There are many definitions of liberal religion. One of the most elegant and complete definitions can be seen in five statements about liberal religion made by UU theologian James Luther Adams, which he referred to as "the Five Smooth Stones of Liberalism." For those who like foci for meditation or reflection this dish up here contains a pile of smooth stones to remind us of Adam's offering to us. In brief Adam's five smooth stones are:
- One. Revelation and truth are not closed, but constantly revealed.
- Two. All relations between persons ought ideally to rest on mutual, free consent and not coercion.
- Three. Affirmation of the moral obligation to direct one's effort toward the establishment of a just and loving community.
- Four. Denial of the immaculate conception of virtue and affirmation of the necessity of social incarnation. Good must be consciously given form and power within history.
- And five. The resources (divine and human) that are available for achievement of meaningful change justify an attitude of ultimate (but not necessarily immediate) optimism. There is hope in the ultimate abundance of the Universe.
Over the next couple of months I will explore each of these more fully with you all, in turn giving each its due. But as for today we I will attempt to give a broader consideration of some of the principles and issues of religious liberalism as Adams and others understand them.
Unitarian Universalist minister, writer and essayist Jack Mendohlsson gave an interesting sub title to his book Why I am a Unitarian Universalist. He called it or Being Liberal in an Illiberal Age. Many of us think we know exactly what he means. It is an illiberal age when people like the theo-fascist Pat Robertson and his minions in the Christian Coalition are demanding that the Republican Party nominate presidential candidates acceptable to him personally; when those who lack resources in our society are being made to bear the brunt of a self absorbed enthusiasm for a neo-Victorian market driven survival of the fittest; when we all nearly deify people like the late Princess Diana and then leer at them. Yup, things are pretty bad for religious and other liberals.
But as a student of history I am forced to admit that this is not an isolated situation and that most ages of humanity are illiberal ones. Therefore we are inheritors not only of an intellectual and religious tradition but of the struggles of that tradition to make itself manifest in the world.
The word "liberal" itself has had some pretty bad press in recent years. Most of it undeserved and much of it the consequence of political appropriation of the word by many parties. It has been associated with specific government policies and practices which have either been ineffective or are out of favor with the popular culture. Basically, the baby got thrown out with the bath water. Can any one out here give me a couple of words which define what liberal originally means?
(Responses) In essence "liberal" means "open minded, generous-spirited, kindhearted, and open handed." (World, Vol. V., No.1, p. 4) Now if we combine this with the meaning of religion which is that which reconnects us or binds us back to that which is ultimately important, then liberal religion is a path and institutions which help us to reconnect or be aware of that of ultimate importance, the Holy, through methods and principles which are "open minded, generous-spirited, kindhearted, and open handed," and ultimately optimistic.
Just for the sake of clarity, the term "orthodox" comes from to two root words which mean "right thought," Therefore, orthodox religions seek to reconnect us to the ultimate by means of individuals holding what have been predetermined by some historical authority to be the "right thoughts" or beliefs.
The Rev. William Sloan Coffin writes that,
On the religious side, liberals believe that the integrity of love is more important than the purity of dogma. Dogma is a sign post, love is a hitching post. Liberals contend that we should sharpen our minds, not narrow them. We understand that.... faith, far from clearing up uncertainty, makes it possible to live with uncertainty. Fundamentalists, on the other hand, cannot bear uncertainty. They indulge in what psychiatrists call 'premature closure." .... Liberals contend that one of the most wonderful things about life is to act wholeheartedly without absolute certainty. (World, Vol. V., No.1, p. 6)
As religious liberals and a Unitarian Universalists we are a religion of doubters. We do not claim to have all the answers, because we know that no one does. Those who claim to have all the answers, actually have one answer less than those who know that they don't know it all. Liberal religion says that we can know some truths, plural, little "t," but not all Truth, singular, capital "T." Even if perfect knowledge or divine truth were given to human beings, as some claim they are through various scriptures, We human beings as imperfect, finite and fallible creatures could not understand or interpret it perfectly. There is no way that we can inerrantly know the mind of God, how ever we may conceptualize it. For us, the fallible to claim infallibility; for the finite to claim perfect understanding of the infinite is, quite simply, idolatry. The setting up of something less than the ultimate in the place of the ultimate. Therefore things like claims of scriptural literalism and inerrancy are not only illogical, they are arrogant. If there is a sacrilege in liberal religion it is this type of claim.
Now it is easy to stand forth and point fingers at others, especially if they deserve it. But as the old saying goes, "when we point one finger at another, there are three more pointing back at us." We may be able to justifiably critique others, but intellectual, philosophical and religious honesty require that we must be willing to submit ourselves to the same analyses. The self critical functions of liberal religion are in many ways its definitive hall marks. Self reflection and self criticism allow for correction, increased understanding, innovation and renewal. No forms of liberal religion are final. As Adams said in the reading earlier, "...none of them is exempt form change. The moment any one of them is taken for final, liberalism lapses into orthodoxy." (Adams, p. 333, An Examined Faith)
We are not believers in some immutable, static truth, closed for all time, or even closed off for a while. Revelation is not closed. New truth, understanding and grace are constantly being revealed to and through us and all of creation. This is why we say that we have a "living tradition."
