This childhood involves an interesting religious education program, where several conceptions of religion are examined, and where a broad diversity of religious perspectives are discussed. We are a religion that respects the wide range of personal revelations and spiritual journeys, but growing up in that setting, there is very little native for us to hold on to.
The 7 UU principles are as close as Unitarians are willing to get to creed, to catechism, and to unifying article of faith. They are a loose catch-all, seven statements that are aimed at representing a unified general outlook, while still being removed from the terror of doctrine. The principles are agreed to by congregations, not members. The principles are accompanied by a list of sources UUs use to inform their religious practice. And, growing up UU, they are all I had on the playground to defend my faith as a legitimate religion.
I know this is perhaps antithetical to the ideal UU RE experience, but while I left sunday mornings with a sense of community, it was only on the days we talked about our faith's own heritage and own values that the experience amounted to something religious. It's selfish, certainly, but this is an integral part of community, of collective identity. Starting UU, I've no need to say what I'm not - I needed something to say what I am.
So I'm a fan of the principles. They're a handy reference, one of the things I can point to when people say "Oh, they're just a community, not really a church", and I've even used them as a context for imagining a presidential campaign. It isn't an exact statement of my values (I'm far too nit-picky for that), but it's a very handy reference point or starting line. It's no surprise that I'm also a fan of the freedom offered by rules - with some lines drawn, I can exercise my freedom to act. Not to say that all constraints are good, but going from none to a few (say, 7) isn't crippling; I find it empowering, really.
And yes, I'm well aware and grateful for the non-creedal nature of our faith. That the principles are agreed to by congregations strengthens them, in my mind. That the principles come at the front of a hymnal and not a bible is a strength. We don't have a set text, we don't have a lot of fixed meaning, and we don't have a monolithic, dogmatic church. What we have is a loose framework, a context within which religious and spiritual experience can be discerned, and which allows for some sense of universal human rights.
This brings me to the latest debate in the UU blogosphere. This page (warning: PDF) is an attempted revision of the covenant the congregations of the UUA share. If you're Unitarian, it's worth reading, and it is definitely worth some serious thought. I rarely disagree with Christine Robinson, who has her impressions here and here and here, but when I do the disagreement is at the least interesting. While I don't agree with all she says (this post itself is very much a response to the first post of hers I linked to), her thoughts about misappropriation are spot-on.
Christine also links to, and expresses approval of, Daniel Harper's counter-proposal. While I can't say I'm fond of the expanded principles expressed in the PDF, I'm awfully attached to the straightforwardness expressed in the principles as they stand. His language for misappropriation is much better than that of the proposal, and his last few principles are very skillfully worded. The call to action in the following is particulalry impressive:
That we shall promote openness, fairness, and honesty in in our own communities and in all human interactions, living out the highest democratic principles to the end that we shall resist authoritarianism wherever it springs up;
But his principles lack the core phrase that I think any statement of UU princples need. "That every person is worthy of love", as a statement of principle, just doesn't have the profound force of "The inherent worth and dignity of every person". That language itself is strong enough to open the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which in itself is an impressive document in terms of freedoms allowed by providing a framework. It's an oddity, this Unitarian quibble over religious language, but if we know anything, it is that words have meaning. We have to be exceedingly prudent in our selection of the revised Principles and Purposes. We should be mindful of the fact that, while many UUs have been burnt out on creeds and doctrines, there are many still who can take comfort in and have their feelings of religiosity strengthened by meaningful principles.