Free and Responsible

The Free And Responsible Search For Truth And Meaning

For each of us religious exploration is a lifelong experience. Each stage of life, each day, brings new circumstances and so new learning. What am I learning today?

From website of the Unitarian Unviersalist Association: Nearly a century ago, the Rev. Lewis B. Fisher, the dean of the Universalist seminary at St. Lawrence University, memorably described religious liberalism’s flexibility. “Universalists are often asked to tell where they stand,” he wrote. “The only true answer . . . is that we do not stand at all, we move.”

Rev. Fisher was speaking of Universalism in particular and liberal religion in general, but in truth, that is the case for all people.  We grow; we change both in our abilities and in our views of life.  We also change in our religious views and understandings.

As Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12For now we see in a mirror, dimly,* but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

We grow throughout our lives and, for Paul and some of us here, we continue to grow in a life to come.

Theories about human development abound, but there are some that have strong current influence.

Jan Piaget studied the stages of psychological development. 

Erick Erickson studied the interplay of the stages of development of the body, the mind and the culture, the social environment, in which a person grows up.

Lawrence Kohlberg studied the development of moral thinking.

James Fowler, relating his work to those of the three mentioned above, studied the development of Faith, of religious thought and belief in his book Stages Of Faith.

The particulars of their claims are less important this morning than the claim itself, that as we grow our understanding of religion and spirituality changes. 

In the liberal religious tradition, the responsibility for finding truth and meaning resides in the mind and heart of the individual.  Following years of religious wars in Europe, it was finally agreed—out of exhaustion—first that local rulers would be free to decide upon the religious affiliation of their people and later, in the in Protestant areas of northern Europe, to the belief that each individual was responsible only to God or conscience for their own religious path. 

This morning I am going to relate some episodes from my life that illuminate the stages of faith development.  My path is not the path of other people, but perhaps some of these episodes will remind you of episodes from your own lives.

When I was a child I had my first inkling that God might not exist.  I was about five years old and living in Queens, NY.  There was a plane crash at one of the nearby airports and everyone died, including children.  This tragic event seared my heart, and one night as I lay in bed I prayed to god that the children be restored to life and that I be taken in their place.  I lay there nervously waiting to be taken, but nothing happened.  And the next day no children had been restored to life.  I began to believe that there was no God.

My vision of God at this time was of an old man on a throne.  According to Fowler, children of that age have a very concrete sense of things.  God is human like and the idea of God as spirit is a difficult one to grasp.  And now I questioned the existence of that God.

It was not just that nothing happened, it was that nothing happened; that is, there was not even a voice telling me that this was not my time.  There was just silence; just emptiness.  And so I began to think that there was nothing to give me a response.  I was very direct and specific in my beliefs; no response means nothing there.  The throne in Heaven was empty.

And yet, there is an episode from my early teenage years that is interesting.  I now believed there was no God and no human soul.  I would debate this with a friend of mine who was Catholic and who was concerned for my salvation.  One day he came to me with a piece of paper in one hand and a pen in the other, and he said, “I will make a deal with you; I will give you fifty cents if you sign this paper selling your soul to me”.  I don’t know whether this was just a debating technique or whether he planned on taking this paper to his local priest and offering up my soul to the Church, but I said no.  He responded by saying, “Why not? You don’t even believe the soul exists”.  And I said, “That’s right, but I’m holding on to it”.

As an older teenager, I came to believe religion was all false, perhaps a tool of the ruling class to keep the people in line—religion certainly has been used that way at times.  And yet I was an avid reader of religious texts.  I read the bible through three times—I still do not get the book of Revelations; I read the Upanishads, Taoist texts, Confucianist texts, Buddhist writings and more.  I was fascinated by them even though I didn’t believe them.  I also read the history of religion and of religious ideas. 

When I was nineteen years old I was in college and went on a southern studies trip.  Three of us spent time in Damascus, VA.  One evening a minister of a local Church came to visit us and he brought along his bible.  At one point he said that he believed this was the world of God and that it was literally true, and he said that if he found just one word in it that was not true, “I would take this book, throw it a mile away and never open it again!”.   

        I thought that was an extreme response.  It’s a big book, if just one word of it were untrue could there not still be much truth in the Bible.  Why throw it all away?

His insistence upon literalism kept him from seeing the possibility of some truth; it was all true or none of it was. 

What I did not see then was that my insistence upon literalism was causing me to reject the whole Bible.  Some of it cannot be true so it is all false.  A problem for both believers and non-believers is the insistence that it be entirely literally true or it is entirely false.  But I did not see this so I went on with my rejection.

I have no problem with different people having different beliefs.  I do have a problem with some true believers who arrogantly determine that they have the truth and no one else does, that those who do not see things in their way are weak or sick of soul and need saving–but I had that attitude as well.  I believed that those who held to religion were weak of character and needed a crutch.  Some atheists and non-believers can be just as arrogant and adamant in their non-belief as the most ardent religious fundamentalist.


