Covenant in the Face of Reality

“The people’s covenant is a covenant with the essential character and intention of reality.  It is not merely a covenant between human beings; it is a covenant between human beings in the face of reality.  The fundamental demands and possibilities of reality are not created by humans but exist in its very nature.  The understanding of reality is appropriate only when it is seen in terms of an ethical covenant.  The covenant is with the creative, sustaining, commanding, judging, transforming power.”

— “The Prophetic Covenant and Social Concern”, James Luther Adams

A couple of years ago I visited the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Durango, Colorado, where I had been invited to preach.  My sermon was entitled “The Dance of Freedom and Responsibility”, referring to the Fourth Principle — “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote … a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” — and the struggles we face in our everyday lives between the “fundamental American ideology of individualism”, as linguist Ronald Scollon named it, and the inescapable inevitability of our interdependence within families, cultures and societies, not to mention the biosphere itself.

During my sermon I used the word “covenant” a few times, and in discussion over coffee following the service I was asked what I meant by it.  Now in part because I was nearing the end of my years in theological school but also because I was working with District staff and ministers, I knew that Unitarian Universalism was beginning to rediscover the power of covenant.  I was beginning to understand how it was the gift of our religious tradition — indeed, how it is our gift to the world.  I was starting to see how covenant connects us in the process of becoming human, recognizing that we may not always get it right and that success comes through faithfulness not fallibility, and how it embraces us, in the words of James Luther Adams, as “the charter and responsibility and joy of worship in the face of death as well as life.”

What came to mind, though, was the Homeowner’s Association where we lived, and how visitors to the development were greeted first by big letters on a wall ominously spelling out “A Covenant-Controlled Community”, and then by a number of other signs forbidding some activities and threatening others.  With this mental image I realized that, in some people’s vocabulary, “covenant” might not be an altogether positive word.  (Even those free of the often petty tyranny of an HOA might have heard of it as the name of a crime organization in the television show “Alias” or the mysterious force that wreaks havoc on Jim Carrey’s character in the movie “Yes Man”, neither of which are glowing recommendations!)

So, trying to undo some of the damage done to the idea of covenant, I proceeded to talk with the Durango UUs about it in terms of the promises we make with one another concerning both our individual and collective behavior, promises to bring our best selves to our relationships so that, as UUs, we can be “a church of the open mind, the loving heart and the helping hand.”  It has since occurred to me, however, that covenant isn’t just about voluntary promises — and, indeed, the HOA use of the term (and even its part in “Yes Man”) isn’t completely off-base.

For there are “fundamental demands and possibilities of reality” that constrain our behavior as human beings.  From the impossibility of exceeding the speed of light — as the bumper sticker says, “186,000 miles/second: It’s not just a good idea; it’s the law!” — to the inadvisability of changing ecosystems in unsustainable ways to the illegality of neglecting turn signals while driving, there are plenty of times we find ourselves part of arrangements not of our own making nor often of our own choosing.  Aside from the hard laws of physics or even the soft laws of biology, though, we are nonetheless faced with choices when it comes to human laws, whether the covenants of HOAs or the rules of the road.  How do we respond to what we see as injustice, for instance?  Bearing responsibility for the character of our own society, how do we speak truth to power?  If working within the system fails to bend the arc of the moral universe, when is civil disobedience justified?

Born into a world we did not create, it is through the choices we make that we help one another become human.  What do your choices say about your becoming?

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1 Comment »

  1. […] For Adams, something larger than the people making promises to one another was also required.  “The people’s covenant is a covenant with the essential character and intention of reality,” he w…” […]

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