A RADICAL VIEW FROM A UNITARIAN
BY MILES HOWARTH
Two warnings to begin with. Firstly there’s a danger that what I am about to say may offend someone. This is not a dry academic treatise, but will touch on matters about which you and I feel deeply. That’s the nature of religion. I shall be speaking from my subjective viewpoint, and apologise if anyone finds it uncomfortable. Secondly I don’t offer any particular expertise in theology, philosophy, psychology or history. Those who have studied such matters will probably be able to find fault. Still, consumerism is all the rage. Write me off as an untutored and outspoken voice from the pew.
On my Mother’s side my family have been Unitarians since the early C19 – liberal, northern, straight-talking nonconformists. When I was about 9, our teacher of ‘Divinity’ at my awful prep school asked us to spend the last part of a lesson writing down a description of heaven. Instead of talking about angels, archangels, Jesus sitting at the right hand of God etc, I was bold enough to say something on the lines of “Heaven doesn’t exist and hell can be on earth”. My marks were 7 out of 10 - like most of the others. Theological conflict avoided. I’d already realised that in religious matters my family’s position was outside the mainstream, and not necessarily an easy one in circles where conformity with certain norms was tacitly expected. Socially, life was a mite tougher. One’s religion might even affect choices of marriage partner.I don’t come here to push Unitarianism. For me it’s provided a religious tradition and community which happens to suit me better than any others I have so far encountered. In the
For me, at my age, most of my contacts with mainstream Christianity are unproductive, negative and depressing experiences. When I have to sit through traditional funerals, or annual Remembrance Sunday Services, I am so deeply burdened with reservations about the theology that it’s hard to concentrate on the proper tasks of celebrating someone’s life, honouring the war dead and supporting those needing comfort. I just want to shout “why?” and “who said?” and “I don’t believe it” - to strip off the patina, the spin, the self-delusion and the institutional habits which have accumulated over the centuries. In order to calm myself and regain my equanimity I try to think of all those other people striving in their own ways to make sense of life and death, to find value and meaning, making the effort to participate in religious events in case it may be helpful. These thoughts allow me to muster some fellow feeling - in some way to reach out to and interact with them. So my question is “Through what interpersonal and social mechanisms can we respond to people’s spiritual impulses without running this theological obstacle course?” Some have concluded that communal silences are the only answer. Possibly, but I personally prefer some form of communication by word, without excessive verbiage. To my mind simplicity is a virtue.I don’t wish to deny other people’s experience but can only talk of my own. I do question whether traditional Christian explanations in terms of a top-down supernatural God or, almost interchangeably in some circles, a supernatural Jesus, are valid in terms of what we now know about, for example, science, history, philosophy and psychology. Humankind has acquired new tools which can help us to understand more about human needs, connectedness, language and consciousness; also about the limits of human ability to conceptualise. I fail to understand those who can keep these tools in an intellectual compartment separate from religion. Can one leave one’s brain at the church door? These new tools should be helping religion to progress. So let’s clear out the cupboard and fill it with better quality goods. Humans probably don’t change much but human knowledge does.
Another of my schoolteachers, when sorting out our schoolboy pranks and fibs, was fond of insisting: “I don’t believe it, you don’t believe it and it’s not true!” I shall always be grateful to a minority of Unitarian ministers, and to the
An aunt of mine died recently aged 100 – still quite sharp. Towards the end of her life, she was accustomed to remark that that “All religious people should be strung up”. And yet in her Will she left the Unitarians a sizeable legacy. I ask myself what my aunt really had in mind. Perhaps like me she couldn’t let go of the idea that religion has the potential to be a positive and helpful force if only the right forms can be found. Indeed it may well be an irrepressible human urge, so there’s no question of just leaving it aside as Richard Dawkins and fellow rationalists would have us do. Neurologists are discovering more about the seat of these things in the brain. Have you, like me, been tempted not to bother, just to stay at home, to occupy your mind and time in other ways which might be more satisfying? Yet I’ve soon returned to the realisation that regular attention to such matters has real importance, for me and potentially for other people. If we try to manage without them, something will come to fill the space, and that something may be less helpful and less healthy.The more I see where the top downwards model is taking us, the more I gain confidence that people like us haven’t failed; rather it is the theological system which is basically faulty. At the extremes, Christianity, American-style, allying itself to Republicanism, is tearing the world apart in terms of its people and its environment. Bad theology. So how do we respond to human needs – our needs? I call myself a ‘religious liberal’; some might call me a religious humanist. Let’s firstly examine what these words might mean, ridding ourselves of preconceptions. By the word ‘religion’ I mean ‘an accumulated communal tradition’ – a common core of texts, ceremonies, music, symbols, buildings etc - food for both the intellect and the emotions. I distinguish this from an underlying reaching out, which might be better called ‘spirituality’. So, if one is ‘religious’, one sees value in coming together for activities relevant to a communal tradition, expressing that spirituality. By ‘liberal’ I mean that the personal baggage with which one arrives does not have to be checked before one is allowed in, that one tries to concentrate only on the bare essentials and that one does not take oneself too seriously.
Let me single out what I see as some fundamental issues which
- What is the purpose of life?
- How do I find greater meaning in my life?
- How do I connect more fully with what is beyond myself?
- How can I find peace in myself and in the world?
- What is the wisdom of the past that can guide us into the future?
- How do I live a good life?
- How do I progress?
- How do I face death?
Here’s enough to occupy a SoF Local Group or larger Conferences for a considerable time, going beyond mere beliefs into fundamental matters of personal faith. They concentrate on the positive - what we have faith in. The intellectuals have made out a clear case for a modern, developmental approach. Now it’s up to us to take things forward, developing new structures for coming together, new types of methodology, new forms of celebration, new arrangements for mutual support. Religion is more than intellectualised discussions. We all have a range of needs. What about some agreed guidelines for responsible living? What about some SoF songs?The French Marshall Bosquet, on hearing about the Charge of the Light Brigade, remarked ‘It is magnificent but it is not war”. Can the activities I have described really be called religion? Isn’t it really humanism or secularism? Does this matter? Step forward Professor Lloyd Geering and in particular his fairly recent little book – ‘Is Christianity going anywhere?’ which I strongly recommend to you. It provides a devastating critique of traditional Christianity. He takes us lucidly through the various stages which have progressively removed its credibility - the Copernican revolution, Darwin's evolutionary theory, the interaction between human language and culture, and modern Biblical studies 'excavating' the historical Jesus. Yet, crucially, Geering warns us against cutting ourselves from our cultural and spiritual roots. He sees Christianity as living on in our secular world, which has largely been created by the insights and values of Christian teaching. He finds this secular Christianity to be far closer to the original teachings of Jesus. Can this secular world be the offspring of the Christian West if it has abandoned the figure of Christ as the divine son of God? His answer is that early understandings of incarnation were the realisation that qualities hitherto understood to be associated with the divine were now to be embodied in all humanity – not just confined to Jesus.
How do we make a reality of all this in our everyday lives? If there isn’t a suitable group near where you live, you either do without (and lose something), or you join a group which does not fully meet your needs (bringing mental reservations), or you face the challenge of finding like-minded people and worthwhile activities for yourselves. Here’s a tiny example of a way forward. In the
The time for raising SoF’s profile seems propitious. The