Star UU blogger PeaceBang set off quite an uproar with this post on covenants. In it, she passionately proclaims that religious covenants always originate with God. She offers a way to interpret that in humanistic terms, but says that attempting to form covenants without reverence is blasphemy. She knows she’s being provocative – she says “I just said BLASPHEMY! But dern it, I mean it.”

I remember enough from Baptist Sunday School to know she’s not wrong. Biblical covenants were God’s promises to his people. But that’s not the whole story – the writers of the Bible used the term “covenant” because it meant something to their readers. If there hadn’t been a tradition of covenants – sacred contracts – between people, the idea of a covenant between God and people wouldn’t have made sense.

Comments on PeaceBang’s post are mostly polarized – some agreeing with her idea that covenants within a church (even a UU church) must begin with a recognition of the sacred. Others feel that automatically excludes Humanists and other non-theists.

Can the many spiritual traditions within Unitarian Universalism ever agree on anything of any religious importance?

Rev. Diana and I have had a series of occasional discussions on the question of whether there is a religious center in Unitarian Universalism and if anything resembling a UU spiritual practice is possible. I’ve blogged about it here and here. It seems to me that there isn’t, that we’re destined to forever be a confederation of individuals and never a church.

And then there’s this excellent response by Patrick Murfin. He points out that the Channing era Unitarians offended the original Congregationalists, the Transcendentalists offended the Channing folks, Humanists offended the liberal Christians, and now people like me are offending the Humanists. There is nothing new under the sun. Murfin says the only way we can live together is through covenants – covenants that originate with us, not with “somebody’s idea of God.”

That we can do. But is it religion? Can a covenant create a spirituality capable of inspiring and sustaining us through the trials and tribulations of life? Can a covenant connect us not just to each other, but to something truly bigger than ourselves – whether that ‘something’ is a being or just the ideals of humanity?

I don’t know.

For now, Unitarian Universalism is a home for me, a safe place to learn and grow, to practice and to serve. I have friends and opportunities here I could find nowhere else, at least not in this geographic location. For now, I’m going to keep searching for that elusive UU center, even as my personal center is growing more and more firm in my Pagan and Druid practice.

It’s going to be an interesting ride.

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  • AFA*I*AC Peacebang aka Rev. Victoria Weinstein should have looked the word "covenant" up in a good dictionary to obtain the generally accepted dictionary definition of the word before doing a cannonball off the deep-end and "splashing" a good number of Humanist U*Us with her ahem inflammatory rhetoric. . .

    :A binding agreement; a compact.

    :a signed written agreement between two or more parties (nations) to perform some action

    :an agreement, usually formal, between two or more persons to do or not do something specified.

    :Ecclesiastical. a solemn agreement between the members of a church to act together in harmony with the precepts of the gospel. (U*Us may read "Seven Principles" where this dictionary definition of the word "covenant" says "gospels", indeed they bloody well should. . .)

    :a binding and solemn agreement to do or keep from doing a specified thing; compact

    :an agreement among members of a church to defend and maintain its doctrines, polity, and faith

    BTW Besides being a noun the word "covenant" is also a verb. . . In fact it seems to me that it may well be being used as both a noun and a verb, or a kind of synthesis thereof. . . when used in the context of the Seven Principles of U*Uism.

    covenant – enter into a covenant or formal agreement; "They covenanted with Judas for 30 pieces of silver"; "The nations covenanted to fight terrorism around the world"

    FWIW Within the context of U*Uism I have never interpreted the word "covenant" as anything more than a solemn and formal promise aka a pledge as per the aforementioned dictionary definitions. I might add that I have never interpreted it as any less than that hence my ongoing protest against the ongoing flagrant disregard and wanton violation of the "covenants" expressed in the Seven Principles of U*Uism by outrageously hypocritical U*Us, including Peacebang herself I might add. . .

  • I wonder right along with you. I think I"m becoming more Universalist as time goes on, but I don't see what is so inflammatory about UUs of any stripe having a secular OR religious convenant based on an understanding and respect for our principles and purposes that provides inclusive religious community.

