Unitarian Universalists are liberated people. We are not, by any means, the
only liberated people. Every denomination and ideology probably has some
liberated people. When we say of a friend or colleague, she is a Unitarian
Universalist in spirit, we are often saying so because we see them and they see
themselves, as a liberated person, even though they may have no religious
affiliation or know anything about Unitarian Universalism. We recognize that
there are individuals of every faith who live lives of liberation, and we value
them highly as friends, colleagues, or admirable human models, even though they
may believe doctrines and even have practices with which we disagree.
What is liberation? It implies both freedom and dedication to justice. It
suggests a reverence for empirical truth combined with a commitment to
democratic process plus a living faith based upon love and compassion.
This sermon and my ministry are focused upon the belief that many people
would benefit from our liberated religion, and my equally strong belief that
human beings cannot become nor remain liberated by themselves. They need a
covenanting, living community of soul mates.
For many people, Henry David Thoreau, the transcendentalist philosopher who
lived for two years by Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, is a good example
of a liberated person. He was a rugged individualist, striving for independence,
proud of his non-conformity, working hard to live compatibly with the laws of
nature, the principles of reason, and the human practices of mutual respect and
non-violence. Probably millions of human beings have found reading WALDEN a
religious experience and an important part of their own liberation from outworn
inherited ideas and inadequate practices. But, it is important to remember that
Thoreau did not live in a vacuum. Emerson owned the land where Thoreau built his
cabin. Emersonís wife welcomed Thoreau into their nearby home whenever he felt
like a fuller meal, and Emerson was his mentor and patron. Their was a Unitarian
network for Thoreau, that he, perhaps too often, took for granted, and that
community made Thoreauís life at Walden Pond possible.
It is vital to remember, in the words of Maya Angelouís poem, that we are
members of a human family, that we are more alike, my friends, than we are
unalike. We tend to be very sensitive to own individualities and to our
contributions to others, but it is all-too-easy to forget how we became who we
are: the people that taught us, cared for us, supported us in the past, the
people, communities, and institutions still who make our freedom possible and
who provide us the foundations on which we build our liberation. We are each
unique, but we are not alone, nor are we self-sufficient. Human beings become
individuals through communities and the objects of individuality are neither
self-sufficiency nor selfishness but the building of culture and the nurture of
other people, and of future generations.
As I said in my interpretation of Psalm 122, our denomination celebrates the
good news that Creation welcomes all of us and embraces each of us with the
grace of life. This happens through our chosen communities, where our
inheritances and our visions, our livesí experiments and our wisdom, are
synthesized into judgments and experiences that work, that rest in each otherís
arms. This is the life satisfaction that every person seeks; the peace that each
Liberated people deserve religion, too. The unchurched and even those who are
opposed to "organized religion" could benefit from knowing and
participating in our practical and realistic religion for liberated people. We
do not pretend to have the right answers for everyone. We do not believe that
our way is the only way to be saved. In fact, salvation, in the traditional
sense, is not even a goal of our shared faith.
We come from many different backgrounds. Most of us have grown up in
traditional Christian religious heritages; many of us have been active members
of more orthodox churches; some of us have been participants in other world
faiths, but an increasing number of us have also grown up without congregational
experience. We are part of the increasing proportion of human beings who simply
are not members of any congregation.
My own life was such a case. My parents saw themselves as overworked
Protestants as children and had rejected it as adults. We practiced no
organized, institutionalized religion as a family during my youth. In fact, my
father deprecated churches; he called them 'the houses of the hypocrites.' As an
adolescent, I often ended up in church as a musician, first in an Episcopal
Sunday school and later as pianist or organist for a variety of churches in my
little Kansas town. However, I never felt moved to join. In fact, I was the high
school spokesman for the righteously and unrepentantly unchurched, and I was
severely critical of organized religion.
Thus, there are ironies in my chosen task in this sermon because I am the
minister of a church explaining why many of the unchurched could benefit by
finding a religious home here. I am not trying to convert people who are happy
with their present faith, nor am I trying to interest people who are satisfied
with their spiritual isolation.
