There was an extraordinary range of personal beliefs among the participants in my 2003 small group workshop in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic. They were the delegates, staff and visitors attending the annual meeting of the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists. Some were self-defined Christians. Others were Humanists. Some did not define themselves as religious at all. And one participant, a self-identified Unitarian, believed that Jesus is not only God, but also believed that he died to save a sinful humanity, was resurrected on the third day and now is seated at the right hand of God. Clearly, a common set of religious ideas and beliefs was not the unifying factor for this gathered community. Rather, our Unitarian, Universalist, and Unitarian Universalist doctrinal freedom was writ large. Each participant drew on different theological and/or scientific sources to explain their own personal experience of a change of heart that occurred within this small group workshop community setting of care and compassion that we created together.
Reflecting on the workshop experience, one woman said she had felt God in the room. Another said he saw a spirit moving around the room. Several persons said they had discovered something about their religion, a feeling of repose they did not know existed until that moment and they felt trust and love of the persons around them with a new depth not known before. One man said he always hoped for a moment at these international conferences when something miraculous happens and this workshop, for him, was that moment. Many persons described a heightened sense of awareness accompanied by a deep and abiding sense of peace, relaxation, and the cessation of inner turmoil. All were amazed by the variety and diversity of ideas participants used to express what the small group experiences they had created together meant to them individually.
The participants could freely draw on different theological and scientific resources to interpret and express the change of heart they individually experienced in this community setting of care and compassion — because all are members of a doctrinally free, liberal religious tradition.
This doctrinal freedom is the intellectual signature of our liberal faith tradition. I call this zone of intellectual doctrinal freedom, the third major element of personal experience for us because it sanctions our theological diversity as members of the same religious community.