The fourth principle of the Unitarian Univeralist Association’s covenant affirms the value of “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” Both of the adjectives in that fine phrase are important; freedom and responsibility belong together in a kind of creative tension.
One of the things that I have always valued about our religious tradition is the permission and active encouragement that it gives each individual to explore freely among the many sources of spiritual wisdom and inspiration. Each person is truly free to search for those teachings that resonate most deeply within and that provide them with both challenge and support. Needless to say, this kind of spiritual freedom is not always granted by religious authorities, who may restrict in advance the permissible areas where truth and meaning are to be sought – solely in this sacred text, or that holy teacher, or using only this authorized method, for example. I doubt that I would last very long in any religious community that declared certain theological ideas “off limits” in principle. I also understand that for many people, the sheer number and variety of possible spiritual pathways may make the whole idea of a spiritual search seem overwhelming. As one former parishioner put it, “you say that the church will support me in my spiritual path, but how do I find a path to begin with?” An important part of spiritual leadership is to serve as a guide and companion for those trying to find their way in what can sometimes seem like a trackless wilderness. I find this aspect of ministry to be deeply satisfying, and I’m always grateful when people ask for support as they exercise their spiritual freedom.
This fundamental spiritual liberty at the heart of our faith does not mean that Unitarian Universalists can, as the expression goes, “believe anything they want.” If you really want to raise my blood pressure, try telling me that! I once heard a young person share that understanding of his church’s teaching during his “coming of age” ceremony — our equivalent of confirmation — and I thought to myself that his congregation had utterly failed him in some essential way. That definition of our tradition is, in a word, irresponsible. It is a half-truth at best. It fails to recognize the second half of our fourth principle – that our free search is carried out in a responsible way, which means that we are called to respond to others in our religious community, others who will have insights, discoveries, and questions of their own. As we share our discoveries, our insights, our conclusions — our “revelations,” if you will – with others, we will be challenged and our sense of truth and meaning will have to expand and deepen. Together, we construct truth and meaning as an ever-evolving process.
If we fail to exercise our full spiritual freedom, our vision of truth and meaning will be narrow, stale, and rigid. On the other hand, if we fail to exercise our responsibility, the result will be an assortment of individual visions that are fragmented, idiosyncratic, and ungrounded in a shared reality. Together, freedom and responsibility can combine to create a powerful shared vision of spiritual community.
In good faith,