Disclaimer: This unedited, rough draft material is a year-long project in response to our 2004 theme: pilgrimage. It is meant to be a dialogue between myself and my fellow Mammoths and any of you who happen along. It is intentionally not polished, nor is it finished. Charlie Buchman Ellis
The North woods. Birch turned yellow, white pines and red stand on either side of a rocky path. The path bends in toward an outcropping of Ely greenstone, old rock. The path turns, runs along a stream, then crosses the stream on a mossy tree, felled, perhaps, in a storm.
The way is narrow and straight; its gate no bigger than the eye of a needle.
Allah has placed the right path across the abyss. It is a sword’s edge, still, the faithful can cross.
Leavin’ on a jet plane, won’t be back again.
A Lakota sun dancer pierces her skin with sharp bone; the bone attaches to a leather cord, the cord connects to a tree. The axis mundi.
A way that can be walked is not The Way.
The Milky Way spreads, a starry path leading to...where? Valhalla? The Otherworld? Heaven? Yawning space?
The way of a liberal’s faith.
What image works here? How does the path open to revelation, new revelation look? How does a path forged by reason, yet needing heart and soul, look?
Is it a cobblestone lane leading to a library? Is it a cave entrance leading down the human interior, perhaps as deep as Jung’s collective unconscious? Can we find concrete images of our way?
What image occurs to you?
Where can we go to find exemplars of our faith? As Davidson Loehr points out there are the usual suspects: Channing, Emerson, and Parker, the three prophets of religious liberalism as Conrad Wright dubbed them. We could move further back in time and find Servetus, but he was cranky and not compelling as a thinker. We can find the proponents of socianism and other minor religious movements, mostly within the Christian faith, yet, as Loehr points out, none of these are important perspectives in the history of religious thought, nor the people who held them striking persons of faith.
And since the New England 3 who would you name? Who can you name? Oh, a few perhaps, but the reaching for UU’s in history has an element of desparation in it, just as Loehr claims, trying to find those we want to claim as part of our circle, yet, in the end, ones who neither challenge nor inspire us, not for long.
Why? 2 reasons mainly. The chords of faith their felt hammers strike do not resonate with the deeps of our souls. This reality has been among liberals for a long time, longer even than Emersons dismissive reference to “corpse cold Unitarianism.” The cold light of reason. C’mon, don’t be so emotional. Let’s be objective here. That’s not logical.
Also, UU’s in the main have replaced faith with liberal politics, becoming captive to the culture. We will explore this idea in greater depth later.
Before we proceed into the body of this presentation we need to look at Davidson Loehr’s take on the numerical decline of the merged Unitarian-Universalist Association. First, he is right. We are in decline. Second, he is also right that the institutional decline of Unitarian-Universalism does NOT represent a decline in what this presentation calls the way of a liberal’s faith.
A couple of other things need saying though. The decline Loehr identifies—per capita of US population we (that is, the predecessor denominations, Unitarians and Universalists) began declining long ago—does exist; but Loehr does not go on to add that liberal Protestantism began declining about the same time. The liberal components of American religion began to decline per capita somewhere in the early part of this century.
This decline was either not noticed or did not appear desperate because raw membership numbers continued to grow, but when the raw membership numbers began to decline in the sixties and seventies, a scramble began to find out why. Now, with the wisdom of hindsight, scholar can see the overall liberal decline as part of a historic pattern.
What many observers believe happened (and is ongoing) is that, as Loehr identifies, the liberal perspective became so dominant that the distinction between liberal faith, either Christian or other, became indistinguishable from the ethos of American life.
In other words, contrary to what you may surmise, liberalism has won the day. (this begs a discussion of the contemporary uses of liberal and conservative in US political life, but this is really another topic.)
What is the liberal impulse in religion, and what are its roots?
The liberal path shines brightly in human history, perhaps in places we have not often looked. Let’s do a quick historical survey, some highlights over the long sweep of time when the human impulse to acknowledge experience, especially wonder and awe (Rudolf Otto’s mysterium tremendum et fascinans) merged with the creative act of free minds to embrace new perspectives, to understand the world afresh.
