Text of talk to SOFIC on 3 Mar 2007




This is a slightly edited version of a talk given to the day conference of ‘Sea of Faith in the Churches’, held in Loughborough on 3 March 2007.

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 UK the Unitarians are a small denomination, with many weaknesses, but fortunately with some bright spots, many inspiring friends and a pervasive sense of social commitment. It probably needs to change, if it can. In the USA the Unitarian/Universalists (the ‘UUs’) are a lot stronger, and they don’t necessarily define themselves as Christian. To my mind the real issues are a lot deeper than the old theological controversy about the nature of Jesus. Dissent from the collective wisdom of mainstream Christianity must go back nearly two millenia. History is usually written by the victors: in this case those who won various theological disputes, for whatever reasons. Thus the details of Jesus’ life, his words and deeds have become extensively overlaid by beliefs which have turned him into the Christ figure worshipped in Christian churches. Alternative paths have been erased. Jesus was undoubtedly a remarkable man, although he appears to have had faulty ideas about the end of the world and could not conceive of today’s discoveries and today’s problems. So we need to look forward, not backwards, moving beyond the concepts and explanations which have persisted for two thousand years.

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 Sea of Faith Network, for helping me to realise that one can make sense of the idea of ‘religious faith’, provided it can be seen as a human creation. Amongst my heroes are people like Bishop Robinson, Don Cupitt, Karen Armstrong, Lloyd Geering, Bishop Spong, Robert Funk - to name a few. See them as prophets who have had the courage to discard the comforts of the familiar and the socially acceptable, to challenge major assumptions which Christianity has made and to preach a basic message of human empathy. Evangelical friends have encouraged me to try harder, to have faith in ‘God’ so ‘He’ (not She) will do all sorts of desirable things. Very comforting and very tempting, I’m sure. I really have tried – and failed. 0 out of 10 for Divinity. I don’t see why I should somehow feel guilty or inadequate or apologetic. As the Buddha is supposed to have said: “Be ye lamps unto yourselves. Hold to the truth within yourselves as to the only lamp’’. I suspect that millions of other people are in the same position. They are doubtful about the doctrinal teachings of the Churches but affirm that such a thing as faith exists in some sense of personal faith or shared faith.

Have you ever walked past a church building which has shut down because nobody found its existence sufficiently worthwhile? For a small nonconformist denomination, this remains a real possibility. In contrast, looking from my perspective at the Anglican or Catholic traditions in this country, I wonder whether there isn’t an assumption, maybe unconscious, that these traditions – the Church - will continue, leaving you merely to decide whether or not you accept its teachings or attend its traditional activities. These act as a form of security, a fixed point of theological reference, more so if they have the cachet of an ongoing state religion. It can come as a nasty shock to those within these systems if they go as far as to reject a heretic. Possibly my background gives me a clearer sense of the artificiality and impermanence of religious organisations and the tentative nature of religious practices. They may not carry on much longer, or in the same form, nor need to do so. There’s no assurance of life on earth hereafter! One feels a wanderer. A certain insecurity can be healthy in that it helps you to examine what is really important, distinguishing it from what you have absorbed as a result of being inside a particular culture. Go out on a limb. That’s where the fruit is.

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 Sea of Faith has helped to tease out. Religion has come to use linguistic metaphors, or symbols, in order to describe that human experience which goes beyond reason and beyond the everyday. The trouble comes when we attach too much importance to these metaphors and symbols rather than to the spiritual reality behind them. The form has been mistaken for the content. It is natural, indeed therapeutic, in human affairs to want contact and interchange with other people. We want to talk, as BT might say. The trouble comes when we assign human characteristics to a metaphor such as that of God. Someone (I can’t remember who) called this process ‘compulsive anthropomorphism’ – the assumption that God has human characteristics. I am increasingly convinced that the dialogue is one which is really within ourselves, and somehow gets projected up to the sky. It’s partly a matter of having confidence in ourselves rather than in a supernatural Mr Fixit. Or Ms Fixit?

So, following the bottom-up, consumerist methodology I am suggesting, liberal religious people, who will come from a variety of religious backgrounds (certainly not just Unitarians) should be returning to the basics. In a recent article in the magazine ‘Faith and Freedom’ Peter Hawkins set out the following questions:
  • 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 Chelmsford area where I now live, my wife and I opted for the DIY approach. Some 30 years ago we became founder members of a small, very informal Unitarian Fellowship. It continues in being, achieving attendances of anything between 6 and 12, twice a month. It’s far from a big achievement but better than nothing and it serves our needs. Its membership ranges from a URC elder to humanists. In many ways it resembles a Sea of Faith Local Group but the difference is that, for most of our members, it’s not an occasional respite from the mainstream churches but it acts as the main focus of our spiritual lives. Why do we come together? What do we do with our time together? Good questions, which we are always asking ourselves. We just plan ahead and make it up as we go along. It’s very participative. Leadership needs to be shared as it makes heavy demands on one’s time and imagination. We get to know each other very well - bringing a good measure of mutual trust, tolerance and dependence. We put together, and then periodically review, affirmations about what we stand for. Most members feel the need to apologise if they can’t come to a meeting. We’ve developed a social dimension. Groups like ours in Chelmsford, and SoF Local Groups, will come and go. They lack the underpinning which a building, a longstanding tradition and a funding base provide. In a sense their flexibility is a strength. One learns to cope with impermanence and to put one’s trust in oneself and in the human spirit. Perhaps a good definition of faith.

Does Sea of Faith want to move down this path? Our official objects are not just to explore but also to promote. Do we really mean this? How hard should we try? We certainly encourage and support our local groups. Do we merely meet demand, or try to create it? I dissent from those who want to keep SoF a sort of retreat for an enlightened few. I am not personally satisfied that SoF should have become an intellectual talking shop for those who want nothing more than that. And I see no contradictions in being a liberal evangelical. Perhaps I am getting intolerant. I’d prefer SoF to be more ambitious and self-promoting, campaigning in religious matters, intolerant of theological excess. A spiritual home in its own right.

The time for raising SoF’s profile seems propitious. The Christian Churches are moving to the right and making themselves increasingly ridiculous. The centre ground between rationalism and mainstream religion is being vacated. Meanwhile the mind-body-spirit sections in our bookshops are burgeoning. Western civilisation appears to be hungry for spirituality. If SoF is really interested in promotion and expansion, the strategic opportunities exist as never before to make a bold bid for this centre ground. To do so, we need to network with other religious liberals; there are possible alliances to be made. In the long run there may even be liberal groups from other world religions who might join us. So I’m suggesting that we start moving forward, acknowledging our roots, but giving impetus to forms of religion which others might call secular and universal. There may be some casualties along the way, compromises which have to be made and emotional securities threatened. The paths from here will take many forms but will have recognisable common features. The emphasis should be on simplicity, empathy and walking the talk.