Liberal religion is a journey. In 1921, L.B. Fisher, the editor of the Universalist newsletter, The Leader, wrote: "Universalists are often asked to tell where they stand. The only true answer to give to this question is that we do not stand, we move... We do not stand still; we do not defend any immoveable positions, theologically speaking, and we are therefore harder to count or to form into imposing numbers. We grow and we march, as all living things forever must do."
Henry Nelson Wieman, the great 20th-century Unitarian theologian, warned us that for human beings, "there is no prescribed form or limited bounds within which (we) can live with contentment." He defined the directive in history as "the progressive creation of qualitative meaning beyond any known limit."
We aren’t sure where we are headed. If we were, the journey wouldn’t be fully creative. It would be limited by our preconceptions about destination. Rather, the road before us is open. The song of liberal religion is an open road song. Walt Whitman has captured the liberal religious spirit in his "Song of the Open Road":
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road, …
Strong and content I travel the open road.
The earth, that is sufficient, …
From this hour I ordain myself loos'd of limits and imaginary lines,
Going where I list, my own master total and absolute,
Listening to others, considering well what they say,
Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,
Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the hold that would hold me.
I inhale great draughts of space, …
I am larger, better than I thought,
I did not know I held so much goodness.
All seems beautiful to me, …
I will scatter myself among men and women as I go,
I will toss a new gladness and roughness among them,
Whoever denies me it shall not trouble me,
Whoever accepts me he or she shall be blessed and shall bless me.
Listen! I will be honest with you,
I do not offer the old smooth prizes, but offer rough new prizes, …
You shall not heap up what is call'd riches,
You shall scatter with lavish hand all that you earn or achieve, …
Allons! the road is before us!
It is safe — I have tried it — my own feet have tried it well — be not detain'd! …
Camerado, I give you my hand!
I give you my love more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself?
Will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?
from Walt Whitman, "Song of the Open Road"
We Unitarian Universalists often have the hardest time saying what we’re about to people. It’s a bit more complicated than citing a doctrine, or some particular ritual. What liberal religion does is affirm religiousness — a tone, outlook, and approach, common to most religions. And what liberal religion does is offer a home and a community based upon that affirmation to everyone regardless of their doctrines. It’s an open road, with no closed doctrine. Religiousness. Without doctrine.
It’s not always easy. Because it doesn’t hand you your doctrines, because you have the burden of working out for yourself what seems true, liberal religion prescribes a difficult path. Certainly, there is a lot of hope in our theology, a lot of comfort and support and sustenance. This faith we share has seen me through dark times. This open faith involves shouldering a heavy responsibility. Think, feel, believe for yourself. And when you’ve got it all worked out, take a deep breath and get down to work again expanding yourself beyond that. It is difficult. It is also often joyous. And for those of us who walk that open road, no other path will do. We do it because we have to. Our conscience requires it.
As Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams put it, "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". The hard work of bringing more revelation to light never ends, the task of defining ourselves is never completed. We do it because we have to. Our conscience requires it.
Once when I was a canvasser for the Unitarian Universalist congregation in Nashville, a couple related to me what I have heard, in different forms, a lot of times. They told me that when they first started going to the Unitarian Universalist church, some of their friends privately approached them and said, "Oh, don’t go there. They are not a religion. They’re just a community." What could this mean — we are not a religion?
People use this word religion to mean a set of doctrines. If religion means a set of doctrines, then, no, we aren’t a religion. But we know religion doesn’t mean a set of doctrines. Religion means the "gradual process of awakening to the depths and possibilities of life itself." Religion means coming together with others in community and shared rituals that affirm that we are bound together. Religion means how we live, the ethical and moral values that guide our action. Religion means a sense of transcendence, of interconnection with all things, of touching the holy, either through special sacrament or the profound sense that everything is holy. Religion brings all those things together and integrates them. Sometimes, as in Christianity and Islam, it incorporates doctrine as part of the process, and other times, as in Unitarian Universalism and Buddhism, it doesn’t. Even the religions that don’t have creeds or dogma do have teachings.
We have these seven principles of Unitarian Universalism:
- Affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.
- Affirm and promote justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.