A liberal approach to the sacred and the holy began with the first person to wonder, to see the world with awe. It began, for example, among the early Japanese who saw into their land and found the kami living in ocean rocks and volcanoes and hot springs and rivers and trees.
It began with the early Taoists who recognized dualities: “life and death, difficult and easy, long and short, high and low,” yet who also saw that these apparent dialectics
Sound and silence blend together
before and after.”
It began among the early cave painters, as they sketched the animals which gave them their lives.
It began with the first person who wondered if something happens beyond death; perhaps the first one to smear red ochre on a dead body.
The liberal’s faith looks at life as it is lived and asks questions. Wonders. Sees beyond the veil of tradition, dogma, or patterns of behavior. Sees beauty and grace where others before them saw a jagged rock in the water, or only a water source tumbling down from a mountain. Sees reality as divided in pairs, then sees the pairs as one, and the one as essential to life, yet, also two. Sees the vitality in the animal, a vitality shared by the hunter, a vitality taken so that life can continue.
When Abraham heard a call to the promised land, he saw beyond the life he lived in the land of Ur and imagined a place full of milk and honey, a place given to him and his descendants as a gift, a holy place. He moved away from his ancestral lands on the basis of his vision, a vision he considered a sacred covenant.
Jesus took the Jewish tradition in which he was raised and used it as a resource for his faith rather than a template or a creed. He took love of neighbor and love of self as the essence of Judaism and espoused them as key to a new way of understanding the holy. When he moved away from the strict religion of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, he became a follower and exemplar of the liberal’s faith, one who examines the life offered and finds truth and holiness in the lived experience, too, not only in the law or the scripture.
Greek philosophers, the pre-Socratics, began to venture out beyond the mythopoetics of Greek religion. They sought for causes in the natural world, not the world of Olympus. In this move they walked along the liberal way as they went out beyond the accepted version of creation recorded in Hesiod’s Theogony.
This is not to pose a false dichotomy between ancient Greek religion and the nascent science of Heraclitus and Thales and Anaxamander. This is not good science, bad mythology. The liberal recognizes that science and story not only can co-exist, but do, right down through history.
We do not have to eliminate poets in order to have science.
The liberal does not privilege traditional ideas over experience and reason. It was the pre-Socratics who said reason, too, could be used to investigate the world, thus, they are our ancestors in this, too, as in so much else.
A problem with the Enlightenment, which would elevate reason to the status of a plenipotentiary, is its confusion of reason’s fruit with ultimate knowledge. Reasons results are no more ultimate than knowledge gained by love, or the effects of justice, or the elegance of beauty.
We do not have to eliminate poets to embrace science.
Whenever humankind’s capacity for creativity trumps the cold hand of custom, there the liberal spirit is alive. Perhaps this is a point for a caveat—trumping the cold hand of custom is not, ipso facto, good. The creative individual must always negotiate her way in community and her new notions must, paradoxically, stand up over time, too.
We could reach back into ancient Egypt and look at the monotheism of Akenhaton, a radical departure from the established polytheism. Here the liberal impulse emerged, then receded, as polytheism once again dominated Egypt. Note here that it is not monotheism per se, but the willingness to champion a view held against prevailing wisdom, that is indicative of the liberal impulse.
In this sense Emerson speaks of the way of the liberal’s faith, no matter the era or circumstance:
The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs...The sun shines to-day also...There are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.
Every man's condition is a solution in hieroglyphic to those inquiries he would put. He acts it as life, before he apprehends it as truth. In like manner, nature is already, in its forms and tendencies, describing its own design. Let us interrogate the great apparition, that shines so peacefully around us. Let us inquire, to what end is nature?
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Introduction to Nature
It was, equally, a liberal impulse when the Renaissance jumped back over the dogmatic theologies of the middle ages and found inspiration in the mythology, literature and art of ancient Greek and Rome. This may seem, at first, like a conservative impulse since it moves backward in time for its nourishment, yet the conservative move is NOT alien to the liberal. If the new idea for the time, the spark for a new appropriation of what it means to be human, or sacred, should come from the past, so be it.
