Salvation by Character

Salvation by Character January 25, 2009

This afternoon Rev. Dr. Davidson Loehr led a seminar on “The Ancient Origins of Liberal Religion.” He began with examples of altruistic behavior in the animal world. He talked about the epic of Gilgamesh, the great religions of the Axial Age, the Greek-influenced writings of Origen and Augustine, and Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), who is regarded as the father of modern liberal religion. All of these sources deal with the question of “how to live a good life” and, as Rev. Loehr continually reminded us, are not dependent on God, gods, creeds, or priests. It was an excellent history lesson, and I won’t attempt to condense 3½ hours into a blog entry.

Rev. Loehr also discussed an essay he wrote advocating “salvation by character” as a center for Unitarian Universalism. In it, Rev. Loehr does a good job of explaining why scientism, political liberalism, and theological double-talk have failed to sustain UU churches. And his suggestion to draw from the best of our ancient roots to form a new religious center has merit.

What’s troubling is that it assumes “how to live” is the only (or at least the primary) question. It ignores the deep, eternal questions of “where do we come from?” and “where are we going?” It ignores individual religious experiences – those mystical episodes of personal revelation (some minor, some life-changing) that have been a part of religion for as long as we’ve been human. The idea of the interconnectedness of all things isn’t simply an intellectual concept – it’s the result of countless personal experiences of unity with God and the Universe.

The non-theistic concepts of how to live are important, and I’ll grant that they’re something folks with different views of God and/or Goddess can share. But in his search for “integrity” (i.e. – discounting any aspect of supernaturalism), Loehr writes off what has been a key part of religion since religion began.

This is what Paganism brings to Unitarian Universalism and to our larger society – religious experience. In our circles and in our daily practice, we commune with the Divine, we connect to each other and to the world around us, and we build and sustain relationships across different levels and states of being.

Salvation by character may very well become a new center for Unitarian Universalism. It would be an improvement over the status quo, and there is nothing in it I would reject. It’s what’s not in it that’s the problem.

For me, religion without religious experience is incomplete.

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