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Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson

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World Religions: A Liberal Perspective

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Randall Springer UUCT Sept. 3, 2017

Reading: Gordon Allport

Note: When this was written (in 1950), “religious” had a broader meaning than it does today; it encompassed everything “spiritual” as well as “religious.”

The subjective religious attitude of every individual is unlike that of any other individual. The roots of religion are so numerous, the weight of their influence in individual lives so varied, and the forms of rational interpretation so endless, that uniformity is impossible. Only in respect to certain basic biological functions do humans closely resemble one another. And since no department of personality is subject to more complex development than the religious sentiment, it is precisely in this area that we must expect to find the ultimate divergences.

This conclusion will be uncongenial to many. It will offend some scientists who will ask, “How can we possibly classify phenomena that are unique, and does not all science of necessity proceed by classification?” It will be unpalatable likewise to those theologians and church who deceive themselves by thinking their followers are safely and entirely within some particular ecclesiastical fold. Yet this conclusion will ultimately benefit both the sciences and theology if these disciplines will but flex themselves to accommodate the one disturbing truth that there are as many varieties of religious experience as there are religiously inclined mortals upon the earth.

Sermon:

Last winter Rev. Lyn asked me to teach a class in Comparative Religions. I declined the offer, in part because I believe I can reach more people in less time by giving a sermon summarizing my views on a topic. Thus the inspiration for today’s sermon.

A class or book on World Religions is usually organized in this way. There are three groups of major religions; all of them originated in Asia. From western Asia, three faiths trace their history back to the God of Abraham: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In south central Asia, the cycles of birth and death are central to Hinduism and Buddhism. In eastern Asia, the aligning of one’s moral path, or Tao, to be in balance with the nature of the universe is prominent in Confucianism and Taoism.

A separate chapter, or class unit, is devoted to each of these religions. Mention will be made of subdivisions within each religion. For example, within Judaism, there are Orthodox, Conservative and Reformed; within Christianity there are Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant; within Islam, Shi’ite and Sunni; and within Buddhism, Theravada, Mahayana, and Zen.

And you can continue to smaller branches: Within Protestant Christianity, there are: Lutheran, Anglican/Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, and so on. In the Dali Lama’s history of Tibet, he discusses sects of Buddhism I had not heard of.

If this organization is viewed pictorially, it looks like an upside down tree. The trunk of the tree is religion; the offshoots from the trunk are the three areas of Asia; large branches are specific religions, such as Judaism or Buddhism.  Smaller branches would represent, for example, specific Protestant denominations or Buddhist sects.

Note, however, that no matter how small the branches get, they are all derived from, and belong to, the same source. All the branches of a given faith, both large and small, share much of same history, scripture, ritual, terminology, and holy days. Certain core beliefs and values separate them from other faiths.

This framework works very well in many ways. It is clear and precise. It is well organized. And it appeals to several different types of people.

One: to those who wish to study a religion scientifically, this organization creates a workable frame of reference. Two: to those who belong to a particular religion, it presents a unifying thread that runs throughout. Three: to those who vocally oppose that religion, it defines what they are against. Sometimes they even call themselves “unbelievers.” These three groups of people—scholars, adherents, and critics—all typically use this framework.

TRADITIONAL MODEL UNDERSTATES SIMILARITIES

So—if this framework is useful and popular, what is wrong with it? I believe it has two problems. The first, and less important, is that it sometimes understates the similarities that exist across religious lines.

In college I took a class in Indian and Chinese Philosophy and Religion at an evangelical Christian college. When the professor introduced us to the Buddhist concept of karma, he intentionally surprised us by saying that he believed in karma. He explained. “When I’m with my Christian friends, I don’t say ‘I believe in karma.’ I quote the Bible verse that says ‘whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” In other words, if we compare religions looking for similarities rather than differences, we may find more than we expected.

The Christian writer C. S. Lewis, like my college professor, affirmed a number of traditional Christian doctrines. But he also believed that there are several common moral themes that run through leading religions and philosophies. Attacking the notion of ethical relativity, he wrote: “If a [person] were to read the Babylonian Hymn to Samos, the [Hindu] Laws of Manu, the [Buddhist] Book of the Dead, the Analects [of Confucius, and the Greek philosophers, they] will find the same triumphantly monotonous denunciations of oppression, murder, treachery and falsehood, the same injunctions of kindness to the aged, the young, and the weak, of almsgiving and impartiality and honesty.” Elaborating on this statement at length,] Lewis wrote a book in which he documented specific examples of these ethical themes—for example, variations on the Golden Rule--from leading religions and philosophies around the world.

