Still Liberal After All These Years

This sermon was preached by Dan Harper at First Parish in Lexington, Massachusetts. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2000 Daniel Harper.

If you came this morning expecting a political sermon, a sermon extolling the virtues of liberal politics, I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed. Nor am I going to preach on religious education, which is a departure for me — as the religious educator here at First Parish, when I do preach, I tend to preach about religious education — well, maybe I’ll mention religious education in passing.

But no, this morning I am going to speak on religious liberalism. Religious liberalism — a form of religion that sometimes I feel is in decline in this world of ours. We Unitarian Universalists appear to be holding firm — but the liberal Christians are declining in numbers and influence; the liberal Jews, while still strong in the United States, appear embattled in Israel; the liberal Muslims don’t seem to stand a chance against the likes of the Taliban and other fundamentalists.

Unitarian Universalist minister Dana McLean Greeley once wrote, “Liberalism in religion seeks to know the truth from whencesoever truth may come.” It does seem to me that the world is slowly turning away from liberal religion towards fundamentalism, turning away from truth and towards empty creeds and rules. Which makes me want to say — Turn back, o world, forswear your fundamentalist ways! Listen, o world, to our liberal message: Rules and laws and doctrines have been created to serve humanity, but humanity shall not be slaves to rules, nor to laws, nor to doctrines!

So we heard in the reading from the Christian scriptures earlier this morning. One fine sabbath day, Jesus and his disciples headed to the synagogue. Now remember, the sabbath in those days was not like our sabbath today. Today, maybe you go to worship services, or maybe not, and if you do, you would feel no qualms about going home afterwards and painting the house, or maybe even popping into the office to get a little work done. Not so in the days of this story. There were laws upon laws upon laws about what you could and could not do on the sabbath day. You weren’t, for example, allowed to harvest any grain.

So what do Jesus and his disciples do on their way to temple? They harvest grain! How dare they do something so clearly prohibited on the sabbath day? So what if they were hungry, and in need. It’s against the rules!

But as Jesus points out, it’s never quite that simple. The sabbath exists for a reason, and that reason is to provide a day of rest for humankind, to the end that men and women and children may thrive and prosper and give glory to God. If you are hungry, you are not thriving and prospering — if you are starving, it’s far less likely that you’re going to give glory to God. Jesus sums it all up in one beautifully turned sentence: “The sabbath was made for man’s sake — not man for the sabbath’s sake.”

The sabbath was made for humanity’s sake — we were not made for the sabbath’s sake.

I’m sure we could have a long argument with our fundamentalist brothers and sisters about whether Jesus was a religious liberal. I’m inclined to believe that he was, and that Paul was the fundamentalist, but for now I’ll let it pass. What is clear to me, though, is that in this moment, the moment of this story, Jesus was a religious liberal. He is a liberal when he says: rules, and doctrines, and laws exist to serve humankind; we should never make the mistake of forcing humankind to serve the laws, rules, and doctrines.

The old Universalists fully understood this basic principle. Let the doctrines serve the people, not the other way around! Two hundred years ago, the Universalists here in North America were working to better organize themselves. They felt that a common profession of faith was essential to their unity, and for their continued growth as a denomination. In 1803, they came to agreement on a profession of faith which came to be known as the Winchester profession. It was notable for its brevity and poetry, and it read like this:

We believe that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament contain a revelation of the character of God, and of the duty, interest, and final destination of mankind.
We believe that there is one God, whose nature is love, revealed in one Lord Jesus Christ, by one Holy Spirit of Grace, who will finally restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and happiness.
We believe that holiness and true happiness are inseperably connected, and that believers ought to be careful to maintain order and practise good works; for these things are good and profitable unto men.

I don’t suppose there are many in this room this morning who could wholeheartedly agree with the Winchester Profession. In our liberalism, we have moved on. But the liberal bias of the Winchester Profession is clear: the Bible contains a revelation, not the revelation; God’s nature is love rather than law; all humanity will ultimately be saved, even if you break the rules.

But the real liberalism of the Winchester Profession came in the so-called “liberty clause” appended to it:

Yet while we adopt a general profession of belief…we leave it to the several churches and societies…within the limits of our General Association, to continue or adopt within themselves, such more articles of faith…as may appear to them best.

