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Wednesday, July 3, 2002


Marcia L. wrote:

I remember our recent minister, Craig Moro, teaching a class at our church in which we made a chart listing many religions and their attributes. Being revealed or having had a direct message from God is part of some religions but not all. Confucianism and Taoism come to mind, but there are others buried too deeply in my muddy mind to bring forth.

I was thinking about this last night, too, trying to figure out how my idea might apply to religious humanism, which also doesn't appeal to revelation — and which has some similarities to Confucianism. (I'll come back to Confucianism and Taoism in a moment.) Here are a few additional thoughts:

Religious humanists tend to point to "experience" and "science" as their sources of knowledge, and to "nature" as their ultimate reality. In a way, they treat nature the way that "revealed" religions treat revelation. Scholars studying religious humanism would be interested in the ways that nature has an authoritative or granted place the way it "just is," in the worldview of religious humanists. For most religious humanists, nature trumps all other authorities. (The first Humanist Manifesto, for example, explicitly affirmed that the universe had always existed and was not "made." This was a way of eliminating appeals to anything prior to nature to explain the existence of the world.)

Revelation in most religions is the ultimate source of authority. It answers the ultimate "why" question. For religions that don't claim revealed status, one still must identify the ultimate source of authority. (I am thinking of revelation not so much as what comes out of God's mouth, but as what arrives in people's ears, so to speak, with sufficient power to make them wonder where it came from. Today's cosmologists are trying to ask this question from within the perspective of modern science.)

Confucianism presents an interesting case. First, like unitarianism, Confucianism didn't present itself as a religion. In fact, it explicitly defends the "rites" and traditions that already existed in Chinese civilization; Confucius showed the merits of the traditional way of life. The source of authority here — the "revelation" — is tradition, and tradition for Confucianists is rooted in the divine will, the "mandate of heaven."

Taoism is different in a few respects. Although in the West we look almost exclusively to the written Taoteching and sometimes to the stories of Chuang Tzu, Taoism as a lived religion actually developed ritual practices and, like Buddhism, a pantheon of divine beings. And, in the Taoteching, the Tao is presented as what we might call the ultimate reality to which wise people conform themselves. The Tao strikes me as qualifying for the status of "revelation." Again, the question isn't "Did God say so?" but rather "What's ultimate?" The fact that Westerners digest the Taoteching (and the Hindu Upanishads) as quasi-secular wisdom literature doesn't diminish the fact that these texts serve religious purposes.

But the other question I was trying to resolve after posting last night had to do with how post-Christian Unitarian Universalism has tried to reorder itself as a religion. There is a tradition of UUs referring to "liberal religion," "free religion," or "universal religion" as the religion that Unitarian Universalists embrace. There's something helpful here.

Unitarian Universalism is sometimes seen as one tradition of "liberal religion." The Ethical Culture movement, religious humanism, some organized expressions of atheism, and perhaps even the reformist Brahmo Samaj movement in India could be classed as other manifestations of liberal religion. I'm not sure that one gets very far this way, but there are a variety of religious and quasi-religious traditions that share a tendency toward abstract ultimacies (like the "interdependent web"), ethical universals, and indifference toward or rejection of concepts like revelation or supernatural reality. At least one major reference work on religion classes Unitarian Universalism as the "most conservative" of the liberal traditions because it is the only such tradition in the United States that acknowledges a root in Christianity. It is also significant that the UUA is the largest organized body of these U.S. "liberal religious" groups.

But my key point in bringing up the question of "revelation" is simply to point out that a religion needs a way of orienting or rooting its claims on people's loyalties, something on the order of "that's how it really is." Not certainty, but at least something like confidence. If personal choice — which tends to be the UU preference — isn't more than personal whim, we don't have much to go on.

(Originally posted to UUBooks)

Copyright © 2002 by Philocrites | Posted 3 July 2002 at 6:04 PM

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