Our Unitarian Theology?
Where to begin? Like the Manchester Conference itself, this address can just act as the beginning of the conversation. To get the ball rolling, the explorers may go out and map territory, but it still takes the pioneers to go and do the colonising. So what do we mean by Theology?
We all do theology: the way we choose to live our lives, what we value, the meaning we give to our lives. ‘What is the meaning of life?’ - this is a bit of a joke question, and rightfully so. Nobody can know what the meaning of life is. But nonetheless we all answer that question quietly within our own hearts. To be loving, to be kind, to further one cause or another. We all do theology. When decisions are made about how this Meeting House should present itself to the outside world, we are doing theology. We’re saying something about who we are, and what we represent.
When you attempt to explain to someone, ‘what is a Unitarian?’, you’re doing theology. And when you’re thinking about, or talking about your faith, your conception of God, if you value faith communities, if you believe that love will overcome hate, if you believe this world is getting better or getting worse, if you have hope. We all do theology. But how examined is that theology? Does it just come from a gut level sense? Do we hold opinions just because? Opinions we have inherited from our elders, or inherited from the way it has always been done? By thinking about theology, we attempt to unpack why we think what we think. We get down to the roots of what we think. We hold opinions or perspectives of ours next to one another, and see if they contradict, and if they do, we examine if that is a problem, or not.
There is an idea within our denomination that because we are a ‘creedless religion’ we don’t do theology (‘Creedless’ meaning there is no set beliefs to which you have to sign up.) But to be ‘creedless’ is deeply theological. By being ‘creedless’ we are making a radical and bold theological claim, that the search for truth and meaning cannot be delegated to any person living, or indeed the writings of any old man from history. We have the sacred task of looking at the place we inhabit in the world, and building a worldview, a spiritual perspective, which is in line with our own conscience, our own rational understanding, our own sense of what has come before. "To trust yourself when all men doubt you, but to make allowance for their doubting too." To consider deeply the perspectives of others within our community, and therefore as a community to grow in our togetherness.
My favourite talk from the Manchester Theological Conference was Jo James’s, his cryptic title being ‘Spectral Hermeneutics’ which he borrowed from the theologian John Caputo. Jo James, if you don’t know, has been the Unitarian minister up at Leeds for the last couple of years. Unlike the other speakers who mainly spoke on the problems we are facing - lack of theological discourse, lack of core identity, etc. - Jo James’s talk was a bit more on the positive side, on the constructive side.
Hermeneutics is about the interpretation and understanding of something, usually in reference to the Bible. We did a bit of hermeneutics last week when we looked at Genesis 3, and explored how it has been understood and how we might want to understand it now. ‘Spectral’ is the adjective for spectre; not the James Bond movie, but rather a ghost or spirit. So ‘Spectral Hermeneutics’ is a fancy way of saying ‘interpreting the spirit’, or ‘a theology of spirit’. That’s what Jo James’s talk was on, a Theology of the Spirit, and how that relates to our Unitarian theology, or identity. Throughout the world, in many different languages, the word for spirit is synonymous with the word for breath. The same breath which sustains all living beings, which binds us and unites us all together.
Jo James went on to list five key ways in which the spirit can be said to be working in liberal religion, acting in its development. They are:
1) Emphasis on reason in faith.
2) Open and thoughtful approach to religious texts.
3) Preference for unity and dialogue.
4) Individual responsibility for faith.
5) An insistence upon tolerance, and freedom of conscience.
Five ways in which the spirit can be seen quietly working in the background of our communities. Ralph Waldo Emerson says we should ‘Refuse the good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination of men.’ Because all our models, all our structures and institutions, are of human making, not divinely created. And we only hold to a particular structure by virtue of where and when we were born.
Those early disciples in Acts were waiting for the return of Jesus, but when he didn’t come, they settled for creating the Church. The Church is a creation of humanity: at best humanity responding to the spirit of God, responding to their experience of the spirit of love, and at worst motivated by egotistical desire, or needs for certainty. As they, the disciples, were inspired by the spirit, so we can be inspired by the spirit. We need not settle for imitating what has come before. We are creedless, we refuse the good models, we are receptive to the inadequacies of “The Church”, and are open to the spirit moving amongst us. The spirit which brings forth such fruits as love and freedom. To recognise the spirit in our own life is to be seized by reality in the depth of our being, as John Caputo says. To know our own humanity, and to be compelled towards love and hope. True love, and true hope, which is the love of the difficult to love, and a hope in the face of hopelessness: this is the Spirit among us.
The power of this spirit is egalitarian, and anarchic in nature, it threatens those who hold onto the reins of traditional Church power. Jo James referenced the Christian mystics who were always feared for this reason. Throughout Church history such mystical groups were systematically suppressed by the Church. Perhaps they laid the popular ground work for religious tolerance and freedom of conscience, characteristic of the early reform traditions.
Jo James went on to talk about the Dutch Low Countries, where in the 17th century there was an interesting exchange of ideas which took place amongst students. They offered there a community open to refugees, the most notable person being Spinoza, who was himself a Jew, whose family fled Spanish persecution. But also at this time, refugee Quakers, Baptists and ‘others’ fled to the Dutch Low Countries from British persecution. Spinoza’s approach to religion moved it away from something based upon superstition, towards something more rationalistically based. In this arena of free flowing thought, the ideas espoused by Spinoza and others fed into the spiritual tradition which we now identify as ‘Unitarian’. Spinoza, on writing about the Spirit, or the breath of God, says that this Spirit is synonymous with the power, mind, intention and effect of God as perceived by human faculties, and in doing so he prepares the ground upon which understanding God and nature as concepts bound together could be taken up, as our tradition of course went on to do.
I think, as one unplugs the name of God from some supernatural supreme being, one understands spirit or God as the name for a certain galvanised form of life in the now, which is expressed as the Kingdom of God, a form of life in this world. That is the core of this tradition. Our tradition is elusive and difficult to pin down. You can’t point to a few sentences, and say ‘that’s what it is’. ‘Unitarian Theology’ is a spirit led broad affair, but it is not a blank space, it is not an anything goes. It has a character, a bolshie tone about it. It is not a soft liberalism of niceness and kind platitudes; it doesn’t think everyone’s opinion is equally valid.
That kind of ‘your mind is so open your brain falls out’ approach to religion is not Unitarian, it is what creeps in when we forget what our traditions stands for: spirit, breath which binds all of creation, sacred anarchy, deeply thoughtful, radical expressions of love and hope, a present-centred spirituality, pioneering, and ready to go deeper.
Look at the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Amen.