Thoughts on liberalism, radicalism and evangelism
Anyway, as I say, it's really good, and really readable, which I can't say about most things I read, when I'm usually skipping ahead to think, "only six more pages till the end of the chapter, come on, you can do it." But this one I'm gobbling up with joy, so much sane and good stuff, as well as some stuff that challenges me. Here's one quote that I'm thinking about at the moment.
"[It] is highly doubtful that any religious faith, Christian or otherwise, can bracket or relativize the cognitive dimensions of belief and commitment as easily as [James] Adams [in his book So You Can't Stand Evangelism?] does. While faith is certainly a matter of loyalty rather than mere belief (in the sense of assent to propositions), the comprehensive way of life to which evangelism stands as an invitation necessarily implies claims about the nature of God, human beings, and the cosmos, about who Jesus is and the nature of the salvation that is discovered in and through the church.... For Adams... the permission to doubt requires that the church alter its story to conform to what doubters find it possible to believe. "
The implication being this type of liberalism is rather too easy, and lacks integrity. In what seems a rather desperate attempt to attract members, liberals say, "Don't worry, if you don't believe doctrine A, B or C, we'll get rid of it for you."
When I read stuff like this I find myself caught between my liberal side and my radical side. My liberalism says, "Belief doesn't matter that much, it's OK to have doubts, let's not worry too much." My radical side says, "Don't be such a wet liberal, you need to stand for something, a transformative truth. Have some integrity!"
Sitting in the tension between liberalism and radicalism isn't a bad place to be. In many ways early Unitarianism was a love-child between liberal Renaissance humanism and radical Anabaptist Protestantism.
But it makes me think when someone as intelligent and responsible as Bryan Stone criticises my tradition. We Unitarians often pay very little attention to such criticisms, dismissing them as conservative fundamentalist, which is highly disingenuous. There are legitimate criticisms that we need to engage with.
Unitarianism tries to do exactly what Bryan Stone suggests, as a non-creedal tradition we deliberately and explicitly " bracket or relativize the cognitive dimensions of belief." The tradition of non-subscription believes that a Christianity is possible that does not ask anyone to sign up to any particular set of beliefs.
I think it's right to point out that what we say and what we do as a religion can never be non-theological. Everything we say and do implies a theology. To say that everyone can work out their own beliefs presupposes a huge amount of theology. It presupposes people have the ability to work out their own beliefs, which means that humans have an ability to find religious truth and that religious truth is available in such a way that humans can grasp it on their own initiative. This definitely excludes, for example, orthodox Islam, which insists that the Qur'an is the literal word of God, and is the only place where God has spoken directly to the world (though God has spoken indirectly through prophets).
But even though the Unitarian faith has a definite implicit theology, it seems to me the details are non-essential, which is why we're non-creedal. It doesn't worry me at all if someone believes in the resurrection or not, what words people use for the Holy, what people believe about the afterlife. I don't see it as important.
Nevertheless I do want Unitarian faith (evangelism) to be about calling people to a "comprehensive way of life." Perhaps its just a disagreement about what is really essential, and maybe the difference is one of degree. But I do want to say that doubters can reject parts of Christianity that they cannot believe, and still work out their own salvation, and work towards the salvation of the world. Mainly because I am one of those doubters.
But ultimately I can't accept a set of beliefs as essential because nothing is infallible. Language (and all human endeavors) is not capable of expressing absolute truth. This is the essential insight in the heart of Unitarianism, that's why we're non-creedal, that's why we're a self-critical tradition: a tradition that is always prepared to examine its foundations.
I'm trying to think of a concluding paragraph, but not sure I've got one. These are just my half-formed thoughts. That's what you get on this blog. I'll continue to think about all these things as I continue to read this book.