Pink Rhythms Chalice by Peg Green
How do you explain Unitarian Universalism when people ask you about your religion? A few years ago I was meeting with a group at my home congregation to brainstorm some ideas for how families can build UU spiritual practice into home life. A newcomer asked, “What is it that we believe, anyway? How can I find out?” I asked her, “Have you read our Principles and Sources?” She said, “Well, yes, but the principles are social, political views, not spiritual beliefs. There must be something at the center here, something like a creed, or it wouldn’t be a church.” It reminded me a little bit of what newspaper reporters say after every General Assembly. They often claim Unitarian Universalism is not a real religion. It has nothing at the center. The seven principles are political statements that have nothing to do with God. One year a reporter said, you can’t draw a circle around nothing. Another reporter said, there’s no there there.
But the thing is, we do have something at our center. What’s more, each of our principles is a statement of a theological position with thousands of years of history behind it. AND, like other liberal religions, our faith focuses on life here and now, in this world—which means that for us, the political is the spiritual, and vice versa.
So, what is this thing at our center? What makes a UU group a religious community? We don’t often mention God, we rarely hear sermons based on biblical texts, and most of our churches don’t offer a Eucharist. We certainly don’t have a creed. So how can we call ourselves a religion?
Well, the word religion comes from the Latin, re-ligare, to bind back, or to hold together, to link. It’s the same root as in the word ligament…you know, those cords that hold our skeletons together. I like that image: without religious community, we fall apart into useless pieces. With it, we can accomplish great things.
Unitarian Universalist religion comes together not around a creed, which is a profession of beliefs that all members share, but rather through a covenant. The word covenant comes from the Latin “co,” together, and venir, “to come.” A covenant is a promise about how we come together.
Creeds are actually rare in religions: only a few forms of Christianity espouse them. The idea of a creed wasn’t even developed until the fourth century, when the Roman Emperor Constantine decided to make Christianity the state religion of the Empire. Before that, Christians, like their Jewish predecessors, had constantly debated with each other about the meaning of their faith’s teachings and texts. In the Jewish tradition, such argument and debate is seen as healthy; it is a way of engaging with each other that keeps people also constantly engaged with the divine. But in order for a religion to be aligned with the power of empire, there must be one correct interpretation of everything. So Constantine called a meeting, the Council of Nicaea, at which he demanded that the bishops decide, once and for all, any points of doctrinal dispute, and write them up as a unified statement of belief. This is how the Nicene Creed came to be. A prospective member of the church would have to believe and recite the creed, in every particular, in order to be accepted. Anyone who disagreed with any part of it was considered a heretic (which actually means “choice,” or “one who chooses.”) At first, heretics were only excommunicated, but later they were tortured, or burned at the stake. The creed became a matter of life or death.
By the sixteenth century, the alliance between church and state had become so cruel and oppressive that large numbers of people protested…and so was born the Protestant Reformation. According to Rebecca Parker, “Reformers …reconceptualized church. They dismantled the hierarchical power structure and said instead that church comes into being when human beings freely make a covenant with one another to walk together.” 1 What made this “walking together” a church instead of just a political community was that God was considered to be the organizing member of the covenant. So the Salem Covenant of 1629 says: “We Covenant with the Lord and with one another; and doe bynd ourselves in the presence of God, to walke together in all his waies, according as he is pleased to reveale himself unto us in his Blessed word of truth.”2
Unitarians and Universalists both inherited the covenantal form of church from our American Puritan ancestors. Unitarian Universalism has purposely chosen to keep this form. So, in our churches, as Parker says, “every member of the church has a say in what the church’s purpose is and why we come together. This places democratic process and human promise-making at the center of church life.” 3 As James Luther Adams put it in our responsive reading, “the goal is the prophethood and the priesthood of all believers.”4
But what exactly is it that Adams’ “believers” believe? Is God in our covenants? Many UU’s believe in some form of God or divine energy, but many do not. UU churches have atheists, agnostics, religious humanists, and Buddhists among our members, along with our many varieties of theists. If we don’t all covenant with God, then with whom, or what, besides ourselves, do we covenant? Is there something larger than ourselves, some transcendent reality, with which we covenant, and to which we hold ourselves accountable?
To answer this question, let’s take a look at the actual covenant of the Unitarian Universalist Association. It’s on the insert in your Order of Service. Let’s read the first half together, just through our seventh principle.
WE, THE MEMBER CONGREGATIONS OF THE UNITARIAN UNIVERSALIST ASSOCIATION, COVENANT TO AFFIRM AND PROMOTE:
The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
Respect for the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part.
At first read, these principles might not sound particularly religious. They might not seem to say anything about God, or not-God. But as I said earlier, each principle is actually a statement of a particular theological position, with a very long history. Take just our first principle. It evolved from our religious ancestors’ belief that people were inherently good, because they were created in the image of an all-loving God—an idea from the Hebrew Bible. This directly counters the doctrine of Original Sin developed by Augustine in the late fourth century. According to Augustine, in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve had done such a bad thing in disobeying God that the consequences of their sin were visited on every human being from then on. Every baby was born in state of complete separation from God, and would therefore go to hell UNLESS it was baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. That was the only remedy. The doctrine of Original Sin is still in the Catholic catechism, and it’s still alive in many forms of Protestantism. But our ancestors in faith rejected it. And their belief in the goodness of human beings also countered the Calvinist idea that humans are utterly depraved. It gave our ancestors in faith the impetus to fight against slavery and for women’s rights. Our first principle now counters all forms of oppression. It is a brave and daring statement of our beliefs about human nature. It is also a statement of radical hospitality.
