In one of the classic moments of religious history, Confucius and Lao Tze met in the Imperial Library in the city of Luoyang, 500 years before the birth of Jesus. Both men were destined to be the founders of great faiths.
Confucius believed that in studying social and political affairs and diligently searching history for its clues, the way of a better life could be revealed. Lao Tze believed that one should dissociate himself from worldly matters and contemplate the divine way, the Tao.
“One should contemplate the meaning of death, and the way of the divine,” Lao Tze related.
Confucius responded, “How can one know anything about death when we know so little about life? They who would teach of the gods are often ignorant of human ways.”
Confucius set forth the problem of believing, or of knowing, in terms many followers of liberal religions comprehend.
Before his arrest and imprisonment in France, knowing he would likely be arrested and executed, Thomas Paine, an English-American political activist, author, political theorist and revolutionary following in the religious tradition of early 18th-Century British deism, wrote the first part of The Age of Reason, a compilation of the many inconsistencies he found in the Bible with his own advocacy of deism, and calling for “free rational inquiry” into all subjects, especially religion.
Paine wrote about his own religious beliefs in The Age of Reason:
“I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life.
“I believe in the equality of man; and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endearing to make our fellow creatures happy.
“But lest it should be supposed that I believe many other things in addition to these, I shall, in the progress of this work, declare the things I do not believe, and my reasons for not believing them.
“I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.
“I do not mean by this declaration to condemn those who believe otherwise; they have the same right to their belief as I have to mine. But it is necessary to the happiness of man, that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe.
“It is impossible to calculate the moral mischief, if I may so express it, that mental lying has produced in society. When a man has so far corrupted and prostituted the chastity of his mind, as to subscribe his professional belief to things he does not believe, he has prepared himself for the commission of every other crime.”
Roger Sanders is the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Sheridan’s representative to the Sheridan Ministerial Association.