Thursday, 26 March 2015
A faith That Matters
But what about the individual? What about the person who feels an existential sickness of soul, who is seeking answers to life's deepest questions, who wants to learn how to pray, how to approach God, how to find forgiveness for past sins and how to find hope and faith for future endeavours? What can we offer him or her? Is it enough to say that words like 'God', 'soul', 'forgiveness', 'sin', 'prayer', and 'faith' are very troublesome and so don't get much attention in our churches? Is it enough to satisfy such a sensitive individual when we preach about world religions, global warming, gay rights, feminism, abortion rights, assisted suicide and the like? Is it enough to imply, as we often do, that when we eventually tidy up society our individual problems will evaporate? Is it enough to say to the earnest inquirer, 'Here you are free to find your own spiritual path.', when they probably came through our door thinking we could offer them one?
The great American playwright, Tennessee Williams, became a Catholic towards the end of his life. When he was asked why, he replied, 'To get some goodness back.' Would someone become a Unitarian 'to get some goodness back'? I doubt it. We don't deal in such categories. As James Woods wrote in the Guardian a few years ago, 'Unitarianism is tediously untragic', meaning that it is a fair-weather religion which speaks to the optimistic and the comparatively prosperous and which confidently (and often patronisingly) addresses issues of social amelioration but which has little or nothing to say about the anxiety and despair which afflict us all, not because we are poor or disadvantaged, but just because we are human. To the questions, 'Who am I?', 'Why am I here?', 'Where am I going?', 'What's the ultimate point of it all?' we can offer no answers beyond the dreary banalities distilled from Neo-Darwinism, that we are nothing special, that we got here by accident, that we're destined for the grave, and that there's no ultimate point.
This is not the Unitarianism of William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Theodore Parker, James Martineau, Susan B. Anthony, and L.P. Jacks, who were not afraid to challenge the intellectual orthodoxies of their time and to bear the opprobrium of their peers as a consequence. We pretend to an intellectual freedom and fearlessness, but, as I can testify from personal experience, there is precious little freedom to deviate from the powerful but unacknowledged 'rationalist' dogmas which dominate contemporary Unitarian thought.
Like so many people who 'convert' later in life, I naively used to think that when people heard about Unitarianism they would immediately be attracted to it. But it's not true. Very few of my friends and family have shown much interest, and our declining numbers demonstrate lack of interest generally. People who like to talk about religion are attracted to it; people who want to practise religion aren't. Meanwhile, New Life Centres are springing up everywhere, and their services are packed. There are 18,000 Mormons in Britain and about 3,000 Unitarians. Mormonism, despite teetotalism and tithing is growing; Unitarianism, which doesn't require too much from its devotees, is declining.
And it's not, as we sometimes condescendingly assume, because the vast majority of people are simple-minded and in search of 'certainties'. It is, rather, because people instinctively feel that life has more meaning than the sterile rationalism of our white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant outlook will allow and so they go where their imagination can be fed, where their deepest instincts can be satisfied, where their sense of transcendent otherness can be explored. Our own ethical society-masquerading-as-religion satisfies few human desires.
We lost so much when we surrendered to contemporary naturalism. We need to start 'exploring boldly' again, to become, in the words of John Pickering, 'spiritual pioneers'. We need to stop the interminable agonising over words, to let the spirit move us, to re-learn the meaning and importance of prayer and of regular spiritual practice. And, most of all, we need to discard our literalism and discover the centrality of poetry and imagination in religion.
If we can do these things; if we can put as much emphasis on our interior life as we put on our political efforts, we can be a faith that matters.
Rev. Bill Darlison
From: Rev Jim Corrigall
The article by Bill Darlison on whether we can be a ‘faith that matters’ was most stimulating. His warnings that we need to re-learn the importance of prayer and spiritual practice, and the value of poetic and metaphorical understandings, seem timely.
I was particularly interested in his statement that ‘unacknowledged dogmas’ pervade our denominational thinking – he refers to sterile ‘rationalism’.
It seems to me perhaps the most pervasive ‘orthodoxy’ of our denomination today is that we – as a denomination – have no shared theology, only shared values. And this is usually presented as a neutral or ‘common sense’ position, which requires no theological or philosophical justification.
Yet surely to assert that we are ‘non-theological’ or that we have ‘no common theology’ is itself a deeply theological statement – just as maintaining one is ‘non-political’ is itself a deeply political stance (usually unacknowledged). Our position may well have developed from our radical protestant roots, and it may chime with some contemporary popular ideas, but surely in its contemporary form it should be introduced as a starting point for theological reflection rather than as the conclusion?
