Rev. Josh Pawelek
Unitarian Universalist Society East
October 1, 2023
During our offering Mary played ‘Adagio Cantabile’ from the late 18th, early 19th-century German composer Ludwig van Beethoven’s Sonata, Opus 13. Nearly 200 years after his death, whether one appreciates western classical music or not, Beethoven’s compositions sound like what most people think western classical music sounds like. What the average listener won’t know, unless they’ve had the opportunity to study European music history, is that Beethoven, grounded in the musical traditions of his time, was also breaking free from them, moving European music and the wider European culture from what historians call the classical era to the romantic era. Inspired by the philosophies and literature of the European Enlightenment, inspired by humanism, inspired by the French Revolution—he sought to express in his music ideas of human freedom and human dignity. This was radical and liberating for many audiences. However, two centuries later, unless you’re familiar with this history, you won’t realize just how radical and liberating this music was when it was first performed. Today, for most listeners, it just sounds like what most people assume classical music sounds like.
The same can be said of our own Unitarian Universalist history. Early American Unitarians and Universalists, in the decades after the American Revolution, grounded in the religious traditions of their time, were also breaking free from them in search of religion that would uphold and celebrate human freedom and dignity. Inspired by some of the same Enlightenment sources as their European cultural contemporaries, they offered radical and liberating theologies which today, two centuries later, don’t seem all that radical and liberating unless we know the broader historical context. And of course the broader, historical context also complicates how we view these theologies once we recognize that they were advanced in their time by white men in dialogue almost exclusively with other white men.
Our ministry theme for October is heritage. I want to briefly circle back around some thoughts I shared in a sermon last July in which I described Unitarian Universalism as both a liberal and liberating faith able to minister with inclusive, caring and courageous love in a context of rising fascism and climate catastrophe in the United States and globally. I said liberalism and liberation are both defining aspects of our spiritual heritage. I’d like explain in a little more depth what I mean when I refer to the liberal and liberation features of our heritage.
To begin, to the best of my knowledge, our post-American Revolution spiritual forebears didn’t refer to themselves either as liberals or as liberationists. Spiritual and political liberty were important to them; but the terms “liberal’ and “liberation” appear more in the later histories about them, not in the words they uttered about themselves. The early Unitarians and Universalists, first and foremost, were devout Christians, attempting to adapt their Christianity to an emerging modern world, heavily influenced by the European Enlightenment. As much as they looked forward—as liberals and liberationists tend to do—they also looked back to the Bible, the teachings of Jesus, the history of the church, and their more recent but still centuries-old Puritan roots. They were liberal and liberatory in their theology, but their institutional context—the church—was ancient.
For understanding our liberal theological heritage, I take most of my cues today from a 2005 book by my former theology professor, the Rev. Paul Rasor, entitled Faith Without Certainty: Liberal Theology in the 21st Century. Rasor says liberal theology assumes one can be “deeply religious and fully modern at the same time.” “From this orientation,” he writes, “liberal theology is characterized by commitments to free and open intellectual inquiry, to the autonomous authority of individual experience and reason, to the ethical dimensions of religion, and to making religion intellectually credible and socially relevant.” Again, these were values at the heart of the European Enlightenment that were making their way into New England’s congregational churches, as well as at least some of the seminaries that trained the ministers who served those churches.
A fun connection: Rasor says scholars of religion generally agree that the first book on what we now call liberal theology was the German philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher’s On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers, published in 1799. That’s the same year Beethoven composed the “Adagio Cantabile” Mary played earlier. I don’t believe they knew each other, but Rasor names them both in the same sentence as contemporaries whose work helped spur the transition in European thought from the classical era to the romantic era.
Regarding our liberation heritage, I take my cues from the 20th-century Unitarian theologian, Rev. James Luther Adams. During the mid-1930s Adams lived for extended periods in Germany where he observed the rise of fascism and the Nazi Party. This was also a time when liberalism and liberal theology were under attack academically, socially and politically. Adams felt called to articulate a strong, vibrant, relevant religious liberalism to his readers, parishioners and students, as well as to liberalism’s critics.
To achieve that goal, he put liberation at the heart of liberalism. “Liberalism’s ‘general idea’” he wrote, “has been to promote liberation from tyranny, provincialism, and arbitrariness and thus to contribute to the meaningful fulfillment of human existence. This aspect of liberalism we may call its progressive element: it is always critical of the status quo and seeks new paths of fulfillment.”
