Rev. Scott W. Alexander
Pretty regularly (in my life as a Unitarian Universalist minister) someone comes up to me (usually during coffee hour or some other casual congregational venue) and says something like this: "You know what I really like about this church? Here everybody thinks just like I do, it's so refreshing to be surrounded by intelligent, like-minded, liberal people!" Most often, when such is said to me, I don't really have the time (or frankly sufficient motivation) to respond with much depth, care or precision. But this morning (when I have chosen to grapple with the rather complex topic of what it REALLY means to be a religious liberal) I must respond at some length, for something of profound spiritual importance is at stake here.
First, let me say that in every Unitarian Universalist congregation I have ever served (including, most certainly this one) IT IS SIMPLY NOT THE CASE THAT EVERYONE - QUOTE UNQUOTE -- "THINKS AND BELIEVES ALIKE." While it is true that every "values" survey of Unitarian Universalists ever done reveals that the people who affiliate with our congregations share (to a remarkable statistical degree) basic values for living, and while it is further true that many-if-not-most in our congregations tend to cluster around a basic social, political and economic "liberal" American outlook, IT IS NOT TRUE THAT THERE IS ANYTHING EVEN VAGUELY LIKE A BROAD INTELLECTUAL OR PHILOSOPHICAL OR MORAL CONSENSUS IN OUR CONGREGATIONS...and I would hasten to add for today's purposes a loud, "Nor should there be!"
Whether you are talking theological or philosophical outlook, political perspective, economic theory, or social outlook, despite the SURFACE appearance of "general consensus" around here, in fact no such thing actually exists! Here at River Road Unitarian Church (or at any of our more than 1,000 congregations across the United States and Canada for that matter) if you actually take the time to genuinely engage those around you in sincere inquiry and significant conversation (which is what liberal congregations are about when they are at their best) you will discover AN AMAZING DIVERSITY of thought, belief, opinion and perspective (that belies that outward appearance of our "liberal" conformity).
Perhaps the easiest (and probably least controversial) diversity to identify around here is our philosophical and theological diversity. Here -- sitting happily and peaceably next to each other on a Sunday morning - you will find people who self identify as humanists and theists, Buddhists and Christians, mystics and rationalists, agnostics and skeptics -- as well as scores of folks who have come to the open and spiritually eclectic place that is Unitarian Universalism from far-flung spiritual places like Presbyterianism, Judaism and Catholicism. Most of us are pretty comfortable with the thought that here we can (with equal respect, ease and interest) quote -- in the same service - the words of Jesus or the Dalai Lama or May Sarton.
But our diversity here goes much deeper and broader (and in some ways much more challenging) than our UU theological and spiritual rainbow, trust me! We are NOT of one political, social or moral mind around here, believe me! Despite the big red "No More Texans" buttons I have seen a few of you wearing on Sunday, you are sadly mistaken if you think everyone sitting in this room this morning is going to vote this November for Al Gore (or Ralph Nader). You would similarly be mistaken if you think everyone agrees with your personal social and moral conclusions about abortion, the death penalty, federal welfare or tax policy, peace in the Middle East or (something I'm going to talk about a little later in this sermon) Montgomery County's "Living Wage" campaign. No matter whether you are talking theological belief, economic theory, political perspective or social policy, there is deep and wide intellectual diversity in this congregation...perhaps much deeper and wider than some of you are even comfortable with (and more on that important problem in just a moment).
You know, it used to be the gays and lesbians who were "in the closet," hiding in Unitarian Universalist congregations because they feared rejection and ostracism. But since we have made such strides in our religious movement in truly welcoming people regardless of sexual and affectional orientation, I would suggest to you (with more than a little sadness and concern) that it is the social, theological, and economic "conservatives" around here (including the life-long Republicans) who are hiding and hesitant to speak up and share precisely what they think and believe, for fear they will be rejected or dismissed in this admittedly "liberal" environment.
Indeed, at the very hour I was writing these words, one of our most loyal and long-time members (who happens to be a life-long and proud - THANK YOU VERY MUCH -- Republican) wrote me an e-mail in which she complained (rightly I believe) about the many derogatory remarks about Republicans which she has repeatedly heard being made in public meetings here at RRUC (by individuals who seem to assume that everybody shares their fealty to the Democratic party). This member is not alone in her feelings of being "liberally dismissed and excluded," I assure you.
