Principles, Virtues, Growth and Evangelism

I have been arguing that UU's ought to de-emphasize our "principles" as the basis of our moral and ethical work, and turn instead to promoting a set of virtues that make up liberality, or liberalism, or liberal religion.

I think that we ought to state explicitly that the purpose of our common religious life is to promote reverence, humility, self-possession, openness, gratitude, solidarity, and honesty as personal and public virtues.  I don't want to make them a code, so you may have a slightly different list, or different words, but you get the idea, I hope.

Our worship are public and inclusive rituals that inspire us to recommit to these virtues in our daily lives.  Our congregations are covenanted communities for the purpose of mutual inspiration of ourselves and others to make these virtues the defining signs of our character.

It doesn't much matter why people think that these virtues are important; it's that they do.  And it doesn't matter much how people understand how they come to them -- whether through introspection, detachment, divine grace, or intellectual clarity; it's that commit themselves to that process.  As long they understand that the process of personal and social transformation is on-going, uneven, and filled with trial and error, we are partners.

Principles are things that one believes in.  They are intellectual propositions.  It makes our work of growth and evangelism a process of persuading people of things they should believe in.  Which, of course, we don't like to do.  As much as we try to avoid it, we end up persuading.

Virtues are habits of the heart -- ways of acting.  Our work of growth and evangelism is inviting people to practice these virtues in their lives, and to reflect on the results and on the obstacles to them.  Our role is to inspire, more than persuade.

Concretely, and this is a distinction that others have made: Principles ask people to believe first, then belong and then behave.

Virtues turn that around: behave first, then belong, then believe.

What a difference it would make if we stopped the search for like-minded people, and just tried to inspire the people in our communities to adopt the virtues of liberality.  Suddenly, instead of thinking that the people who are our potential companions are a tiny group open to a particular set of religious propositions, we see that we are part of a much larger body of people trying to lead lives open-hearted reverence, honesty, humility, conscience and justice.


  1. Your final paragraph!!! It's the way forward.


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