Sunday, August 18, 2019

Thomas Merton - Letter to a Young Activist


Monday, August 05, 2019

Reflections on the Extinction Rebellion Summer Uprising in Cardiff

July saw a new wave of action from Extinction Rebellion, after the successful rebellion that happened in London in April. The idea was that the action in London would “mushroom” in four other cities as well as more action happening in London (this time concentrated on the Royal Courts of Justice). So the Summer Uprising broke out in Cardiff, Bristol, Leeds, and Glasgow as well.

I've been involved in Extinction Rebellion since last year, but I've not been heavily involved, and I wasn't there in London in April. Although I've taken part in events, discussions, walks, cycles, political lobbying with Extinction Rebellion, this was the first time I was involved with non-violent direct action, which is the essence of what Extinction Rebellion is about.

I've become more and more convinced of the need for non-violent direct action. We have eleven years to stop catastrophic climate change and the fact is the UK government (along with all the others) is simply not acting. We have tried persuasion, we've tried lobbying, we've tried signing petitions, we've tried protests, we've tried trying to elect politicians who will deal with this. And we will keep on trying these things. But on their own we have to admit they're simply not working.

We have to tell the truth that we're heading towards a climate catastrophe and mass extinction. We're heading towards climate genocide and recycling and buying energy efficient light bulbs is simply not going to do enough. Individual consumer action will not make a difference. What will make a difference is massive government action that will totally transform the energy sector, the agricultural sector, the transport sector, and several other areas of the economy. The government need to do this, and until they do we will keep making a bigger and bigger noise, causing bigger and bigger disruption to highlight the crisis we're in.

The point is all of these actions are aimed at government. I think that's important to get across. We're not attacking fellow citizens, we're not attacking drivers for example. The action is aimed specifically at government.

As such I had some reservations about taking action in Cardiff and not London. The Welsh government do have some levers they can pull on climate change (and well done to them for cancelling the M4 relief road) but most of the power is in the Westminster UK government. Our primary target has to be the UK capital, and I worried these actions in other cities was just going to annoy people but not be aimed specifically enough at government.

Nevertheless I began to see the need for this disruption in Cardiff. Most action will still remain targeted at London, but it's important to get the message out in other places as well. We dominated the front pages of the Welsh newspapers and the fact is no other kind of action would have done that. 

Many people came from across Wales and beyond and descended on the capital. Most camped on a piece of public land and arrived on the Sunday evening. We had decided to hold an Interfaith Vigil as the way we began the Uprising. This idea came from people who had experienced something similar in London and found it to be really valuable. Other people in Extinction Rebellion did most of the organising but I was able as a coordinate it and hold the space for the event. It was a beautiful sunny evening in Alexandra Park behind Cardiff City Hall. About a hundred people gathered into a circle and listened to speakers from different faith traditions. We had Muslim, Pagan, Tibetan Buddhist, Unitarian, Buddhist, Hindu, Quaker, and Anglican speakers who all spoke with passion and wisdom. We sang “sing and rejoice, sing and rejoice, let all things living now sing and rejoice” and all the faith speakers laid different natural objects (stones, feathers, shells) into one mound in the centre of the circle. We were together as one people concerned about the planet.

Photo by Max Davies

For the Extinction Rebellion activists it seemed to provide a moment of pause and and reflection, as well as encouragement for the action we were about to do. Several people came up to me in the days following to talk to me about it. Even people of no religious faith seemed to value it.


The next morning the action started. I'm not very good at keeping up with these sorts of things so the latest information I had was to be at the museum at 11am. However as I checked Twitter at 8am while eating my breakfast I saw that it had all already happened. That morning they had towed a big green boat to Castle Street and left it in the middle of the road. Setting up banners they now occupied this main street through Cardiff.




Some people were locked into the boat so that it could not be easily removed. If the police decided to arrest people for blocking the road and remove them it would take a long time to extricate people from their positions.

The police never showed any sign of wanting to make arrests, even though this annoyed some politicians. They had a presence there, but they never attempted to move us.

I was not intending to get arrested, so my duties were “action wellbeing” and “arrestee support” which meant really supporting those people who might get arrested. My duties were not onerous and it was mainly just hanging about chatting to people, occasionally making sure people were hydrated or that they had information about solicitors on their person if they did get arrested.


In addition to the occupied road there was also an additional site outside the city hall where there were tents, toilets, and food given out. There were talks and workshops, meditations, and children's activities.

Although inevitably there was criticism on Twitter (especially on the first morning when commuters didn't know it was happening) the overwhelming response from the public was positive. They understood the reason we were doing it and people were interested to talk. It was a positive and warm atmosphere with music, dancing, and conversations. Every time a emergency vehicle came through, we rushed to take down the banners and moved out of the way. To be honest they probably passed through faster than if there had been traffic.

As I left on midnight on the first night I did wonder whether the police were going to move in the the early hours and make arrests when numbers were much lower, but it never happened. It seems there was never any decision on behalf of the police to clear the road and arrest everyone.


