"Religious liberalism affirms the moral obligation to direct one’s effort toward the establishment of a just and loving community. It is this which make the role of the prophet central and indispensible in liberalism." (James Luther Adams)Our Judeo-Christian heritage bequeaths to us a respect for the role of the prophet. The prophets of the Hebrew Bible – Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Amos, Hosea, et al – had a recognized role as the mouths of God – a role which even the king felt compelled to respect. Utilizing the protections of a legitimate, recognized social role, the prophets criticized their government, criticized the powerful on behalf of the dispossessed and powerless.
Isaiah said, “What do you mean by crushing my people, and grinding down the poor?” He denounced judges who took bribes and failed to give proper justice in cases involving the orphan and the widow. Amos proclaimed divine judgment upon those who “sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals.”
“The prophets said that the culture was not under the control of centralized power; viable culture requires the institutionalization of dissent – in other words, the freedom to criticize the powers that be.” (James Luther Adams)The Protestant Reformation in the 16th century propounded the idea of the priesthood of all believers. Protestants declared that it is not the job of someone else (namely, a limited class of priests) to mediate our relationship with the divine. Rather, each of us must take that responsibility. Liberal religion goes another step, and proclaims not just the priesthood of all, but the prophethood of all. It is not the job of someone else (namely, a limited class of prophets) to be the critics of the powerful and the advocates of the oppressed. Rather, each of us must take that responsibility. Liberal religious faith calls all of us to the prophet's task.
Liberal religion is appalled at the kind of religion that could be called an opiate of the masses. Our faith must be good for something other than private and sleepy personal bliss. It must be good for helping bring justice – fairness -- to the world.
Fourth smooth stone of liberal religion: social incarnation.
"We deny the immaculate conception of virtue and affirm the necessity of social incarnation....The decisive forms of goodness in society are institutional forms. No one can properly put faith in merely individual virtue, even though that is a prerequisite for societal virtues. The faith of the liberal must express itself in societal forms, in the forms of education, in economic and social organization, in political organization. Without these, freedom and justice in community are impossible." (James Luther Adams)Liberal religion is committed to institutions. Granted, institutions inevitably have shortcomings. Institutions are boxes, and we like to think of ourselves as "thinking outside the box." Institutions necessarily have to put some energy toward their own self-preservation, and this can sometimes seems to overshadow any other reason for existing. Institutions tend toward bureaucracy and they develop their own culture which can confuse or frustrate anyone who isn't an insider. Good institutions work at minimizing these tendencies, but none eliminates them.
For all the drawbacks, institutions are absolutely necessary. The decisive forms of goodness in society are institutional forms. An institution is any recognizable pattern of interaction. Marriage, for instance, is an institution. The family is an institution.
We cannot afford the purity of absolute rules and values. Virtue can remain immaculate only if it never touches the conditions of life, only if it is divorced from specific historical situations and cultural contexts. Social incarnation means we must embody our values in the world as we actually find it and in relations with others. We must build and sustain the institutions through which social transformation becomes possible -- schools, congregations, political movements.
Developing just institutions involves the messiness of claiming our power amid conflicting perspectives and needs, rather than the purity of ahistorical, decontextualized ideals. It is not enough to love. That love must be embodied, incarnated, in and through effective social forms.
Specifically, in the area of religion, we cannot afford retreat from faith institutions into vapid claims to be "spiritual but not religious" (where "religious" means being a part of a religious institution). We need each other to support our spiritual growth and keep us on track. We need that support and guidance organized and reliable. Yes, it gets messy, and it has its annoyances. Any sustainable form of love always does.
"The resources (divine and human) that are available for the achievement of meaningful change justify an attitude of ultimate optimism." (James Luther Adams)Liberal religion has a sense of history – we are embedded in an ongoing story of change. Some religions convey a sense that nothing changes, or nothing that spiritually matters. Other religions tell a story of decline: There was a golden age long ago, the world has been getting worse ever since, and there’s no help for it but to retreat into such refuge as the religion offers.
Liberal religion does not naively hold that progress is inevitable, just that it is possible.
We are open-eyed about the dangers. We have seen the holocaust. We read the papers, and we know the great harm that people can do and are doing to each other today. We know that the Earth’s ecosystems are in danger, that our leaders appear unlikely to take meaningful action to preserve them, and that continued environmental degradation might lead to resource wars covering the planet in a bleak landscape of bloody violence and agonizing famine.
Liberal religion holds that history does matter – our spiritual development is tied up with our society’s development – and that progress of peace and justice is possible. When we say an “attitude of ultimate optimism,” we mean that for all humankind’s ignorance and denial, for all our obliviousness and narrow self-interest, over the long run we are a species that learns, that can teach, that can disseminate not just information, but knowledge, and not just knowledge, but wisdom.
We may yet avoid a new dark age, and even if we don’t, compassion will not die. Humankind is likely to survive, and if we do we will emerge ultimately better equipped to build institutions of peace, justice, and sustainable prosperity.
(Full text of J.L. Adams' "Five Smooth Stones": CLICK HERE.)
Sometimes people have the misconception that liberal religion is “religion light.” Fannie Mae Holmes, the wife of Oliver Wendell Holmes, when asked why she was a Unitarian, is said to have replied, “Because in Boston everyone has to be something, and Unitarian is the least you can be.” She was thinking in terms of doctrine. We are indeed quite light on that.
But in fact the path of covenant, of justice, of deepening and growth, is demanding. We are the free church, by aspiration, and there is no easy walk to freedom.
Because it is so hard, we need each other. We cannot truly become ourselves by ourselves, cannot develop the resources for meaning-making and coping with loss and grief without help, cannot alone cultivate inner peace and bring that to the work for world peace. Liberal religion welcomes all who would join us on this difficult and beautiful path.
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This is part 4 of 4 of "Welcome to Liberal Religion"
Click for other parts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3