Opening Words: Morning Poem, by Mary Oliver
Every morning the world is created.
Under the orange sticks of the sun
the heaped ashes of the night turn into leaves again
and fasten themselves to the high branches–and ponds appear like black
cloth on which are painted islands of summer lilies.
If it is in your nature to be happy you will swim away along the soft
trails for hours, your imagination alighting
And if your spirit carries within it the thorn that is heavier than
lead–if it’s all you can do to keep on trudging–there is still somewhere
deep within you a beast shouting that the earth is exactly what it
Each pond with its blazing lilies is
a prayer heard and answered
lavishly, every morning
Whether or not you have ever dared to be happy,
Whether or not you have ever dared to pray.
Sermon: Liberal Religion-Now, More Than Ever
“Ultimately, America’s answer to the intolerant man is diversity, the very diversity which our heritage of religious freedom has inspired.” Robert Kennedy (1925-68).
Diversity is the key to religious liberalism. We Unitarian Universalists carry the banner passed down to us from the ages. Thomas Jefferson predicted that Unitarianism would become the religion of America, and in a strange sort of way, it has.
America is the most religiously diverse nation in the world-the most religiously diverse nation that has ever existed. We are not only religiously diverse, but religiously active.
There are some who would have our nation become a theocracy, where the laws are seen as divine commands. This is what Jefferson, Adams and the other founders feared, and which they so wisely prevented.
Thomas Aquinas, 1225 – 1274; one of Christianity’s most important theologians, said, “Man may in the observance of any religion whatever find the way of salvation and arrive at eternal salvation.”
Aquinas was canonized by Pope John XXII in 1323 and proclaimed a Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius V in 1567. In 1867 Pope Pius IX condemned Aquinas’s assertion that ‘eternal salvation can be found through the observance of any religion.’ Shortly thereafter (1870) the controversial doctrine of Papal Infallibility was established.
As Universalists, and religious liberals, we embrace Aquinas’s assertion, putting our own spin on the idea of salvation. James Freeman Clark, one of our 19th century forebears, composed an affirmation which was used by many Unitarians up to the time of merger in 1961.
We believe in the Fatherhood of God,
The brotherhood of Man,
The leadership of Jesus,
Salvation by character,
And the progress of Mankind
Onward and upward forever.
Salvation, in this affirmation, is the result of living a good, moral life. It has to do with ethics, virtue, commitment; it has to do with the way you live your life, which is your religion, whether you find support in a particular religious community or not.
The life of J. Clifford Baxter, one of the Enron executives who was engaged in the moral struggle, as well as the effort to accumulate an enormous fortune, ended in tragedy this week when he killed himself in his Mercedes Benz, a symbol of that which led to his demise.
His character, as part of the Enron corruption, was tragically flawed. Yet, his moral conscience was active- so active, in fact, that he lost the interior battle.
Remember the way Emerson put it in the Divinity School Address:
The intuition of the moral sentiment is an insight of the perfection of the laws of the soul. These laws execute themselves. Thus in the soul of man (sic) there is a justice whose retributions are instant and entire. He who does a good deed is instantly ennobled. He who does a mean deed is by the action itself contracted. He who puts off impurity, thereby puts on purity. If a man is at heart just, then in so far is he God; the safety of God, the immortality of God, the majesty of God do enter into that man with justice. If a man dissemble, deceive, he deceives himself and goes out of acquaintance with is own being.
In 1980 I was invited to offer a lecture to a class at a Christian Bible College, giving my personal view of the Bible.
Because I was president of the local clergy association at the time, I got the call from the teacher. I tried to explain that there was no official Unitarian Universalist view of the Bible. He brushed my attempt to explain aside. It was clear that he did not know much, if anything, about Unitarian Universalism- that he simply located us as part of Liberal Protestantism, so anyone would do. I should have known better.
I went to the Fundamentalist Bible College with some trepidation. Looking back on the experience twenty years later, I wonder if I had it in my head that I might convert them! Maybe Sandburg’s poem Prayers of Steel was rattling around in my brain. The opening passage of the Sandburg poem says:
Lay me on an anvil, O God.
Beat me and hammer me into a crowbar.
Let me pry loose old walls,
Let me lift and loosen old foundations.
Leaving the question of my motives aside for the moment, I’ll simply say that I was determined that they would not be bored, and that they would have no doubt about the seriousness of my convictions- about the Bible, religion and life in general.
Twenty two years ago there were no personal computers and I did not write out a manuscript for this lecture- I spoke from note cards which are filed away somewhere. So I have to go by memory, and truth be told I remember very little of the content of that lecture. It doesn’t matter. I remember the experience very vividly, and it illustrates the forces opposed to liberal religion.
