Come to the Table: Unitarian Universalism’s Six Sources

Most religions have creeds. Unitarian Universalists pointedly don’t. UU’s do have two lists of suggestions: the seven principles and the six sources. No, after five years in a Unitarian Universalist Church I don’t have them memorized. Yes, the Nicene Creed (and Apostle’s Creed), Lord’s Prayer, Hail Mary, Doxology, Act of Contrition, the Ten Commandments, and most of the Beatitudes are still at the tip of my tongue. I have passages at scripture that pop out when triggered, and I could certainly have responded appropriately in Mass, at least until Fall 2011, when the responses changed. 35 years in Methodist, Catholic, and Episcopal churches with plenty of repetition in school, church, and youth group implanted them deeply.

I can paraphrase the principles, although not in order, if given time. The sources? Not so much. The principles are words of intent that translate easily to a course of action. While not binding, they are the more prominent expression of common belief. Unitarian Universalists aren’t uniformly behind the principles (or even behind the idea of them), but they are a nidus around which we can discuss common ground. They’re debated (as is their existence), but what isn’t in a UU congregation?

The six sources, however, are less visible and less discussed. They are in the front of the hymnal and on several promotional materials, but they don’t get the air time as a uniting list that the principles do. Here they are:

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.

The list is not hierarchical. One source isn’t better or worse than any other. The sources aren’t full-course meal, designed to be consumed in entirety. They are a smörgåsbord, a range of ever-ready choices for the seeker of meaning and truth. I delight in that smörgåsbord. I was raised with a mini-version of that table of bounty. Five years ago, joined a much larger table when I joined a UU church, a place dedicated to the belief that the choices are vast and mine to make. It is bountiful. 

Our sources that set us apart from other liberal traditions. Our principles would likely be acceptable among many progressive and liberal believers of many traditions.  The sources would not.  Our six sources distribute the weight of understanding about the world among the self, the prophetic and wise ones who walked before us, the world’s faith traditions, and the rational, scientific brain. This distribution is without bias, although individual churches may lean more heavily toward one or more source, while others lean in different directions. 

It is this distinction that also sets at odds with other traditions. We’re not one single thing. We’re not all believer or nonbelievers, and we’re not always what we started as. We’re a community in flux, ideally growing and learning continually and certainly always changing, celebrating the diversity of the table and welcoming those who eat from the opposite end as ourselves. As tolerant as other faith traditions are, I can’t think of one that offers this rich of a spread or one that would encourage the search that UUs are encouraged to take any and every day.

Perhaps, it’s this freedom of choice that keeps us from growing. The elevator speech for Unitarian Universalism requires a mighty tall building with a slow elevator, preferably maving several stops. The answer to the inevitable question, “What do UU’s believe?” is long and unwieldy. Even if the seven principles roll of your tongue, you’ve only partially answered the question by the eighth floor. “But what do you believe?” is either spoken or implied. “Where to you get your wisdom? What is your source? What one thing/idea/person/deity is your bottom line?”

The floors tick by, and your questioner grows impatient and perhaps uncomfortable. This is the hard question. It’s the one that takes the courage to answer. The principles are easy. The sources take admitting uncertainty, and uncertainty is not the hallmark of any other faith. If, before the twelfth floor, you manage to mention that we draw from the wisdom of the world’s religions, you can rest knowing you’ve summed up three of the six. It will likely take three or more floors to explain that doesn’t mean you believe in all those deities or none of them, and that really that’s a moot point.

If you recover your sensibility and still have an audience, you may mention reason or science, but don’t know if I’ve made it that far. I’m worn out by then, and generally ready to be rejected outright or tuned out. Also, I admit I tend to forget the other three: personal experience of the wonder of life, the words and deeds of the great men and women who have come before us, and science and reason. I don’t forget because they’re unimportant. They’re essential. They just don’t roll off my tongue.

And I don’t think they sit easily with others. You’re likely 20 stories up by now, and your audience is either riveted and asking for directions, looking at you with pity since you’ll never “get”it, or asking another question. “But what do UUs believe?”

“So many different things.”

“Come and see.”

“If you’re asking the questions (and still listening to the rambling answers), it’s the place for you.”

It’s not an easy question to answer because there is no one answer. And that likely keeps many folks from checking us out. Why come if there’s no one “thing”? Why come if a member can’t even tell you what the place is about. What’s the point? In a busy world where speed matters and speed toward a goal matters more, why join a group of people who are rather vague (as a group, at least) about what they hold to be true? And why join a group where the person to your right and the person to your right may hold a vastly different view of the meaning of life and truth than you? You might as well celebrate your own truth at the IHOP or Starbucks Sunday morning. What’s the point of choosing a church that doesn’t tell you what to think and believe?

I don’t have an answer, but I’d like to hear what you say. As I see it, the lack of a clear answer — a single truth — is what makes us UU and makes it hard for us to grow our congregations and spread the larger values of Unitarian Universalism to more people. It is what appeals to me personally and concerns me institutionally. We’re shrinking, and in an increasingly complicated world, people seem to be seeking firm, simple answers. We’re not competing for those who want simple answer Sunday morning  — there are plenty of places for them. Rather we’re seeking those who can live with uncertainty, share the values of our big, somewhat messy set of suggestions, and want to work for a better world.

We have such bounty at our table, so much to share. So how do we do it? How do we market ourselves in a world where deep seeking and questioning are not the norm? Do we need a unifying message, concise enough for a shorter elevator yet still expansive enough to include us all? If so, how do we communicate that? Your turn.

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3 thoughts on “Come to the Table: Unitarian Universalism’s Six Sources

  1. Great post! I find it interesting that as a UU now, the Principles are a source of great depth and spirituality for me. However, the first time I walked into a UU church, it was reading the Sources and not the Principles that convinced me I was in the right place. I think we would do well to fit them into our elevator speeches in more articulate ways. Like you, I focus on drawing from the world’s religions, but I often forget the other three.

  2. Ah the elevator speech. I tend to shy away from giving it. I tend to also tell the person that that is a difficult question only because there are so many beliefs under one roof and mine may differ from them, but we agree to be together and be in community and support each other in our spiritual journey. Ha, I guess I gave you my elevator speech after all….:-). By the way, I’m enjoying discovering your blog.

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