TRADITIONAL MODEL UNDERSTATES DIFFERENCES

A more important criticism of the traditional model is that within each religion the differences are greatly understated. When I was young I was taught that “Christians agree on fundamentals, while allowing for differences in secondary matters.” And I remember the exact moment that I started to see that this is simply not true. In a college class in American history we were studying the years that led up to the Civil War. The textbook contained a quotation from a minister in a southern state that passionately defended the institution of slavery as the will of God, as clearly stated in the Bible, and that anyone who disagreed was guilty of blasphemy.

Now of course I was aware that there were also at that time Christian abolitionists who were very active in the anti-slavery movement. Their theological belief that we are equal in the eyes of God intensified their opposition to slavery. And it was suddenly obvious: these two viewpoints, both claiming the name “Christian,” were in complete opposition on a most important issue.  

Later, when I studied religion in earlier centuries, things got much worse. In the middle ages and the Protestant reformation in the sixteenth century, many Christians were labeled heretics by other Christians, and put to death. Unitarians in Europe were persecuted because they rejected the doctrine of the Trinity. My Mennonite forbears were persecuted by other Protestants, as well as Catholics. What was their heresy? They practiced the baptism of adults.

Take a more recent example with which most of us are more familiar: During World War II some European Christians turned a blind eye to the horrors that were taking place. Other Christians risked their lives to help Jews escape the Nazis.

Many Christians have sung a hymn that begins: “Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love. The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.” They are deeply mistaken. Yes, they share much of the same scripture, history, holy days, etc. But this is deceptive. The history of theirs, and every other, religion contains differing, and often incompatible, views.

There is no such thing as the essence of Christianity. There are only the many millions of people who claim for themselves the label “Christian.” They all revere the name Jesus, but their views as to what this actually means differ on important questions. Each group has its own collective take on things, each believing that their particular version of Christianity is the true one.

The alleged distinction between primary and secondary issues collapses when you realize that adherents of a religion differ on what they consider primary. People are all different, and therefore will always disagree; and one of the things they disagree about is what is primary and what is secondary. Sometimes they don’t even agree on what they are disagreeing about. The distinction between primary and secondary beliefs, which was created to solve a problem, only creates more problems.

By the way, we find similar divisions when we look closely at the history of other religions. Buddhism is sometimes portrayed as inherently peaceful when compared to Western religion, with its history of religious wars. But in the Dali Lama’s history of Tibet, he acknowledges that there have been times when people from one Buddhist sect were killing members of another Buddhist sect. And, just as there were Christian abolitionists who lived at the same time as Christian slaveholders, there are also many Buddhists who are far more inclusive, and reach across to other religions. We all know that there are Muslims who hate our country, and many other Muslims who are just as peaceful as anyone in this room.

No religion has a monopoly on truth. The history of every religion contains a complex mixture of insight and nonsense, good and evil. The adherents of the religion select its most favorable actions, and claim that those actions represent its essence. Likewise, the opponents of that religion focus on it when it is at its worst, and call that the essence.

So: religion is complicated. Who knew?

NEW MODEL

Well, then, since religion is complicated, is there an alternative model that can help us understand the relationships of different religions to one another? Let’s take the circle on the wall behind me as a start. Beginning at the top, and moving clockwise, they represent the Christian cross, a Jewish menorah, or candlestick of Judea, the Buddhist wheel, Mohammed’s cry “There is but one God,” the balance of Taoism; the symbol in the center can also be taken to represent Confucian thought; and the Hindu symbol for Om.

Now imagine a straight line running through each religion, like bicycle spokes, from the part nearest the center to the edges of the circle. These lines represent a continuum within each religion from the most inclusive—nearest the center—to the most exclusive—at the edges.  

At the most extreme, some people are willing to kill. After all, what death could be nobler than dying in defense of the holy? Less spectacularly, there are the millions of conservatives who would never engage in violence, but are still rather exclusive. They have a strong sense of “us” versus “them.”

As we move toward the center, we reach the most inclusive versions of the various religions, and they share a number of basic values with the most inclusive members of other religions. Note that the most inclusive members of these religions have more in common with each other than each one does with the extremists in their own faith.