Even with this escape clause, historian Russell Miller tells us that “the adoption of any statement of faith went against the grain of … Universalists.” Being good liberals, they did not want to be bound to a limited, human, surely flawed, profession of faith. They wanted to be bound to know the truth, “from whencesoever that truth may come.” So they uncovered the treasure of religious liberalism, and made it new, and left it to us for a legacy.

We still hold that legacy of religious liberalism in trust today. In 1984 and 1985, at the General Assembly of our Unitarian Universalist Association, representatives from Unitarian Universalist congregations across North America came together and voted to adopt a profession of faith now knows as the Principles and Purpose. The Principles and Purposes are known neither for their brevity, nor for their poetry, so I won’t test your patience by reading to you the entire document. But allow me to read first third of the document:

We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote:
The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations;
Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
A free and responsible search fro truth and meaning;
The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
Notice that it is the congregations that have come together to affirm and promote these principles. Nowhere does it say that the congregations must adopt, or abide by, these principles and purpose. And more to the point, nowhere does it say anything about individual members of congregations.

This document does not tell you what to believe, nor does it tell me what to believe — we are left to the discipline of our own consciences and our own insights, and the discipline of our own local congregation. Our Principles and Purposes were made to serve you and me, not the other way around. So it is that we maintain the liberal tradition of the liberty clause.

And personally, I don’t want to be bound too closely by those seven principles outlined in our Principles and Purposes. I find them selfish, too focussed on narrow individual needs. The Principles and Purposes invite us towards personal growth, and make vague, mealy-mouthed statements about how the world needs democracy, and we should “respect the interdependent web of existence.” Nowhere is there the kind of strong statement we heard in the Winchester Profession, that we ought to maintain order and practise good works. In the Principles and Purposes, we never really ask each other to do anything.

Can you tell that I don’t like them much? Well, they were written in the 1980’s, and I guess they are a product of that greedy and selfish decade. But that I can stand here and voice my objections to the Principles and Purposes of our Unitarian Universalist Association, and not risk excommunication, and not risk losing my job here — that says a great deal about liberal religion. I do not have to serve at the dictates of the Principles and Purposes; instead, the Principles and Purposes must serve us, and if at some time we decide they no longer do serve us, then like the Winchester Profession, we will let them lapse.

And I have to admit, our Principles and Purposes have been serving us pretty well — my earlier objections notwithstanding. As a religious educator, I find them particularly useful in my work with children and teenagers. Children need to know who we are, they need something firm to hang on to. They need to be able to say, “I go to the Unitarian Universalist church, and that means I believe that each and every person is important.” Children need limits — they are not ready to know truth from whencesoever it may come — they need us to point out for them a direction where we see truth.

And the Principles and Purposes are good for youth, too. As they mature intellectually, teenagers can begin to criticize the Prinicples and Purposes. We adults might remind them that the Principles and Purposes aren’t the word of God, nor a revelation handed down to people in the dim past; they’re just the work of another committee that did the best it could at the time. The Principles and Purposes are open to discussion, and to ammendment — they have already been ammended once, in 1995. We can tell our young people that someday perhaps they will be serving on a committee to draft a new profession of faith for Unitarian Universalist congregations. I suppose that’s one of my fantasies as a religious educator — that one of the young people I worked with here at First Parish goes on to comepletely rewrite our Principles and Purposes, making them brief, poetic, and not so selfish. So it is that I try to pass on the legacy of liberalism, proclaimed by sages and prophets, uncovered again and again by our religious forebears, and held in trust by us today.

Here we are, still liberal after all these years. It amazes me how we have held onto our liberalism down through the years. The temptation is strong to give in to the sense of security offered by firm doctrines and creeds. Sometimes we do lapse. In 1870, the Universalists voted to remove the “liberty clause” from the Winchester Profession. But it was formally reinstated in 1899, and in practice it had never really lapsed since individual Universalists always maintained their right to know the truth from whencesoever it may come.

So may it continue to be for us. May we always hold our religious liberalism in trust, for future generations to enjoy. May we challenge fundamentalism, firmly but with compassion, wherever it may arise in the world. May we resist the temptation to give in to the tyranny of creeds and dogma. May we hold on to our liberalism.