Liberal Religion

We are adding to our Sermon Series, a sermon delivered by Rev. Rick Hoyt-McDaniels at the February Unitarian Universalists Multiracial Unity Action Council monthly service entitled Liberal Religion.

Permission has been granted so you may share sermons from our Sermon Series with others in your congregation.

 

Three Samples From the Sermon

Sample 1

And in religion, liberalism birthed Unitarian Universalism:  a religion where individual conscience is free, subject neither to Pope, nor Priest, nor Prophet, nor Scripture.

The principles of classical liberalism, whether in government, science, economics, religion, or elsewhere, rest in how we answer the questions, “How do we know what is real?  How do we seek the truth and feel confidant when we find it?  In short, how can we claim to know anything?

Do we listen to an authority like a king or a pope?  Do we read the answer in a sacred book?  Do we defer to one group of people, like the elders in our community?  Do we try to identify the smartest, or the strongest among us and follow their lead unquestioningly?

The liberal answer is that we discover the truth by hashing it out all together, every one of us, through, “a platform for the free voice” respecting, “the full and undivided conflict of opinion.”

You can think of liberalism as a kind of game.  The players enter the playing field with their differing opinions about the truth.  They play by engaging in debate.  They argue.  They offer evidence.  They publish their research in peer-reviewed journals.  They challenge.  They defend.  The goal is to identify a shared truth, the winner on the field.  Everybody goes home with more knowledge.

The rules of the liberal game are two:

Rule number one.  Everybody has to play.  If you want your opinion to be considered you have to put it on the field, debate it and defend it.  Nobody gets to stand to the side and say, “My opinion is beyond debate because I’m a special person with special access to the truth.”  Or “My truth is based on a holy scripture that cannot be questioned.”  Or, “My knowledge is based on a personal revelation that only I can experience.”  Appeals to special authority are out of bounds in the liberal game.  Every opinion wishing to be considered as possibly true has to get on the field and defend itself with evidence, reason, and debate.

Rule number two.  No knowledge is final.  The game advances in rounds, but it never really ends.  No truth claim is ever beyond criticism.  Even long-settled knowledge that we think we know for sure, has to remain in play.  You can’t say, “My truth is grounded in a wisdom tradition, centuries-old and unchanging.”  The meaning of “knowledge” in the liberal game, is “when this idea is repeatedly tested, probed, and further explored it continues to prove itself on the field as the best description of reality.”

When John Milton says, “Our faith and knowledge thrive by exercise, as well as our limbs and complexion” he is describing the liberal game. (#671, Singing the Living Tradition)

Sample 2

Here is the danger I see.

I see attacks on the game of liberalism; who gets to play, and how play is conducted on the field.

I see sincere opinions prevented from being entered in debate.  Liberalism doesn’t require giving a forum to cranks.  But we should be careful who we call a crank.  A contrary opinion that is even one percent true can be helpful in advancing knowledge.

I see favored opinions being granted the right not to be questioned.  But good ideas require testing just as bad ideas do.  And even a mostly true idea can be made stronger when it responds to criticism.

I see players appealing to special knowledge in defending their opinions, knowledge that can’t be shared by all.  When a player says, “You can’t know this for yourself, you just have to believe me” they are substituting belief for knowledge.  Knowledge belongs to everyone. “Trust me,” is not an argument.

I see players using claims of harm or hurt feelings as an excuse to withdraw from debate, yet still expecting respect for their ideas.  Attacks against persons are intolerable.  Criticism of ideas is how we advance toward the truth.  That’s how we play the liberal game.

And then there are the more serious attacks against the premises of liberalism itself.

Sample 3

Liberalism works. The advancements in human society over the last 500 years under the liberal method are undeniable: science, medicine, technology, human rights, and religion, too. Life under liberalism has gotten demonstrably better in the last 50 years for people of color, women, gays and lesbians, disabled persons.

Yet liberalism’s progress is too slow, for some.  As lives improve gradually, some suffering continues. That’s hard to bear.  And the progress of liberalism rarely moves in a straight line forward.

So liberalism is frustrating for those who have a more radical spirit and who are self-convinced of their vision for the future.  Some feel they can jump-start the change they seek by substituting disruption and dismantling for debate and persuasion.  Perhaps they feel in these dangerous circumstances we don’t have time, any more, for liberalism.

About Rev. Rick

Rev. Rick Hoyt-McDaniels is a Unitarian Universalist minister working in the Los Angeles area. He received a Masters of Divinity from the Claremont School of Theology in 1998 and was ordained and fellowshipped with the Unitarian Universalist Association later that year. During his 24 years in the ministry he has served UU congregations in La Crescenta, Santa Clarita, Los Angeles, and Long Beach. Currently he serves the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Kern County in Bakersfield, CA. He lives with his husband in downtown Los Angeles.

