In the five years of my formal study for the UU Ministry, one of the most passionate topics has been the growing idea of Covenant in Unitarian Universalism… second in passion only to arguing about having young children in worship. Recently, the debate about covenant has become passionate in the UU Blogosphere again, beginning with an article in Quest by Rev. Tom Belote, continuing with Rev. Peacebang, Moxielife, Polity Wonk, and Patrick Murfin… among others.
What I love most about the UU Blogosphere is how it is filling the role in our faith once filled by hundreds of pamphleteers and Unitarian and Universalist printed newsletters. During the late 1800′s there were debates on theology, on polity, and on the issues important to our faith between the voices of competing journals, and that debate reinforced how the shifting conversation between ministers and lay members helped to continually define and re-define who we are as a faith tradition. With the exception of a few journals (including UU World and the Universalist Herald), most of those printed journals have gone away… but the energy they carried for our faith is now represented by the many lay-members, seminarians, and ministers who cast their ideas into the UU Blogosphere… and I am honored to play a small part.
I believe Peacebang is right in highlighting the necessary ingredient that Covenant be vertical in nature, not simply horizontal. I can even come to a metaphorical understanding of her belief that the vertical initiate the covenant. In the language she is using that vertical is God… but I want to stick with the word vertical right now for the sake of argument. I contend it is in part Peacebang’s classical understanding of that vertical element that has upset many Atheist and Humanist UU’s.
It’s not just Peacebang’s point for me. I can remember this point about the need for the vertical dimension of Covenant clearly in many discussions at Meadville Lombard, with no less a personage than the Rev. David Bumbaugh. David was distressed about the move towards covenant within our faith because of it… that a vertical dimension did not make sense in Unitarian Universalism, and so we were adopting a theology we did not understand and was contradictory (to the best of my memory of David’s point). I do not always agree with David (many of my most formative experiences in seminary have come from he and I exploring where we disagree and why), but I have learned through experience to always take his concerns seriously.
Where I think Peacebang and David Bumbaugh and I depart is that I believe that Unitarian Universalism is transforming the nature of what we recognize as “vertical”. It is an interesting transition for me. As a Liberal Christian, I do have a firm Theist understanding (even if it is quite different than many of my fellow Christians). Yet when I think of the “vertical” element of any congregational based covenant within Unitarian Universalism, that vertical is not my personal understanding of God, but rather of the Vision of what we wish the world to become… a vision I believe rests at the heart of Unitarian Universalism.
Let us remember as we depart,
To keep the flame within the heart.
Moving toward our common goal,
Heal the planet, make it whole.
I contend that at the center of Unitarian Universalism lies not a covenant, nor a creed, nor a shared understanding of God. I contend that the center of our faith does not exist around a shared commitment to “live together in peace, seek the truth in love, and to help one another.” Nor does the center of our faith revolve around a buffet understanding of church. Nor does the center rest in a catch all faith (if no other church suits, come here!).
I believe at the center of our faith there is an ever evolving, ever changing, ever growing vision of what we would like the world to be… what kind of world we are called to create. In my own Christian religious language I think of it as “The Kingdom (or Realm) of God”… but what I mean by it is a world of justice, of compassion, of liberty, and of love. The UU who led the fight to end public prayer in schools, Edward Schempp, called it a “Spiritual Responsibility for a Moral Tomorrow”. Here is the full quote:
“Unitarian Universalism is a fierce belief in the way of freedom and reverence for the sacred dignity of each individual. With Jefferson we “have sworn eternal hostility against every tyranny over the mind.”Unitarian Universalism is cooperation with a universe that created us. It is a celebration of life. It is being in love with goodness and justice. It is a sense of humor about absolutes. Unitarian Universalism is faith in people, hope for tomorrow’s child, confidence in a continuity that spans all time. It looks not to a perfect heaven, but toward a good earth. It is respectful of the past, but not limited to it. It is trust in growing and conspiracy with change. It is spiritual responsibility for a moral tomorrow.” – Edward Schempp.
We, as a faith, look not toward a perfect heaven, but towards a good earth. We are in love with goodness and justice. We hold a spiritual responsibility for a moral tomorrow. And, our vision of the world we wish to create is even more than this… as our principles show:
Our vision is of a world that affirms and promotes the inherent worth and dignity of every person.
Our vision is of a world that affirms and promotes justice, equity and compassion in human relations.
Our vision is of a world that affirms and promotes acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.
Our vision is of a world that affirms and promotes a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.
Our vision is of a world that affirms and promotes the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.
Our vision is of a world that affirms and promotes the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.
Our vision is of a world that affirms and promotes respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
And it is so much more than this… for with each and every Unitarian Universalist our vision changes and grows. One of the primary reasons we come together in religious community is to continually explore that vision, and to find where it connects to our individual passions. Like my understanding of God, we can sense the outlines and touch the heart of our vision, but we will never be able to grasp it in its fullness, for the fullness of the vision that I believe rests at the heart of Unitarian Universalism is too vast to be captured by any individual, or even by us all. Each of us is called to serve that vision in different ways, perhaps as an activist for peace, perhaps by raising a family in love and justice. Perhaps we are called to minister to our fellow visionaries, and perhaps we are called to share the vision beyond our faith.
Covenant is, I believe, a tool to serve that vision. It is an expression of the vision of what we would like the world to become, written into our lives as a sacred promise, a holy commitment. We make covenant with each other not to serve each other, but to serve as an example of what we want the world to become. Our vision calls us to that covenant (as Peacebang might put it, the vision initiates the covenant) because serving the future we hope and work for is its purpose.
We do not form covenant in our churches to have peaceful churches… we form covenant in our churches (and in couples whom I perform UU weddings for) so that our lives are constantly called to serve the vision of the world we wish to create. We are reminded by these sacred commitments that we live not just for the now, but also for the future that others will inhabit. Covenant should be a constant reminder that we, as Unitarian Universalists, do indeed serve something greater than ourselves.
The Vision of a “World Made Whole” is the Vertical in our Covenant… and it is just as profound as any concept of God I have ever encountered, including my own.
Yours in Faith,