Inherent Worth, Inherent Weakness

Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 02/10/2013

Unitarian Universalists LOVE to talk about the inherent worth of every human being.  We LOVE it.  It’s right there as our first principle – check out your order of service!  “Unitarian Universalists covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every human being!”  Many UUs, new ones and those who have been around a long time, say that inherent worth is an important, grounding theological concept that helps them to understand our religion and their own spiritual orientation to life.  The notion of the inherent worth of every person is a truly critical part of our theological underpinnings as UUs.

More than that, the notion that human beings have inherent worth is the very idea that caused our American Puritan ancestors to move away from their traditional Calvinist theology to start becoming us.  Calvinism, the religion that brought those English pilgrims to Plymouth Rock, taught its followers that human beings were essentially, intrinsically sinful, corrupt – they actually used the word “depraved.”  Calvinists believed that it is only through the grace of a loving God that we humans are ever able to do the right thing at all, ever. 

Eventually a subset of these Puritans – by then, Congregationalists – got a little glimmer of Unitarianism in their eyes.  They started to ask if it was really true that human beings were foundationally, irretrievably depraved.  They asked why a loving God who made people in God’s own image would have ended up with a creation that was so far off the mark.  And they came to believe that maybe, just maybe, there was actually a spark of goodness in humanity after all. 

They didn’t go crazy with it, mind you; the early Unitarians only allowed that there was the potential that humanity was not innately depraved.  But still, something was conceived right there, and it’s pretty tempting to just say, “and here we are today”, because that first step, that first realization, really is the root of so much of our Unitarian Universalism.

So.  Here in this first principle we have a notion that is 1. Historically foundational and 2. A major part of UU theology and also 3. A big influence on the way modern UUs think about themselves and their religion and even 4. Often the first way we promote ourselves to outsiders.  That’s huge: this centrality of the concept of inherent worth is hugely important in a faith that doesn’t carry a tremendous amount of internal agreement about many things.  Wow, foundational, historic, important, illustrative – this idea, this principle, really is the best, right?  Why not print this up in bold letters on our metaphorical banner, and have it lead us in our metaphorical parade, all the way to the Promised Land?  It’s that good, right??

Well….there’s just a little problem.  Let me tell you a story.

As the 1800s turned into the 1900s, Unitarianism and Universalism, which were not yet merged, were really going gangbusters in the US.  Somewhere along the way, Unitarians and Universalists had developed the notion that it was possible to develop people’s potential, that folks weren’t doomed to be forever stuck in the same roles and positions they were born into.  So, the thinking went, through education, and moral training, and scientific advancement, individuals and society as a whole could develop
this great potential, and really, the sky was the limit for what we could do. 

This was the era of James Freeman Clarke’s dictum that the Unitarian faith proclaimed salvation by character, meaning that you could save yourself if you worked hard enough to be good, right, and also that the trajectory of mankind was obviously progress, onward and upward, forever!  It was a remarkably optimistic time, and Unitarians and Universalists were at the center of the grounding philosophy of the day, which was:  Human beings have infinite potential for progress, so therefore human beings will progress.  Forever.

The philosophy of this era, moving so very quickly with its progress and its scientific advancement and its can-do spirit and its endless wellsprings of hope for humanity, this philosophy hit a wall.  That wall was called World War. 

Signs of trouble had already been apparent.  For one thing, the way “progress” was being defined in that time was becoming increasingly problematic.  Unitarians and Universalists of the day had learned that society could be engineered to improve through new laws and systems that gave those that needed it a leg up.  As a result we saw labor laws and temperance movements and required childhood education and required vaccination and Sunday schools. 

What’s the next step, then?  If such social engineering worked to improve society, then couldn’t it also be possible, went the thinking of the day, to improve the lot of human beings by say, using Darwin’s principles of evolution to “breed” out “bad” traits in people and breed in better ones?  Many Unitarians and Universalists became interested in doing just that, and were quite active in the national eugenics movement of the era, I’m sorry to say. 

And what if the “better traits” that society was breeding for were intelligence or whiteness or strength or blond hair?  Hitler’s ideas didn’t come out of nowhere.  They came out of the notion that human beings could be forever improved.  Look where that went.

You can see that there was the specific problem of where all this misguided human improving took us all during that particular time period.  But there was also the greater problem underlying the very notion that humankind would progress onward and upward forever.  And it’s the same problem that exists with any unexamined modern belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every human being. 

The truth is that human beings have the capacity of being very, very bad.  And any vital religion that tells the truth needs to have a way of talking about the fact that, inherent worth or not, some people are bad.  Not just act badly, but act so badly that I would feel comfortable saying they are bad people.  People can be vessels of evil just as easily as they can be vessels of the good, even UUs.  There are two wolves inside each of us [visit for story].  Sometimes the bad one wins.  How can you apply your “onward and upwards forever” to that reality? 