It is the willingness to put new wine in old wineskins, or old wine in new wineskins that marks us. In this we move beyond the Emerson quoted above in Nature; we say yes to continuing revelation and to insight peculiar to our time and lights, but we also admit that revelation and insight has come before us; and, we can use it, too.
You do not have to be a nihilist to be a liberal.
The scholasticism of the medieval church created, by means of protest against its dry formalism, the renaissance reach to ancient Greece and Rome, and, in so doing, spawned a movement of germinal modernism: Renaissance Humanism, about which one source notes: The return to favor of the pagan classics stimulated the philosophy of secularism, the appreciation of worldly pleasures, and above all intensified the assertion of personal independence and individual expression.
You do not have to look only forward to be a liberal.
The Reformation was a liberal move, too. Again, the tide of history, also, in this case the Roman Catholic church, affiliated with the feudal economic structure and wedded to the scholastic theology propounded by Thomas Aquinas, had created a huge reservoir of resentments and opposing thinkers. The church reinforced political oppression and enforced doctrinal purity, both by the sword if necessary.
It was Martin Luther who said, “Enough.” His unintentional revolution created a firestorm because local rulers now had a religious ally against the dominant Catholicism of certain European overlords. It was, of course, a marriage of convenience in many cases, but the twin and powerful engines of religious reform and political liberation (at least for the aristocracy) gathered steam until it became a juggernaut.
The Reformation marries political liberalism in the Reform theology of John Calvin, champion of the individual Christian’s allegiance to God over and against the divine right of kings. Later, this idea would be the foundation for much of radical politics, including those of the Social Gospel movement of the early 20th century, and would inspire Ghandi in Hindu India who in turn influenced Martin Luther King.
You do not have to be an atheist to be a liberal.
In the seventeenth century Renee Descartes, the French philosophical giant, attempted to reason his way to the true starting point of human thought. His identification of that starting point is famous: Cogito, ergo sum. I think; therefore, I am.
This is a critical turn, both because it is typical of the liberal impulse in human affairs, and because it lays the groundwork for the Enlightenment.
It is during the Enlightenment and its focus on reason that much of what we now describe as liberal religion began to emerge. This was the time of the clockmaker God, the God of the Deists who were so influential in the politics of the Enlightenment. This God created the clock and its moving parts—the creation—wound it once, and set it off on its own. This handily solves the bugabear of traditional theology, theodicy, but pays quite a hefty price; it essentially removes God from the affairs of the world. A deus absconditas, a hidden God, may be worse than no God at all.
The story from this point is at least somewhat familiar: John Locke in England, David Hume, the Scottish philosopher, the philosophes in France, Voltaire, and eventually certain colonists in the New World, those who would call themselves Americans, embraced a liberal philosophical perspective which placed the individual in a central role, as agent and as economic actor.
Politically, what began in Calvin’s Geneva now found itself used to deny the divine right of George III to rule the English colonies across the Atlantic.
Later, but not much later, the French Revolution cut off heads to underscore its commitment to liberty, equality, and brotherhood (sic).
You don’t have to be a pacifist to be a liberal.
It is critical to note that also a key liberal thinker of the time was Adam Smith, whose invisible hand emphasized, indeed declared the necessity of, the individual’s role in economic life. Thus, America was borne in a time when liberal political philosophy, at least as John Locke understood it, became wedded to liberal economic thought, the emerging capitalism of Adam Smith.
And so, a problem for liberal religionists down to this very day. The political inflection on individual rights and responsibilities informed religious thinkers like Channing, Emerson, and Parker, each of whom took the German higher criticism of the Bible (reason applied to scripture) in slightly different ways, but used it, along with the liberal philosophical and economic thought of the era and began to pull away from established Christian doctrine and established Christian institutions.
You can be a capitalist and a liberal with no contradiction.
Yet, the economics of private property, individual rights, and responsibilities was the laissez faire capitalism of Adam Smith. This decoupled economics from communal responsibility as well as from its captivity to aristocracy and royalty, and placed it in the entrepreneurial hands of individuals and combines of individuals. The 19th century, filled with robber barons, land speculators, railroad tycoons, slave holders, and industrial magnates, demonstrates both the vitality and the price of this liberal shift as it manifested in the economic sphere.
