Defending Liberal Religion: 5 Smooth Stones

On Monday, I wrote about the 3 essential elements of evangelism, and how
an understanding of and ability to articulate the foundation of your belief
was crucial to sharing it convincingly and responsibly.
Here are the 5 foundational tenets of our liberal religious tradition.

If we want to convince people that Unitarian Universalism has a place in the world, and deserves consideration from them, you are going to have to defend it. You are going to have to respond to the misconception that we don’t have shared beliefs and that a UU can believe anything at all. You are going to have to explain why we don’t have a creed or a holy text that tells us The Truth about the universe. You are going to have to defuse the expectations of those who think that God answers prayers with miracles, or that there is some evil force we can simply pray away.

One set of tools for this defense comes from the writing of Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams, collected in On Being Human, Religiously by an editor into the “Five Smooth Stones of Liberal Religion.” These are 5 tenets of liberal faith that can be used to justify and defend our fellowship and theology. They are designed to answer some of the questions that people raise about why we gather and what we promote. They give a theological foundation for our liberal belief, and do so in a way that can be supported by what we know, and don’t yet know, of the universe.

They are not hard to read, but they can be tricky to summarize. Some of them seem straightforward. Most work on many layers, and several of those layers are important to being able to build a good case for liberal religion. In short, they are all needed to construct the foundation that our faith is built upon. They are not a creed that requires faith, but a position on the way in which humanity interacts with the universe that guides each of us in our interdependent search for truth and meaning. They create a philosophy more than a dogmatic dictate, and we choose how to embody each one based on our skills, talents, and needs.

There are 5 of them, and they are each fully deserving of examination, but you were promised a post that talks about the 5 Stones and how they support and guide our faith, so I will attempt to cover the essentials now, with more to come in the near future.

The first essay in the 5 Smooth Stones begins:

Religious liberalism depends first on the principle that “revelation” is continuous. Meaning has not been finally captured.

On the surface, it tells us plainly that we are still learning about the universe, which is simply a fact. Looking a level deeper, it also tells us that our faith needs to be mutable and to welcome new insights into the universe and human nature. It warns us against rigidity and tying our egos to our ideas such that we cannot change when change is called for.

The second essay tells us, without a hint of uncertainty, that:

…all relations between persons ought ideally to rest on mutual, free consent and not on coercion.

…which sounds obvious, but isn’t actually the standard in religion. When you consider that fear is a coercive tool, this idea becomes revolutionary. Adams extends this thought to the relationship between the pulpit and the pew. He points out that liberal clergy, unable to call on reward and punishment, only hold the respect that they earn, and that their power is granted by the congregation and not by deity. It is also pointed out that every person has the right to self governance and that we are each “responsible for selecting and putting into action the right means and ends of co-operation…”

The third stone in our pouch is the understanding that:

The community of justice and love is not an ethereal fellowship that is above the conflicts and turmoil of the world.

Our community, and we are a community of communities, must direct its efforts towards creating a loving, supportive environment in which each person is encouraged to be and to give their best. This must extend beyond the grounds of the church, though, in that no person can give their best in church while they are burdened by injustice or need in other aspects of their lives. We must be emotionally and spiritually supportive, but we must also help one another with our material needs. One who is hungry cannot seek enlightenment or even knowledge while their stomach growls; the oppressed can hardly be expected to give their best when they are angry and hurt. Our works have to accompany our faith if we are going to build the relationships spoken of in the second essay.

For the  4th part of our defense:

We deny the immaculate conception of virtue and affirm the necessity of social incarnation.
This is a very fancy way of saying that we don’t believe that good (or evil) come from a supernatural source. There are wonders of beauty and of sustenance, but they are not magical or strictly for human benefit. There are acts of human courage and love, kindness and discovery, and these are the source of goodness in strictly human terms. Likewise, there are natural disasters that we cannot fully prevent or prepare for, but the great majority of evil in the world is man-made. If we want there to be good in the world, it is up to us to do it and to encourage it to be done by others.
Our final stone may honestly take the most faith to proclaim, and it is summarized best, not by James Luther Adams, but by a Universalist, Theodore Parker, who died a hundred years before Adams was born. Parker’s words echoed well beyond his lifetime, finding their way into the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and the oval office in 2009:
I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one… But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.
Adams’ own version was no less poetic:
[L]iberalism holds that the resources (divine and human) that are available for the achievement of meaningful change justify an attitude of ultimate optimism.
…and that is our salvation story. All of human history has been a stuttering, stumbling quest for more inclusion, education, and equality. It has been a long arc, but it has always, over the centuries, tended towards justice and compassion. Wars are less brutal. Violent crime is down. Women have more options than in the past. Power is shared more evenly. There is still a lot of work to be done, but we have every reason to be optimistic about the fruits of our labors. Evil deeds may be more dramatic, but goodness tends to win the day.
We will be returning to this topic again (and again) in the future, but this gives you a good starting point for defending our religious tradition and establishing a foundation for our liberal religious communities.

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2 Responses to Defending Liberal Religion: 5 Smooth Stones

  1. Mary Grant March 15, 2014 at 2:44 pm #

    I like the referral that understanding the universe is an ongoing quest. I’m 76 and discovering more every day.

  2. Andrew Hidas March 21, 2014 at 11:18 am #

    I often find myself bouncing and banging like a pinball between, “Things really are better, just look at all the progress we’ve made!” and “Oh, we in a tight fix now!” When I remember to remember, I find great consolation in viewing and agreeing with Parker’s arc of history, even as I’m wary of those great big weapons humankind possesses now, and our struggling planet groaning under our multi-pronged assaults. In the face of the latter, is there any alternative but to live and work in a spirit of hope? I don’t think so…

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