Thursday, 26 March 2015

Be Religiously Literate

I've been asked to produce some thoughts on what it mea for Unitarianism to be 'religiously literate' following the GA Vision Day held in Manchester in September. There were 19 outcomes, from the question 'What could Unitarianism be in the next 5 years?' towards the end of this day lc event and be 'religiously literate' was one of them.

I was not a member of the group from which this statement came so what follows are my own musing around the subject in the hope that others might be inspired to contribute more to the debate.

What does it mean to be literate in general terms?

Firstly there is basic speaking, listening, reading and writing. Primary school pupils who reach Level 4 or 5 at the end of their last year in school, Year 6, are considered to be literate to a satisfactory standard for their age. They understand and can use words with considerable fluency, they have a basic knowledge of grammar and they can spell accurately. They comprehend written and spoken passages of fact and fiction. They can talk about what they have read and written themselves.

For an adult, literacy is much more than this. It involves a depth and breadth of understanding of different genres of literature, an ability to express accurately or creatively thoughts, understandings and feelings in the spoken and written word. It involves comprehending texts that are considered difficult and confidently entering into in depth discussions with others or writing substantial written pieces about them.

Unitarianism is not a religion of one book like conventional Christianity or Islam. Literate Christians might well boast that they carry 5 translations of The Bible on their i-phone and thus consider themselves to be religiously literate. A Muslim might well be able to quote effectively and pointedly from the Q'ran and be thought to be religiously literate. It is not so easy for Unitarians to demonstrate their religious literacy.

One of the ways in which they can do it is by being able to articulate what Unitarianism is today in a clear and understandable manner to all adults and children who ask the question What is Unitarianism?

It's significant that some of the other outcomes from the Vision Day assume an ability to do this. For example, it would be difficult to give 'a riposte to fundamentalism' or to ensure that Unitarianism is 'understood by the public' or 'something that everybody has heard about' without being religiously literate. Every Unitarian needs to acquire an understanding of the story of Unitarianism as it has risen and fallen in popularity from its early days in dissent from the Church of England, to the complex pattern of its religious belief structure today.

But, that is very much the Level 4 or 5 of religious literacy.

Adult religious literacy would involve an increased understanding of other genres - other faiths, also humanism and earth centred religions and other threads of belief. It would also need to express the deep belief structures that underpin the Unitarian and Free Christian faith today and how they match or counter the belief structures of other world religions.Adult religious literacy should reach down into the depths of human spirituality and bring forth in the spoken and written word the deep questions of life, reading extensively about them, sharing deep conversations with others about them, writing about them to inspire and inform others. To be 'Unitarianly' religiously literate is to be educated and knowledgeable across the wide field of religion.

So how can Unitarianism become increasingly religious literate over the next 5 years?

It can only be done through members, people, becoming religiously literate. When I asked for comments around this topic on Facebook I only got one reply. I quote from part of it:-

'My friends in the Progressive Christianity Network read voraciously. They love books of bible scholarship which explain why their gut feeling that this or that did not happen was in fact based on fact... The Unitarians don't read, they don't need to know why they are right, that they are right is enough. ... Everything we need to know we learned at the knees of Flo and Jo.'

I hope there will be some reaction to these statements!

There are, in fact many opportunities for Unitarians to become more religiously literate which are better than 'Flo and Jo's knees' and which supplement reading appropriately and widely.
Courses are available and others could be offered in many media to enable new members to become fluent in Unitarianism and for longer-time Unitarians to extend and deepen their spiritual/religious knowledge understanding and experience. Such events as Summer School, Unitarian Discovery Holiday, GA Annual Meetings, FUSE a weekend event offered by London District are only a few of many that offer opportunities for Unitarians and, therefore, Unitarianism to become more religiously literate.

Dawn Buckle


  1. I'd like to offer to create or co-create one aspect of this. Who takes decisions about developing resources for religious literacy?

  2. I am uncomfortable with this article. I don't agree that "every Unitarian needs to acquire an understanding of the story of Unitarianism...". In fact I don't agree that every Unitarian needs to be literate, let alone Religiously Literate. This premise is elitist and discriminates against people with cognitive impairment, English as a foreign language, learning difficulties etc I am sure this wasn't the intention, but this oversight proves the lack of awareness of learning difficulties. As ministers become scarce we do need some people with an understanding of world religions and historical context. We must be stimulating without always being intellectual and be accessible to all people across a range of learning styles and level of understanding, often with hidden wisdom.

