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
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)
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.
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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