Welcome to Liberal Religion, 3: The First Two Smooth Stones

The first smooth stone of liberal religion: Growth.
"Religious liberalism depends first on the principle that revelation is continuous. Meaning has not been finally captured. Nothing is complete, and thus nothing is exempt from criticism." (James Luther Adams)
Our religious tradition is a living tradition because we are always learning. Free religion cannot be chained to a particular doctrine.

For us, religion is not a set of propositions to which we commit ourselves. We do not seek the false protection of beliefs we expect to be exempt from revision. Rather, we seek openness to new learning.

For example, we are interested – religiously interested -- in the developments of science. When we learn that some kinds of acquired characteristics can alter our genes and be passed on genetically, we take this not merely as a cognitive factoid, but a spiritual lesson. Cautious about stretching findings too far, we nevertheless take the reminder that experience matters, and we can change more fundamentally than we had imagined. When we read that the Higgs Boson gives objects their mass, we are prompted to notice that the existence of mass is actually profoundly puzzling. This ordinary world we take for granted is shot through all the way down with deep and wondrous mystery that awakens our awe.

Religion's job -- one of them -- is to provide a story that helps us make sense of our self and our world. The thing is, a lot of religious stories are rather fixed. The world may go through a renaissance, a birth of science, an age of reason, an industrial revolution, and emerge into a postmodern information age, but some religious stories are barely revised. Not ours. As new knowledge emerges -- in physics, biology, ecology, brain sciences, psychology, sociology, economics, or anything -- liberal religion looks to integrate that knowledge into human spiritual life.

Some religions seem to encourage adherents to sequester religious life away from the rest of life – no matter what is learned out there, it will have no effect on religious beliefs. Liberal religion, by contrast, looks everywhere for lessons.

Second smooth stone of liberal religion: Freedom.
"All relations between persons ought ideally to rest on mutual, free consent and not on coercion." (James Luther Adams)
We freely choose to enter into relationship with one another.

The problem with doctrine is not only that it inhibits growth and learning, but that it inhibits the freedom of your own mind and heart to go its own way. Our point is not only that there are always new things to learn, but that each of us learns and grows in different ways. Freedom engenders diversity, and liberal religion aims to embrace and celebrate diversity.

We do not say, “you can believe anything you want to.” We uphold the freedom to believe as our hearts, minds, and consciences dictate, but we recognize that what they dictate is not always what we’d like. Thus, we do not believe what we want to; we believe what we have to – the compulsion coming from your own heart, mind, and conscience, not from the religious institution.

I preach what I think – and it’s up to you to work out what of it to believe. There’s the story of a visitor to a Unitarian Universalist worship service who sat through the sermon with growing shock and incredulity at the ideas being voiced from the pulpit.

Afterward a congregation member asked the visitor, “So how did you like it?”

“I can’t believe half the things the minister said!” sputtered the outraged visitor.

“Oh, good,” answered the UU. “You’ll fit right in.”

Our emphasis on freely choosing our relationships manifests in society at large as, for instance, support for LGBT rights – and it manifests in our congregational life as the understanding that we are a covenantal tradition. We are not held together by creed, but by covenant. Signing the membership book at a Unitarian Universalist congregation means freely entering into covenantal relationship with the other members, and with all UUs. Our covenantal promise is to walk together, to support each other, to be friends along the journey, cherishing the diversity of our perspectives and affirming and promoting Unitarian Universalist values:
  • the inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity, compassion;
  • Acceptance of one another, encouragement to spiritual growth;
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  • Democracy and the rights of conscience;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part.
This is not a creed – it is a set of values that we share and by which covenant to help each other live.

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

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