Could all this have proceeded down a different road? Probably. But, it didn’t. The gradual merging of liberal religious thought with liberal political thought began, especially in the arena of individual (human) rights; while, at the same time, the economics of liberalism would serve to reinforce often gross inequities in American culture, e.g. free over against slave, men (property holders and voters) over against women, the industrial north over against the rural south, pioneers over against native peoples.
In the twentieth century, as Davidson Loehr correctly points out, the religious center of liberal faith faded from view and in its place came a liberal political perspective (note: not radical, but liberal). The problem for us now is this: liberal economics is in the ascendancy today—it is free market capitalism. The once novel—and key—ideas of liberal political philosophy: an emphasis on individual rights and the right to private property served to reinforce the inequities generated in the 19th century...and liberal religious moves: honor the creative impulse, stand over against the dead hand of tradition when reason or experience indicates, discover the holy in places where it has gotten misplaced or was never recognized, have been lost.
Davidson Loehr puts his finger on a disturbing point: the liberal politics of the mid-twentieth century became a surrogate for the way of the liberal faith, became, in fact, its replacement in the UU institutional church. And as such, in many congregations, acts as doctrine and dogma, ignored or rejected at an individual’s peril.
So, what to do?
The path ahead seems clear. We need to recover the liberal impulse we have seen over the sweep of human history, appropriate it as our own, “Why can we not have a religion of revelation to us?”, and focus, at least for much of our time together in church, on the way of a liberal’s faith, rather than the way of a liberal’s politics or economics.
Here are sixteen possible components of a liberal’s faith. They are not a creed or a creed-lite or creed substitute like the seven principles; they are personal characteristics resonant with the liberal impulse, most of them have some communal implications, all have individual application.
The Way of a liberal’s faith...
Conclusion: We have ranged far, from the sands of Akenhaton’s Egypt to the Aegean homes of the pre-Socratic philosophers and into the halls of the Renaissance, the churches of the Reformation, and, the mind of the Enlightenment philosophers and economists.
We have sought their impulses and images to help us define our peculiar, and often difficult pilgrimage, the way of a liberal’s faith.
Some contemporary thinkers help clarify our journey: Alfred North Whitehead and the school of process philosophy and theology; neo-pagan thought’s emphasis on ancient earth wisdom, but even with them we are still driven back to our own bodies and our own hearts and our own minds and our own souls, for it is in their cauldron where true alchemy occurs.
In the end, the way of a liberal’s faith has only your feet, your hands, your heart, and your head. Can you see the way ahead?
"We do not choose to be born. We do not choose our parents. We do not choose our historical epoch, or the country of our birth, or the immediate circumstances of our upbringing. We do not, most of us, choose to die; nor do we choose the time or conditions of our death. But within all this realm of choicelessness, we do choose how we shall live: courageously or in cowardice, honorably or dishonorably, with purpose or adrift. We decide what is important and what is trivial in life. We decide that what makes us significant is either what we do or what we refuse to do. But no matter how indifferent the universe may be to our choices and decisions, these choices and decisions are ours to make. We decide. We choose. And as we decide and choose, so are our lives formed. In the end, forming our own destiny is what ambition is about." - Joseph Epstein
He (Rudolf Otto http://www.netrax.net/~galles)is best known for his analysis of the experience that, in his view, underlies all religion. He calls this experience "numinous," and says it has three components. These are often designated with a Latin phrase: mysterium tremendum et fascinans. As mysterium, the numinous is "wholly other"--entirely different from anything we experience in ordinary life. It evokes a reaction of silence. But the numinous is also a mysterium tremendum. It provokes terror because it presents itself as overwhelming power. Finally, the numinous presents itself as fascinans, as merciful and gracious.
 Tao Te Ching, Jonathan Starr, trns. p. 15, Verse 2.
 Michael Walzer, The Revolution of the Saints: A study in the origins of radical politics, 1976