Saturday, September 15, 2012

On Covenant and Creed: A Response

Even though I disagree with his diagnosis, I have to thank Thomas in On Covenant and Creed for getting me fired up and crystallizing some thoughts I've had for a long time.  We had this interchange, extracted from the longer thread:

So, I seek a covenant ... between each UU and their home congregation. ... Thus, we all covenant together with a single set of principles... Yes, this definition will exclude some, maybe even some who currently attend UU services or pay dues. This is the price I think we must pay to establish an identity that UUs can take pride in. We need a sense of communal identity and meaning.
I joined a UU congregation years ago. I give money to two congregations. I did not, do not, and would not “pledge to Affirm and Promote the Seven Principles.” So I guess you’re telling me that I’m not a UU. [Not in the original - I was married in a UU church, I've buried friends in a UU church.]
I am interested to know what you have problems with in the Principles.
I have not stated that I think the 7 Principles should be the final covenant, but they are what we have, and thus they are where we would have to work from to get where we are going.
My response is such that it should stand alone as its own posting.

So what's my problem?  My answer has three parts:  Pledge and Covenant; Principles and Creed; and a counter-proposal.

"Pledge" and Covenant

Thomas asks "what have problems [I] have with in the Principles."  While I do have issues with the Principles, addressed in the next section, my statement was not that "I have problems" with them.  I said "I [do not] pledge to Affirm and Promote" them.  This is important.  Really important.  Fundamental to what defines the Free Church since Francis David.

Why should we be covenanting to affirm etc. the Principles?  To know who is in or not?  A good person or not?  Saved or not?  I am serious here - what difference in deeds should it make that I have, or know you that you have, taken such a pledge?  If it doesn't make a difference in deeds, then what is the point?  If it does make a difference how you and I act toward one another - that's really a problem.  We have invented a boundary to know who is in and who is out.  That was my point in citing Jesus in the original post/reply thread:  everyone is supposed to be my neighbor.  "Covenant" then brings to mind one of its bad historical word associations - "restrictive."

Next, suppose that we did such a covenant on some set of really cool Principles.  These Principles are now a bludgeon.  Sally says to Joe, "I don't like what you're doing - it violates the Third Principle."  So Joe shuts up.  This is not theoretical.  I have been in the room more than once where this happened.

So not pledging to some words is not just "the way we've always done it."  It is one of the foundational choices that defines this religious tradition.  There are no magic words, none, that I have to say that someone can later say "you are violating those."

As Scott Wells said in a Giving up Unitarian Universalism for Lent:
If I hear covenant used as a coded message to clam up and step back in line, I’ll scream so loud that Cotton Mather will rise from his grave. I didn’t come to Unitarianism or Universalism for its threadbare institutions or the opportunity to conform.
Or drawing from Buddhism:  "If you fnd the True Principles on the shelf - burn them."  They would be used wrongly.

We do not want words that let us define who is in and who is out.  Otherwise we are in the position that Jesus criticized - do not even the pagans do that?

The Principles

So my primary reason for saying "I do not pledge ... Principles" is the pledge part.  Now let's take up the Principles.  I do in fact have problems with the Principles.  For those who find the Principles comforting, you can choose to skip to the next section. I have no desire to take them from you.

The Principles are timid, vague, incoherent, and lack poetry.  Davidson Loehr wrote:
Using logic to show the incoherence of the Seven Banalities feels kind of rude, like throwing melons at a little dancing bear. ... It’s important to understand how and why the Banalities are not only simplistic but also incoherent.
Timid and vague  You probably could get almost every member of the Democratic party to sign up to the Principles.  As Loehr notes, they pretty much correspond to modern American cultural liberalism.  There are no commandments, no hard work, no demands.

Incoherent  They are a grab bag of Good Things.  Some quasi-religious things - the search for truth and meaning, spiritual growth; and some procedural goals - "world community" (whatever that is) and "the use of the democratic process."  This is like the committee coming up with the Principles of
  1. Motherhood
  2. Apple pie
  3. Robert's Rules of Order
  4. Recycling
They lack poetry  This matters.  Principles are words, and words matter - it seems especially to Unitarian Universalists.  There is nothing in the Principles to compare with lines like these:
  • But let justice run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.
  • We hold these truths to be self-evident - that all men are created equal ...
  • The quality of mercy is not strain'd, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven...
  • I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood...
These are the kinds of words that inspire.  They have active verbs.  The propose a vision.  They get people marching.  The UU principles - they are something to be revised every twenty years or so.

A Proposal

I will step back to what I think is a shared point of view between Thomas and me:
  • There is a message of value in Unitarian Universalism.
  • UUism is ineffective in bringing this message to life.
If you, dear Reader, think the largest part of "ineffective" is "we ought to have a larger voice in social justice issues," then we are not on the same page and there may not be much for me to say.  Simply having a more powerful voice sounds like something more effectively done in a political party.  But if you think "ineffective" means "there is an important religious role for UUism and it's not happening," then I agree with you.

I suggest that the solution is not any of the following:
  • Better governance of whatever flavor
  • A stronger role at the UUA or GA to make sure the congregations do X.
  • A better statement of the Principles.
I would throw away the Principles in a heartbeat.  The important stuff is in the Sources.  Move them back into first place, with this understanding:
  • Being human is hard.  We often don't do it very well.
  • Some people have had flashes of insight and wisdom, and they or others wrote it down.
  • None of them had a monopoly.  (This is the liberal religion twist.)
  • We have this accumulated wisdom as a gift.
  • We have to work to claim this gift.
Rather than trying to re-invent the wheel, let's do what Theodore Parker proposed, writ large:  separate the permanent from the transient in Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, and other wisdom literature.

Rather than beliefs, and creeds, and Principles, which we in the West picked up from the Greeks, perhaps we should return simply to commandments on the right way to act.  For example, Micah 6:8:
And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
Slightly revising for UU sensibilities this could be
Act justly
Love mercy
And walk humbly on the earth.
That pretty much covers it.  Three commandments, no Principles, work hard at the Sources, and no covenant or creed.


Davidson Loehr, "Why Unitarian Universalism is Dying", Journal of Liberal Religion.

A post-script on Pledges

When pressed in a discussion with my wife, there are pledges I would be willing to give. I choose not to say the Pledge of Allegiance (there go my chances for elected office), because I find it inane to pledge to a flag, of all things, and offensive that it's "under God", and I am not sure what "pledging allegiance" is supposed to entail - it sound awfully obedient to me.  On the other hand, I would be willing to swear to uphold the Constitution. It starts with poetry and knows exactly what it's about.  I also made a pledge when my wife and I were married (although like good UUs, we wrote our own vows.)

1 comment:

  1. Bravo!

    I am most concerned with the idea that those of us who critique the Principles are somehow less spiritual than those who don't critique them (at least out loud). Just because somebody critiques the Principles doesn't mean that they are anti-spirituality. Far from it, in fact. I happen to be a UU Christian and have a deep spiritual practice.

    If I had wanted to acede to some statement in order to be a part of the club, I would have become an Episcopalian.

    It is amazing to me that there are those who want us to give up one of the things that makes us so us.

    I have more to say, but I'll wait to see if anybody else responds.