Unitarians and Universalists couldn’t do it during the World Wars.  They couldn’t explain the obvious badness of people that anyone could see and everyone was experiencing.  And those religions, our religions, really fell by the wayside through the 1930s and 40s while, denominationally, the world saw a resurgence of the same orthodoxy that our Unitarian forbears left behind with the Pilgrims.  Religiously, people again gravitated towards the notion that human beings were depraved and needed saving from God, because it was depravity that they witnessed in human beings during the world wars.  People of that time had a real, lived experience of human depravity, and it couldn’t be glossed over by any religion.

This is why I think it’s so important that Unitarian Universalists do not mistranslate the first principle.  The first principle, you’ll notice, does not say that every human being is good.  The first principle does not say that we’re all right on the verge of being gods ourselves with just a touch of social engineering – no, sir.  The first principle does not say that we’ll all be friends eventually because we all come from the same great stuff.  Don’t be fooled by that.  This isn’t Kumbaya time.

And don’t let your attraction to the first principle blind you to the truth that was real to those in the 20th century and surely is real to you.  There are times when human beings are great, that’s true.  Sometimes they try hard and even succeed at being worthy and dignified.  They can rise above their innate inclinations and be more than even they thought they ever would. 

There are also times when we just don’t put in the effort that we could, and that leads to problems.  There are times when even the healthiest and most well intentioned of us get tired, or afraid, and then things don’t go so well in our interactions with each other.  There are worse times when we are misguided or mean or damaged, and we leave a trail of destruction everywhere we go. 

And, I happen to believe, there are also times when we human beings are in the grip of evil, which is the name I use for destructive forces that use us to act against others and ourselves even when we desperately want them to leave us alone.  I think both addiction and racism fall into this category.

We may have inherent worth and dignity, but there’s no guarantee that we’ll act on it – ever.

But that’s okay with me.

I do not believe that it is the task of devout, first principle-believing UUs to dismiss all this human sin and destruction in the name of some loyalty to our inherent human worth and dignity. Unitarian Universalism is not asking you to downplay human wrongdoing by promoting our first principle.  Unitarian Universalism is not asking you to be the bunny rabbit inside the person with the two wolves, shaking in the corner, pretending that the bad wolf doesn’t exist or that the good wolf is destined to win.  We all know that sometimes badness wins in human lives and in human hearts, even in our own.  The first principle is not meant to avoid that reality.

I think that when the first principle asks us to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person, it’s doing something more important and more holy than merely pretending that human beings are always acting for the good as best they can. 

To affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every human being is like asking us to make a choice to feed the good wolf when we know full well that the bad wolf is right there too.  To affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every human being is to acknowledge that sin and evil exists, yes, but no matter how much of that sin and evil exists, the promise of our humanity is present there too.

Maybe that sacred potential has been lost through abuse or oppression.  Maybe it was squandered through our own weakness, our own lethargy, our own fear.  Maybe we are actively feeding that terrible wolf inside of us and in so doing we’re also feeding the terrible wolf that lives in the world with us.  All this could be happening, and still, at the end of the day, we Unitarian Universalists say that every human being has inherent worth.  It’s like looking at the place where the two wolves live, and no matter how big or fierce that bad wolf is, we take just a minute to say that we know there’s a good wolf there somewhere.  And just by doing so, by taking that time to ask where the good wolf is, we throw that wolf a bone.  And who knows what could happen once that good wolf gets a little bite to eat.

To me there’s something much more powerful about taking the totality of all that there is to see about human beings, all the good and all the bad, and choosing to say there is still something inherently worthy there.  "A is God’s first letter because it stands for All – a limitation and a possibility." ["God's Letters" by Grace Schulman, from Days of Wonder. © Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002.]  Isn’t it more of a sacred act when we can see all of what there is, and we choose to acknowledge and pursue the good?  Isn’t it more of a sacred act when we never give up honoring inherent worth even when it’s nearly impossible to see it?  Isn’t it an act of faith to believe, to know, that inherent worth is always there, even when it’s invisible?

Ursula Leguin wrote a poem that goes like this ["Every Land" by Ursula K. Le Guin, from Finding My Elegy. © Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.]

 If we UUs are able to tell ourselves that every land is the holy land, no matter how bloodied, and every person is a child of god, no matter how terrible they are, then our faith can allow us to move beyond our own dark wolves of judgment and condemnation.  Our faith becomes the bone we throw to our good wolves when otherwise they’d be unseen and unfed.  I know that I want to live in a real world where honest people see what’s there, and then choose to orient to the good.  I know that I want to feed the good in our people and our world, and work together with people who do the same.  First-Principle loving Unitarian Universalists - won’t you join me?