From Tolerance to Hospitality

At a congregational board retreat at the beginning of a church year one year, we began to ask questions about mission.

To spark answers to the question of what our purpose is, we considered the question, “What is this congregation’s saving message?”

A number of themes emerged consistently, one of them being the notion that we model a way of holding together in unity a diversity of theological and philosophical perspectives. Our historic testimony – part of our saving message to the world – has been religious toleration, creating understanding and respect in civil society for a variety of religious beliefs and for none. The language that many Unitarians grew up with, including some on this board, was of religious tolerance.

But before I could write down, “Tolerance” with my marker onto the page in front of the group, a participant spoke up.

“You know, I don’t want to be tolerated.”

Tolerance, indeed, implies that there is something distasteful about another and we are holding our noses and allowing them to remain in our presence. Like tolerating loud noise or a foul smell because it can’t be avoided.

The historian Earl Morse Wilbur identified the three foundational principles of Unitarianism as being freedom, reason and tolerance. This describes our history, but not our present moment and in these opening decades of the twenty-first century, these basic principles of religious liberalism are, without really being superseded, transforming.

Tolerance, for example, is no longer adequate for our increasingly multicultural and interfaith context. It is not helping our divided body politic. What is needed today is not simply tolerance for difference, but rather authentic engagement across our differences.

No longer holding our nose and allowing you to stay here, but rather, curiosity and conversation with those who are different from us. Who are you and how do you see the world? Asking and discovering, in an attitude of openness, does not mean acceptance necessarily of another’s views. But it builds a bridge, and makes connection and communication possible.

There have been times when I, and other LGBT people I know, have “come out” to others in our faith communities and were told, “It doesn’t matter that you’re gay” (or lesbian or bi or trans).

Well… it matters to me!

I’ve also been told by well meaning people that it makes no difference that I’m Arab. “You can hardly tell,” they say, thinking they’ve complimented me.

Well…it makes a difference to me!

It is a well-meaning, liberal response that actually closes down dialogue. By saying, You’re no different from me, the real and actual difference is not acknowledged, the fullness of that person’s rich experience and humanity remains shut off.

The same happens across differences of ability and disability, language, culture, race, theology, class, nationality, gender.

Pretending those differences aren’t there isn’t helpful. To actually engage one another, we’d need to give up the well-intended but pernicious fictions of “colour blindness” and “aren’t we all the same.”

A video going round on my social media recently exhorts viewers to give up “labels” saying that our “true” identities are some kind of interior quintessence and not our outward appearances, including our bodies. This laudable plea to see the humanity in one another, rather than the material conditions that separate us, falls into this same sort of thinking.

Those material conditions are real and have real consequences in our real lives. And those identities are real and meaningful, even if socially constructed. It’s delusional to pretend otherwise. Erasing people’s identities is, to say the least, problematic.

I suggest that hospitality is what is needed today, the willingness to engage with one different from or strange to us, the practice of active engagement across the divisions and barriers that separate us. Hospitality involves acknowledging and affirming differences in another as we commit to understanding and accepting them fully as they are.

Hospitality is the practice of curiosity and openness, a spirit of inquiry into another’s life and experience. Hospitality is the practice of taking a risk—of asking a question, for example, even if it might be insensitive.

We need more than ever to open our door and welcome in the one who we consider one of “them.” Because in the transformational guest-host conversation that is the heart of hospitality, there is mutual exchange of distrust and trust, sincerity and reticence, giving and receiving out of which is born new understanding, new insight and new relationship.

I don’t want to be tolerated. I refuse to be erased. I want to be listened to, understood, taken seriously, affirmed and maybe even accepted – for who I actually am. These are the fruits of hospitality, a virtue that I daresay needs to become more central to who we are and what we do.



The Work (In Progress)

If the pundits are to be believed, organized religion in North America is a losing proposition and leadership in religious institutions a fool’s errand.

Much has been made recently of the latest information from the Pew Trust Religion and Public Life survey. Religious affiliation in this country is in rapid decline, particularly among younger people. The number of people who respond “None of the Above” to the question, “What religion are you?” is increasing exponentially.

These latest findings, which are in line with similar surveys and studies that have been coming out over the last several years, have unsurprisingly increased the hand wringing among those of us who are not only affiliated with a religion, but care deeply about its future.

