Unitarian Universalism

Seven Principles & Bonhoeffer's Divine Mandates

In my Intro to Christian Ethic class, which is being taught much more like an applied ethics course (hallelujah!), our primary text privileges Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s place in modern Christian ethics.  I have been familiar with Bonhoeffer for quite awhile, having lived in Germany with a socially-engaged Lutheran family, as well as having preached a bit on his story of moral courage in resisting the Nazi regime, which included plotting to assassinate Hitler.  He was caught and murdered, being sent to a concentration camp where he died.


I actually haven’t read much of his own writings and when I have tried, I have found them denser than my liking. (Karen + primary sources = slacker)

Bonhoeffer wrote about divine mandates, the development of which was left unfinished due to his capture by the Nazis. For instance, though the divine mandates are identified, there is no agreement on a definitive list – even Bonhoeffer offers ups different lists, not to mention other theologians riffing on the original concept. They are complete enough to lend themselves well to the imaginations of scholars and theologians, clergy and laypeople alike.

What is a divine mandate?  According to Robin Lovin (author of my class’ primary text), it is “where the Word of God can be heard and give guidance to life.”  More importantly, it is the recognition that we encounter and engage the Sacred in a multiplicity of places and circumstances, not just in reading Scripture, not just in worship in church.

So it is not just that we hear the Word of God proclaimed in church and take it into the marketplace, the school, and the government office.  We learn something about the Word of God in and through our participation in these mandates as well as in the World proclaimed to them. (Lovin, p. 106)

Lovin’s list of the divine mandates includes

  • State / government
  • World of work
  • Intimate relationships
  • Education / cultural institutions
  • Church

Bonhoeffer’s divine mandates strike me as compelling concept for modern Unitarian Universalism.  I see two very important connections.  One is related to our Seven Principles.  One is related to our current engagement of the cultural transformation of congregational religion, or as UUs have named our version of that conversation: Congregations and Beyond (which is the next post ).

The Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism, as they officially read now, are

  1. 1st Principle: The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  2. 2nd Principle: Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  3. 3rd Principle: Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  4. 4th Principle: A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  5. 5th Principle: The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  6. 6th Principle: The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  7. 7th Principle: Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
Kids' version of the principles
Kids’ version of the principles

These have shifted somewhat in the fifty-plus years since they were articulated and they will continue to change.  For instance, there is talk (which I support) of swapping in the seventh principle the word “respect” for “reverence.”

Since so many religions are belief-based or creedal, there is the temptation to turn to these principles when asked, “What do UUs believe?”  I have this myself, offering them up as a beginning explanation to both people who are interested in finding out if UU is there schitck, and to people from other faiths who are unfamiliar with Unitarian Universalism.

Officially, these principles are meant to help guide congregational life, but I find that individual UU folks turn to them to help them articulate further their own spiritual beliefs and how to put their spiritual beliefs into action.  Some think this is misguided, but I think it strengthens a common UU parlance, which is helpful in building a sense of belonging.

Recently, in an online conversation among UU seminarians*, initiated by Slim Moon who is a Meadville Lombard student, there was a concern that sometimes one principle is given such weight it ends up trumping all the others.  In this particular conversation, the concern was about the fourth principle – our free and responsible search for truth and meaning – and how this feeds one of the more disruptive dynamics in Unitarian Universalism: the (creative) tension between the individual and the community.

Full disclosure here: I have yet to memorize ALL the seven principles. As someone Imageon the path to professional ministry, it’s embarrassing.  I’m pretty sure that I should learn these by heart, so that I don’t have to look at my handy-dandy wallet-sized cue card.  It’s on my to-do list, right next to memorizing the Eight-Fold Path in Buddhism.

Since I haven’t committed them all to memory, I find that I lean on two more than on the others.  For instance, I reference the inherent worth and dignity of every person just about as often as I reference the interdependent web of all existence, which is to say, ALOT.  So I got the bookends down, which is a start.

Lately I’ve been kind of groovin’ on the whole democratic process bit, sensing in a very deep way the participative nature of the universe, so I think that speaks to number five.

Mea culpa.

So what’s the connection between the Seven Principles and the divine mandates?

Rather than from the mandates themselves, I believe there is something to learn their relationship with one another.  Bonhoeffer developed the concept of divine mandates in part because he saw the horrific imbalance of the state consuming the other realms to the detriment of them all (and humanity and according to him, God’s handiwork).  Things were not in right relation at all.

The mandates serve as reliable guides to the moral life only when they are working well and working in proper relationship to one another….When one of the mandates is too strong or too weak, none of the others can function as it should. (Lovin, p. 107)

In that online seminarian conversation about the relationship of the one to the many, that is the direction it headed.  David Miller, student at Andover Newton Theological School, identified that fourth principle as a pivot point for all the other principles, holding the tension between the individual and the collective.  Seminarian at Union Theological School, Ranwa Hammamy suggested that we should consider all the principles in relationship with one another, that “the engagement of one must necessarily honor/engage the others.”

So I think it’s time that I not only memorize those Seven Principles, but that I learn them each on its own, and together as a whole, in relationship with each other, by heart.

attributed to Tim Atkins
attributed to Tim Atkins

* that online conversation happened in a closed group but I sought permission from those named in this post to include their comments and names here

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