    Are we a religion? I think so, and I find it disturbing when I hear UU ministers or seminarians describe us as a movement. I think that it reduces our ability to be a player in the liberal religious churches if we don't embrace our religiosity.

    I think it's important to avoid getting caught up in the red herring of whether covenant is a purely religious term, and just be clear about what kind of covenant one is talking about because in our tradition, I believe that convenanting to promise each other right relations in the context of our beliefs and values is NOT misappropriation of the word or the intent. It is also inclusive of those who are theists or not, while still honoring the Christian tradition that our covenant tradition and language come from.

  • Whew. I think what left me cold is that ALL THESE YEARS I thought the covenant that we recited in church was between the MEMBERS of the church. I didn't think that it had ANYTHING to do with god – and to find out that others really think it does is astounding.

    Rocked my understanding of what I was doing all those years.

    By neglecting the needs of the Humanist or Atheist we are asking them to just sit on their hands and bite their tongues during much of a Sunday morning.

    A religion – I always thought so – one grounded in science and humanity… but now I am beginning to wonder.

  • Goodwolve – "A religion – I always thought so – one grounded in science and humanity… but now I am beginning to wonder."

    But also one grounded in Christian tradition and God, and faith, for those who embrace those. Mystery and God can mean many things, whether one is humanist, atheist, theist, Christian Unitarian, etc. It's hard to be inclusive, but I think that is the push back against this narrow definition of covenant that PB's post has touched on.

    That is the opportunity and the challenge of being a UU – taking responsibility for one's spiritual growth while honoring the tradition that it comes from, and the wide variety of people who were born into UUsim or who converted.

  • "Whew. I think what left me cold is that ALL THESE YEARS I thought the covenant that we recited in church was between the MEMBERS of the church."

    So did I goodwolve, well up to a point. . . My understanding of the "covenant" in terms of the Seven Principles is the congregation (which I see as "the MEMBERS of the church" just as you do) covenant to "affirm and promote" the Seven Principles. So that means that while the covenant most certainly is *between* the members of the church it is not limited to *only* the members of the church. My interpretation of this covenant is that U*Us covenant to U*U Principles in their relations with ALL people not just other members of the church.

    You and other U*Us might want to read this sample covenant for right relations and ask yourselves just how well you and other U*Us are actually living up to the letter and the spirit of this covenant. From where I stand Peacebang and rather too many other "less than excellent" U*U clergy, and a whole lot of other U*Us, quite regularly make a total mockery of such U*U "covenants" as well as the Seven Principles. AFAIAC You have done a much better job of living up to these covenants than Peacebang has in your relations with me and I genuinely appreciate that. In fact you put a lot of U*U clergy to shame as far as that goes. . . I believe that Theists and Humanists of good will *can* get along with each other just fine. Some of my best friends are atheists. 🙂 It is the Theists and Humanists who harbor ill will for the "other" who cause the problems. That being said Humanists do need to respect the monotheistic roots of Unitarian*Universalism and should not expect U*U Theists to water down their beliefs and religious practices.

  • PeaceBang has more than looked up "covenant" in a dictionary. She's writing her doctoral dissertation about the subject. She posted today on her blog that her dissertation is speaking to the Christian Church. She hopes there is something of worth to the UU community in her work.

    In other words, I think she understands covenant better than I do.

    But I want to speak to the blogger's point about the religious center of UUism.

    I don't think we have a religious center. At least it doesn't feel like that to me. I think UUism has a central mission — to create pluralistic religious congregations who agree to bear some sort of social witness to the world. Unfortunately, it so often seems like we're so intent on protecting individual belief systems that we aren't furthering a coherent social witness.

    I have to agree with the PeaceBang commenter who explained that if we as UUs don't acknowledge that covenant, as PeaceBang breaks it down, is part of our theological and congregational history, we're being intellectually dishonest.

  • I know a lot of UU congregations recite their covenant at each service. I get the impression from those I've heard or read, though, that a lot of these covenants are not very good as liturgical elements, no matter how wonderful they are as a statement of the agreement of the congregation. If it sounds like legal or academic language, it probably doesn't belong in the Sunday service, where something more poetic and/or evocative is preferable.

