Religion Without Mythology

All around me this week, people are attending religious ceremonies.

Passover began on Monday night, and Jewish households gathered around a festive table to ceremonially tell the story of the Israelite exodus from slavery in Egypt.

Western Christians similarly are retelling the story of Jesus’ last week, beginning with his entry into Jerusalem for the feast of Passover. The events of the last week of Jesus’ life are told ritually in worship services that reenact his last meal, his washing his disciples’ feet, his arrest and trial, his execution and reappearance.

Myths, in all cultures, find their living expression in liturgical drama. They are told and acted out by participants. Processions, costumes, songs, symbolic foods and meals, the burning of fires, being plunged into darkness—the stories of the gods and goddesses and spirits and ancestors come alive in real experiences in the here and now.

Mythology isn’t something that happened, an historical occurrence from many years ago, it is something that happens. It takes place in the present-tense of symbolic life, the life of the psyche.

Myth is something that occurs to participants in the liturgical drama. It is happening to us. We are slaves in Egypt, and we witness the saving hand of God at work in the world. We walk along the dry bottom of the sea, and are redeemed to a life of freedom. We shout Hosanna! and wave palm branches in the air to herald the arrival of a donkey-riding king. We sit at the Passover table with him, break bread and pass the cup, have our feet washed, sing lamentations at the foot of the cross.

The mythic is not historic. It’s not even always theological. It’s theatrical.

It’s always a mistake to read myth as history or science. Though it seems to be telling the story of, for example, how the universe came into being, or how human life began, this is neither history or science. It’s drama. It’s the theological poetry into which listeners (literally, an “audience”) are meant to enter as participants.

And so I am feeling a little bereft this week. My Unitarian Universalist congregation has nothing going on this week.  We will acknowledge a liberal, vaguely Christian, vaguely Pagan, form of Easter on Sunday, but that’s it.

As a religion, we don’t have myth. This is meant to be liberating and modern, but it is feeling a little soulless and disenchanting to me this week.

Many of us like to hear mythologies and ponder their meanings, but in our common worship life we never enter the darkened theatre of sacred story as actors, participants. Most keep a critical distance, sometimes pooh-poohing “superstition,” sometimes romanticizing other people’s religious practices.

This experiment in religion divorced from sacred story is relatively new, even for us. Two generations ago, Unitarians and Universalists had biblical mythology as their foundational sacred story. Some still do.

And even then, our historic traditions were low on the drama scale, at most reenacting Jesus’ table fellowship with an occasional communion service. Our worship has always focused on the word, spoken and written.

UUs have lots of sacred stories (usually our own, usually individual first person stories) but no sacred story that is ritualized in worship.

UUs have rites of passage, ways of marking individual journeys through time and life’s transformations.

Many Unitarian Universalist congregations have rituals, ceremonies that usually enact or affirm our own sense of our own selves, our own community. A ceremony in which participants pour their personal portion of water into a common font to symbolize our coming together in community, for example, or a ceremony of shared flowers to symbolize the gifts we offer and share in community. Sometimes there are stories attached to these symbolic gestures—Norbert Capek and his first flower ceremony in Prague in 1923, for example.

We have the symbol of a flame within the common cup. We have heroes and heroines of our history, and retell their legends. Somebody has apparently even invented a seven-day UU holiday in December—focused on principles—principles we ourselves establish as an association—not on a story.

All this, we have. But a mythology we do not.

I suppose this is a trade-off in having a religion that is entirely self-derived. What rites and symbols we do have point to the ultimate source of the religion—our selves.

What story could we enact together liturgically? If we were to create ritual around some universal story, some collectively meaningful story, what would it be? The great Flaring Forth at the beginning of the universe? The pageantry of the emergence of life on this planet? In other words, the story that science tells?

What else?

 

Guided by the Light Within

In medieval Judaism, in the esoteric tradition known as kabbalah, the story is told of the beginning of humanity, the beginning of the universe. In this story, only God existed. God was pure light, Divine Light. Wanting to understand himself better, God created the universe by contracting into a tiny seed of burning energy, withdrawing in order to make space for creation, and then exploding in a cosmic Flaring Forth.

In the process of this flaring forth, the emanating bits of Divine Light broke up into shards. These broken splinters are what constitute the material world. Within everything that exists, there is a broken off bit of Divine Light. At the core of what is, there burns a holy fire, a spark of sacred energy.

When God then created the primordial human being, God was gathering bits of luminous dust in an attempt to reintegrate and bind together broken pieces of the Divine. The human person, then, represents the intention of integrity and wholeness. When Adam disobeyed God, his divine essence sank to a lower realm of existence and with him, all of humanity fell and falls.

Religious practice, in this Neo-Platonic Jewish version of Gnosticism, is a matter of collecting shards of Divine Light. Through prayer and study of scripture and worship and ethical action, the broken bits of God are joined. The cosmic Humpty Dumpty is being put back together. The work that people are called to is the binding together of a broken universe, the recollection of the divine particles into an integral whole.

Myths, and especially myths that tell of the universe and humanity’s origins, are valuable in that they describe a particular culture or religion or worldview’s anthropology. These stories are saying something about the nature of humanity and human life. I find a number of things compelling in this mythic story of the origins of the universe.

Human beings are made of stardust, bits of what exploded out of the origin of the universe, and so we are related to all that is. And the stuff we are made of is sacred, literally godly.

A God who is not omnipotent, and which needs humanity in order to exist is a contradiction of mainstream Jewish thinking about God, and indeed to many monotheists is pure anathema. God cannot mend the world on his own, in this worldview, but needs humankind to do it with and for him. Salvation, creating an integrated whole out of what is broken, is human work, not divine work. It is human beings, through our actions, that mend the broken world. This is the meaning of tikkun olam, literally the repair or mending of the world. Contemporary liberal and progressive Judaism has taken this notion of tikkun olam and applies it to the work of social justice, helping contemporary Jews and others understand the work of making the world a better place as a sacred calling.

And finally, I find this myth compelling in what it says about human community. It is when we gather together that our tiny sparks unite to make a divine fire, a collective godly blaze. Inherent godliness, action in the world and the importance of community are the parts of this myth I find captivating.

The traditional, accepted version of how the world came to be in Judaism is found in the Bible. There are actually two creation stories told there. We find in the book of Genesis a basic affirmation echoed throughout the world’s monotheistic religions.“Then God said, ‘Let us make human beings in our image, in our likeness” so that humans can rule over the rest of God’s created order, to be, in some sense, God’s representatives in creation, God’s agents in creation.

“So God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:26-27)

In this cosmogony, God distinguishes between the human race and the rest of creation. God made us in his own image—we bear a family resemblance to our Creator. We have capacities beyond those of other animals, including, as it turns out in the second creation story in the book of Genesis, the capacity to choose.

“What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mere mortals that you care for them? You have made them a little lower than the angels, and crowned them with glory and honor. You made them rulers over the works of your hands.” (Psalm 8:4-6)

This celebration of the human has frequently been misinterpreted as a divine permission to do whatever we want with the natural order. Or that we are over and above the rest of the natural world rather than embedded within nature as creation’s self-reflective agent. This story calls us, instead, to act within the creation as God would—creatively, caringly, with a sense of balance and order and rightness.

