Liberal religion is distinct from the liberal wings of particular religions such as liberal Catholics, liberal Baptists, liberal Hindus, and the like who seek a liberal way through their own particular religious traditions. Depending on the relative strength of the anti-liberal wing of those same religions, liberal wings of the various religions will come and go, wax and wane, or sometimes develop into completely new religions. Although there are certainly expressions of the liberal religion phenomenon in religion, liberal wings of religions are not the liberal religion phenomenon itself.
Anyone or any religion or any society can manifest principles of liberal religion. These principles are expressed within a particular religion as one among its many manifestations. Or they are expressed outside religion, moving beyond institutionalized religion if liberal religious impulses have been too thoroughly repressed.
The religious truths of liberal religion are, by necessity, open to questioning. Perhaps surprisingly, this does not mean that liberal religion necessarily rejects the possibility that its truth claims are in fact eternal. It merely means that this eternality will remain a possibility, a speculation. The beliefs of liberal religion may be strongly held, but liberal religion welcomes further development, interpretation, and even rejection when proven by experience or new revelation to be inadequate or just plain wrong. Any investigation into liberal religion should beware of claims that practitioners “have no beliefs,” “can believe anything they want,” or “are non-creedal.” Even “noncreedalism” is itself a belief and should be understood as such. That the many creeds of liberal religion are acknowledged as contingent on the process and progress of truth does not thereby render those creeds nonexistent. Liberal religion simply refuses to confer on creed the status of dogma.
Perhaps the most fundamental doctrinal aspect of liberal religion is the ultimate freedom of the individual to question all aspects of religion, even the aspect of questioning itself. This has, at times, earned the religious institutions that fully embrace the liberal religion phenomenon the name “Free Religion” or “Free Thinkers.” But this liberal religious tendency is, of course, manifest in a wide range of religious institutions. This fundamental aspect of liberal religion asserts itself whenever forces within religious organizations bring traditional or historical beliefs or practices into question. Contributing to the constant reformation of religion through liberal religion, the most basic assumptions, even those understood as eternally true (for example, God’s grace, the finite power of human sin) are open to interrogation and, if need be, reform. Because of this incessant questioning, liberal religion presumes neither inevitable progress (a common hope of liberal religions) nor inevitable degeneration (a common lament of the illiberal).
Liberal religion, liberal religious movements, and individual liberal religionists seek to discover the good, the true, the beautiful, and the loving for their time and place, reforming or rejecting those religions, or those individual aspects of particular religions, that do not fit the best definitions and highest aspirations. This constant pursuit acts as barometer or compass for reforming religious institutions, revealing the excesses and deficiencies to which even avatars and scriptures are susceptible. Revelation from avatars and scriptures are not by necessity rejected, but liberal religion claims that revelation is never final.
Liberal religion encourages the use of reason and emotion, science and intuition; it often does not offer answers per se, but rather offers guidance for how to deal with situations as they arise. It is through the attempts at getting closer and closer to the divine life and the highest form of human life that liberal religion provides a way of discerning the best religious life.
Seeking to discern genuine religion, liberal religion freely investigates wisdom and understanding from every religious impulse of humankind. Through investigating and sometimes integrating aspects of exogenous religious systems, liberal religion balances insights from the various, different, similar, and sometimes stubbornly contradictory religions in the world. Liberal religion welcomes insights from poetry, art, literature, human experience, scientific discovery, and the like. Similarly, liberal religion promotes the understanding of humanity as part of the natural world. Nature is considered a source of life’s ongoing revelation of itself. Through philosophical and scientific reflection, as well as through immediate experience and appreciation, the realities and lessons of nature are considered to be immanent and accessible epiphanies. Thus, liberal religion sees progress in natural sciences as progress in religious understanding.
This brings us to another liberal religion doctrinal tendency: toward belief in the accessibility of religious truth to all irrespective of their religion, social status, education, and so on. Profound religious truths are discernible without necessarily the benefit of specific religious authority such as priest, prophet, scripture, ritual, congregation, or other social construction. Liberal religion observes that all religious faith is, however, necessarily filtered through the authority of the individual faithful. Liberals within religious traditions know that they are the ultimate authority by which they accept the authority of their religious tradition. This does not exclude the possibility that one’s particular religion might be preferred, only that this preference requires an accompanying humility based on the knowledge that religion is, on some level, autobiography.
Probably because of this humility when it comes to religious truth, liberal religion argues for broad tolerance when it comes to religious beliefs and practices of others. Tolerance of a wide diversity of religious views prevails where liberal religion doctrines prevail. Where liberal religious insights argue for intolerance, such as with the intolerance for the beliefs of Nazis or the Ku Klux Klan, they do so precisely because they believe they are serving greater tolerance.
Mysticism in religion, the socially conservative aspects of religion, and fundamentalism in religion have been and continue to be studied extensively. Liberalism in religion is less studied but no less important to understanding religion as a human phenomenon.
- Opton, F. G. (1982). Liberal religion: Principles and practice. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.
- Reines, A. J. (1987). Polydoxy: Explorations in a philosophy of liberal religion. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.