So, what is Liberal Religion?

What does it means to say that Unitarian Universalism is a liberal religion?

Liberal is a tricky word because it means different things in different contexts. So, let me share what it means in a religious context (with thanks to my Unitarian Universalist Theologies professor from seminary, The Rev. Dr. Paul Rasor).

Liberal religion has 4 characteristics. I’ll describe each of them. See which ones speak to you most. You might find it interesting to chat with others to see which ones speak most to them.

First, liberal religion adapts to culture. It believes that religious truth must be seen within a context and thus needs to be re-interpreted for each generation. This does not mean that the truth changes but rather our understanding of its implications are more fully developed. For example, as travel and communication connect the people of our planet, our understanding of what it means to be truly inclusive has broadened. More and more people are understood to be our neighbors in the command to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Liberal religion adapts.

A second feature of liberal religion is continuity. This is most easily described in the area of the relationship between humans and the divine. In orthodox or conservative religion, the divine tends to be something out there – fully spiritual – fully other.  Humans are on a separate material plane. It is very black and white. In liberal religion, the line between humans and the divine is much more gray. The divine, if it exists at all, may be seen manifest in much of the material world. It may be seen as residing in the human heart. It may be that the divine only takes action through human action. Rather than seeing a chasm between humans and the divine, liberal religion sees a continuity.

A third feature of liberal religion is autonomy. This manifests itself as questions of authority, an elevation of the individual, and more democratic institutions. In contrast with more conservative or orthodox traditions, liberal religion believes in the ability of each person to manage their spiritual quest – to have, if you will, a direct relationship with the divine unmediated by clergy or religious hierarchy. Liberal religion trusts the autonomy of the individual and democratic institutions.

A final characteristic of liberal religion is process. There is a willingness to incorporate new truths such as the knowledge we gain through scientific inquiry. Orthodox and conservative religions tend to see revelation as closed. They already have all the religious truth there will ever be. Liberal religion sees revelation as on-going. There is always more to know. Our religious understanding is an ever-unfolding process.

(From Evolutionary Spirituality, a sermon for Darwin’s Birthday.)

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3 Responses to So, what is Liberal Religion?

  1. Tracie Holladay says:

    Rev Kathy, I wonder if I might take a moment and play a wee bit of devil’s advocate. This will be fun and might make you laugh a bit.

    Regarding this: “…questions of authority, an elevation of the individual, and more democratic institutions. In contrast with more conservative or orthodox traditions, liberal religion believes in the ability of each person to manage their spiritual quest – to have, if you will, a direct relationship with the divine unmediated by clergy or religious hierarchy.”

    How would one then avoid developing a relationship with what I call a “Stepford God”? That is, a God that only does what one has designed it to do? If my God is one who obeys MY will, then who’s *really* in charge here?

    Just an amusing thought I had not too long ago. 🙂

    • revkathys says:

      It’s a good question. It exists even when there is a mediator involved. Who or what is really being served? No perfect answer. However, I like to think that one of the benefits of religious community is having others with whom we can test our ideas and who will challenge us to have a wider view than our own self-interest.

  2. Brian Schimpf says:

    Hi, Rev. Kathy, as usual in human communication an awful lot depends on how you define your terms, in this case your references to “orthodox and conservative religions.” But I’m moved to push back on a few of your statements as they strike me as kind of sweeping generalizations. For example, “Orthodox and conservative religions tend to see revelation as closed. They already have all the religious truth there will ever be.” Probably true in some cases but maybe not so true in others. Even your combination of terms “orthodox and conservative” may be a fair point to discuss. I consider myself fairly orthodox but I wouldn’t describe myself as theologically conservative.

    In any event, good discussion. Thanks for sharing it.

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