The First Principle

Some Relevant History:

The cry of ‘Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité of the French Revolution in 1789, and the Declaration of Independence sent to the King of England from 13 trivial new world colonies in 1776, arose in a world where for roughly 1200 years, clan ties and war had defined hierarchical social orders, and where huge numbers of people in all societies were excluded from holding any rights. Nonetheless, the intellectual ferment of that time was such that Thomas Jefferson could challenge the status-quo by making a claim about self-evident truth: “ We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…” Hundreds of years of “the divine right of kings” was upended by an appeal to that same divinity, who was now credited with establishing the condition of equal rights among all men – by a man who owned slaves.

The defeat of Napoleon in 1812 quickly upended Jefferson’s heretical proposition, returning the anciens regimes back to power. Their mastery was also short-lived, as a new type of revolution scrambled power-structures yet again. The industrial revolution created new social titans and a new under class, and another iteration in the struggle for rights and dignity for those at the bottom of the social order.

After the horrors of World War II, the founding of the United Nations stimulated an ambitious attempt to reach an international consensus on a nation-state’s responsibility for human rights., which resulted in the adoption of the UN Declaration of Human Rights: “ It sets out, for the first time, fundamental human rights to be universally protected.”

Proclaimed in 1948, Article 1 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights reads:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Adding the word ‘inherent’ –

We can hear in its words the echoes of Jefferson and the French philosophes – but of greater relevance to us is how our First Unitarian Principle fits into this progression:

We “affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”

This assertion is certainly similar in intention and meaning to the other two – but a new element is added with the inclusion of the word ‘inherent’ in the UU version. What might this added word imply in terms of the attempt to enshrine in the human spirit an instinctive respect for human rights ?

Let me quote from a sermon by a UU minister, Rev. Ellen Beth Cooper, on the First Principle:
“You carry within you something ineffable, something that Christianity names: “being made in the image of God”, and which Buddhism names “the potential Buddha-nature of all people”, and that which is expressed in the Hindu greeting Namaste – “that which is divine in me honors what is divine in you.”

My inclination is always to look for some material basis for our description of ourselves, for our descriptions of our human nature. Hence at one level, I am discomfited by statements referencing ‘the ineffable’. But they also resonate with me – there is a part of me which cannot discount their hold on my consciousness.

So the question is:

How do you react to the word inherent? How does invoking ‘inherent qualities’ fit with your view of human action? Does this reference enhance the assertion of universal human rights, compared for example, with the UN Declaration? Does it provide an aura of ‘sacred underpinnings’, in a manner analogous to Jefferson’s invocation of the Creator? Might it make it resonate more deeply in our current era to help build a strong basis for making human rights inviolable?

The alternative, countering view is that there is nothing of supreme value inherent in the human person –‘worth and dignity’ are learned constructs, like jealousy, charity and love, that have emerged and been fine-tuned over the millenia, as human communities struggle with ways to stigmatize violence: To civilize our ‘kill or be killed’ instincts. This argument holds that it is better to avoid fuzzy concepts like inherent and simply ascribe worth and dignity to every person, without wrapping them in phrases such as “inherent” and “ineffable”.

Do we use the word inherent because we sense an impossibility of motivating moral and ethical behavior without asserting such a declaration? Perhaps it is only by invoking a sacredness-equivalent that a verbal declaration can have sufficient hold over our human motivations to push us in the direction of altruism and a collaborative spirit, and build internal defenses against the persistent use of revenge and slaughter for the settling of accounts.

What does your experience convince you is the case: that ‘in fact’ there is an ‘inherent’ sacredness in us – and in all life – and that we proclaim that fact through The First Unitarian Principle?

Or are we UU’s hoping to inspire change by creating a somewhat ‘fuzzy’ message: using the somewhat fuzzy word “inherent” to make a somewhat fuzzy ‘principles cake’ and inviting everyone from Athiest to Theist to come and eat it with us.

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2 Responses to “The First Principle

  1. Beautifully written summary of how we UUs have arrived at where we find ourselves today. Sorry I will miss your talk today Susan, but for what it’s worth my thoughts are most closely aligned with those of your last paragraph. I have become more of a materialist as the years have gone by but recognize that not everyone has moved in the same direction. For our denomination at this time, a little fuzziness is in order.

  2. Thank you for this comment, John. It has helped validate many weeks of internal battles.

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