Liberal, free religion—Catching moving trains or metaphysical hitchhiking?

Hitchhiking near Vicksburg, Mississippi in 1936, photograph by Walker Evans
A short thought for the day” offered to the Cambridge Unitarian Church as part of the Sunday Service of Mindful Meditation


Many years ago I came across a metaphor (see the very end of this piece) which suggests that when we join a religious community we’re doing something like catching a moving train and that, together, we’ll be on our way.

Now, many traditional religious traditions think that this metaphor fits them well. This is because not only can they point to the historical track lying behind them that has got them to the particular point in time when a new person joins the train, they also claim they can point to the track to a predetermined destination already laid out in front of them. The belief promoted is, of course, that if a person joins this moving train they are assured that, together with the other passgengers, they’ll get to the promised destination.  

But, for a long time now, I have realised this metaphor simply doesn’t apply to the kind of liberal, free religion we are trying to offer in the Cambridge Unitarian Church. This is because when someone joins us, although, loosely speaking, they can be said to have joined a “moving train” that’s been travelling for 119 years, and that the track of this historical journey also remains laid out behind us, what they will not find laid out before them is a line of track leading to an already determined destination. This state of affairs comes about because a central element of our religious tradition is a radical commitment to uphold the freedom to be tomorrow what we are not today.

Consequently, a far better metaphor for us than the “joining-a-moving-train” one is that offered by the contemporary environmental philosopher, Freya Mathews (and here’s a film of her giving an excellent and engaging talk called Wisdom from the Mount) who thinks, as do I, that all of us, and whether we are aware of it or not, are always-already acting as   

“. . . kind[s] of metaphysical hitchhiker[s], catching a ride in a vehicle that is already bound for [our] destination. Or, more usually, via the hitchhiker’s communicative engagement with the driver of the vehicle, both the hitchhiker’s own plans and those of those of the driver are changed. The vehicle heads for a destination that neither the hitchhiker nor the driver had previously entertained, but which now seems more in accordance with their true will than either of their previous destinations” (Freya Mathews: Reinhabiting Reality — Towards a Recovery of Culture, 2005, SUNY Press, NY, p. 39).

To help unpack what this metaphor means for us, we need to see that the newcomer to our community is the metaphysical hitchhiker, the vehicle into which they get is this liberal, free religious church tradition, and the driver is those of us who are the current committed and active members. As we proceed it’s important to realise that we, the current committed and active members here were, once upon a time, newcomers and so we are also metaphysical hitchhikers ourselves.

Now, the metaphysical hitchhiker who is going to get the most from getting a ride with us is any person who, in the first place, doesn’t feel the need to seek to falsify or erase the historical journey already underway that got us where we are today, and they are also going to be a person who shows this respect for us by not seeking to turn back the processes and the inner unfolding dynamics already in play in our vehicle, our community.

However, by respectfully letting us be the kind of driver and vehicle we currently are, the hitchhiker, through communicative engagement with us as we continue on our journey together, is able to be proactive in seeking their own fulfilment and they are not merely taken where we think we and they they should be going. We find that, at our best anyway, what actually happens when we are travelling and talking together, is that the vehicle (i.e. the Cambridge Unitarian Church) begins to head towards a new destination that neither the hitchhiker (i.e. the newcomer) nor the driver (i.e. we as the current members) had previously entertained, but which, thanks to our unfolding conversation, is now more in accordance with our true wills than either of our previous destinations. This is a perfect example of intra-action at work.

One very important caveat should be briefly added at this point is that we, the current driver of the vehicle, always remain free respectfully to insist that any continuously disrespectful hitchhiker who refuses to accept and acknowledge our history so far, and who also won’t engage in genuinely open and critical conversation as we travel on, must seek to hitch ride from another driver and vehicle or, perhaps, catch a moving train more suited to their own character and needs.

With this caveat held in mind, I hope you can see that because a liberal, free religious community like our own continues to pick up new metaphysical hitchhikers on its unfolding journey, the process of changing our destination never stops and so there can never be a finished track, road, trail or path lying before us.  

Now, to many traditionally religious people, this will seem like the worst kind of aimless, wooly-minded, liberal wandering about imaginable. It’s the stuff of the worst kind of 1960s, free-form, hippie-stoner, road movie. And, although I do not doubt that some liberal, free religious religious communities have ended up travelling like this, done properly what can actually happen is very different.

Everything hinges upon the community’s members seeing clearly this absolutely vital point. Although the destination of any genuinely liberal, free religious community is changing all the time thanks to communicative engagement with each other, this does not mean that the same community is without an appropriately strong, shared direction of travel that is both life-enhancing and deeply meaningful.

In such a community, with every change of destination born out of genuine conversation, our sense of shared direction is actually being carefully honed and nuanced and, miracle of miracles, we find that we are, indeed, travelling together to a destination that is more in accordance with our true wills than our previously imagined destinations.

Of course, in this piece I have offered you an ideal, highly simplified picture. But every actual hitchhiker, and every actual driver who has ever picked a hitchhiker up, knows that all kinds of complex stuff always happens that, at times, can make the unfolding journey more than a bit tricky and challenging. But, for all that, I hope you can get my basic point, which is that as a liberal, free religious tradition we travel together into a shared future with a shared direction of travel, not by catching trains moving along fixed tracks to a predetermined destination, but by being metaphysical hitchhikers committed to the freedom to be tomorrow what we are not today and so always open to new light, truth and meaningful and creative ways of being together in an ever unfolding and highly plural world.