dignity.” I love this message. Sometimes, we are our own worst enemies and critics, and UUs who may be extremely forgiving and compassionate toward others may put themselves down or be too hard on themselves. In addition to treating others with respect, it is arguably more important to consciously remember and reinforce our self-respect.
As I think about raising my own daughter, who will be arriving in just two months, I remind myself of the messages I want to teach her. I want her to be self-confident, curious, open-minded, and compassionate. I hope that she learns to treat herself kindly, which has not always been easy for me to do for myself. I also hope that she treats others with respect and kindness, no matter their gender, race, ethnicity, age, or background. And I hope that she doesn’t just nod along in agreement to the first principle, but that she strives to contribute to the building of a community based on that vision of each person’s inherent worth and dignity.