David & Goliath

In my on-going thinking about Unitarian identity I read Understanding Unitarians by Phillip Hewett, who was briefly the minister here in the 1950s. He developed a model that attempts to get away from the Humanist/Christian dichotomy; a Venn Diagram, with not two but three overlapping circles. I have put the model in your order of service.

 Diagram by Phillip Hewett

Diagram by Phillip Hewett

As you can see the three circles are labelled: Christian, Humanist, and Universalist. Hewett believed this model could be applied to the Unitarian movement as a whole, and to individual congregations. People inhabit one of the seven spaces in the centre of the diagram, and from there they argue, promote, and dialogue with one another, all the while upholding their togetherness.

Hewett believed that the possibility that a congregation might uncouple itself from this central pivot was a risk that needed to be guarded against. A risk, because he believed to do so would inhibit our freedom of conscience, creating a climate intolerant towards those who were not on board with whatever belief system was the prevailing one. Hewett’s model (perhaps inadvertently) creates an ideal of nothingness. An ideal which evades all commitment, and therefore falls into the very trap it was trying to avoid, by creating a climate intolerant towards those who would affirm anything.

But perhaps that is what it is to be postmodern. To hold lightly to the multiple languages we inhabit: a little of this, and a little of that. Holding lightly to the Christian label one moment, then more to the humanist or Buddhist label the next. Certainly it was this impulse to eschew the meta-narrative which surely drove Unitarians such as Hewett to seek this ‘neutral’ middle ground in the late 20th Century. A trend which has characterised shifting British Unitarian thought in response to the demands of postmodernity.

But what is postmodernity really? It has popularly been defined by the French philosopher Lyotard as incredulity towards meta-narrative. Postmodernism when defined in this way cannot help but slide into relativism – as Hewett’s model unintentionally demonstrates. The cost is one where we cannot speak anything that might sound like a metanarrative. But there is another way to approach the demands of postmodernity.

The feminist Donna Haraway coined the term ‘situated knowledge’ – situated knowledge recognises that no one gets to own the ‘truth’ category for their particular perspective – and yet acknowledges that all knowledge is narrated (or mediated) from a speaking position (from a particular perspective). That means that we as thinkers must never attempt to deny the moment or space that we inhabit – such as our language, culture, gender, historical location, and religious location.

In other words it is a mistake to think that we need eschew metanarrative-like language. To use it does not threaten our postmodern credentials, as long as we obviously never claim that ours is the only perspective.

Perhaps it is the influence of this metanarrative denying postmodern impulse within our own tradition which has left us seemingly so voiceless in the public arena, unable to tell the world we are here, dare our words be taken as ‘proselytizing’. Dare our words cause upset. Well I think we should be upsetting more people, by actually saying something of substance, and even challenging the Goliaths in the religious public arena. Daring to be Bold.

As a dissenting, historically illegal, radical movement, being more bolshie should be second nature to us. On the surface we are certainly the little guy on the block, but not unlike David I think many of the things which we may very well perceive as weaknesses might actually be our greatest strengths.

Take for example the language that we use. Not only do we fill an entire hour with mostly words, we use rather academic words too. If we are to be more relevant, more accessible, then surely this is a great weakness of ours; but I think that is far from the case. By limiting our vocabulary we would diminish one of our most unique features. The strength of a religious movement does not hinge upon how accessible it is. Almost the opposite is the case. The religious movement which demands much of us, in terms of belief and behaviour, does well because there is a cost – becoming a Baptist, or a Mormon, or a Jehovah Witness, incurs great cost. There is much to learn, much enculturation required, and as such it becomes rooted far deeper into one’s identity.

Unitarianism is never going to have universal appeal. We are a rather odd lot. You kid yourself if you think it would be possible to frame what we are in such a way that people come flooding in. Being a Unitarian should incur great cost, the cost of a long and rich spiritual journey before even arriving, becoming religiously literate, having a self-awareness beyond others and so on… As we root Unitarianism deeply into our identity, as we are loud and proud, these are the foundations of a strong religious movement.

  Severed head of Goliath by  Gustave Doré  (1866).

Severed head of Goliath by Gustave Doré (1866).

Like David we may well appear weak. That is how the story of David and Goliath has been classically understood, David is the underdog, a metaphor for improbable victories. The weak overcoming the strong. David is the child, the shepherd. Goliath is the man, the giant, the experienced warrior, kitted-out with all the latest military gear, shining armour, and the lot.

But as Malcolm Gladwell explains, to understand the story in this way is to entirely misunderstand it. David fought with a sling – a sling which he would have spun at 6 or 7 revolutions per second, a sling that would have released a stone going at about 80 miles an hour. This is powerful! Equivalent to a 45mm handgun, a weapon that could kill moving targets at distances up to 200 yards. When David stood in front of Goliath and launched that stone, there was no chance of a miss, no chance of failure. Goliath was utterly doomed.

Given this fact, given the inevitability of David’s victory, one may well wonder why Goliath failed to react to his own inevitable demise. Goliath was a giant, he was 6’ 9, and expecting the kind of hand to hand fighting customary of single combat: a way of settling disputes without incurring the bloodshed of a major battle.

It is postulated that Goliath failed to react because he had a condition – the same condition president Abraham Lincoln had – Acromegaly. Acromegaly is caused by a benign tumour positioned in such a way in your head that it causes an over production of human growth hormone. It also often pressed upon visual nerves, making one partially sighted. Hence Goliath being led onto the battle field, hence Goliath’s slow movement, hence Goliath not responding to David heading his way.

So why do we refer to David as an underdog? What we wrongly assume to be weakness is in fact anything but, and what appears as strong, the very source of his apparent strength, is the very source of his undoing.

Returning to the landscape of religion, the Goliaths are not as strong as they might appear. And we are certainly not as weak as first impressions might suggest.  

Amen.