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The Varieties of Religious Experience

The fundamentalists get all the press, but religious people with a more liberal attitude toward their faith are thriving among us

by Bill Dockery
No one speaks.

Almost 40 people are sitting in simple folding chairs arranged in two ovals, one within the other.

Everyone is dressed casually, with sneakers and outdoor gear much in evidence. Some sit with heads bowed and eyes closed. Others maintain a gaze fixed slightly above the heads of their fellows, looking out the floor-to-ceiling windows at the surrounding woodland. Few people make eye contact.

Ten minutes pass, and still no one speaks.

One woman holds a toddler who occasionally takes the bottle but stirs very little otherwise. Two older men with white hair sit in the outer circle. Several kids squat on the floor near the door, making no noise and only occasionally stealing furtive glances at one another.

More heads bow; more eyes close. A couple of latecomers enter quietly and take seats, and a few minutes later, without a sound, all the young people leave with two adults.

Then, just as the group appears almost mesmerized, a young woman speaks, an almost startling event after the silence.

"Fear not, I am with thee; O be not afraid, for I am thy God and will still give thee aid. I'll strengthen thee, help thee and cause thee to stand upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand."

As the words of the familiar hymn fade, the silence returns, and more time passes.

Just as abruptly, another woman offers the group two rhymed lines from another hymn. Then a woman sitting in the inner row shares a musing about the kids who are visiting her house, contrasting their energy and noise to the stillness of this meeting. She talks about paradox and how the Spirit hovering over this meeting is no different from the inner Spirit that illuminates each individual.

Stillness returns for a few more minutes. Then at an unspoken signal from the clerk of the meeting, the people come out of their meditative state, shake hands and greet each other warmly. The members of the group introduces themselves, and some ask for special attention for people not at the meeting. ("My mother is undergoing cataract surgery. Please hold her in the light.") One member offers up information on the status of gun control bills and other legislation in Congress.

The group disperses for an Easter egg hunt, and thus a recent First Day meeting of Quakers in West Knoxville ends.

This gathering of the West Knoxville Friends Meeting is just one example of religious groups in Knoxville that don't fit the stereotypical image of religion in East Tennessee.

Many consider Knoxville to be in the middle of the Bible Belt, the center of a religious world view that insists the Scriptures be taken literally, eschews such activities as drinking and dancing, condemns homosexuality and wants to force those religious and social mores on others. That stereotype--made up of equal parts Elmer Gantry, Billy Graham and Pat Robertson--colors not only newcomers' perceptions of Knoxville but also molds the way local people think of themselves.

Knoxville's religious climate is more complex than that. The Bible Belt may be buckled here, but many Knoxvillians choose to hold up their spiritual britches in other ways. The metropolitan area is home to a diverse group of Quakers, United Church of Christ members, Unitarian Universalists, and Metropolitan Community Church members--congregations with their roots in Christianity who bring a generally more liberal approach to their faith.


Like definitions of fundamentalism and conservatism, the meaning of liberalism in religion is much debated and often rejected by the people to whom it is applied.

"The terms liberal and conservative are political terms and should not be associated with churches," says Marilyn Jacobson, a Catholic involved in many religious activities in Knoxville. "The word liberal is so separating."

The Rev. Jim Richardson is also uncomfortable with the label.

"It's social issues where the distinction gets drawn," says Richardson, who pastors the Metropolitan Community Church of Knoxville. "Until 1990, fundamentalists were inward-looking and liberals were outward-looking.

"That's not true anymore; now fundamentalists are more deeply immersed in social issues than liberals ever were."

Brooks Holifield, who teaches in the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, notes that liberalism has meant something different in every century, but he hazards a definition that might apply broadly across liberal religious movements.

"At the heart of liberal Christianity has been the sense that the formulations of Christian belief or the expressions of Christian belief have to be reformulated in every era, in light of the best knowledge of that time," says Holifield, who is the Charles Howard Candler professor of American church history. "Liberals in the 19th century could no longer feel that a literal interpretation of scriptural books could get at what Christianity or Judaism was about in light of knowledge of the modern world."

Despite the debate over terminology, a variety of local churches put on the mantle of liberal religion and offer alternatives to the fundamentalist Christianity that often passes in the public eye as the only way to be religious. These local congregations vary greatly among themselves but they usually share, to one degree or another, several characteristics.

  • Liberal churches often take a nonliteral approach to Scripture, recognizing it as divinely inspired but making use of interpretive methods that put biblical documents into historical perspective.

