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New challenges for liberal religion, and other matters

    The following questions, based on this issue's contents, are designed to stimulate spiritual reflection and adult education group discussions.
by Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley

Liberal theology for our time. "The Universalist principle," writes the Rev. Dr. Forrest Church, is "to unite the many into one." But we Unitarian Universalists, full of rationalistic zeal, have conducted "a theological search-and-destroy mission," he says, to strip away the "trappings" of religion. While this has been a noble effort, "it remains a little like trying to find the seed of an onion by peeling away its layers" ("Universalism: A Theology for the 21st Century," pages 18).
Question: What is the purpose of religion? How do you interpret Church's definition-that religion is "our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die"? Does his discussion help you articulate the central convictions of your faith?

The dismal science finds a heart. The Rev. Dr. Richard S. Gilbert insists that we must look to the realm of ethics and morality in order to develop just and effective economic policies ("How Much Do We Deserve?", page 32). "The economic system should be the servant, not the master, of humanity," he says.
Question: To what extent does the marketplace shape individual and collective identity? What relationship do you see between economics and ethics? What would it take to arrive at an ethically-based understanding of our national economic priorities?

Nature's value. "The rise of secular values has strengthened [the] materialistic bias to the breaking point," writes Dr. Gus DiZerega ("Back to Nature," page 14). "The spirit of money is almost universally worshiped ahead of the spirit of the land-and often ahead of the spirit of a monotheistic God to which lip service is paid." He concludes: "Perhaps this is why the nature religions are again finding an audience."
Question: Does money-and materialism-play such a dominant role in our culture as to threaten our future? How should we think about a balance between secular and religious values? Must we hold monotheism and nature religions as divergent faith orientations?

Work in progress. "When our fantasies of a better life consume us, when our memories of past hurts bind us and fears of pending calamity drive us, we are robbed of the only gift-the greatest gift-we can be sure of possessing: the present moment." For essayist Phil Simmons ("Unfinished Houses," page 26), concentrating on completing every project may make us miss the point of living every day to its fullest. Only in "building a house of peace in the present moment," says Simmons, "can we be made whole."
Question: Looking back on your life-whether you were casual or compulsive about completing a large goal-were you able to live fully in the in-between time? Was reaching the goal worth the effort you invested? What meaning does Simmons's theology have for you?

U.S. Department of Religion. Professor Allen Callahan challenges readers to understand the message of Luke's gospel as a radical call to justice. If Jesus were invited to a power lunch with President Bush, he would take note of "how the power-brokers are now trying to persuade faith-based organizations to become branch offices of a kingdom that offers less and less, too little, too late" ("What Would Jesus Do?" page 10).
Question: Callahan asks: "Would increased partnering of social programs between government and churches merely facilitate the delivery of services, or would it make churches servile clients of a government with diminishing passion for social justice?" Do you believe there should be a "preferential option for the poor"? If so, what are the rights and responsibilities of the privileged?

Justice vs. beauty? In responding to criticism about a new $195 million cathedral scheduled to open in 2002, Cardinal Roger Mahoney, archbishop of Los Angeles, said: "We do not face the false dichotomy of tending to the dispossessed or building a cathedral.... When the hunger for the spiritual and the aesthetic is unsatisfied, we can experience a poverty in our souls" ("Testimony," page 16).
Question: Do you agree or disagree? How does your congregation address competing budgetary priorities? Is ministering to those in need consistent with extraordinary spending for a facility, or are the two in contradiction?

Greener pastures. Donald E. Skinner reports on congregations that are raising their environmental consciousness — and changing their practices ("UU Trend," page 46). "Becoming a green sanctuary recognizes a congregation for putting its environmental values into practice just as becoming a welcoming congregation reflects a congregation's commitment to welcome gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people," says Katherine Jesch. "When we go public with our commitments it encourages others to take a stand as well."
Question: Are environmental issues faith issues, social issues, or both? Can you offer an illustration? Has your congregation adopted practices to be more environmentally friendly? Why does this matter?

The Rev. Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley is adult programs director for the UUA Department of Religious Education.

UU World XV:5 (November/December 2001): 63.

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