Readings on Covenant

Readings on Covenant

“We have associated ourselves together—not as agreeing in opinion, not as having attained universal truth in belief or perfection in character, but as seekers after truth and goodness.” Covenant of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Geneva, Illinois (written in 1842)

“That’s how I see a covenant….It’s a set of voluntary mutual promises meant to establish trust and foster connection.” Charity

The ancient question, “Who am I?” inevitable leads to a deeper one: “Whose am I?” – because there is not identity outside of relationship.  You cannot be a person by yourself. To ask “Whose am I” is to extend the question far beyond the little self-absorbed self, and wonder: Who needs you?  Who loves you?  To whom are you accountable?  To whom do you answer?  Whose life is altered by your choices?  With whose life, whose lives is your own all bound up, inextricably, in obvious or invisible ways?
Douglas Steer, Quaker teacher

We sometimes wrongly say it is the absence of creed that is most important to who we are [as Unitarian Universalists]. This is wrong. Any one of us could practice religious freedom at home on Sunday mornings. We could practice religious freedom all day long, every day, and never come into community. It is covenant that brings us out of isolation, covenant that brings us out of selfish concerns, out of individualism, to join ourselves to something greater, to become a part of a community that is working to practice love, to dwell together in peace, to seek knowledge and wisdom together, to find better ways to live our lives and live in the world.
Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, UUA President

A contract is a matter of law. A covenant is a matter of love. A contract speaks this way: if you do this, and only if you do this, then I will do that. It is hedged, cautious, risk-averse. Its most basic principle is “no surprises.” A covenant speaks this way: you and I will do whatever is needed to achieve our shared purpose. We will remember that our covenantal relationship is more important than any particular action we take or fail to take to serve its purpose. If either of us fails to honor this shared commitment, the other has permission to call the one who fell short back into covenant, to ask what is happening, to be demanding and supportive at the same time. In a covenantal relationship, there is an understanding that no one fulfills his promises each and every time. Sometimes you make a doubtful promise, and then put your heart into it, and then fail, and then you and your covenantal partners pick yourselves up and ask, “how shall we recover from this failure? How shall we keep going?” In a covenantal relationship, the message you get from your partners when you fail is as just as much an affirmation of self-worth as if the promise had been fulfilled.
Rev. Preston Moore

Love is the spirit of this community and service is its gift.
To dwell together in peace,
To seek knowledge in freedom,
To serve humanity in harmony with the earth,
Thus do we covenant together.
Affirmation of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Durham

Hope is key to every covenant. As I have told my congregation, which takes pride in a heritage of being non-creedal, our forbearers were wise in putting aside creedal questions – “What do we all believe in common? What ancient formulae of faith are we willing to confess together?” in favor of the more covenantal questions:  “What spiritual hopes do we share? What shall we promise to one another and to God as we try to live together toward our hopes?  How shall we then try to treat one another?” But sometimes I worry that in taking pride in their non-creedal freedom they can easily forget the deep responsibility that their freedom – if it is truly covenantal freedom – necessarily entails.
Rev. John Buehrens, A House for Hope

A covenant is not a contract.It is based on something deeper and more worthy than rules of law. It is based on our human faithfulness. It carries not the force of law but the force of persuasion. We honour a covenant not because we have to but because we want to. Violation is serious not because there will be punishment but because it is a breach of trust, a breach of faith.
A rich component of covenant is the gift of forgiveness. To make promises calls forth the best of us, but we are human and we make mistakes. Promises get broken. So we try again. Covenantal faith does not ask us to be perfect. It asks us to look at our mistakes and shortcomings, and to try earnestly to correct them.
Jeanne Harrison Nieuwejaar, Fluent in Faith

Sociologists argue that in contemporary Western society the marketplace has become so dominant that the consumer model increasingly characterizes most relationships that historically were covenantal, including marriage. Today we stay connected to people only as long as they are meeting our particular needs at an acceptable cost to us. When we cease to make a profit – that is, when the relationship appears to require more love and affirmation from us than we are getting back – then we “cut our loses” and drop the relationship. This has also been called “commodification,” a process by which social relationships are reduced to economic exchange relationships, and so the very idea of “covenant” is disappearing in our culture. Covenant is therefore a concept increasingly foreign to us…
Timothy J. Keller

“We can join one another only by joining the unknown . . . [The union] is going where the two of you—and marriage, time, life, history, and the world—will take it. You do not know the road; you have committed your life to a way. ” Wendell Berry

Longer Reads

This piece in UU World from the Rev. Victoria Safford looks at covenant as a representation of interdependence.

A look at covenants and society from David Brooks in the New York Times.

James Luther Adams, the leading UU theologian from the 1940s to the 1980s, summarizes his understanding of covenant.

These lectures from UU scholar, the Rev. Alice Blair Wesley, delve into the American history of Unitarianism and covenant.


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