A Meditation on the First & Seventh Principles of Unitarian Universalism as a Saving Message, Together With a Buddhist Midrash

Delivered at the 2014 Unitarian Universalist General Assembly

28 June 2014
Providence, Rhode Island


James Ishmael Ford

Senior Minister
First Unitarian Church of Providence

I’ve heard that the larger Unitarian Universalist Association is having some trouble with membership. We’ve always been a tiny part of the American population, being as we are a religion for people with a high tolerance for ambiguity. In these times so unforgiving to religions of all sorts, we’re barely holding our own in constant numbers and actually we are shrinking as a percentage of the population. There are those who fear, and justly, for the future of our spiritual community.

Me, I hear this and I find myself thinking of that old story about the Board of a small church in the Midwest fretting over money. One member says, we’ve tried everything. Another ticked off the fundraisers, the indirect and the direct calls to members to step up to the plate. A third lamented, “What can we do next?” Finally, one of the oldest of the old timers said so quietly it was hard to hear, “Have we tried religion?”

Our spiritual tradition is rich. We are children of the West, heirs to the biblical traditions of Judaism and most of all, Christianity. And, just as truly we are so profoundly marked by the wisdom traditions of Athens as well as many of the currents of earth-centered spiritualities. Because of our radical openness to both theists and nontheists, as hard as the tensions have sometimes been, first humanists and now in recent decades Buddhists and others inspired by Eastern thought have 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 we Unitarian Universalists are fiercely opposed to creeds, statements of faith one must sign on to in order to be 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, 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 the fact no one must sign anything beyond a covenant of presence to join our communities, knowing no letter can fully capture the spirit.

And, we make those statements attempting to capture us at some given moment, but also, this means that from time to time we have to revise those statements. So, in 1961, when the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America consolidated, there was a statement of our principles. By the mid nineteen seventies it was pretty obvious it 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 25th, 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.

As perhaps is appropriate for such a momentous event, people aren’t actually clear on all the details. The official agenda set Thursday morning the 27th for the final debate and vote on the proposed document. However, some people say the vote took place that afternoon, while others say the debate continued on to the next day, the 28th, and it wasn’t until late that afternoon the last points of dispute were resolved and the vote taken.

Whichever hour, when it looked pretty close to done, the document was, frankly, mostly “mom and apple pie.” Hardly a word anyone of most any spiritual tradition could argue with. What I would call the perfect product of a committee. The most distinctive feature was the first principle, a call to the “inherent worth and dignity of every person,” a libertarian focus on the individual that had marked out English speaking Unitarianism for its entire history.

Then the Reverend Paul L’Herrou made his way to the microphones. Everyone who describes the scene say he was lanky and bearded, and 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 to “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 think, I’m pretty sure 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 that silence Paul pointed out how that wording fell far short of what it could be.

Paul proposed new wording for the seventh principal: 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 ceiling blew off the convention center and a host of angels, devas, and many 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 within 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 ceiling resealed, the beings were gone, only a hint of their song remaining in the hearts of the assembled, who then voted. They accepted that proposed change, and with that 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 in that hour our future was articulated with as much authority as if it were from the tongue of an ancient prophet.

And, what has happened since? Well, many have missed the importance of that moment. Others dismiss it as typical liberal hat tipping to the issues of the day, in this case our looming ecological catastrophe. But, actually, this is so vastly more important, so deep, and compelling, it needs the cloak of myth, the mystery of song to even partially convey its import. It is so powerful a message it is hard to look at it directly. I suspect we will spend lifetimes unpacking and expanding what this all means.

With it a new Universalism has been proclaimed.

While the Association as a whole may be stagnant, I’ve noticed there are two UU congregations in our neighborhood that are growing and growing significantly. They are the First Unitarian Church of Providence and the First Parish Church of Taunton. While our styles are quite different, we share one thing in common.

