Our Story of Religious Freedom: The Future by Rev. Anthony Makar
On this Mother’s Day, I am asking a question that was on the heart and mind of the Mother of our religious tradition: Queen Isabella of Transylvania.
What if shift happens?
In her day, 450 years ago, what the King believed was what each of his subjects ought to believe, on pain of persecution and death.
Equally, 450 years ago, what the preacher preached was what each of his hearers ought to believe, on pain of being declared a sinner and cast out, or worse.
But Queen Isabella asked the question: What would happen if government granted protection, not persecution, for Catholics and Lutherans and Calvinists and Jews and Muslims and Unitarians alike?
What, furthermore, would happen if preachers no longer saw congregants as empty bank accounts to fill with all the coins of their professional wisdom, but rather as fellow journeyers of life, and the preacher proclaims wisdom as best as he or she knows, and congregants are informed, provoked, maybe even inspired, but in no way should they be afraid of disagreeing. “No one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied.”
What if shift happens?
Well, it did happen, unfortunately after Queen Isabella’s death. But her son kept her dream of religious freedom alive and made it real and called it the Edict of Torda.
Ever since, we have been living this shift.
And now, here we are, in a world that is achingly beautiful and egregiously oppressive and painful, and we ask how our Unitarian Universalism is doing in proclaiming a compelling vision that guides us in savoring what is beautiful and saving what is broken.
We ask what truths our Unitarian Universalism has revealed about the depths of our world and our own inner depths.
Prophetic church, the future waits your liberating ministry;
go forward in the power of love, proclaim the truth that makes us free.
That was the last stanza of the hymn sung 57 years ago, when Unitarianism and Universalism voted to get married and become Unitarian Universalism.
So how are we doing, going forward?
How will we go forward?
It’s time for more shift to happen.
I say this with regard to our understanding of the word “freedom.” How acquainted are we, truly, with the dynamic that that word puts its finger on?
I would suggest that, first of all, freedom is evolutionary in intent. It’s part of the larger universe story, in which smaller parts continually find ways to come together and form larger and larger integrated wholes. Single cells doing their own individual thing, then a step-up to individual cells coming together and acting in unison, as organisms. Then simple multi-celled organisms coming together to form bodies containing different organs. Then social organisms like ants and bees forming complex communities functioning as integrated systems. Then social organisms like ourselves forming even higher-level complex communities, in which such powers as language-use, imagination, reason, ambition and others have been harnessed to create religion, civilization, agriculture, music, art, technology, and everything else we know today.
That’s the larger interdependent-web-of-all-existence story we are a part of. And, for organisms like ourselves, living in higher-level complex communities, freedom is the tool we use to step-up.
To make shifts happen.
Freedom is the lever that moves, when things feel stuck.
Freedom is the shovel that digs, when the spiritual seed we are is aching to grow, and it needs soil and rain and sun.
Freedom is the pen with which King John Sigismund signed his name, and made the Edict of Torda law.
Freedom is a tool meant to serve our Unitarian Universalist evolution as we strive, like all of life, to form larger and larger integrated wholes within and beyond our congregations.
But the dynamism of freedom is surprisingly complex, and at times can block evolution. This is the second thing we really need to understand.
Here’s what I’m talking about.
Freedom has a yin-yang quality to it. There’s not just one kind of freedom. There’s two kinds, and one both leads to, and undermines, the other.
One kind of freedom essentially says NO, and another kind of freedom says YES.
The NO kind of freedom exerts itself in defensive ways. Don’t tread on me. Don’t impose limits on me. It’s freedom-from.
And when it does that, it creates a spaciousness untouched by outside influences. A vacuum, if you will—and nature wants to fill every vacuum. Meaning that the NO kind of freedom always leads to the YES kind emerging, which is about making concrete commitments that bring a person closer to the kind of life they do want or to things they do want to do.
But the YES kind of freedom is offensive to the NO kind. This gets to the complicated heart of things. The NO kind of freedom insists on liberty from concrete commitments and positive affirmations, even the ones that its very own efforts have given birth to.
And lest all this seem too remote and abstract, let’s see it unfolding in our midst, in the context of real spaces we regularly experience in our Unitarian Universalist congregations today.
One space is like a decompression chamber for folks who’ve had difficult experiences in other religious settings but that has not diminished their hunger for community and for the spiritual search. In the decompression chamber, they get to recover. They get to question, to doubt, to redefine. If God is something they doubt, or triggers bad memories, and someone speaks that word aloud in their midst, they are going to give that person some feedback. People in the decompression chamber might not be able to tell you what they believe, but they have little difficulty telling you what they don’t believe.
That’s one real space in our midst, and here is another: it’s like a garden, and it’s populated by the children of those who are in the decompression chamber. Whereas the decompression chamber adults are all about NO, their children, who grew up in the Unitarian Universalist faith, are more under the influence of YES. YES, who or what is this thing called God? YES, my friends at school are utterly compelled by the Christian Bible, so I want to know: where is my Unitarian Univeralist Bible, that I could read and study? The garden children, who have been a part of the faith all their lives, want to grow down deep roots in UU soil. They want to discover deep truths in their UU faith. They want to feel compelled enough to not ultimately have to leave Unitarian Universalism, because there’s not enough YES to it.
