This world. This place. This life.

Essential Tenets


Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do, and will you be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God? –Book of Order, G-14.0405b(3)

When I was ordained as a Presbyterian minister, this was one of the ordination questions to which I responded, “I do.”

Even then, I was enough of a heretic to be relieved that the Presbyterian Church (USA) had never been able to successfully articulate just exactly what those “essential tenets” were.

That’s not to say they didn’t try. Protracted battles were fought–and still rage on. A conservative group called The Fellowship of Presbyterians plans to make a definitive list of the essential tenets.

In my new Unitarian Universalist home, there are similar arguments about defining who we are and what we believe. Sometimes I suspect that, if we held a gathering of everyone who wants to figure out the “essential tenets” of Unitarian Universalism, we’d be surprised by the diversity of what attendees felt was essential.

The Rev. Dr. Jack Rogers, a former moderator of the PC(USA), writes

An essential, or confessional standard, is a core belief that already has the assent of the overwhelming majority of the community.  Essentials are not things that we are fighting over, but things over which we no longer fight.

In other words, essential tenets are those beliefs that are so obvious, that even the most hardened opponents would agree to them.

No matter what religious community we call home, most of us have laundry lists of “essential” beliefs and practices, rituals and traditions. The more anxious we are, the more tightly we cling to our lists of must-haves. Fearful that we might lose what has been of such comfort, we wrap ourselves in mantles of self-righteousness, insisting that ours is the one true way.

What we need is the courage to compare notes. To put our lists on the table, and begin searching for what we share. The core of our identity may be very small. Our central beliefs–the ones over which we no longer fight–may be few.

But that’s not a bad thing. A short list of beliefs is much easier to remember. A lightweight core identity travels well, and stands the test of time.

When we think of centers, and cores, the image we’re describing is a circle. A center, a core––and the circumference of a closed curve.

For Unitarian Universalists, and maybe for other communities, here’s a different image: the daisy. Yes, there are limits to the yellow center. But the daisy’s petals extend from that center in all directions.

So may we be.

(Photo by kkimpel.  Used under Creative Commons license.)


9 thoughts on “Essential Tenets

  1. As UUs we believe that beliefs aren’t where it is at. Right? The core belief is: “Beliefs, shmieliefs! It is action supported or made possible by being in community that counts.” And, yes, I left out reference to covenants because, IMESHO, it is merely redundant to say “covenanted community.” And, no, I didn’t mention values because, similarly, a community only exists where there is either a core of shared values or intersections of shared values around an empty center. Our shared values find formal expression in our democratically approved Principles and Sources in Section II of the UUA Bylaws. But these are only a rough approximation of the values we share. And that’s okay… No?

    • “Beliefs” is probably a poorly chosen word, yes, at least if defined as creed.

      I guess what I’m talking about is a clear and concise answer to the question, “Who are we?” Rough approximations are barriers to communicating who we are to people who really would like to find us.

      • “Who are we?” I am smiling as I remember James Stockdale, Ross Perot’s running mate, appearing clueless in the ’92 vice-presidential debates. I turn to my pre-consolidation Unitarian partner of 25 years and ask him what the core beliefs of his Unitarianism are. He immediately responds with: 1) reason as a vehicle to deliver us safely to where we’re going and, if needed, bring us back and tool for evaluating the various paths; and 2) the right and responsibility of each individual to determine his or her own beliefs in the light of reason.

        As for communicating who we are to people who would like to find us, I wonder if imprecision is, indeed, a barrier. How do we determine who will be an appropriate life partner? Is it the precise facts about them that give us what we need to know to move toward commitment? Or is it personal experience of them and their way of being in the world and toward us?

        It seems likely that the only way a person can get to know any religious body is not through its creeds but by its actions. Jesus would agree (Matthew 7:20). Do you want to know whether a religion is right for you? I guarantee you won’t find out by studying its catechism and learning its creeds and its liturgical prayers. You will discover by your close up observation of what the religion produces in the real-world actions of a parish and its members. All the creeds and liturgies and canon law and catechisms in the world tell one essentially nothing about the nature of the group one is considering. The most precise documents are the least precise way of discovering the reality of the organism in question.

        No? That’s my opinion. Today… 🙂

    • I’ll disagree, Paul. Sorta.

      The Principles weren’t a religious statement, they’re not a creed. They are a living, evolving articulation of things that the members of the UUAoC–which is NOT persons, but *congregations*–agree that they share in common *and* will not only affirm, but will actively promote.

      There isn’t so much *a* Unitarian Universalism, but Unitarian Universalisms. Plural.

      While people, like David Bumbaugh, can (and do) brilliantly articulate something of what is commonly believed among us, I think that it’s this plurality that is central to who and what we are. It’s why Kings’ Chapel and All Souls Tulsa *belong* in the same association with Unity Church in St. Paul, FUS in Minneapolis, and any of the rather rabidly humanist fellowships in the hinterlands. The covenants in each of them (expressed or not…) don’t affirm the same things. Different beliefs, one faith. Shared, similar values, lived out in community and in service to each other and the world.

      • Hi, Patrick. Can you point me to anything in particular that David Bumbaugh has written that you think articulates UU common belief? Is it in his narrative history?

      • Okay, Pat. Time for me to disagree. Sorta. 🙂

        It makes no sense to me to say that the Principles weren’t a religious statement. Not a creed, certainly, since they barely hint at belief. But how are they not religious? How not a statement. And yes they are (potentially) living and evolving, which does not make them less a statement or less religious. And yes, it is the congregations that therein covenant to affirm and promote. But if the congregations’ decisions and actions are putatively constituted by democratic vote of its membership and then the bylaws of the UUA are constructed and approved through the putatively democratic processes the congregations have agreed to, how are the individual members of UUA congregations not fully implicated in the covenant among the congregations?

        So okay, technically the Principles are not expressions of our shared vaues, but an expression of our shared values that we care about enough to formally commit to actively promote. I don’t know. That sort of sounds to me like the sum or our shared values. Unless we’ve been lying to ourselves.

        But leaving the bisected rabbits aside, I come back to “The core belief is: ‘Beliefs, shmieliefs! It is action supported or made possible by being in community that counts.’” Which is only the tiniest distance from “Different beliefs, one faith. Shared, similar values, lived out in community and in service to each other and the world.”

        Unitarian UniversalismS FTW!

  2. Pingback: not what, but how you believe » Thoughtful Pauses

  3. Whoops. Failed to follow up. Apologies, N.

    Bumbaugh’s articulation (that I’m familiar with) is embedded in something he’s presented repeatedly, entitled “The Marketing of Liberal Religion.”

    He gave permission for it to be excerpted and distributed, so it’s here:

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