The first irony is that the standard Unitarian Universalist
"conversion" is the opposite of what religious conversion usually
means. You do not join here because you are struck by lightning from on high or
convinced this is necessary to your salvation or that it is the only true way to
God. We do not believe in such extravagances. We have come to our personal,
individual faiths through an intellectual quest, a spiritual rebellion, the
sometimes difficult experiences of our lives. We have come to our faiths for
ourselves and then discovered that this place, this congregation, this religious
movement, and this denomination reflect, support, and enrich who we are and what
Unitarian Universalists have had so much to do with freeing people from
outworn dogmas and have been so correctly aware of the dangers of
institutionalization that there is also a second and institutional irony here.
From the earliest days of our movement, we have been torn between the
inspirations that religion is correctly an individual, personal matter, and the
recognition that any faith remains hollow without active participation and
membership in a congregation. On the one hand, we recognize that each person is
unique and that we must experience religion for ourselves, live out our unique
and special lives for ourselves and not be completely dependent on deeds of
others, doctrines, or scriptures. On the other hand, we have also been aware
from the beginning that religion or any life philosophy soon becomes a hollow
piety, an egocentric obsession, and a selfish hiding place if we keep ourselves
outside of a community of people, outside a congregation that would challenge
us, nurture us, test us, and celebrate with us. These two insights Ė that that
religion must be individual and personal to be real and that religion must
become part of a community and must be shared to remain real Ė run like
strands through our denominational history and through our personal histories.
They sometimes seem contradictory. They often leave us confused and divided.
The apparent contradictions of these two insights are compounded by the facts
of modern life. Modern history has been identified as a process of
secularization. As people have gained more understanding of themselves and of
the world around them, they have had less use for magic and mystery, rituals and
taboos. Through the centuries, religion has been used to fill the gaps in our
knowledge and sense of power with sacred answers and powerful deities. The
scientific knowledge and technological power of modern life has secularized
human beings. They are not sure that they need religion any more.
Most modern people do not practice religion with any regularity. A majority
of Europeans and Americans no longer go to a synagogue, church, or temple with
any frequency. They have no genuine religious home. Many of them may continue to
identify themselves as Catholics, Protestants, or Jews, but they see little need
to have genuine institutional connections with their identified faith. Millions
of others have completely lost their sense of inherited religious identity or
have never had such an identity. Some of them actively make fun of the minority
of Americans who continue to "waste their time in these hypocritical houses
of God which are only interested in all their extra time and money." The
unchurched and nonbelievers consider themselves lucky to be free of the
constraints, demands, and obligations of organized religion.
Is Organized Religion Undesirable?
How can I dare stand against this seemingly overwhelming tide of modern life?
Perhaps organized religion is a vestige of an outworn past, a collection of
self-serving religious professionals and self-perpetuating spiritual
bureaucracies frightened that their rituals and rules, holy scriptures, and
Father gods are no longer needed? In some ways, I believe this to be
true. I think and hope that an ever-diminishing proportion of humanity will be
caught in dogmatic and outworn religions that neither reflect the facts of life
nor the highest and best ethics and values that human beings can live by.
It is better for human beings to concentrate their lives and their thoughts
upon this life and this world. Religious liberals are all, in this sense,
humanists. We also find inspiration in the natural world. We find much guidance
in the growing body of knowledge and the human process for discovering that
knowledge called science. This makes us philosophical naturalists. We all share
this belief in nature and science. I am also an existentialist. I think that we
must and do create our own meaning. Human values are not written in the sky;
they must be discovered in the human spirit and lived in our daily lives.
Human culture is amazing and wonderful, but it is fragile. Humans need always
to continue to create culture, to test it, and to build upon its enduring
values. We cannot take human culture for granted. Progress is anything but
inevitable. That has been a pre-eminent tragic lesson of the 20th
century. Most other religious liberals also share this existentialist
perspective. We are also pluralists and, on some points, agnostics. We believe
that there is more than one right answer to many of the important questions of
life, and we recognize that some of the eternal questions may never be
completely or even satisfactorily answered. So, at one and the same time, we
reject much of what religion has been and much of what ethnic tribalism and
dogmatic, orthodox, salvationist religion still are, and yet we also have
discovered a human tradition and an institutional context of central value and
meaning to us. We have a religious home, and we choose, as liberated people, to
be active members of a congregation.
I have no doubt that people can seem to "do" their religion alone.
Some of our most important inspirations, discoveries, and struggles are done in
isolation. Most of the famous religious leaders came to their faiths in storied
moments of isolation: Moses went away into the desert, Buddha went into the
forests, Lao Tze went to the west of China, and Jesus went into the wilderness.