- Affirm and promote acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth.
- Affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.
- Affirm and promote the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.
- Affirm and promote the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.
- Affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part.
That is what we teach. And when we’re at our best that is what we practice.
You may ask: what is the difference between principles and creeds? Principles are general and meant to be inclusive. Creeds are meant to be exclusive. Creeds are drafted in response to some belief that the drafters want to exclude. Take, for example, the Apostle’s Creed. The Apostle’s creed says God is an almighty father who created heaven and earth; had exactly one Son, "He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again." This creed emphasizes the humanity of Jesus, including the material body.
There was at that time a group of people saying Jesus was a pure spirit being — a kind of holographic projection from God. The Apostle’s creed was written specifically to exclude that view. Jesus was a material body that suffered, was crucified, and died. Creeds, doctrines, are written in order to exclude. Principles, such as ours, aim to be inclusive. I've never met a Hindu Catholic, or a Muslim Jew, or a Christian Pagan. But I know a number of Unitarian Universalist Christians, Unitarian Universalist Pagans, Unitarian Universalist Jews, Unitarian Universalist Buddhists. A previous minister of mine in Charlottesville, Virginia identified himself as a Unitarian Buddhiversalist. We also have Unitarian Universalist Taoists, Unitarian Universalist Hindus, Unitarian Universalist Muslims, and Unitarian Universalist atheists. If religion means choosing just one label, and disavowing all other traditions, then, no we aren’t a religion. But we know religion doesn’t mean the closed roads. It can also be an open road, ready to listen to others and consider well what they say.
There is a certain religious outlook according to which there is a sharp division between the sacred and the profane. God, and goodness, and holiness, and the divine are over there: eternal, changeless, pure — and at the other end is that which is earthy, mud, lowly, base, corrupt, changeable. It’s a thoroughgoing dualism. A limited number of sacraments, administered only by priests at certain hallowed times and places, could open a tiny hole and let a little bit of divinity shine through to this benighted lower realm. And only the heavenly realms are really real, in this view. This world upon which we live is only half there: heaven’s second-rate hand-me-down.
But suppose there were no profane. Suppose there were a basic unity of all things, and that all things were sacred, all things pure (perfectly pure instances of exactly what they are). This is the invitation of liberal religion: to see everything as holy, everything a miracle, every moment a sacrament shining with transcendent light.
Historically, the two denominations which merged in 1961 to form the Unitarian Universalist Association did have doctrines: Christian doctrines, in fact. The Unitarian Christian doctrine was that God is one, not three, as the trinitarians said. And the Universalists held a doctrine of universal salvation: everyone goes to heaven, and there is no hell.
Yet even from the beginning, even though it was a doctrine that gave one set of churches the name "Unitarian" and another doctrine that gave another set of churches the name "Universalist," even then those churches were places of freedom and reason, and individual consciences thinking through questions for themselves. From those beginnings in a diminished role for doctrine, today we have no doctrinal requirements for membership. So today one can even be a Unitarian Trinitarian.
Though we each have our individual beliefs, there is no one belief that we must all share in order to be Unitarian Universalists. Unitarian Universalists include pagans, Buddhists, Christians, humanists — and folks with personal doctrines that have no name. Individuals have doctrines, but neither this church nor this denomination has any doctrines. Amidst our diversity, we have a commonality: these principles. These principles exclude no religion, but they exclude irreligiousness.
I am not going to say we do not exclude anything. Our principles aim to be inclusive instead of exclusive, but our principles do not aim to be all-inclusive. Being a Unitarian Universalist does make a difference. If you could be anything and still be a Unitarian Universalist, then being a Unitarian Universalist would not make any difference. But it does make a difference. It makes a huge difference in my life, and I have seen what a huge difference it makes in the lives of those who come here in adulthood after having been raised in some other faith tradition.
