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Liberal Religion meets Neo-Conservatism
Presenter:Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date:Sun, 01/31/2010
Today’s sermon is a continuation of the sermon from last week, where we looked at the “new” theology of James Freeman Clarke’s 1886 essay entitled “The Five Points of Calvinism and the Five Points of the New Theology1.” Some of you were here last week and were brave enough to come back, which is great, but some of you are new, so I’d like to start with a quick reminder of where we left off last week.
Last week we ended by looking at the implications of the last of Clarke’s five theological points. The first four points had to do with the nature of God, human beings, and Jesus, but it is the fifth point that proved so problematic as Unitarianism and Universalism marched forward into the 20th century. This final point was that humankind was destined to progress “onward and upward forever.”
I mentioned last week that this idea was very much in vogue at the end of the 19th century, not just in our religious movement, but all through most religion and in the culture at large. The late 1800s were a time of enormous advances in science, technology, industry, medicine, and social services. Everyday life for so many people was improving extremely quickly, and that improvement was oftentimes a direct result of the theology and hard work of liberal religious people. Liberal religious folks like James Freeman Clarke promoted liberal religious ideas about a loving creator God who wanted all of his children to go to heaven – not just a few – and who created human beings in his own image and endowed them with seeds of the divine and the capacity for goodness. We weren’t only the fallen, anymore, but we were children of God. All of us.
These liberal religious people taught the culture at large that if a person is not behaving the way that they should, then often that is because they have not been given the opportunity to grow into their potential, their full, divine, good selves. Maybe they are poverty stricken, or uneducated, or drunken, or whatever it might be – but the “new” idea of the day was that those people weren’t fundamentally bad, weren’t sinners (even if they did sin), but were mostly unfulfilled in their enormous potential, and needed a leg up. And religion – this liberal religion that was so popular at the time and which seems so familiar to us Unitarian Universalists today – religion was there to give that leg up through social programs and legal protections. Much of that was good, wonderful in fact.
However – and we began to look at this last week – the theology that mankind was simply destined to progress onwards and upwards forever had kernels of trouble deep within it, just waiting to pop. Some of the trouble popped right there in the very end of the 19th century and very beginning of the 20th century.
Because if you believe that humankind is perfectible, and in fact that it is God’s plan for humankind to progress to divine perfection, then it begs the question of which version of humankind is the perfect one. There must be some versions of humanity which are superior to others, right? How would you begin to rank them, and who gets to decide which version is the best? And once you’ve ranked them -- how do you get the rest of the folks, the riff raff, up to the level of the best of humankind?
This liberal theology can be somewhat innocuous when it translates into believing such things like that educated folks are better off than uneducated ones, and so you educate more people – that’s a good outcome of this philosophy. Same with the idea that people with decent incomes would be better off that those who are destitute. Liberals wanted to see that happen, too. All good.
But many of these liberal religious folks, including many of our Unitarian and Universalist foreparents, did not stop there. They also came to believe, for example, that able-bodied people were higher up the ladder than disabled people, and that bright people were better for society than those who were developmentally delayed. So then it seemed natural that you might want to use your social policies and your laws to, say, stop some of those folks from reproducing, if at all possible. And this was the birth of the eugenics movement, the study and practice of selective breeding applied to humans, with the aim of improving the species. Some of our Unitarian and Universalist forefathers were deeply involved in the eugenics movement, and the reason for that was the idea of the perfectibility of humankind, which came directly from our liberal religious theology.
What started out as pretty loving and inspiring certainly took a bad turn there, didn’t it?
But not quite as bad as it was going to get. Because once that ball started rolling, it was really hard to stop. Remember the question still on the table: if humankind can and should be perfected, where do different groups of people fall in the rankings, and who gets to decide where they fall? And the answer to that question depends a lot on who is doing the asking. Liberal religious people of the early 20th century might have answers that range from those that are pretty helpful to those that are pretty immoral, as we’ve just seen.
Adolph Hitler had his own answers to these same questions. Who’s at the top of the human ranking, liberal religious folks wondered, and how can we get better? Hitler answered readily: White people are at the top. Blond people. Germans. Christians – Christians who follow a new version of Christianity which Hitler felt free to develop, thanks again to the permission granted by freedom-loving liberal religion – a new version of Christianity that felt free to leave Jesus’ teachings on love and tolerance far behind.
And Hitler also had a ready answer on how to make sure that humankind proceeded towards his definition of highest human achievement. He asked the “good” people to breed, and he tried to kill all the rest.
