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Presented January 29, 2012, by Ellen Taylor
Listen to a recording of "Liberal Lights and Bushel
25:11 minutes - 10.1 MB - Liberal Lights and Bushel Baskets .mp3 file.
Today's talk was originally given from this pulpit in 1956 by Reverend Thomas Maloney. Reverend Maloney, a 1952 graduate of Harvard Divinity School, served as minister of this church from 1953 to 1956. I will give Maloney's talk from his point of view and will occasionally interrupt his words with my own, but I will try to be very clear about which words are his and which are mine. (Maloney's words appear in blue in the print version.) The issues Maloney addresses may not exist now in the same way they did then, but I find his words relevant to issues we have faced recently, from the events of September 2001 and their aftermath to our search for a new minister.
In the quietness of this place, surrounded by the all-pervading presence of the Holy, my heart whispers: Keep fresh before me the moments of my High Resolve, that in good times or in tempests, I may not forget that to which my life is committed. Keep fresh before me the moments of my high resolve. - Howard Thurman
(I begin in Maloney's voice, so pretend I am a middle-aged Harvard man.) There is a Unitarian parody of the fundamentalist ditty about having a gospel light that you're not going to hide under a bushel. You're going to let it shine. If you've ever gone to one of those summer conferences of Unitarians and heard the young people sing it, you'll know that I'm speaking about a song beginning, "This liberal light of mine . . . " It's the kind of song where the singers end up standing on the table, so all the world can see their little liberal light. At this point I need hardly add that the song is rendered mainly by teenagers, able to make the step from chair to table-top with ease and grace. These young people may not really know what this liberal light is, why it ought to shine out upon the world, but they certainly know it should.
The elders, most of us who can no longer be classed as youths, even in a generous and sales-minded women's clothing store or men's haberdashery, aren't quite so sure we ought to show our liberal light. In fact there seems to be a quite deliberate and consistent policy in Unitarianism's national organization to keep the light well hidden. We seem to have two bushel baskets, one to hide the liberal light that embarrasses some people so much, and another bushel basket to scoop up hundreds and thousands of people eager for a non-committal sort of church that they can call their own in these days when religiosity is so important. Hence my sermon title: Liberal Lights and Bushel Baskets.
Let me give you a few examples. One of the chief goals - I would say THE chief goal - of the American Unitarian Association is to have total membership in Unitarian churches in the US and Canada go over the 100,000 mark soon. Bar graphs and line graphs, columns of statistics, all sorts of gimmicks are used to turn the enthusiasm of Unitarians red-hot for getting to a tenth of a million members in a hurry. And I don't believe anyone has honestly asked what for, what's to be gained by the bigness. It just seems that Unitarians want to have a more impressive number next to their name in the next year's World Almanac. Or perhaps there is some hazy idea that more Unitarians somehow means more influence and power. One of the most amazing things about Unitarianism has always been that such a small religious body produced so many important people in the history of our country. The most important thing today seems to be the attraction of as many non-controversial, booster-type Unitarians as possible.
[When I first read Maloney's talk, I couldn't help but think of our talk of growth for this church. Last year's search committee survey indicated growth is this congregation's primary goal. But we haven't really talked about why we want to grow, or even what kind of growth we want. Indeed, what's to be gained by bigness? More money in the collection plates? More volunteers to lighten our workload? Influence and power? Over what? At the time I was reluctant to question this too much because I felt that as Board president I should remain as objective as possible. But in my mind, growth is a means to a goal, not a goal in and of itself. I think we need to define what we mean by growth and what we hope to gain from it before we talk much more about it, lest we put the institution on the front burner and its purpose on the back.]