  • While religious people of all stripes--conservative, moderate and liberal--shoulder a huge portion of society's charitable works, liberal religious groups have stood out over the years as advocates for downtrodden groups. As Richardson notes, that has been changing recently as conservative churches have become more politically and socially active.

  • Hearkening back to 16th-century religious persecution and disputes, many refuse to recognize explicit creeds or doctrinal statements of faith, valuing individual conscience over corporate expressions of theology drawn up by church bodies.

  • Finally, many emphasize acceptance and an ecumenical approach to other denominations and religions.


    The West Knoxville Friends Meeting shows these characteristics to a varying extent.

    "Friends traditionally are very diverse," says co-clerk Kathleen Mavournin. "There are no doctrinal standards for admission. Theologically, we run the gamut from those who are Christocentric to those of us who are universalists."

    Mavournin explains that for her universalism means acknowledgment of a kind of universal deity, a recognition that "all names for God are equally valid," in contrast to the more traditional Quaker understanding of Christ.

    After attending the now disbanded Epworth United Ministry in Fort Sanders for many years, Mavournin says she tried on a Quaker service, attending with friends in Maryville.

    "I knew about Quaker social witnesses, and I knew about waiting on the Spirit and silent meetings. The first meeting I attended was completely silent. No one spoke at all during the service," she remembers.

    "I was really overwhelmed by the experience. The spiritual presence in that room was palpable. I've been a Quaker ever since."

    Started in the mid-'50s, the West Knoxville Meeting (Quakers don't call their organizations church) has about 60 members, 20 to 40 of whom can usually be found on Sunday in their meeting house, a green ranch-style building which sits a couple of turns off Chert Pit Road on three wooded lots amid subdivisions. The large majority of the members are what Quakers called "convinced" Friends, converts, instead of "birthright" Quakers who are born into a Quaker family.

    The group has been active in financial support of several national Quaker organizations, notably the Friends Committee on National Legislation, and individual members are involved in many social projects, including one that brings children to the United States to give them relief from the violence in Northern Ireland.

    "Our meeting is undergoing a discernment process to try and choose a social involvement project for us to undertake as a group," Mavournin says. Reflecting the traditional Quaker emphasis on nonviolence, the group is studying ways to provide a presence in local high schools that will be an alternative to Junior ROTC programs.

    Another Quaker group, the First Friends Church of Knoxville, meets in East Knoxville under the leadership of the Rev. Dr. E. L. Votaw. Though similar in basic belief, the First Friends group has what Quakers called programmed services, using a minister to lead a set program of worship. The congregation is active in such traditional Quaker activities as prison ministries, work at Lakeshore Mental Health Institute and peace testimonies.


    Like Knoxville Friends, members of the Church of the Savior, United Church of Christ, on Weisgarber Road, are socially active, but their church holds more to what the Rev. John Gill calls "the stream of Trinitarian Christianity."

    "As a Christian church, we see the Bible as the word of God. We read the Bible to get insight into the meaning of human life and the nature of the universe," Gill says. "We believe that Jesus demonstrated a welcome for all people that went against the grain of authority in his day."

    Theologically, the Church of the Savior emphasizes love, forgiveness and the welcoming grace of God rather than judgment, Gill says. The church has 90 members, some 65 or 70 of whom attend services on any given Sunday. For all its small presence in Knoxville, the denomination boasts a membership of 6 million nationwide.

    "In the United Church of Christ, there's an emphasis on freedom of belief. We respect people's diversity of understanding of the Bible and try to dialogue about that."

    As a denomination, the United Church of Christ is heir to the Congregationalist Christian Church and the Evangelical and Reformed Church, which merged in 1957. The church, both locally and nationally, is deliberate in its philosophy of inclusiveness; it has been ordaining women for over a century and now ordains homosexuals.

    "Inclusiveness is one of the most distinctive things about the United Church of Christ. We're striving to reach out and be open to all people who seek God," Gill says.

    "There's room at Christ's table for all God's children. That kind of inclusive spirit is what we strive for. We find that that's the spirit of God that nurtures us in our lives, and we feel a responsibility to express that kind of spirit in the world."

    In keeping with that philosophy, the denomination has sought to reconcile itself to people of other faiths, notably the Jewish community and, more recently, native Hawaiians. The Congregational Church was the first to evangelize Hawaii, and modern UCC members have contributed a fairly large reparation fund to be used for charity on the island.

    That spirit of inclusiveness is what led Church of the Savior to provide meeting space for the Metropolitan Community Church, which has held Sunday evening services there since 1985.