A few of us from Christian Climate Action gathered at one point, prayed and sang together. It was good to bring a moment of prayer and worship in the middle of the busyness.


On the second night I sat on the empty road and watched the half-eclipse of the moon, as it shone down on the city. On a usually busy road I sat cross-legged and took it in, reflecting on the beauty all around us.

After three days we decided democratically to end the occupation of the road and the boat moved. No one had been arrested. It was a good experience overall for me. I admit I was a bit nervous but this allowed me to experience what these kinds of things are like, and so now I'd feel much more comfortable doing something like this in London.

The fight continues.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

My Baptism


“What is to prevent me from being baptised?”
Acts of the Apostles, 8:36

I spoke these words at Bank Street Unitarian Chapel, Bolton, 22nd April 2012:

It is a great joy and privilege and responsibility to stand here week by week and to offer you, in my words, some guidance in your spiritual journeys. It’s a responsibility that cannot be taken seriously enough. It is my job, as I understand it, to study the great spiritual traditions of humanity, to pass those traditions through the fire of my own spiritual life, and then to pass on to you a small pearl of wisdom that hopefully you will find of some use.

It is my job, as I understand it, to speak to the spiritual condition of our community, and to point to the Sacred, and invite us all to allow that vision of the Sacred to guide us.

My job is not to simply pass on my own thoughts, my own agendas, my own opinions.

Nevertheless, as I’ve laid down this rule, I’m going to bend it this morning and speak to you quite personally. I do this because you deserve to know where your Minister is in his spiritual journey, and in the hope that sometimes when you speak most personally you also speak most universally.
If you find something of use in my spiritual journey, then I’ll be very glad. If you don’t then I can only ask you to forgive me for this indulgence.

For most of my life (probably since the age of about 10) I have been struggling with the question, “Am I a Christian?” This question has possessed me, it has obsessed me, it has tortured me. And finally, now aged 30, I feel I can answer the question with a “yes.”

But it’s taken a long time to get here.

I grew up in the Anglican Church and I was baptised as a baby in the Anglican Church. And I have generally very happy memories of my experience of church and Sunday school. It was part of my life. It was part of my family’s life, and I was fine with that. But as I say at the age of 10 or 11 or 12 I began to ask questions; questions like:
“What does it mean that Jesus ‘died for my sins’?”
“What does it mean that Jesus was God? If Jesus was God who was Jesus praying to when Jesus prayed?”
“Is salvation or truth or God only in Christianity? What about my friends who are Muslims or Hindus or Sikhs or atheists?”

I obsessed over these questions, though generally silently, in my own mind, on my own. And of course every question led to a thousand more.

I remember one Christmas asking for my own Bible. I don’t know why I didn’t have one of my own before then – perhaps my parents were waiting to give me one for a Confirmation present. That always seemed the wrong way around to me. You should read the contract before you sign, right? Before I committed to Christianity, I wanted to have a good read of the Bible.

At around this age I was asked if I wanted to be confirmed, to confirm my Christian faith for myself. I said no. Every year when the confirmation classes were starting up I was asked if I wanted to join them. Every year I made an excuse.

The fact was confirmation was the exact opposite of what I was feeling. I was more confused than ever, more full of questions, less confirmed in my Christian faith than ever before.

Nevertheless I still believed in God, I still experienced God in prayer and worship, and I still found the figure of Jesus compelling.

As an adult I left the Anglican Church and eventually found the Unitarian Church. In many ways I came to Unitarianism searching for a Christianity that made sense to me. But Unitarianism of course offered me more than that. It offered engagement with different religions, and a search for universal religious/ethical values like compassion, justice, tolerance, gratitude.

In Unitarianism I had the freedom to put Jesus down; you didn’t have to be a Christian to be a Unitarian. But I never have been able to put Jesus down, not really. Like grit in my shoe that won’t go away, Jesus has remained an irritating presence that I can’t shake.

So over the years: I have kept returning to this question: can I call myself a Christian? You see there’s much that I love about the Christian tradition, but there’s also much I don’t like. Jesus uses the image of weeds growing among wheat, pointing to the difficulty of separating the two. That’s how I feel about Christianity. There’s good stuff, but it seems surrounded by really bad stuff.

Without even getting into contemporary Christianity, even if we limit ourselves to the New Testament, you can’t get away from the fact there are at least two different Christianities there.
There is the religion of Jesus: Jesus teaching in provocative parables, hinting at a Basileia tou Theou, a Realm of God, a Rule of Love, a religion where Love breaks all the rules, and there are more questions than answers. Broadly we find this in the synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke.

And there is the religion about Jesus: where Jesus is a divine figure, who died for our sins, was resurrected and that we must “believe” in. Broadly we find this in the Gospel of John, the writings of Paul, and most of the rest of the New Testament.

Now orthodox Christians would say that it’s impossible to separate the two. After all even the synoptics aren’t eye-witness accounts of Jesus’ life. We have no book Jesus wrote. We only have the interpretations of his life by followers decades later, with their own agendas. We only have access to Jesus through the faith of the early Christians.

