Miles Kimball on `The 7 Principles of Unitarian Universalism'

Note: This is a major update of my November 18, 2012 blog post “The 7 Principles of Unitarian Universalism,” adding my own take on things. I will implement this update at the original location as well.

I have mentioned on this blog that I am a Unitarian Universalist. The website for the Unitarian Universalist Association has a nice summary of the principles and sources of Unitarian Universalism. Let me reflect on what each one means to me. I’ll give the official statement uninterrupted, then comment. I hope that in, some measure, my blog reflects these principles.

There are seven principles which Unitarian Universalist congregations 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.

Unitarian Universalism (UU) draws from many sources:

Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit;Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.

These principles and sources of faith are the backbone of our religious community.

Let me discuss each principle in turn.

1. The inherent worth and dignity of every person: These days I feel keenly the denial from many quarters of full humanity to those born elsewhere, particularly if they are poor and don’t yet speak English well. One of my best statements about immigration is “"The Hunger Games" Is Hardly Our Future--It's Already Here.” I also have a sermon on the general tendency to divide the world into “Us and Them.”

For economists, a routine way of denying the inherent worth and dignity of each person is to do a cost-benefit or welfare analysis, that without comment, puts a weight of zero on non-citizens. My alternative is “The Aluminum Rule”:

When acting collectively–or considering collective actions–put a weight on the welfare of human beings outside the in-group at least one-hundredth as much as the welfare of those in the in-group.

Because of the rampant poverty in the world, the Aluminum Rule would lead to dramatically different policies than putting a weight of zero on the out-group.

2. Justice, equity and compassion in human relationships: When I read the words “justice,” and “equity,” I think of John Rawls’s book A Theory of Justice, which to me points toward the broader class of mathematically formal social welfare functions—which is a serious research interest of mine in my work with Dan Benjamin, Ori Heffetz and Kristen Cooper toward building national well-being indexes.

Beyond that, “justice” to me means this principle, distilled from blogging my way through on liberty and John Locke’s 2d Treatise—see “John Stuart Mill’s Defense of Freedom” and also “Miles Kimball on John Locke's Second Treatise,” from which the following quotation is taken:

… no government action that clearly both reduces freedom and lowers overall social welfare is legitimate, regardless of what procedural rules have been followed in its enactment.

When, as is often the case, freedom is abridged in order to enrich the lives of the rich and impoverish the lives of the poor, it makes me burn with indignation. I give some examples of policies in this category that treated by all too many people as innocent in “‘Keep the Riffraff Out!’

The word “compassion” makes me think of my own behavior much closer to home. Do I care about the people I deal with every day as much as I should? Do I strive to understand where they are coming from and what matters to them? (See “Liberty and the Golden Rule.”) Do I treat them right, both in doing my duty and looking for cases in which a modest effort on my part could benefit them greatly? Am I fulfilling my long-run duty to develop my social skills to the extent I reasonably can in order to be a warmer and more positive presence for others?

3. Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations: Each of us is different. Each of us has something that can be made fun of. Each of us could be made an outcast. I have my own stories of being treated at times as less than fully human because of my nerdly leanings. Those remembered moments still hurt, even decades later. Other people have their own stories of being made to feel less than fully human. To me “acceptance of one another” means a lot less of that happening.

To me, the interesting thing about “spiritual growth” is that I don’t know what it means. But that’s OK. As I wrote in “An Agnostic Grace”:

Religion is the “everything else” category in our existence in human societies and as individuals after parceling out the things people understand fairly well about human life—just as “natural philosophy” used to be the “everything else” category after parceling out as natural sciences the things people were beginning to understand fairly well about the natural world.

The same can be said for “spiritual” in the way it is used by nonsupernaturalists: “spiritual” refers to important things—many of them very, very positive—that we don’t fully understand yet. Spiritual growth is coming to a somewhat better understanding of those things and using that understanding to better our lives. To encourage one another in spiritual growth requires a sensitivity to things others are striving for or struggling with that may be hard for them to articulate. Let’s respect the things that people feel in their gut but can’t yet express very well, and give time for words to be put to those things.

4. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning: One of the glories of the U.S. Constitution is that it guarantees freedom of religion. (One of its shames was that it winked at slavery.) What is rare and precious beyond that is to have freedom of religious belief within the walls of a house of worship. I have that in Unitarian Universalism. I can believe as I believe and it is OK with everyone within a UU congregation. And I accord the same privilege to others. For example, I was fascinated rather than distressed to have Wiccan believers as full fellow members of the First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Ann Arbor.

Truth is a sacred word to me. I left my previous religion in large measure because I felt my religious leaders (including very high-ranking leaders) had lied to me. In my career as an economist, the sacredness of truth shows up in a strong desire to urge statistical practices that put the truth ahead of careerist scientific advancement or confirmation of an ideology.

“Meaning” suggest to me both deep introspection into my own values and “Leaving a Legacy” by doing good that extends beyond one’s immediate circle. But “meaning,” like “spiritual” also points to the transcendent things that I don’t understand very well. I would like more transcendence in my life, and I don’t have much of a clue what that means. But I think the quest for transcendence, in balance with my other values, will lead to something bright and beautiful.

5. The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large: To me democratic values, and “the right of conscience,” means that I don’t have to bow the knee to anyone (unless I choose to do so out of freely-arrived at, deeply-felt respect). Human beings have evolved adaptations for hierarchy. But it is possible for each of us to insist on being treated as an equal and to treat others as equals. There are many intellectually interesting issues—not all of them resolved—on the question of in what sense should we be treating one another as equals. But what I am sure of is that we can and should be insisting on equality and treating others as equal to a greater extent than we do.

6. The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all: War is hell. Slavery is hell. Poverty is hell. They are hell when they happen in other countries just as much as if they happen in ours. Working to make war, slavery and poverty much rarer than they are in the world is a noble goal. And having the world sliced up into pieces with a majority of the world’s people only allowed to go into a few of those pieces is truly unfortunate.

7. Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. As I get older, plants and nonhuman animals intrigue me more and more. Some of our quest for meaning is likely to run through a contemplation and appreciation of plants and other animals.

Now, our planet is in danger of getting distressingly hot due to human action. We should take that seriously with serious measures (such as a carbon tax or a worldwide ban on burning coal) that go far beyond the symbolic. This doesn’t mean that we need to turn against capitalism. The best ways to take care of our precious planet, with plants, other animals, and us on it, is by using the price system and the creative potential of capitalist institutions, along with appropriate government measures.

To me, “the interdependent web of all existence” also includes the rest of the universe beyond our planet. Particularly valuable for contemplation are the many planets now being discovered beyond our solar system. (See “Exoplanets and Faith.”)

Conclusion: Besides being repelled by lies, I left my previous religion for Unitarian Universalism because its theological underpinnings felt too small. I felt the universe, and even our still tentative understanding of the universe, had a grandeur missing from what I was taught in that Church. When I was still a believer in Mormonism, I resolved (in the abstract) that I would only leave it for something that was bigger and better. Although Unitarian Universalism has a certain minimalism to it, it not only allows, but encourages the freedom of thought that allows all the best and and most wonderful thinking that has been done throughout human history in. That is truly grand.

Don’t miss these Unitarian-Universalist sermons by Miles:

By self-identification, I left Mormonism for Unitarian Universalism in 2000, at the age of 40. I have had the good fortune to be a lay preacher in Unitarian Universalism. I have posted many of my Unitarian-Universalist sermons on this blog.

Also, you can see other posts on religion, philosophy, humanities, culture and science by clicking on this link: