The Problem with Absolutist Religion

Essay by the Rev. Elizabeth A. Lerner

"The Problem with Salad Bowl Religion" is the title of an opinion essay by Prof. Jon Levenson of Harvard Divinity School, which recently appeared in First Things, a conservative academic theological journal. In it, Levenson begins by quoting anonymously a young Unitarian-Universalist minister whose sermon was excerpted in the Burning Bush, the newsletter of the UUJA (Unitarian-Universalists for Jewish Awareness) and then excerpted again from the Burning Bush for a story in the Jewish Daily Forward on Unitarian-Universalism. As an enthusiastic former student of Prof. Levenson's and a continuing admirer of his work and teaching, I wish I had known that his essay would be appearing, because I am that young Unitarian-Universalist minister; I found his critique insightful, challenging, and provocative, and I feel compelled to respond.

Prof. Levenson reviews some usual defenses of "salad bowl" or "syncretistic" religion early in his essay. He cites the values of open-mindedness, inclusiveness and free thought, the high percentage of Jews who participate in Unitarian-Universalism (8 or 9 %)thus potentially justifying the addition of (in his example) Jewish traditions to activities and holidays, the timeless tendency of ritual and tradition to permeate and influence from one religion and culture to another. He discusses the attractiveness of a faith community whose world view requires no one to renounce their past in order to find affirmation, and the attraction of this for mixed marriages, which halakhic Judaism condemns. He mentions post-modernist mind sets, which with their deconstructivist understanding of the world challenge the singular authority and identity of traditional religions.

His critique of such defenses of Unitarian-Universalism occurs on many levels. In terms of mixed marriages, Prof. Levenson considers "by far the easiest resolution...the additive one - to include elements of both traditions giving little or no thought to how they fit together to form any sort of integrated structure." I agree with him in so far as he articulates a challenge to which Unitarian-Universalism has so far risen only weakly, sporadically and congregationally, rather than denominationally. Indeed I believe the greatest challenge facing Unitarian-Universalism today, and the one we must heed to ensure the future of our faith, is how to address our religious and cultural diversity more deeply.

Being myself half-Jewish, close with the Jewish side of my family, fairly well-educated in in Hellenistic and modern Judaism, observant of the holidays, and possessing a smattering of Hebrew, I have heard too many stories like the one about the UU church's Yom Kippur potluck (Yom Kippur being a Jewish holiday observed fasting and attendance at synagogue), or the doughnut holes brought to a UU congregation's Passover seder (always marked by the consumption of unleavened bread, usually 'matzoh') or the minister's December sermon which left the congregation feeling that essentially Hannukah, Kwanzaa, Christmas and the solstice are all about the same things: freedom, hope, light in darkness and faith in the face of adversity. My own sermon on Hannukah this past year was on the challenges that face us in truly understanding and dealing with the stories of our heritages: Hannukah is not only about lighted menorahs and the rededication of the Jerusalem temple, it is not about a miraculous candle, and it is certainly not about a struggle for religious freedom. The Hannukah story is complicated and challenging, founded on a legend about Jews (the Maccabees) who were zealots as well as heroes, killing not only their persecutors but also other Jews who were not courageous enough to die for their faith, brave warriors who imposed their faith on many when they won dominion over Judea.

When it comes to Judaism I know enough, identify enough and care enough to be able to engage with my congregation in worship, events and discussions that I believe are not just additive solutions with " little or no thought" involved. And I know a number of ministers who put a lot of thought and research into the work they do with the world's religions. But no minister can know every background, every religion, every heritage, deeply and with personal authenticity. And when it comes to Kwanzaa,or Ramadan, I know I know there are many stones I am leaving unturned. Prof. Levenson's point about our easy solutions must be well taken. When we settle for feel-good interpretations of religious history and scripture, or refrain from working in a deep way and on a denominational level to wrestle with the questions and challenges which do not cease in an interfaith family, couple or individual, the ministers and lay leaders of Unitarian-Universalism are failing many of our members. Either we are abandoning them to flounder in a morass of conflicts and misinformation, or we are healing them lightly with superficial treatments and lofty phrases leaving the dark and difficult issues of families, theologies, and traditions untreated by the individuals and communities which are called and expected to resolve them.

My disagreement with Prof. Levenson arises around some of his opinions where they are not so much critiques of particular instances or tendencies as assumptions about the nature of liberal, pluralistic religion as represented by Unitarian-Universalism. His argument is build on these suppositions: 1) his aforementioned description of the "additive solution" of pluralism as easy and ill-considered; 2) that in contrast to halakhic Judaism, the ruling ideology behind what Prof. Levenson terms "hyphenated religion" is merely personal preference, obedience to nothing larger than "self-expression, aesthetic pleasure, familial nostalgia, ethnic identification, whatever;" 3) that this results in the semblance of observance paired with a denial of (ie. Sinai's) covenantal claims, mistaking "the appearance of a religious act for the act itself." Prof. Levenson ends his opinion with some pointed questions regarding religious practices: "in what structure of authority have they become embedded, and in the service of what affirmation do they now stand? And will that authority still be obeyed and will that affirmation still be made when the price of doing so is inconvenience, monetary loss, personal anguish, persecution or martyrdom?" He answers them himself with his conclusion; "Hyphenated obedience is no obedience at all."