But still you can’t ignore the fact that there is an inherent tension (conflict even) between these two understandings at the very heart of Christianity. And these two Christianities do contradict each other explicitly.

In the Gospel of Luke Jesus says, “if you forgive you will be forgiven.” So if you want to be forgiven then you must forgive others. Indeed that’s what the Lord’s Prayer says. This is a call for ethical transformation. But in the Acts of the Apostles Peter in his Pentecost sermon says “get baptised in the name of Jesus and you will be forgiven.” There is no longer an ethical demand to forgive others but the most important thing now is to believe/be baptised in the name of Jesus.

And so in the synoptic Gospels Jesus says, “not everyone who calls me “Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but those who do the will of the Father.” Again ethical demands are explicitly more important than merely saying words or believing. But Paul writes “If you confess that Jesus is Lord… you will be saved.” According to Paul, calling Jesus “Lord” is what matters more than anything else.

And the trouble is you can debate these biblical and theological arguments all day long. And I have done! For 20 years I have done! On two different continents I have done, seeking answers to these questions.

And what I long for now more than ever is simplicity! There comes a point when you have to put aside intellectual arguments, and decide where you will stand, and where you will plant yourself.
It has taken me a long time, but I can finally say what I believe Christianity is, what I believe it means to follow Jesus, the religion of Jesus. Even if no one else agrees with me I have to take what I understand of Jesus’ way and seek to live it out in my life.

So for me Christianity means imitating Jesus, his spirit, his way. It means living my life by an overwhelming abundant Love, a Love that burns away all the rubbish in life that we waste our time with.

It’s like Jesus was the first person to discover fire. There’s no use “believing” in the inventor of fire, no use worshipping the inventor of fire, the point is to learn for yourself how to make fire, to catch alight with that same spirit.

Jesus shows us how to make Fire, and the fire is Love.

I don’t know what God is (I really don’t), but I know that God loves me. And it’s embarrassing to say that because it sounds a bit cheesy, maybe a bit un-Unitarian. But it is the truth I live my life by, it is the fire that lights my way. It is the heart of my Christianity, and it is sufficient on its own without any other theological baggage.

Jesus shows me what it really means to live out the Love of God in my life. He offers me a way of life free from worry about material wealth or status. And Jesus challenges me to live with compassion, hospitality, overwhelming love (even for enemies), forgiveness, justice and non-violence. That’s what Christianity as a way of life means to me.

You know, Shane Claiborne, the Christian activist, talks about people (especially in Evangelical churches) saying, “my life was really messed up, my relationships were in trouble, I was doing the wrong things, I was in a terrible state, and then I found Jesus, and he put me straight.”
And Shane Claiborne says he feels the exact opposite, he says, “My life was great without Jesus, I was happy, I had a good life, a good career ahead of me, and Jesus messed up my life. He messed up my life by asking me to see the poor as my brothers and sisters, he messed up my life by asking me to give away all my possessions, he messed my life by asking me to work towards justice in this world.”
That’s kind of how I feel. My life would be so much easier without Jesus in it. To be honest, Jesus annoys the hell out of me. He’s the fly in the ointment, he’s the stone in my shoe, he’s the petulant toddler asking annoying questions. A lot of Christian songs talk about loving Jesus, I’m not even sure I like him that much.

But I stand here, ladies and gentlemen, telling you today that he is my Lord, my Master, my Teacher and my Rabbi. I think I finally pretty much get what he’s saying (not all of it, some of it is (deliberately I think) difficult to understand), and I’m prepared to follow him. I want his fire.
In the story of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts of the Apostles it seems to take him only an afternoon chatting to Philip before he says “What is to prevent me from being baptised?” Well, it’s taken me 20 years, but I am finally prepared to ask that question myself, “What is to prevent me from being baptised?”

Yes, I was christened as I child, but honestly that doesn’t mean anything to me. I can’t remember it, it doesn’t feel significant in my spiritual journey. It has nothing whatsoever to do with me making a personal commitment to follow Jesus and his Way of Love.

So I have decided that I want to be baptised. I want to publicly and physically declare myself as a follower of Jesus, and his way, and his fire.

And so in two weeks’ time when I’m on my retreat with seven other Unitarian ministers, we’re going to walk down to a stream nearby and I’m going to ask my friends and colleagues to pour water on my head and I’m going to say to the world at large, “I am a follower of Jesus. I surrender myself to the fire of God’s love.”

This may seem a strange thing to do. Orthodox Christians will not recognise it as a “real” baptism because it will not be done in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Most Unitarians will consider it a rather un-Unitarian thing to do, although historically Unitarians in Poland and in Britain have practised adult baptism. But still we would usually associate adult baptism with more conservative forms of Christianity. Perhaps some will think that I’m going fundamentalist, that I’m no longer really Unitarian, that I’m condemning any other religions; although none of those things are true.

Basically there are a lot of reasons not to do this. But I’m coming to a place where I can’t not do this. I know, somehow, that committing to the Way of Jesus is something I have to do. I have to make some act of spiritual commitment, something I have never done in my life before. I’m being led somewhere, I don’t know exactly where, but I know that Jesus is my guide for getting there. I’ve reached a point where I know I need to put aside the intellectual questions and commit simply to Love. I’m not saying I’m always going to be perfect, that I’ll always live up to the way of Jesus, because it is very demanding. But I know I must try, I know I must commit to it.

