Ruminations: Spoon

We began Chalica this week reflecting on our First Principle as Unitarian Universalists—our mutual covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. But how do we define what it means to have “inherent worth.”

Our friend might take a piece of silverware from the table where we are sharing lunch and ask, “So if this spoon is a person, how do I know their inherent value? Would it have less inherent worth if the spoon was made of plastic?”

How easy it is for us to convert words like “value” and “worth” into monetary definitions! But our principles aren’t about putting price tags on people. Running with the example of the spoon, though, we might try to clarify:

The spoon has value just because it’s a spoon. The material of the spoon doesn’t matter. It’s worthy just by virtue of being a spoon.

Except that a spoon might have subjective worth, depending on the person holding it. Our friend might furrow their brow and ask, “If I’m eating soup, won’t a spoon have more value to me than if I want to eat a steak? Or knit a sweater? A spoon wouldn’t be much help with that. It’s only valuable in certain situations.”

So, we also might confuse “worth” or “value” with usefulness. But we don’t say that every person is useful to us. That kind of thinking leads people to try to take advantage of others—to see people as means to an end. If a person doesn’t seem useful to us, we might feel like it’s OK to treat them differently—or just dismiss them.

It’s not about how useful the spoon is. It’s worthy just because it exists.

Our friend might be disappointed by that explanation. “It seems pretty subjective. You’re saying the spoon has value just because you say so.”

And now we get to the part where we recognize that we’re making a choice when we enter a covenant. We aren’t defending a scientific thesis. We’re making a commitment about how we will see the world. How we will see other human beings: People are not means to an end. People are ends unto themselves.

People have lots of ways of expressing this in “religious” language. They might say that we are all God’s children. Or that we are all vessels of the divine. Maybe that’s why we choose to use religious language sometimes: It’s hard to confuse being a child of God with being defined by one’s usefulness.

Even then, though, we’re defining a way we choose to see the world. A lens that we commit to use when we look at other human beings. When we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, we are also asserting that no person is more or less worthy than any other. There isn’t a spectrum of human worth where we place each individual. We’ve committed to something more challenging than that.

Could it be that when we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, what we are saying is that we choose to value other human beings—and ourselves too—in a way that doesn’t rely on comparisons and perceived usefulness? If so… How countercultural! How revolutionary!    

Rev. Randy Partain