One of the great liberal theologians of the 20th century was James Luther Adams. His work “Guiding Principles for a Free Faith”, as published in On Being Human Religiously, he proposed “5 Smooth Stones of Liberal Religion”. These 5 concepts are presented as Adams’ defense of liberal religion against the rise of conservatism in the west. While his title is a reference to the stones David is said to have used to fight Goliath, for me they are also stones that can be used to lay a foundation for liberal faith in the new century.
In Adams’ own words, “The second major principle of religious liberalism is that all relations between persons ought ideally to rest on mutual, free consent and not on coercion.” He has a lot else to say about how we form relationships, but I want to focus there this morning.
All relationships must be both consensual and mutual.
They must be entered into by free and informed consent, which is revocable should either side feel betrayed. They should, ideally, be mutually beneficial, defined by each of the participants. That is what we aspire to, as Unitarian Universalists. That is belonging in our Beloved Community.
For a relationship to be Mutual, all parties must feel like their needs are being met at a rate that meets the demands on them. They must receive support proportionate to the work that is asked of them. Many of our siblings in faith are being asked to give too much. They are hanging on because they have hope, not because they are being renewed by the community.
Our Principles are Hard.
Friends, we are not there. We are not welcoming to huge swaths of the people around us. We are not even inviting them to try. We are failing in many ways to create the kind of relationships we consider holy with the poor, with people of color, and with people from varied faith traditions. Hindus, Mormons, Muslims, Latinx and Black folks, and other people who come from outside of White, Protestant, (upper) middle-class backgrounds are not feeling our welcome.
Poor people don’t have money to give, and their time isn’t valued at the rate it would be if we hired them. We talk of “World Religions”, but don’t always show respect to those whose experiences are strange to us. We have done amazing outreach and support for Gay men and Lesbian women, but less so for transgender and non-binary persons. People living with physical or mental limitations are still facing major resistance to changing language and practices to be more inclusive. People of color hear our aspirations and want for us to reach them, but they are asked to be goat herders for stubborn and often contrary white folks.
The Beloved Community is worth the discomfort of growth.
We need to be willing to stretch our comfort. We need to be willing to explore new ways of being together if we are going to expand our membership to embrace the people we say we want to support and include. Our worship must take on different sounds and shapes; must move and flow. Small groups have to be ok with being challenged in their concept of the world and of “normal”. Pastoral care needs to be able to take place in new settings.
If we want to be the religion we claim to have always been, we need to grow. We need to change, not to lose what we are but to evolve from that into something bigger and more complete. Our practices should be informed, to some degree, by all of our sources. We need to allow ourselves to be led by the people currently hanging on to our margins, hoping we’ll live up to our promise and potential. They believe in us, and we owe it to ourselves to find out why.