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?
Thanks for this fine piece, Peter.
You mentioned “elevator speeches” — I don’t think they need to be confined to beliefs. One of my favourites goes, “Our central principle is a free and responsible search for truth and meaning; we meet to support and encourage one another in that search and to celebrate our lives in community.”
This really touched my heart. I love the idea of being an observant UU.
That’s an excellent explanation of what Unitarian communities are in essence. I’ve always felt it to be the case that we should be covenanting communities, committed to nurturing each other and the congregation as a whole.
Perhaps I would add serving the wider community to that covenant, in light of your previous posts. There is the slight danger that by covenanting with each other, we end up looking too inwardly.
I like how you’ve emphasised spiritual practice as part of the commitment-covenant. I think the way we practise our spirituality and what we do when we gather communally (not necessarily the same things) are key for the Unitarian/UU movements now.
Unfortunately, my experience is that covenantalism as actually practiced by most UUs is too often reduced to little more than a tribal shibboleth, honored more in the breach than the observance, like teetotaling for Baptists or contraception for Catholics. That’s because in the clash between subordination of self to the collective discernment and wisdom of the Holy Spirit moving through the community on the one hand, and the elevation of personal spiritual authority on the other, the seductive Eden-serpent of narcissism wins out almost every time. In some congregations it is palpably toxic, in others it is only a quiet undercurrent, but almost nowhere is it truly absent.
I blame Emerson, but not entirely. True covenantalism requires religious submission, not self-assertion, and is not compatible with the paramount authority of the individual that Emerson advocated and “UUism” has embraced. At least Emerson himself, unlike today’s UUs, fully understood these implications, resigned his pulpit, and withdrew from active participation in the denomination. If the UUA wants to escape the sorry fate of the similarly fractious Free Religious Association, which tried and failed to build a denomination on Emerson’s principles, it needs to stop paying mere lip service to covenantalism, and instead restore it to its proper place as a principle superior to Emerson-derived “inherent worth and dignity” and “free and responsible search”. But can it? Will it?
Fausto is right on the money. Covenant is also used to beat others over the head who don’t agree with “our” vision or interpretation of worth and dignity or what it means to engage in a free search for meaning (responsible is usually shunted to the side). The spiritual journey is not about self discovery but about learning how to be a self for others. Unitarian Universalism, in its Emersonian incarnation, as Fausto notes, has made the individual search for truth and meaning, an idol. When individual searches end up in conflict, and they usually do, there is nothing, not even promises to behave well toward each other that keeps communities functioning. It’s interesting that people who claim to esteem covenant so highly rarely practice it, as Peter seems to say (if that’s what he’s saying when asking if we are observant). To always be going on and on about the importance of covenant implies to me that the basic principles of a shared community life are absent, not present. Always needing to spell out the ground rules for how a group will function together and work together seem to me to be a great sign of dysfunction. Doesn’t a healthy group, if not take for granted that people will treat each other with dignity and respect and share common cause in community, at least not spend a lot of their time and energy on it? UU’s seem to spend so much time on the basic starting point of community that there’s rarely any time left for any thing beyond themselves.
I sympathise with your comments Fausto and Revtony about how covenantalism in Unitarian communities has ended up in practice. I think hyper-individualism is also evident in Martineau-inspired modern British Unitarianism.
My question from your comments would be how Unitarians could build a better spirit of covenant within our communities. How can we, as Peter wrote, become a community of the “promise we make to each other to be there for each other” while maintaining the primacy of individual conscience?
My view is that we cannot have one without the other. We need individuals who are following the paths of their choice, but are actively sharing it with others, who in turn reciprocate their support and contribution to the community, creating a mutually supportive group in the process. Leading off from this (but not less important) is the collective responsibility for a congregation to share its light and values to the outside world.
While I don’t disagree with how Fausto and Tony have characterized the use of “covenant” in our congregations, I do believe that if our religious movement is to have a future, and indeed flourish, in the twenty-first century, we need to be better nourished by our historic and theological roots. Covenant is a major piece of who we are and might be and we need to be better practitioners of it, aspiring to overcome the obstacles to our practicing it well–the reluctance to submit to something larger than the self (e.g. the covenanted community) and the community-destroying assertion of the individual above all else. There are valuable gifts in the spirituality and practice of covenant that many of our congregations have not yet unwrapped. There is no “self” that is not actually self-in-relation; the spiritual journey is simultaneously personal, mutual, and communal.
And when I say “communal” I must admit I mean congregational. I am trying to re-imagine this “beyond the congregation” and am failing. I do believe the beloved community emerges in covenanted local communities, i.e. congregations. And I do believe that that forming such communities is an essential practice of Unitarian Universalism.
“And when I say ‘communal’ I must admit I mean congregational. I am trying to re-imagine this ‘beyond the congregation’ and am failing.”
Well, as examples, here are some other communities I have been a part of: my neighborhood; the parents/children/staff of my child’s school; parent support and networking groups, usually clustered in a small geographical area; other LGBT people, mostly clustered in a larger geographical area; the other students at my university, both when I was attending and since; other adults who loved the Harry Potter books and wanted to discuss them together (go ahead and laugh, but it’s how I met my wife and several other close friends!); my Facebook friends, many of whom I’ve never met; readers of my blog, ditto. All of these are bound together in some way, strong or weak, though none has what is formally called a covenant. There is tremendous potential for the purposes of a religious community to be realized within some of them (at times, they already are). If UUism is something that can only happen in congregations, we have little to offer the world. I don’t believe it.