Time To Rid Ourselves Of Our Pseudo-Creed…or, Can’t We Chuck the Principles Now?

Whenever there is a lot of blog chatter about UU identity, and most recently about congregational polity, there is an 800-pound elephant in the room that we don’t want to talk about; the seven Principles and the almost creedal status that they have amongst some in our midst.

Now I know that the second that I said “Principles” and “creedal” in the same sentence, there are going to be some who will say that I am overstretching the definition of the word “creed”. So let me be plain; I am NOT saying they are a creed (although I think I could make an argument that they are). I am saying that they are, and are being treated as, a pseudo-creed and as such the UUA needs to take them out of the by-laws and put them out to pasture.

Why do I call them a pseudo-creed? Because we have all heard stories of people who have been beaten over the head with them because of honest disagreement they may have with a church policy. Or of somebody being told that they aren’t “UU enough” because they have the audacity to critique the Principles. And G-d forbid somebody say they don’t find inspiration in them.

If the UUA rid itself of the Principles then congregations would actually have to do the hard work of coming up with their own, original, and local theology-based congregational covenants. Then who knows, maybe members of congregations would understand what congregational polity really means and what their rights and responsibilities are as members of that congregation and the rights and responsibilities congregations have as members of the Association.

As an Association of Congregations, the UUA would function just fine with only the Purposes and Sources talked about in the by-laws. If we rid ourselves of our pseudo-creed, then congregations (and the members thereof) would actually have to articulate what they believe to the wider community in a community-relevant way. Ridding ourselves of the Principles would mean that UU congregations could no longer avoid that thing which many of them have been so adept at avoiding; talking theology.

Yet I know that some will continue to clamor for something to rally around. If not the Principles, then what? Might I suggest that we go into the “everything old is new again” file. These are just suggestions; I am not advocating that these replace the Principles in the UUA by-laws as that would create the same problem we have now.

The following was presented by William Channing Gannett in 1887 to the Western Unitarian Conference. It is more progressive than the Principles and has the added advantage of being called “Things Most Commonly Believed Among Us”

Things Most Commonly Believed Today Among Us

  • We believe that to love the Good and to live the Good is the supreme thing in religion;
  • We hold reason and conscience to be final authorities in matters of religious belief;
  • We honor the Bible and all inspiring scripture, old and new;
  • We revere Jesus, and all holy souls that have taught men truth and righteousness and love, as prophets of religion;
  • We believe in the growing nobility of Man; We trust the unfolding Universe as beautiful, beneficent, unchanging Order; to know this order is truth; to obey it is right and liberty and stronger life;
  • We believe that good and evil invariably carry their own recompense, no good thing being failure and no evil thing success; that heaven and hell are states of being; that no evil can befall the good man in either life or death; that all things work together for the victory of the Good;
  • We believe that we ought to join hands and work to make the good things better and the worst good, counting nothing good for self that is not good for all;
  • We believe that this self-forgetting, loyal life awakes in man the sense of union here and now with things eternal—the sense of deathlessness; and this sense is to us an earnest of the life to come;
  • We worship One-in-All — that life whence suns and stars derive their orbits and the soul of man its Ought, — that Light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world, giving us power to become the sons of God, — that Love with which our souls commune.

The word “man/men” could be changed to reflect the fact that we are using it in the 21st century, but it combines the best of Unitarian and Universalist thought and with the title “Things Most Commonly Believed” it’s much easier to change than the Principles seem to be.

So this is a call-to-arms. It is time for us to rid ourselves of the albatross of the Principles and enter the world of true congregational covenant. We don’t need a pseudo-creed.


7 thoughts on “Time To Rid Ourselves Of Our Pseudo-Creed…or, Can’t We Chuck the Principles Now?

  1. So. Where to begin. I guess with what I find objectionable in Channing’s outdated “Things.”

    I do not believe that reason is one of two supreme guides concerning matters of religious belief.

    I do not honor the Bible and all inspiring scripture above the other texts of nature and science and experience and culture but, rather, hold those scriptures as secondary or even tertiary texts.

    Jesus is pretty much meaningless to me. Nor do I revere “holy” people as distinct from other people. Or, indeed, any people as opposed to the totality of being/becoming.

    I do not believe in the growing nobility of “man.” I do not believe that the Universe is beneficent or an unchanging Order. And it is impossible to “disobey” the “order” of the universe, and so it is also impossible to obey it.

    I believe that both good and evil very often fail to receive their just “reward.”

    And the final three “Things” are just nonsense.

    That leaves one thing I can agree with: Good living and good loving are good. Hallelujah! What a revelation!

    Sorry, Kim. Our religion is a different beast than Channing’s. And if the twain ever meet UU will be the wrong place for me.

    • Cool that you disagree with the Gannett articulation. I offered them up for those who would be anxious about the Principles no longer being in the UUA by-laws.

      But thank you for making me edit my post. I want to make sure what I’m saying is clear.

  2. First, I know of no case in my UU church, or any UU church with which I have been associated, in which someone has been “beaten over the head” or told they are not “UU enough” because they have disagreed with some elements of the principles or found them uninspirational. In fact, I think it’s almost customary wisdom in UU circles that the UU principles are not written in an exciting style even if they have merit as principles. I’m not saying that there aren’t cases where the principles have been used as an intellectual weapon in church disputes, but I would advance the proposition that this is a relatively rare event. And therefore chucking the principles on this basis seems like an over-reaction.

    Second, I think it would be better to start with what we have as principles, and try to modify them to be more inspirational and a clearer focus for UUism as a positive religion. The Reverend James Ishmael Ford and the Reverend John Crestwell have recently given some great sermons advocating that we stress the first and seventh principles as being our focus — the first principle being the inherent worth and dignity of each person, and the seventh principle being the interdependence of all of us with each other and with the natural world. Rev. Ford’s sermon can be found here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/monkeymind/2012/09/the-two-truths-of-unitarian-universalism-the-middle-way-of-liberal-religion.html
    and Rev. Crestwell’s sermon can be found here:

    • I don’t think using the Principles as a creed and “beating someone over the head with them” is as rare as you do. I’ve heard, essentially, the same story from different people in different congregations at different times.

      It’s all well and good to have the Principles, just get them out of the UUA by-laws. Then those who would be inclined to see them or use them as a creed won’t have the UUA by-laws to shore up their position. No matter how much you tweek the Principles, as long as they are in the UUA by-laws, there will be those who want to give them more importance than they should have.

  3. If the Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism have an almost creedal status for some U*Us it *might* be because the Seven Principles fit the standard dictionary definition of the word “creed”. . .

    creed (krd)
    1. A formal statement of religious belief; a confession of faith.
    2. A system of belief, principles, or opinions: laws banning discrimination on the basis of race or creed; an architectural creed that demanded simple lines.
    [Middle English crede, from Old English crda, from Latin crd, I believe; see credo.]

  4. Pingback: Living our faith, sharing our faith, what really matters, and more « uuworld.org : The Interdependent Web

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