In this worldview, we are given abilities and responsibilities in order to reflect God’s own nature in the world. Our task, our calling, as human creatures, is as bearers of the divine image in the ongoing and unfolding drama of creation, to participate in restoring the world’s balance, saving the world’s integrity, and savoring the world’s beauty.

The human person, as a living icon of the divine, is sacred. The worth and dignity of the human person is inherent. We are not intrinsically wicked or depraved or flawed. We are not the unwilling heirs of an original sin committed by primordial humankind. We are inheritors of divine consecration, born into original blessing. Our dignity and worth is not something that we have to work at, it does not accrue to our personhood through acts of righteousness.

Nor, conversely, can it be taken away. I remember participating in a ludicrous online discussion among Unitarian Universalist ministers who publicly pondered the inherent dignity and worth of the terrorists who committed the unspeakably horrific acts of September 11, 2001. Could these terrorists’ inherent dignity and worth be denied because of their heinous crimes against humanity? these ponderous theologians asked, as if the meaning of the word “inherent” had escaped them and as if they had forgotten the witness of our movement’s most basic theological principles.

The radical and distinctive testimony of Universalists and Unitarians throughout history has been precisely that the most wicked of men and women are still made in the image and likeness of God, and are therefore redeemable. Every person, no matter how lowly or uneducated or misguided, is salvageable and will be saved. Every person, no matter how imperfect, can be perfected. The torturer and the terrorist, the dictator and the demagogue, share with the entire human family the divine likeness.

Hangings and lethal injections, torture and war, hunger and injury are all desecrations. They desecrate the holy image of God. Any threat to the health, wholeness and integrity of the human person desecrates what reflects the divine. Unitarians and Universalists, and contemporary Unitarian Universalists are inheritors of this worldview. Our heritage is rooted in these stories of original blessing, though today we no longer have a common theological language—or indeed much of a theological language at all.

We speak in secular terms of the inherent dignity and worth of every person. We speak of the inherent dignity and worth of each individual person as an a priori philosophical assumption. These words flow glibly off the tongue—inherent dignity and worth of people—and we don’t always wrestle with the radical, deeply profoundly radical, implications of this affirmation.

Are we really able to recognize something divine, something precious and holy, in the most despicable of individuals?

To have forgotten the divine imprint, to have forfeited God’s original blessing, is to deny the responsibility of being divine agents in the world creating the social order of justice, peace, and wholeness. The work of making justice is therefore work that needs to call to mind “that of God” in every person. Justice making is work that reminds torturer and tortured, terrorist and terrorized alike that we each bear the image and likeness of our Creator. The work of tikkun olam, the mending or repair of the world, happens only as the divine light within each person is acknowledged and honored. At the core of what is, there burns a holy fire, a spark of sacred energy, an Inner Light.

Our vocation as contemporary religious liberals is to act in the light of our affirmation that there is something precious about each individual. There is something unique and indeed sacred in every person.

And that includes people we don’t like. That includes our enemies.

It is our calling, through our actions, to mend the broken world, to create a social order grounded in justice, equity and peace. What story do we tell today about the how and why of this high calling?

The Tattered Web of Life: Individuality, Autonomy and Liberalism

Here in Massachusetts, a question on our ballot on election day would, if a majority votes yes, make it possible for a physician licensed in the state to write a lethal prescription for a patient suffering from a terminal illness and deemed to have fewer than six months to live, which the patient could then self-administer to end their own life.

This “death with dignity” initiative is highly favored among Unitarian Universalists and other religious liberals. Most of us are probably going to vote for it.

My congregation this past week sponsored a week of programming around this question and more broadly around choices at the end of life. Last Sunday, I participated in a panel discussion of local clergy on these issues. In that conversation with my colleagues from across the religious and theological spectrum, something came clear for me.

Autonomy is a cherished value among Unitarian Universalists, as well as among other religious liberals. Political liberalism, too, is founded on individual freedom. The ability of the individual person to make and affect choices in their life is paramount. Any interference in an individual’s ability to choose for him- or herself is anathema.

I certainly affirm the basic principle of having control over my own body and life. There is no way I would give the state more power to regulate what I can and cannot do with my own body. It is a basic freedom for every citizen and person in a democratic society.

Who we have sexual relations with, whether to get pregnant, whether to give birth, whether to eat your broccoli, whether to drink 28 ounces of soda all at once… the state may have an interest in the choices we make in these and other regards, but ultimately the choice is ours to make. And ought to be ours to make.

Autonomy and integrity of the individual person are the starting point for much liberal theological ethics. While I am not interested here in defending or promoting the death with dignity initiative (and certainly not in denouncing it) I do want to reflect on this enthrallment we have with autonomy as the foundation of our ethics.

One of the arguments for physician-assisted dying is the loss of dignity a person experiences when ill or disabled. In a culture like ours that prizes individuality and autonomy, disability is stigmatized in very particular ways. Disability, and people with disabilities, are thought of as a burden; others need to help care for them, sometimes even to do routine functions for them.

Temporarily able-bodied people fear this loss of autonomy and consider it undignified. Impairment, pain, incontinence, lack of control, not being able to feed ourselves—these   are conditions many temporarily able-bodied persons want to avoid.

In states where physician-assisted dying is legal, patients often cite “feeling like a burden on others” as one reason for wanting to end their lives. In the name of our dignity, we would rather have the ability to end our lives than endure these circumstances.

And yet people do. Many disabled and elderly people do live with these conditions.

And often enough, they depend on others.

And they do so with dignity. And insist on the dignity and worth of the lives they are living. This insistence, this living with dignity rather than dying for lack of it, rubs against the grain of a culture that does not see, let alone affirm, the worthiness of their lives.

The biblical affirmation (one of my co-panelists reminded us) is that the human person is made in the image and likeness of God. As such, the human person is a reflection and icon of the divine. The sacred worth of the person is intrinsic. It cannot be granted or withdrawn, given or taken away.

The dignity and worth of every person is inherent–inherent in being human.

What is anathema, if we truly affirm the inherent dignity and worth of every person, is to claim that some lives are worth more than others, that some persons are more worthy than others, that dignity accrues to some individuals and not others.

That some lives are not worth living.

I used to be a bookseller in a large bookstore in downtown Toronto. One busy evening, a cyclist came to the cash register. I was training a new cashier and she greeted him and began ringing up his purchase.

She noted that he didn’t have a bike helmet with him, and made a lighthearted remark about biking without a helmet.

This customer answered, “You know, I’m a physician. And I’ve worked in the emergency room. I see what happens to people who survive a car crash on their bike because they were wearing a helmet. Believe me, I’d rather be dead. I’d rather be dead than quadriplegic.”

He took his purchase and cheerfully left the store.

That casual remark has stayed with me all these many years. Partly because it was a customer service training moment (“Just keep smiling!”). Mostly because of the chill it gave me.

