Many liberals, more comfortable avoiding debates about the authenticity of ancient texts and councils, suspicious of any sort of authoritative pronouncements on spiritual matters, and ideologically allergic to the concept of “organized religion,” often reject the very idea of religious expertise, insisting that freedom of religion and conscience implies a sort of theological free-for-all in which any opinion is as good as any other.
However, freedom to choose the implements of one’s intellectual life does not equate to competence in fashioning them. The Second Amendment right to bear arms, for example, did not makes gunsmiths of all Americans. Having the right to choose one’s doctor is not the equivalent of a license to practice medicine, and the freedom to back the politician of one’s choosing does not mean that everyone is equally qualified to lead the government… or practice law.
Expertise remains relevant, no less so in the ultimate matters of religion than in proximate issues like machine work, surgery, economics, and law. Expertise may not always equate to credentials (perhaps “often may not equate to credentials”) but that does not mean there is no such thing as expertise in religious matters.
Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams wrote in An Examined Faith:
Religious commitment issues from the declarative into the imperative mood, from recognition of divine fact that defines and redefines and sustains virtue. This is the sense of Baron Friedrich von Hugel’s assertion that “religion has primarily to do with is-ness and only secondarily with ought-ness.”
The absence of is-ness, of some declarative conception of Ultimate Reality, makes the ought-ness of religious sentiment groundless, unstable, and incapable of organizing. An injustice grounded in false is-ness is always stronger than the ungrounded; this is why the authoritarian Beast destroys the licentious Babylon in John’s Apocalypse, and why the adulterous woman in John’s Gospel is not able to save herself from stoning by the rule-mongering mob. In both cases, it is an organized force for justice, the organized army of the Apocalyptic Saints and the organized thought process of Jesus, that successfully confronts organized injustice.
Maintaining a misguided aloofness from the is-ness of religion, liberalism too often devolves into what Adams decried as “fissiparous individualism,” an everyone-for-himself attitude that makes organized efforts toward justice impossible. In politics, this phenomenon is jokingly referred to as the Liberal Firing Squad: everyone standing in a circle aiming at each other, incapable of agreeing on basic concepts and policies. In liberal religion, this phenomenon manifests as creedlessness and a casual, or even dismissive, attitude toward coherent theology.
The Corruption Of Free Discourse
The origins of creedlessness lie in the Enlightenment spirit of free debate, which ignited as Christians broke from the bonds of state religion. Rather than simply accepting, without argument, the official position of the state church, free discourse allowed anyone to bring evidence and argumentation to the table, even if it challenged dogma.
As the age of state-enforced religion has waned, however, free discourse has become corrupted from the presentation of evidence and argumentation to the mere assertion of uninformed opinions, insincere speculations, politically-corrupted fabrications, and profiteering pop philosophy. This was never the intent nor the virtuous purpose of free discourse.
The result? We have the measured peer review of science challenged by Intelligent Design, asserted as an “alternative” explanation primarily through administrative and legal maneuvers because the evidence and argumentation of that pseudo-science cannot stand up to fair and competitive discourse. We have political slanders, mere assertions with no basis in fact or induction, excused as “free speech.” We have ideological, corporate, and sectarian interests capable of resourcing intellectual frauds to the point that they look like valid alternate explanations of reality, overcoming their lack of evidential and rational virtue by mere volume and repetition.
None of these are justified by the principle of free discourse. They are, in fact, subversions of it. Speaking of freedom from dogma in an environment of rampant dishonesty and groundless speculation is like speaking of freedom from curfews in a town washed away by a flash flood. In identifying one threat, it neglects another.
Creedlessness And The Sabotage Of Justice
Creedlessness had a proximate and an ultimate purpose. The proximate purpose of creedlessness, freedom from state religion, was accomplished in the United States in December of 1791 with the ratification of the First Amendment to the Constitution. The ultimate purpose of free religious debate, indeed the ultimate purpose of all free discourse, is to get closer to the truth of the subject matter. In fact, the stated purpose of Unitarianism through much of its American history was the investigation and promotion of “pure religion.”
This ultimate purpose has been subverted by an over-broad misapplication of the idea of freedom of conscience. Even James Luther Adams, while lamenting that lack of organization in liberalism which tends to grant fascism free reign over the mechanisms of society, promoted the counter-productive idea of “the prophethood of all believers.” When all justice-seeking people are elevated to the status of prophet regardless of their individual gifts, then justice-seeking religion is in every case reduced to a religion of one, and no organization for justice (or anything else) is possible.
And, when those who seek justice sabotage their own ability to organize, this primarily benefits not the justice-seekers themselves, who enjoy only the dubious benefit of spiritual solipsism. The true beneficiaries are those better-organized, and therefore more effective, unjust forces whose leaders can put forward the most absurd ideology imagineable which nevertheless, unchallenged by organized opposition in favor of justice, can spread through society like unchecked barbarians rampaging through an undefended civilization.
A just opposition that divides itself for conquest earns the gratitude of every tyrant.
Organization, at the very least organization of thought if not of human beings, goes hand-in-hand with professional, informed expertise in a given subject matter. Instead, those who seek social justice all too often default to a sort of theological amateur hour, a spiritual karaoke bar where we pretend everyone is a great singer. Worried more about opression than disarray, we leap from the frying pan of tyrannous dogma into the fire of a laissez-faire, spiritual shrugfest where “it’s all good.”
An effective and progressive balance, between the extremes of dogmatic suppression and schismatic license, is the idiomatic approach of AUR, which accepts that Truth transcends sect and language while also recognizing that having a coherent and informed conception of the is-ness of the universe is a necessary foundation for the ought-ness of any effective project for social and moral progress.