2014-11-20 Service

20 11 2014

First Unitarian Universalist Congregation, Second Life (FUUCSL)

Thursday, November 20, 2014

6:30PM SL Time (Pacific Standard Time)

Leading the service: Peter Newtone



As you know, both Unitarian Universalists and Bahá’ís are principle-centered communities, which hold basic principles that guide both their individual behavior and their organizational decision-making. But is that really so unique?

In polls about whether people’s lives are based on principles, well over 90% invariably claim they are, and yet society is plagued by profound, complex problems. Corporations spend millions on finding core values to guide their businesses,

and yet their actions are destroying the world economy and environment. The constitutions of all countries are bursting with grandiloquent doctrines, and even wars are fought in the name of high ideals such as liberty, justice, unity, equality…

My point here is not that principles are unimportant, but rather that leading a principle-centered life may not be as simple and straight-forward as it might seem at first. So this evening I will be sharing a few insights into why it may be so difficult and how we can make sense of all this.

  1.    Are there Universal Principles?

In today’s post-modernistic world, principles are often confused with “personal values” and identified with “values clarification”, which has so watered-down and weakened many recent “values education” initiatives. However, the word itself means both a starting point and a maxim, suggesting an immovable axiom or solid foundation on which to build something else.

Stephen Covey calls principles a guiding compass, “natural laws in the human dimension that are just as real, just as un¬changing, as laws such as gravity are in the physical dimension.”  He equates them with eternal, universal values such as love, justice, honesty, forgiveness, humility, generosity, and wisdom, which Bahá’ís call spiritual qualities or divine attributes.

According to Covey, principles are “woven into the fabric of every civilized society.”  What changes from one period and culture to the next are not the principles themselves, but rather their application to differing societal needs, goals and perceptions.

For example, modesty is a universal value, but in one society it means covering oneself in black from head to toe, while in another it means adorning one’s nudity with strings of beads. Like the hurricane-resistant bamboo tree, principles are society’s firm roots while their shifting applications are like its flexible stem and branches.

  1.    Principle-Centeredness is a Collective Effort

Many self-centered folk tend to live according to short-term, personal convenience, while principle-centered people often concentrate on long-term, collective benefits, sometimes at great personal sacrifice. Self-centeredness can disintegrate the very fabric of society, while principle-centeredness has been known to build up great civilizations.

“The lesson of history,” says Covey, “is that to the degree that people and civilizations have operated in harmony with correct principles, they have prospered. At the root of societal declines are foolish practices that represent violations of correct principles.”

This echoes a statement by the Universal House of Justice, the global Bahá’í council: “There are spiritual principles, or what some call human values, by which solutions can be found for every social problem. Any well-intentioned group can in a general sense devise practical solutions to its problems, but good intentions and practical knowledge are usually not enough.

“The essential merit of spiritual principle is that it not only presents a perspective which harmonizes with that which is immanent in human nature, it also induces an attitude, a dynamic, a will, an aspiration, which facilitate the discovery and implementation of practical measures.

“Leaders of governments and all in authority would be well served in their efforts to solve problems if they would first seek to identify the principles involved and then be guided by them.”

  1.    Principles and Human Nature

This quote says that spiritual principles are inherent to human nature. Bahá’ís believe that the human soul is like the precious seed of a magnificent tree, which holds all of these beautiful spiritual qualities in potential. The Divine Gardener sows and cultivates that seed in the fertile soil of this world to germinate and develop its innate capacities.

Just as we are bodily drawn to the material resources we need for our physical well-being, our hearts are also inherently attracted to and delighted by spiritual qualities or universal principles such as love, beauty, purity, and harmony, which are good for our spiritual growth and development, and innately repulsed at hatred, ugliness, filth, and discord.

However, in the Bahá’í view, even so-called character flaws can be reframed as ill-directed spiritual qualities. For instance, people who take every opportunity to accumulate more and more wealth and possessions can be praised in one culture as being highly motivated, but criticized in another culture as being overly ambitious.

But is ambition in itself good or evil? In the Bahá’í view, all qualities are good, as evil has no independent existence, just as cold is the absence of heat and darkness is the lack of light. For instance, ambition is an inherent human virtue that drives us to rise above our current situation, but can be used in more or less positive ways.

The issue is where we focus it, whether inward or outward. If our sole ambition is to inflate our own ego, then it tends to be self-centered and spiritually degrading. If, however, our powers of ambition drive us to learn, grow and develop in service to others, then it can revolve around something larger than ourselves and be spiritually uplifting and ennobling.

  1.    Seeking Moderation and Balance

At a recent event, someone suggested that moderation is needed in practicing principles, to achieve balance. On the surface, this may sound right, and “moderation in all things” is even a Bahá’í principle. But does this mean we should be half-loving, moderately honest, partially just?

The Bahá’í teachings solve this dilemma by showing how principles complement each other: love without wisdom can be as harmful as knowledge without love; frankness without courtesy is hurtful, and politeness without sincerity is hypocritical.

Justice must be tempered with mercy, power with service, unity with diversity, strength with tenderness, perfection with tolerance, creativity with discipline, generosity with prudence, initiative with perseverance, growth with consolidation, etc.

It is interesting in this context that supposedly the Cold War opposed the complementary principles of freedom (in a Capitalist version) versus social justice (in a Socialist version), neither of which can bring wellbeing without the other.

Balance is achieved, not by watering down any of our principles, but by strengthening their complementarity, in what could be described as an entire “ecosystem” of interrelated values, each of which depends on all others to display its full potential.

  1.    Principle-Centered versus God-Centered?

In the Bahá’í view, all phenomena have an essence or spirit, which cannot be perceived directly, but only through its qualities. Just as we know that an electromagnetic force exists because of its action on and through physical phenomena, the spirit of life is only evident when it appears in the form of living beings.

Likewise, just as the human spirit can only be known through its expression through our behavior, the Divine Spirit can only be seen in the mirror of its ongoing, evolving creation. And the most we can know of God’s hidden essence is the qualities that lie latent within the precious seeds of our own souls, yearning and seeking to grow and develop.

The “ecosystem of qualities” I mentioned, then, when raised to its maximum expression, is how I would describe a Bahá’í “concept” of God. Although it is logically untenable for the Source of all qualities to be no more than their sum total, as the pantheistic view claims, neither could their Creator be deprived of any of those powers and virtues.

Therefore, a principle-centered life could very well be equated with a God-centered life, but with certain caveats. Historically, an assortment of “gods” and their differing qualities led to a multiplicity of centers, which tended to divide diverse peoples and keep them apart. The god of war did not get along very well with the god of agriculture, for instance.

By definition, however, God could only be the maximum expression and source of all of these spiritual qualities, without distinction. So as the paradigm of Divine Oneness evolved, human diversity was also enabled to come together in increasing levels of harmony.

Let us hope that as the peoples of the world seek to apply more fully a increasingly rich “ecosystem” of complementary principles and virtues, qualities and values, we will be able to learn from each other and come closer to the millennial vision of planetary harmony and peace.




  1. Covey, Stephen: Principle-Centered Leadership, Simon & Schuster, New York p. 18.
  2. Covey, Stephen: Principle-Centered Leadership, Simon & Schuster, New York p. 18.
  3. Covey, Stephen R. Principle-Centered Leadership, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1990, p. 19.
  4. Universal House of Justice, “The Promise of World Peace,” October 1985. A statement addressed to “the peoples of the world” on the occasion of the International Year of Peace (1986).