    My emerging congregation does not have a covenant. In fact, even trying to compose a covenant at this point would be a non-starter for about half our members. People are quite satisfied with our Mission Statement and our Bylaws. That is, they are satisfied that they are done and finished and on the books and tucked away where we don't have to mess with them. Reciting a bunch of legal mumbo jumbo each and every week would be a real turn off.

  • :PeaceBang has more than looked up "covenant" in a dictionary. She's writing her doctoral dissertation about the subject.

    I am perfectly aware of that and that is a part of the Peacebang problem Batbogey. Peacebang threw her dissertation about supposed *Biblical* covenants between God and His Chosen People as it were in people's faces. If she had just looked the word up in a dictionary and understood the much broader meaning of the word covenant she would not have done a cannon-ball off the high diving board in the deep end and "splashed" a whole lot of U*Us would she? Talk about drive-by blogging. . . I can't help but take note of the fact that Peacebang went on "hiatus" very soon after ruffling everyone's feathers but then Peacebang was never much of a one for taking personal responsibility for her inflammatory rhetoric was she? Some might justifiably accuse her of hit-and-run blogging. . .

  • Paul, if your congregation doesn't have a covenant and you've forgotten your mission statement, what unites you? And perhaps more importantly, how do you explain it to visitors and new members?

    No value judgement is intended – just an honest request for information. Your congregation sounds a lot like mine, and we struggle to understand the deeper reasons why we gather every week.

  • The general opinion here is that, especially if we have an understanding of what Unitarian Universalism is about, then what need do we have of a proliferation of documents to tell us what our congregation is about.

    I mean, look at the oft used covenant statement written by James Vila Blake:

    Love is the spirit of this church, and service is its law.
    This is our great covenant:
    To dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another.

    Now, just what is gained by reciting it or even agreeing to it in the first place? If we don't say it are we less about love and service? Would we without it not be peaceful, not seek truth, and hinder each other? And by repeating it are we somehow more positive in our relations with each other? I'm not buying it. But at least it's got some liturgical appeal.

    On the other hand, what of this one I located just now and copied and pasted from the web:

    We, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbus [IN],
    affirm these behavioral covenants for the spiritual, moral and ethical development of ourselves and our congregation.

    1. We value and respect differences of opinion within the congregation.

    2. We value, and will promote, open discussion in all communication and will respect confidentiality when it is requested.

    3. We will address differences in our congregation with timely, open, direct communication and with faith in the democratic process.

    4. We respect the authority of the congregation's leaders. They will keep communication open and provide relevant information and adequate time for sharing and discussion before calling a vote.

    5. It is each member's responsibility to stay informed about issues concerning the congregation through the newsletter and letters from the board.

    6. It is the obligation of each member to participate to his or her level of ability in all activities necessary to maintain a healthy, vibrant congregation.

    I mean, no offense to them, but what isn't wrong with that? It is a liturgical death knell. It promises attitudes, which, of course, can never be delivered. "We [will] value"? "We will respect"? Sorry. Those are things that cannot be promised even if sincerely intended. Yet here they are promised. And the things that can legitimately be promised boil down to nothing more than, we promise not to kick or spit or pull each other's hair. In other words, we'll act like civilized human beings.

    Why would anyone bother themselves to compose such?

    I have nothing against covenants in themselves, and I suppose some of them are even composed to make beautiful liturgy. I just don't see what the big deal is since everything I've ever heard recited in a covenant is just common sense unless people were raised by wolves.

    I've not seen or heard a covenant yet that provides any understanding about why we gather each week that is not self-evident.

  • As far as letting our newcomers know what we are about, we do begin the service with a welcome statement. But its content is not prescribed by congregational agreement and varies somewhat depending who is leading the service. When I lead the service, it usually is some variation of the following:

    We at Mt. Vernon Unitarian Universalist Fellowship believe that there is NO ONE, SINGLE WAY to lead a spiritual and meaningful life, but agree that, if you are doing it right, you will discover each day ever greater connection with humanity, with all sentient beings, and, indeed, with the cosmos. In our congregation we follow a variety of paths and value and respect religious and other diversity as a resource and strength for all. We gather here in community with each other, giving each one the space in which to hear their inner teacher.