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Jim Aikin
8 months ago

Just from reading the samples (I’ll view the whole thing later), I would say this nails it, and in a very interesting way. Of course there will be those who shriek, “This is not a game!” That can be an awkward metaphor, because it invites cavalier dismissal. But it’s a metaphor that fits neatly with my understanding of the process.

Bill Jordan
Bill Jordan
8 months ago

This is a vitally important message. As authoritarianism grows apace around the world, it is distressing to see it arise within UU. From my perspective, we can no longer say we are a non-creedal religion. Our Interim just taught Widening the Circle as if it were our bible – no reference to the Gadfly books, Used to be UU, or The Self-Confessed White Supremacist Culture (an excellent treatment if you haven’t seen it). We considered only the text of Widening. This list of intolerable words also grows apace. This is an interesting problem. Many statements that would be considered microaggressions… Read more »

Jim
Jim
8 months ago
Reply to  Bill Jordan

From the Widening the Circle of Concern Study Guide: A mere sociological interest in the Commission on Institutional Change (COIC)’s findings would be an insult to the commissioners’ hundreds of dedicated hours of work and would treat as entertainment the re-traumatization of those who gave painful testimony. Instead, as a people of faith, Unitarian Universalists must approach this report with the humility and resolve of a truth and reconciliation council. We must understand that, as a “living tradition,” our faith’s survival depends on its relevance, and relevance depends on accepting and addressing the truth of the findings of the Commission.… Read more »

Rev. Millie Phillips
Rev. Millie Phillips
8 months ago
Reply to  Jim

These are indeed troubling words. They reminds me of an incident at Starr King back in 2014/2015, where the board hired a “restorative justice” consultant to resolve their issues with several students. But restorative justice requires that the person charged with an offense must admit to guilt. It turns out the students in question literally weren’t guilty of what they were accused of. Yet they were labeled as uncooperative – proof enough of guilt – because they wouldn’t agree to admitting guilt, and they were given no chance to present evidence of innocence. Luckily for them, another student stepped up… Read more »

Chuck
Chuck
8 months ago
Reply to  Jim

Non-creedal UUA? Mild criticism. In my opinion the UUA is turning UUism into a cult. Multiple 6-8 character acronyms, incorporating new meanings to perfectly meaningful expressions, and then not permitting any discussions as to their efficacy. Indoctrination going rampant. A board approved COIC report that denigrates the decades of significant work and social progress made by UUs without realizing the financial impact from the 60+yr olds (UU churches are funded primarily by the long term elders) demonstrates the irresponsible actions of current UUA thinking. unless there is a groundswell of response by member congregations, UUism will be financially insolvent (… Read more »

Tim Bartik
8 months ago

This is a wonderful sermon. Carefully thought out, well-written, balanced in tone, and well-delivered. In the spirit of the sermon, I would offer a few caveats. (1) As an economist, I am not as optimistic on some recent trends as he is. I think a substantial part of the discontent with liberalism in the U.S. is that recent trends on income inequality and racial inequality have NOT been favorable in the U.S. as a whole. The worldwide trends on economic progress and income inequality have been favorable, but not in the U.S. So, for example, the research by Raj Chetty… Read more »

Lee
Lee
8 months ago

Rule number 3: No one is forced to play the game. Yes, people who want to argue that the Earth is flat can argue that, but those who wish to put a satellite into orbit around a round earth don’t have to waste their time rebutting the flat earth hypothesis simply because there is someone who still clings to it. Yes, the flat earthers have a right to make their arguments, but they don’t have a right to a captive audience. Space scientists are free to proceed with their meaningful work.

Tim Bartik
8 months ago
Reply to  Lee

True, but one should properly hesitate before ruling that someone is a crank and should be ignored.

Lee
Lee
8 months ago
Reply to  Tim Bartik

Rule number 4: Avoiding cranks isn’t the only good reason to avoid classical liberal debate. An example is cancer vs. heart disease. There are many problems that could be addressed but no individual or organization can address them all, so we make decisions. I may choose to try to cure cancer and you may choose to try to cure heart disease. Neither of us is a crank and we are both pursuing excellent goals. The distinction between us is a matter of preference or prejudice, not a matter of the right answer vs. the wrong answer. In fact, that we… Read more »

Tom C
Tom C
8 months ago
Reply to  Lee

Do you really think the schism is about anti-racism vs. some other cause?

Why are you reading and posting on this blog if you think that we all should be marginalized?