We must, at times, step back, retreat, and be alone in order to find
ourselves and to discover the essence of the world for ourselves. However,
modern life has turned this necessary freedom, this essential process of
liberation, into a graven image, and a false idol.
For most of human history, the question was survival. As Hobbes said, life
was characteristically "nasty, poor, brutish and short." For us lucky
moderns, this is no longer a typical life. We do not spend all our time just
surviving. Yet, we continue to live with a survival mentality. More and more
excesses become "necessary minimums" for a good life. We have become
so obsessed with getting free that some people are now confusing any discipline,
responsibility, or commitment as opposed to freedom and liberation.
By getting stuck in some fantasy quest for perfect freedom or becoming
obsessed with the myth of self-sufficiency, human beings continue to make their
primary virtues into their pre-eminent vices. For centuries, the traditional
religious virtues were often turned into such vices and this is still happening
today. Many of our contemporaries have made liberation and freedom into false
idols, and they have forgotten, or perhaps never learned, that the really
liberated person uses her/his freedom for personal discipline, social
responsibility, and interpersonal commitment.
The Necessity of a Congregation
We, who wish to be genuinely free and to remain truly liberated, need a
religious congregation and a spiritual movement or denomination that reflects
what we have found to be wise and good and to put into practice what we are
seeking for in our lives. This community is needed to help us feel less isolated
in our freedom. We need a spiritual home. Yet it must be a home with walls that
reach to every horizon. When we are feeling strong, able, and successful, this
community can be here to help us to celebrate, to share our insights, wisdom,
and experience; it needs to also challenge us and afflict us a little when we
get too comfortable. When we are feeling weak, alone, recognizing our
limitations, our own finitude, and our failures, we need to find love and
support here and to be able to reach out and find a warm hand, a listening ear,
and a sympathetic spirit. We need the nurturing of others who face life honestly
as both tragedy and miracle, as both mystery and humanistic creation.
In the majority of our days, those that are neither brimming with success
and happiness nor overwhelmed by sadness and tragedy, our congregation helps us
cope with the frustrations and limitations of regular existence and to find joy
and peace in the work and loves of our lives. It helps us grow when we feel
dull, listless, or stifled; and it helps us savor when we get too busy to enjoy,
too caught up to be creative, or too controlled to breathe.
Why would people who are nonreligious or who have given up on organized
religion join us? I think they might do so because we are a community which
faces up to the realities of life and the limitations of traditional religions.
We are a group of responsible humanists, if you will, yet we intentionally
choose to be both liberated and religious. We are wise enough to know that
individuals need to be institutionalists in order to make their own
individualism genuine and in order to grow, test and temper their individual
excesses, obsessions, and inertia with companions of their choosing.
Why not, you say, just do these things in your vocation, with your family,
and/or with your carefully chosen friends?
Vocations, even at their best (and many of us are most fortunate in our
careers), are rather narrowly focused on profits, finishing a project, teaching
one subject, or resolving a particular conflict. There is not much time for
other concerns at our work, noble and satisfying as some of our jobs are. In the
instances when they are neither noble nor satisfying, the need for other
contexts becomes all the greater. We need a place for a vocational overview and
for a perspective larger than any job.
Our families are a wonderful center for many of us. They are irreplaceable,
but they are our family, their love is partly duty, and family life inevitably
becomes a great game of habit and horse trading. As Maya Angelou said so well:
lovers may think quite different thoughts while lying side by side. We need
other people who do not need us so much, who are not so dependent, who
are not so much in our debt and we in theirs. We need a spiritual family, a
family of choice and conviction, with new members to learn to understand, to
love, and to cherish. Unfortunately, modern life Ė with its geographic moves,
its personal changes, and its shifting allegiances has been hard on friendship.
This congregation can be a place to widen and deepen our friendships. It can be
a place to share ourselves with long-time friends who still understand the ways
we are now and to discover in new friends what we yet choose to become.
We share a faith of liberation which combines a belief in freedom and a
dedication to human justice, a reverence for empirical truth, democratic
process, and the mutual practice of love and compassion. We each know people we
care about who would benefit from our liberated religion, and we need to share
our good news with them. Like us, they need and deserve a covenanting, living
congregation of soul mates. A congregation is necessary because human liberation
cannot be created nor maintained in isolation. It must be shared. We need one
another for the bad times, the good times, and the everyday times. We need this
congregation to help us recognize what we have, to help us see the road ahead,
and to help us savor the realities of our daily lives.