Our UU Principles

Rev. Shayna shares an overview of the principles that guide the vision of Unitarian Universalism.

Our Soul Matters theme for the month of September is “Vision.” What does it mean to be a people of vision? Come envision with us throughout September!

Our Sunday offerings in September will be shared with Edible Brattleboro! Follow the links to learn more about ASC’s Shared Offering Program and the organizations we support.


Sermon: “Committed to Vision”  

Google “stories of faith” and you will be lead to some interesting reads.  “Looking for stories of faith?  Read these faith and hope inspiring stories that show that faith counts and miracles happen (faithcounts.com).  Or, “It doesn’t matter if our story is similar to Ruth’s or not.  What does matter is that we take the simple step of putting our faith in Jesus and His death and resurrection” (odb.org/tag/stories-of-faith).  (For the record, I’ve been trying to follow Jesus now for close to two decades…there is NOTHING simple about that!)  This google post is my favorite; from godupdates.com: “From Hollywood celebrities like Chris Pratt, Mark Wahlberg, Luke Bryan, and Mr. T come stories of faith and hope that are life changing and encouraging. Where circumstance may have altered their story, God became the main character.”

Writing “On Faith and Knowledge” for The Interpreters Bible, J. Harry Cotton notes that, “The word faith has many meanings.  [Indeed] It has been observed that a fairly complete history of the…church could be written around the varied and successive definitions of that word.”  

In one of the least well known epistles of the Christian Scriptures a writer, quite possibly a woman, made a bold assertion concerning the definition of faith.  She wrote, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” [Hebrews 11:1]. 

What is faith?  What is Unitarian Universalist Faith?  How might the seven principles help us live more fully into that faith?  And what, if any, limitations are there to those principles?

1 Cotton, Harry J.  Exegesis on Hebrews 11:1-40.  The Interpreter’s Bible. (Abington Press: New York & Knoxville) (c) 1955.  Pg. 718. 


Over the course of the next seven months, we will have a chance to delve deeply into individual principles.  But this morning I wanted to take an opportunity to speak about them more globally.  What do they, as a work of faithful thought within our denomination, say about who we are?  And more importantly, what do they call us to?

For starters, as you heard Doug Muder reflect in the reading for today, the UU Principles are not a statement of faith.  No one needs to recite them in order to obtain membership in any of our churches.  Neither are they a statement of fact.  You will, for example, never see a Hubble snapshot of the interdependent web.  

No. The Principles are not a proclamation  of seven truths.  Neither are they intended to convert listeners to agree that they ought to be truth’s.  They are, however, a cornerstone of Unitarian Universalism in that our UU faith asks us to be a people who, “envision a world in which the Principles have become true, to envision it so intensly and in such detail that it becomes a genuine possibility, and to join with others in making that possibility real.”  In other words, our Unitarian Universalist faith calls us to covenant with one another to affirm and promote, “the substance of things hoped for,” even and especially in light of, “the evidence of things not seen.”

So, the Principles are, at their foundation, visionary.  And visionary is good!  Even if it feels like an, “oddly magical goal for a faith that is often criticized for its hardheaded rationalism.”  I would argue that the two, (faith and rationalism) are no so separate as they often seem. But that topic probably qualifies for a sermon on its own!


Here’s where the Principle’s fall a bit short.  They are visionary, and they can inspire us to reach beyond what is easy, but they are non-creedal.  So is our faith, but to be clear, I’m glad of that.  I like belonging to a faith community that doesn’t require us all to believe the same thing.  But in like fashion, I want to be in faith community with people who believe something!  And the Principles fail as a creed because, as Muder notes, “They’re too easy.”  Billions of people who wouldn’t be caught dead in a UU church could just as easily nod along with them as the rest of us.

To be clear, a creed is, by definition, a set of beliefs or aims that guides someones actions. I may want to live in a world in which the inherent worth and dignity of every person is affirmed, where justice equity and compassion in human relations is common currency, where we affirm one another and encourage spiritual growth in ourselves and our congregations, but that’s not the world we live in.  I may yearn for the days when truth and meaning were revered, that bygone era wherein the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process were lauded, and the time those not pursuing the goal of a world community with peace, liberty and justice for all didn’t get to play in the international theatre.  I may be on my knees praying for a great awakening of world leaders and common folk which will forever turn the tide on our lack of respect for the interdependent web.  I may even just be nuts enough to yoke myself to a religion that also envisions all that stuff… and all of those desires may even influence how I live.

2 Muder, Doug.  “I Don’t ‘Believe In’ the Seven Principles.  UU World. Summer 2014.

3 Ibid


But, at t.he end of the day, what do I believe in enough to persevere through the heartache, the anger, the frustration and the pain that the world I desperately want to live in is not yet? And, maybe more importantly, from where does my strength come?

