Saturday, February 20, 2010

Principles and Prejudice: How Do We Fully Apply Our Beliefs?

Principles and Prejudice: How Do We Fully Apply Our Beliefs?
by Desmond Ravenstone

When asked what Unitarian Universalists believe, we often point to our Seven Principles as a guide to our shared values. These principles are also cited in how we respond to various issues and questions in our lives, both individually and collectively. Yet this can also raise the question of how we apply them in various situations. Are we consistent, or selective? Do we apply all of the principles to a given problem, or only one at a time? And do we use them to “filter” our possible preconceptions and prejudices, or to challenge them in a more active process of discernment?

In the anthology Reverend X: How Generation X Ministers Are Shaping Unitarian Universalism, the Reverend John Cullinan recalls an incident related to him through an online message board:

A woman had come to the director of religious education at a church looking to volunteer as a teacher. In the course of their conversation, she admitted that she made the bulk of her living as a dominatrix. The DRE was troubled by this and explained that he found himself with a dilemma. “Do I,” he wondered, “ignore this information and take on a willing volunteer? Or do I reject her and avoid the potential controversy, or worse?”[1]

Cullinan further elaborated how others involved in the exchange insisted that the DRE should accept her, citing the First Principle of accepting her inherent worth and dignity – and he in turn admitted how he was “astonished” that it “had been recast … as the maxim ‘don’t say no to people’” and “transformed into a tool by which the individual was absolved of the responsibility to make judgments or to be accountable to community.”[2]

While I would agree on some level with the author that our First Principle was oversimplified, two other questions crossed my mind on reading this story. First: What about our other six principles, such as a free and responsible search for meaning and truth, and acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations? Second: Why see only two possible responses – accept but ignore, or reject but avoid – neither of which seems like a constructive response?

Our principles are not merely a laundry list of good ideas. They are expressions of our core values of justice, love and discernment; and just as each of these values is linked inextricably to one another, so each of the Seven Principles relies upon one another. We cannot, for example truly accept and encourage one another to spiritual growth, or exercise the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process, without engaging together in a free and responsible search for meaning and truth. Our desire for a world community cannot be fully realized without also affirming our inherent worth and dignity, as well as our place in the interdependent web of all existence.

This in turn leads to my second question, and the challenge to look beyond the more obvious dilemma towards a more constructive solution. For one thing, the “dilemma” posed is much deeper than merely accepting or rejecting the woman’s offer to volunteer for the church’s religious education program. There is the presumption that the only way to accept her offer is to ignore the information which she disclosed; and further, that the only way to deal with any potential controversy is to avoid it through rejection of her offer. When we cling to such presumptions, rather than seek to challenge them, then we reduce our decision-making into a simplistic “filtering” of loaded options, and invite misuse of documents like our Seven Principles to pick the least uncomfortable option rather than craft alternative courses by which we may more fully put our beliefs into action.

If we believe that each of our UU principles are linked to one another, and that therefore acceptance is linked to seeking the truth, then these principles challenge us to engage in the important step of deepening our understanding of the situation before us. The DRE in this scenario could have asked the woman to explain why she chose this line of work, how she relates to her clientele, her own insights into BDSM, and how to engage others in the congregation regarding all of this information. In turn, the DRE could give the woman an idea of the makeup of the congregation, and especially those directly involved with religious education, so as to provide her with a better understanding of what she might face as a volunteer. This conversation could lead to a covenanting process, where clear guidelines are provided regarding whether and when the subject of her profession would be discussed; they could both agree that she would make no such disclosure to any children she might teach, for example, while the issue would be raised with the church’s RE committee and ministerial staff. Last and certainly not least, he should express gratitude for her honest disclosure, and the opportunity to share and learn one from another.

Such a process of discernment is necessary not only to make the right decision whether to accept or reject, or to what degree, but to do so with authenticity and integrity. One cannot truly accept any person or how they live without fully understanding them; nor are we doing justice to someone by rejecting them out of hand, or simply to “avoid controversy”. Discernment is the antidote to prejudice in all of its forms, whether it is our presumptions about certain people, or our presumptions about which choices are available to us and how we should choose between them. Where prejudice is reactive and allows only a partial exercise of our faith, discernment is proactive and thereby calls us to apply our beliefs more fully.

[1] “Digging Deep: Our Communal Responsibility to Our Principles” by Reverend John Cullinam; in Reverend X: How Generation X Ministers Are Shaping Unitarian Universalism, edited by Tamara Lebak and Bret Lortie (Jenkins Lloyd Jones Press, Tulsa OK, 2008). Page 72
[2] Ibid, pp 72-73