Sunday, October 15, 2006

Liberal religious identity

I mentioned in an earlier post that our recent UUMA chapter retreat was outstanding and included a presentation by the Rev. Dr. Paul Rasor entitled "Unitarian Universalism and the Challenges of Religious Identity".

To begin with, Paul identified the basic commitments and characteristics of liberal religion (LR):
• Liberal Religion must live in the present, using modern knowledge and experience.
• LR must be openminded, prizing free intellectual inquiry.
• LR must be credible and relevant, i.e., religion has to matter and to make sense.

• LR occupies the middle ground between fundamentalism and the secular world, in the real world of contemporary culture.
• LR operates on the belief that reality involves movement and change, interdependence, fluid understandings of truth, no sharp dualisms.
• LR promotes autonomy, thinking for oneself, mistrusting external authority.
• LR bases ethics on humaneness, downplaying doctrinal aspects.

As a minister who is engaged with many other clergy and laity of varying faiths, both Christian and non-Christian, I was struck by what we have in common as liberal religionists. There is not a lot of difference between liberal faiths and their work in the world, if you set aside theological differences. I notice and appreciate this every time I meet with my lectionary group here on the island or with the other members of the Religious Coalition for Equality.

My former minister Robert Latham once described religion as the human expression of a relationship with self, with others, and with the universe or God, in an effort to make life meaningful. I've always liked that definition. I have gone a little further and see religion as a public expression of those relationships and spirituality as the private expression of those relationships. At least, that's how it feels to me.

But I struggle sometimes to express what is my core religious identity as a Unitarian Universalist. I can avow that one piece of that identity for me is our striving for diversity; I know we don't have large numbers of people of color nor uneducated people nor other "Others". But we actively strive for that; we recognize our need for diversity and reach for it, even though we miss the mark a lot and can be very clumsy about it all.

I see us as doing religion in a new way, not focusing on doctrine, but on human behavior. If we have a credo, it is to treat each other and the earth with kindness and respect. We have let go of the supernatural doctrines of Christianity, for the most part, and have focused on what we see as the implicit messages of such prophets as Jesus, Moses, Gandhi, Mohammed, Buddha, and others: love, integrity, nonviolence, beauty, compassion, inclusion.

Out of this credo springs our commitment to social justice work, our concern for the environment, our belief in the democratic process, our abhorrence of war, our passion for spiritual freedom. This I believe is the core of Unitarian Universalist religous identity, not how different we are from other religions or what we don't believe that others do.

Within our congregations we are diverse in many ways----------theology, gender, sexual orientation, age, ability, education, political affiliation. But we all pretty much support the universal Truths of reverence for life, compassion for others, respect for each other, care for the earth, and order in community life.


Freespirit said...

Nice post, Ms. Kitty! FYI: I'm going to mention it, and give a link to it, at the "Faith of the Free" Yahoo group-- --and we'll see if there's any discussion there.

Ron Stevens

ms. kitty said...

Thanks, Ron, I'll look forward to any conversation that comes along.

Bill Baar said...

Re: LR occupies the middle ground between fundamentalism and the secular world, in the real world of contemporary culture.

The real world of contemporary culture will be out of date tomorrow. LR was swept up with the real world of contemporary culture in the 60s and 70s and it's a big reason why it seems out-of-date today.

Fundamentalists cling to all the biblical stores. Truths that literally or metaphorically endure. They don't go out of date. Instead the fundamentalists continually reapplying, reinterpreting them as the real-world-of contemporary culture changes every day.

The core of LR is the autonomy and sovereignty of the individual endowed with inalienalbe rights by a creator. That's a principle that should endure too; for all, and one that should inspired opposition to contemporary culture when it opposes those rights.

LinguistFriend said...

I am very much in sympathy with this approach, which I see as relevant in practice mainly to certain interactions with mainline Protestant and possibly at least one or two Jewish groups, and have tried it in practice. And I am very grateful for the honest liberal Catholic thought hidden behind the New Jerome Biblical Commentary. But in practice I run into the reaction that I am, after all, not a Christian, and indeed, I have never been a member of a Christian church, although I tend to be the only person in any religious group who routinely reads the Greek NT. The concept of liberal religion is quite foreign to those who control a lot of real estate in the USA, even among mainline Protestants. That is the large part of mainline religion that seems to run like lemmings towards the nearest cliff over the sea, and to whom the notion of liberal religion is absolutely unintelligible.

ms. kitty said...

Thanks to all of you for your thoughts. I'm planning a sermon on this topic in the future and you have given me things to think about.