    The Metropolitan Community Church's specific mission is to serve gay, lesbian and bisexual people, says Jim Richardson, pastor of the church's Knoxville congregation, though he is quick to point out that the membership is not restricted to that group.

    "We're open to an oppressed segment of our society," Richardson says. "We welcome people where they are."

    Formerly a Presbyterian (U.S.A.) minister, Richardson says the local MCC church gets many of its 125 members and 400 constituents from extreme fundamentalist denominations--the Southern Baptists, the Church of God, and the Church of Christ--who condemn homosexuality. Otherwise he says he's not comfortable with labels.

    "Some liberals would call me call me at least middle of the road," he says. "Theologically I wouldn't call myself a liberal, but socially I am. When it comes to human needs, I think that society has a responsibility to understand them and deal with them. And that's a liberal notion."

    The Knoxville church takes the Bible as central to its faith, though Richardson says church members do not tend to be literalists.

    "We try to come to some sort of understanding of what Jesus was about, what he cared about, what he insisted on. And we see a need for the church to carry on in that fashion.

    "When Jesus was angry, he was angry at the church. He was not a judging person. He was open to the needs of the world--the poor, the hungry, the outcast. That's what the church's job is--to pay attention to those needs."


    When compared with the large numbers of Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian churches, the Unitarian Universalists' three churches here look insignificant. But on a national scale, the three congregations make the Knoxville metropolitan area a hotbed of Unitarian Universalism. While the country boasts less than a quarter million Unitarian Universalists, the Knoxville area has three churches, with sister congregations in Kingsport and Chattanooga.

    Two of those Unitarian congregations date from mid-century. Both Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville and the Oak Ridge Unitarian Universalist Church were founded shortly after World War II. The third church, Westside Unitarian Universalist, was formed over a decade ago when the first two churches decided to support the formation of a third congregation rather than constructing larger buildings.

    Ironically, the liberal Unitarians share a common ancestor with their more conservative Baptist brethren; that irascible liberal, Roger Williams, who founded Rhode Island to preserve freedom of conscience, is a forebear of both groups. Like the Quakers and the United Church of Christ, UUs (as they call themselves) are noncredal. The denomination honors the individual pursuit of religious insight wherever it may take the seeker, even if that means the denial of religion.

    The practical result has been that Unitarian Universalists, both locally and nationally, have welcomed Christians of many persuasions, as well as humanists, Jews, non-Christians and even atheists. Predictably, the UU approach to Scripture varies with the individual, though it's a fairly safe bet that few are literalists.

    The Rev. Lynn Thomas Strauss, the minister at Tennessee Valley, says that Unitarian Universalism is popular here because East Tennesseans, more than residents of other regions, expect to be part of a church.

    "Many are unchurched in other places because church identity is not so important there," Strauss speculates. "People who wouldn't go to church elsewhere go here because it's expected of them."

    She also says that liberal families want their children to experience other children and families who share their values. "There are also fewer liberal options in the Knox County area than there are in other metropolitan areas. The public schools tend to take their character from the majority, and around here that's largely moderate to conservative."

    The unifying factor for many Unitarian Universalists has been social action. Knoxville Unitarians were active in the civil rights struggle of the '60s, as well as later peace, justice and environmental movements. Like most of the other churches mentioned in this story, the Unitarians support KIN, the Knoxville Interfaith Network, which aims at progressive social change in the area.


    Liberal expressions of the Christian faith are not limited to small churches or denominations that have a historical commitment to individual conscience. There are liberal emphases in many Knoxville churches from the mainline denominations.

    At Church Street United Methodist Church, it's evident in the soup kitchen the congregation runs on one of the building's lower level, as well as in the informal community worship service the church offers homeless people on Thursday nights.

    "We don't see the world in black and white. We see a lot of gray," says the Rev. Laura Rasor, Church Street associate minister. "All of us are trying our best to live in community."

    Church Street supports three missionary teams (two international, one local), the Appalachian Service Project, and Wesley House, a community center in Lonsdale, as well as other community agencies that help people in crisis. The church is involved with an interfaith group that is planning a workshop to train church leaders in dealing with AIDS issues.

    These efforts are a part of what Rasor sees as the church's mission: "We strongly believe that God has created all of us and has special calls and cares for all of us," she says.

    For Rasor, a literal approach to Scripture is too limited.

    "We have to have an openness, a willingness to listen to the multitude of ways God speaks today," she says. "I use Scripture as a living book, written a long time ago, which comes to life when it is interpreted and proclaimed in a community of faith.