In terms of practical theology, little support for such a belief is likely to be found among faith practitioners of the different world religions. Obviously most creedal Christians would reject it, but so too would Sufi mystics (who say if you want to find water, dig one deep hole rather than 10 shallow ones), to the spiritual teachers of Buddhism and Hinduism, who emphasise the need to choose a path if one is to advance spirituality, and for that path to have authentic cultural resonance for the devotee. Liberal Jews believe it essential to remain rooted in the Jewish Bible, even as they advance very liberal positions on contemporary issues.
Could the (mainly) unacknowledged point of maintaining we have no ‘shared theology’ be that it allows us to ‘leave behind’ Christianity, the only theological tradition we are heir to, and thus leave behind the difficult task of renewing it in our assertively multi-faith world (a task we may be particularly well-qualified for)?
From: John C Hall
Bill Darlison writes very challengingly for us. He asks: “How can we be a faith that matters?” and he goes on to address serious Unitarian shortcomings, from his point of view. Quoting from a Guardian article: ‘Unitarianism is tediously untragic’, Bill takes this to mean that our is, “…a fair weather religion which speaks to the optimistic and the comparatively prosperous but has little or nothing to say about the anxiety and despair which afflict us all, not because we are poor or disadvantaged, but just because we are human.”
So that is concerning enough; but he presses on: “To the questions, ‘Who am I?, ‘Why am I here?’, ‘Where am I going?’, ‘What is the ultimate point of it all?’ we can offer no answers beyond the dreary banalities distilled from Neo-Darwinism, that we are nothing special, that we got here by accident…. and there is no ultimate point.” And if this, from Bill Darlison, isn’t questioning current Unitarianism almost to a point of despair, he continues, after another pummelling paragraph: “Our own ethical society – masquerading as religion satisfies few human desires.” And I would say that was the particular sentence that sparked off this personal response.
Perhaps the great question for Unitarians should be: what, truly, are we?
Is there, largely owing to our pulling away from traditional Christianity, combined with a rationalist intellectuality, something of the loosely religious about us?
Or, in the case of some Unitarians, not even tenuously religious? Yes, but then we are, as Unitarians, altogether concerned about what can be termed spiritual matters. And I think that we Unitarians do put quite as much emphasis on the ‘interior life’ as we put on our ‘political efforts’. Certainly my personal view is that we are a brotherhood community that matters.
Indeed, in a climate of religious extremism, surely we matter very much! And don’t we accept that we are different? For instance, there is no one Unitarian faith. So, personally I do feel that we need to believe in ourselves as Unitarians; and countering Bill Darlison somewhat, I’d say that we need to keep faith with our sensibly independent Unitarianism, while seeking to establish whether we can term ourselves Christian or Post-Christian.
As a comparative ‘new boy’, I have to acknowledge that we could be viewed as taking up an indeterminate position where religion is concerned. And whereas Bill Darlison wishes that we were more overtly religious within Unitarianism, some of us might see that as feeling like retreat rather than enlightenment?.
So what do you think?
From: Rev Frank Walker Cambridge
It has long been apparent that many members-perhaps a majority - of the Society of Friends in England have a very similar liberal religious outlook to Unitarians. They are undogmatic and universalist, willing to include on an equal footing people who have a humanistic and non-theistic religious outlook, welcoming insights from non-Christian sources as well as from the Christian tradition. Quakers, though, are a tiny minority. Liberal views also find expression in the Progressive Christian Network and Modem Church within the C of E, to name but a few. These too are small groups, but there is evidence that lower-case ‘unitarians’ are present in large numbers within the great official and historic churches.
In January 2014, Prospect magazine published a survey of religious belief in England. It showed that ‘one-third of the public count themselves as part of the Church of England or Scotland; only 45 per cent of them say that Jesus is the son of God. The figure is higher among Catholics at 67 per cent - but this still means that one Catholic in three does not share this belief.’
These are astounding figures. What do they mean? Nearly one-half of Anglicans and an astonishing one-third of Catholics hold a humanitarian (or ‘Unitarian’) view of Jesus. They may well be perfectly loyal Anglicans and Catholics who would never dream of being anything else. In religion especially people are able to live with contradictions. They take what they can from a religion and leave aside what they find irrelevant or unintelligible. So Unitarians are by no means as isolated as they may think: there are millions of lowercase ‘unitarians’ in the most historic and seemingly orthodox churches.