I get excited by the emerging church movement. I'm glad there's a group of Christians who are radically rethinking Christianity for a new generation. Different worship, a different approach to the way of doing Christianity. It's all good. However in some way it is going to fail if it doesn't take into account a few big issues. There's some things that have changed, and no incarnation of Christianity is going to be successful unless it deals with these changes.1. Gender and sexuality.
Our understanding of both gender and sexuality have dramatically changed in the last few generations in British/western society. I don't think the Church of England (easy to criticise I know, but hey) realises how irrelevant it sounds as it debates how much it want to discriminate against women
or sexual minorities
. They are debating something that is essential not an issue anymore in secular society. The ethical issue has essentially already been decided in the larger society. The churches are far behind. We had a woman Prime Minister 30 years ago. Yet there can still not be a woman Archbishop of Canterbury. Any religion that does not state categorically that women and queers are equal human beings is going to be viewed as irrelevant.2. Religious pluralism.
People are more aware today that there are many, many religions. Religious pluralism is the context in which we live, even though many Christians try to ignore this fact. A religion that is exclusivist, that says (or even implies) that it is the only way, and that something bad is going to happen to others, will be seen to be committing a sin as bad as racism. Modern people cannot and will not accept a message that seems so exclusive. Moderns cannot accept that God would condemn someone just for being born in the wrong country.3. Empiricism.
Or in other words - 'I only believes what I sees.' Science and the scientific method has given us a way of looking at the world which makes us less inclined to believe in something we cannot see. We cannot see God, there is no evidence for God's existence so we reject the hypothesis. We simply cannot believe in a being in the sky who creates/d and has power over the universe. Frankly it's a bloody stupid idea that we can pretty confidently reject. Any successful religion in Britain in the twenty-first century has to be able to show God in an empirically satisfying way, a flimsy hypothesis will just not do.
Let me be clear: I think these changes are all bloody brilliant. It's brilliant that women and queers are affirming their full humanity and that we can view sexuality as a healthy part of human life. It's brilliant that different religions are co-existing and learning about one another in the same society. It's absolutely brilliant that we don't believe everything we're told, that rational empirical investigations of the world have revealed it's amazing beauty; that we reject superstitions and religious systems that do not describe the physical world and may serve those in power. This is (post)modernity. And I think it's great.
But the only religious community I see dealing with these issues in anything like the way they need to be dealt with is Unitarianism. And that is why I'm a Unitarian, and not just a liberal Christian or and emerging Christian. We've had women ministers for over a hundred years. We've had openly gay ministers for 30 years. And we don't believe in a limited once and for all revelation.
Perhaps on point 3 we have not yet come to a good answer. An answer for many of us is humanism, rejecting all religious hypotheses and trusting only what is rational and empirical. That is a good and logical position. But I think ultimately it isn't good enough. It doesn't give us a good enough reason to go on living, to stop us burning out, in short, to save us.
Why I am a Unitarian is because I think we have the potential to answer this question if we tap into our mystical roots in Emerson
and further back to the radical reformation. It is good and right to only trust and believe what we can experience. But you can experience God, you can experience the religious depth within yourself beyond the words. I haven't thought that the 'idea' of God made any sense since I was 18. I only continue to speak of God because I have a real relationship with God. Empiricism is an invitation to mysticism. We must make the leap that Martineau told us we needed to take, to become a Religion of the Spirit. If we do that and let people know that we're a faith that has adapted to modernity in terms of sex, pluralism and empiricism then we have a real chance of being incredibly relevant to our society. But of course we will also have to take on the insights of the emerging church in terms of worship and how to do church.Disclaimer: I know that there is still sexism and homophobia in both British society and Unitarianism; and that Unitarianism hasn't come up with a theologically coherent and satisfactory answer to the puzzle of religious pluralism. Hey, I paint with broad brush-strokes, OK?