A Zen Priest Ponders the Mysteries of “Liberal Religion”

A Zen Priest Ponders the Mysteries of “Liberal Religion” May 2, 2018






Some time ago I was corresponding with a Catholic priest about something or other, and almost as an aside he drilled down on what my theology was. I replied “I’m a ‘liberal Buddhist,’ which is a subset of the tradition of ‘liberal religion.'”

He replied how he was confused how a political position can be collapsed into a religious term. I replied that “liberal religion” is a term of art, which dates back several hundred years. “Liberal” in this sense means anti-supernatural and specifically, rationalist. And, so, to be clear my “liberal religion” is synonymous with “rational religion.” The assertion also implies a certain universalist inclination, in the modern sense of “all religions contain truth.” So, generally liberal religion is this-worldly, rational, and is universalist.

He grumbled a bit about Protestants, but mostly in good spirits, I thought.

I’ve been sitting with that exchange for a while now. While my characterization is accurate, historically, I do think it can be misleading, and it could use some tweaking.

For one thing I found an article at Wikipedia that uses the term liberal religion to stand for the contemporary and lovely mess that is Unitarian Universalism. I had to go to “religious liberalism” to find a more historical statement at Wikipedia. Although I did find a nice Britannica article called “theological liberalism.” I also found a list of articles at the Huffington Post categorized as “Liberal Religion.” Including, I noticed when I went to it, several by me.

For “rational religion” I had to go to the bottom of the second page of google results before finding anything directly relevant to what I’m talking about here. So, a historical term, for sure, but lost to common usage.

In this era of the spiritual but not religious, while I am sympathetic to liberal religion being synonymous with Unitarian Universalism, I hope we also might reclaim that use of liberal religion in a more narrow sense of this worldly, rational, and universalist. Now, liberal religion might stand alone, and I’ve met a couple of religious studies academics who seem to fit that bill. Although, I’ve mostly seen it applied as a subset of another tradition. Hence my “liberal Buddhist,” or to be most accurate, “liberal Zen Buddhist.” And, among my friends, many are what I’d call “liberal Buddhists,” “liberal Christians,” and “liberal Jews.”

No doubt there are others within the world’s faiths, particularly here in the United States with a not always-observed but still written right into law protections for holding any religious view at all right up to and including rejecting all religion. Out of that lovely and not always fun mess the possibilities of liberal religion has asserted itself.

It really annoys a lot of people. So-called “true believers,” those who hold fundamentalist or simply exclusivist views of their religion despise religious liberals. Heretics are pretty much always hated more than infidels. And, also, the contemporary atheist community, at least at the polemical end, also really, really do not like religious liberals, as the balance of their arguments against religion are based upon the most fundamentalist versions of particular faiths. They will even go so far as to assert with the fundamentalists, liberal versions of a given religion are not the true versions. Irony dancing with irony…

I offer a different view.

The world’s religion are a treasure trove of immeasurable wealth. But, to sort through the dross and to find the gold we need to bring a bit of skepticism to the search. Look for the teachings that don’t obviously defy the world described within the scientific endeavor. Use the brain that god gave you. And, most of all look for the light of care and connection that births the universalist hope, love for the world and the great mess.

That’s the true heart of liberal religion.

And, I’m so grateful to have found it. I believe it might even save the world.

Browse Our Archives