Sharing Global Faith: Reflections on Dignity
Dignity, from the Latin dignitatem or ‘worth-iness,’ celebrates and defines the human condition in its audacious proclamation of life. Worth, of course, can be defined in many ways. In the Western political and ethical consciousness, human worth has connoted the precepts of virtue and (self-)respect, informing international treaties on human rights and anti-discrimination. Under this logic, dignity implies the inviolable freedom from oppression and right to individual autonomy.
In the following meditations, this legalistic definition of dignity is broken open as international Unitarian and Universalist luminaries explore the lived experiences of interconnection, acceptance and encounter. Rev. Kiely locates human dignity in everyday stories of courage and goodness. Resisting exclusivist theologies, Mr. Szeto rejoices in the heart’s inner wealth of kindness and love, which grows to fruition in this ‘healing tradition.’ Rev. McAllister turns to Buddhist teachings to emphasize the importance of cultivating a non-judgmental, generous sensibility towards other human beings. What emerges from this unique collection is nothing less than a spirit-filled outburst of life-affirming creativity, transforming human existence into an inventive dance of storytelling, healing and practice – dignified expressions indeed.
Reflections on Dignity
“How many we see in the street, or sit with in church, whom though silently, we warmly rejoice to be with!”
Do you ever sit in church and wonder about some of the faces you see? Wonder about their stories? I do.
Our Edmonton congregation is in the midst of collecting oral histories from long time members. I was referring to them today as I wrote my Canvass sermon called “The Church of Our Lives”.
It’s not my nature to pry into people’s lives, but I always enjoy learning their stories. Today I learned about one church member who, as a teenager, watched her father get arrested by Nazis (he survived). She worked in small roles for the Resistance. She came to Unitarianism because she fell in love with our passion for the free thought and speech. That freedom had been stolen from her childhood.
Another elder member had been a teacher of nine grades in a single room school house in rural Alberta during the Depression. Yet another, in the 1960’s had housed and hired 27 unwed mothers as housekeepers, supporting them through their pregnancies. These are amazing stories of people finding ways to celebrate human dignity.
I am currently honoured to be the President of the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists. Mostly that means I am now gathering stories from around the world. I have friends in the USA working hard on same sex marriage rights. I have a friend in Uganda who has somehow managed join with a group of other relatively poor Ugandans to form a congregation and a volunteer run school that is giving free education to hundreds of children. I know a young unemployed man in Kenya, a man with a huge smile, a wife and a one year old son. They live in a two room house with a dirt floor. They have taken in several AIDs orphans…because that’s what good people do.
Around the world Unitarianism and Unitarian Universalism are given many different expressions. From atheism and humanism to near evangelical fervour, we run the full gamut. But what ties us are the stories of how we seek and support human dignity in our daily lives. You see, “We have a great deal more kindness than is ever spoken.”
Reflections on Dignity
“We affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person” – so reads the first principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Recognition of the inherent dignity of every person is perhaps the foundation of the creedlessness that defines our unusual religious tradition. We accept fellow members as they are, regardless of the religious path they follow, whether they are Christians, Buddhists, humanists, theists, or on another path. This radical inclusiveness and acceptance is beautiful and, therefore, holy – it brings compassion, as well as the feelings of acceptance and affirmation, to all souls, which are too often injured by other exclusivist religious traditions. Simply recognizing a person’s dignity can bring healing. Let ours be a healing tradition.
Influenced by the Calvinistic theology of total depravity of human nature, many Christians believe God is the only firm foundation of ethics; without belief in God, ethics will collapse. In a January 2009 Washington Post article entitled “Nonbelievers are Believers Too,” Greg M. Epstein, the Humanist Chaplain of Harvard University, beautifully explains human dignity as the ultimate goal of the non-theistic “faith” of Humanism: “as believers in Humanism, we too affirm the need to cultivate wisdom, courage, compassion, and above all the struggle towards a universal and universally mutually interdependent human dignity.” The affirmation of dignity in other people can be the foundation of ethical living. In fact, this idea can simplify everyday moral decisions; “correct” decisions are simply those which recognize that other people have the same dignity I do.
Is this too idealistic? Will everybody respect human dignity? Ralph Waldo Emerson optimistically believes that “we have a great deal more kindness than is ever spoken; the whole human family is bathed with an element of love like a fine ether.” Yes! Humanity can commit (and has committed) grave ill, but nonetheless we have a wealth of kindness and love in the bottom of our hearts – indeed, more than we ever know. The question is whether we are willing to actualize this wealth in our lives and in the many decisions we have to make every day. Respecting the dignity of others and unleashing our inner kindness and love represent the keys to a better world in the future. So let us keep this important principle in mind: every person has inherent worth and dignity!
Reflections on Dignity
At the head of the list of our Unitarian Universalist principles and purposes, we affirm “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” It is a noble ideal. But how do we really live it?
Yes, we strive to welcome people of all colors and persuasions, classes and cultures. We welcome diversity of belief and practice and we profess respect for one another’s differences. We reach out to help each other in times of need, and we work for social justice in our communities.
But to promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person is not simply a goal, nor an abstract value. It is the way each and every interaction can be. The wisdom of an American Buddhist teacher is my touchstone in this endeavor; that our two greatest challenges are judgment and aversion.
‘Judge not, that you may not be judged’ is taught in many religions traditions. It speaks to the fact that the human psyche – the inner landscape of every individual – is wide and deep, full of diverse needs and perspectives, different terrains, if you will. We are both good-hearted and cruel, for example, both courageous and afraid, both patient and impatient, and much, much more. We encompass all the polarities we can think of. Why someone says or does certain things has to do with an infinite complexity of reasons – their childhood experiences, how they have been treated, what they have and have not learned, what they are afraid of, what they need, etc. On any given day, a person might be in the depths of despair, or the heights of hope, or the awkwardness of anxiety. At the very least, their actions reflect the inner terrain they are traversing, which we cannot see, nor guess, and therefore we cannot assume things about their needs or motivations. This is one way to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of another person; to stop oneself from judging, and to simply acknowledge a fellow human being, engaged in all the struggle and all the beauty of life.
To affirm the dignity of another also requires seeing that person, not turning away. Whatever their situation or actions, we must first look, not avert our eyes and attention. This requires both courage, and non-judgment, which means going beyond our usual responses. Can we face every situation, can we see every person as an expression of Life itself, as one of the faces of God? This is no noble ideal – this is a practice. Whenever we go beyond judgment and aversion, we truly affirm the inherent worth and dignity of another human being.