As a second example, one directed apparently to the end of being a safe and non-controversial church, I'd like to tell you something that went on at the annual meeting of the American Unitarian Association three years ago . . . . At the suggestion - or at least encouragement - of the President of the AUA, a motion was put before the delegates from the churches ordering the formation of a committee empowered to eject from Unitarianism all people, especially ministers, who could be shown to have sympathy or connection with a totalitarian system or regime. There was little doubt in anyone's mind that this motion was directed against some Unitarian ministers who were considered to be at least fellow-travelers. Since this motion was not on the agenda, a 2/3rds vote was necessary to have it even be presented for consideration. I was among those voting to bring the question down to the floor. I wanted to know what it was all about. Well, the motion was duly presented, and it looked for a while as though Unitarianism would have its own Subversive Control Board, its un-Unitarian activities committee. Few people got up to defend the likely victims of such a law. But in the final vote the motion was defeated severely. And do you know why? Because one publicity-conscious minister got up and said that it would look pretty bad for a church to admit that it harbored such subversives who had not yet been forced out. Nothing about principles. Nothing about freedom, with truth winning out - an old-fashioned notion, it seems. Expediency, good press, this was all that mattered, and it diverted people who were all set to do the very thing within their own group that they were passing, quite glibly and liberally, resolutions against in their usual cannonade of resolutions.
We've got to make the right impression. We've got to get ahead. We've got to be popular and non-controversial. We've all heard these thing said, but who would have thought the day would come when Unitarian churches would use these things as their main reasons for existence.
One could list incident after incident, policy after policy where, I think, Unitarians have retreated from a truly liberal position. I am not speaking about what some people call "the liberal theological position," but of a free and permissive fellowship, with tolerance and diversity as key modes. Unitarians seem to be as afraid as other churches are of finding something new, different, changing. Or perhaps it isn't that deep. Perhaps it is mainly an effort to seem quietly acceptable so that Unitarian churches too can share in the rush to religion that is supposed to be going on in this land today.
[When Terrell spoke about slavery and abolitionists in September, Dienna wondered during talkback what the Quincy Unitarians were doing at the time. I had just read Reverend Maloney's talk for the first time so I wondered if we'd really want to know. What if Unitarian response to and attitude toward slavery resembled Maloney's characterization of Unitarian behavior during the McCarthy era? I was profoundly disappointed when I read this. I guess I was naïve to think that the national church organization was immune to the paranoia that pervaded this country 60 years ago. But a Unitarian Subversive Control Board? Really? I am relieved to note that the past decade's reincarnation of national paranoia in the guise of patriotism did not appear to infect the UUA.]
Whether or not things are as bad as I have sketched them here, I think Unitarians concerned with the future of a liberal church will agree that freedom and diversity of belief, with the exchange and growth of ideas that perhaps leads inevitably to changes in outlook, are necessary. No one of us claims, I hope, to have a corner on the truth, to be right, while those who disagree are wrong. One of the main attractions of a liberal church is that neither the church nor the minister nor a segment of the church membership claims or would dare claim to be the source of a truth. This is not saying that each person is as right as every other, that we value all thoughts equally. This is the modern popular caricature presented so often in an effort to recruit new church members in some Unitarian churches. "Come to the church where you don't have to believe in anything, or where the minister will never say anything to disturb your fondest beliefs, where there is no reality other than what you want there to be." We have been accused by other churches of being just this sort of church, and some of our churches now seem determined to live up to that description.
We might think for a moment on what are the advantages of our freedom of belief other than the negative, corrosive freedom from having to believe in anything other that what pleases you or flatters you. What do we expect from this atmosphere of freedom? Why do we give or profess to give a minister freedom to speak his mind? And why do we expect to have no church authority tell us what we may or may not think? Sometimes we forget the answers to these questions.
[I wonder if we don't sometimes forget to ask the questions.]
Perhaps I am just old-fashioned, but the major importance of our freedom seems to me to be this. No one person holds all knowledge and truth. Many of us have only tiny corners of truth. Some may even have something that only vaguely resembles truth. But in coming together, in listening to a minister with whom one may disagree quite violently, talking things over with him and with other members of the congregation, each of us sees the truth a bit more clearly, holds a bit more of it a bit more securely for having tested it in the light of reason and honest criticism. The death of this freedom comes when a minister or some of the members of a church feel that there are some things too sacred to talk about, to examine in the light of man's present-day knowledge of what is good and what is true. As soon as a fence is put around any idea, saying that it is too widely believed, too highly held to be discussed in a critical, reasonable fashion, freedom, reason and tolerance have gone from our midst. Unfortunately for the constant compromisers, freedom in religion, as perhaps elsewhere too, cannot be measured out in small or large doses. Either you have it or you don't. If you say we are a free church, but we just don't talk about certain subjects because some one might be offended if we did, then I say we are not a free church. If Unitarians really believe, as they say they do, that liberal religion speaks to the whole of man and the whole of man's experience, then Unitarians should, no matter how painful or unpopular it may be, think and speak in terms of all human problems. We expect our ministers to have a working knowledge of the ordinary world, to be able to speak knowingly about all phases of human existence. This is why we want educated, uncloistered men in our pulpits. We shun the other-worldly sort of minister who sees all life through a flattering fog of sanctity. We do not expect, I think, men who will speak with the authority of the heavens and the ages past, but rather men who can think and speak reasonably, can hold their own in debate without seeking the backing of holy writ or suprahuman authority.
