If Unitarian Universalists don’t have a creed or one statement of belief that we must all affirm, what holds us together? What holds a local congregation together? What do its members share or have in common that make it a community?
In the broader religious culture in which we find ourselves, there is an emphasis on beliefs. “What do you believe?” is the usual question that comes up when one identifies oneself as a member of a faith community.
What many—including UUs!—don’t get is that ours is not a religious movement that is about common beliefs. It is not that we have no beliefs individually or even collectively–we do–but that these are not what unify us. As individuals and congregations, as a movement, we do have some basic theological and philosophical affirmations in common; they’re just not the singular organizing principle around which we gather.
We also unite around an attitude toward the world, people and the great questions of meaning. We share a constellation of traits—openness, generosity, and inquisitiveness, among others. Our attitude includes how we are held together in community—equal parts freedom and commitment.
We are bound together as a community by the promise we make to each other to be there for each other, to help each other through life’s transitions, to listen respectfully, to edify lovingly. This promise a congregation makes is known as its covenant. A covenant is more than a contract; it is a mutual agreement beyond the words on the page. It is a moral agreement, the shape and parameters of the relationship it describes. We freely enter into this covenant, even as doing so requires something of us.
And being in covenanted relationship does require something of us. Like other intentional relationships it requires patience, affection, listening, attention, acceptance. Among other things, it includes our commitment to the wellbeing of our congregation spiritually, organizationally, and financially. And a covenant is based in mutuality; if a person takes and takes but never gives, we are not in right-relation.
I think it’s a fine exercise to write an “elevator speech” describing what Unitarian Universalist beliefs are in such a pithy way that it can be said between floors on an elevator. However, that keeps us in the realm of defining our religious movement in terms of belief. What we are about is relationship—the covenanted relationship of being together in a mutually sustaining way.
I find inspiration from the experience of our Jewish neighbors. Among Jews the question isn’t “Are you a believer?” but rather, “Are you observant?” Similarly, what UUs believe is not as central as what we practice—both as individuals and as a community. We don’t commit to beliefs, but rather to practice, including the practice of cultivating our common life.
Our practice includes creating and sustaining communities of mutual relation. Our practice includes meeting regularly together for worship. Our practice includes ongoing open-ended conversation on theology, morality, and philosophy. Our practice includes acts of care and compassion for others. Our practice includes working on the broader social order to reflect the values of our communities of mutual relation: democracy, fairness, peace, freedom, thoughtfulness, compassion, responsibility and interdependence.
So, you’re a Unitarian Universalist. Are you observant?