Each of us sees the world through a unique set of eyes – our own. The way we view the world is influenced by many things, including the family in which we were raised, the language we speak with its various nuances, religious teaching, our circle of friends, and so forth.
I see the world through a liberal religious lens. For me, it’s all about metaphor, symbolism and mythology; I see religion in its literal definition – as the ways we re-connect after we’re born and continue to re-connect until our last breath: we re-connect with other people after being un-connected from our birth mother; we re-connect with an ever-changing, aging, failing self; and we re-connect with Nature, or God if you prefer.
I want to talk about the way these liberal religious eyes look at the world in general and at the Christmas holidays, specifically. While I was putting paragraphs together, an essay was emailed to me – I was told it was written by an Australian Dentist in response to an advertisement in a newspaper in Pakistan offering a reward for anyone who would kill and American, any American.
I went to a fact check website and discovered that it was actually written by Peter Ferrara, a law professor at George Mason University. It was written shortly after 9/11. Ferrara says, in part:
“An American is English, or French, or Italian, Irish, German, Spanish, Polish, Russian or Greek. An American may also be Canadian, Mexican, African, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Australian, Iranian, Asian, or Arab, or Pakistani or Afghan.
An American may also be a Comanche, Cherokee, Osage, Blackfoot, Navaho, Apache, Seminole or one of the many other tribes known as Native Americans.
An American is Christian, or he could be Jewish, or Buddhist, or Muslim. In fact, there are more Muslims in America than there are in Afghanistan. The only difference is that in America they are free to worship as each of them chooses.
An American is also free to believe in no religion. For that he will answer only to God, not to the government, or to armed thugs claiming to speak for the government and for God.
An American lives in the most prosperous land in the history of the world. The root of that prosperity can be found in the Declaration of Independence, which recognizes the God given right of each person to the pursuit of happiness.
An American is generous. Americans have helped out just about every other nation in the world in their time of need, never asking a thing in return.
The national symbol of America, The Statue of Liberty, welcomes your tired and your poor, the wretched refuse of your teeming shores, the homeless, tempest tossed. These in fact are the people who built America.
Some of them were working in the Twin Towers the morning of September 11, 2001 earning a better life for their families. It’s been told that the World Trade Center victims were from at least 30 different countries, cultures, and first languages, including those that aided and abetted the terrorists.
So you can try to kill an American if you must. Hitler did. So did General Tojo, and Stalin, and Mao Tse-Tung, and other blood-thirsty tyrants in the world. But, in doing so you would just be killing yourself, because Americans are not a particular people from a particular place. They are the embodiment of the human spirit of freedom. Everyone who holds to that spirit, everywhere, is (in some sense) an American.”
While we Unitarian Universalists have no monopoly on the liberal approach to religion, it is a religious way that parallels the founding principles of our country – freedom is the keystone in the arch that bridges the centuries from the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, Pearl Harbor (whose anniversary is today) and the election of Barack Obama. You connect the dots.
Someone sent a quote about the dots from Rosa Parks to Martin Luther King to Barack Obama to our children and grandchildren.
“Rosa sat, so Martin could walk. Martin walked, so Obama could run. Obama ran so our children can fly.”
Unitarian Universalists aren’t the only religious liberals. There are religious liberals in most of the Christian denominations, and most of the Jewish denominations; there are religious liberals among the Muslims all over the world; there are religiously liberal Hindus and Buddhists, and so on.
So what is a religious liberal?
A religious liberal is someone who holds on to the value of what we call the religious or spiritual aspect of life; but who believes that his or her group does not have a monopoly on the truth; one who is open to new insights and is willing to listen to ideas that are different from his own. Freedom is the key word.
Some religious liberals choose not to use the word liberal, but prefer a different adjective, like the word ‘progessive.’
Last month I attended a weekend conference in Minneapolis with people who call themselves Progressive Christians. I was chosen to be one of the mentors to a group of fifteen young people in seminary or new to ministry that they referred to as emerging leaders in the Progressive Christian movement.
In preparation for our weekend together we were asked to read a book: What Does a Progressive Christian Believe? A Guide for the Searching, the Open, and the Curious, by Delwin Brown. (Now there are three good adjectives that describe a religious liberal: searching, open and curious.)
Let me share a few passages from Del’s book – he writes:
“Something new is afoot in Christianity. It is a thoughtful, vital faith offering hope for the Church and the world. Most commonly it is referred to as ‘progressive Christianity.’
He says, “…love is the fundamental character of God. Everything else that is said about God must be compatible with saying that God is love. This means that God is intimately connected to the world…”
“God is experienced as mystery.”
“God is (also) experienced as a presence, an immediacy that is intrinsically valuable, valuable simply for its being-with-us. A gripping experience of nature – a sunset over the mountains, a view of earth from outer space, frost on fallen autumn leaves – is not ‘merely’ an experience of nature; it is also an experience of the God incarnate in nature.”
