Q: What’s the difference between cats and dogs?
A: Dogs look at people and say, “They feed us. They give us shelter. They take care of our every need. They must be gods.” Cats look at people and say, “They feed us. They give us shelter. They take care of our every need. We must be gods.” In the 19th century Thomas Starr King was asked to describe the differences between the two denominations Unitarianism and Universalism. He replied, “Universalists believe that God is too good to damn them to hell forever. Unitarians believe they are too good to be damned.” And so we might say that Unitarians are cats and Universalists are dogs.
As I mentioned earlier, I have been contemplating whether the core of our faith is love or covenant. I think it is love, one of my colleagues argues it is covenant. And as many of you know this summer at our denominational meeting, a new description of Unitarian Universalism will be presented and voted on. The description of our faith does not come from a god, goddess, bishop or higher ups in our denomination, it is voted on by you—by Unitarian Universalist congregational members. What is being presented this summer is the idea that Love is the foundation of our faith and that from this foundation come our core values—honoring and affirming interdependence—the interdependent web of all existence, equity—every person has the right to flourish with inherent worth and dignity, transformation—growing spiritually and ethically in an ever-changing world, pluralism—diversity in culture, experience and theology, generosity—cultivating gratitude, hope, and compassion, and justice—dismantling all forms of racism and systemic oppression and support of the democratic process.
I have to say I jumped on the Love is the center of our faith bandwagon right away. I have always wondered why love was nowhere in our present description of our faith.
In Junior year of high school, as I left the Catholic church, I felt an emptiness, a need to believe in something. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote: “a person will worship something—have no doubt about that. We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts—but it will out. That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.” So I didn’t jump into a new religion, though I have to admit, I did check out what the Catholic youth group was doing with I arrived at Texas Christian University. I think I did this because I was looking for community more than anything else.
Yet as I looked to fill that hole, that emptiness, the only thing I felt I could count on was the love I gave to my friends and the love the gave to me. Now I have a small group of very close friends. They are great guys. We did almost everything together. We also learned many lessons together, but that is another sermon. One friend I have known since third grade, another I met in Jr. High, and the last few in High School. We trusted one another with our lives, our secrets, our fears and sorrows. When one of us was in need, we were there for them. So this is what I filled that emptiness inside me with. And this is what I held onto until I found Unitarian Universalism.
My first impressions of Unitarian Universalism were at First Jefferson Unitarian Universalist Church or as we affectionately called it the church with the too long name. This is the sanctuary. And actually they changed their name recently to All Peoples Church Unitarian Universalist due to Thomas Jefferson’s complicated history. Each Sunday, we said a covenant, not unlike how we say a covenant here at UU Miami each Sunday. The FJUUC covenant was: “Love is the doctrine of this church, the quest of truth is its sacrament, and service is its prayer. To dwell together in peace, to seek knowledge in freedom, to serve human need, to the end that all souls shall grow into harmony with one another.” This covenant made sense to me, it affirmed my belief in love. That love was foundational to what held me together and what held Unitarian Universalism together.
As I studied Unitarian Universalist history, this love foundation was affirmed in what I learned about Universalism. Universalism always held love as most important, more important than belief. A loving God, loving one another. The symbol on the screen was the symbol of the Universalist Church of America before the 1961 merger with Unitarianism. The early Universalist churches were more about pastoral care, communal care, support of those in need. Some of our early Universalist Social Justice workers found love to be foundational in their belief that they were called to help those in need by being abolitionists, by helping the injured in war, by working for woman’s rights.
I have been all set to vote at General Assembly this year for Love being the foundation of Unitarian Universalism. But my colleague made a good case for covenant being foundational to our faith. As he talked, I decided to look up some of our forebears’ thoughts on covenant. Unitarian Universalist minister Reverend Alice Blair Wesley wrote: “A covenanted free church is a body of individuals who have freely made a profoundly simple promise, a covenant: We pledge to walk together in the spirit of mutual love. The spirit of love is alone worthy of our ultimate, our religious loyalty. So, we shall meet often to take counsel concerning the ways of love, and we will yield religious authority solely to our own understanding of what these ways are, as best we can figure them out or learn or remember them, together.”
I have also thought more on this idea of Covenant. I perceive covenant as coming from our Unitarian forebears. They believed in being independently minded, not simply believing in something because other people believed it. They were so independent that for years they couldn’t form a denomination because they feared losing their independence of thought. That coming together as a denomination would result in dogma and creed, and less theological acumen. This quote is from forebear Reverend William Ellery Channing: “I call that mind free which jealously guards its intellectual rights and powers, which calls no man master, which does not content itself with a passive or hereditary faith, which opens itself to light whence soever it may come, which receives new truth as an angel from Heaven.” That is why we are the Unitarian Universalist Association. The idea of independent democratic spiritual communities in community with one another is a legacy from our forebears. They wanted to maintain our independence of thought and belief while still being able to have a larger association for support, for a larger prophetic voice, for sharing ideas, practices, beliefs, and ultimately to affirm our common values. They also affirmed that being part of a Unitarian congregation is and must always be a personal choice.
Covenant, from a Unitarian Universalist perspective, has two parts: a personal choice to be a part of a congregation and deciding how we will be in community with one another. When I meet with someone interested in joining UU Miami I affirm that this their own personal decision—I will not try to manipulate them or try to make them feel guilty, nor will anyone else in the congregation. I tell them that they should join this congregation because this community means something to them, is important to them, and not because of some trans-nationalism. This is not a transactional faith—in which you are always looking for what you get from being part of this congregation. It is a covenantal faith. You voluntarily agree to be in a community with shared values—values that include treating each other and everyone you meet as having worth and dignity. That includes a belief that decisions should be made both within these walls and beyond these walls through the democratic process. Being part of this community means we covenant to treat not only each other, but everyone compassionately, justly, equitably. We affirm in our words and our actions that we are part of many interdependent webs—this community web, our family web, the web our nature/mother earth, the web of existence. Since we embrace this interdependence, we know that what we do to one affects us all.
I believe in the importance of covenant. It shapes the natural of our relationships here. is how we agree to be with one another. In this congregation, we decide how we will worship, how we will govern, what committees, programs, educational experiences there are, who is the minister, what staff we have, everything is decided by a democratic process by you, the members of UU Miami. You have elected leaders to be fiscal agents and policy developers, but ultimately this is your, and only your, congregation. Your covenanted community.
Are we a faith with love as its center or covenant at its center? That’s something each of us has to answer for ourselves. I believe in the values that we affirm and promote. But here’s the chicken or egg dilemma, is love where our faith comes from? Is love foundational to our values, the place where our values come from? Or it being in a covenantal community, where we decide how to be together, where we decide what love means and how we will live that love in community the foundation of our faith? On Sunday mornings, do we say our UU Miami covenant to affirm how we will be with one another? Or does the covenant come from a place of love for one another? What do you think? I look forward to hearing what you think.