Like Christana Wille McKnight at Taunton, and following the lead of UU minister John Crestwell, I unashamedly call myself a first and seventh principle preacher. We need both principles to fully ground our message, the dynamic of the one and the many. That older call of individual liberty was a deep and true insight. But it is missing something. With the seventh principle as a calling to the very wisdom of our hearts of how and why the individual is precious, 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.

This is the New Universalism.

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’ message, the Buddha’s word, the teachings of sages of the Advita Vedanta, as well as the secret truth constantly revealed within relentless scientific inquiry.

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. I suggest with as much passion as I can that we need to embrace the wisdom that has emerged among us as a genuinely saving message – it gives us our place on this planet, it guides our lives, and it reveals a peace that includes our mortality.

And, I think each of us in our great variety need to engage it from those 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. And, we need Buddhist interpretations.

Here’s one sung into our hearts by the great Western Buddhist Zen master, Robert Aitken.

“Unpack karma and you get cause and effect. Unpack cause and effect, and you get affinity. Unpack affinity and you get the tendency to coalesce. Unpack the tendency to coalesce and you get intimacy. Unpack, intimacy and you will find that you contain all beings. Unpack containment and there is the Goddess of Mercy herself.”

Let me tell you a little about me.

In my youth I prayed to know God. I prayed with complete earnestness, with the fullness perhaps only a youth can muster with a deal. Show me your face and after that you can kill me. Meant it.

And, I was met with silence.

Now many years have passed. Today, by most conventions I’m an atheist. That is I do not believe in a human-like consciousness that directs things. In a universe of uncertainty I come as close as a human mind can to certainty that there is no deity that acts within history.


Within my experience there is something. The best word I can call it is love. I suspect I know the grubby roots of that love, how it arises within my mammalian consciousness. But, it seems to have a larger existence, as well.

And, while I have my reservations about how our national center makes its decisions, and particularly about how as an institution it seems to have trouble understanding what spirituality is, as they say even a blind pig stumbles upon a truffle now and again. It also, I believe, speaks to the great secret we hear in the Christian tradition how the spirit rests where it will. It is amazing grace.

I’ve found how the Unitarian Universalist two truths that the individual is precious and that the individual is created out of a world of mutuality results in an experience of love.

Know love. And then know love reaching out.

And, here’s a contribution from our Unitarian Universalist Buddhist perspective. I’ve found how the (Zen) Buddhist two truths that everything and everybody in the universe is mutually created through a dance of causality, and that everything and everybody in the universe has no substance, but rather is wildly open, boundless results in an experience of Love.

Of course from one angle this love is completely a-moral. It is desire and it can extend beyond desire. And it is here I think we find our work as human beings, and the need for the two faces of reality. The Hindu sage Sri Nisargadatta gives a further wrinkle on it all, when he says “wisdom is knowing I am nothing. Love is knowing I am everything, and between the two my life moves.”

I’m fascinated by the energy dancing between the two poles of our lives, and how if we really attend to it as religious liberals, we also find we are proclaiming a transformative love, something that changes our lives as individuals, and calls us to work in this world for this world.

Love reaching out.

What I find in this world of hurt and loss is something precious and powerful, terrible and beautiful.

Out of the silence I have indeed found something. It isn’t the old god of separation, but it is the dancing divine of interrelatedness.

As a word love falls so short. It has to do too much work, standing for sentimentality and the burning away of self and other, and so much in between.

But. Language is like that. Falls short.

And, and, points to that place where planets and stars and whole galaxies burst into existence, burn bright, and die.

And how in some random corners of this dance of galaxies heart minds birth that can see, can feel, can know in an unknowing sort of way, in the face of silence, a saving love.

A love greater than creed.

And, feeling it in our bones and marrow, finding it causing us to reach out a hand to another, how can our lips not sing songs of praise and thanksgiving?

If we want a meaning in a world that exists beyond meaning and meaninglessness, I believe with all my heart and mind this encounter with the face of the divine is it. A path to walk. A sea in which to swim. Our true home. Our one soul…

A new universalism.

Found in the dance of the two truths. We are precious. And we are completely woven out of each other and this precious world.

A New Universalism.


Saving love.

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