I am an optimist. As the curtain rises on the 21st century the Earth and her current dominant species, humankind, seems to be thriving. Across the globe, standards of living continue to increase, personal freedom grows, knowledge advances and interconnectness matures. The American system of limited democratic republicanism and modestly regulated free market economics is in ascendancy, and, having put to flight 20th century theologies and ideologies of both the right and the left, stands paramount. American culture is proving to be, as Winston Churchill said of democracy, the worst possible, except for all the rest. From where I stand, as a religious liberal and a first generation immigrant to America, everywhere else looks downhill.
Wait a minute! What about suicide bombers, AIDS, the burka, slavery, pollution, drug addiction, global warming and war in Afghanistan (and Kashmir, and Iraq, and the Middle East and…)? How can this be, as I allege, a time of promise and plenty and, at the same time, it is an era disfigured by drought, disease, despair and the shadow of 9/11?
It is such, since I am an optimist. I stand in the disconnect between what is for some and what might be for all and reflect on who we are as Americans and what we do and have done so well that we are the envy and the hope of the world. Over the middle of my life, as I matured as a religious liberal, drawing on Unitarian, Universalist, Quaker and other historical and religious traditions, I have come to appreciate the promise of American particularity.
Harold Bloom, a self-styled religious critic, notes that America has emerged into a post-Christian era, while remaining deeply religious, perhaps the most religious of any modern nation state. He notes that there are now common elements in all American religious practice, whether imported or home grown, which collectively he terms “the American religion.”
“The American finds God in herself or himself, but only after finding the freedom to know God by experiencing a total inward solitude….Salvation, for the American, cannot come through the community or congregation, but is a one-on-one act of confrontation.”
This American religion, this insistence on
finding God, or the Sacred or the Holy, within, by oneself and without
benefit of intermediation by priest, minister or rabbi, once the differentiating
characteristic of the Religious Society of Friends, now permeates all
religious activity in America. Paul Conklin, while viewing the narrower
religious spectrum of American Christian practice, classifies churches
into six groups of “Originals” or varieties, distinguished
by common practices and beliefs. But of the six varieties, he remarks,
As I read Bloom and Conklin and others, I see a strong, clear stream stretching back through Unitarian and Universalist traditions to Ballou, Parker, Emerson, Channing, Murray and Paine, with branches and tributaries encompassing many other individual and original American free thinkers. Thus I feel safe in saying that modern UUism, though claiming less than 1/4 of a million gathered adherents, is the dominant American religion; since the common features of American religions recognized by Bloom are definitive of contemporary UU beliefs.
And thus, I am an optimist. I believe that within the UU movement and among those others who share our fundamental values lies the hope of the future, both for us as Americans and for those hungry to eat at our table and to share in our spiritual and physical successes.
But…as I look at UUism today, as embodied in the Unitarian Universalist Association and the Unitarian Universalist Ministerial Association and allied organizations, I am troubled. Emerson denigrated the Unitarianism of his time as “corpse-cold.” I would be gentler but equally as critical: while we have a strong tradition of religious liberalism, we lack many of the elements I think essential to a healthy religious community of communities.
Modern UUism has proven able to afflict the comfortable through both social witness and action but has little comfort for the afflicted. Within our communities, our diversity of individual religious history and spiritual experience hinders the emergence of a non-creedal gospel of hope. In our outward relationships, we have tended to side with the more radical of political and social movements, producing discomfort for some of our fellow believers who, while liberally religious, may be economic and political conservatives. Furthermore, we are gradually abandoning our heritage of participatory, bottom-up democracy, for central organization, layered administration and top down direction in the name of efficiency and a perhaps misplaced desire to foster institutional growth.
With this background and these concerns in mind, let me turn to the two major threads which run through this work: belief and practice
I use the word “belief” in William James’ meaning of ideas in motion, rather than “faith,” to recognize the deep, primarily rational, roots of contemporary UU religious practice. In addressing not just credo, what it is possible to believe but also ksero, what it is possible to know, I propose to deal with a question which should be central to matters of belief: What is it possible and reasonable (rational) for a modern UU to believe?
I do not propose to lay out a unifying creed nor even to suggest that each should adopt a personal creedal statement. Rather, I outline here appropriate UU views, which might even be tenable as majoritarian ones, on matters which must be resolved by belief, since they are either subject to factual, that is, scientific, investigation or which are so complex and unresolved that intermediate positions need to be taken while awaiting further data. I suggest that, if we fully understand the meaning and implications of the seven UUA covenantal principles, we can, without becoming rigidly bound to dogma, evolve a beneficial world view.
The translation of that world view into action; of figuring out, in light of our individual beliefs and principles and our shared values, how to lead a good enough life, one which can draw to a close with few if any regrets, is a much more dubious undertaking. One of the continuing and repeated observations I have made over three decades of dealing with students, individually and collectively, is their general inability to conform day to day choices and actions with their principles and long range goals. There is a human tendency to set matters of values and morals, whether based upon religious faith in the traditional sense or evolved from a humanistic regard for others, aside into a special realm. The fact is, the reality of the world is such that, with very few exceptions, important choices present themselves without fanfare and it is easy to miss them, until they are seen in retrospect.
What is needed for each of us is a well developed, mature and considered moral intuition, so that it becomes a simple reflex to do the “right thing,” in light of our own evolved beliefs and principles. This, in turn, requires a continuing process of reflection and analysis of life and the world in which it is lived, such that the heat of the moment or the fire of emotions will be less likely to produce mindless or thoughtless, thus wrong, choices and actions. We all have a moral intuition; what is needful is that it be awakened, tutored and nurtured.
I cannot possibly deal with all of the events and opportunities of human life, even of my own, here. What I can do, by way of illustration, is to discuss some of the challenges I have faced and my mostly principled responses to them. Perhaps these examples may serve as guides to you in your own process of reflection and resolution.
I am an optimist, but one of the continuing criticisms of UU belief and practice is that, in Dorothy Parker’s phrase, there is no there there. That is, that we pursue a confused philosophical process; that we can believe whatever we wish and thus, that we are not a religion. I believe very strongly that while this may appear to be so, it is possible to synthesize from our principles, values and bases, a satisfying, consistent faith practice; one which speaks to the needs of both credo and praxis and can be recognized as within the mainstream of contemporary American religious thought and practice. My belief has its roots both in my own observations and in the implications of the covenantal principles that we are far more similar that our external diversity suggests and thus, can, as members of the great family of humankind, be expected to arrive at similar or identical answers to the great questions of life. However, only you can complete this great work, for yourself and you should be patient, as the issues are large and time is short.
In this light, let us begin our journey together. Do not look here for answers but for questions, approaches and suggestions; for good traveling companions, in your search for truth and meaning. And, as I am an optimist, I believe you will find them here.