To be liberal means being generous, open minded, innovative, and kind. It is the force of the new, the progressive. It is inclusive and visionary, seeking freedom and progress for the whole of society. It does not war against conservative forces, but uses them to stabilize a system while innovating within it. Conservative and liberal are dynamics of nature — structure, experimentation, and new birth.
It is a sign of how regressive an era we live in that the word liberal is used as an insult. Of course, we don’t know exactly what definition is at play. For some, it means excessive governmental size, taxation, and spending, typically on some kind-hearted program designed to care for some class of people, usually the poor and disenfranchised. Liberals are also resented for allowing a wide array of behaviors, a libertine fest of indulgence.
This anti-liberal stance, so common from our political leadership, so hawked by numerous talk radio hucksters, is part of a cultural reaction to the diverse demands of modernity. It isn’t new. Fear and hate often overwhelm progress and kindness. Puritans passed laws against Christmas, dancing, and smiling. Fascists and Nazis targeted free-thinking intellectuals and artists as well as races. Rarely are the murdered liberals mourned; we tend to remember only the Jews as victims. The fear and anger at liberals is an old tendency.
But, would society do well to adopt an illiberal attitude and stance? As with the word humanism, I wonder what the alternative is – inhumanism? Is the alternate to liberal the authoritarian bully? Would we do better to never care for the many or venture a new idea? Let’s unpack the word a bit and remember some vignettes from our religious history in order to remind ourselves of our way.
Liberal means kind, generous, and permissive. If these translate into small or large governmental programs, so be it. Liberals tend to see government as “us taking care of ourselves.” But this is disdained and dismissed by those who see government as an alien force against the people (and who then go on to prove it).
Liberal means open-minded, kind-hearted, and busy-handed. We like to think for ourselves. We tend to care for not just “I and mine,” not just “each other,” but others in general. Our circle of concern is wide, not narrow. We tend to be a hands-on group, giving our care to people and life in practical and effective ways. This is lovely, but it can be lonely. We need to remember our deeper, wider context.
If you’ve ever felt a bit alien in our culture, out of place in a time of increasing sternness, be ye not alone, for there are many with you. We just don’t have the national political or religious leadership to stand up and proudly celebrate our past, present and future.
It has often been so. Yet, when someone knows in their heart and mind a new idea is being born through them, when someone knows the truth needs a witness and a servant, when someone knows that kindness saves both the hurting and self at once, then liberals arise. “Liberal” applies to any who are innovative, kind, and generous; in our Unitarian Universalist tradition, these values are religious ideals.
Our own Unitarian and Universalist traditions came into being from many sources, all connected by the liberality of brave founders supported by small groups.
In Transylvania, the young king John Sigismund was converted to a liberal stance by his court physician, Francis David. For a short while, the first edict of religious toleration in Europe held competing religions in equal freedom and protection. Instead of rulers declaring what religion their entire land would be, four received religions were allowed – Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist, and Unitarian. It was the congregations themselves who made the choice; thus, it was an early form of democracy.
However, when the young king fell sick and died, it all ended. Francis David was thrown in jail, where he eventually died. The budding of democracy would have to wait hundreds of years while religious wars over imposed dogmas held sway. Rational thought and science also fell prey to the prayers – the religiously adamant. No fact or theory could violate the religious myths, dogmas, and practices.
The original Unitarians fought for scriptural fidelity. Uncle and nephew Laelius and Faustus Sozzini (later Latinized to Socinus) both saw no justification for the Catholic-imposed doctrine of the trinity in the Bible. In Tuscany, Florence, Zurich, and Poland in the sixteenth century they wrote and spoke against that dogma, citing scripture as part of their authority. Though the scriptures didn’t contain the Trinity, they each had to flee for their lives from the Inquisition.
In England, John Biddle objected to the trinity again, especially in calling the Holy Spirit a person of equal status as Jesus and God. In 1645 he wrote “Twelve Arguments Against the Deity of the Holy Spirit.” This led to numerous fines and imprisonments. Though he cited also the early Christian theologians Ironaeus, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Origen (who had also agued against the trinity) his captors jailed him. He died in 1662 at the age of forty seven.
Our own flaming chalice as a symbol of our faith used to mean the light of knowledge and the warmth of community. More recently, the story of John Hus substitutes. Hus was not a Unitarian, but a liberal priest who turned the mass around to include the people, even going so far as to serve them communion. Catholics take that for granted today, forgetting Hus was burned to death for such liberality, his revered chalice torn from his hands as he died.
I resist seeing our chalice as symbolic of that story. It becomes a mini version of the larger context of Christianity being based on a martyr story. Martyr stories entail a victim and a victimizer. Unjust executions abound. I’d rather we climb out of feeling of pride over victimization — to joy over success. I prefer the American way of creative pluralism in culture, where differences are allowed and sacrifices are lessened. For our primary symbol’s meaning, I prefer the light of knowledge and the warmth of community.
In America, we were once known as “Liberal Christians.” But “liberal” wasn’t a slam and a slur at the time, so the accusation of being a “Unitarian” was hurled instead, then accepted. In the Boston area in the new America, founder William Ellery Channing accepted the supposed insult that his Liberal Christianity was Unitarian (meaning Socinian). However, it wasn’t so much the nature of Jesus that was important for him, as it was the way we read the Bible. He favored a rational reading that brought the reader into thoughtful relation with the texts. Revelation is revealed, engaged, not static and imposed.
