From Purpose to Paradise

Harris Manchester College

In the last week I was at MOSA, the annual meeting for the alumni of Harris Manchester College, Oxford, where they do the valedictory services for new student ministers preparing to go out and find their first post. MOSA has been running one hundred years, sort of. The idea was conceived of one hundred years ago, but as that was during the first World War, MOSA didn’t really begin until 1920. Obviously, living memory of MOSA doesn’t go back quite that far. The longest standing member present, was the Revd Phillip Hewett who became a minister in 1952. Phillip Hewett is particularly notable to us of course, because he was the minister here at Ipswich for two years from 1954, before moving to Canada to carry on his ministry there. He wanted to send his best wishes to all, as he does not plan on returning to the UK again. The normal format for MOSA these last 100ish years has been for a fellow minister to do a few short talks on a subject of their choice. This year it fell to Stephen Lingwood, the minister of Bolton, who spoke on ‘what is the point of we Unitarians?’, doing his first talk on soteriology, and his second on ecclesiology and missiology. This morning I will be giving you the salient points of his talks, and then unpacking what they might mean for us.

So, to begin with, ‘Soteriology’. ‘Soteriology’ is the fancy theological jargon term for the study of salvation - what is it that is broken, or dysfunctional in humanity which our community seeks to redress. In conservative Christian communities, the problem is usually framed in this way: humanity is sinful, or as Calvinists put it ‘totally depraved’, which is to say enslaved to sin and unable to escape sin through our own efforts, and as such we require the grace of God. We Unitarians obviously don’t tend to frame things in terms of sin, but rather look to underlining dysfunctionalities, within individuals and within society at large. So, we may speak rather of suffering, alienation, injustice, a lack of identity, loneliness, exclusion, or being spiritually asleep. Ideally then, Unitarian religious communities should facilitate transformation out of these negative states into liberation, community, justice, a found identity, relationship, acceptance, and states of being awakened spiritually. Indeed, if this is not a goal within our community, to bring about spiritual transformation, it could not be said that we are really a religion, but rather a philosophical club in which we merely explore ideas.

 John Calvin (1509 - 1564)

John Calvin (1509 - 1564)

I titled my talk for this morning ‘From purpose to paradise’; this is our purpose - to draw in others in need of spiritual transformation. Unitarians are often those working their way out of other religious traditions, people carrying excessive religious baggage, and trying to work out what they can do with it, people who have felt alienated from communities that they were once a part of, because who they were was not welcome in those communities, or their ideas and questions were not welcome. Here we practice a radical acceptance, in which we welcome seekers into an egalitarian community of individuals joining together to enact, or act into being, the kind of community we wish could exist on earth. A beloved community, a paradise, the Kingdom of God. It requires articulating a narrative of transformation, a movement from one state to another. And this is where we Unitarians have fallen down a bit in the past. It’s difficult to draw a distinction between being radically accepting and welcoming on one hand, while at the same time, on the other hand, recognising someone’s brokenness and offering them a path beyond it, into a community in which they can heal, and find their true authentic identity. Because of course we know that there are life destroying modes of being in this world, like relentlessly qualifying human worth in economic terms, framing all of life in monetary/transactional terms, being image over substance obsessed, being driven excessively by the pleasure principle, or allowing our individual wills to always take centre stage. For true community, true love, requires surrendering our own will. That is what it is to truly love another, to think first of the other before the self. To think first for good of the community, and not what serves our own individual agenda. Another way to frame this, the way Jesus framed this, is we are to reject the Kingdom of Caesar and live as if the Kingdom of God is present. Now, Kingdom language is a bit problematic today, as it is patriarchal language. The Kingdom is the domain of the King, and if today we were to imagine an ideal, equalitarian, beloved community, we would not describe that ideal as a King-dom. Indeed, Jesus himself was only reacting to the dominant language of power in his day. He was taking the piss out of it. You say, serve the Kingdom of Caesar, I tell you, serve the Kingdom of God. In other words, he was subverting the political rhetoric of his day, to point us towards a more authentic way of being in the world, in which we aren’t constantly framing ourselves in terms of power or material wealth, but rather in terms of love, and true community. One suggestion that Stephen offered to get around this language problem was not to speak of the Kingdom of God, but rather the Kindom. Our Kin are our brothers and sisters; together we form a family, a Kindom. An anarchic collective of individuals seeking to care for and love one another. So ‘Soteriology’, as I said, is the study of salvation. What is the state of humanity we as community are trying to offer a way out of? What is our good news? What is the ‘Salvation’ we offer? Of course, we not talking about ‘Salvation’ in after-life terms, but in now terms. In Jesus’ prayer, we ask for the Kingdom of God to come on earth now, to be enacted among his people in the now, in the present.

 Ipswich Unitarian Meeting House. 

Ipswich Unitarian Meeting House. 

Okay, so our second jargon word is ecclesiology, which comes from the Greek word ‘Ecclesia’, which the Bible translates into the word ‘Church’. Now ‘Church’ is not a building - it is certainly not this building, we don’t even call this building a church, but rather a Meeting House. No, rather, ‘Church’ is the community of people, it’s the people gathered, it is all of us gathered. So ‘ecclesiology’ is the study of church, the study of the gathered people. What does it mean, to gather together in this building and do church? Well, it means many different things. Doing ‘church’ is about reminding ourselves that we are not the centre of the universe. It’s about turning our attention to issues of ultimate concern, it’s about coming together as community. It’s about extending our sphere of empathy beyond the self, beyond our tribe, to the world. It’s about reaffirming our identity as charitable, loving, individuals. It’s about communing with, or worshipping, God: ‘God’ being an all-encompassing term, for the ‘ness’ of all reality as Spinoza would define it, or a collective term for our highest ideals. It’s about singing together, breathing together, being together. Practicing simply being, and not always having to be doing. Being present to ourselves, present to this mad thing we call life. It’s about entering into a shared narrative. A narrative which we have inherited, which we wrestle with, wrestle against even. And herein lies another challenge we face as Unitarians. To wrestle with questions of ‘soteriology’ requires a shared language. To wrestle with questions of ultimate concern requires a shared language. Unitarianism cannot be a religion of religious pluralism, because then we have no shared identity at all. Hence why we read from the Bible every Sunday here in the Meeting House. Often, we do so not to simply nod along with it - we rarely do that - but rather to argue back against it, or to subvert some of the traditional readings of the text, and delve beneath surface. That’s why I am so keen on Peter Rollins’ theology, which I have spoken about a bit, and Thomas J.J. Altizer’s ‘Death of God theology’, as both offer avenues to taking the Bible and radically subverting it to no longer being a book of oppression which hangs over us, affirming nonsense and superstition, but rather a shared language to help us access those ultimate questions, and deal with some of that inherited baggage.

And so there is a bit of a loop: our soteriology shapes the way we do church - our ecclesiology - and then our ecclesiology helps us do our soteriology, wrestle with those questions of ultimate concern better. And finally, ‘missiology’: what is our missional responsibility as Unitarians? It’s certainly not to stand on street corners and proclaim Jesus. It’s not to go door to door, or stand down by the dock with our literature, as the Jehovah Witnesses do. No, rather it’s to be our own curious selves, if we are interested it questions of ultimate concern. And you’re here, so you must be! We can’t stop talking about questions of ultimate concern. We can’t help gossiping about the places and place we engage and think about these questions. The place where we do ‘Church’.

Soteriology. Ecclesiology. Missiology.

Amen.