SHARING OUR FAITH: WHY DOES IT MATTER?
"They drew a circle to shut me out:
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win.
We drew a circle which took them in.”
I like these words of Unitarian poet Edwin Markham. Don’t they describe well the experience of a non-conforming religious identity within a conforming world? We, often the unaccepted, refuse to be the unaccepting. We have been seen as heretics through history, and have adopted that identity with pride. Sometimes we are rebels as well. For me, heretic is the more constructive identity. But Theologian Sam Keen would use the word outlaw as a synonym for heretic. He suggests that discovering a constructive sense of self apart from one's group is the healthy result of spiritual mid-life crisis.
On the annual Sunday when across Canada we focus upon ‘sharing our faith,” I usually talk about our history – especially our history in Canada. But especially after the U*U ministers’ retreat I attended last weekend that focused upon bridging to the generations younger than Boomers, I find myself thinking more of the future than the past. Many of us are proud of the ways folks of our tradition have made the world more just and compassionate. And it is important to honour those stories. We do have strong roots. Yet the question I most want to ask is: why does our faith matter today and tomorrow? What do we offer of value in a culture that is changing faster than it ever has before? And if it does matter, do we live as if it does? Are we willing to make the effort to make it available to more people who might benefit from our inclusive community? Are we willing to take our values and worldview out into the world even when it is not easy to do?
The word "heretic" comes from the Greek hairesis, meaning "to choose." We are the choicemakers. Those who do not let others decide what our opinions will be. We can make the choice to stand at odds with the common attitudes of the society around us – not because any authority-- religious or otherwise – tells us to. But because we are taking a stand of conscience that comes from within. Our faith matters because it supports us in this freedom of choice, and in the courage it takes to live true to those choices.
More often than we tend to remember, this perspective has brought us trouble from a conforming world. Michel Servetus was burned at stake, the Polish Unitarians were exiled, Francis David who founded Unitarianism in Transylvania died in prison. English Unitarian minister and chemist Joseph Priestley, the discoverer of oxygen, fled with his family while his house and laboratory were torched by a mob. In North America, reaction has generally been limited to harsh words and sometimes lost opportunities for employment, office or publication. But the struggle has continued into our century in many parts of the world.
Why does it matter? Our freedom to choose is based upon respect for our human facility of reason, and also for the first "source" of our tradition named in our statement of principles: “direct experience.” Other traditions may recognize experience and reason as sources of religious knowledge, but scripture and tradition trump these easily. Not so Unitarian Universalists. Reason has been central since our beginnings. Then, early in the 19th century, Ralph Waldo Emerson and the other
Transcendentalists eloquently championed individual experience as the source of spiritual wisdom. There was ardent resistance from the established New England Unitarianism of their time. This was the first of a number of controversies through the past 200 years that have resulted in changing worldviews. With these shifts, from one generation to another, we have continued to evolve and to incorporate new insights. It seems we are on the verge of another shift. It is hard to imagine what we might look like when my grandchildren reach mid-life!
There are some constants, however. As I was looking for a concise way of expressing these attitudes that have persisted through all the changes, I remembered James Luther Adam's "five smooth stones" of religious liberalism. Adams is a former professor at Harvard who is considered by many the most influential UU theologian of the 20th century. I found myself asking -- do his core ideas express a faith that matters? Are they relevant in a new century?
According to Adams, our world view can be defined by five ideas: we believe that 1) revelation is on-going; 2) that religious convictions must be freely chosen; 3) that deeds matter more than creeds; 4) that our charge is to build a more just and loving community; and that 5) the future holds new possibility and therefore hope—it does not have to repeat the mistakes of the past.
The first "stone" is the principal that revelation is not sealed. The motto of the Unitarian church in Transylvania is Semper Reformandum: "always reforming". As heirs to that tradition, the Reformation has never ended for us. When I was a youth in a Unitarian Universalist congregation, we were taken with the saying, "Truth can't be pickled."
Parker, the most controversial of the Transcendentalists, wrote to his brother in the 1830s: "I preach abundant heresies, and they all go down, for the listeners do not know how heretical they are.” A fiery promoter of abolition and other social causes, Parker kept a pistol in his desk as he wrote sermons, prepared to defend the fugitive slaves he sheltered in his house. Parker was known as a heresiarch -- one who promoted the power of heresy as a way of life.
Yet, as has often been true among us, within ten years many of those who opposed him had come around to his opinions, especially about abolition. The larger denomination has not always moved with the speed and vision of its prophets, but it has refused to silence them. Eventually it has heeded them.
The second "stone" of liberalism is precisely the affirmation of our roots in heresy: that our faith rests upon free choice, mutuality, lack of coercion. What began as a protest against ecclesiastical pecking orders soon infected the political and economic arenas, and contributed substantially to the birth of democracy.