Hitler took a theological framework that had been built, bit by bit, by liberal religious hands, by the hands of our Unitarian Universalist ancestors. He took that framework, inserted his evil intent and twisted ideas, and turned it into the Holocaust, and caused World War Two. In my mind’s eye I imagine a generation of Unitarians and Universalists with their mouths agape in the 1930s and 40s and 50s. What just happened here? I imagine them wondering. How did this get so out of control? How did promoting the good in people, and supporting their freedom to explore their faith, go so horribly wrong?
“Onward and upward forever,” by World War Two, seemed like a naïve joke. Liberal religion’s attempt to foster the inherent goodness that must be at the root of every human being now seemed ludicrous, because it was then quite evident that not everyone is good, and those folks who weren’t good weren’t on their way towards improving at all. Human beings are not on the cusp of divinity, it was discovered, not at all. And being free to search for one’s own truth and meaning seemed destined to lead people to some very dark places. That was the lived experience of people of the early part of the 20th century – darkness and evil clearly spreading across a very broken world.
It will not surprise you to hear that the rolls of those who called themselves religiously liberal dropped precipitously after World War Two. It was hard to stand behind a philosophy that seemed so clearly untrue, seemed proven untrue by the very events that everyone in the world had just experienced. During the first half of the 20th century Americans turned in droves to a new form of conservative religious thinking called neo-orthodoxy, which revived notions that had fallen out of favor for a half a century, notions like the fallen nature of man. During and after the wars people wanted to know why there was evil in the world, and neo-orthodoxy had an answer: people are inherently evil. Well, how do we deal with the evil in the world, then, those folks asked? Turn to God, neo-orthodoxy said. Turn to this Source of the highest good, and that Source will teach you how to be good. The bible is how that Source teaches, said this new conservativism, so go back to that and take it at face value and stop putting your own spin on it, because your own spin will lead to evil every time. Didn’t you see what just happened when people were free to decide what the bible really was trying to say? neo-orthodoxy asked. Didn’t you see just how bad people can really be?
This may seem strange, but I have a lot of sympathy for the neo-orthodox movement in its time. I have sympathy for it not only because it makes all the sense in the world as a religious response to the horrors of the two world wars, not to mention the Depression in between them. I also have sympathy towards it because it contains so much truth. After the two world wars, liberal religion – my religion - was left theologically stripped, because its tenets –those five points of the new theology that Clarke promoted – simply did not hold enough water anymore to do any good to anybody who had lived through that horrible time.
But what I also appreciate about the neo-orthodox movement is that the answers provided by that movement actually help our liberal religious theology come back to life in the 21st century. The questions the neo-orthodox answer are questions that liberal religion needs to be able to answer to be a real religion spanning a range of time, because they are real questions that honest and clear thinking people are always going to ask. And I think the time has come for liberal religion, for Unitarian Universalism, to answer some of those questions at long last.
Is humankind progressing onward and upward forever? Clearly, no.
Does having the spark of the divine within us mean that we will automatically be good people? No again.
Are we then fundamentally bad? No, liberal religion maintains. We are made in the image of God, and we have the capacity to be good.
Well, if we have the capacity for good and the capacity for evil, what makes the difference? What pushes humankind towards progress, towards divinity, when we have documented potential for resounding evil?
Liberal religion is now ready, I maintain, to answer this question. The thing that pushes us towards good and towards our divine potential is Love. Love. And if God is love anyway, as many religions believe, then the neo-conservatives are right – it is only God that turns us from evil and towards the good. It is only love, the love we feel from Creation, the love we give to and receive from each other.
Our experience with neo-orthodoxy helps us answer our other historical questions as well, the questions we flubbed back in the day:
Which human beings are better than others? Those who love most and best.
Is a free search for truth dangerous or bound for evil? Not if the underpinning to the search is love.
How do we fight evil in the world? Gandhi and King shout out from history: with love.
And perhaps the most important question of all, at least to this two-part story that I’ve told you: What keeps our liberal religious framework from being co-opted and used to hurt other people? The answer to that question is this: Our liberal religious framework remains true and good when we have it firmly pinned down with love, when love runs through it and in it and under it and when love ties it to the earth and to each other and to the universe in which we find ourselves. We can’t use our liberal theology to lift some people up and keep others down. We can’t use it to tell ourselves that we are better and others are worse. But when we use it to love, then there is no stopping us.
This is why I have great hope for our movement and our faith. Because I think now we have that thing to say to the world that we have been lacking for over a century. Liberal religion is the practice of love – and it’s not always successful, and it’s never very easy, but in liberal religion learning to love each other is what we are trying to do.
Can we change the course of history with this, our latest “new” theological point? That remains to be seen, but I have much hope that the answer is yes.