And so I suppose, I’m asking you, my church, my Unitarian community, one thing: not to walk the same spiritual path as me; not even to agree with me; but to pray for me in my spiritual journey at this time. As I will continue to pray for you in your spiritual journey.

Thank you. God bless you.

Two weeks later on the 3rd May 2012, I was baptised by seven Unitarian ministers. In a very simple ceremony in a stream in North Wales I affirmed my intention to follow the Way of Jesus and everyone there poured a cup of water over my head as we sung a chant together.




This essay first appeared in Our Christian Faith, a book published by the Unitarian Christian Association (Larkpress, 2015)

Monday, July 08, 2019

Core principals from the Center for Prophetic Imagination

Describes my principles pretty well too: 


Saturday, June 29, 2019

How can we do activism if we don't have community?

This week I went to a climate action meeting. Over fifty people gathered and there was an organised conversation for two hours about the climate crisis and environmental issues. The discussion covered so many different things: food waste, recycling, vegetarianism, nuclear weapons, education.

But what does it add up to? A list of things that "we" could do, or that "someone" could do. The trouble is I come out of such meetings thinking "we" haven't really committed to take any definite action, because no one said "I will do this (with some help)." I didn't say that either. So there's just a list of things "we" could do, and no one to do them. The meeting ended and we all went home. So what was the point? My cynicism is partly due to the fact that I went to a very similar meeting about two months ago, organised by a different organisation, that did almost exactly the same thing. Again, without any actual outcome.

And it's not so much that it's ineffective that's my problem. It's that I'm not sure it's good for us. I wonder if such things just add to a sense of guilt and paralysing despair, as they just create a list of things that need doing, without them getting done.

I feel like we should be both more ambitious and less ambitious in what such a meeting could achieve. More ambitious in the sense that dealing with the climate crisis will need something close to a revolution, and less ambitious in a sense that the first step of that might be just breaking bread together and saying, "How are you doing?"

I'm starting to believe that what prevents effective activism is an absence of community. Without community I think that activism can lack both coherent structures and a deeper sense of trust in working together to achieve things. We can gather and be opinionated about the kinds of things that could happen. But we lack both the emotional and the organisational capacity to do them.

On reflection I wish what could have happened in the meeting was just a meal and a chance for a conversation about what we're doing and how we're feeling. I feel like I would have preferred to have seen at the end of the night, not a list of things on a flipchart that "we could do" (but we won't). But just the beginning of a process of loving and trusting each other. A chance to grieve, and be angry, and share and be supported. Although this might seem wishy-washy I actually think it will eventually lead to more effective action that is rooted in trust, in friendship, in community, in a deeper sense of responsibility to each other. I think it's that that effective movements are actually made of.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Knowing the reality of God's love



I want to write about how it's possible to know the reality of God's love. I find this challenging as for a long as I can remember I have had a relationship with God. Growing up going to church I discovered God amidst the music, the hymns, the ritual. I talked to God and I always felt God was there.

This is not to say that it's always been plain sailing and there's not been times of doubt and dullness. That have been, but my relationship with God has remained. But I want to try to write something that might be useful to someone who hasn't had that experience and who might find the idea of God rather puzzling or mystifying or just plain weird.

Ralph Waldo Emerson advised his contemporaries to “dare to love God without mediator or veil”. I think this points us in the right direction, even though it's advice that many religious people have not taken. But God (according to the radical mystical tradition that Emerson represents) should not be something experienced second-hand, something known by just reading about God in a book, or hearing about some other “holy” person who has experienced God. No, we should experience God for ourselves. We should not “believe” a set of ideas, a set of beliefs, a philosophical theory, but experience the Divine and experience a way of life rooted in the Divine.

Don't believe in God. Belief is a second-hand activity. The first-hand activity is knowing God. How do you know God? By loving God. The only way to know God is to enter into a love relationship with God.

How is that possible? It sounds like it might just be circular reasoning or simply nonsense. But that's only when we're trying to approach things through the "higher" intellectual, rational parts of ourselves. And that's only one way to approach reality. Every person also has the ability to approach reality through the emotional, bodily, poetic, "spiritual" self.

Certain experiences in life open us to a different way of approaching reality. Think of listening to an overwhelming piece of classical music that somehow makes you feel both joyful and sad at the same time. Think the ecstasy of sexual union. Think of being in "flow" when you are so absorbed in a task you stop thinking. Think of falling in love. Think of the pain of grief.

The last two might be the most significant. Richard Rohr says the two primary paths to transformation are great love and great suffering. It's these things that shatter the ego and allow us to approach God. But in all of these experiences we begin to approach "the spiritual" - we begin to grow our capacity to "hear" God (or to "see" God, whatever metaphor you want to use).

When we know that what we're "listening" for is something like a feeling of love, something like awe and wonder, something like a feeling of joy, we can enter into the practice of prayer with these sorts of senses "sharpened".