And this disconcerting (and I would add ultimately spiritually unacceptable) situation of liberal exclusion and ridicule leads me to the second (and absolutely crucial) part of my response to those who say, "What I like about this congregation is that here everyone thinks and believes the way I do." IF YOU THINK BEING A PART OF A LIBERAL RELIGIOUS CONGREGATION MEANS THAT HERE YOU ARE GOING TO MEET ONLY PEOPLE WHO CONFIRM AND MIRROR YOUR OPINIONS AND PERSPECTIVES, YOU HAVE MISSED THE WHOLE POINT ABOUT WHAT IT REALLY MEANS TO BE A RELGIOUS LIBERAL. More than being about the specific contents of your personal belief structure, being a religious liberal means that you approach the life of the mind, spirit and morality IN A CERTAIN, OPEN, TOLERANT WAY.
[I quote my colleague Peter Raible: "If you think you are coming to a church which projects only your own views, you will probably not be happy here. Sooner or later you will meet a Unitarian Universalist who grates against your own theological, political or social views. We hold that a UU church attracts variety and respects it. We believe that whatever may be the majority viewpoint at any given moment, the minority must be respected and kept engaged in dialogue. We hold, too, that the overwhelming majority must not be undercut and made ineffective by a minority. This is true tolerance: respect for difference, and yet allowing difference to provoke rather than to stifle action." ]
And what is the essence "liberal religious" way? I would suggest it has two essential and interconnected components. First, BEING A RELIGIOUS LIBERAL MEANS THAT YOU HAVE A BROAD AND CONSISTENT GENEROSITY OF SPIRIT (a generosity you freely express to all you meet). And second, BEING A RELIGIOUS LIBERAL MEANS THAT YOU LIVE YOUR RELIGIOUS LIFE WITH AN EAGER, OPEN, FLEXIBLE AND GENUINELY HUMBLE INTELLECTUAL METHODOLOGY. Let me take each of these essential components of liberalism in turn.
First, liberalism's generosity of spirit. My four-volume Encyclopedia of Philosophy rightly (I think) suggests that a liberal person (in the modern, American sense of that word) means that one not only affirms and values human liberty and egalitarian freedom whenever and wherever possible (which is the most classic, historic understanding of the word "liberal"), but also approaches all questions, persons and human dilemmas with a (quote) "bountiful, generous, and open-hearted" spirit. I believe that if you call yourself a "religious liberal," this means that you aspire to approach all life and persons with a big, kind, and embracing spirit -- trusting the basic goodness of persons, granting others the maximum responsible freedom to be who and what they are as they choose, and doing what you can to be generous and supportive of others, no matter how different from you they (or their ideas!) at first appear.
To make clear what I mean about generosity being a defining feature of liberalism, one only needs to look (unfortunately) at the behavior and beliefs of some (and I emphasize the word "some" for I am not into "global bashing" here) religious conservatives. One needs to only look at the pronouncements and actions of (dare I say?) a rather mean-spirited religious conservative like Jerry Falwell to understand religious liberalism by way of contrast. I don't think it unfair or pejorative to observe that Jerry Falwell and other extreme Christian fundamentalists are not naturally "generous" and "open-hearted" toward persons, perspectives, and ideas that are unlike their own. Religious conservatives (indeed fundamentalists of all sorts be they Christian, Islamic, Jewish or of some other spiritual stripe) are (based on their dogmatic, absolutist convictions) absolutely sure they are right - seeing all reality and truth with unquestionable clarity -- which enables and entitles them (they believe) to broadly dismiss, denigrate and deny the beliefs (even the very human being) of others. A religious liberal - on the other hand - is open and generous and kind and truly tolerant of diversity (whether it be in thought any other form of human expression). So generosity of spirit is the first mark of a religious liberal.
And the second mark of religious liberalism is a methodological one. Being a religious liberal is NOT (as I have already observed), at its essence, a matter of pledging allegiance to a set of particular "left wing" or "liberal" beliefs (be they political, social or economic), but rather a matter of remaining faithful always to a genuinely open EPISTEMOLOGICAL METHODOLOGY. Now...those of you who attend services or classes here regularly have heard me use this fancy philosophical phrase before, and I do so again briefly this morning because understanding the METHODOLOGICAL underpinning of religious liberalism is essential if you are to understand what it really means to be a Unitarian Universalist...what it really means to be a member of this liberal religious tradition and congregation.
