Rev. Marlin Lavanhar, Senior Minister at All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma is absolutely my favorite preacher in the world. His words on the situation in Syria are clear, direct, and enlightened. I was just telling my wife today that I need to add a third item to my “restore faith in humanity” checklist.
The liberal Christian outlook is directed to a Power that is living, that is active in a love seeking concrete manifestation, and that finds decisive response in the living posture and gesture of Jesus of Nazareth. In a world that has with some conscientiousness turned against this kind of witness and its vocabulary, the effect of this witness will in a special way depend upon the quality of its costingness in concrete action and upon its relevance to the history that is in the making. To say this is only to say that the truly reliable God is the Lord of history and also that our sins will find us out. Yet, this Lord of history has given us a world in which the possibility of new beginnings is ever present along with the judgment that is always upon us. To this Lord of history Jesus responded with his message and demonstration of hope in concert with sacrifice.
I haven’t done a book review in a while, but I’ve been reading some good ones. Just yesterday, I finished Faith Without Certainty: Liberal Theology in the 21st Century (Skinner House: 2005) by Paul Rasor, a Unitarian Universalist minister and college professor who currently works as director of the Center for the Study of Religious Freedom.
Enemies and allies of liberal theology are similarly inclined to use the term ‘liberal’ as a synonymn for ‘other’. Until the last year or two, I myself was completely unaware of the historical depth contained within the joint traditions of Unitarianism and Universalism. Knowing only what I’d been told from my evangelical upbringing, I had always thought that Unitarian Universalists (UUs) were ‘loosey-goosey’ and ‘airy-fairy’ liberals who had respect for neither tradition nor truth and adopted an ‘anything goes’ policy in regard to morality and ethics. I would tell jokes like:
Q: What do you get when you cross a Jehovah’s Witness with a Unitarian Universalist?
A: Someone who comes knocking on your door for no apparent reason.
OK, I have to admit that I still chuckle at that one, even though I know it’s not true. UUs are deeply committed to their theology and ethics. If one knocks at your door, you can bet that it’s for a very good reason. What I discovered is that UUs (as well as other religious liberals) are committed to process over content. In other words, they’re more interested in how you live than what you believe. This is beautifully reflected in the UUA’s Seven Principles. I would love to go into greater detail about them here, but that will have to wait for another blog post. The UUA, while it represents the largest organized group of religious liberals, is not the only place where they hang out. There continue to be many of us who try to embody a similar flavor of religion within our respective communities. What matters is that we who identify ourselves with this label (‘liberal’) must be able to simultaneously hold and share a conscious awareness of who we are and what we stand for in a positive sense.
Given the myriad ways that the term ‘liberal’ gets thrown around without being defined, I’m grateful for Rasor’s concise and readable primer that actually digs into the real roots and trajectories of the liberal theological tradition.
If you don’t have time to read the entire book, the first two chapters after the introduction will familiarize you with what it is that religious liberals believe and how we came to embrace those values. Whether you’re out to support or criticize us, it’s important that you know what you’re getting into. Love or hate us for what we are, not what we’re not.
The remainder of the book lays out some of the challenges and frontiers that liberal theology is currently facing in its ongoing development. With the arrival of the postmodern era, liberal religion (as a decidedly modern phenomenon) is reevaluating many of its core commitments (in much the same way that evangelical Christians (another modern movement) are also doing via the ‘Emergent Church’ movement). Hard and fast categories, such as rugged individualism and universal human experience, are being questioned in the light of community, culture, and language.
Rasor is highly critical of his own liberal tradition in relation to issues of race and social class. Despite its value of diversity, liberal religion continues to exist as a predominantly white and middle-class movement. While his criticisms are honest and accurate, I wish that he had spent more time with them. He mentions social Darwinism and the rise of manifest destiny in America, but he says nothing of Eugenics or the Holocaust, both of which were fueled in part by liberal theology. These massive moral failures demonstrate that no one group, however utopian their ideals, is above the human tendency toward self-justified violence and oppression. My primary criticism of Rasor’s book is that it seems to minimize and/or ignore these most prominent failures of liberal religion.
On the other hand, I was highly impressed by Rasor’s distinction between liberal and liberation theologies. These two categories are often associated with one another in the common mind, mainly because of shared emphases on social justice. However, as Rasor observes, they arise from different historical sources, make use of different methods, and emerge with very different values and convictions. Liberation theologians tend to hold scripture and tradition much more closely, even as they criticize and reinterpret them. Not all theological liberals are liberation theologians (and vice versa). One need only look at the sermons of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador to see his deep commitment to the historical orthodoxy of Roman Catholicism. If anything, I came away from Rasor’s book with an awareness that the construction of a theology that is simultaneously liberal and liberationist would prove to be a most difficult task. Indeed, evangelicals would probably have an easier time of it, given the place they grant to the Bible in their theological systems.
All in all, I highly enjoyed Rasor’s book during my two weeks of vacation. I expect that I will keep it on my shelf and refer to it often as a concise introduction to what religious liberals actually believe.
I heard this amazing sermon yesterday on the monthly Quest podcast from Church of the Larger Fellowship. It was originally preached on December 12, 2009 at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Arlington, VA. The preacher is Rev. Archene Turner, a Unitarian Universalist minister. Many thanks to Rev. Turner, who has granted me permission to reprint her words here.
A friend suggested that I read Invisible Cities, a short novel by Italo Calvino that consists of dialogues between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan because she found the stories meaningful. I certainly found Polo’s thoughts about inferno provocative:
“The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”
I think we are living in an inferno. People acknowledge we are living in an economic crisis but family, we are in a moral crisis too.