Because of our first principle, my daughter, who identifies as queer, had a safe and loving community to grow up in. She understands her sexual orientation as a lovely and essential part of herself. In stark and tragic contrast, recently a friend wrote me to say that a transgendered friend of hers had committed suicide. This friend was raised in a faith that could not accept her for who she was. Her parents had a funeral for her, but not really for her. They had the funeral for the son they wish they had had. How differently might this young person’s life have turned out, if her family’s religion had welcomed her, and loved her, just as she was? How differently would her parents’ life have turned out? Our first principle can make the difference between life and death.
Each of our principles has this much importance to the living of human life. Each has this much–or more!–history and depth.
And not only are our principles statements of theological positions, but the way they are organized speaks to our theology of interdependence, of interbeing. They begin with a statement about individuals, and then move outward in concentric spheres. Our seventh principle is about the health of the whole interdependent web of being. So our covenant expresses a vision of abundant love in which each individual flourishes because the whole community of life does, and the whole flourishes because each individual does.
What all this means is that we do covenant with a transcendent reality. We do understand there to be something larger than ourselves, into which we were born, that can help us when we are in need, and to which we can hold ourselves accountable. For some of us, this transcendent reality is the living universe that gave us birth, and gave us the capacity for love. For others, it is a personal deity they call God. For still others, it is simply the love we create when we come together in community, which holds us, and gives us power to do bigger things in the world than we could do alone. There are many ways to understand this transcendent reality, which James Luther Adams called “the ultimate source of existence.” So, our covenant has a second half, which names six sources of our living tradition.
Now, before I can talk about these, I want to give you another way of understanding the relationship between our covenant and the ultimate source of existence. This is through the symbolism of our flaming chalice.
The chalice is an open container. It provides a place to rest, a place to hold something sacred, a place to elevate something beautiful. It does not close off what is inside, but rather lifts it up, gives it space to move. The chalice is created by our uplifted hands, our covenanted community, the sacred space we create when we come together. Our community forms the chalice. At its center is an open place, and at the center of that dances a flame.
The flame is a powerful, and potentially dangerous, interaction between energy and matter. It re-creates, at a small scale, the moment of combustion that began the universe, a process of simultaneous creation and destruction. It re-creates the power that has brought all of life and death into being. It can provide light, and heat, something to see by, something to warm us; or it can burn, and consume. It is the mystery at the center of our faith community. The flame is a locus of pure possibility.
So our community forms an open container, at the center of which dwells this spark of pure possibility, energy that can both create and destroy. What each of us sees in that space of creative/destructive energy, and what meaning we make from it, might be different. UU theists might see it and name it as a personal God, with whom they can have an intimate relationship. UU religious humanists and atheists might see it as the impulses toward love and fear, good and evil, that are found in every human heart. UU pagans might see it as the Goddess in her aspects of maiden, mother, and crone. UU process theists might see it as the divine energy which manifests itself in the form of the becoming universe.
Each of us looks for, and sees, “something” that keeps us in the chalice, in the community. We generally find that this “something” changes as we grow and develop. So we covenant to use the sources of our living tradition—including our own life experiences, our mystical encounters with the divine, our powers of reasoning, and the wisdom of the many religions of the world—to expand our awareness of the possibilities.
Whatever we see at the center of the chalice, we limit what we do with it. We limit how we behave, toward each other and the wider world. Contrary to what many people think about us, UU’s are not free to believe just anything. Our chalice may be an open container but it is still a container. We live in covenantal relationship with the others in our community. And since we understand our community as an interdependent web that extends infinitely in all directions, we limit what we believe, and how we behave, to what is healthful for the whole web of life. Which means that however many ways there are for us to understand the symbol of the flame, at the center of all them is love.
Doesn’t this sound wonderful? I think so. I am passionately in love with our life-giving and life-saving religion. But I have to be honest with you. In my view, our covenant has a serious limitation. This is that we only covenant to affirm and promote our principles. We do not, as yet, covenant to live them. I think this makes our religion weaker than it could be. I think it’s one reason why many UU churches seem like social clubs for likeminded people, rather than religious communities that engage us at the very deepest levels of our being.
But imagine—just imagine—what might happen if we covenanted to LIVE our principles? If we covenanted to LIVE the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and justice, equity, and compassion in human relations, and respect for the interdependent web of all existence? This would make our religion quite demanding, wouldn’t it? We would have to shed any possessions in excess of what we need. We would have to learn how to communicate, and behave, in nonviolent ways. We would have to act in the world, every day, as Marge Piercy says, to “bless whatever (we) can with eyes and hands and tongues, and if (we) can’t bless it, get ready to make it new.”
Can we meet those demands? Can we bless the world, or make it new? YES, WE CAN.
We can, because we walk together, in covenanted community, with none of us alone. We can, because the many sources of our faith give us sustenance for the journey. We can, because we love.
My brothers and sisters, let us deepen our covenant so that we live it in every moment. Then can this religion of love claim its true power in the world. Then can the Way of the Chalice be the way of blessing we want it to be.
May it be so. Blessed be.
1Parker, Rebecca A. “Under Construction: Knowing and Transforming Our Unitarian Universalist Theological House.” Unpublished paper, presented at Collegium, October 23-26, 2003. p. 6.
2Wright, Conrad. “Congregational Polity and the Covenant,” Redeeming Time: Endowing Your Church with the Power of Covenant, Walter P. Herz, ed., Boston, Skinner House Books, 1999. p. 39.
4 Adams, James Luther. #591 in Singing the Living Tradition. Boston, Unitarian Universalist Association, 1993.
See also Buehrens, John A. and Rebecca Parker. A House for Hope: The Promise of Progressive Religion for the Twenty-first Century, Boston, Beacon Press, 2011.