This series of articles on the Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism reflects the understanding and priorities of one Unitarian Universalist.
4. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.
The key concerns of the Fourth Principle are freedom and responsibility. Unitarian Universalists believe that both of these are important components of 1) exploring spiritual and philosophical questions, and 2) once we find answers that satisfy us, putting those insights into practice.
Today many people express their desire for freedom in exploring life’s deeper questions with the phrase, “I am spiritual, but not religious.” When people say this, they usually mean that their spiritual quest is entirely personal. Organized religion, to them, is something that would interfere with their intellectual and personal freedom. Often people who feel this way have had experiences with oppressive religious communities that taught inflexible ideologies, or imposed psychological control over their members’ lives in the form of “groupthink.”
It’s true that oppressive religious communities do a great deal of damage. Many people were first drawn to Unitarian Universalism because of its respect for individual freedom. Unitarian Universalism encourages its members to explore any faith traditions that inspire them, and to form their own personal theology.
But is an entirely individualistic approach to spirituality sufficient? Rev. Rebecca Ann Parker, president of Starr King School for the Ministry, doesn’t think so:
Is it really preferable (or even possible) to be religious alone? We need life together, and liberals would be wise to invest in rebuilding the walls of community. My suspicion is that religious conservatism has grown not because its theology is more inspiring than that of liberal theology, but because conservatives in recent decades have been better at creating and sustaining religious communities that offer people meaningful connection with one another and support in enduring life’s trials and tribulations.
— From A House for Hope
Religious community is where responsibility fits in. A religious community should be a place where you can find people whose spiritual path is similar to your own, people with whom you can discuss, examine, and refine your personal theology.
A healthy religious community is also a place where you can safely begin to put your insights into practice. It’s not necessary to share others’ theology to be in sympathy with their goals. For example, social justice work is a practical area where people can work together to make their aspirations a reality in the world.
Friendship energizes and gives focus to shared spiritual aspirations. In the pursuit of a common goal, the effectiveness of a group of people who share this kind of camaraderie is greater than the sum of its parts. But of course, for this to really work, the group must also respect and nurture the freedom of each individual.
Responsibility without freedom can lead to frustration, resentment, and an increasing disillusionment with static religious observances and creeds. Freedom without responsibility can lead to emotional imbalance, alienation from others, and a lack of effectiveness in putting one’s principles into practice.
A much-loved Unitarian Universalist hymn expresses the healthy relationship between responsibility and freedom:
Roots hold me close; wings set me free.
— “Spirit of Life” by Carolyn McDade
from Singing the Living Tradition
Unitarian Universalism is a living tradition, not a static one. The Fourth Principle keeps our spiritual journey fresh and vibrant, continually evolving as our understanding matures.
There are seven principles which Unitarian Universalist congregations affirm and promote:
- The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
- Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
- Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
- A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
- The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
- The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
- Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.