Tuesday, 31 May 2011

A Unitarian Ten Commandments?

It was not the Biblical 10 commandments that got me thinking about this. In fact, I've always thought that a lot of the Bible's big 10 have become either so obvious or irrelevant or even offensive that they need a great deal of reinterpretation to be at all useful. (George Carlin's dissection of the 10 commandments is always worth revisiting!) A few thoughts on the 10:

  • Honour your father and mother - how about honouring everyone? What about abusive parents?
  • Have no other gods before me - that's what ALL the gods say!
  • Do not take the lord's name in vain - oh, for god's sake...
  • Do not make any images or likenesses - has been pretty well ignored from day one
  • Do not swear falsely - this is not strictly about lying, only about lying when you swear in god's name...
But it has been discussion in the Introduction to World Religions class I've been leading that has made me think more seriously. In particular, it was the Buddhist take on ethical rules that struck me for it's clarity that the rules are intended for personal transformation. The fact that these come not as commandments from on high, but rather as a system for becoming enlightened raises the interest for me. (I am not saying that there is anything wrong with rules for living in society - I'm a big believer in the importance of laws!) 

This led to an attraction to the idea of a Unitarian set of ethical guidelines - something that the class has begun to discuss at least briefly.

A quick Google search showed me that Rev. Michael McGee of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington VA was way ahead of me with his 2010 sermon series on A Renewed Ten Commandments.

In my proposed list of commandments below, (ten, of course!) I have borrowed and adapted from McGee. I have also taken a cue from the theology of Henry Nelson Wieman, and taken a great deal from my own congregation's input in a recent service where we explored the ethical foundations of our actions in the world and participants wrote their own short suggestions for the underpinnings of their best action.

For discussion, I offer the following. They have not been inscribed in stone tablets. They have no miraculous origin except for the not inconsiderable miracle of the human mind and heart!

A Unitarian Ten Commandments

We will strive to:
  1. understand the original experience of others
  2. treat each person gently and with respect
  3. take care of the earth and its creatures
  4. speak the truth with honesty and respect
  5. act with and work for justice
  6. value meaning over materialism and life over things
  7. cultivate appreciation for all of life’s gifts
  8. give generously
  9. cultivate joy and wonder
  10. be slow to anger and quick to forgive


  1. I like the idea of the ten commandments as guides for personal transformation. Some of your ten commandments remind me of the seven principles of the Unitarian Universalists while others (especially 8, 9, and 10) are principles I would add if I had my way.

    I wonder: what do you think of the idea of an eleventh commandment: I will take care of myself so I can be of use to other people in the world.


  2. Chris - that's a great idea. I suppose that the fact I've missed that is an important signal to me!

  3. Wonderful list, and I suppose it's implied in #7, but I would specifically add something about understanding and appreciating our brokenness, our cracks. I'm thinking along the lines of Leonard Cohen's Anthem... "There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in." Anyway, I suppose any Unitarian 10 commandments ought to have more than 10! Thanks for your insights.

  4. I have been thinking alot lately about making a family ten commandments instead of house "rules" thanks for the inspiration

  5. I like Thich Nhat Han's 14 Precepts of Engaged Buddhism. That's the best list of commandments I've come across.


  6. I like your ten non-commandments. How about Speak your truth rather than The truth?

  7. Knowing next to nothing about Unitarian Universalism, I would have guessed they were Buddhist expressions of the fruits of practice, wisdom and compassion. I like the simplicity and kindness.

  8. Must be a popular UU topic: here is Bob Hirshon's sermon, "New, Improved Commandments", from 2007.