My bicycle was my primary means of transportation and I always wore a helmet.  I had never thought seriously about surviving a collision with an automobile. Of course, I would get rushed to the hospital and they would do everything they could to keep me alive. That’s how it works. But what if the pain was unbearable? What if I survived but was severely disabled? Would I rather be dead?

His remark was chilling also because this was a physician who had been and would be called upon to treat people with disabilities. What might his attitude with these and other patients be?  What level of care would he offer to patients he might think would be better off dead?

If I had a disability or a chronic illness, would I want to be treated by a doctor who thought of me as a waste of a human life?

Would my life, in fact, still be worth living?

Why is depending on others considered undignified? Are we not part of an interdependent cosmos—isn’t all of existence an interrelated network of relationship?

What might our vaunted autonomy and radical individualism look like refracted through the lens of an essentially social reality? Does our affirmation of the intrinsic goodness of the person come at the cost of recognizing that individuals are social beings, socially constituted and interrelated with our social and natural surroundings?

The heroic self, rising above entanglements with others, is not a natural and universal understanding of the human person. It is the heritage of Western, male-centered hetero-patriarchy. (Oh that!). The rhetoric of “being who I am” and “becoming my own person” and “forging my own path” is expressed in everything from artistic sensibility that favors uniqueness and novelty, to psychology that stresses individuation over relation.

It has been, and can be, very liberating.

It can also lead to a distorted individualism that breaks down community. When there is only “me” and no “we,” a commitment to human solidarity and environmental responsibility breaks down. Greed and narcissism, self-indulgence and covetousness, flourish.

What kind of ethics and theology emerge when rather than the radical autonomy of the individual, the individual’s sociality takes center stage? What kind of ethics and theology emerge when the interrelated, interdependent nature of all existence is affirmed as a first principle?

Liberal Religion: Temporary Stop or Permanent Home?

Observers of the religious landscape are noticing that it’s not just liberal and mainline denominations that are declining in membership.

After the heyday of organized religion in the post-World War Two era in North America, it was a truism that the liberal and mainline churches were bleeding members. Everybody talked about mainline decline and evangelical ascendency. Liberalism was out and conservatism was in. We were all assured that fundamentalist religion was the way of the future.

Now the religious conservatives are losing members.

And the category of “Nones” is growing exponentially. The “Nones” are so called because that’s how they respond to the survey question of what their religious affiliation is. People are leaving organized religion in droves. (This, we are now being assured, is the way of the future).

Our losses were bigger and came earlier, I believe, because religious liberals were closer in spirit and outlook to the secularity of no religion at all. And if that’s where North Americans are moving to—no religion at all—then we’re already halfway there.

When I first became a Unitarian Universalist, more than twenty-five years ago now, my minister at the time described the religion as a spiritual vestibule. It was a place between. Many were on their way in from the secular world and going to some place more orthodox. Others were on the way out from some place more orthodox to a completely non-religious place.

We were a way station, as the old joke goes, between the Methodist church and the golf course.

I really didn’t like this characterization of my newfound faith at all! I loved my new church and everything that it stood for. Didn’t we have a compelling message and way that were worth being committed to? Why would anybody leave? I wasn’t going anywhere. If only more people knew about us, we would swell our ranks.

All these years later, I’m much less sanguine.

We talk a lot about the spiritual journey, but sometimes forget that being on a journey implies movement. People grow and change, and oftentimes what they initially found compelling in their faith community no longer speaks to their condition. And so they move on. Sometimes they need to leave our congregations for pastures that really are greener from their new and evolving perspective.

In the congregations I have served, I’ve made it my practice to have a pastoral visit with those who are withdrawing their membership. Sometimes these are folks we hadn’t seen in a while who, when asked, want to be dropped from the rolls. Other times, these are more or less active members who had made some kind of decision. Non-member attenders are a little more slippery and harder to track.

Sometimes what they needed was a visit from the minister to voice some complaint, the color of the new rug in the parlor or the new order of service or to describe some interpersonal spat. After getting it off their chest with a sympathetic listener, we would frequently see them at worship the next week.

Yet at other times, folks leaving the church would share that they were seeking something deeper and richer for their spiritual lives.

These friends had spent time sojourning with us, discovering and discerning what fed their soul. This is something we do well, explore. We offer an open space in which to examine spiritual, religious and moral traditions without prejudice.

Many, having come from conservative Christianity, discover with us for the first time that there are liberal Christian alternatives. And, yes, then leave for those alternatives. I’ve seen this as well with UUs of Jewish heritage.

Over time, these friends realized that they were more nourished by their participation in yoga retreats or a Buddhist sangha or neo-Pagan ritual or Christian worship and with sadness, but without regret, it was time to move on. They were grateful to their liberal religious community for helping them find their way.

Instead of making “lifelong UUs” out of everyone who comes our way, what if we saw our mission as giving people the gift of their most authentic spiritual self?

What if we understood the sojourn, the journeying with us for a while, as part of our ministry? What if one of our great purposes as Unitarian Universalist faith communities was to help people discern their spiritual path? And if that means letting them go, doing so graciously?

And yet…

When I make these visits, I ask, “What was missing for you in your experience of this congregation?” The almost unanimous reply is: spirituality. When I explore this with them, it turns out this means a sense of depth or purpose other than mere community. Sometimes this means an aesthetic component to corporate worship. Sometimes it means prayer. Sometimes what’s missing is God or God-talk. “Spirituality,” they answer, as a kind of shorthand for all of this.

Diana Butler Bass suggests there is a grassroots revival and renewal of liberal Christianity that has been going on unobserved. Liberal Christians, she says, have had longer to figure out what faith and practice is going to look like for them in the twenty-first century.

“Some local congregations are growing,” says Bass, “having seriously re-engaged practices of theological reflection, hospitality, prayer, worship, doing justice, and Christian formation.”

The great awakening that she describes in her recent book is an open, spiritually vital religious movement that crosses religious and denominational lines. It is one that engages basic spiritual disciplines and theological reflection.

The “Nones” are not without spirituality or a desire for a spiritual life. Many of them believe in God. They just don’t believe in religious institutions.

What many are looking for (or have given up looking for) is a faith community that has spiritual depth and maturity, without dogma or rigidity. Many are looking for God or God-talk that is not doctrinaire but rather open ended.

Reading Bass’s book has given me pause. Would our local congregations experience growth if we lived into our own description of what we say we are and were unabashedly religious embodiments of the liberal spirit?

What would have to change if we understood our mission and ministry as giving people the gift of their most authentic spiritual self? What would we have to do differently if one of our great purposes as Unitarian Universalist faith communities was to help people discern their spiritual path?

I’m betting that in the answers we give to these questions are the seeds of flourishing liberal religious communities of the twenty-first century.

The zeitgeist currently seems to feature an interest in–and a longing for–what Unitarian Universalists offer when we are at our best. Can we offer our times and our world our very best?

We could be more than a rest stop on the way to the golf course.

