Unitarian-Universalism : The Only Religion for the 21st Century

Address at the Melbourne Unitarian Church, June 26, 2011

Today's address is mostly about the future - about our future. It is about where we will be as a religion, where we will be as a church, where we will be as as a community, whether we can respond to the changes of the twenty-first century. It is about our mission and our values. It is about our strengths and our weaknesses, and the opportunities and threats that we can foresee from scanning the environment. It is also about our competition and our allies and what they are likely to do in the face of these changes. For effective future scanning we also need to understand our past. This does not suggest that we should be tied to the past. Having a sensitivity to a historical context does not mean being entrapped by it. History helps us understand our core values and mission of the organisation.

The history of unitarian and universalism will be well-known to most in this congregation and is expressed only in the most summary form. From our Christian heritage is an emphasis on the humanity of Jesus, interpretative approaches to the Bible, universal reconciliation and religious inclusiveness from universal moral principles and natural theology. The Transylvanian edict of Turda was evidence of the commitment to freedom of religious conscience and expression, which was also taken up by the Polish Socinians and the British dissenters. The American revolution was a most important event in our history; it is not unreasonable to claim that it was a Unitarian and Universalist revolution. It was in the United States there where the core values of freedom and democracy were embodied into the bill of rights, protected and enhanced through an effective separation of powers and, of course, a serious civil war where unitarians and universalists were at the forefront against slavery. In the twentieth century we would see this orientation continued; from opposition to imperialist wars, to the assistance of those suffering under Nazism and other totalitarian regimes, to the advocacy of international peace, to seriously debating the challenge raised by socialist economic models, for universal rights.

Even with congregational independence these common interests were shared as a religious orientation. The fact that Unitarian-Universalism has retained a common orientation indicates the strength of the core convictions; naturalism, rationalism, secularism, freedom and democracy. In more optimistic moments it is tempting to think that other forms of religious belief based on metaphysical creeds lack the capacity to deal with the upcoming events of the twenty-first century. At best such perspectives can block the technological developments and scientific discoveries, or they can try to oppress the new social movements that arise. This has already been witnessed; many of the traditional religions have dealt very poorly with the science of cosmology, of evolution, of climate change, with miscegenation, minority sexualities, and reproductive choices. In previous addresses here the very serious questions of artificial intelligence, genetic engineering and animal uplifting have been raised. One can only speculate how poorly the traditional religions will deal with those issues.

Is is quite clear that Unitarian-Universalism has a competitive advantage, when it comes to the future issues of scientific discovery and technological development. But this is insufficient for our success. We do have serious weaknesses as well, not least of our resources and capacity to build, maintain and regenerate our community. Many of the other religions have a competitive advantage to us in this area, and some significantly so. Mitigating the effects of this weakness is something that we leverage with our strength with our resources; regular members of our congregation would be quite aware that we currently have the resources to initiate several churches; obviously we should not do so yet. We must first build this organisation to the point of capacity, where every week, every service, every seat is filled - we need about two hundred members for that to occur; if the will is there we could achieve this within eighteen months.

It is not however as simple as mere recruiting. Our adherence to naturalism and secularism appeals to only a section of the population. We provide very little to those seeking metaphysical and otherworldly salvation. But we cannot gain if we ignore these historical religious contributions and indeed our own stated mission in our constitution; "the cultivation of the religious life". People do not join a church to engage in politics as the primary function - they join political organisations to do that. People join a church for meaning and community - those are the goods and services that we provide. A church however that uses their religious tradition for practical political objectives is strengthened. Our religious tradition is a commitment to naturalism, to secularism, to freedom, to democracy - to seek the truth and serve humanity. All our services, all our actions, all our published material should be framed within that religious tradition. Our churches can become a resource centre for secular religious ideas. That is what encourages, maintains and regenerates a liberal religious community.

What about those environmental features outside of our institutional control? What about the opportunities and threats that the future will bring? The most obvious one is the increasing computerisation. Within decades The continuous and exponential expansion will lead to ubiquitous computing where each system unit will have capacities greater than the human mind. Computer-mediated communication is now the primary means that members of the young generation to socialise, their primary source of information and criticism of such information. On a very related subject, is technologically-mediated globalisation. There is an increasingly acceptance of cultural diversity, international awareness, and universal human rights. Ecologically, the most immediate and obvious effect of this is not temperature changes or even more extreme weather - it is the endangerment and extinction of marginal species. With contemporary awareness of humans are not some metaphysically unique species, with massive improvements in human-animal communication (especially with the higher primates), we can certainly expect that questions relating to animal welfare with have increasing priority. There is also the external threat of political and cultural opposition and especially that opposition that is which is raised by fundamentalist religious perspectives. We have already witnessed many instances of this in recent years; the attempt to introduce creationism or intelligent design in schools, the introduction of religious-based school chaplains, to the vile religious discrimination in the alterations to the Equal Opportunity Act.

But our greatest weakness is within; it the complacency and comfort of being a small liberal church in East Melbourne. That approach is not sustainable. That is an approach which will mean that within thirty years this will be an empty hall. That is not a vision of the future that is particularly inviting. An alternative is to dedicate ourselves with the knowledge that Unitarian-Universalism will be the only relevant religion in a twenty-first century. Rather than a single church in East Melbourne, we could have two churches in Victoria within a few years, several within a decade or so, a dozen with twenty. If these congregations are dedicated to our core values, then the effect of this on Victoria and Australia will be profound; the discriminatory practises of the Equal Opportunity Amendments will be removed, school chaplains will be replaced by qualified secular counselors and the critical challenges of our time will be evaluated not by metaphysical or ideological biases, but on the evidence.

Undoubtedly there are some who do not think that this is possible, that the risks are too great, that the resources are not available, or that such a plan steps outside our comfort zone. It with looking it the context of a small regional bank in 1915 that thought that it should be bigger. Indeed, it set its vision high : "Become the most powerful, the most serviceable the most far-reaching world financial institution that has ever been". By sticking to this vision, and through dedication, skill and audacity it became somewhat larger much quicker. You may have heard it of it; it's name was Citibank.

These are the choices in front of us; either we fade away or we become the most important religious organisation in the country. Obviously the latter is preferable, but if we fail to take up this opportunity, we run the risk of surrendering the entire historical tradition of religious liberalism into the hands of fundamentalists who will, as we know, impose their hateful ideas into law and thousands will suffer. But if we do decide to commit ourselves to growth and action history will record our actions in glowing terms, and it may be seen as the beginnings of a second enlightenment - and why not? It has to occur somewhere and circumstances are very favourable. So in closing it is appropriate to quote from two members of the first enlightenment who understood their times; Johan Wolfgang von Goethe and Immanuel Kant.

"Each indecision brings its own delays and days are lost lamenting over lost days...What you can do or think you can do, begin it. For boldness has magic, power, and genius in it."

"Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one's understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere Aude! [dare to know] "Have the courage to use your own understanding!"--that is the motto of enlightenment."