The teacher introduced me as the president of the local interfaith clergy association- which Christian fundamentalists stay away from since an interfaith clergy association is, by its very nature, characterized by diversity. He told the class that we would have a question and answer period following the talk and suggested they write out the questions that come to them during the talk.
I prefaced my comments that night by locating myself on the religious spectrum, attempting a bit of humor as well as an attempt to take them off guard, by telling the class that I was ‘as far over to the left as you can get without falling off.’
This comment seemed to please the teacher- not that he smiled at my failed attempt to lighten the atmosphere with a touch of humor. No one cracked a smile. It simply reinforced what the teacher no doubt had told the class–that everyone who was not a born again Christian was to their left, as in ‘left out.’
I knew, of course, that they did not locate themselves on the religious spectrum. They were simply right and everyone else was simply wrong. Period.
After that brief-but-uncomfortable introduction, I spent the next hour explaining my view of the Bible. Using Genesis as the natural starting line I ran through my favorite books, my favorite stories–coming to an abrupt halt at the finish line–the book of Revelation.
The operative word for the book of Revelation is allegory, a device used in story telling or poetry requiring interpretation.
For religious fundamentalists the big bad Bible word is interpretation. Their operative word is inerrancy- the belief that every word of the Bible was dictated by God and is to be taken as literally true.
The central theme of my lecture that night was, of course, mythology. Quoting Emerson I said, “The Bible is a book written by men for men,” which I degenderized, to demonstrate my liberalism.
Taking what I thought was a rather positive approach, I talked about the deep wisdom in all the marvelous mythology that is the warp and woof of the Bible. I said that I believed the stories were written as poetry is written…metaphoric, symbolic. I told them that I simply could not fathom the idea that the stories were meant to be taken literally, and I used examples of Adam and Eve and the serpent, and Noah’s ark, the Red Sea parting and so forth.
I did not apologize. I did not pull punches. I made an effort to be respectful of the various ways in which the Bible stories are interpreted, but they had invited me and my task was to tell them what I thought, what I believed.
When I finished my lecture the teacher skipped the Question and Answer period. He had been holding a lot in for that arduous hour and instead of going into the Q & A he launched into a fervent prayer.
He prefaced his prayer by saying, and I’m quoting verbatim: “Mr. Hall said that he is as far over to the left as you can get without falling off. Well I think he has fallen off.” I laughed. I was the only one to laugh. Then he said, with some urgency, “Let us pray.”
He launched into a fire and brimstone prayer, more sermon than prayer, really. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that he said that the flames of hell were burning around them that night, that the devil had been revealed and was in their midst; they had become, he prayed, unwitting victims of blasphemy, and their tender minds must be cleansed of its corruption.
He was like the first fire fighter on the scene of a great conflagration, frantically hosing down everything I had said, putting out every spark he was afraid I might have ignited in the minds of his vulnerable Bible students.
I realized how nave I had been as I sat through the dosing like Peck’s bad boy bent over the barrel for a good whipping.
Of course this Bible teacher realized how nave he had been, too. Now he understood what I had tried to tell him on the phone when he invited me to speak about my view of the Bible.
I don’t remember how he ended the class that night. I think he announced a reading assignment. He dismissed his somber students and I made my way to the getaway car without a single person saying a word to me, shunned like a leper of old.
As I drove away I vowed never to allow myself to be put in such a situation again. As I reflect on this powerful experience twenty two years later, I wonder about my own motives that night. Did I think I could ‘convert’ them? Hmm…
OUR LIBERAL RELIGIOUS HERITAGE
In his journal, dated September 19, 1837, Emerson wrote:
On the 29 of August, I received a letter from the Salem Lyceum signed by I. F. Worcester, requesting me to lecture before the institution next winter and adding ‘The subject is of course discretionary with yourself provided no allusions are made to religious controversy, or other exciting topics upon which the public mind is honestly divided.’ I replied on the same day to Mr. W. by quoting those words and adding, ‘I am really sorry that any person in Salem should think me capable of accepting an invitation so encumbered.
Liberal religion is opposed to every tyranny of the mind. It’s about freedom. We owe a great debt to our forebears-not only the Unitarians and Universalists here and in Europe, but the long tradition of free inquiry.
We owe a particular debt to Jefferson, Adams, and the likes of William Ellery Channing, Emerson, Theodore Parker, Olympia Brown who broke the gender barrier and became the first woman ordained by a denomination in America.and many others who plowed the fields of liberal and liberating religion.
