Coexist? Um, ok, but I still need to inspect your bag, ma’am.
Our UU minister found a metaphor for liberal religion at the local waterpark’s Lazy River this summer:
“Everyone has their own way to float down the river.”
“Don’t block the vents or pee in the water.”
Knowing chuckles of easy unity went through the crowd like The Wave.
What’s wrong with this picture? Well, he contradicts himself, right? He says everyone has their own way to float down the river, suggesting there is no wrong way, then he injects some ‘what if everybody did that, we’re all in this together’ morality. To be charitable, he might be using hyperbole, but this isn’t clear at all. We hear ‘everyone has the right to believe whatever they want’ too often for that.
He started by mentioning ‘Soul Matters’, one of our many adult programs. He acknowledged that words like ‘soul’ and ‘God’ are loaded, so he clarified that ‘soul’ didn’t necessarily mean anything supernatural in his usage. It’s more like ‘unique identity’. This was much appreciated. Words matter, so it’s important to me that we not play on the imprecision of a word like ‘soul’ to erect a big tent that means very little to be in. If ‘soul’ matters, we won’t let its definition slip to score political points.
So far, so good.
But then, he admonished secularists to reciprocate by being generous with people who use such words. He wants us to admit that such words can have deep meanings for people, and that we shouldn’t reflexively dismiss them because of their religious baggage.
Is this reasonable? It sounds like he’s only asking for fair play. But is trusting someone who doesn’t define loaded words reasonable?
I don’t think so. Here’s why:
To be responsible, we inspect things that enter our borders. We inspect things from our friends less than our enemies. If cargo containers from Hong Kong have been flowing into Seattle for 30 years without incident, it is reasonable to continue that arrangement.
But ‘God’ isn’t like that. It has a sordid history of smuggling some of the most noxious ideas humans have held. Supremacy of all kinds, cosmic schemes of divine genocide, as well as sweet things we already have words for, like love, compassion, service and justice.
So when we hear the word ‘God’, it is reasonable and responsible to ask ‘What do you mean when you say that?’. At this stage in the human drama, it would be reckless to smile and nod. Suppose we heard a liberal minister at an Interfaith luncheon say something like, ‘God loves every single human being equally!’ It is incompatible with our work for social justice to let such an extravagant claim pass without comment or inquiry.
Ah, but this assumes we value clarity more than avoiding conflict.
We each have to assess the risks in these encounters. Words matter to me. I think we do ourselves no favors when we relax meanings to avoid conflict. This necessarily makes room for contradictions which, if we don’t notice them, our critics will. Liberal religion has earned a reputation for flaccid, anything-goes, wanting-thing-both-ways, sing-along, pie-in-the-sky, empty hope. Individually, this could not be further from the truth, but when we get together, we blanch into a wan jelly of openness.
The liberals I know have spines. We have strong values and reject many others. But in groups, we seem so afraid of conflict, and so repulsed at dogma, that we pretend that we welcome, or ‘make room’ (in the UU parlance), for anyone. We don’t. Homophobes and KKKs need not apply. So why do we say ‘Everyone can believe whatever they want’ and ‘We are a creedless religion’?
That’s easy. Politics. We seem to think we have to say it to attract people who are fleeing dogmatic, oppressive religion, our main source of members. The idea seems to be that the answer to dogma is no-dogma, but we can see that doesn’t work. None of us accepts any belief. If we hold any view at all, we must reject its opposite. To work for justice, we must resist injustice. We can’t say that North Korea just practices its own kind of justice. We have to say they are Unjust. We can be wrong or modify our position, but at a given moment, for our claims to mean anything, we must reject their opposites.
And we do. We fight for marriage equality and against homophobia, whatever their source.
The worry is that we will fit our opponent’s most unflattering view of ourselves: If you stand for nothing, you’ll fall for anything. None of them could say that about any one of us after getting to know us personally. But they certainly could say that about us after attending this morning’s service, where we were told that people can believe whatever they want. And I love the song, Rainbow Connection, but I can’t imagine a poorer choice if we want to shrug off our image as light-headed, facile optimists.
Liberals are afraid of the truth. The truth is that dogma is not our enemy. It really matters what we are dogmatic about. UUs are dogmatic about condemning cruelty and fighting for equal rights. We are dogmatic about ecology and caring for the weak. Religious dogma, when it is bad, is not bad because it is religious or dogmatic. It is bad when it is anti-humanist. Its remaining claims are just baseless outside each tradition.
So we have failed in explaining what liberal religion is. It is not the rejection of dogma. It is insisting that any dogma we adopt place human welfare, for all humans equally, above other considerations. And it is not liberal. It is refraining from adopting the wild claims of ‘conservative’ religion, like the idea that a loving being created this world, this way, on purpose.