As I have shared before, epistemology simply means the study of the theory (or method) of knowledge. Epistemology asks, "How do you know something is real or true or right...by what intellectual methods do you move toward your beliefs, ideas and convictions...what is your stance toward truth and doubt and certainty?" Religious liberalism in general (and this Unitarian Universalist congregation in particular) is built upon an open-ended, questioning, tolerant, diverse, and (above all else) non-dogmatic epistemology - a non-dogmatic way of doing "the spirit's business." Being a religious liberal (unlike being a religious fundamentalist) means that (deep to your spiritual and intellectual bones) you understand how complex and elusive truth and reality can be. It means that (even though you may have strong liberal convictions and principles) you hold your own religious, moral and social beliefs CAUTIOUSLY - hold your own convictions and ideas with a certain skepticism, suspicion, and tentativeness (even when you are passionately convinced of their "rightness." Being a genuine religious liberal further means (and I'm going to be blunt here, for this is really hard for some Unitarian Universalists and some members of this congregation) that you approach all questions and human concerns with a genuine willingness to seriously consider other, contradictory beliefs and perspectives - no matter how radically or dissonantly they clash with your long and dearly held personal views. Being a religious liberal (and this is really crucial!) means that you have enough genuine intellectual security in your own deeply held beliefs to step back from them long enough to really consider the views of others. Being a religious liberal means that no matter how passionately and surely you hold some of your beliefs and ideas (and no matter how committed you are to those beliefs and values in your daily living) that you always treat the beliefs and perspectives of others with real respect and genuine consideration.
This open intellectual methodology is a primary tenet of our faith. You will notice that the fourth guiding principle of Unitarian Universalism printed on the inside jacket of your order of service this morning is this all-important, open-ended epistemological one. It says that Unitarian Universalists agree not (as some religious traditions insist) to simply proclaim eternal truth and revealed meaning once and for all...but rather to be on a truly open journey - an unfolding, uncertain, non-dogmatic journey -- toward truth and meaning...to (as the statement puts it) "affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning." What this means is that here at River Road Unitarian Church we promise -- together in community (through endless open dialogue and in-depth conversation on the great religious, social and moral issues of our day) and individually (through personal reflection, study and contemplation) - to SEARCH for truth and meaning - to look openly, honestly, respectfully across the full landscape of human thought...without the comforting or categorical assurance that we will ever entirely get to that place where everthing which is "true, right and real" will ever be entirely made known to us. One hopes, of course, that in addition to searching for truth and meaning we will actually find some - find (through all our open questing and sincere searching) life-framing measures of practical truth and sustaining meaning that will help us to live day to day lives of thoughtful and compassionate dignity. But again the promise we make to one another as Unitarian Universalists is not necessarily to find (once and for all) truth, reality and meaning -- but only to honestly and earnestly search for it with others seeking the right religious way.
Now most of you who have been Unitarian Universalists for any time have heard such liberal methodological affirmations before...and many of you (I'm sure) are nodding inside your own liberal heads in agreement with most-if-not-all of what I have said. BUT NOT SO FAST, MY FRIENDS, FOR THERE IS A REAL, SUBSTANTIVE PROBLEM HERE. And that problem is - frankly -that "genuine intellectual openness, respect and consideration" for the ideas and perspectives of others is often almost as hard for liberals to practice as it is for conservatives. The "liberal way" I have described - genuine openness to ideas you disagree with...genuine intellectual security about your own ideas (which enables you to not be threatened when you encounter people who see the world - or a particular issue -- far differently than yourself) ...genuine respect for perspectives which deeply challenge your own most deeply held perspectives - sometimes comes as hard for Unitarian Universalists as it does Southern Baptists.
Look...let me just say this right out. Over the course of my 27 years in the UU ministry, I have met more than my share of Unitarian Universalist "fundamentalists"...I have met plenty of what I will (epistemologically at least) call "ILLIBERAL LIBERALS"...I have bumped up against plenty of intolerance and dogmatism in "liberal" individuals and congregations, and this is something we must unashamedly confront and change if we are to be true to our centuries-old liberal religious heritage.
Let me start with an example of ill-liberal liberalism that is fairly safe. Over the years of my ministry, I have met UU's who have declared it's fine for the minister to talk about anything from the pulpit (sex, drugs, pornography, death) anything except Jesus...or god...or prayer...or sin...or take your pick of any number of other "traditional" religious words. One colleague tells the story of being angrily confronted by a woman one Sunday after he preached at a neighboring congregation, who said, "Young man, we don't use that word in our church!" Fearing he had accidentally let some barnyard curse word slip from his lips, he asked what his offense had been. "God," she bellowed, "you mentioned God, we're a humanist congregation, we don't say the word God here!" So much for freedom of the pulpit! How, I ask, does any such intolerant and dogmatic liberal remonstration, differ from the spiritual and moral dogmatisms that occur in a fundamentalist Baptist congregation?
