Widening the circle
Letter from Away — February 17, 2022
On Sunday I was part of the congregation at the First Universalist Church in Rockland for the first time in more than two years. I joined the church more than a decade ago, because of the choir, and stayed for the comfort that came from sharing ritual and being part of what Dr. Martin Luther King called “the beloved community.”
This week the pastor, Rev. Marty Pelham, spoke about changes that are being discussed in the way UU congregations describe their principles, sources, and purposes. In particular, he told us about an effort called the First Principle Project.
Unitarian Universalists currently affirm seven principles that support their beliefs. The first of these is the “inherent worth and dignity of every person” and the seventh is “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”
“Whether one is a theist, a secular humanist, a pagan, or a mystic, isn’t there a common question about whether there was a single point of origin for what we understand as the universe?” he asked. “Whether we’re talking about the beginning as big bang or ruach (a Hebrew word translated as God’s spirit which also means breath, air, and wind) … rocks and tadpoles and humans did not come from different creators.”
And he asked, as I often do, “Why is the first principle just about humans? Does inherent worth and dignity exist in all the elements that are connected by the interdependent web? Why do we — not necessarily all of us but many many people — perceive humans as separate and inherently more worthy than the rest of creation?”
Pelham went on to tell us that the Bible which underpins so much of what Western European cultures (and Middle Eastern, as well) believe stems from three stories.
“God is at first portrayed as all-powerful, commanding things to come into existence, which they obediently do,” he said. “But God is not the only creator in the text. When God says ‘Let the earth bring forth …’ in Genesis 1:24, the living creatures don’t just instantly appear. The earth is responsive and brings forth, and everything that the earth brings forth is then affirmed as good.
“In the second creation account, God is not an ethereal force but a being that walks with the first humans and physically plants the first garden.
“And then there is the 28th verse of Genesis, which talks about dominion. That verse is still being used to justify taking and using any element of nature in any manner humans want to, making humans always the active powerful subject and every other element of nature merely the object. Yet the root word of what became the word dominion means household. So, while the term may indicate responsibility, it is about kinship rather than consumption.”
Unitarian and Universalist thinking were strongly influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment, Pelham told us. “In some instances, I think, as they grew beyond a belief in a world under the control of supernatural beings, they simply replaced the will of God with the will of humans.
“This belief that humans, not only as a species but also as individuals, are the center and purpose of all existence is the foundation for an extractive capitalism that sees no consequences beyond the immediate fulfillment of desire. An economy that views every plant, animal, and mineral as an isolated ingredient in the marketplace. An economy at the heart of climate destruction.”
He suggested our definition of “person” is too small, saying the word could instead be used to describe all the many and diverse forms of life that have been, and are still being, created.
“A being is regarded as a person when that being has a relationship with another, creating an effect for or on the other. Tripping over tree roots, breathing oxygen created by plants, eating an egg, feeling ecstasy from the presence of a beautiful butterfly, being bitten by a black fly — all create relationship.”
“How do we understand beings that are not human?” he asked. “How do we understand ourselves in relation to them? Do we recognize ourselves as custodians, stewards, dominators, consumers, or kin of natural resources?”
The First Principle Project is asking the UU Assembly to replace the word “person” in their first principle with the word “being,” asking congregations “… to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every being.”
“Anxiety and despair about our society and our planet are realities of our time,” Pelham said on Sunday. “Active hope consists of courage to be present and respond to what is real, not because we know things will turn out well but because the love we feel for the miracle of existence will not let us sit idly by, even when we are anxious and despairing. Hope enables us to respond even when we don’t know if we can turn the tide, even when we believe we can’t.”
“I know that changing the wording of our principles will not save the planet,” he said in closing. “However, engaging in deep reflection about our relationship with all of the beings in this world, examining our lives, as individuals and a community, in light of those relationships, and acting on what we learn can change us. It may not save us, it may not save the world, it might be too late.
“But widening the circle of hope might alleviate suffering, embrace anxiety with care, and soothe despair. And there is a great need for that.”
Shlomit Auciello is a writer, photographer, and human ecologist who has lived in Midcoast Maine since 1988. Letter From Away has appeared online and in print, on and off since 1992, and is published here on a weekly basis.