These are two real spaces within our congregations, and both are valuable for the people who inhabit them, and it’s not any problem at all that they should both exist, but it does become a problem when the decompression chamber style of freedom—the NO kind—takes center stage and prevents YES freedom from doing the work of developing a religion that needs more positive definition, since it is but a baby. A religion with old roots, yes, all the way down to our collective mother Queen Isabella; but when Unitarianism and Universalism came together in 1961, a new being was born which the world has never seen before.
And the world needs it. It needs someone to tell a compelling story about how to live richly and well in this time when all the various great world religions, once hermetically sealed-off from each other, are now mixing and mingling freely, and there is not a single way, truth, light where religious matters are concerned. The world wants to know, How do we experience the Sacred moving in our midst? What saves us from despair? What are our stories of this? What are our beliefs? What are our rituals? How do we live into this world of many ways, without getting cynical, or shallow?
The world needs someone to tell this story. Of how shift might happen physically, socially, and spiritually for a time that continues to witness the ancient travesty of the haves and have nots, the insiders and outsiders, the privileged and oppressed. We are not satisfied with promises of justice in some hereafter; we are called to create love and justice now; and the world wants to know, What gives us our hope for continuing to show up? How do we do the hard work of justice without creating circular firing squads or just firing squads of any type? What does love and justice actually look like? What are our stories of failure and success that we can learn from and we can teach to our children and to our children’s children, to help put them on the path?
The world wants to know.
And the NO kind of freedom can’t help us here.
Only the YES kind of freedom can.
For 57 years, since Unitarianism and Universalism married, the NO kind of freedom has prevailed, has put a tight leash on the YES kind, and it honestly helps to explain why our total denominational membership has basically flat-lined at 250,000.
For 57 years, that’s where our numbers have stayed.
Talk about a revolving door. People in, people out.
It’s time for shift to happen.
The NO kind of freedom must tolerate the YES kind in its midst.
The NO kind still belongs. There is still need for the decompression chamber space.
But it cannot take over all the spaces in our congregations. It must just be one space among many, and it must graciously understand that.
I dream of a future where we are learning to tell our story more fully and more vividly than ever before. A future where we are not afraid of the creations that our YES freedom takes us to.
Since 1985, people have been reciting the words of the Fourth Principle which affirms “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning,” but have we really figured out the “responsibility” part yet? How to give more than lip service to that?
But forward into our future, things will be different. We will become clear about how to hold each other accountable to our vision of covenant-based community life, where values of both compassion and justice reign.
Certainly since 1961, we’ve been struggling to articulate a coherent theology about what it means to show up as a Unitarian Universalist. We collectively affirmed the Purposes and Principles in 1985, updated them in 1995, and that helped somewhat, but we’ve not arrived yet.
The challenge is that, somehow over 450 years, what the Edict of Torda said led to our UU uberbelief that it’s not possible for us, given our diversity, to have meaningful religious beliefs in common. That we do not offer the world a coherent body of distinctively Unitarian Universalist beliefs that speaks compellingly to the perennial issues of life and the pressing issues of the day. We invite many individual voices to share what they believe, but as for Unitarian Universalism’s belief voice: it doesn’t have one. That would offend the NO freedom instinct in us.
But YES freedom wants it. YES freedom wants to give Unitarian Universalism a voice that can inform and guide our individual voices, all to the end of people feeling—truly feeling—like they belong to something larger than themselves which creates revolutionary love and holy beauty in this world.
Forward into our future, despite the fact it feels impossible, we will press on. We will once again face the bewildering diversity of beliefs of the people in our pews, and it will feel like a solid, resolute bottom—but this time we will realize that the bottom is false, that there can be a foundation for us that is broader and deeper than we ever imagined, and it will proclaim our unity, and it will make us proud, and it will make us strong.
And there is something else which I dream for our future. One more thing.
The YES freedom in me wants us to fill-in the Bible-shaped hole in our Unitarian Universalist hearts. That’s a big thing to say, I know—“bible-shaped hole”—but I will argue that Unitarianism and Universalism and Unitarian Universalism came to be born in large part out of how they engaged with the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.
That’s for another sermon, which I have actually already preached and need to preach again.
But for now, the dream is this: we tell a new history of how the Sacred can be known, in a world that is very different from that of 2500 or 2000 years ago. It starts with a section that showcases scriptures from those old worlds, because those are our roots. So much is profound that can be found there, so many stories that we don’t ever want to let go of.
But then our Bible turns to a second section, where we collect our Unitarian, Universalist, and Unitarian Universalist stories. We hold our own history close to us—our successes, our failures. We discern within it how the Mystery is moving us, where it is taking us….
Then there is a third section, in which our Unitarian Universalist theology is articulated, and we go to that for inspiring thoughts, for provocative thoughts, for comforting thoughts, to help us show up as Unitarian Universalists to whatever life brings.
Section four articulates what it means to be Beloved Community and how to keep covenant with each other. Our liturgies would live there too—liturgies that all our congregations would use.
Section five is about our vision of love and justice: our beautiful vision of a world made fair, and all her people one.
That would be our Bible. Not some imaginary infinitely expanding wikipedia text that, printed out, would be an entire library. It’s got to be something to hold in the hand. Something to go to wherever you are, for wisdom, for encouragement and inspiration, for Unitarian Universalist light that proclaims a compelling vision that guides us in savoring what is beautiful and saving what is broken.
This could be our future, which our YES freedom makes possible, but only if the NO freedom that is also in our midst lets it.
Like all of life, Unitarian Universalism is on a journey to become a larger integrated whole.
Time for a new chapter.
Time for a seismic shift.