A recent survey found that one in four families had been hit by a job loss during the past year and nearly half had suffered a reduction in wages or hours worked. For the working poor, already struggling, the current recession is knocking them down another notch – from low wage employment and inadequate housing toward erratic employment and no housing at all. Barbara Ehrenreich recently went back and interviewed some of the people in her 2001 best seller, Nickeled and Dimed, about the working poor, the quarter of the population that struggle even in the best of times. She called her article “Too Poor to Make the News”, because the media is looking for what has been called “recession porn” – stories about the incremental descent of the well off from excess to frugality, from ease to austerity.
A Typical story reads “Sarah and Tyrone Mangold … she was selling health insurance, and he was working on a heating and air conditioning crew. She got laid off in the spring, and he a few months later. Now, they had one unemployment check and a blended family of three children.
They ate at his mother’s house twice a week. They pawned jewelry. She scoured the food pantry. He scrounged for side jobs. Their frustration peaked one night over a can of pinto beans. Each blamed the other when that was all they had to eat. “People get irritable when they’re hungry,” Ms. Mangold said.
Mr. Mangold, no longer objects to using food stamps. “I always thought people on public assistance were lazy,” he said, “but it helps me know I can feed my kids. “
Stories like this often includes phrases like “Those we serve are now our neighbors, our former colleagues and hard working individuals struggling to make ends meet.
I wanted to SCREAM. Were not the people they served before our neighbors, our former colleagues and hard working individuals struggling to make ends meet? And “we’re hearing from more and more middle class people who have never in their life gone to a food pantry..they are very, very frustrated and angry.”
Who goes to food pantries for kicks ?
I thought about the hundreds of people I had seen at some of the ALIVE’s programs. On Halloween Day, that pretty unseasonably warm, Saturday morning, UUCA members Diana Day and Ann Marie Hay took the time to show me ALIVE’s child development center, food distribution and shelter as others prepared for monsters, ghouls & goblins.
The people I saw in the food distribution center did not appear angry. They were unusually quiet and respectful. Many of them looked like members on my own family tree – white, Native, Asian and Pacific Islander, African, Arab and Latino/a descent.
Perhaps the frustration and anger had passed out of them. Maybe there is a difference in people’s minds of climbing up a ladder than going down one. To me a rung on a ladder is a rung.
I thought of Polo’s two ways to escape suffering the inferno. The first is to accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it.
Many people do not know about the people ALIVE serves in Northern Virginia. We think need, struggle and hunger are in a distant land. Africa, New Orleans, the District of Columbia – but oh no, not here, not in our neighborhoods or in our religious communities or at UUCA.
We can live our lives so we no longer see what is happening in our world. We pretend that things are not happening all around us and we become a part of the inferno.
Most people when they think of an inferno think of Dante.
UU minister John Nichols noted that when Dante wrote:
“The Inferno” he was actually at the mid-point of his own life, struggling with disillusionment. He imagines that he was chased down into a vast h*** by wild beasts that threatened to tear him limb from limb. He passes beyond a sign reading, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,” and then he knows that he has reached the outer suburbs of Hell.
Descending into the Hellish pit he finds the trail winds downward like a canyon in the shape of a corkscrew. The farther one descends, the greater the sins of those one passes.
The fiery temperature in Dante’s Hell drops dramatically where it houses people with a diminished capacity for caring. At the lowest level are those who have killed in themselves all love for others. Their souls are encased in ice.”
Okay confession time – I’ve never read Dante’s Inferno. I was raised on another story about Hell, about a rich man going to Hell and a poor man to Heaven. The rich man is surprised to see the poor man in heaven by the side of Abraham. In his suffering, the rich man pleads to Abraham to send the poor man to give him water to quench his thirst. Abraham says that the chasm is too wide to be crossed.
Martin Luther King Jr and other preachers have interpreted this story to mean that the rich man did not go to hell because he was rich;, but because he allowed the poor man to become invisible to him. He passed this poor man every day and failed to help. The rich man was blind to the need of others. Even in Hell, he held on to his notion that he was better than the poor man and could ask that he serve him. It is interesting that the rich man wanted the people in heaven to care and help him, but he had failed to do this in his own life on earth for others.
Perhaps our souls are encased in ice or destined to hell because we are blind to the needs of others. We might be that way because we ourselves are barely holding on. In “The Working Poor: Invisible in America, David Shipler writes that ‘in the house of the poor the walls are thin and fragile and troubles seep into one another’. Perhaps those troubles seep into our own lives, too, because our lives are just as fragile.
That is why I say we are living in an inferno and even Hell some days. Each of us walks that tight rope of hanging on to make sense of our own world . Something in us says “just do for you and yours.” I want to tell you to resist this urge. The act of doing the exact opposite – reaching out to help others– is the balm that heals us and is the very essence of who we are as religious people and what will lead us into a moral recovery.
Polo says the other way to escape the suffering in the inferno is to “seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”
Polo does not say do things to make YOU endure and give YOU space – he says THEM. The act of caring for someone else is the message I would like to share with you this holiday season and do it to have faith in life like the old man in the reading.
Let us move from our past into our future building a better tomorrow for everyone.
Let us work together to create a world where we value people instead of things and we give the gift of ourselves to our one human family.
The song we just learned says “all of us are all united, we are family united and the other song asks what can I give..the answer is simple…give your heart.
So in this December season, make a list and check it twice of let’s say, three acts of kindness that you would not typically do for others. It can be our Unitarian Universalist holy trinity.. Do these acts with no expectation of a thank you or a need for acknowledgement from the other person or people because these are things you are giving YOURSELF to pull you out of the inferno of the living.