A couple of weeks ago, in a conversation with a fellow Unitarian Universalist, my friend said “Won’t the world be better when everyone becomes a UU?” She seemed a little shocked at my “Never gonna happen” response. I guess it did sound a little defeatist, though I certainly did not mean it that way… but it is true. If you are holding out hope for a world composed of Unitarian Universalists, I have three words for you: Never Gonna Happen.
And I call myself an Evangelical Religious Liberal. If I wasn’t, I probably would not put the time into writing these online essays.
I am a Unitarian Universalist, but when you get down to it my faith is actually Religious Liberalism. My faith rests in the belief that I can continue to live my life in the knowledge that I do not have all the answers. My faith rests in the belief that I can continue to live my life knowing that the answers I do have are temporary suppositions that must regularly be tested, and changed. My faith rests in the belief that I can continue to live my life even though the questions I ask are constantly changing. My faith rests in the belief that the choice to live an ethical life does not, for me, require that I live in fear of divine punishment or in lust for divine reward. My choice to live an ethical life comes from within, and finds its motivation in this time, in this world. My faith rests in the belief that there is much for me to learn from many different religious traditions, and that I have to take what I learn and seat it firmly within a practice of religious liberalism.
In discussing my faith with a Southern Baptist colleague (one of the good ones who was comfortable with his own faith), he described my religion as “Religious Post-Modernism”. It’s a fair description. Funny, considering his seminary had sent him out to “destroy post-modernism and all its works”… At least he smiled as he said it.
The conversations I had with this particular Southern Baptist minister over the following weeks were enlightening. It was he who pointed out to me that Religious Liberalism is a tough path to follow. Its not that Religious Liberals do not have answers to life’s great questions, it is just that they change those answers from time to time. Its not that Religious Liberals have no scripture to guide them, its just that there is so much than can be considered scripture that it sometimes hard to fathom. Religious Liberals have no creed, not because they don’t want one, but because the life experience of each Religious Liberal is different enough that the answers they have come to are all different and changing. In my experience, Religious Liberals are constantly seeking a creed that can never really be grasped.
What Religious Liberals have in common is not the answers they find, or even the questions they ask… but rather the way they have committed to seeking those questions and answers, and in some cases how they live with each other and in the world. That second part about how we live in the world is, for me, Unitarian Universalism.
The person who says, “I don’t know, and I don’t care” is not a religious liberal. Religious liberals care deeply enough about knowing that they dedicate their lives to it.
The person who says, “I know for certain” is not a religious liberal, for certainty alleviates the requirement that we continually test the questions and answers we come to.
I think back to a class on Zen Buddhism taught by James Ford, in which he introduced the concept of four-fold logic. In traditional western society, there are two acceptable answers to a question… yes or no. In a world that requires certainty, there can be no other answers. To say “maybe” is to admit weakness… perhaps even sin.
In the Buddhist four-fold logic system that James introduced, the possible answers were yes, no, neither yes nor no, both yes and no. Each of these answers carried the same validity, the same weight… and were all subject to constant revision based upon experience and circumstances. This is, I believe, the core methodology of religious liberalism. The answers are just as important as the questions… but both the questions and the answers are constantly changing.
As I discussed this with my Southern Baptist minister colleague, he turned to me and said “How can you live like that?” There was no judgment in his eyes. He was not trying to convert me. If anything, there was just a touch of awe in his gaze. To him, it was as if I had just said that I could breathe underwater, or live without food, or perhaps had just arrived from Alpha Centauri. The only answer I had for him was “I can’t live any other way… I’ve tried.”
It was at that moment, sitting in a field at Ft. Jackson, South Carolina, that it really struck me that the whole world would never become either religious liberals or Unitarian Universalists. Part of that I already knew… enough run-ins with “Convinced Atheists” within Unitarian Universalist congregations had already shown me that not all UU’s were my kind of Religious Liberal. It helped me begin to see that what binds Unitarian Universalists is not religious liberalism (as I understand it), but rather a commitment as to how we will live together and with the world.
My Southern Baptist colleague, whom I respect greatly, who is just as intelligent (or more so) than I am, needs a religion that gives him firm answers about this world and the next if he is to continue to cope with life. My kind of religion just would not work for him, and might even do him a world of harm if he were to try it. If I were to say that his religion, based upon both ancient and modern answers to persistent questions was “false” or “invalid”… then I would be guilty of the same kind of literalism that I have in the past subscribed to others.
Different kinds of people have different kinds of relationships with the religious impulse within humanity. I sometimes think that the relationship to religion is more important than any particular religion. Fundamentalist Christians, Fundamentalist Atheists, Fundamentalist Muslims, Fundamentalist Humanists, and Fundamentalist Wiccans all have an amazing amount in common. Each has found TRUTH, which means (in a two-fold logic system) that all other beliefs are FALSE. Each seeks to confirm their own TRUTH by conversion of others. Something within this kind of person needs that solid rock on which to rest, to build a fortress. Each will spend the rest of their days, to paraphrase Mark Twain “patching it, caulking it, propping it up, praying that it will not cave in on them”.
I understand the need for that fortress, the world is indeed a frightening place. I understand the desire to bring more people into the fortress with you. It is the connection with religion that I grew up with… it is just not my connection with religion, with the divine, with God.
There is a kind of elitism that can occur in the way that someone connects with the religious impulse within humankind. Part of my growth in this last year has been to realize that I am not inherently better than anyone else because of my religious liberalism. I just connect with the religious impulse differently. Just as I would rebel against someone trying to drag me into their “fortress of faith”, so should people rebel against any attempt by me to take that fortress away from them.
Even if I do understand that most of the work of making this world a better place occurs outside of these particular fortresses, not within.
The Evangelism of Religious Liberalism that I believe in is three-fold. First, I believe in building sustainable congregations, open to all, and based around the core ideas of religious liberalism, to alleviate what has for centuries been the price paid for being a religious liberal… community. Being a “heretic” (or one who questions and chooses) has often in history meant loosing the communities to which one had belonged, with nothing to replace them. Providing communities for religious liberals is a part of my commitment to Unitarian Universalism.
Second, my evangelism is about making it known that it is ok to be a religious liberal. This is an amazingly tough task, in which the fires of hell or the end of being are attached by many to the commitment to live life as a religious liberal. For years I thought that there was something inherently wrong with me… that I might even have some kind of mental illness, just because I could not stay within the “fortress of faith” in which I was raised… because my answers, and even my questions, kept changing.
Third, my evangelism is, since I am out of the fortress, to do good works within the world. Military tacticians know that the weakness to a fortress mentality is immobility. Moving our world to a sustainable, pluralistic, and open-hearted “kingdom of God” rests in the hands of those who live in an ever-changing, ever growing universe. We are called by the very nature of liberal religious faith to works in the world. Part of that work is to create enough of an acceptance of religious freedom that we are less likely to ever be marched into one of the “fortresses of faith” at the point of a sword… or barrel of a gun.
If we wait to do that work until we are joined by everyone else, then we have misunderstood the complexity of human nature. If we wait until everyone becomes a Religious Liberal, or (even more unlikely) until everyone becomes a Unitarian Universalist, we will be waiting forever. Our faith calls us to work for the salvation of the world now, and by so doing save those in the fortresses as well as ourselves.
Yours in Faith,