There are many Unitarian-Universalists whose turn to pluralistic, liberal religion was neither easy nor ill-considered. Often such a break with one's heritage strains or destroys family relationships. People struggle, sometimes for decades, before they come to such decisions. And even interfaith individuals, couples or families find that the challenges of such a life are ongoing and change over time, requiring tremendoius energy, time, honesty and study in order to integrate differences. To be sure, not everyone gives religion, liberal or otherwise, such consideration and priority. Just as their are shallow Jews and Hindus, clinging to the obvious of the faith, there are shallow UU's rejoicing in their newfound religious freedom only, and not the responsibility. But I am talking about the faith as we are called to live it, not as some live it. For those Unitarian-Universalists who do put in the energy, time, honesty and study, to integrate differing religious backgrounds, it is never easy.

It is a common critique of Unitarian-Universalism that it answers to no higher authority than the self. But this can be a superficial criticism. Modern Unitarianism and Universalism, drawing on roots in transcendentalism and earlier movements, grew out of the shaping of theologians like Ralph Waldo Emerson and James Luther Adams. Emerson's heretical injunction delivered in his Divinity School Address: "Obey thyself." reads like theological narcissism unless one believes, as Emerson preached, that God shows in the self, fortifies the self, admonishes and illuminates the self, which would otherwise be meaningless, so blind to goodness, virtue or the sacred as to have no justification for upholding and obeying commandments from deep within. As for affirmation to which Unitarian-Universalists give service, the best of these is laid out by James Luther Adam's Five Smooth Stones of Liberalism: 1. Revelation is continuous. 2. All relations between persons ought ideally to rest on mutual, free consent and not on coercion. 3. There is a moral obligation to direct one's effort toward the establishment of a just and loving community. 4. The form of virtue is not immaculate, rather it requires social incarnation. 5. Resources, divine and human, are available for the achievement of meaningful change, justifying an attitude of ultimate optimism.

I know an orthodox Jew who left Judaism, because he no longer believed. This caused a long estrangement, and permanent condemnation on the part of his family, even unto death. If he had stayed, believing nothing of orthodox Judaism's truths, daily a hypocrite, then indeed he would have been entrenched in the "mere semblance of a Jewish observance without sustenance from the deepest sources of Judaism." But he left, intermarried with a lapsed Catholic, and they joined the Unitarian-Universalist denomination, which they perceived as a pluralistic faith which in its very syncretism, its conflict, its attempt at religious even-handedness, and in its failures, was ultimately truer to their understanding of the world, people, culture and God than Judaism or Catholicism. In doing this both were ultimately obedient to a morality and authority which stood at odds with the religions in which they were raised, but this should not be confused with obeying no structure of authority, recognizing no affirmation to serve, and certainly not with thus ducking inconvenience, monetary loss, personal anguish, persecution or martyrdom. Liberal religion has its martyrs and persecuted too, from Michael Servetus, dying at the stake with his heresy "On The Errors of the Trinity" strapped to his thigh, to Joseph Priestly, the discoverer of oxygen, whose home and laboratory were torched by a mob angry at his Unitarian religion so that he fled, in fear for his life, to America, to the Unitarian-Universalist killed a few years ago in Florida while serving as an escort at a women's pregnancy and abortion clinic, or my own former parishioner who was shot by John Salvi at the Brookline Ma. Planned Parenthood clinic where she worked because of what she believed.

Ultimately Prof. Levenson's and my theological differences are irreconcilable, because his are those of an absolutist, and mine are not. As he joked more than once in class, "Relativism may work for you, but it doesn't work for me." And perhaps any pluralistic solution to religion's diverse truths and texts may seem to some superficial or self-concerned. But I trust that in Prof. Levenson's recognition of the belief that most religions have in their own validity, he will at least believe me when I witness as a minister to tears shed, lives and families wrenched apart, shots fired, on account of people choosing to live and work according to Unitarian-Universalism's unequivocal commitment to the inherent worth and dignity of every person, to justice for all, to acceptance, to searching, to democracy. When I look out at my gay and straight, female and male, white and brown, Jewish and Christian and humanist and pagan people and families, linked across every line of gender, sexual orientation, race, culture and religious heritage, everyone there because they believe they belong and they want to be there and with each other, learning from each other, I am proud of them and their openness and love for each other, and I am proud to be their minister.

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