Becoming Multicultural: What’s Lost in Translation

When I was growing up, my family went to church every Sunday. Squeezed into the car, we played a game as we approached Saint George Greek Orthodox Church—who was first to spot the steeple as it came into view.  We were not Greek, but of the two Orthodox congregations in the city, this was closest to us culturally. The other one was Russian and had a gilded onion-shaped dome. As Orthodox Christians from the Middle East, we had more in common with the Byzantine than the Slavonic tradition.

We were reminded that we were not Greek. My mother’s contributions to the women’s auxiliary cookbook were not included in the final publication because they were “not Greek,” though it did include recipes for things like pizza. My brother got bumped from playing the little drummer boy in the Christmas pageant in favor of a little drummer boy who happened to be Greek-American.

Despite our presence, and the presence of second and third generation Greek-Americans, worship was entirely in Greek.

When my family moved to a city that had more than one congregation in the Antiochian archdiocese, whose primary bishop, or patriarch, was in Damascus, Syria, the experience changed.  Made up primarily of immigrants from Lebanon and Syria, we were no longer cultural outsiders. Worship was in English and Arabic.

Church was more than a congregation of the faithful. It was also a cultural ingathering of Arabic-speaking immigrants, many longing to recreate something of the old country on the cold and snowy shores of North America. One of the first institutions immigrants from Lebanon and Syria built on this continent when they began arriving at the end of the nineteenth century were churches, which aided new arrivals and provided solace for the homesick. Gathered together around shared language and culture, these churches were islands of the familiar in a strange new world.

Ethnic and religious traditions were inseparable in our home. In addition to our birthdays, we also celebrated our “feast” day, the day of the year dedicated to the saint we were named after, complete with cake and ice cream. On the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, in late June, we usually went to the beach to celebrate.

I used to think that we made special foods—a thick, sweet pudding of apricots, wheat, aniseed and other spices called bourbara—on the feast of Saint Barbara because my grandmother, the family’s matriarch, was named Barbara. I didn’t realize at the time it’s a major holiday for Arab Christians.

Saint Barbara’s day was followed by Saint Sabas the next night and Saint Nicholas the night after that. On each night, we left out a plate of sweets on the dining room table. The saint whose feast it was each night visited us. They left coins for us on the edges of the saucers. We were forbidden to touch the candy until the final night—Saint Nicholas Day—when we collected our money and ate the candy. At Christmas, we decorated an evergreen tree, and then sat around the illuminated tree in the dark singing carols in English and Arabic.

During Lent, there were meatless meals that seemed to always involve lentils. (For years Lent and lentils in my mind resonated together). Years later, as a university student with a limited income, I ate plate after plate of mjuddareh (lentils, rice, and onions) wondering when that particular Lent was ever going to end.

The fast of course culminates in Holy Week and Easter. On Palm Sunday, we brought home the palm leaves from the church service. I never could learn how to fold and tie them into the shape of the cross, but other family members could. They would be tucked behind the corners of the icons that decorated our home—images of Jesus, the saints, the Theotokos (the “God-bearer,” as Mary is known).

During Easter, everyone was greeted with the words: al-Masih qam! (Christ is risen!).  For Easter, we decorated Easter eggs and played a game of cracking them. You held your egg in your fist, and your challenger would tap their egg against the top of yours and the one whose egg cracked lost the game. And whoever cracked everybody else’s Easter egg was that year’s champion. Other foods we made (and by “we” I mean “Mom”) and ate at home included date-filled pastry (kaik) that, because it was shaped like a donut was said to symbolize the crown of thorns that Jesus was forced to wear, and another nut-filled pastry (ma’amoul) represented his scepter.

The foods, habits, and traditions of my ancestors were inseparable from the religion they practiced. Our identity as Arab-Americans was expressed in cultural practices of both home and church. Church was the only place, outside the home, that I heard Arabic being spoken. Church, the religion, was the container for a great deal of our ethno-linguistic identity, the repository and source for our culture.

The Orthodox Church in North America is usually thought of as an “ethnic church.” Most Orthodox Christians trace their roots to Eastern Europe or the eastern Mediterranean. Ethnicity, from the Greek church of my early childhood, to the Arab church of my later childhood and youth, was a central ingredient of who we were together as the church.

When I could no longer in good conscience practice the religion, I went about searching for a spiritual home. I landed upon my local Unitarian congregation because they promised to welcome all of who I was. Advocates for peace, social justice, inclusiveness and the dignity of gays and lesbians, Unitarian Universalists were my intellectual, political and spiritual kindred. I joined as soon as I was able.

What makes an “ethnic church” an ethnic church? Is it when most of the people there share an ethnic or cultural or linguistic identity? Most of the Unitarian Universalist congregations I have served and known are overwhelmingly white and Anglo Saxon. Why do we not imagine Unitarian Universalism to be an “ethnic church”?

The hegemonic culture experiences itself as universal. I am reminded of this when I frequent a supermarket full of food and then find the aisle labeled “ethnic foods.” Because Anglo Saxons don’t have an ethnicity, the way that heterosexuals don’t have a sexual orientation, and men don’t have a gender. At church, this can mean that Western European culture is simply “music” or “literature” or “hymns.” And not “European music” or “Anglo hymns.” But on some special Sundays, we’ll have Latino music or African-American hymns or South Asian literature.

The “universal” culture of Unitarian Universalism is Protestant and Anglo. This is an historical fact, not an accusation. There is nothing wrong or shameful about Anglo Saxon or Western European culture. Because I assumed this false universal, it took me a long time to even realize the translation that had taken place in my religious life, from a Mediterranean medium to an Anglo one. It just took me a while to recognize that I had in fact gone from one ethnic church to another. And that I had lost something in that translation.

It was only after I began to bump up against prejudice toward Arabs and Arab-Americans among Unitarian Universalists that I began to wonder about such things. UUs are not immune to the ignorance about (and even suspicion and hostility toward) Arabs and Arab culture that is ubiquitous on this continent.

(There’s no reason to rehearse all the hurtful and ignorant things UUs have done and said, but I want to mention my favorite. I’m often asked when my family converted to Christianity, which is particularly rich since we are from Palestine, with roots in Jerusalem that go back hundreds of years. Where do they think Jesus was from, anyway? Europe? I usually answer, “Oh about two thousand years ago!”)

I’ve loved every Unitarian Universalist church I’ve been in—even the ones that were hard to love. UUs are my people. And at the same time, UUs are not my people. My people are also ones who revere icons and put out saucers for the saints and eat lentils during Lent. My ethnos is made up of people who speak Arabic (and speak it loudly) and pepper their speech with references to God—God willing, God forbid, praise God.

Unitarian Universalists ask, “How can we become more multicultural? How can we attract more members of different cultural communities to our congregations?” These are good questions. Let’s also ask, “What do members of different cultural communities lose when they join a Unitarian Universalist congregation?” Because the losses can be significant and can include being cut off from a major source of ethnic pride, connection and identity—the “ethnic” churches from which we came.