“For Progressive Christians, who we are to be as human beings and what we are to do are inextricably connected. It would be wrong to claim that there is a single Christian viewpoint on these issues, but there certainly is a ‘family’ of related viewpoints with common themes. As one might expect, the themes are most effectively communicated in the myths, stories, and symbols repeated throughout the biblical tradition and the history of the Church…”
“The basic point here is about ‘creative responsibility’ as the defining mark of being human. We are not called to conform to an already established plan; we are the creatures who are called to name the things God has created. Or, as the rabbis taught, our task is to assist in continuing the creation, as co-creators with God.” (This reminded me of Henry Nelson Wieman’s definition of God as ‘creative interchange.’)
And here is an important, essential point from Delwin Brown: “Progressive Christians join their liberal Christian friends in rejecting the agenda of the religious right as a poisonous departure from any credible interpretation of the gospel. (It is) a repressive political ideology disguised in Christian trappings.”
Although I was honored and a bit flattered to be invited into this circle of mentors, including a couple of college presidents and faculty from Yale, I had some hesitation about accepting the invitation. I spoke with the convener and told him I wasn’t sure I fit anywhere along the spectrum of Progressive Christians and he said, “That’s precisely why we want you!”
My contributions to the weekend were warmly received – I talked about a paper I had written some years ago that I called ‘the uses of poetry in ministry,’ and, of course, I inserted poems here and there as appropriate, corresponding to their passages from Scripture.
I also talked about our liberal forebears, who they call progressive, from the 19th century – the Transcendentalists, connecting the dots from those men and women to the men and women at this Minneapolis conference to which this Unitarian minister was invited.
I was pleasantly surprised at their response, but even more surprised by my own response to them, and to the experience itself. It helped me to get back in touch with my Christian roots that are deep in the soil and the soul. I experienced a kind of reconciliation I didn’t know I needed. Does that make sense?
There’s a lot in Christianity that still works for me; I’ve always thought I simply needed to translate the language; but with this group of Progressive Christians I realized that we are the ones who are doing what Del Brown was referring to when he said, “Something new is afoot in Christianity. It is a thoughtful, vital faith offering hope for the…world.”
Progressive religion is alive and well, not only in the Christian community, but there are progressive Jews and Muslims; there are progressive religionists in all faith traditions, including the work of poets, musicians and artists who help us to celebrate the human spirit in all kinds of creative ways. (Exit 43’s album, Home at Last is an inspiring example.)
The religions, at their best, help to pave the road and give direction to self-understanding, and self-acceptance. Life is, in the final analysis, the journey toward this self, or Self with a capital S, getting beyond the ego self.
The story of the miraculous birth of a savior in a stable, after a long, difficult journey, is a perfect metaphor. We all arrived in the same way – we share the same beginning and face the same, certain end. Between the humble start and the final breath we are engaged in a sacred process of discovering the deeper, more universal meanings of life.
Recently I stood at the bedside of a woman who was at the end of her 90th year and the end of her life. She said, “Do you know that I’m dying?” “Yes, I do,” I responded. I had been told that she was not expected to live for more than another day or two.
Then she said, “I don’t know how to do it, this dying thing.” I responded, “Did you know how to come in?” She smiled and said, “No, I didn’t, so I guess I don’t have to know how to do the dying, I just have to let nature take its course.”
Then there was a long and potent silence; a sacred silence.
We all came in like that baby in the manger, and we move from manger to an engagement with life, co-creators with God, if you will, facing the roads that diverge and choosing one, knowing, especially in retrospect, that the choice ‘made all the difference.’
So it was with the life of Jesus, the life of a baby who grew up and discussed things in the Temple at age 12, distancing himself from family, digging into the deeper meanings of the stories collected in the Torah.
The story of Jesus – which is meant to represent the story of every person – jumps from the manger to the Temple without a mention of the first 12 years of his life, then takes another jump to his being baptized by John in the Jordan River, then gathering a group of friends with whom he goes on tour for a few short years, standing on a hilltop delivering his one sermon, over and over again – the summary of which is ‘be good to one another.’
The story of this man is meant to suggest two things: first, that each of us is unique; special. But we are more than that, more than a single, separate, unique individual. Hermann Hesse expressed it beautifully in his prologue to Demian: “In each individual the spirit has become flesh, in each man the creation suffers, within each one a redeemer is nailed to the cross.”
God, then, is in the prepositions – beyond, among, within, beneath: beyond what we can know, among us when we are in right relationship, within us when we are feeling connected to another person or with Nature, and beneath the surface of our separate existence, connecting us to the Eternal.
As we move through this advent season – this season of waiting, this season of hope – may we allow ourselves to be searching, open and curious…you never know what new insights you’ll discover when you allow yourself that kind of freedom.
A Brave and Startling Truth, Maya Angelou
When we come to it
We, this people, on this minuscule … globe
Who reach daily for the bomb, the blade and the dagger
Yet who petition in the dark for tokens of peace …
We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness …
That the haughty neck is happy to bow
And the proud back is glad to bend
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines
When we come to it …
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear
When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.