Reformed Jewish rabbis have spoken here to a welcoming audience. They were more at home here than they would be in an Orthodox Jewish congregation.

Martin Luther King was an ordained Baptist minister. But his approach to Civil Rights was fueled by his inclusivity. He spent no time on the doctrines that divide Christians. He cared only whether you believe that skin color has nothing to do with personal worth. King, by the way, was influenced by Gandhi, a Hindu. And Gandhi had learned from Leo Tolstoy, a pacifist Christian who was excommunicated by the conservative Russian Orthodox Church.

Complicating the matter even further, the same people can be exclusive at some times and inclusive at other times. As a child, in Sunday School I was taught to sing many choruses. One of them had these words: “One door and only one, and yet its sides are two. I’m on the inside. On which side are you?” You can’t get much more exclusive than that. But there was another chorus which had these words: “Jesus loves the little children. All the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white. They are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.” Taken at face value, that’s an inclusive message.

GOOD NEWS

What does all this mean for our liberal faith? Well, as the saying goes, there’s good news and there’s bad news. First, the good news.

Creeds Preclude Objectivity. Period. Full disclosure: in the ‘70’s, I was on the faculty of a Christian Liberal Arts College similar to the one I had attended in the ‘60’s. Each year I was required to sign the school’s “Statement of Faith,” which means creed. I began to see more and more that this requirement gave me, and every other faculty member, a motive for not looking too closely at the creed, because you might discover a problem that would render you unable to sign it conscientiously. After several years of struggle, I realized I had to resign.

Any creed—or more generally, any approach that restricts itself to only one tradition—creates a wall. And these walls divide, as surely as the Iron Curtain did or the proposed border wall would. Creeds divide humanity into two groups: the good people, who think like us, and the bad people, who think like them.

In this church I can state any viewpoint I am prepared to defend. A side benefit is that I can also speak on oddball subjects I would otherwise not think of, such as “Religion and Baseball” and “Religion and Dogs.”   Sermons don’t have to be rooted in a specific tradition.   And the musicals I have written and were performed here, would not be allowed, without major modifications, in a creedal church.

Liberal religion—taking the flaming chalice as our symbol—is positioned to take whatever is of value from other faiths. It gives me the best opportunity available to see both sides of every story, which is necessary when considering alternative viewpoints. Without it a fair verdict cannot be delivered. A church member here once put this point very creatively: “One of the advantages of being a Unitarian Universalist is that you can change religions without changing churches.”

But the rejection of creeds is not an excuse for laziness. If anything, it is the conservatives who have a motive, even if it is unconscious, for laziness, since the answers to many questions have already been determined. Here I am given the challenge to work things out for myself as well as I can. With a little help from my friends, of course.

So, liberal religion is inherently inclusive. In theory. But in practice? Oh-oh, here comes the bad news.

BAD NEWS

In practice, liberal religion is not always as inclusive as it aspires to be. Too often, we find it easiest to define ourselves in terms of what we don’t believe, rather than positively, in terms of our shared values. This negative theology can become a creed of its own: a statement of doctrines that one is prohibited from affirming. That is an exclusive religion in reverse gear.

Consequently, when liberal religion is defined in terms of the beliefs we reject, it drives away people who wish to consider some of those viewpoints sympathetically. Whenever anyone feels that their views cannot be openly expressed, the community is not living up to its ideals.

A second piece of bad news. There is an unfortunate correlation between exclusivity and degree of commitment. Black and white thinking produces zealots. Conversely, the most inclusive people are often the least committed. The capacity to see shades of gray is not fertile ground for passion. Liberal religion too easily becomes merely “Religion Lite.” This raises the sobering possibility that Liberal Religion contains the seeds of its own demise. A faith that is lukewarm and tentative is not likely to survive. And if the circle at which we have looked were redrawn so that each faith took up a space proportionate to the size of its membership, the flaming chalice would just be a tiny dot.

We must think long and hard about how important it is to us that liberal religion survive. If it is worthwhile, we must commit ourselves—passionately—with inclusive behavior, financial generosity, frequent attendance, and volunteering our time. There we could establish a robust faith that does honor to the martyrs of previous centuries whose lives and deaths made possible the religious freedom we have today.

© Randall Springer

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