At times I have felt at home among the Unitarian Universalists and at times I have felt exiled among the Unitarian Universalists. Following the dictates of my conscience and the leadings of the Spirit has simultaneously meant finding a community of faith and losing an important access point to the culture of my ancestors. I found a place that speaks my religious language but that only speaks it in English.

Of course, there are other ways of remaining connected to my ethnic community—none of them are woven as tightly or thoroughly into daily life the way religious traditions are.

Except for food! Have you noticed how much I mention food? The food I eat and make has become the carrier of cultural traditions. I don’t speak Arabic in my household, but I do often eat Arabic food—even when it’s called by non-Arabic names like pita or baklava or even Turkish coffee.

And I rest assured that should my Unitarian Universalist congregation ever put together a cookbook of parishioners’ recipes, my contributions will be welcomed and included.

Why Lent?

When I was growing up, Great Lent was a period of time that seemed to be primarily about eating. We “fasted” during Lent, which meant abstaining from meat, dairy and oil. Children were not expected to fast the entire forty days, but did so on Wednesdays and Fridays. This meant pouring orange juice on my breakfast cereal instead of milk, and eating various meatless, dairy-free Middle Eastern dishes.

My memories of Lent are not particularly unhappy, which is perhaps why, as an adult religious liberal I found it unproblematic to take up a forty-day spiritual discipline in the spring.

Indeed, I discovered Unitarian Universalism as a youth and signed the membership book as soon as I turned eighteen, as required by my congregation’s bylaws. And as the years went by, it seemed that seasons changed, the wheel of the year turned, and yet went unremarked in our worship life. There was Christmas and Easter. My home congregation celebrated communion twice a year, on the Sunday closest to All Souls Day and on Easter Sunday.

Aside from these occasions, and the eventual introduction of ingathering in September and a flower ceremony in June, there were no feasts, no seasons—not liturgically. It was the constant, unrelenting bright light of the rational, no shadows, no waxing or waning. We focused on ideas, principles and moral arguments, history and theology and ethics.

As exciting and as stimulating as this all was, a part of me left the table hungry. Something was missing. There was no enchantment, little poetry liturgically. What ritual gestures there were (this was, by the way, a very long time ago) were done awkwardly. I somehow needed to know that we were in sync with the rhythms of creation, that seasonal celebrations gave us insight into our place in the interrelated web of life.

For us rational Unitarian Universalists, as CS Lewis describes the Hundred Year Winter of the White Witch, it was always winter and never Christmas.

After several years as a UU, instinctively grasping toward something more Earth-centered and spiritual, I decided one year to observe Lent. There was something about this practice that spoke to my condition, wanting a spiritual discipline that connected me to a season.

It is interesting to me now, many years later, that this should be the case. Why Lent?

To be honest, I don’t know what I did that first year. I could have poured orange juice on my cereal for a month for all I know. But the point was that this season should have a different texture from other seasons, that time had different textures, that the movement of the Earth could be observed as meaningful.

The connection with healthful food was also a draw, of giving up something unwholesome. The memory of vegetarian and vegan eating drew me to my best intentions to eat in ways that were healthy for me and good for the planet.

There was something about my childhood experience that told me that this was a time of spiritual intensity, when one focused on what really mattered, on what was really real. What mattered during Lent was not the food that went into our mouths, we were told, but what came out of our mouths.

Fasting wasn’t the point. When Jesus was in the desert for forty days, fasting and being tested, the accuser tempted him to turn stones into bread to feed his hunger. To which he responded: It is written, One does not live by bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.

So we were to be attentive, awake, listening for every word coming from God. Which meant stripping away the distractions, the noise. The simplicity of our meals, the mindfulness with which we were to bring to all that we did and said, created an atmosphere of attention, wakefulness and presence.

It is toward this that I move in my Lenten practice. (Which, by the way, has historically been practiced by Unitarians and Universalists as well as contemporary UUs).

I carry my religious past lightly—both my upbringing in a sacramental tradition and my young adulthood in the church of “intellectual stimulation.” As I’ve learned to do so, practices like observing a forty-day “fast” have enriched the journey.

Are You A Practicing Unitarian Universalist?

If Unitarian Universalists don’t have a creed or one statement of belief that we must all affirm, what holds us together? What holds a local congregation together? What do its members share or have in common that make it a community?

In the broader religious culture in which we find ourselves, there is an emphasis on beliefs. “What do you believe?” is the usual question that comes up when one identifies oneself as a member of a faith community.

What many—including UUs!—don’t get is that ours is not a religious movement that is about common beliefs. It is not that we have no beliefs individually or even collectively–we do–but that these are not what unify us. As individuals and congregations, as a movement, we do have some basic theological and philosophical affirmations in common; they’re just not the singular organizing principle around which we gather.

We also unite around an attitude toward the world, people and the great questions of meaning. We share a constellation of traits—openness, generosity, and inquisitiveness, among others. Our attitude includes how we are held together in community—equal parts freedom and commitment.

We are bound together as a community by the promise we make to each other to be there for each other, to help each other through life’s transitions, to listen respectfully, to edify lovingly. This promise a congregation makes is known as its covenant. A covenant is more than a contract; it is a mutual agreement beyond the words on the page. It is a moral agreement, the shape and parameters of the relationship it describes. We freely enter into this covenant, even as doing so requires something of us.

And being in covenanted relationship does require something of us. Like other intentional relationships it requires patience, affection, listening, attention, acceptance. Among other things, it includes our commitment to the wellbeing of our congregation spiritually, organizationally, and financially. And a covenant is based in mutuality; if a person takes and takes but never gives, we are not in right-relation.

I think it’s a fine exercise to write an “elevator speech” describing what Unitarian Universalist beliefs are in such a pithy way that it can be said between floors on an elevator. However, that keeps us in the realm of defining our religious movement in terms of belief. What we are about is relationship—the covenanted relationship of being together in a mutually sustaining way.

I find inspiration from the experience of our Jewish neighbors. Among Jews the question isn’t “Are you a believer?” but rather, “Are you observant?” Similarly, what UUs believe is not as central as what we practice—both as individuals and as a community. We don’t commit to beliefs, but rather to practice, including the practice of cultivating our common life.

Our practice includes creating and sustaining communities of mutual relation. Our practice includes meeting regularly together for worship. Our practice includes ongoing open-ended conversation on theology, morality, and philosophy. Our practice includes acts of care and compassion for others. Our practice includes working on the broader social order to reflect the values of our communities of mutual relation: democracy, fairness, peace, freedom, thoughtfulness, compassion, responsibility and interdependence.

So, you’re a Unitarian Universalist. Are you observant?

 

Nurtured by a Living Tradition

I love when the young people at church complete their “coming of age” year and stand in front of the congregation sharing where they are in their spiritual journeys. Most often, this includes a faith statement, a credo. I am never unmoved by their insight, brilliance and humor.

And I love it when they say things they think or hope the congregation will find shocking. You know, like “I don’t believe in God,” or “I think church is for losers.”