Also in America, the Universalist side of our religion was largely founded on the preachings and writings of John Murray and Hosea Ballou. These men also found scriptural rationale for their theology, citing numerous chapter and verses to dismantle the pernicious belief in hell. Hell, like the trinity, isn’t scriptural. These concepts evolved in the imagination of the clergy and their tradition. Dramatic and pictorial, allowing for both sadism and piety, the cruel hell fantasy scared people for eons. It took some daring and persistence to deflate and dismiss it.
Universalists Murray, Ballou, and others successfully changed our collective views of not just hell, but God. God changed in our views from the mean inscrutable man who creates hell and has his own son killed — to a lover of all, much as His son exemplified. It isn’t being stern, judgmental, and punitive that is divine; it is being kind, forgiving, and healing that is divine.
Unitarians increasingly chose the way of the open mind. Universalists increasingly chose the way of the open heart. Both incarnated their theologies with the way of the active hand. Many of the enlightened or kind policies and stances of our country were assisted by the educated Unitarian merchants and professors of the cities or the Universalist teachers and farmers of the countryside.
Lovely though these European and American cultural pioneers were, they were also often lonely. It takes strength of character to stand up to adamant, entrenched beliefs backed by the rule of law. People’s assumptions don’t change easily. Reactions abound. Anger arises. Thought narrows. Punishment looms. Yet, something deep in the human soul knows the unfolding promise of freedom and fulfillment. A few see the larger future of the initially despised idea.
So, they were lonely perhaps, but not alone. Founders need followers for their faith to flower and seed. Socinus, David, Biddle, Channing, Ballou – all these religious pioneers had the strength of even a few who agreed. They had congregations. Ideas are social. We need community to nourish and further them.
Take for example the so-called Counter Culture of the late 60s and early 70s. Colorful, gender-bold, consciousness-eager, politically rebellious – the hippies, blacks, and environmentalists found brothers and sisters who shared their values and passions. Strangers had things in common, from their garments to their goodness. It was lovely for Americans to object to war, to love the land, to affirm their sexuality, to explore their inner beings. But it became lonely too. We somehow slipped from “Make love, not war,” to making war, not love.
Yet, forty years later, trans-generational identity helps affirm that we are not alone. My favorite band, Pink Floyd, is still favored by the young. The liberal tendencies to “live and let live” flourishes in the style, beliefs, and behaviors of four generations and it wraps our globe.
Yet, even this is not isolated in history. The whole affirming of self realization in our larger culture can easily be connected to one of our own, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson didn’t ignore the collective reality. Rather, he saw it as flourishing as people dared to stand up in themselves. “Speak your latent conviction,” he said, “and it shall be the universal sense.” Envy is ignorance and imitation is suicide. “This one fact the world hates,” he wrote in Self Reliance, “that the soul becomes.”
It seems familiar and favorable to us now, and it shook a common chord in those of his day, but the sad historical fact for us was that it had to come on Wednesday night, not Sunday morning. After his notorious Divinity School Address at Harvard in 1831 almost all Unitarian pulpits were closed to the scandalous thinker. His theology was lovely, but lonely too, ahead of its time. He openly complained about supernatural miracles. He regretted the “noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus.” He advised the seminarians to dare to be themselves. This embarrassed orthodox thought, even Unitarian.
He said “Obey thyself,” as if the self is an agent of the divine. This must have sounded radical in a culture steeped in the assumption that we are wretchedly fallen. “Now [humans are] ashamed of [themselves],” he wrote, “and scarcely in a thousand years does any [one] dare to be wise and good, and so draw after him the tears and blessings of [her] kind.” He advised the young seminarians cast behind themselves all conformity and find the divinity they could share within, assuring them they “shall be followed with their love as by an angel.”
Emerson lived up to himself. He left a legacy that inspires and guides for any who open to his bold ideas. His contribution to our religion and country is blessed. It takes some daring for a liberal to buck the prevailing trends of the day and do what has to be done anyway. We can claim a Ralph Waldo Emerson or an Elizabeth Cady Stanton as “ours,” we can tell the story of Socinus or Biddle, but we don’t live up to ourselves by idolizing them. As Emerson himself said, “He dares not say ‘I think,’ ‘I am,’ but quotes some saint or sage.” He went on, “God will not have His will be made manifest by cowards.” What if a whole society were based on each and all living up to themselves as a unique incarnation of all effort and hope growing through Creation?
We’re always going to live in some level of pressure to revert to old ideas or submit to authoritarian pressures. People won’t accept new ideas or a more inclusive heart right away. But if you know what you think, if you’re sure what you feel, if you sense what to do is just plain right or needed – by all means, go ahead and live up to it. In matters little and grand, live up to your self.
You don’t have to be a theological founder or some famous person of letters. I think of our dear departed Isobel Holt and how fiery, smart, tactfully outspoken she was. I think also of the supportive community she lived in and helped create. Hers was not a tale of martyred defeat, but of shining satisfaction. The chalice we use as a symbol isn’t as dear as the living chalice she fashioned. She glowed with the light of intelligence and she dwelled in the warmth of community.
So let your light shine by being the unique incarnation of all Creation that you really are, but don’t stop there. Don’t be alone and ineffectual. Remember the value of a supportive culture. Know the support of community. Realize the value of a congregation to not just those in it, but to our larger community and culture. Help provide this for each other and for those individuals and groups beyond our circle who likewise do the daring but dear thing.
From the tone of your voice to the tending of your checkbook, know that the liberal life, while sometimes lonely, can also be oh, so lovely.
Reverend Brad Carrier
For the Umpqua Unitarian Universalists
October 16, 2005
“Every spirit builds itself a house, and beyond its house a world, and beyond its world a heaven… Build therefore your own world.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson