The Online Mirriam Dictionary defines being broadly as something that exists, or even is thought to exist. In this context, being, for some, includes everything in the universe, including stars, rivers, mountains, rocks, plants, trees, fungi, bacteria and animals. Being may also refer to only things that are alive, and for some, this would include plants, bacteria, and fungi. Further refinement of being for some means only those species that are sentient. This raises the question, what do we mean by sentient? This too has variable meanings, but mostly refers to the ability to perceive or feel things, such as being able to feel, see, hear, smell, or taste. Sentience also means being aware.
We Unitarian Universalists are not alone in grappling with the understanding of being. Wikipedia, for example, says:
"Being is an extremely broad concept encompassing objective and subjective features of reality and existence. Anything that partakes in being is also called a "being", though often this use is limited to entities that have subjectivity (as in the expression "human being"). So broad a notion has inevitably been elusive and controversial in the history of philosophy, beginning in western philosophy with attempts among the pre-Socratics to deploy it intelligibly."
How are we then to use "being" intelligibly when we speak of the First Principle? How can we as Unitarian Universalists have shared meanings when the word being refers more to poetry and metaphor than to scientific understanding or philosophic exactitude? Let me offer some insights that might develop and deepen our use of the word.
1. Language of reverence and religion is indeed like metaphor and poetry. Words only point to how we make meaning from our experiences of reality and we use them broadly in connecting to one another in themes that are beyond words. By leaving "being" open to interpretation, much as we would the word "God" we allow spaciousness for individual discernment in making meaning and determining action in life.
2. Currently the First Principle uses the word, "person," which is also open to interpretation. In Wikipedia, a person
"is a being, such as a human, that has certain capacities or attributes constituting personhood, which in turn is defined differently by different authors in different disciplines, and by different cultures in different times and places."
Person in ethics also denotes those individuals that merit moral consideration, including nonhuman species. In most common usage, however, person refers to Homo sapiens and for this reason replacing being with person will be more inclusive for the multiple species for which we humans have moral concern.
3. We could replace person in the First Principle with individual instead of being. This has possibilities in that individual can refer to humans and nonhumans, yet does seem to explicitly exclude non living entities (which would be a relief to some, and problematic for others). Karl Marx writes of individuality:
"It depends not on consciousness , but on being ; not on thought, but on life; it depends on the individual's empirical development and manifestation of life, which in turn depends on the conditions existing in the world."
In both instances #2 and #3 above, the terms person and individual loop back to meaning being, with being suggesting the most broadly inclusive of species other than humans, at least in popular vernacular. For this reason, I suggest the use of being above all others as we have centuries of social constructs to deconstruct and need the most ample terms as possible to lead us away from drawing a firm line where worth and dignity and moral concern begin and end. Being compels our minds to wander, and our hearts to wonder, both a noble pursuit for Unitarian Universalists.
Regardless of how each defines "being" the goal is to grow our circle of compassion for individuals, including ourselves, as we grow our own sense of belonging to and interconnecting with all of existence.
Rev. LoraKim Joyner, DVM
First Principle Project Facilitator
Newsflash! The Unitarian Universalist BuddhistFellowship will dedicate an entire edition of their newsletter to the First Principle and the meaning of being. Thanks to them for endorsing this project and the revision to the First Principle!