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, wound 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.


3 thoughts on “The Liberal Way in Religion

  1. Pingback: Controversial cookies, the liberal way, and more UU blogging « : The Interdependent Web

  2. Thank you, Peter, for taking the time to express your understanding of liberal and religious in a modern context; also, for sharing your personal experiences. As I read your words, it’s clear to me why a liberal religious church can never be a church with a single religious vision and mission. I say this knowing that many within the UU community long for a transformation to a missional religion. But you describe accurately, I think, the tension that can never be resolved between collective and individual beliefs and values. We could only become a missional church by removing “liberal” from “liberal religious”. I think a lot of people are misled by the revised definition of liberal as left-wing, which is not the meaning of liberal in liberal religious. Of course, this doesn’t mean that a liberal religious community can’t have goals and missions that we share and work toward collectively, only that we can’t use those goals as justification to impose a single vision. In conservative religions, the opposite is true. A single goal can be imposed by a prophet, a charismatic leader, a set of scriptures, or a church hierarchy. We have none of those and can’t have them as long as we honor the principles of liberal religion.

    • Liberal or left-wing political movements, too, can have unity around aims and purposes. They, too, can be structured around a charismatic leader, hierarchy and goals. But our liberal religious faith communities are not political movements, though surely what we are about has something to say to and about the social order. I would hesitate to say that we could never have a single religious vision and mission–for example, as my friend and colleague Tom Schade says, could we unite around spreading the message, the good news, of the liberal vision?

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