Prayer comes in many forms: meditation, singing, chanting, visualisation, but I am an advocate of the kind of prayer some people will think is childish. Just talk to God. Just talk as if someone were listening, and as if they care and want to listen to you. And say whatever you want to. It might feel silly. It might feel silly for a very long time. But stick with it. Even if you're pretty sure there is no one listening, I'm convinced that this practice is really good for your mental health. It's the practice of expressing your deepest thoughts, worries, fears, joys, gratitudes. It's an emotionally healthy thing to do.

But I think if you go into this with your spiritual senses sharpened, you can begin to have a sense of the Someone that listens. You have to realise it's not magic, you don't hear anything in a normal sense or see anything in a normal sense. But if you realise that "hearing" and "seeing" are metaphors for expressing something that is closer to falling in love, feeling awe, feeling inspiration, then yes, you do "hear" God, you do feel the love of God, and you so you begin to get to know what God is.

God is love. The experience of millions of people is that when you begin to open your heart in this way you begin to experience a deep sense that you are loved. Sometimes it might be overwhelming, something that will make you weep with joy. But most of the time it's just a quiet companionable presence. But it is in remaining in this companionable presence you begin to enter into a love relationship, you begin to begin to love God, and in loving God, you find out what it it to know God. All the belief stuff, the theory, the theology, comes later, if you want it to. But often that stuff can be a distraction from the original raw experience of "loving God without mediator or veil”. The radical mystical traditions tell us to keep that in the centre.

I like the way the Quakers put it: Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts. Trust them as the leadings of God whose Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

The 1919 Cardiff Racist Riots



I only just found out about the riots that took place 100 years ago in Cardiff, that killed several people. I wish I could link to one comprehensive webpage that gives the full history, but I don't think one exists. It's a surprisingly hidden piece of history.

The 1919 Cardiff Racist Riots lasted several days with white crowds attacking black and minority ethnic communities, and homes. I feel like we should call them "racist riots" rather than "race riots" as "race riots" suggests a neutrality with blame equally on both sides when this was clearly primarily an attack from the white population on the black and middle eastern populations of Cardiff. Particularly targeted were mixed race families and white women who has married black men.

Cardiff was not isolated but this was part of a pattern that affected Barry, Newport, as well as English and Scottish port towns where there were ethnic minority populations.

High unemployment, newspapers whipping up fear and hatred, and a post-traumatic war population all led to this outburst of racist violence.

The question is: where is the commemoration of this violence in Cardiff today? Why isn't there a plaque or some art work to remember what happened?

This is just another small example of how we choose to be very selective in the history that we remember, and have yet to come to terms with our imperialist and racist history, to tell the truth about our own history, and to come to terms with the history of white supremacy.

This Twitter account is "live tweeting" the riots right now. Check it out.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

The Five Points of Unitarian Christianity

(I'm republishing this essay on here as it's another one of those important historical documents that I believe is only on one website, and I want to make sure it stays available to all - SL)


The Five Points of Calvinism and the Five Points of the New Theology
by James Freeman Clarke (1885)

(With a few minor updates to the language by Mercy Aiken)

"And thou shalt make . . . five pillars, and overlay them with gold, . . . and shalt cast five sockets of brass for them." -- Exodus xxiv.,37

The number five has acquired as great significance in theology as it has in nature. The largest family of plants is that of which the flowers have five petals; and the most popular theology of modern times is that of Calvin with its five points of doctrine. These five points of Calvin relate to Absolute Decrees, Atonement by Christ for the Elect only, Original Sin, Effectual Calling, and the Perseverance of Saints.

The main and essential doctrines of Orthodoxy in the past, have revolved around the ideas of sin and salvation. These creeds are as remarkable for what they omit as for what they assert. They hardly touch upon those truths which Jesus makes the main focus of his teaching, -- love to God, love to man, forgiveness of enemies, purity of heart and life, faith, hope, peace, patience, self-control, and goodness. It is certain that the theology of the future must dwell on something more than the five points of Calvinism. I have tried to consider what will be the five main parts of the coming theology, and have listed them below.

1. I believe the first point of doctrine in the theology of the future will be the Fatherhood of God.


The essence of this is the love of the father for his children. Fatherly love is a wise love, a firm love, and a pure love, which seeks the best good of the child. Thus this idea of fatherhood includes that of the holiness, the truthfulness, and the justice of God, in a word, all the divine attributes. The justice of God as a Father is not, as in the old theology, an abstract justice, which has no regard to consequences. God's justice is only another form of mercy. It is the wise law which brings good to the universe, and is a blessing to every creature.

Jesus has everywhere emphasized this truth, that God is a father. We find it pervading the Gospels and coloring all his teaching. We find it already in the Sermon on the Mount, which tells us that we are to let our light shine, not to glorify ourselves, but to glorify our Father in heaven; that we are to love our enemies, that we may be like our heavenly Father, who loves his enemies, and makes his sun rise on the evil and the good. Jesus tells us that, when we pray, we are to pray to our Father, not to infinite power or abstract justice or far-off sovereignty. We are to forgive others, because our Father in heaven forgives us. We are not to be anxious, remembering that our heavenly Father feeds the little birds of the air. We are to pray, confident that our heavenly Father will give good things to those who ask him. Thus, this idea of God pervades the earliest as it filled the latest teachings of Jesus.