In these words I hear Adams channeling a tradition with ancient roots. He refers later to the Hebrew prophets who “repudiated the idea that the meaning of life is to be achieved either by exclusive devotion to ritual or by devotion to blood and soil, or by self-serving piety.” Rather, “the ‘Holy’ thing in life is the participation in those processes that give body and form to universal justice.” He refers to Jesus, who “deepened and extended that idea when he proclaimed that the kingdom of God is at hand. The reign of God,” he says, “is the reign of love, a love that fulfills and goes beyond justice, a love that cares for the fullest personal good of all.” He refers to the Protestant reformers, specifically what he calls the “Left Wing of the Reformation,” or the “Radical Reformation,” the hundreds of small Christian sects that organized in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries, rejecting church hierarchies, claiming their own authority, calling and training their own clergy, developing their own rituals and, over time, eroding the power not only of “the church” but of royal families who, with church support, had long claimed a divine right to rule.
I assume when Adams speaks of liberation he is also referring to the early American Unitarians and Universalists who rejected the older religious orthodoxies in favor of theologies that upheld and celebrated human freedom and dignity. In his own time Adams was deeply concerned about American racism as well as the dehumanizing impacts of unbridled capitalism. He saw that the liberal churches had become complacent and argued in a variety of ways that the liberal church must address these evils. In more recent times I contend it is our liberationist dimension that inspired the call for women to be allowed and encouraged to enter the professional ministry; that called for GLBTQ people be to welcomed into our congregations and also allowed and encouraged to enter the ministry; that created a space for earth-based and pagan spiritual practices and exploration; that continues to call us to the work of racial justice, disability rights, immigrants’ rights, environmental justice, religious pluralism, and radical, deeply inclusive hospitality. All of this, in my view, is the ongoing expression of the liberation dimension within our liberal religious heritage.
This is not an easy heritage to inherit. There can be, and often is, tension between the liberationist dimension and the more general liberal religion in which it is embedded. Adams and Rasor both explore this tension in great detail. In short, liberal theology, and by extension, liberal congregations, engage with the wider culture, with the science of the day, with other religious world views, and with secular writers, musicians, poets and artists. We don’t draw a strict line between the sacred and the secular. Remember Rasor’s point about liberal theology’s assumption: one can be deeply religious and fully modern at the same time. However, when a liberal religious community is engaged with and influenced by the wider culture; when it welcomes that culture in and celebrates different aspects of it, it is also easy for that liberal religious community to miss, to turn away from, to forget the problems in that wider culture—economic injustice, racial injustice, homophobia, sexism, etc. It is easy to become complacent. Thus it is also easy for the problems of that wider culture to take hold within that liberal religious community. “May nothing evil cross this door” is a beautiful, necessary prayer. We sang it last Sunday. But it is no guarantee that the shadow side of the wider culture will not enter in as well.
As it enters in, our liberation tradition responds, wakes us up, reminds us of our commitments, our promises, our covenants. It turns out that our prophetic challenges to the wider culture, i.e., “we need to confront racism out there,” are also always simultaneously prophetic challenges to ourselves. “We need to confront racism in the ways it manifests in here.”
And there’s the tension. It’s an appropriate, healthy tension. It is actually a longstanding feature of our liberal religious heritage. It doesn’t feel good. It can be unpleasant. Yet it is one of the ways we grow as a community.
As I head out on sabbatical for the next four months, I leave you with this message: Ours is a liberating, liberal faith. We need both. We need the liberal theological engagement with culture, science, the academy, the arts, and certainly with nature, because revelation is not sealed. New truths are always emerging. In order for us to stay vital and vibrant we must remain open to new sources of knowledge, wisdom, and faith. And we need the liberation dimension of our liberalism, because structures of tyranny, provincialism, and arbitrariness, to use Adams’ words, persist in society and need to be challenged with moral clarity and effective organizing. As these two aspects of our heritage interact, there will be tension. Undoubtedly we will not like the tension. But the tension is worth it. We cannot expand our vision of beloved community without it. We cannot widen the circle without it. We might even say that tension is the price we pay in exchange for the blessings of a beautiful, compelling, life-changing, and at times world-changing heritage.
Amen and blessed be.