This past week it wasn’t justice rolling like a mighty stream, but rather the flood waters triggered by hurricane Florence that have swept through North and South Carolina.  If peace was trying to roll across our nation like a river, it’s flow was most certainly interrupted by three workplace shootings in two days, and a knife attack at a childcare center in New York against a newborn, two infants and two adults.  Last week I was planning a memorial service for the husband of the woman I donated my kidney for, the UU Trauma Response Ministry team was trying to figure out which UU Congregations were likely to be the most impacted by hurricane Florence, and in the middle of all of that, North Andover, Andover and Lawrence Massachusetts started to explode as the result of a gas main pressure surge…

We UU’s have a great vision. And envisioning together can sustain us in reaching for that vision.  But to whom or to what do we turn when what we are actually seeing, here and now, makes us want to take our own eyes out?  I love that we covenant to affirm and promote a world most of the world agrees is someplace they’d like to live – but that world ain’t the one we are living in now.  So, from where do we derive the faith – the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen – where is the faith we need to sustain us in the soul parching dryness of these days?

Well, in true Unitarian Universalist fashion, ask two or three people for an answer to that question and twelve opinions, at least, will be rendered.  It’s the best part of being a Unitarian Universalist!  We don’t have to think alike to love alike – but we do need to think!

“Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

So, if we know the Principles and we make a conscious effort to apply them to our lives, the Principles fulfill the first half of the definition.  They effectively embody the “substance of things hoped for.”  But what about the last half of our working definition?  What about “the evidence of things unseen?”

Here’s where rationalism can trip us up and cut us off from truths we live every day. What’s worse, it can actually limit our capacity to experience the fullness of our world and our lives.  

We all experience things we cannot quantify.  We encounter things we cannot explain. We are confronted with questions that seem to have no absolute answers.  But the “direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures…moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.”  We balance this experience of mystery and wonder with “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.”

4 First “Source” of Unitarian Universalism.

5 Fifth “Source” of Unitarian Universalism.

Between those two points – direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder and humanist teachings – we are also encouraged, in this amazing faith of ours, to draw from the “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.”  We are encouraged to drink deeply from the wells of “the world’s religion which inspire us in our ethical and spiritual [lives].” We are reminded that the central tenets of “Jewish and Christian teachings…call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves.”

Some of you are hearing the familiar words of our Unitarian Universalist “Sources”.  For some of you, they are not yet familiar.  You can find these five Sources wherever you find our seven Principle.  At the front of our hymnals, for example.  Direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder, words and deeds of prophetic women and men, wisdom from the world’s religions, Jewish and Christian teachings, and Humanist teachings.  These are the sources from which the living tradition we share draws in light of the fact that we are all challenged by the evidence of things unseen. 

You know, I didn’t really need to google stories about faith.  In my near 2 decades of ministry, I’ve had ample opportunities to witness to it first hand.  Faith is the stuff that defies logic and reason.  It can’t be quantified, but neither can it be denied.  It’s the fifty-something year old woman who lost everything in hurricane Katrina who’s still smiling, and when I asked her how she is still smiling after losing everything, she replies, “Oh baby…I still got my Jesus.”  It was present at ground zero in the work rescuers and construction workers carried out even when it was obvious that no one was going to be found alive.  They searched tirelessly for any bone fragment they could find, knowing that anything would be a comfort to families who had lost loved ones and in absolute faith that their own lives, commitment and work mattered.  It was in the heart of the twenty-something year old cancer patient who wasn’t going to survive, but never-the-less pronounced herself “healed” because she had made peace with her past and peace with a future that was inevitably unknown. It showed up in this congregation last year when you all had faith enough in this church, and faith enough in each other, to pass a budget with a 20% increase!  In my near 2 decades of ministry I have seen faith, time and time again, “change beer into furniture, sinners into saints, hate-filled relations into loving ones, cowardice into courage, [and] the fatigue of despair into the buoyancy of hope.

The foundations for that faith can be found in lots of places; Direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder, words and deeds of prophetic women and men, wisdom from the world’s religions, Jewish and Christian teachings, and Humanist teachings. There are any number of paths you can choose as a UU.  Just keep this in mind: wandering around the base of the mountain in admiration of all the beautiful and worthy paths to the top will not actually get you up the mountain.  For that, you actually need to pick a path and begin climbing.  Absent the ascent, we will only ever be a people committed to vision, but with nothing to sustain us on the way to fulfilling it.

What is faith?  In the words of Rabindranath Tagore, “Faith is the bird that feels the light when the dawn is still dark.”  In the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, “Faith is taking the first step when you don’t see the whole staircase.”  In the words of Helen Keller, “Faith is the strength by which a shattered world shall emerge into the light.”   

Why do we need it?  Well, in the words of Plato “We are twice armed… with faith.”  Once with vision, and once with the courage to enact it.

6 Third “Source” of Unitarian Universalism.

7 Forth “Source” of Unitarian Universalism.

8 Coffin, William Sloan.  “Credo”