The following are very useful thoughts by retired UU minister Tom Schade on how UUism might be strengthened. The original link to Tom’s Blog can be found here: http://www.tomschade.com/2015/05/the-difference-between-principles-and.html
Unitarian Universalism backed into a type of moral reasoning based on principles when we adopted the Seven Principles.
A “principle” is a formalized abstraction. “The inherent worth and dignity of every person.” The moral reasoning that follows the promotion of a principle is discerning what they principle means and how to apply it to real life situations. Because we have seven principles, we have to also reason through how this principle relates to others. (Should the first principle be first, or should the last be first.?) And finally, because principles are generalizations, they can be tested by trying to find the boundaries and the exceptions, which leads to a lot of discussions about Hitler. Did Hitler still have worth and dignity?
“Virtues”, in contrast, are character traits, habitual behaviors, and a mixtures of emotions and rational thought. A virtue is a way of being human. I have my list of the virtues of liberal religion: self-possession, honesty, humility, generosity, reverence, openness and solidarity. They are not impersonal beliefs but inclinations. You may have your own list; the words are not that important.
The moral reasoning that follows when I commit to these virtues is how do I best exercise these aspects of my character in the situations I find myself.
I think that our 7 principles are useful ways to summarize #uupublictheology.
But our ministry with persons made impersonal and stunted by our focus on principles. It reduces our challenge into invitation to join us in a conversation about what our principles mean and how should they be worded and then applied.
Better that our invitation and challenge to persons should be to grow in the virtues that we seek to embody in the world.
We have the fear that Unitarian Universalism suffers from being too abstract and impersonal. That it lacks a profound personal dimension and does not inspire, but only educates, stimulates and convinces.
I would really like it if we stopped trying to explain ourselves and struggling the words that will cover all that we believe. I would like it if we stopped saying that our communities are somehow super special, and that our way to being a religious institution is so much better than every other kind.
What I would like for us to say: we are trying to grow into the virtues we need for the lives we now live in. We are trying to be better people, because it will bring us more health and happiness and it will make a better world.
Additional Note by Tim Bartik
[Schade’s] espousal of virtue ethics resonates with the increased contemporary interest, both within and outside philosophy, in a revised version of Aristotle’s approach to ethics which focuses on character as the foundation for moral actions. His argument also fits in with UU minister Galen Guengerich’s view that UUism should be defined as salvation via character. http://generalassembly.blogs.uua.org/ga-programming/announcing-rev-dr-galen-guengerich%E2%80%99s-new-ga-workshop-series-%E2%80%9Cthe-necessity-of-virtue%E2%80%9D/
Virtue is a stuffy term based on Latin that makes one think of the Victorian era. The Greek word is “arete”, and is better translated as the “specific excellence” of something, as in the “virtue” of a knife is to be sharp. Therefore, the virtue of a human being is to be…. One advantage of this over some other approaches to moral reasoning is that the classical view of virtue includes COMPETENCE, that is, more than good intentions are needed, but also the practical wisdom to carry out those good intentions in a way that is truly effective. Because my mother’s favorite saying, repeated hundreds of times, was that the road to hell was paved with good intentions, this resonates with me.
Schade’s blog post prior to this one has a sermon text that goes into more detail about what virtues he sees. He goes back to Channing in the 19th century for guidance.