There was a time when religious institutions could depend on a stable population of volunteers and donors. Houses of worship could sit pretty on the town green or on the main street and expect people to come to them. Attendance at a house of worship was an expectation (if not an obligation) that most fulfilled, particularly in the period after the Second World War. Clergy were respected in the culture at large as leaders and moral guides. Religious institutions were trusted, and the charitable work they did was lauded and commended.

There’s been a dramatic shift over the last generation. People now are generally suspicious of institutions, and much less likely to join one or sustain it financially. Clergy sexual misconduct, and its cover-up, along with financial malfeasance among religious leaders, has dashed forever the automatic trust people might once have had in clergy. Faith communities compete with all kinds of enticements and regular attendance at worship has fallen.

The seismic shifts that are taking place beneath our feet are breaking centuries-old encrustations and tectonic plates. The religious institutions that once seemed rock solid are crumbling and the very foundations of church are shaking. Centuries of church establishment and Christendom are crumbling and falling away in this generation. For those inside its collapsing edifice, these changes are painful and frightening, to be sure.

Yet it is also an exciting time to be the church.

Without the culture and the state propping up religious observance, who and what will be left? Stripped of power, privilege and persuading influence, what role can organized religion play in our social order? If our neighbour isn’t knocking on the church door to be let in, how will we be sent to serve our neighbour?

The possibilities are endless and exciting. What will faith communities look like in the decades ahead?

We just can’t imagine the future. It’s hard to imagine a future when everything is up for grabs. Telling people that our pipe organs and meetinghouses and hymn books, our meeting for worship and our meeting for worship on Sunday mornings, may not be in the church’s future is met with the blankest of blank stares. What’s left? To say nothing of the change in basic assumptions—people are not coming to you, you need to go to them.

A year ago, I preached a sermon at the First Parish in Lexington, where it has been my honour to serve as their minister these last five years, which I think might become my lasting legacy. They continue to speak about “the phone booth sermon.” I began by asking the congregation, “How many of you remember telephone booths?” Most everybody raised their hands. Then I asked, “How many of you, at some time in your life, have used a public phone?” Again, just about everybody raised their hand. And then I asked, “How many of you have used a public phone in the past seven days?” There was laughter, and not a single hand in the air.

And yet, it’s not as if people don’t need to speak on the phone when they’re out in public. People still want to be able to reach others when they’re away from home. And we continue to do so. It’s just that how we do it has completely changed.

Nobody could have imagined, forty years ago, that we would all be walking around with little phones on our person, phones not tethered to the wall. We couldn’t have imagined this change. We had no way of knowing this is what “talking on the phone in public” would look like in the future.

When it comes to church, we only know how to ask for what we have always known.

We think maybe if we update our Web site, or use guitar in worship, or create a Facebook page, we will be well positioned for life in the twenty-first century. We cannot even imagine the entirely new, reinvented church of the future. So we keep asking for what we already know, only maybe with a few modifications when what we need is a complete, creative, innovative breakthrough.

Henry Ford once said, “If I gave my customers what they wanted, I would have invented a faster horse.”

Those whose hope is in institutions and habits, as they are, whose hope is in the ability of church people to change, those are the ones who are really panicking. Because our most enduring slogan is, “We’ve Never Done It That Way Before.”

But the good news is, there are powers greater than any human made institution, including the church. There’s a spiritual power moving in the world greater than our habits, including our religious habits.

I believe there are powers of regeneration and renewal alive in our world that are constantly calling us to be, and to become, and to be-in-relation. There is a power greater than ourselves that simultaneously invites, sustains, and constitutes mutual dependence and community, constantly drawing together disparate elements and people, eternally expressing itself as love. These forces within and among us are known by many names, including God or the Goddess.

God is doing a new thing. When something interesting or creative or new is afoot and church people are shocked or dismayed, I pay close attention. Because I think that if it upsets church people, it is probably of God. If it is overturning those intractable idols of “what we have always believed” or “the way things have always been,” I am certain God is in the midst of it. When a vibrant spiritual thing is happening on the margins, in the peripheral vision of the established religious institutions, I think, “Now that’s some Holy Spirit power right there.”

God is doing a new thing. That creative and creating power at the heart of the universe is doing a new thing. And a new thing sometimes means letting the old thing crumble away and fall apart.

The pathway to renewal and revival goes straight through defeat and decline. The pathway to resurrection goes straight through the shadowy valley of death. The church needs to die to the church in order for what comes next to come to life.