Our current covenant which we refer to as our Principles and Purposes were originally installed in 1985 after lengthy processes of discussion and debate over several years. They have come to be a major theological touch stone for us as a liberal religious movement. But they are not written in stone. The resistance to change that even liberals can have as well as the liberal need for deliberation and careful thought can both be seen in efforts to make an addition to the sources of our faith listed in the Principles.
Over several years an amendment was offered to add earth centered religions as a source. After great debate and procedural wrangling it was eventually added in 1995 by a vote of our General Assembly. One of the side concerns of many of my colleagues was that it would be healthy to see a change in this document not only because of the issues involved but because it would tend to undercut a rising tendency to see this document as a fixed and inviolate creed instead of the reflection of a living covenant.
We as human beings and as religious liberals are about change. Not change for its own sake but being able to recognize it and to utilize to the good. Like surfing a wave, occasionally we wipe out. Like James Luther Adams' pointing to our failures in the early part of this century through a naive liberalism of constant progress, onward and up ward for ever. We had to learn that recognizing and respecting the inherent worth and dignity of others does not mean ignoring and/or denying the equally inherent capacity of humans for evil. There is an ongoing necessity to make our principles and actions "relevant to the spiritual and ethical demands of the changing historical situation." (JLA)
Liberal religion is important and relevant precisely because it allows us to live in and be empowered to change the world for the betterment of all, in any age. As our pace of life accelerates, the need for a flexible but coherent method of making ethical and moral choices is paramount. Fixed and rigid systems cannot respond quickly enough to changing conditions, though they try to by replacing reflective consideration with efficiency and management. But our lives are not to be managed, either by Pat Robertson or multinational corporations, our lives are to be lived in ways which will make us all better for having lived them.
Adams might say that we need to die to who we are and to let go of our past conceptions of acceptable relationship. We need to let go of the orthodoxies of class, race and economic systems in which we are so entrenched and so self identified with, and which cage our spirits, and that of our current world. Only a rejection of the mythic individualism which says despairingly to us that "we stand alone, we should stand alone, and that if we do not stand alone we are failures." This false understanding of the individual keeps us weak and afraid and invested in the status quo rather than prophetically working for the realization of the Beloved Community. The easy use of religious language, of Goddess/God, the Holy which we and the orthodox do while perpetuating incarnations of injustice only serve to sanctify, "the cages that separate us from freedom and community." Easy talk about, and celebration alone of things such as tolerance, justice, human rights, worth and dignity, etceteras, as Adams puts it only "exemplifies the hypocrisy and the spiritual impotance of a moribund `religion'. All of these cages prevent the flight of thespirit, the flight of eagles that mount up on wings, of eagles that swoop down straight." (p. 334)
The power of liberal religion is to see that these cages are just that, cages, not divine rights to unbridled wealth, power or rampant individualism or to choices without consequences in a larger setting. They are not the ultimate, but only idols of our own, built out of our desires, but mostly built out of our fears. Our fears of inadequacy, our fears of not getting enough, our fears of being alone, our fears of not being loved. There is as Adams asserts, a "neurotic yearning for security which has developed in an age of convolutions. It is clear the yearning is neurotic for it fervidly rejects patient discussion as tedious and frustrating." But Adams continues, "the power to break through these cages, is a power that is accessible only to a liberalism that surrenders to something more potent than itself.... It is accessible only to those who know their own sickness, who know their false faiths are false." (p. 334)
Only when we are courageous enough to patiently, deliberately, and self reflectively challenge ourselves and our assumptions to come to broader justice and deeper truths, individually and collectively, will we experience the salvation, the liberation from injustice and the renewal of our world which is the promise of liberal religion.
Examples of some our collective efforts towards this broader justice can be seen in the anti-racism work our own Thomas Jefferson District is seeking to do with training and activism at the congregational level. The witness and work of our UU Service Committee in rebuilding burned churches as an act of witness for justice as well as mercy. I hope you all will be present next Sunday when Christine Murphy will be here to speak on this issue, and also I hope that many of you will be able and willing to join more directly in these rebuilding efforts as volunteers.
Whether we are counting out Adams' five smooth stones, or using other definitions of liberal religion, the impulse and the calling to do justice and walk humbly with the Universe are the same. As we struggle to understand ourselves and each other, and to break the cages of repression and incarnate the good, let us not doubt our connectedness to and the ultimate abundance of the universe which we call "Holy."
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