    "The word it speaks today may be different from the context in which it was written. We have to allow it to speak to us today."

    For Father Terry Ryan, priest at John XXIII Catholic Center at the University of Tennessee, the primary issue is openness and acceptance, not the literal truth of the Bible.

    "The Bible was written in a certain historical period," he says. "It's the word of God, inspired, but you get crazy when you try to hold on to the literal meaning."

    Ryan ministers to more than 400 UT students and about 230 resident families that make the Catholic Center their spiritual home. His congregation is involved in Habitat for Humanity projects to house the working poor and also works in a canned food drive to help feed the hungry.

    "Christian forgiveness and acceptance are available to all strata of people in society," he says. "We don't reject homosexuals. We have to have an openness to people in the situations in which they find themselves."

    He notes that the Catholic Church opposes abortion and premarital sex but says the central message is about the Gospel.

    "We challenge people to live out the Gospel. If one has somehow not lived up to the challenge, there is forgiveness and an opportunity for reconciliation. There's no shunning.

    "We're trying to carry the good news to those who really feel they have had a struggle," Ryan says. "If you think you're perfect, what's the good news?"

    One of Ryan's parishioners is Marilyn Jacobson, who is active in the Ladies of Charity Association, which was begun by Knoxville Catholics. For her, Christianity is about helping people.

    Recently recognized with an award from the National Conference (formerly the National Conference of Christians and Jews), Jacobson has been active with the Ladies of Charity and served on the Knox school board. She expresses amazement at the need in Knoxville for the services of the Ladies of Charity, noting that the number of people helped by the agency has recently jumped from 100 a week to 200 a week.

    "You become aware of how good life has been for you," she says. "You want to share whatever way you can with people who have not been so fortunate."

    Ecumenical work with other churches and other faiths is also important at John XXIII. In fact, many of the clergy and congregations in this article interact in both spiritual and charitable activities.

    "We're trying to see the ways in which we have common interests and share the best of what we are," Ryan says.


    Being religiously liberal has its drawbacks in Knoxville, or at least its anxious moments.

    None of the Southern Baptist ministers contacted wanted to be identified as liberal or progressive. Given the moderate-vs.-conservative controversies that have shaken and virtually split the Southern Baptist Convention over the last decade and a half, the term liberal has become like a political death sentence for many of the Baptist faith.

    One Baptist preacher from a prominent area church refused to talk in terms of liberal and conservative, noting that his church had been unfairly labeled liberal. He did indicate that he and some other Baptists look on the Bible as "inspired of God and the richest resource of our understanding of God."

    "The Bible is not revealed science," he continues. "It's not about facts. It is about the revealed person of God. The authority of the Bible and the inspiration of God is the source of our faith and practice.

    "I take a dynamic view of inspiration rather than a literal view of inspiration."

    That carefully worded statement does not classify the Bible as inerrant or as literally true, two things that fundamentalists insist upon. The minister describes a true liberal as one who "says the Bible is not any different from any other book and denies the authority of Scripture and the deity of Christ."

    Other religious people who are more open to the progressive label still find liberal a less than comfortable fit.

    "Biblical criticism has its place, but doing what I do in church, I don't think my congregation has much interest," says the Rev. Mike Askew, who pastors Shiloh Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) on Biddle Street. "When I was in seminary, I had to pay attention to it. Some of it was very valid."

    Askew says his congregation takes the Bible as "the authoritative word of God, without error or flaw." The 86 members of his congregation are active in a wide range of outreach, including tutoring programs and working with senior citizens.

    "Sometimes it's fearful to talk of liberal and progressive, because there is such a strong fundamentalist group in the area," says the Rev. Paige Buccholz, who is vicar of St. Luke's Episcopal Church in East Knoxville. "When I look at the Inner City Church (which arsonists burned in January), I find it scary to speak out in this community for things such as better race relations or improved housing and transportation."

    St. Luke's is a mission church of the Episcopal Diocese of East Tennessee and has had a predominantly African-American membership, though in the four and a half years Buccholz has been at the church, the number of white families has increased.

    "We have a range as far as theology goes," Buccholz says. "I would not say the majority would call themselves liberal, and there's a diversity of opinion on Scriptures. But at least one thing agreed upon is the question of human rights--we're in favor of increased civil rights for everyone."

    For Buccholz, being religious means one thing, whether it's called liberal or some other label: "If people are going to say they are Christian or religious in any sense, they have to live out Jesus' message to love one another and not to judge one another."