This idea of the divine fatherhood goes down so deep into the human heart that it becomes the source of a childlike obedience, trust, submission, patience, hope, and love. It brings consolation to us in our trials, gives us earnestness in prayer, makes it less difficult to repent when we have done wrong. We look up out of our sin and weakness and sorrow, not to an implacable law, not to an abstract king, but to an infinite and inexhaustible tenderness. Thus, this doctrine is the source of the purest piety.

2. The second point of doctrine in the new theology will be, I think, the Brotherhood of Man.

If men are children of the same father, then they are all brethren. If God loves them all, they must all have in them something lovable. If he has brought them here by his providence, they are here for some important end. Therefore, we must call no man common or unclean, look down upon none, despise none, but respect in all that essential goodness which God has put into the soul, and which he means to be at last unfolded into perfection.

As from the idea of the fatherhood of God will come all the pieties, so from that of the brotherhood of man will proceed all the charities. This doctrine is already the source of missions, philanthropies, reforms, and all efforts to seek and save those who are surrounded by evil. It leads men to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, to teach the blind, to soothe the troubled, to spread knowledge, and carry glad tidings to the poor. And this doctrine, when fully believed, will be the source of purer moralities and nobler charities.

This truth, also, Jesus has taught by his words and his life. He went about doing good, feeding the hungry, making the blind to see, the deaf to hear, the lame to walk, cleansing the leper, preaching the gospel to the poor. He was the friend of publicans and sinners, of the Roman centurion, the woman of Phoenicia, the woman of Samaria. He was the friend and helper of all who needed him. In the story of the Good Samaritan, he taught that all men are brethren. And his last recorded words were the command to preach the gospel to every creature.

3. The third point of doctrine in the new theology will be, as I think, the Leadership of Jesus.

The simplest definition of a Christian is one who follows Christ. This was his own definition: "My sheep hear my voice, and follow me." "I am the way and the truth and the life." "Come to me, all ye who labor and are heavy laden." When Mary sat at the feet of Jesus, and heard his words, he said that she had chosen the good part, and had done the one thing needful. A Platonist is one who studies the teachings of Plato, and takes him for his teacher and guide in philosophy. A Swedenborgian is one who studies the teachings of Swedenborg, and takes him for his guide in theology. A Christian is one who takes Jesus as his guide in religion, and who goes directly to his teachings for religious truth.

But hitherto, instead of considering those as Christians who have studied the words of Jesus, and sought to know the truth, the name has usually been given to those who accepted some opinion about him. Not what he himself teaches, but what the Church says he teaches, has been made the test of Christian fellowship. Men have been told to go to Jesus, but on the understanding that they shall learn from him only the same thing which the Church has already learned. Instead of sending us to the teacher himself, we are sent to our fellow-students. We, therefore, in reality take them, and not Jesus, for our leader.

The Athanasian Creed asserts as unquestioned verities certain metaphysical statements in regard to the nature of the Deity and the relations which existed between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit before the creation. These speculations are read four times a year in the Church of England, and the people are told that those who do not believe these superhuman mysteries shall without doubt perish everlastingly. Is it not evident that the Church, in doing this, takes the unknown author of the creed as its leader and teacher instead of taking Christ himself? All human creeds which are made the tests of what Christ taught are in reality put in his place. Compared with his teaching, they are all narrow and unspiritual. They emphasize some purely intellectual statements which chanced to be popular when they were written. The makers of these creeds tell us to call Jesus teacher, but to learn from themselves what he teaches. They show thus that they dare not trust us to go to him; and they show that they have no real faith in him as the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

Of course there is no harm in a creed, when it merely states what a man believes at the present time or what any number of men believe at any particular period. The harm comes from making the creed a perpetual standard of belief, a test of Christian character, and a condition of Christian fellowship. Such creeds, instead of uniting the Church, have divided it into endless sects and parties. Let men take Jesus himself as their leader and teacher, and the Church will be again one. Then Christians will come into communion not only with the mind, but also with the heart of the Master. When the whole Church is like Mary sitting at the foot of Jesus and hearing his words, it will be more full of his spirit. Bigotry and sectarianism, which have cursed Christianity, will disappear, and be replaced by the large generosity and ample charity of Jesus himself. We shall then, according to his striking Oriental image, eat his flesh and drink his blood. Instead of merely accepting propositions about him, we shall assimilate his character and feed on it in the depths of our heart. Then will be fulfilled his saying: "My sheep hear my voice, and follow me. I know my sheep, and am known of mine."