At one coming of age worship service, a young man got into the pulpit and began talking about original sin. This youth had been born and raised in this Unitarian Universalist congregation, so I’m not at all sure where he had encountered the concept, but it soon became clear that it was his understanding that it was a widely held notion.

In our congregation.

In our Unitarian Universalist congregation.

We were being excoriated by a youth of the church for our purported belief in the fallen nature of an inherently depraved humanity.

We don’t have our children and youth in our buildings for very long if you think about it. They come to Religious Education and youth fellowship for maybe an hour or two a week. The rest of the time they are immersed in a culture that is full of all kinds of religious, moral, and spiritual ideas, stereotypes and half-truths. When trying to convey the historic testimonies of Unitarianism and Universalism, there’s only so much that is going to stick in the tiny amount of time we’re allotted in their busy lives.

So I understand that his formation as a Unitarian Universalist was both incomplete and ongoing, as it is with all of us. Yet somehow one of the most essential of our most basic theological and philosophical testimonies, what distinguished us from other religious traditions, had not been communicated to or remembered by him. After a year of intentional study of such questions, no less.

There was a time, thankfully a time that has passed, when a young person’s religious education in a UU congregation barely touched on Unitarian Universalist history, identity, and religious ideas. A friend my age (we’re Gen Xers), who was brought up UU, reports that his religious education consisted in learning about a variety of world religions. Other religions. The idea seemed to be that Unitarian Universalists presented their children and youth with a menu of options and the freedom to choose from them when they were grown up. And Unitarian Universalism was not on the menu! My friend’s siblings all became something else as adults

We are much better now at presenting Unitarian, Universalist and UU personages and their stories for all ages. Newcomers and new members are treated to encapsulated treatments of the stories of the traditions’ forebears (though—and this is my pet peeve—Emerson, Clara Barton, Hosea Ballou, and others are frequently and anachronistically referred to as “UUs”).

How deep do we go with knowing the stories of these foremothers and forefathers? Does the gathered congregation impart to children, youth, newcomers and others what compelled these people, what the nature of their faith was? Tell the story of our movement, its heroines and heroes, and the shape of our faith and testimonies—our theology—becomes clearer.

In their 2005 report, Engaging Our Theological Diversity, the Commission on Appraisal of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations observed:

In the process of data collection, we noted that few laypersons, when asked about influential teachers in their lives, mentioned Unitarians or Universalists beyond their own families and ministers. Instead, they turned to Eastern-influenced popular writers and popular psychology. Beyond Emerson and Thoreau, UUs do not know our own exemplars and what they thought about theological questions.

As I say, I believe this is changing, but I wonder how many Unitarian Universalist congregations present themselves to their children, youth, and newcomers as a freeform religious open space in which you are free to search for truth and meaning without any reference to our history, historic testimonies, to any of the dignitaries of our illustrious past. Do we say, “We are not united by doctrine,” and then leave it at that, without pointing to the theological and philosophical affirmations that have been constant in our movement, and that shape our present context?

We institutionalize narcissism in our congregations when all we do is hold up a mirror and ask them to gaze deeply into their own eyes and call that a “search for truth and meaning.”  What do you think about humanity? What do you think about God? As if the journey ends there. Experience is but one aspect of a disciplined search for truth and meaning. And tradition is another.

What about our rich, vibrant living tradition? Including, of course, our historic rejection of Calvinism and its belief in the inherent depravity of human beings. This is our story—and a central, animating theological affirmation among us.

Unitarian Universalists would do well in remembering who we are. Not searching frantically for a “center,” but rather acknowledge the basic testimonies that we have born witness to all along and to which we continue to bear witness. The DNA of our liberal religious movement continues to express itself, sometimes in new ways. It continues to be, I believe, a basic message that can transform lives and save the world.

Our movement continues to evolve and as we move forward, new insights illumine our way. The basic materials, however, we have inherited, and change only insomuch as we reinvent and reinterpret them for a new generation.

And then actually offer them to a new generation.

Becoming a Religious Movement

The Rev. Peter Morales, the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations (UUA) has written a statement describing a strategic vision for the future of Unitarian Universalism. He envisions a Unitarian Universalism grounded in congregations, while creating a movement outside of the local church. He describes various extra-congregational aspects of our movement, and the fact that many more people identify as Unitarian Universalist than are actually in our churches. Rev. Morales calls for us to become a religious movement.

Many more people identify with a particular religious group without ever being affiliated with a local faith community. Unitarian Universalists are not unique in that. People will identify themselves as Episcopalian, Congregationalist or what have you, without ever darkening the door of a local house of worship—even on Christmas, Easter or high holidays. Many will come to be married or bury a loved one. My guess is that these are people raised in these traditions, who themselves were married by one of their clergy people, who have been to a rite of passage or high holiday service, or who have friends who are involved. The identification is strong enough that they self-report on the census.

Reaching this identified-but-not-affiliated population is a good strategy. Why not reach out to those who already say they are part of us? The Canadian sociologist of religion Reginald Bibby has contributed some important work to this idea. The churches’ response to his work in Canada, not surprisingly, has been to strategize how to reach out to those people and draw them into the local congregation.

Coming up with new sites or modes for those (and other) people to affiliate with the movement is also a good if inventive strategy. What those sites or modes turn out to be may or may not work, but it’s well worth a try. The nature of church—of organized religion—is shifting. I am thankful that Rev. Morales envisions the continued central place for congregations and is imagining other experimental forms.

I wonder if what he has in mind are phenomena like the Lucy Stone housing collective here in Boston or A Third Place worshipping community in Turley, Oklahoma. What could a national ecclesial organization do to support or initiate such expressions of religious community?

If Unitarian Universalism is a religious movement, then the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations is its institutional expression. What is the relationship between movement and institution?

Many of us have long spoken of Unitarian Universalism as a movement, perhaps only to avoid the misnomer “denomination.” We are not a denomination, that is, a sub-sect of a larger religion. Once upon a time, Unitarianism and Universalism were Christian denominations, whatever the Church Universal may have thought of us. There is no larger religion to which Unitarian Universalism now belongs (the way the denominations of Methodists, Presbyterians, Catholics belong to the religion Christianity, or Reform, Reconstructionist, Orthodox and Conservative belong to Judaism). For better or for worse, we have evolved into our own sui generis.

It is not accurate, then, to describe Unitarian Universalism or the UUA as a denomination. Organizationally, the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations is, well, an association of congregations. What else would it be?

“Movement” harkens us back to when William Ellery Channing and other early US Unitarians were preaching and advocating for a unique liberal Christian perspective within the established churches of the United States. Unitarianism was a liberalizing movement within American Protestantism. It was not even a denomination at first. Responding to Calvinist orthodoxy, proponents of Unitarianism had a distinct theological voice. They were proposing theological alternatives, as were the Universalists (who were more denominationally minded, though not entirely well organized about it). Unitarians and Universalists had theological distinctives that soon began to move through the broader religious culture—the inherent worth of the human person, the benevolence of a loving God, the use of reason in religion, the moral example of Jesus of Nazareth, and self-culture being some of the major ones.