What is more, we expect the people of a church to think for themselves. We expect that they will see their pet ideas and institutions challenged by the minister or some other member of the church. And we expect that they will be able to take such exchange of ideas and opinions. If they demand some sort of hands-off, then they have lessened their own freedom to grow and to know. Put another way, people in a Unitarian church do not have eternally fixed ideas. They seek out the fellowship of other Unitarians not because it's so nice to meet people who think and act just like one's self. At least I hope this is not the idea of a Unitarian church.
People gather themselves in free congregations that they may gain from one another . . . in religious understanding, that they may constantly grow in their religion. We do not have the faith of our fathers in the sense that other churches may. Ours is not an hereditary religion. It is one you must find for yourself. But we do have faith and hope that freedom in religion is important for us. Let us over the years keep and cherish that freedom, use it, extend it. But let us never hide it so that an institution will flourish in the face of a freedom killed with our own hands.
[The national Unitarian organization in the McCarthy era is the context of Reverend Maloney's words. Some things have changed since then. Terrorism has replaced communism as the archenemy. The Unitarians and Universalists have merged, and membership is closer to 200,000 than 100,000, and I don't think today's national organization tries to hide its liberal light under a bushel basket for recruitment purposes.
But Maloney's words still ring true. I'm certainly not the first or only person to compare Patriot Act era hysteria to McCarthyism. Here are two examples - both occurring within the lifetime of many people in this room - in which our national psyche allowed momentary circumstances to overshadow our fundamental American ideal. Maloney's story of the 1953 Unitarian General Assembly illustrates how easily we can find ourselves practicing that which we preach against, how quickly we put our moments of high resolve on the back burner when facing tempests. Maloney's reference to this country's "rush to religion" brings to mind today's ubiquitous mega church and the rhetoric of conservative Christians in partisan politics. And we Unitarians are still often caricaturized as the church where you don't have to believe in anything. And, locally at least, we're still talking about growth. So I find Maloney's message worth repeating.
On a congregational level, we need to remember as we search for a minister that the institution is our vehicle, not our destination. Love is the spirit of this church and service is its law. So as we discuss growth and as we attempt to define ourselves for the purpose of attracting a minister, let us not lose sight of the fact that we are not here for the sake of the institution. The institution is here for the sake of our growth and understanding so that we may be of greater service to our fellow man.
On a national level, this is no time to retreat from what Maloney calls the "truly liberal position" which he defines as a free and permissive fellowship with tolerance and diversity as key modes. National and world issues are complex. We have to be able to talk to each other and challenge each other and not just tolerate diversity of opinion but learn from it.
So finally, even though some of you may not be comfortable with the word "liberal," and even though most of us cannot be classified as "youths," and even though we're not going to stand on tables, we are going to close with hymn # 118, This Little Light of Mine. In Unitarian fashion, you may decide for yourselves individually whether you sing about your "little" light or your " liberal" light.]
# 118 This Little Light of Mine
Not only do I find Maloney's message worth repeating, there are a couple of lines I find worth repeating again for the closing words . . . As soon as a fence is put around any idea, saying that it is too widely believed or too highly held to be discussed in a critical, reasonable fashion, freedom, reason, and tolerance have gone from our midst . . . Let us . . . cherish that freedom, use it, extend it. But let us never hide it so that an institution will flourish in the face of a freedom killed with our own hands.
The Quincy Unitarian Church Home
The list of Selected Sermons.