What is Liberal Faith?
Rev. Meredith Garmon
Free of Creed and Canon
Liberal (from liber, as in liberty) faith is faith that is free. While we choose to be bound by covenant -- a shared commitment to walk together, supporting and accepting one another and encouraging one another to spiritual growth -- we are bound neither by creed nor by canon. Liberal faith is not belief-centric. For us, your religion is not about what you believe. Rather:
- Religion is about the way you live: the ethics and values that guide your life.
- Religion is about community: the people with whom you choose to join in faith community, and the rituals, songs, and stories that affirm and strengthen community connection.
- Religion is about experience: the experiences of moments of transcendence, awe, mystery, wonder, beauty, interconnection and oneness.
So what is faith, if it isn't faith in some set of beliefs?
“Religious faith is the act by which we commit ourselves with the fullness of our being, insofar as we are able, to whatever can transform and save us from the evil of devoting ourselves to the transient goods of social success, financial opulence, or even scholarship or beauty or social concern.” (Virginia Knowles, describing the thought of Unitarian theologian Henry Nelson Wieman)This fits the traditional understanding that the outcome of faith is personal transformation and transcendence of ego-centric desires. We can embrace this valuable function of faith without the unfortunate notion that faith requires irrational conviction that flies in the face of evidence.
Second, faith is "the act of opening our hearts to the unknown" (American Buddhist writer Sharon Salzberg). This fits the tradition of distinguishing faith from reason and evidence. While reason and evidence tell us about what we can know, faith is an approach -- specifically, an open-hearted approach -- to the unknown. Rather than merely believing without evidence, however, faith is a willingness to go forward to take in new evidence and new experience, ever-willing to be transformed. This throwing ourselves into the unknown can feel like leaping -- hence, "leap of faith."
"Faith" names the antidote to ego preoccupations with achievement and with knowing. Faith is the courage to offer up all that we are to the world around us, not knowing what the world will ask or what we will find in ourselves to offer. Faith's opposite is not doubt, but despairing withdrawal.
Third, faith is “a way of knowing, construing, and interpreting existence.” (theology professor James Fowler). This preserves our very common sense that Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, etc. are faiths. They each know, construe, and interpret existence in a particular way.
The idea of faith as a set of unshakable convictions impervious to evidence does convey, for all its misdirection, one implication that is true: evidence alone is not enough. Evidence is not the same thing as meaning and does not suffice for meaning. Mere phenomena present us with “a blooming, buzzing confusion” (William James) until interpreted, contextualized, made sense of. Animals -- most notably humans -- must make meaning from the raw phenomenal evidence. There are many various ways to put the same evidence together into a structure of value and meaning, and each way is a faith.
Faith is best understood not so much as something we have or lack, but as something we do and sometimes fail to do. We "do faith" when we commit to the fullness of our being, with hearts open to the unknown and minds engaged in meaning-making.
Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams (1901-1996) identified the "five smooth stones" of liberalism in religion:
- Openness to New Truth. "Religious liberalism depends first on the principle that revelation is continuous. Meaning has not been finally captured. Nothing is complete, and thus nothing is exempt from criticism." Our religious tradition is a living tradition because we are always learning.
- Freedom. "All relations between persons ought ideally to rest on mutual, free consent and not on coercion." We freely choose to enter into relationship with one another.
- Justice. We are morally obligated to direct our "effort toward the establishment of a just and loving community. It is this which makes the role of the prophet central and indispensable in liberalism."
- Institution Building. Religious liberals "deny the immaculate conception of virtue and affirm the necessity of social incarnation....Justice is an exercise of just and lawful institutional power." Institution building involves the messiness of claiming our power amid conflicting perspectives and needs, rather than the purity of ahistorical, decontextualized ideals.
- Hope. "The resources (divine and human) that are available for the achievement of meaningful change justify an attitude of ultimate optimism."