Saturday, April 26, 2014

Defining Ourselves Through the First Principle: Part I

For the last several years when preaching or in participating in Unitarian Universalist activities, I state the First Principle as "the inherent worth and dignity of every being."  This reframing on my part, and others, far proceeds the current First Principle Project that seeks to engender deep reflection, spiritual practice, faith development, shared understandings, and critical thought by proposing a permanent change to the First Principle which currently reads "the inherent worth and dignity of every person."  With this one word change, our world changes, for we become a people called to hold how incredibly wondrous is each and every individual, and how their existence merits our consideration.  In truth, the world has been changing for some time as philosophers, ministers, prophets, scientists, and poets increasingly illuminate for us how humans are not at the top of any supposed hierarchy of worth, dignity, and beauty, but instead deeply enmeshed in a world where the existence of other species calls us to greater scientific, religious, and ethical scrutiny of our assumptions and behaviors.

This work of living out our principles is never easy, for our principles are not an acceptance of the reality under which we live with imperfect justice and compassion, but a vision for which we ache and long. The First Principle lays out a fundamental, yet broad basis, on which to orient our behavior, both as individuals and as a collective.  It is a call to our hearts and dreams, and is not meant to be a standard to judge behavior. Instead it is a sacred calling of what might be possible in each of us.  Our Principles are informed and inspired by stories, poems, songs, and even dance, pictures, and video.

Because the dream our vision calls us to weave together into reality  has so many rich materials from which to work, agreeing upon precise wording might not ultimately matter, for a vision is like a poem that invokes, invites, and compels, but does not define.  This is not to say that we don't delve into what our words means. We do so not because there might be some inherent and unchanging reality to which each word points, but because by defining what our words mean to each of us, we build a community of understanding and a community that knows each other and this world. By struggling with sharing what we mean, we build relationships and we build possibility.  Knowing and not flinching from the experiences and understandings of others, we become wiser collectively, which means we become more powerful, more compassionate, and more able to quickly alleviate suffering wherever we may.   This process of sharing meaning is especially important with processes and words that pertain to values, emotions, and behavior that impacts others, such as in the case of our Principles. This is no easy task, for crafting new Principles where there is 100% agreement will prove difficult, because each paints their sense of flourishing and tragedy differently through the filter of their genetics, cultural and family influences, and experiences. 

Yet, it is a worthy task before us.  As Denny Davidoff, past Unitarian Universalist Moderator, once said, “The defining moment of Unitarian Universalism is always now.”  Now is the time to engage in changing the First Principle, for the moment is always now to love the world and all its beings with as much heart and reason as we can muster. 

Let me then invite you to share with one another what the First Principle, as it stands now and with the proposed changes, means to you as a whole.  Also, what do the specific words mean, and what examples or stories can you use to illustrate your meaning and understanding?

Please do this with one another so that we may journey forward in fashioning common and shared understandings, taking a leap of faith that we the many may also work and love as one.

Your comments, thoughts, and meanings may be shared here.

In the next few weeks I will lay out what we have learned together.

Here then is the Principle with the value laden words in italics and bold:

(We covenant to affirm and promote) the inherent worth and dignity of every being (or person).

Rev. LoraKim Joyner, DVM
First Principle Project Facilitator


  1. I reflect that there is such a thing as humiliation. So when we affirm that every being inherently has worth and dignity we must be careful that we never mean this affirmation in a way that would deny the reality of humiliation or diminish its significance. We don't want to say, "attempts to humiliate can never succeed because worth and dignity are inherent -- unstrippable -- therefore we don't need to take humiliation seriously." By "inherent" we don't mean you're immune to humiliation -- I think we mean that the materials for restoring your sense of worth and dignity are always available.


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