A Call for Liberal Prophets

Paul Rasor, Reclaiming Prophetic Witness: Liberal Religion in the Public Square. Boston: Skinner House Books, 2012.

 

Paul Rasor book

Reports of repetitive stress injuries due to excessive hand-wringing continue to rise among religious liberals. The cacophony of voices from the fundamentalist Christian Right dominate the public square, with occasional media attention paid to opposing forces from the near-equally extreme fundamentalist atheist left (religious fanatical fundamentalism is indeed ambidextrous). Since the 1970’s, media coverage of religious perspectives on social justice, public policy and politics has become increasingly polarized, reduced all too often to these dualistic extremes on the public stage. What has happened to the liberal religious voices once so prominent and effective back in the eras of struggle for the abolition of slavery and the fight for women’s suffrage; the Civil Rights movement, anti-nuclear proliferation and environmental protection? How did we get here from there?

To answer these questions, Paul Rasor holds up an historical mirror for religious liberals of all stripes to get a detailed, comprehensive view of the confluence of external and (primarily) internal factors that have contributed to the virtual silencing of the liberal religious perspective in the public forum. Rasor systematically presents a thorough exposition of the causes of the liberal religious identity crisis and how the withdrawal of those voices is creating a damaging imbalance in public discourse.

This surprisingly short book – only 105 pages, minus notes – is a coherent and compelling clarion call for the rejuvenation of the liberal religious prophetic voice in our time. Its author brings significant street cred to the table adding juice to his argument. The Rev. Dr. Paul Rasor is director of the Center for the Study of Religious Freedom at Virginia Wesleyan College as well as an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister. He earned his PhD in theology from Harvard Divinity School and also holds degrees in music and law from the University of Michigan (ok, so he’s a bit of an over-achiever – don’t hold that against him). Rasor’s possession of the unique combination of extensive education in both law and theology really shines in the last two chapters that focus on religious freedom, democracy and empire. This concise book packs a wallop with its in-depth exploration of the many challenges facing religious liberals; it provides explanation not only of the ‘hows and whys’ of the current state of things but also gives much insight and support for what Rasor clearly sees as the imperative of engagement.

As a member of the liberal religious tribe (Unitarian Universalist faction), I was ecstatic to find this book and devoured it eagerly in the hopes of resolving all my own concerns and struggles with articulation of my faith perspective, especially when confronted in the public arena with opposing viewpoints that I feel compelled to counter on religious grounds. This book most certainly provided me with the framework to deepen my understanding of the paradoxes and tensions seemingly inherent to liberal religion that often confound our best intentions and actions. I understand better now how what I consider to be the greatest strengths of liberal religion – openness, adaptation, questioning, being rooted in reason and experience, pluralistic in perspective, commitment to free religious inquiry, welcoming of  diversity, embrace of uncertainty – all of these wonderful qualities can also contribute to the undermining of a prophetic voice.  My only disappointment – and it is a minor one – is that the book does not quite live up to Dan McKanan’s claim in the forward that this is “a handbook for prophets.” It is much more a clear examination of the problem and a call to action than it is a “how-to” manual for liberal religious prophets in the making. Rasor reserves the exploration of liberal religious identity as well as an attempt at an articulation of the core theological principles liberals affirm for the epilogue of the book, acknowledging that the principles he offers need further development (his next book, perhaps?). If this is a principle task necessary to legitimizing our liberal prophetic voice, it’s a shame it’s given so little space in the book. But then again, perhaps this is reflective of the ongoing living process-oriented nature of religious liberalism. Revelation is never sealed.

 

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