Liberal Religion Then and Now

A number of people have asked about what I said at the conference in Zaragoza, Spain, commemorating the 500th anniversary of the birth of Michael Servetus. I spoke in Spanish using a detailed outline rather than a fully written text. A significant part of my presentation time was spent in a question and answer session with the audience. The audience, by the way, was overwhelmingly Spaniards. Most of them knew little or nothing about Unitarian Universalism.

Below is a very condensed version of my comments:

Imagine if Michael Servetus could return to life today. What would he think of a religious movement that venerated him as a hero and martyr? What might he think when he realized that this movement, the Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists, embrace liberal Christians, agnostics, atheists, Buddhists, pagans and all kinds of combinations of the above. What would he think of a religion that rejects all creeds?

There are, however, some important similarities between Servetus and modern Unitarian Universalists. While most modern UUs would not recognize the theological arguments of the 16th century, the essence of how we approach religion is very close to the approach of the young Servetus. Indeed, once we move beyond the details of the theology, the parallels are striking:

  • Freedom of thought is a core value
  • Use of reason is held in high esteem
  • Lack of deference to accepted teachings (orthodoxy).
  • No fear of being considered heretical
  • View that there is no conflict between religion and science

There are powerful historical parallels as well. Like Servetus, we live in a time in which a revolution in communications is creating pervasive cultural change. In the time of Servetus, it was the printing press. In our time, of course, it is electronic communications and the internet.

However, there are also profound differences. Religion was at the center of life in his time. Today, especially here in Europe, religion has experienced a dramatic decline. Churches are almost empty today.

Today we see people in the modern world too often presented with terrible options. On the one hand is religion that is rigid and anachronistic. Worse yet is fundamentalism that rejects the modern world, that is defensive and that tends toward violence. On the other hand is the banality and emptiness of secular consumer society.

Liberal religion like the movement I represent offers another, and, I believe, more viable option. We seek to build on what is best in our religious traditions while embracing openness and new possibilities for the future.

At this point I went on to describe Unitarian Universalism in America and Unitarianism and Unitarian Universalism in the world. I gave some brief history. I spoke about the major groups in Transylvania, Northeast India, the UK, Canada and the Philippines. I also told them about the many emerging groups in Africa, Asia and Latin America. I did this in the context of saying that the urge toward liberal religion, the urge to reexamine the teachings of the past and seek a vital new spirituality, exists at all times and in all cultures.

The future challenges are many. New forms of communication and mobility challenge us to create new forms of gathering that go beyond the traditional model of a local parish. The number of people who embrace the principles of liberal religion and who hunger for spiritual depth is many millions. We need to learn to engage them in new ways.

We live in times very much like those in which Servetus lived. These are times of rapid change, of seeking new forms of religious expression. Our challenge, as it was in the 16th century, is to leave behind what is rigid, empty and lifeless. We honor Michael Servetus as a martyr and hero not for his specific theological formulations, but for his love of truth, his openness to new insight, his spirit of adventure.

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