Welcome to Liberal Religion, 2: Religion Is About Three Things

What do Unitarian Universalists believe? We believe that your religion isn’t about what you believe. When Paul invented the religion we know as Christianity he put believing at the center. When Islam was created six centuries later, it followed Paul’s model, and was also belief-centric. Judaism and the Eastern religions have teachings, principles, and practices -- some of which might be characterized as "beliefs" -- but only Christianity and Islam put the act of believing at the center. So pervasive and influential has Paul’s approach been that it’s common to think that that’s what religion is: some set of beliefs. Christianity and Islam may define themselves by their beliefs, but that’s not always what religion is about.

Religion is about three things. It’s about how you live – the ethics and values that guide your life. Second, it’s about community, connecting bonds, and the rituals we do to affirm that bond. Third, it’s about experience – the experiences of awe, wonder, mystery, and transcendence. As religion scholar Phyllis Tickle puts it, religion is a "cable of meaning" composed of three strands: morality, corporeality (i.e., the apparatus of community), and spirituality.

Those are three rather different things. A church is for trying to bring those things together in such a way that each one will reinforce the other two. When it comes to the ethics and values to guide our lives, we need help. So that’s where having a community to which we choose to be accountable comes in. A religious community – a community of shared rituals, shared stories and songs, and a shared orientation to explore together the meaning of things – helps guide our thinking about how to live, helps us learn how to live out shared ethics and values, while also having integrity with our respective individual passions. And all of that helps us open to religious experience, and understand and integrate the experiences of transcendence.

Liberal – from the same root as “liberty” -- indicates that liberal religion is free religion. The Unitarian and the Universalist denominations were founded in this country over 200 years ago, and they consolidated into one in 1961. Back in 1865, the Unitarians had briefly considered renaming themselves "The Liberal Church of America," and nearly 100 years later, we considered "The United Liberal Church" as a name for our newly consolidated faith. Instead, we opted for "Unitarian Universalist" -- which, at ten syllables, is quite a mouthful, but it does acknowledge our history.

Unitarians and Universalists have been, from our beginnings, committed to free religion, and one of the things that means is that we are free of doctrine. We are creedless -- along with United Church of Christ, Quakers, Disciples of Christ, and Baptists, who also call themselves noncreedal. What is unique among the historically Protestant denominations is that we are not only creedless but also also canonless. We have no list of Canonical texts we call our Bible. Rather, we learn from and are inspired by an ever expanding set of texts.

Saul put his armor upon David, by James Tissot
When the great Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams (1901-1994) delineated the "five smooth stones" of liberalism, he was alluding to this passage from the Hebrew Bible about David preparing to meet Goliath:
“Saul clothed David with his armor; he put a bronze helmet on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail. David strapped Saul’s sword over the armor, and he tried in vain to walk, for he was not used to them. Then David said to Saul, 'I cannot walk with these; for I am not used to them.' So David removed them. Then he took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the wadi, and put them in his shepherd’s bag, in the pouch; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near to the Philistine.” (1 Samuel 17: 38-40, NRSV)
We may treat this as an allegory. On the cultural scene, liberal religion is small compared to the giants of more conservative religion -- and we are relatively young. The inflexible armor of doctrine does not fit us. We cannot walk in that constraint, and we cast it off. Instead, we rely upon five smooth stones we have selected.

The five smooth stones of liberal religion are:
  • Growth: Revelation is continuous.
  • Freedom: Relations must rest on free consent.
  • Justice: Establishment of a just and loving community is an obligation.
  • Social Incarnation: Virtue cannot exist in isolation or in the purity of an ideal.
  • Hope: Transformation is possible.
In our next post, we'll look more fully into the ways these five "stones" function and distinguish liberal religion.

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This is part 2 of 4 of "Welcome to Liberal Religion"
Click for other parts: Part 1, Part 3, Part 4

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