I come to you this afternoon on loan from the First Presbyterian Church of Boonville, just north of here, where I have served as minister for the last three years. I want you to know that you have many allies in faith communities of various traditions around the world. I believe that Unitarian Universalism represents the very pinnacle of religious liberalism, but it does not have a monopoly on that label. No, progressive believers of every imaginable religious stripe exist in the churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples of the world. Sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously, they seek to embody the Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism within their respective traditions. I am one such person. Speaking as a Christian, I have discovered that these Seven Principles are as clear and concise a description as I have yet found for the way in which I seek to practice my faith. Like you, I am proud to call myself a religious liberal.
Too often, religious liberals have been pigeonholed according to what we don’t believe: we don’t interpret our sacred texts literally, we don’t claim to possess exclusive access to absolute truth, we don’t hold fast to a rigid, black and white moral code. All of these statements about us are true, but they’re not the whole truth. Too often, people have negatively defined us in this way and thus propagated the myth that we don’t believe in anything. (Joke about religious liberals and Jehovah’s Witnesses.) They say that we don’t care about truth, that we don’t care about morality, and that the sacred texts of our traditions mean nothing to us. And that is certainly not true.
Today, I’d like to take a look at what those two words mean in a positive sense: religious liberal. I’d like to talk about what it is that we do believe.
And the phrase we picked for today’s service is “freedom bound”. I like that. As religious liberals, each of us is always in a state of being “free” (liberal) and “bound” (religious). Let me explain what I mean by that.
I’ll begin with the word liberal. As most of us already know, the word liberal comes from the same Latin root as the word liberty, which means freedom. On the most basic level, ours is a free faith. Freedom is where we come from. Religious liberals are those have declared their independence from the narrow confines of antiquated and superstitious dogma. We struggle to keep our minds open to new insights from fields like science and philosophy. For us, critical thinking is a means of grace through which reality is being made known to us. As the 18th century Unitarian minister, William Ellery Channing once said: “I call that mind free which jealously guards its intellectual rights and powers, which does not content itself with a passive or hereditary faith, which opens itself to the light whencesoever it may come, which receives new truth as an angel from heaven.” Freedom is where we come from.
Freedom is also where we are going. We are “freedom bound” or “bound for freedom.” More than most, religious liberals are able to look at their forebears with simultaneously respectful and critical eyes. For example, we have no problem honoring the memory of someone like Thomas Jefferson as one of the founders of American democracy, but we also recognize that he didn’t go far enough in championing the cause of liberty.
Jefferson’s most famous words are captured in the Declaration of Independence, which he composed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
However, we know that Jefferson himself was a slave-owner who held his fellow human beings in unjust captivity, treating them as mere objects and property. Abolitionists and civil rights activists in subsequent centuries have called for the extension of those unalienable rights to people of all races and ethnicities. Our sisters in the women’s suffrage and liberation movements have drawn our attention to the truth that all women, just as much as men, are created equal. Environmental activists have expanded the boundaries of equality even further to include all beings, not just all humans. Through them, we learn that the Planet itself has unalienable rights that we ignore at our own peril.
Thomas Jefferson gave us a good start in the cause of equality, but our free faith demands that we keep going past the point where he stopped. Freedom demands that we stand up for the equality and unalienable rights of all beings. Freedom itself is a growing thing, as is equality. Freedom is where we are going. So that’s what I mean when I talk about being a religious liberal: I’m talking about freedom.
Here in the Unitarian Universalist Association, you express this truth beautifully in two of your seven principles. You affirm and promote “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” as well as “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” These principles, taken together, provide a firm foundation for the pursuit of religious freedom. Insofar as you affirm these principles, you are a religious liberal.
Now, I want to turn and take a look at the other word in that phrase: religious. I want to talk about what it means to be a religious liberal. Now this one’s tricky. That word, religion, can mean a lot of different things to different people. What does it mean to be religious? Does it mean attending services on a regular basis? Does it mean adhering to a set of beliefs? Does it mean celebrating the holidays and participating in the rituals of a tradition? Religious can mean any or all of the above.
Here’s what I mean when I say it:
The word religion comes from the Latin relego, which means “to bind together or connect.” You’re familiar with Lego blocks, right? What do they do that other blocks don’t do? They connect to each other! To be religious, then, is to be connected.
To illustrate, let me return to what I was saying a moment ago about going beyond the original ideas about freedom and equality that started with Thomas Jefferson. In the beginning, those ideas only applied to a very small, select group of free, white men. Over time, thanks to the efforts of others, those men were joined by women, and people of other races, and people from other countries, and people of other sexual orientations, and people of other gender identities, and the animals, and the trees, and the rivers, and the mountains, and the oceans, and the air, and even the Earth itself: all bound together, connected, in one beautiful, perfect WHOLE. For me, that’s what it means to be religious: to recognize and honor the many connections that exist between the parts and the whole of reality. And I can’t think of any better way to put it than you Unitarian Universalists do in the last of your Seven Principles. You “affirm and promote… Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” I love that. You have summed up so brilliantly and so beautifully what it means to be a religious liberal. Religious means connected.
So then, I would say that a religious liberal is someone who is free and connected, connected and free. We need both. We can’t have one without the other.
If we emphasize connection at the expense of freedom, we end up with tyranny (obviously). Individual people become little more than cogs in a machine, with no “inherent worth and dignity” of their own.
But if we try to take freedom without connection, we end up with a very selfish, ego-centric view of the world. This is the kind of libertarianism that says, “I don’t owe anyone anything. If someone else is suffering or oppressed, it’s not my problem. Let them eat cake!”
Folks who live like this have no sense of either history or obligation. We see ourselves as self-contained units who exist independently of other self-contained (i.e. self-centered) units. We say the welfare of the whole doesn’t bother us because it’s none of our business.
You know, there is a particular kind of cell in our bodies that behaves this way: a cancer cell. A cancer cell, according to Michael Dowd, is simply a cell that has forgotten its history, so it consumes and multiplies without discrimination until its host body is utterly consumed from the inside out. We are in the middle of a cancer epidemic in our society, so you can just imagine what it would be like if people started behaving like cancer cells, with no sense of history, identity, or purpose within the embrace of the Whole of reality. Our existence is life out of balance with the whole of reality. That’s what freedom without connection gets you: selfishness.
As religious liberals, we do our best to hold freedom and connection together as our primary values. We affirm and promote “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” as well as “respect for the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part.” We are free and we are bound. We are bound for freedom and we are bound by freedom.