In her sermon Sunday, Rev. Charlotte Arsenault made this powerful observation: that when Unitarian Universalists covenant ourselves to our seven Principles, we are covenanting ourselves to dangerous things. Standing together for our Principles has meant throughout our history individuals giving their lives for what they mean.
We covenant. What does that mean? To covenant means to come together, to gather ourselves around something, to form community and relationships around and because of something (from Latin, convenire = to come together).
We come together and create community around a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.
I was in conversation recently with several people in our community, and several named this as the principle that they felt the most drawn to and the most dangerous. The young people involved spoke of those occasions in which teachers at school injected their own religious beliefs (in each case, unbending Christian beliefs) into the public classroom. They described how unsafe that made them feel especially since they felt like they could not remain silent and were put in the position of confronting the teacher (who has a lot of power in a classroom) with their own and different perception of things.
Adults in that conversation also spoke of how dangerous it feels even in our own community when they feel that there is an accepted and “orthodox” view of things that they know does not reflect or allow their own different view.
In the United States where we love to tell a story of escape from a repressive Europe to this new land in order to practice and enjoy religious liberty, the truer story is that those who came here simply transplanted one form of religious oppression for another. Nothing has more potential for freeing the human being for his or her full potential than the freedom and responsibility to search for truth and meaning, and nothing feels more dangerous than being rejected, shamed and silenced in that search.
There is a concomitant fear, however, that fuels this almost perpetual problem: the fear that I will not ever belong to a group of people who understand me. Out of that fear, I may jump at the opportunity to define and protect a tribe that feels like it might just be my group. Even while nothing is more dangerous than the rejection, shame and silence of religious repression, nothing is more fragile than a community built on religious conformity. That just might mean that to forge the strength of belonging comes in affirming, again and again, each person’s freedom and responsibility to search for truth and meaning.
I’ve never read a UU covenant that cites the seven principles. They were never held out as a covenant either when first formulated (and they’ve evolved a bit). They were written as an elevator speech to explain the then newly merged Unitarian and Universalist Churches.
In our congregation, they are the substance of new member ceremonies where we renew our covenant with each other in this local community. Even if they were just an elevator speech to explain the newly merged communities, they would, in effect, be articulating a covenant of coming together.