4. The fourth point of the new theology will be a richer definition for "Salvation."Salvation means the highest peace and joy of which the soul is capable. It means heaven here and heaven hereafter. This salvation has been explained as some thing outside of us, -- some outward gift, some outward condition, place, or circumstance. We speak of going to heaven, as if we could be made happy solely by being put in a happy place. But the true heaven, the only heaven which Jesus knew, is a state of the soul. It is inward goodness. It is Christ found within. It is the love of God in the heart, going out into the life and character. The first words which Jesus spoke indicated this belief. The poor in spirit already possess the kingdom of heaven. The pure in heart already see God. "This is life eternal, to know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent." He who has the faith which Jesus possessed has eternal life abiding in him. The water that Jesus gives becomes a spring of water within the soul, "springing up into everlasting life." Do not look for a distant heaven, saying, "Lo! here," or "Lo! there "; "for the kingdom of heaven is now with you." When we come to study the words of Jesus as we study human theologies, we shall find that he identifies goodness with heaven, and makes character the essence of salvation. As long as men believe that heaven is something outward, to be attained by an act of profession or belief, they will be apt to postpone such preparation as long as possible. But when we apprehend the inflexible law of consequences, and know that as a man soweth so shall he reap; when we see that spiritual tastes and habits are not to be formed in an hour; and that all formal professions, prayers, and sacraments avail nothing, unless the heart is pure, the soul upright, and the life one of integrity, -- then a new motive will be added to increase the goodness of the world. Then the formation of character will be the fruit of Christian faith to an extent never before realized.

5. The fifth point of doctrine in the new theology will, as I believe, be the Continuity of Human Development in all worlds, or the Progress of Mankind onward and upward forever.

Progress is the outward heaven, corresponding to the inward heaven of character. The hope of progress is one of the chief motives to action. Men are contented, no matter how poor their lot, so long as they can hope for something better. And men are discontented, no matter how fortunate their condition, when they have nothing more to look forward to. The greatest sufferer who hopes may have nothing, but he possesses all things: the most prosperous man who is deprived of hope may have all things, but he possesses nothing.

The old theology laid no stress on progress here or progress hereafter. The essential thing was conversion: that moment passed, the object of life was attained. A man converted on his death-bed, after a life of sin, was as well prepared for heaven as he who had led a Christian life during long years. And there was no hint given of farther progress after heaven should be reached. Eternity was to be passed in perpetual thanksgiving or in perpetual enjoyment of the joys of paradise. Such, however, was not the teaching of Jesus. The servant, in the parable, who earned two pounds, was made ruler over two cities: he who earned five pounds had the care of five cities. And the Apostle Paul tells us that one of the things which abide is hope. If hope abides, there is always something to look forward to, -- some higher attainment, some larger usefulness, some nearer communion with God. And this accords with all we see and know: with the long processes of geologic development by which the earth became fitted to be the home of man; with the slow ascent of organized beings from humbler to fuller life; with the progress of society from age to age; with the gradual diffusion of knowledge, advancement of civilization, growth of free institutions, and ever higher conceptions of God and of religious truth. The one fact which is written on nature and human life is the fact of progress, and this must be accepted as the purpose of the Creator.

Some such views as these may constitute the theology of the future. This, at least, we see, that many of the most important elements in the teaching of Jesus have had no place, or a very inferior place, in the teachings of the Church in past times. As the good Robinson foretold, "more light is to break out from the Word of God." The divine word, revealed in creation, embodied in Christ, immanent in the human soul, is a fuller fountain than has been believed. No creed can exhaust its meaning, no metaphysics can measure its possibility.

The teaching of Jesus is not something to be outgrown; for it is not a definite system, but an ever unfolding principle. It is a germ of growth, and therefore has no finality in any of its past forms. "Of its fulness," says John, "we have all received, and grace added to grace." The Apostle Paul regarded his own knowledge of Christianity as imperfect and partial. "We know in part," said he, "and we teach in part." Christianity in the past has always had a childlike faith, which was beautiful and true. But its knowledge has also been that of a child. It has spoken as a child, it has understood as a child, it has thought as a child. This was all well while it was a child. The innocent prattle of an infant is sweet, but in a youth or man it is an anachronism. Let us have a child-like faith, but a manly intelligence. "In malice be children, but in understanding be men." Let us endeavor to see God and nature face to face, confident that whoever is honestly seeking the truth, though he may err for a time, can never go wholly wrong.

Source: James Freeman Clarke, “The Five Points of Calvinism and the Five Points of the New Theology,” Vexed Questions in Theology: A Series of Essays (Boston, 1886), 9–18.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Emerson opened the door - we didn't go through


As I have thought about the development of my Unitarian tradition I have come to the conclusion that there was a point when it took the wrong pathway. The point was 1838.

In 1838 Ralph Waldo Emerson preached his Divinity School Address - a seminal sermon in the history of Unitarianism. In that sermon Emerson preached a religion based not on repetition of the stories of the Bible, but on an unmediated relationship between the soul and the divine.

He said, in part,
"It is the office of a true teacher to show us that God is, not was; that He speaketh, not spake.... dare to love God without mediator or veil... Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost, -- cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men at first hand with Deity."
Emerson's writing is not that easy to read in the twenty-first century (and perhaps it wasn't that easy in the nineteenth) but amongst all the flowery language I think these words seem to me to be very profound. For me these words open a door - a door to God. Emerson says, "It's right there - the door is open - go through - God is right there - freely available."

