The folk song, Bobby McGee, has a line which has always haunted me. "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose???, Nothin' ain't worth nothin' and it's free, oh boy!" When I worked in probation I met many run-away people for whom that empty definition of freedom seemed to be a true description. Freedom meant not being accountable to anyone or for anything. When Martin Luther King made his famous "I have a dream" speech, he gave a vivid picture of a world without racial prejudice where people of colour could truly be free from oppression "Free at last, free at last, thank God I am free at last." Here freedom is equated with liberation from tyranny. When George W. Bush talks about freeing Iraqi people in the name of democracy, I have a feeling of dissonance. What he calls "freedom" seems more like exploitation for his own energy-focused purpose.
As Unitarian Universalists we refer to ourselves as a liberal religion. We covenant together for a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. From outside our denomination some people think that that means we are so open-minded that we accept everyone and every idea so like Bobby McGee we have "nothing left to lose."
Ours is a creedless faith. We believe that:- no single religion has a monopoly on wisdom; that the answers to the important religious questions change from generation to generation; and that the ultimate truth about God, creation, death, meaning and the human spirit cannot be captured in a narrow statement of faith. The mystery is always greater than the name. We do not require our members to subscribe to a particular theology in order to join our congregations. Instead we encourage individuals to garner insights from all the world's faiths, from science, from feminism, poetry and experience and each one of us shapes our own personal faiths. However, although the individual is the ultimate source of religious authority, it is not the only source. If it were the only source, we could easily fall prey to the condition which afflicted Otto Von Bismark, the German Chancellor, of whom it was said, that he believed firmly and deeply in a God who had the remarkable faculty of always agreeing with him.
Our individual views are tempered by history and need always to be tested within the crucible of our religious community. Both our Unitarian and our Universalist tradition rejected the notion that higher authorities be they rabbis, theologians, or bishops could impose their views on the laity and this is the origin of our freedom of belief. But our traditions also supply us with a rich legacy of positive affirmation from Universalism's faith in a benevolent god to Unitarianism's assurance that human beings have within themselves the capacity to shape their future.
Freedom of belief exists in dynamic tension with the insights of our history and the wisdom of our community. It is true that we welcome the devout atheist and the ardent Christian, but one could never advocate racism or genocide and still in a meaningful sense call oneself a Unitarian Universalist.
Our religious search requires that we are both free and responsible. The word "freedom" comes from an ancient Norse root verb that means to become loving. Freedom is not a state of being, but is more accurately a choice for becoming. So our religious freedom is about becoming never about just being. As freethinkers we need to keep expanding to stay evergreen and avoid psycho-sclerosis -- the hardening of mind and spirit. Our responsibility is to deal with the diversity which our freedom produces not to shy away from it. Avoiding or ignoring our differences may make for more comfort, but the avoidance will not encourage us to move along in our search for truth and meaning.
Giving voice to deeply held beliefs can be a transformative experience. When you make the effort to put your thoughts into words, you not only feel more free, but you also become aware and more conscious of what you really think! Some Unitarian Universalist churches make a time in the services sometimes as part of chalice-lighting, where individuals make short faith statements. Articulating our beliefs helps us, helps others and makes it easier for us to speak openly about our beliefs to others outside our church when we have practiced in the context of our community. Our personal search for truth and meaning carries the responsibility that we do not hold our beliefs rigidly. We need to be able to blur our boundaries to allow humanism to discipline our affinity for mystical experience; to discover the Buddhist or Christian truths which enrich our rational thought and acknowledge the earth-centred nature of existence which can be forgotten in high-minded philosophy. The beauty of our religion is that as we each tell our stories and as we listen to each others wisdom we can learn from it all.
A good example of this was in a recent Hamilton Unitarian Universalist chuch newsletter where Allison, the Minister, stated:-
"I have always been grateful that this church is relaxed about language and is accepting of the diversity of belief and background that makes up our community. The humanists know that the theists need to hear the word "God" every now and again, and the Christians know that it means a lot to the pagans to hear "Earth Mother" and "Goddess" from time to time. The agnostics and atheists come to worship even though they are not sure what if anything they are worshipping and the Buddhists bow their heads in prayer although they may be meditating, we can't really tell!
"Social activists understand that some people need to be spiritual (even if they are not sure what it means) and the mystics that for some people religion is about what you do not what you feel, and they respect that. We recognize that we come from different traditions but there is a unity and a universality that shines through all that distinguishes us. That spirit is what we truly celebrate in our services."
For many of us, becoming Unitarian Universalist was a liberating experience. We were freed from rigid creeds, doctrines and authorities which restricted our spiritual growth. Freedom also includes the responsibility to articulate our beliefs, to understand and include the beliefs of others and to put our beliefs into action through our behaviour.
Marion Ham summed up these ideas in the words of one of our hymns which see each of us as a stream.
"As tranquil streams that meet and merge/ and flow as one to seek the sea/ our kindred hearts and minds unite/ to build a church that shall be free. Free from the bonds that bind the mind/ to narrow thought and lifeless creed/ free from a social code that fails/ to serve the cause of human need. A freedom that reveres the past/ but trusts the dawning future more/ and bids the soul in search of truth/ adventure boldly and explore. Prophetic church the future waits/ your liberating ministry/ go forward in the power of love/ proclaim the truth that makes us free."
Buehrens, J.A. (1993). The Unitarian Universalist Pocket Guide. Skinner, Boston. 111 pp.