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Painting: The Broken-Open Heart, © Daniel Nevins

Embracing a new universalism

We find our completeness in knowing that we are woven out of each other and the cosmos itself.
By James Ishmael Ford
Fall 2014 8.15.14

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The spiritual tradition of Unitarian Universalism is rich. We are children of the West, heirs to the biblical traditions of Judaism and especially of Christianity. Just as truly, we are profoundly marked by the wisdom traditions of Athens and by earth-centered spiritualities. Because of our radical openness to both theism and nontheism, first humanists and now in recent decades Buddhists and others inspired by Eastern thought have also found a home among us, enriching our possibilities and opening us to new movements of spirit.

So, let me tell you a story about that movement of the spirit, about religion and songs of hope in hard times.

You may have noticed that we Unitarian Universalists are fiercely opposed to creeds, statements of faith to which one must sign on in order to become a member. But at the same time there is a deep human need to define—and so, over the years, we have made various statements. These statements have been made not in the proscriptive manner of creeds, but in a descriptive way, attempting to capture what moves our hearts as a whole in some particular time and place, while always acknowledging the importance of the outlier, and asking no one to sign anything beyond a covenant of presence to join our communities.

With these statements we attempt to capture “us” at some given moment, which means that from time to time we have to revise those statements. In 1961, when the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America consolidated, a statement of our principles was issued. By the mid-1970s it was pretty obvious that this statement needed updating. Chief among those who took up the challenge were members of the Unitarian Universalist Women’s Federation. The process was hard. As they say, you don’t really want to visit the sausage factory. There were negotiations, there were fights, there were compromises.

Finally, on June 25, 1984, Unitarian Universalists from across the United States and Canada gathered at the Ohio State University campus in Columbus for the eleventh General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. The great focus of this GA was a vote on a new statement of principles.

When the document was pretty close to being finished, it was, frankly, mostly “mom and apple pie.” There was hardly a word in it that anyone, of almost any spiritual tradition, could argue with. It was what I would call the perfect product of a committee. Its most distinctive feature was the First Principle, a declaration of the “inherent worth and dignity of every person,” carrying forward a libertarian focus on the individual that had marked out English-speaking Unitarianism for its entire history.

Then the Rev. Paul L’Herrou made his way to the microphones. People who remember the scene say he was lanky and bearded and that he stood at the microphone with the ease of an experienced pulpit minister. He looked around, briefly stroked his beard, and then addressed the proposed Seventh Principle, which was a call for “respect for the Earth and the interdependence of its living systems.” In my mind’s eye, as Paul stood there, the hall fell to a hushed silence. I imagine that the world outside grew quiet, as well. Perhaps one or two stars broke through the Ohio daylight, shooting beams in the general direction of Columbus. Out of the silence Paul pointed out how that wording fell far short of what it could be.

Paul proposed new wording for the Seventh Principle: a call to respect “the interdependent web of existence of which we are all a part.” I’m pretty sure, although I have to admit there’s no hard record of it, that with those words the roof blew off the convention center and a host of angels, devas, and other celestial beings from all the world’s religions—past, present, and future—descended from the heavens, some playing instruments of astonishing beauty, while others sang a Gloria that reached out to the farthest corners of the universe. Even the stars danced in joy at the revelation of this great secret of the universe to a gathering of Unitarian Universalists in Columbus, Ohio, in the United States, on the North American continent of a tiny planet circling a middling star at the edge of one of a hundred thousand million galaxies.

The call: to know that interdependent web of existence, of which we are all a part.

And then it was over. The roof resealed and the beings were gone, only a hint of their song remaining in the hearts of the assembled—who then voted. They accepted the proposed change, and with that decision our little band found itself marked with an astonishing charism, a particular channel of divine blessing aimed at healing this poor, broken world. I suggest that in that hour our future was articulated with as much authority as if it were from the tongue of an ancient prophet.

With that call, a new Universalism has been proclaimed.

I unashamedly call myself a First and Seventh Principle preacher. We need both principles, the dynamic of the one and the many, to fully ground our message. That older call of individual liberty was a deep and true insight. But it is missing something. The Seventh Principle calls to the wisdom that is in our very hearts about how and why the individual is precious. The knowledge that we are completely woven out of each other and the cosmos itself in a living song of intimacy is where we find our completeness.

We find within this insight of “I” and “We” an ethic for our individual lives, we find guidance for how we gather together as people, and we see how we need to relate to the planet from which we take our being. We understand it as the perennial story sung around ancient campfires, the heart of Jesus’s message, the Buddha’s word, the teachings of sages of the Advaita Vedanta, as well as the truth constantly revealed by scientific inquiry.

I think that all of us, in our great variety, need to engage it from the traditions that inform our lives separately within this great spiritual cooperative that is our contemporary Unitarian Universalism. We need to look at the many facets of this wisdom jewel. We need Jewish and Christian interpretations. We need earth-centered and rationalist humanist interpretations. We need Buddhist interpretations.

We are surrounded by clouds of witnesses all proclaiming this truth. It isn’t ours uniquely, but we uniquely proclaim it as a central and saving truth.

We are all connected.

This is the new universalism.


This article appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of UU World (page 16) and is adapted from a talk delivered at the 2014 General Assembly on June 28, 2014. Illustration (above): "The Broken-Open Heart," © Daniel Nevins (Oil and acrylic on wood, 37 x 60 inches), inspired by Parker J. Palmer's article of the same title. See sidebar for links to related resources.

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