But Unitarian Universalism is not for everyone. Some people are not at a place where they can affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Some people are not ready to be comfortable with the idea that our pulpit is not an authoritative source of belief — that we expect them to freely and responsibly search for truth and meaning. Some people do not get the importance of respect for the interdependent web. And some outright reject the goal of world community. To accept these principles and to take seriously the project of constructing a life based on them makes an enormous difference. A day spent with an orientation toward dignity, compassion, acceptance, and recognizing interdependence is a different sort of day from one spent oblivious to that call. It makes everything different. It starts with fewer intentional cruelties and leads, with continued devoted practice at truly living by our principles, to fewer accidental cruelties. It leads to becoming spiritually more whole, morally and emotionally more integrated and complete. And the fact that living this way does make a difference means that it differentiates those who do accept the principles and the life project for which they are called from those who don’t.
At the same time, those seven principles do not exclude any of the world's religions. For all the world’s great religious traditions — the Shinto, the Sikhs, the Jainists, the Native American religions, the animists, the Confucians, the Zoroastrians — as well as the Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists — have a version of principles like these. When we are religiously at our best, we live up to these principles. When they are religiously at their best, we can see that they are also affirming and promoting these principles, even though they don’t use exactly this language. I'm not talking about every single sect — some extremist groups plainly violate the principles we affirm. But in the main, all the world’s major religious traditions in effect affirm principles like those which we express in the language of our principles.
These principles are sufficient as a basis of what a religious community must hold in common. To develop your religion, you build your own theology fleshing out this seven-boned skeleton.
We aim to call people away from irreligiousness, but not exclude any serious religion.
It is as if, in affirming these seven principles, we implicitly were affirming also an eighth. And the implied eighth principle is that these seven are enough. Probably many Catholics would agree with these seven. Many conservative Baptists would say they had no quarrel with anything in these principles. The two fresh-faced Mormon young men who knocked on my door a while back nodded agreement that these principles sounded good to them. But the Catholics, Baptists, and Mormons, each in their own way, then want to start adding extra stuff, extra doctrine.
The implied eighth principle is like a big period at the end of the seven. We need no add-on exclusivist creed or doctrine. Or, to put the point another way, if you think you agree with these seven principles, but then you want to start piling additional doctrine on them, and you want that doctrine institutionalized — backed by the full force the church can muster — then you don’t really understand what we understand those principles to be saying. Institutionalized doctrine conflicts with a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. And any failure to insist that each person is worthy of working it out for him or herself is also a failure to affirm each person’s inherent worth and dignity. It’s a failure to accept one another for all our differences, a failure to encourage spiritual growth beyond that creedal doctrine, whatever it may be; it’s a failure to affirm the right of conscience.
Illiberal religion cannot affirm that implicit eighth principle, that these seven suffice for a faith community. For as soon as they said that — that their distinguishing particularist doctrines were optional, were unnecessary for either religiousness or community — they would in that very moment have become religiously liberal, for they would have forsworn their prescribed course and joined us, afoot and lighthearted, on the open road.
What liberal religion does is affirm the possibility of a faith community — caring for each other and about social justice; challenging one another’s theologies, and challenging social institutions to be more fair — all without shared particular doctrines, only shared general principles.
Before the 1961 merger, the Unitarian tradition was one that stressed freedom — the freedom of individual conscience. The Universalist tradition was one that stressed love — love of God for humanity, and, following that model, love of each other. So Unitarian Universalism is the child of two parents: freedom and love. Our ideal is freedom — and the breaking of the chains that keep us from being most fully who we are, from bringing our whole selves to give to the world, to do, to speak, and be heard. Our ideal is love — and the breaking of the chains that hold us apart from one another, from authentic relations of understanding and care and liberation. Our faith is the child of freedom and love.
Yet these two are really one: for neither is possible without the other. It’s an ideal. It’s what we strive for.
But let me be clear on one point. What liberal religion does not do is say that you can believe anything you want to. It does say you are free to believe as your heart, mind, and conscience dictates, but that’s not saying anything goes. I’m a Unitarian Universalist today because shortly before I was born my parents, driving through Richmond, Virginia where they lived, on the way home one day happened to drive by the Unitarian Church. The sign out front said, "Here we believe that all have the right to believe as their heart, mind, and conscience dictate." That’s the sign that got them in the door. Maybe some other typically UU slogan would have worked, too. I don’t know. But that sign was the proximate cause of this denomination being a part of the way I was raised. What sign was I born under? I was born under a sign that says, "Here we believe that all have the right to believe as their heart, mind, and conscience, dictates."