I'm not an Emerson scholar or historian but it seems to be like this was the challenge that Emerson gave to Unitarianism - and it was a challenge Unitarianism failed to take. Instead of taking this pathway to mysticism it took the opposite pathway. Instead of being inspired by this mystical teaching it took the worst parts of Emerson's philosophy - his individualism and dogmatic anti-traditionalism and defined itself by that. In my view that represents precisely the worst of Emerson.

I don't think Emerson himself stepped through the door. I've never seen any evidence that Emerson did what he was advocating - developed a deep spiritual life, an intimate relationship with God. The problem I suppose, was anti-Catholicism. Emerson and other Unitarians would have been too prejudiced against Catholicism to delve into spiritual practices of contemplative prayer developed by Ignatians or Franciscans. Emerson didn't realise that the very repetitive patterns that he criticised actually represented a trusted practice to achieve a first hand acquaintance with Deity.

In Britain James Martineau, influenced by Emerson, developed a similar theology of divine communion. But again, although in theory he advocated a deep prayer life, I'm not sure if he really worked out how to do it.

Instead, Unitarianism in both Britain and the United States, failed to step through the door, and kept arguing about intellectual ideas and beliefs. Without a solid spiritual foundation Unitarianism has spent 150 years trying, and failing, to find "right beliefs". It has kept up an amateurish philosophical task of trying to define truth and trying to define itself, a task that has always failed. And so we have thousands of sermons about "What is Unitarianism" (while still failing to come up with a good answer) and very few sermons about "How to know God first hand". And yet if we took Emerson's challenge seriously - if we actually stepped through the door - that is what all our sermons would be about (and the sermon would only be an introduction to a time of spiritual practice).

It's not too late I think (but it might be soon). I think there is time to step through the door Emerson opened. I think it is still possible to develop a Unitarianism that is deeply rooted in the mystical. God is still there. It is still possible to know God first hand.

(Image by Konstantin Somov. From https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Somov_open-door-garden.jpg)

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Protestants and Practice


One of the great differences I have noticed between Christians and Buddhists is how much more confident Buddhists are in their faith - and more specifically their practices.

I read a lot of books about church planting, mission, fresh expressions of church, etc, etc. There's always a new book about how the Christian church should change to become more relevant, more post-modern, more this, more that. There's always a new fashionable theory: secular church, emergent church, fresh expression of church, ancient-future church, liquid church, organic church. You can write one of these sorts of books and people like me will buy them and read them. These books are always agonising about how church has become irrelevant and what needs to change to make it attractive to people again. We go to conferences all about this. We talk about it all the time.

What I have noticed is that my Buddhist friends do no such agonising. They display a deep confidence in their spiritual practice that I don't detect in Christians. Buddhists say, "This is the practice: you chant, or you meditate. You do it every day. You keep doing it. And it leads to enlightenment. Centuries of tradition has shown that this practice is a well-worn path to enlightenment. It works. That's why we're Buddhists, because we believe (and we have experienced) that it does work."

Sure, there are other things to talk about. There's philosophies and beliefs and traditions, and there's questions about community life, and whether to get a new website. But beneath all of that I see Buddhists pointing to a concrete spiritual practice and saying "this is the thing".

Why can't Christians do the same? Well I think some Christians can. I think maybe Catholics can, but Protestants have forgotten how to. Catholics can still say, "here it is: the Mass. Do it every day if you can, or at least once a week. This practice is a proven path to God. This is what we offer."

Protestants though have made the Christian faith all about beliefs and ideas (Unitarians are no less Protestant in this regard). Protestants have lost the ability to point to a concrete spiritual practice and say: this is the thing. The only exception I can think of might be Quakers. Quakers, in theory, can still say, "sit in this gathered silence. Centuries of our practice has taught us that this is a proven path to God." (In reality though, I fear many Quaker communities continue the practice while effectively forgetting what it is for).

So my plea to Protestants is to have the confidence that our tradition does contain proven practices that lead to God. This might mean returning to things thrown out in the Reformation. But at it's simplest it means having confidence that worship and prayer are practices that genuinely lead to God. Hymn-singing is a proven spiritual practice that actually leads to God; liturgy, silence, communion, this things genuinely work in leading us to God, don't they? Don't they? (If not, why are we Christians?) Millions of people still do these, and there's a reason for that.

If we don't have confidence that it is actually true that our core practices lead to God, what is the point of all this faffing around with the latest theory about how to make church relevant or appealing? I would love to see Christians have the quiet simple confidence that their religious practice is actually good and effective. That's what I see with my Buddhist friends, and it is deeply appealing. My Buddhist friends do not display a great anxiety about whether their faith is relevant. I see them saying, "Hey, this is my meditation practice, it works for me, maybe it will work for you. Come along and try it out if you like." Why can't Christians be like that?

(Image: Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Corporate_Cartoon_Guy_In_Meditation.svg)