The trappings that our faith comes in are falling away. There may not be meetinghouses and churches and pipe organs and stained glass and hymnals a generation from now. We might not meet for worship on Sunday morning. But what is essential and at the core of our liberal way of being religious is timeless.

What is essential is the life-giving message that we were born to original blessing–

that there is a better way of being in relationship with each other, ourselves, our natural environment–

better ways of being a society together–

that forgiveness is better than anger–

that love and compassion and generosity and solidarity are better than fear and self-centeredness.

Yes, better.

And yes, life-saving and transformative.

This is at the heart of our liberal religious faith. What we offer as religious liberals is in fact sorely needed in our world today.

Now more than ever, our nation needs our witness. Now more than ever, our communities need our witness. Now more than ever, our planet needs our witness.

How we reach our nation and communities, and what our life together as communities of faith will look like, we are still figuring out.

What kind of a common life we will be inviting people in to, we are still figuring out.

What it all will look like, we’re still discerning.

The pipe organs and meetinghouses, the way we do worship and religious education and social action, our Web sites and Facebook pages, our newsletters and rummage sales and potlucks—these all may or may not any longer serve our purposes. They are all transient. They are all impermanent.

What is required of us in this historic moment is the faith that what is lasting will endure. And the courage and the staying power and the imagination to gracefully let go of what no longer suits us.

To gracefully let go of what is no longer of service to our ministry and mission.

To gracefully let go of what keeps us from reaching our full potential as a liberal religious movement in this time, this twenty first century.

Because it’s not change that we resist–it’s loss. We resist loss. And we are losing so much.

The good news is, the path of loss leads to new life.

The expressions of our faith have evolved over the decades and centuries, and so we evolve some more.

The restoration of God’s people that the prophet Isaiah envisions is radiant and triumphant. I believe our way way forward is through humility and modesty and accepting our marginalized position in the culture, accepting that what we are, and what we do, is countercultural.

We are going to get used to being on the margins of the social order, to inhabiting the “abandoned places of empire,” to living among the ruins of Christendom and established religion. And, with God’s help, liberated to do a new thing.

We whose work it is to bring us into our future as a vibrant, lively, faithful people need to have the imagination to stretch beyond what we have known, and what we think is the way church is supposed to be, the courage to try something new–to experiment, the imagination to invent something new around which our core is built and expressed.

What is required is attentiveness to the Spirit, to pay attention to the promptings and invitations of the Spirit, to discern the new thing God is doing, to get comfortable with failure as we experiment.

We don’t have to have it all figured out. This clinging to certainty only causes suffering. We don’t have to be in control. We can do our part for reimagining how to be church, the shape of how we are to be faithful together, but the work will always be a work in progress.

“The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.” (Ken Untener)

This does not allow us to take our hands off the steering wheel and say, “Okay Higher Power, you drive this thing!” We do what we are able to do. We play the part we know is ours to play. We answer the call to serve. And do our best. And let go of the outcome.

In the Talmud, we read: “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.” (Rabbi Tarfon, Pirke Avot 2:21)

The work continues. It is a work in progress.

Because just like people talk on the telephone in public without public pay phones, without telephone booths, we will continue our shared ministry whatever shape that it takes.

Because just as people still need to talk on the phone in public, people still need what we have to offer.

As long as people search for significance in their lives, we will be there.

As long as people long for meaning in life, we will be there.

As long as people, grieving the death of loved ones, want to celebrate life and bury their dead, we will be there.

We will be there as long as people ask Why?

As long as people want to make a difference in the life of others, as long as the need to serve others arises in human hearts, as long as people ask How? when it comes to living a life of compassion, generosity and gratitude, we will be there.

We will be there.

We whose task it is to love the hell out of the world–

whose task it is to bind up the broken–

to provide salve to the wounded, to heal the hurt–

to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, and, yes, raise the dead–

we whose task it is to minister will not shrink from the work.

Aligning ourselves with the divine will, paying attention to the direction of Spirit, with God’s help, we will be there.

This post is the sermon delivered at the ordination of the Rev. Aaron Stockwell by the First Parish Church in Groton, Massachusetts on 6 June 2015. The readings were Isaiah 65:17-25 and “A Step Along the Way” by Bishop Ken Untener.

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?

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.

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.