So, yes, liberal religion certainly affirms — indeed, insists on — freedom to believe as your heart, mind, and conscience dictates. But that’s very different from believing whatever you want. What you want to believe might be what is easy — a theology that is superficially attractive, doesn’t require much thought or creative work.
You might want some belief that you can hold and gaze upon like a pretty crystal: beautiful and static. But hearing and heeding what your heart, mind, and conscience dictate requires effort. It requires focus and attentiveness. It is an ongoing labor of the soul, for the journey to discover what your own self dictates you believe is nothing less that the journey to discover who you are. And that’s a journey on an open road with rest stops along the way but no final destination, no point at which the trek is over because revelation is then complete.
We do it because we have to. Our conscience requires it.
Let me tell you about Neecie Vanston. More than 20 years ago, I was 24 years old. Neecie and I were members of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Waco, Texas. Neecie was 70-years-old, which, you know, doesn’t seem as old to me now as it did when I was 24. She came up to about the middle of my chest. Neecie was a long-time and dedicated member of that fellowship. She had been part of the small group that founded the Waco UU Fellowship back in the 50s. I was newly returned to the fold after having been unchurched since high school.
Neecie believed in the seven Unitarian Universalist principles and the implied eighth principle, that those seven are enough. She believed in a religion that welcomed theological diversity, that never proclaimed any final, settled truth, that continually unfolded, that affirmed each individual wherever they might be on whatever faith journey they might be walking. She believed in ethics because what we do matters. She believed that the more she understood about the experience of different people — the different social experience of different classes and different races and different cultures, and the different spiritual experience of Jews and Hindus and Buddhists and the various forms of Christianity — then the more she understood herself, the more she understood the ground of being, and the more she loved those different people, and acted on that compassion, the more she was whole. She believed — she knew — down to her bones from 30 years of walking the Unitarian Universalist path — that community based on this approach to religion saves us, heals us, sets us free. That’s what liberal religion does, and it’s what Neecie believed in.
So there I was: callow youth of 24, first year back in a UU congregation after years of absence. I didn’t understand that distinction between the easy and lazy believe-anything-you-want-to and the disciplined quest to discern your own heart and mind’s dictates.
One Sunday in Waco, during our holiest sacrament — the coffee communion after the service — I made the mistake of blithely blurting, "We’re Unitarian Universalists. We can believe whatever we want to."
Neecie overheard that remark. And she turned around. I will never forget it. It was a religious moment. "You think I believe in what I do because I want to?" she said. "I believe this because I have to.
"You think here in Waco, Texas my life wouldn’t be a lot easier if I could be a Baptist? But I can’t. My conscience won’t let me. If this were about what I wanted to believe," Neecie continued, "about what I found it convenient and easy to believe, you wouldn’t see my face here on Sunday morning."
Her eyes flashed, and she paused to take a sip. Noticing that I was completely at a loss, she softened. "Meredith," she said, putting a hand on my elbow, "the world is beautiful, and it is tragic. I believe we are here to cling together and make what light we can against the darkness. And that’s hard work, because frankly some days I don’t feel all that clingy. And I don’t have much spark to offer. And we are here to try to find out what’s true about ourselves and each other and this world. And that’s hard work, too. It’s from that work that our beliefs come, and we don’t do it because we want to, but because we have to. We do it because we are commanded by God or conscience or something of greater significance than our convenience."
"Oh," I said.
Does not the world call to us for a religious response — that is, a response which affirms dignity and justice and compassion and acceptance and searching and conscience and democracy and peace and interdependence? Do you not hear that call? We here share, not universal religion, but a universal core of religiousness. And whatever Unitarian Universalist blank you happen to be, it is a fuller and richer and deeper blank because it is also informed by the diversity around you, informed by all those other perspectives. We’re there with you as you grow and explore as we grow and explore. Why? Just as Neecie said: Because we have to. Our conscience requires it.
All rights reserved. Copyright © 2007 by Rev. Meredith Garmon, PhD