The gist of the headline above represents the first of seven principles that lie at the core of my Unitarian Universalist faith tradition. During my congregation’s church service this morning, I delivered the following reflection on the subject.
I have always loved the human pageant. I remember as a young man sitting in coffee shops or on park benches, admiring the passing parade, the ceaseless flux of humanity like the most gentle and warm tides. Lovers strolling slowly by, kids gamboling across the grass like lambs in spring, and over yonder, a spirited soccer game between Ecuadorian and German immigrants.
I look into those wild frightening eyes, and I ask, ‘Is there some scintilla of worth and dignity in there? Is there anything recognizably human and good within that shell of a body and a life gone so horribly wrong?’
It’s easy to feel an almost overwhelming love of humanity in such settings. I behold my brothers and sisters, even though I don’t know any of them personally, pursuing their own version of the good life, in all its simplicity and tenderness and joy.
I remember thinking at the time, “Gosh, will I be doing and feeling this same thing when I’m some ancient age like 60 or 65, an old man on a park bench?” This morning, I’m happy to report that I do! And that the human pageant has continued to reward me, whether I’m in the park or at the beach or behind the serving table at our coffee hour after services, which is a rich setting indeed for feeling the love.
At base, such scenes have always reinforced my pretty much unshakeable faith in the essential goodness of human beings. That for all our neuroses and contradictions and fears, we all want to get with the program and do our part to love and be loved in return, to do good and have good done for us.
Which brings us to this question of “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” You might not guess this from everything I have said here, but the first principle is the only one that I have had trouble with over my years as a UU. As our very first, we can assume it has a kind of primacy in our tradition, and here I am, feeling rather wobbly about it.
I trust it’s not grounds for excommunication?
So: what is the source of my doubts? I think they center on evil—plain and simple.
Evil people doing evil things, their wreck of a moral life causing them to abdicate all sense of decency and compassion and regard for their fellow humans. (No, I am not talking about Steve Bannon here…)
Charles Manson is as stark an example as any, I think. I look at that history of his, hear his words, look into those wild frightening eyes, and I ask, “Is there even a scintilla of worth and dignity in there? Is there anything recognizably human and good within that shell of a body and a life gone so horribly wrong?”
And I will admit it’s hard to fathom.
The likes of Manson really test my fidelity to our first principle, and I find myself grappling with nuanced questions in trying to work it out. And I think I’ve come to rest with it here:
That my faith, my default, my approach to every person I meet and observe in my life, has always been that they are essentially good and decent and reflective of my belief in their worth and dignity. That no one is perfect, but everyone is “saved,” in that handy Christian term, by the grace of the loving God who lives within them.
So yes, I do believe in our first principle, and I live out that belief with great passion. And yet…
I think that lives can sometimes go so terribly off the rails, become so twisted in obsessive hatred and a peculiar kind of insanity, that worth and dignity have been vacated, are absent and no longer accessible to that person. And for those of us outside, we knock and we peer in there with our baseline faith in their worth and dignity, but there is no one home, no human response possible to our gesture.
Perhaps this means that our first principle is as much for us as it is for those we extend it to. That it’s an orientation and a faith that will serve us well in this fallen world, even if a given person has lost or forsaken the humanity to receive it.
It’s the same thing we often hear about forgiveness: that we must forgive as much to cleanse our own souls as to absolve others of their transgressions.
In that case, I embrace our first principle as an overarching truth that ultimately serves the purpose of love, of both self and other. Which is quite the point of this whole enterprise and its principles, isn’t it?
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Deep appreciation to the photographers!
Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at the top of this page. Some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Manson photo adaptation by Bill Strain, Pflugerville, Texas, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/billstrain/
Tarahumara Indian photo by Ted McGrath, Vancouver, BC, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/time-to-look/
Old woman photo by Dmitry Ryzhkov, Moscow, Russia, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dmitryzhkov/