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President's Letter 9/2005


Dear American Unitarian:

It appears to me that the public discourse is currently dominated by two groups of people. There are those who have a scientific materialist point of view and believe that science is the only arbiter of truth. They argue, in effect, that if it cannot be observed it is not real. They deride all “supernatural” explanations. They argue that morality is based on evolution, and the post-modernists among them believe that ethics and aesthetics is about an endless conversation that never, even in principle, can reach a conclusion about right and wrong, beauty, meaning or worth. They seem oblivious to the fact that if everything rests on quicksand, then even reason and science have no foundation.

On the other side are those that hold faith and Biblical revelation up as higher than reason or scientific observation. They find their one and only truth in the Bible—actually in particular idiosyncratic interpretations of it They are apparently unaware of the Bible's internal conflicts and the way the books that compose our Bible were chosen during a centuries long and contentious debate among men. They are also untroubled by the Bible's pre-modern morality that reflects Jewish or Roman received wisdom of the time that is hardly consistent with a modern and free society.

These views represent a false dichotomy. Reason and science are powerful tools for understanding God's creation and our place in it. They are not, however, the end of the story. They cannot be. The “supernatural” (in the sense of beyond nature) is an integral part of the story. God is the foundation, the anchor of both creation and of our humanity. God is the source not only of the creation but of our ability to be human. God is the reason why the world is and the world is the way that it is. God is the source of our free will. God is the source of our moral and aesthetic sense. God is the source of love.

Only by integrating reason, science and religion can we have a holistic, healthy and correct understanding of the world as it actually is. Freedom is real. It is not an illusion. Those mired in scientific materialism insist that our sense of being able to make choices is indeed an illusion and give fancy names (soft determinism, for example) to that proposition. Freedom is a prerequisite to morality. If a person has no choice over his or her actions, condemning them for those actions makes no sense. Morality is real. Murdering someone is wrong. It is not simply a convention. But in the absence of both freedom and a source or standard outside of the material universe, morality is an analytical casualty. In the absence of freedom, the ability to make moral and aesthetic choices and to love, we would not be human.

American Unitarian thought offers a better path. But our integrated world-view is only dimly heard above the din of the two major warring factions. It is incumbent on us to argue with both sides and show that there is a third way—a way that is intellectually coherent and affirms our humanity.

Faith, freedom, and reason,

David R. Burton


American Unitarian Conference

© 2005 American Unitarian Conference