Alright...Let me bring all of this much closer to home. Look...I have been your minister now for something over two years...and in that time we have established a great deal of trust between us...so there is no good reason for us to shy away from real, tender issues and feelings in our congregational midst, even if naming them sometimes make some of us more than a bit uncomfortable. For more than a year now, the members of our congregation's highly committed Economic Justice Task Force have been passionately trying to persuade the congregation as a whole to put their moral and political weight behind Montgomery County's Living Wage Campaign (which seeks to establish a minimum living wage - something around $13.00 an hour -- for all County employees as well as employees of contractors doing business with the county). The Task Force has been going about its work with admirable passion and intellectual discipline (hosting several thoughtful forums and debates on this issue, and working hard to persuade as many as they can in the congregation to their economic and political thinking). I for one, as a leader of this congregation long committed to issues of social justice, am extremely grateful to them for raising the congregation's consciousness about this important, pending matter of public policy, and am pleased that the discussion and debate over the living wage proposal will continue next year, this kind of disciplined discussion is precisely what should regularly happen in a Unitarian Universalist congregation. But...as I communicated as directly as I could to several members of the Task Force a few weeks back (after I heard from half a dozen or so RRUC members who were feeling uncomfortable), I do believe there is a danger that THE TONE AND CONTENT of some of the lobbying on behalf of this measure could (if it hasn't already) become somewhat "liberally" dogmatic and (ultimately, again, possibly without intending to) disrespectful and dismissive of legitimate disagreements. At our annual meeting back in June (and at other venues where this issue has been openly discussed in the congregation), it has been my perception (and that of others) that several of the individuals who spoke up on behalf of the living wage proposal implied (again, perhaps without really meaning to) implied that it was obvious that every good, true, "morally aware" and "right thinking" Unitarian Universalist not only "should" but will support this particular method of alleviating poverty. But this is clearly not the case! Many thoughtful and caring people in this congregation (who abhor poverty and want to do what they can to end it just as much as the members of the Economic Justice Taskforce) remain unpersuaded about the wisdom, efficacy and rightness of this particular economic and social approach, and have respectfully (and coherently said so. But I don't believe the tone of the debate (so far here at RRUC) has created a "safe and neutral" (truly liberal) environment for everyone in the congregation to freely (and without fear of rejection) engage the issue honestly and openly...that is my perception.
Look...I cherish and honor the passion and conviction of the members of our Economic Justice Taskforce, but as they continue their efforts to persuade the congregation (a 75% vote is required if RRUC is to formally go on record as congregationally supporting this living wage approach) I believe they would be extremely wise (both strategically and spiritually) to avoid implying (by either tone or direct statement) that there is only "one liberally correct way" to see all this. Like almost all issues of American public policy, this one is complex, and the role of a truly liberal congregation is to eagerly and intelligently engage the issue, and see where that rigorous and respectful - and truly open -- process of liberal dialogue and genuine disagreement leads.
Now let me be very clear about one more thing here. My calling our congregation back to a truly liberal methodology of debate and engagement on the great issues of our day (whether it be the living wage, the death penalty or nuclear disarmament) -- my calling us back to a truly open and respectful epistemology where everyone holds their own convictions with a certain modesty and suspicion...and entertains the convictions of others with genuine consideration and respect -- does not mean I want the members of our Economic Justice Task Force (or any other social justice task force) to in any way mute or restrain their moral passion. There is a way to speak passionately and purposefully out of one's deeply held convictions, and still honor the generous (and yet intellectually tentative and sophisticated) spirit that is the truly liberal religious way! Being genuinely liberal (in both tone and spirit) as you dialogue and argue (even) with other's differing perspectives does not mean you need to become immobilized into inaction by doubt or sensitivity! There is a way to have your moral passions and a truly liberal spirit to boot - and I call us all back to that dynamic, liberal balance.
Well...the hour is almost up, and maybe this sermon has gotten a bit away from me. What started out as a rather straight-forward sermon about the positive qualities that make someone a true religious liberal, may have unintentionally drifted into being (at least partially) a more "shadowy" sermon about ill-liberal liberalism. I don't really want to scold or censure anyone this morning...so let me now, in closing, return to my true, affirmative intent.
We are Unitarian Universalists. We are part of a long and noble liberal religious heritage that has for centuries been guided not only by a generous spirit toward all human persons (however they think or come), but an intellectually open and respectful epistemological methodology that has always kept us supple and respectful and modest before all ideas and perspectives. As a modern religious people, we promise one another in our principles to always engage in the "free and responsible search for truth and meaning," which requires us to hold our own perspectives and passions with a certain delicacy and thoughtfulness of spirit. As we move into the new millennium -- mindful of how very intellectually pernicious are the many dogmatisms and restrictions on human thought that abound in our culture - may we recommit ourselves (each of us) to be truly open and eager religious liberals, unafraid and undaunted (whenever and wherever we find it) by both controversy and conversation, complexity and contradiction, dialogue and disagreement. Let us always dive deep and respectful with one another into issues and ideas. Let us always cherish our doubts, critically examine our own convictions...and listen to others...truly, listen to others...deep to our liberal hearts.