When first encountering Unitarian Universalism, people often ask the question “What do Unitarian Universalists believe?” The answer that Unitarian Universalists (or UUs as many prefer) are not united under a specific creed or statement of faith often seems mystifying. Why, people ask, if you do not have some sort of doctrine or creed, do you even exist? What is the point of gathering together if you are not uniting to affirm a uniform set of beliefs?
The answer is really a simple one. Unitarian Universalists are a people united in covenant rather than by common doctrine. While UUs may espouse a wide range of theological and ideological understandings, the faith does provide a foundation of how we are to interact with one another and the wider community.
Once the understanding is clear that UUs operate based on common action and approach rather than common doctrine, it is easy to see how the Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism impact the way UUs express their mutual covenant. Here are some examples related to each principle.
- The inherent worth and dignity of every person is foundational to UU thought. This simple statement lays the foundation for UUs to dig as deeply as necessary to find something of value in every human being, regardless of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, or financial status. While acknowledging that humankind is capable of evil, UUism often becomes a turning point for people who have made mistakes and been given up as unredeemable by friends and family.
- As a second principle, UUs promote justice, equity, and compassion for all persons. Building on the idea expressed in the first principle, the affirmation of worth is now taken into the arena of action. Unitarians and Universalists in the 19th century were found in the forefront of every human rights issue of the day. It is not surprising that the unified movement today continues that tradition by actively seeking reforms in health care, supporting equal rights for persons of any sexual orientation, participating in programs to aid the homeless and encouraging its members to be active politically in local and national politics.
- The third principle promotes mutual acceptance and encouragement in spiritual growth. Few faith traditions go to the lengths of UUs to ensure their children are exposed to the belief systems of all the world religions. But it does not stop there. Adults are encouraged to study independently, as well as gather in small groups to learn more about the teachings, scriptures, and practices of various religions. UUs strive to create an environment where all persons may seek enlightenment at their own pace and on their own path.
- A free and responsible search for truth and meaning is the fourth principle and directly ties back to the third. Many UUs accept the fact that as we gain more knowledge we may have to redefine some of our personal beliefs, perhaps even abandon some long cherished ones. While learning is always encouraged, UUs do place an emphasis on doing so responsibly, and with a great deal of careful thought. Not all that can be learned is necessarily true in our day, and to alter one’s basic understandings without responsible and thorough research could lead to the abandonment of something that would otherwise be quite positive in one’s life.
- UUs are individualists and, at the same time, united in what is often referred to as the Beloved Community. The fifth principle captures the spirit very clearly; UUs hold to the right of conscience while affirming the democratic process as essential to the function of the local church community as well as the wider community. In essence, UUs reserve the right to think and believe as the individual chooses. At the same time, UUs will come together to learn, to study, to worship and to give back to the community in which they live, and do so without any threat to their individuality.
- There is an ultimate dream for UUs and it is articulated in the sixth principle: a world community where peace, liberty, and justice are the order of the day for all people. UUs do not see this as being a religious hierarchy, nor a world government with some central ruler. Instead, this dream acts as a goal for all to reach for, by practicing those traits which make it possible for us as individuals and as congregations to refine these three lofty ideals. And perhaps by example, join hands with others who seek a similar path for our planet.
- UUs do not see the world as a collection of unrelated elements. The seventh principle affirms the covenant of Unitarian Universalists to respect the interdependent nature of all of creation, acknowledging that we human beings are only one part of that great thing we call the universe. This understanding can be humbling, in that it places the earth, the environment and wildlife all on an even par with humankind. At the same time, it sounds a call to action to be mindful of how we use the world’s resources, and how we take care of the many forms of life that reside on this planet.
Within the context of this covenant, Unitarian Universalists will find many different ways to apply these principles in their homes, their local churches, and their communities. The great thing is that there are so many ways to do all these things. With that in mind, the next time you run into a Unitarian Universalist, don’t ask “what do you believe?” Instead, ask “how do you choose to live out your UU covenant?” The response may amaze and inspire you.