Tim Bartik
8 months ago
Reply to  Lee

I guess I’m not sure what your point is here. I don’t think that people are debating whether the Board of some organization, including a Church, or the UUA, can decide, for example, to denote funds to some group that they think is doing something useful with respect to some cause, or having a special collection for some group. That decision-making, after collective debate, doesn’t necessarily violate liberal religion. On the other hand, if a Church or the UUA says that on a particular issue topic — anti-racism or anything else — there is only one true way to think… Read more »

Lee
Lee
8 months ago
Reply to  Tim Bartik

> there is only one true way to think Back to the health care analogy, consider the scenario where the organization has decided to pursue curing heart disease but there is a minority that seemingly wants to debate at every meeting whether the focus should instead be on curing cancer. Those who want to focus on heart disease and those who are willing to go along with the majority may see the lets-keep-debating-it crowd as thwarting progress that it is critically important. To be clear, those who want to instead focus on cancer are not wrong about how important cancer… Read more »

Will
Will
8 months ago
Reply to  Lee

UU is a liberal religion, People here and elsewhere defending liberalism, freedom of expression and conscience, debate and the diversity of idea, etc. should be lauded not dismissed as “dissenters” or “gadflies.” They are defending the very core and nature of UU and UUism.

Jim
Jim
8 months ago
Reply to  Lee

It’s not about something like heart disease. It’s about a Theoretical fantasy about “white supremacy culture in the UUA” – so if you’re going to make analogies it would be more accurate to say the organization has decided to pursue a “problem” with unicorn poop rather than real issues like heart disease or cancer.

Lee
Lee
8 months ago
Reply to  Jim

> It’s not about something like heart disease.

I think we need more discussion there. I firmly believe that those — from both sides of the debate — who think the other side is nefarious, incompetent, etc. are mistaken. I believe that it is heart disease vs. cancer here. Those who are striving for either are in the right, so long as they take care not to force the other side back to port.

Jim
Jim
8 months ago
Reply to  Lee

OK. Yes. There are very important issues to be dealt with; serious ones, like heart disease and cancer, and those who are working on those deserve all of our care and support. And we should all oppose those who try to force them “back to port.”  However, when an organization devolves into internal domestic squabbling about who is a “white supremacist” and who is not, then those who are busily wasting the organization’s resources searching for heretics are forcing everyone “back to port” in their attempts to take over the organization in the service of their narrow minded agenda. Nothing… Read more »

Lee
Lee
8 months ago
Reply to  Jim

There are common themes that both Dr. Eklof and his detractors support and we could work together on these. I find that route to be promising. Or we could go our separate ways and individually work on heart disease or cancer as we see fit; that works well too.

I don’t see the value in labeling the other side with strong negative adjectives in this context, but I continue to read this blog to get a better understanding of that approach.

Tom C
Tom C
8 months ago
Reply to  Lee

What are the common themes between Rev Eklof and his detractors?

How do we work out differences when we can’t discuss them openly without being shunned/canceled/censured?

Since many of the issues revolve around Rev. Eklof and his book, and you refuse to read the book, it seems to me that you don’t really want to understand.

Lee
Lee
8 months ago
Reply to  Tom C

> What are the common themes between Rev Eklof and his detractors? All of us want to eliminate racism. All of us abhor what happened to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Ahmaud Arbery, …. > How do we work out differences when we can’t discuss them openly without being shunned/canceled/censured? When we assume that there is shared good faith then communication is easier. Communication is harder under the assumption that the opposition is deficient in some way. > Since many of the issues revolve around Rev. Eklof and his book, and you refuse to read the book,… Read more »

Tom C
Tom C
8 months ago
Reply to  Lee

I find it contradictory that you write, “I think we need more discussion there. I firmly believe that those — from both sides of the debate — who think the other side is nefarious, incompetent, etc. are mistaken.”

Haven’t you indicated you don’t want to financial support Rev. Eklof just in case he is nefarious?

If you think that Rev Eklof is not nefarious, why don’t you buy the book?

So which is it?

Lee
Lee
8 months ago
Reply to  Tom C

I suspect that most of your objections to the UUA do not require a financial investment to discuss. Might we focus there instead?

Tom C
Tom C
8 months ago
Reply to  Lee

Most of my objections to the UUA involve the reaction to The Gadfly Papers.

Last edited 8 months ago by Tom C
Jim
Jim
8 months ago
Reply to  Lee

I’m not that convinced about your good faith, nor the depth of your understanding. You can, for free, find plenty of bad faith, “assuming the opposition is deficient” and various other ad hominem character assassinations directed at Rev. Dr. Eklof online. If you have not read his book you can’t really understand how absurd and ridiculous those condemnations are. Look, I’ve managed to read “White Fragility” “Centering” “How to Be an Anti-Racist” “Between the World and Me” and several others, without purchasing them. I did this because I wanted to understand. It took a little bit of effort, but not… Read more »

Tom C
Tom C
8 months ago
Reply to  Lee

You realize that with less than 200,000 UUs in the US, that we are the religious crackpots. Do you think that UUs should be marginalized?

Steve W
Steve W
8 months ago

Thank you for the work you do.

It is unfortunate indeed that the Unitarian Universalists Association is using such nasty aggression to take away our freedom of conscience and the democratic method in our free and responsible search for truth.
If they were to ultimately do so, they would be in history as ruining this association of UU congregations.