The third stone of Adams' liberalism is the moral obligation to strive for a just and loving community. This is certainly a core teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. Many of our religious ancestors in Poland came to the conclusion that, following the example of Jesus, they should not bear arms. Their model was a just and loving community that practiced consensus rather than coercion
The seeds of equality and democracy sown in the early Christian churches were springing back to life. While the idea of such community was claimed by the Orthodox, it was those on the left wing of the Reformation --including Quakers and Mennonites as well as our own forebears, who have tried most radically to put them into action.
The fourth stone of religious liberalism requires social incarnation, not simply pious statements or private salvation. Again, Jesus of Nazareth modeled challenge rather than obedience to oppressive social structures. Certainly the more liberal mainline churches have been our partners in recent years on many issues. Yet we have a special revolutionary place in society. Few are aware of the extent of our influence.
A. Powell Davies, a popular and prolific Unitarian minister and writer from the middle of the 19th century, writes, "Public schools, abolition of slavery, prison reform, care of the insane, poorhouses, the Red Cross, free public libraries, care of the blind and deaf, abolition of flogging, women's rights, peace societies, planned parenthood, improved labor conditions, civil service -- who were the pioneers? Heretics, one and all!" To all those whose lives were made better by our efforts, our faith mattered. It still does.
We are a faith of deeds, not creeds. The record is rather startling. This is especially true in the United States, where only 1/10th of 1% of the population claim to be Unitarian Universalists. Yet one quarter of the statues in the Capitol's Hall of Fame -- two from each state -- represent people from our traditions! From the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, to the Civil Liberties Union and the Sierra Club, Unitarians and Universalists were the founding visionaries. Here in Canada, people from our tradition have been influential as well. You’ve probably heard of Lotta Hitchmanova and the Unitarian Service Committee. You may not know that the Elizabeth Frye Society was founded by a Unitarian congregation, as was the Open Door Society. The father of Canadian psychiatry was one of the founders of the Toronto congregation.
Many among us have found ways to live our faith that have made a difference to the world. Not only in dramatic, public ways, but in countless small acts of fairness, forgiveness and love in our daily lives.
Finally, religious liberalism includes an attitude of ultimate optimism. Perhaps hopefulness is a better term. We believe that we have resources in ourselves and in our universe to accomplish meaningful change. Not overnight. Not ever to a point where human imperfection is eradicated. We cannot deny after the Holocaust that there is something tragic and potentially twisted in human nature. Yet we refuse to be limited by the past.
Reason, which clears away so many obstacles, gives us only the slenderest reed upon which to build a theology of hope. But our experience tells us more. However rare, we have each experienced the unexpected twist, the eucatastrophy, the time when against all expectation new life has broken into the midst of tragedy or deep discouragement.
On the one hand, we are hopeful because we trust that creation is good, not “fallen.” We celebrate natural cycles, the return of the sun, the time of harvest. On the other hand, we are hopeful because we do believe that something new can break into history. Not once, with the birth of Jesus, but every day. We live with an attitude of expectancy, not expectation. We don't claim to know a Divine plan laid out for salvation, but we as Universalists do not ever give up on the possibility of redemption. Hosea Ballou used to say that God as a loving parent would not draw in the latchkey to heaven until every last child found its way home.
We are choice-makers, not imitators. So were the Hebrew prophets. So were Jesus of Nazareth, and the Buddha, and Laotzi. So was the early Christian community. They, too, believed that revelation is on-going, that religion is a matter of making free choices, that deeds mattered more than creeds, that our charge is to build a more just and loving community, and that the future holds new possibility. The five stones of religious liberalism are rooted deep in Western tradition. I believe that we who are heretics are true heirs of those ancient dreamers.
In the choosing, in the risking, in the courage to face our own times and to act within the frame of history to create a better future we are legitimate heirs to the heretics who went before us. We live in the midst of paradox and ambiguity, and still we must choose. Without certainty, without the comfort of fashionable pessimism, without an outside authority to hold us by the hand. We have but each other, a world full of extravagant wonder and awesome tragedy, and, perhaps, a hidden God who is making a hubbub.
May we continue to challenge our own orthodoxies, as individuals and as a tradition, in word and in deed. In this way we stand as doors through which new life may break in to our world. May we find the strength to walk that path toward a more just and loving future -- together.
Linda Horton, ed., Guarding Sacred Embers: Reflections on Canadian Unitarian and Universalist History.
Hewett, Philip, Unitarians in Canada
Adams, James Luther, On Being Human Religiously
Church, Forrester & John Buehrens, Our Chosen Faith
Commager, Henry Steele, Theodore Parker, Yankee Crusader
Davies, A. Powell, The Faith of an Unrepentant Liberal
Park, David, A History of Unitarianism (original documents)
Wright, Conrad, Ed., Three Prophets of Religious Liberalism: Channing, Emerson, Parker
Other suggested readings:
Angus McLean, The Wind in Both Ears & God and the Devil at Seal Cove (Canadian Unitarian Religious Educator)
Thomas Owen-Towle, Universalism