  3. Being religiously literate takes work. It takes reading voraciously across all genres and all traditions. It means having at least a basic knowledge of the Bible, on which our heritage is based and from which three of the world’s major religions sprang, in one way or another. It also means being open to religion in general, asking questions, doing research and going out and experiencing them.

    I am a Christian of the Universalist variety but I love the message of Buddhism, the roaring festivals of Hinduism, the natural language of Taoism, the submission of Islam, the history—both in my family and in the world—and physicality of Judaism. Universalism isn’t about all religions being the same. It’s about an attitude to people, recognising that everyone is a unique and precious child of God and that nobody is damned.

    But Dawn is right. Too many Unitarians don’t know about Unitarian history, here or in the States, Universalism, the tradition we inherited and must pass on. Too many people don’t know about the persecution, the martyrdom. Too many people don’t acknowledge that we go back to the very first Christians who were certainly not trinitarian. What about the flaming chalice? Or the independent polity of our congregations? These are all important facets of who we are.

    A major stumbling block, I think, is religious language. I notice how people shut down when I mention God or frame something in Biblical terms. I know that many people have been hurt by the traditional language of religion and that some words just raise the hackles. It’s understandable because traditional religious groups browbeat people with words like ‘sin’ and ‘atonement’ and ‘faith’. Now, I don’t propose we start preaching sin but I do suggest that baby steps into religious language could really help. Find what the word really means to your soul, divorce it consciously from the negative meaning and then see how it feels. And be gentle about it. There’s no rush and there’s no failure.

    Beyond that, it does come down to reading and reading and reading more. Good preaching comes from lots of reading, much, although not all, good ministry in the Quaker context comes from people who have been steeped in religious literature, and good religion comes from being open to all sorts of flavours.

    Yesterday, the retired Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong, whom I have long admired and who admires UUs, wrote on his Facebook wall: 'True religion is not about possessing the truth. No religion does that. It is rather an invitation into a journey that leads one toward the mystery of God. Idolatry is religion pretending that it has all the answers.’ Luckily, we are not a religion that claims to have any answer but we cannot stop searching just because we know the path is hazy and goes in all directions in all dimensions. That’s the beauty of liberal religion: the freedom to search with no promise of what we’ll find.
    --Tristan Jovanovic (member, Kensington Unitarians)

  4. I would add to Dawn's article and the considered responses to it that there has been a denominational failure to engage with the Academic Study of Religion. In particular with writers on 'Orientalism' and Post-colonialism in the Study of Religion (such as Talal Assad, Richard King, Leigh Schmidt, Darshan Singh and others) who offer important critiques of the assumptions of those Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists in the 19th and 20th century who participated in an approach to different faith traditions which may initially have intended to uncover universal principles which could be found to be common to all religious traditions but which ultimately was acquisitive and superficial. Those Unitarians may have believed that every tradition is reducible to its essence and that they, as somehow religiously 'neutral', could pick and chose those elements which best accorded with their liberal worldview and from these create a distillation of religious sources which represented the best or most truthful form of religious faith. This idea has remained persuasive to some Unitarians (who sometimes assume that this is what is meant by the term 'Universalism') along with some in the 'new age' movement (who often describe it as being spiritual but not religious) but is, in the view of many critics, a misconception. Our Lay leadership worship studies steps could invite students to consider such critiques from academics within the field of Study of Religion, our ministry training could investigate them at degree or diploma level. We could pro-actively counter the false notion of neutrality in religion which previously we have passively accepted and, as Dawn hints, consider instead "the deep belief structures that underpin the Unitarian and Free Christian faith today and how they match or counter the belief structures of other world religions." It is in this approach that I believe lies the basis of any genuine religious literacy because it points us towards the understanding that a religious tradition can best be understood from the perspective of the experience of its adherents. Unitarian religious literacy must not necessarily be an abstract intellectual exercise in history or philosophy but could instead be a deeper enquiry into the felt, inner experience of Unitarian people and an investigation of our 'lived orientation' - towards the divine and each other.

  5. I've often been surprised by how little religious literacy many Unitarians display - and this includes some ministers ! I acknowledge that it is important not to be elitist, as Clare states, but a weekly succession of often lay led services does not develop much depth of knowledge or devotion ; prayer, even the word itself, seems an embarrassment to many worship leaders.