Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Third Principle

This will be published in the Feb. 2010 OutWords.

The third principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association is “acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.” Like all of our Principles, this one is concerned not with belief, but with ways of relating to one another. And while at first blush the two prescriptions contained in this principle may not seem necessarily related (might we not have acceptance without encouragement or vice versa?) , a closer analysis reveals that they are closely inter-related and mutually reinforcing.
First of all, there is acceptance. In matters religious, as in so many things, it seems to me that our inability to accept stems mainly from problems of language and vocabulary. One of the many failings of the English language is its inherent bias towards bi-valued logic. A thing either is or it isn't; a statement is either true or not-true. Our language has a hard time dealing with what Robert A. Wilson referred to as “fuzzy logic.” We have difficulty conceiving that a statement might be both true and not-true, or somewhere in between. If someone says, “Jesus Christ died for your sins,” we feel compelled to either agree or disagree, to accept the statement or deny it. Either Jesus died for your sins or he didn't, right?
No, thankfully. While the human mind and our English language like to see things in terms of black and white, the world itself (or more precisely, the individual worlds we each inhabit) feels no need to accommodate our notions of either-or. If we would become truly accepting of others, we must first cleanse ourselves of the concept of universal truth-values. The statement, “Jesus Christ died for your sins,” may well be true in the vocabulary of Christianity but not-true (or just not relevant) in the vocabulary of Secular Humanism. Until we wrap our minds around this concept, true acceptance of one another, I feel, will continue to elude us.
Next, we have “encouragement to spiritual growth.” What is meant by this? Especially when directed at a group in which more than one member might raise an eyebrow at the use of the term “spiritual”? What if you don't believe in “spirit” or “soul;” what then of “spiritual growth”?
My understanding is that by spiritual growth we simply mean the process by which a person realizes or manifests their ideal self. Spiritual growth means working on yourself, trying to make yourself better than what you are now. We could easily replace the words “spiritual growth” with “self-improvement” and not lose any of the import. So what is the connection between self-improvement and acceptance of one another? It is that the latter provides the fertile ground for the former. Acceptance of one another and of our different ways of understanding the universe creates the supportive environment that is necessary for the difficult work of self-development.
And it is not just that acceptance creates the conditions in which an “encouragement to spiritual growth” will be fruitful, but acceptance itself is encouragement. The feeling of being accepted is the feeling of being loved, and the feeling of love leads to the desire to love back, to love more, and it is this desire that is the motive force behind all spiritual growth and personal development.
But encouragement doesn't stop at acceptance. We are also expected to spur each other onwards in our growth. This does not, however, imply that I should try to convince my fellow UUers, or anyone else, to believe as I believe. As Søren Kierkegaard put it, “as regards that which each must do for himself, the best that one man can do for another is to unsettle him.” Our encouragement should always be with an eye towards helping one another spot and avoid complacency, not in convincing others of our own correctness. As Swami Satchitananda put it, “there can be a unity, but there need not be a unanimity.”
Ideally, these two things, acceptance and spiritual growth, catalyze each other within the spiritual community; acceptance leading to growth leading to greater acceptance and greater growth. We may be speaking different languages, using different maps and following different signs, but somehow we are all going in the same basic direction. If we can accept this fact and accept one another, spiritual growth will be the natural result, as the seedling naturally emerges from the seed...even if we don't particularly believe in “spirit.”

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