What are contemporary Unitarian Universalists proposing that could move through the broader culture? What is our distinctive message, around which we are building movement?

There is a distinction to be made, I believe, between religious movements and their institutional expression. For example, religious feminism is a movement. Arising with the second wave of feminism, religious feminism has questioned (and questions) traditional assumptions about the status of women in organized religion, and with this questioning reformulated religious discourse on God (and the Goddess), gender, the body, and hierarchy with implications for ministry, ecclesiology, liturgy and much more. Religious feminism has been a major movement within Judaism, Christianity and Goddess religion and in each of these contexts is unique, even as each strand shares distinctive values, principles, and insights with the others. Ecclesiastical structures have responded to this movement; women’s ordination to ordered ministry and the rabbinate, inclusive language in liturgy and in scripture, and the dissemination of feminine images of the divine are some of the major ones.

The relationship between an organized religion and religious movement, it seems to me, is one of grassroots momentum and institutional response. How does a religious organization spawn a religious movement? There is no such thing as an Association of Religious Feminism, which is promoting religious feminism. There are, of course, women clergy groups, conferences, publishers and writers, local leaders and scholars who give lectures, workshops, publish books and blogs, and so on. This is the nature of a movement. It is an open field of thinking, writing, talking, organizing and meeting.

Organizations form around religious ideas and movements. I’m thinking, too of the new monastic movement and the emergent church movement. These are two, not unrelated, movements in contemporary US Christianity. A denominational head office did not think these up, then strategically plant and nourish them. They emerged from below, the winds of the zeitgeist delivering pollen from one area of growth to another. The conferences, writers, blogs, and so on both gave rise to and cross-pollinated the essential theological and ecclesiastical ideas of new monasticism and emergent church.

The UUA is the  descendent organization that formed around nineteenth-century religious ideas and movements. The purpose of the UUA—as an association of congregations—has been to serve the health of the local church. With a reformulation of the UUA’s purpose, what would its relationship be with other, non-congregational, modes of this “movement”? It seems to me that such an organization would be hard-pressed to initiate something that is actually a religious movement. Unless, perhaps it is responding to or attempting to harness a movement that is already bubbling up. Is that the case, and if so what are this grassroots movement’s features?

Something is missing for me in this picture, and perhaps I am just not seeing it. Should that turn out to be the case, please point me to it: where is the movement on the ground that the UUA will respond to? What are the theological and ecclesiastical distinctives among us today around which a movement is moving?

I like to think one of them is our way of being in relation: covenantal, mutual, democratic (more on this later). I have been thinking that this is best expressed, best lived out and embodied, in a congregation. What other forms can this take? I’m curious and interested in finding out.

Without some sort of distinctive message or proposal (thinking, again, about religious feminism, new monasticism, emergent church) a movement does not move. Without a burning coal at its center, a compelling vision, message, or idea a “movement” will not move.

The Liberal Way in Religion

I attended and graduated from an alternative high school, which meant I went to a secondary school predicated upon youth empowerment and student-directed learning. We didn’t sit in rows, move between classes at the sound of ringing bells, or defer to a hierarchically ordered system of control. We sat in circles, called our teachers by their first names, and voted on which novels to read in English class.

When I graduated high school, my friends and I had a choice. In the province of Quebec, there is the institution of CEGEP, a junior college that has both three-year vocational studies and a two-year pre-university certificate. There were alternatives within the CEGEP system, such as the New School at Dawson College, a humanities-based program of study based in the theories of humanistic psychology. This is where many of the students from my high school ended up. But there was also Reflections, a liberal-arts program where it seemed the students sat around on pillows and talked about how they felt about reading Shakespeare. Some graduates from my high school entered this program at Dawson College.

Well, I couldn’t decide, so I enrolled in Social Sciences, a catchall program of arts and humanities courses. One of my classes my first semester at Dawson College was an introduction to English Literature with a professor who started us off by making us read stories from the King James Version of the Bible. At some point during the semester, she took me aside and said to me, “You’re wasting your time here. You’re going to get an A in this class and I suspect in every other class you’re taking. If you’re going to learn anything while you’re here at Dawson, you should be in the Liberal Arts Program.” Now, the Liberal Arts program was an honors program; you were supposed to be an A student and maintain an A average. I hadn’t even considered it. My English professor, on the other hand, had arranged for me to interview with the dean of the program, who (though the year had already started and I would have to make up some of the classes I missed the first term) was ready to accept me into the program based solely on my English professor’s recommendation.

And so it came to pass that I became a Liberal Arts program student. We were a cozy group of a dozen students. We studied logic and epistemology and the ancient Greek philosophers. We did courses on the novel, poetry, drama, the history of Western art and architecture. We had regular graduate-school style seminars where we discussed Sir Thomas More’s Utopia and Machiavelli’s The Prince and John Locke and Thomas Paine.

The program was designed to get us to read widely and think critically, developing our skills at both written expression and oral argument. “The liberal arts,” the current program description reads, “are based on the belief that disciplined learning is the road to freedom in one’s personal intellectual life and career.” When we speak of a liberal arts education, what we mean to say is learning within a broad spectrum of subjects that ground a student within Western traditions, a broad knowledge as opposed to learning a specific skill or craft or vocation. A liberal arts education, it has been said, is the study of useless things. There is no use to the liberal arts except the broadening of the mind.

Based on ancient Greek thinking about education, the traditional liberal arts were opposed to the servile arts. It was what free men (and only men) studied, as opposed to skills that tradesmen and servants learned.  In medieval Europe, there were seven arts that freemen pursued the practice of: grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy. Universities educated elite men in these practices and in the era of the Enlightenment more disciplines were added. Language, literature, religion, philosophy, the classics, visual and performing arts expanded the curriculum in what came to be known as the humanities. The humanities are those disciplines which study the human condition and that do so in ways that are investigative and speculative, as opposed to empirical, which is the domain of the natural sciences.

Some of my friends, after CEGEP, would up in the liberal arts program at McGill University, which was called “Humanistic Studies.” A humanist is a person schooled in the humanities—language, literature, religion, philosophy, the classics, visual and performing arts—a person inspired by the study and celebration of the human condition. A humanist, says George Santayana, is a person “saturated by the humanities.” Humanism is not a doctrine, he says, but an achievement.

Liberal, from the Latin liberalis, meaning, “Appropriate for free men.” Liberal, from the Latin liber, meaning “free.” Our words liberty and liberation also have their roots here: freedom. The freedom to decide for one’s self what to think, the freedom from coercion in matters of thought and expression, the freedom to browse books in the library and hold them in your hand and decide whether or not to read them. The cornerstone of liberalism, whether it be political liberalism or religious liberalism, is this freedom, this individual liberty.