Remember how William Ellery Channing said it: “I call that mind free which jealously guards its intellectual rights.which does not content itself with a passive or hereditary faith.which opens itself to new light whencesover it may come. I call that mind free which protects itself against the usurpations of society, and which does not cower to human opinion.”
Liberal religion embraces science-the pursuit of knowledge. (Liberal religion should not be confused with liberal politics; indeed, the so-called conservative in politics in America embraces most of the values of the liberal in religion!)
Emerson said, “The religion that is afraid of science dishonours God and commits suicide. It acknowledges that it is not equal to the whole truth, that it legislates, tyrannizes over a village of God’s empire but is not the immutable universal law. Every influx of atheism, of skepticism is thus made useful as a mercury pill assaulting and removing a diseased religion and making way for truth.”
The mercury pill was, I assume, a laxative. We all need an occasional ‘influx of atheism, of skepticism,’ to purge ourselves of the corrupt idea that we can know enough about God to impose our ideas on others. On the other hand, we Unitarian Universalists might do with an influx of belief now and then. Mary Oliver asks, ‘have you ever dared to pray?’
Liberal religion is not a particular doctrine or set of ideas. It is a golden thread woven through all the religions of the world; it’s about human curiosity, the desire to know more, to understand. There are liberal Christians, liberal Jews, liberal Muslims.
As a liberal Christian Emerson said that religion is an intuition-it cannot be received at second hand. In similar metaphors one of the most esteemed Muslim teachers in Egypt recently said: “Islam is an instinct in everybody. Every child is born Muslim because he has the belief in one God. He doesn’t need language to express this belief because it is in his heart.” Isn’t his use of the word instinct the same as Emerson’s intuition?
When asked to locate God, this Muslim cleric explained, “God is nearer to you than anything, nearer to you than the veins in your neck, because God is so deep inside you.”
He said that the journey to Mecca, which is one of the requirements of every Muslim who is able, is not as important as the interior journey to the heart. He said that alms giving, which is another requirement for every Muslim, is only a coin in the hand, but a Muslim is required to give the gift of the spirit.
When asked about Jihad, or holy war, he said that the most important battle is not fought with armies but it is the internal and endless battle with the forces within oneself.
These are all poetic expressions: instinctual knowledge of God; God as an indwelling presence; the holy war as an internal, life-long battle or struggle, charity as a gift of the spirit as well as the coin, and so forth. Poetry. All religion is poetry. All of it. It is corrupted by literalism.
We don’t have to look very far to hear the dangerous literalism preached by fanatic Muslims- that everyone who is not a practicing Muslim is an infidel and enemy of Islam. Fanatical Christians say the same thing.
The Christian version of this view says that everyone who has not accepted Jesus as the Christ as Lord and Savior will burn in hell for all eternity. The Jewish version of this fanaticism says that the Jews are God’s chosen people. Buddhists and Hindus have their brand of fanaticism.
So this is the point: In our age of technology–this age of mass destruction–liberal religion is needed now more than ever.
The long, sad history of religion on this planet is well-known. It has left millions battered, bruised and beaten into submission. Everyone knows that more evil has been committed in the name of religion and its tribal gods than all other forms of evil combined.
The teacher at that Bible college was wrong about one thing: I did not fall off. I jumped! I leaped as far from his brand of religion as I could. I ran for my spiritual life. But I have not given up on religion as an essential human activity, both the spiritual-internal activity, and the communal activity, the shared experiences, the shared journey, the shared work of becoming a person and helping to make this a better world.
That kind of effort is needed now more than ever. The future of Life on this planet depends on it.
One of the best poetic expressions of liberal religion I know is Donald Babcock’s wonderful little piece about the duck:
Now we’re ready to look at something pretty special.
It’s a duck, riding the ocean a hundred feet beyond the surf.
No it isn’t a gull. A gull always has a raucous touch about him.
This is some sort of duck, and he cuddles in the swells.
He isn’t cold, and he is thinking things over.
There is a big heaving in the Atlantic, and he is a part of it.
He looks a bit like a mandarin, or the Lord Buddha meditating under the Bo tree.
But he has hardly enough above the eyes to be a philosopher.
He has poise, however, which is what philosophers must have.
He can rest while the Atlantic heaves, because he rests in the Atlantic.
Probably he doesn’t know how large the ocean is. And neither do you.
But he realizes it. And what does he do, I ask you? He sits down in it!
He reposes in the immediate as if it were infinity – which it is.
He has made himself a part of the boundless by easing himself into just where it touches him.
I like the little duck. He doesn’t know much, but he’s got religion.