The Golden Rule in Unitarianism
– The Interdependent Web of all Existence
By Rev. Peter Boullata and Ellen Campbell
We affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part
Unlike many religious groups, Unitarians do not have a creed or a statement of belief to which adherents are expected to agree. Our source of moral and spiritual authority is individual conscience. We are committed to freedom of belief.
What holds us together is a covenant – an agreement to support one another in our own spiritual quests and to abide by agreed-upon standards and principles in terms of the way we live our lives. Throughout Unitarian history, our way of expressing these principles has changed. What has not changed is our commitment to
- faith in individual conscience in its quest for Truth
- democratic decision-making
- justice and equity for all.
In 1985, the Unitarian Universalist Association, the continental body of Unitarian and Universalist congregations in North America, adopted a revised set of principles. This statement of principles begins:
“We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote . . .”
Seven principles follow.
The Seventh principle – Respect for the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part – is the “Golden Rule” by which we propose to live. There is a great deal of wisdom in this statement, particularly in the keywords, “of which we are a part”.
It is not enough to say that the natural world functions as a mutually supporting system of diverse organisms which we observe from the outside. Rather, we human beings are an integral part of this larger network of organisms. Humankind is neither above the natural world nor outside it. We are embedded within this delicate, interrelated web of creation, a strand woven into the whole.
For Westerners, this worldview is quite different from the conventional way of understanding our relationship to the world around us. For many centuries, human beings in the West have viewed themselves as “the crown of creation”, the pinnacle of God’s creative work. In the Western tradition, humans have seen themselves at the top of a pyramid of the created order, standing above animals, plants and other life-forms.
Accordingly, we have viewed culture and nature as being in opposition to one another. Little wonder that we have lived our lives in ways that ignore the earth and its natural cycles. But to see ourselves as part of an interdependent web — this is really quite different from believing that our own human achievements are to be viewed as being at the centre of things; or that this world is an illusion; or that this world is something to be endured until we get to our true home in the afterlife.
What does it mean to be a part of creation, to understand one’s self as a link, a node, a juncture connected to a vast network of others? In order to understand ourselves as part of this immense web connected to a vast web of others, we have to know and understand the place where we are. In a world of dislocations and environmental disasters, one of the most saving things we can do is love the place where we are.
To belong to the world, to be a citizen of the world, is to be intimately related to our immediate location in it. It is like an intimate love-relationship. We cannot love in the abstract; we need to focus our love in terms of a particular person. We learn about love, we learn what it means to love, in a constant, attentive relationship to a particular person-parent, child, partner and friend.
Our location – the particular place where we are – contains and reflects the whole. We are called to unlearn the binary oppositions of “self and other”, “subject-object”, “them and us”. Instead, we must live our connectedness to the interrelated, interdependent networks that are the web of life on this planet. We act here, we love here. We act locally and think globally.
Love where you are. Live where you are. We can only adequately love and belong to the earth if we can love and belong to our neighbourhood. We can only live wisely in our chosen place when we recognize its connections to the rest of the world. We care for the earth because we are part of it – the earth is our home. We care for those around us because we and they are all part of the same interdependent community.
Rev. Peter Boullata works as a Unitarian minister in Fenton, Michigan, U.S.A.
Ellen Campbell is a former executive director of the Canadian Unitarian Council. Currently, she is the president of the International Association for Religious Freedom. Ellen lives in Toronto, Canada