You will recall that liberalism is the ideology of the modern Enlightenment, the rationalist and anti-monarchical movements of eighteenth century Europe. The class of city-dwellers, who were merchants and traders, rather than aristocracy or peasants, emerged as the medieval feudal system broke down. This class of people, who came to be known as bourgeois, from the French word for “city dweller” (think borough or burgher), demanded the freedom to trade unencumbered and with it the freedom from all forms of despotism, monarchy, clericalism. Political liberalism sought civil liberties for individuals, government that ruled based on a contractual consent of the people, a social system of free individuals voluntarily cooperating with other free individuals. Thus was born modern democracy and with it “free market” capitalism and in this changed and changing worldview, religious liberalism.

Religious liberalism, too, values the individual and the individual’s ability and responsibility to make his or her own choices. Conscience and reason are hallmarks of liberalism in religion: an individual must never assent to belief in a creed or dogma that he or she cannot in good conscience go along with, using his or her powers of reasoning to sift through the wheat and the chaff of religious ideas, keeping what makes sense to him or her individually and discarding the rest. Religious liberalism celebrates the human person’s autonomy and the person’s autonomous reasoning powers. Ideas can be accepted or rejected based on their inherent ethics and reasonableness and not simply accepted because they are handed down from upon high from an historic authority. Authority is located within. Paralleling liberal ideas in the political sphere, in which authority shifted from kings who ruled by divine right to individuals who ruled by their rational choice of who should govern them, so too religious authority shifted. New structures of church governance were formed, such as congregationalism, which stated there is no church but the local congregation, with no outside authorities to govern over it.

The liberal spirit in religion cherishes fresh thought and scholarly inquiry. The liberal spirit in religion celebrates thinking and learning for their own sake, for the sake of the free soul’s edification, the free mind’s expansion. The liberal spirit in religion is not constrained by tradition, but is informed and shaped by tradition, and free to move beyond tradition if necessary, free to move within tradition creatively if desired. The liberal spirit in religion is a seeking spirit.

Unitarianism has long embodied the liberal spirit in religion; indeed throughout the history of modernity it was the defining embodiment of it. When Unitarianism began on this continent, it was not as a sect or denomination, but rather as a movement, a style. It was a movement within the established Protestant churches of New England, a liberalizing style of Christianity. The original spokesmen for the movement were not at all interested in launching a separate denomination. They were interested in breathing a spirit of freedom and broadmindedness into the Protestant Christianity of their day. When the American Unitarian Association was founded in 1825, it was not as a denominational body but rather an organization devoted to the spread of liberal Christian ideas, and the supplying of qualified liberal ministers to pulpits that sought them.

Today, our Unitarian Universalist movement and congregations represent a broader diversity of theological worldviews. As the main stream of twentieth century Unitarianism moved further and more decisively away from Christian faith, the consensus that remained was no longer a theological one, but rather a commitment to individual freedom of conscience in religion. The individual’s free and disciplined search for truth is the sine qua non of contemporary Unitarian Universalism.

There are Unitarian Universalist congregations where it is understood that being “liberal in religion” simply means that those who are politically liberal go to the same church. This is especially true in those parts of the continent that are politically conservative. I have met quite a few Unitarian Universalists whose understanding of our movement does not distinguish between politics and religion. When they say they are liberal, they mean politically liberal, left of center with liberal views on social issues. While there is certainly a connection between commitments to freedom in both society and religion, something is lost when we don’t remember the authentic religious spirit that has enlivened our liberal movement for so long.

Today, whatever our personal theologies or worldviews or politics, the animating spirit within each of them is an openness, an openness to new truth, to new understanding. And open to each other and the world. No Unitarian Universalist’s individual worldview or theology is closed off, fixed upon an unchanging and rigid creed. I think this is hard for many Unitarian Universalists to understand when they encounter other Unitarian Universalists who walk a particular path or affirm certain truths.

Which leads us to the crux of what it means to be a religious liberal, of what our liberal religion is all about. Liberal is defined as meaning ample, abundant, giving freely, generous, not sparing. Liberality, the dictionary tells us, means: “generosity; respect for political, moral, or religious views which one does not agree with.” To be a religious liberal is to be generous toward those who do not hold our own views. To be a religious liberal is to practice generosity, to create a community of abundance, a wealth of differing perspectives and backgrounds.

Being liberal means being open-minded, broad-minded, not prejudiced in advance against certain ideas or people. It doesn’t mean you have to accept everything or believe everything. Ours is a thinking religion, and thoughtfulness is something we value as we discern for ourselves what we think is true. But thoughtfulness is also a value in our relationships with one another. Actions can be thoughtful, too, like acts of kindness and care and concern. It is possible to be thoughtful toward the person who does not believe as you do; to be generous; to be liberal.

Religious liberalism. We’ve considered liberality and being liberal in spirit. I wonder what it means for us to be religious. Liberal, as we’ve noted, comes from the Latin word for free; religious comes from the Latin word for bonded, connected, tied together. Words like ligature and ligament have the same root, connective tissue binding together. Re-ligio, then, is to reconnect. In the heart of who we are as a community is both freedom and connection.

There are some inherent contradictions in religious liberalism, tensions that we will never resolve. Liberalism asserts that each individual is free, and freedom of conscience, freedom of thought, are cornerstones of religious liberalism. At the same time, however, there is a simultaneous need for community, for connection, for relationship. We all want to be free to pursue our own truth–together. We each want to be free individuals–together. We try to be a community of people going in their own spiritual and philosophical direction.

Freedom and connection, liberty and relation: we find ourselves in the gravitational pull of both freedom and connection, liberty and relation. Our task is to live graciously in this tension.

Our calling is not only to embody the liberal spirit that cherishes fresh thought and scholarly inquiry, but that also is generous to others. Our task is not only to celebrate thinking and learning for their own sake, for the sake of the free soul’s edification, the free mind’s expansion, but to live charitably toward others. Our task is to practice a generosity of spirit with those whose views differ from ours, not to confine others to our own stereotypes about them. Our task is to practice an openness of spirit with those whose views differ from ours, for in so doing we ourselves might be given new insight, new understanding. Our task is to cultivate a mind and heart for learning something new, to cultivate a mind and heart for inquiry, openness, generosity.

Our calling as a faith community devoted to liberal religious witness is to be a school of the spirit, a classroom and workshop in the arts of liberalism. The disciplines of creating a free mind and open heart are what we practice here. A disciplined search for truth and meaning is the road to freedom, the way to freedom. A broad knowledge is essential to walk this way to freedom. Indeed, it is a broad way of life and not a narrow one. The point of such disciplines is a broadening of the mind, a broadening of the heart, a cultivation within the self of inquiry, openness, generosity and no small measure of honesty. The point of such disciplines is broad-mindedness and open heartedness, to the end that we create a community at home in the tensions of being different from one another and related to one another.

Our body politic and civic discourse is in sore need of openness, inquiry, curiosity. These are essential values to we who form liberal religious communities; this is our essential witness to the world. Our spirit is a generous spirit, calling diverse people to be in relationship to one another. Our generous way of relation, holding in tension the free individual’s connection to others, holding in tension freedom and community, can be an example for a divided nation, a divided family, a tension-filled workplace. The generosity of spirit that is our legacy and witness can be a balm for the divisions we see in our world.