Only later, in the late 1980’s when watching Bill Moyers interviews with Joseph Campbell did I see things differently.  Campbell saw all of the world’s myths and religions as true; not as literally true but as mythically and metaphorically true, as statements about the human condition and about the search for religious truth and meaning.  And that opens up all of the religious texts of the world as sources of truth and that literally opens up a world of study and learning.  For me it brought new meaning to the religious readings I had already done.

Fowler describers the crisis between Stage three and Stage four in faith development as this shift from a literal view to a metaphoric view.  s

If we are responsible for our own religious path and learning, then what is the purpose of Religious Education? Why do we have it?

In some traditions the goal of religious education is to inculcate certain beliefs, so the approach taken is to stress a creed or the content of a catechism.

We reject the idea of a creed for ourselves and strive instead to help the individual in their search for truth and meaning and in their individual use of their own reason in that search. But this very approach entails a set of values. We believe in the liberal philosophy of the individual, in the human ability and right to operate within a sphere of individual freedom and personal control. That requires not only that we seek our own freedom, but that we seek freedom for others as well.

In some traditions, the goal of religion and therefore of religious education is to enhance the personal spiritual experience of religion through a ritual based or focused approach, or it might emphasize being filled with the Spirit or having some other emotive or awe filled experience.

While Unitarian Universalism does not reject the experiential and emotive, and in fact embraces these—witness Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalist movement—we do not predetermine what that experience is or should be, nor do we presume to know what the emotional content should be.

And our historic emphasis on reason claims that whatever one’s individual belief or experience is, they should be subject to human reason.

Our current approach seeks to meld life experience and reason by helping individuals to think through various moments in life and various beliefs—their own and others.

In 1838 Ralph Waldo Emerson gave his Divinity School Address in which he challenged what he saw as the coldness of an over-reliance on reason, a coldness that he felt characterized the Unitarianism of his day. He insisted upon a personal experience of the Divine.

        But Emerson did not reject reason. He was one of the greatest intellects of our movement. And it was he showed how the two approaches, experience and reason, complement one another. For Emerson it was the combining of faith, emotions and intuition processed by careful reason that made for genuine religion and spirituality. 

A major component of reason – real reason – is the questing and questioning mind. To challenge presumptions, one’s own and others; and to peel back the layers of presumptions behind many of our beliefs to be sure they are valid; this is part of true reason. To do so gently rather than arrogantly is also part of the religious path. Our Universalist heritage reminds us to speak with love. If we challenge ourselves and others it is not so much to deny the faith of others or of ourselves as to explore and therefore deepen that faith.

We do this for our children in their classes, and we do this for adults in their classes. And our children do it for us. When a child in one of our classes asks a serious question about religion, or state a personal and unique belief, that is a moment of joy, not of fear; it is something to encourage, not suppress.  It shows that religion is becoming theirs.

And because we have a religion that believes in reason, freedom and tolerance each child, indeed each person, knows that they are free to question and to arrive at their own answer. At least, that is so when we live out our own highest ideals.

        Our religious education approach is good not only for our children and ourselves, it is good for our religious movement and it is good for our country.

Too often we see people who do not apply an open spirit and reason to religion, and this affects society. It affects us. Some who believe in the literal reading of their own religious texts then attempt to stop the teaching of certain scientific facts and theories in the classroom, or attempt to interfere in the informed medical decisions of doctors and patients. We need many more people who are raised to consider things from many different points of view, and who will apply human reason to religious claims. There is no shortage of faith in this country; there is a shortage of rational faith. Each child that we send out into the world equipped with their own faith, their own belief and their own reason who is also open to the truth of others is one more person who can defend religious liberties and the quest for genuine truth.

Fowler speaks of stage six in faith development where people of many different faiths can see the shared truths in the beliefs of those who have followed different religious paths.

Imagine a room where the Buddhist Dalai Llama, the Baptist preacher Martin Luther King, Jr., the Episcop preist Desmond Tutu, the Hindu Mahatma Gandhi and the atheist Cosmologist Carl Sagan could all sit and talk together.  What a conversation that would be.  They would not argue, they would not declare each other to be wrong in their thinking; instead they would appreciate one another, learn from one another, see the truth in each other’s beliefs. That is one goal of true religion.

My vision of the future of the world is that someday we can  all rise above religious difference and arrive at a place where all people can share their faith with one another in kindness and truth. 

May we as a congregation and we as people honor the different paths that people take, may we continue to pass on our values of freedom, reason and tolerance in religion, may we speak for these values within the broader community, and may we do so in the spirit of love and acceptance.

And may each of us continue to grow in our own faith with persistence and hope and a sense of wonder.

So let it be.