Sunday, December 06, 2009

Thoughts on liberalism, radicalism and evangelism

I'm reading Bryan Stone's Evangelism After Christendom. It's bloody good. Reading it really makes me regret that I didn't take his course (based on the book when he was writting it) when I was studying at Boston University. I easily could have done.

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. "
Page 156

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.


Anonymous a said...

Worrying about what to believe is part of the problem. Non-creedalism isn't lacking belief, it's assuming your neighnbour doesn't lack belief neither.

And also, you sound very postmodern - take a chill pill. :)

9:49 pm  
Anonymous Tim said...

A few thoughts:

I can agree that Unitarianism can sound be wishy-washy such as in the quote from Stone (and my 3rd paragraph), but does the lack of a common set of beliefs within the collective mean that Unitarian theology(ies) are just like the emperor's new clothes, or is it the result of a more complex, more subversive view of the world? The quote from Stone doesn't mention the role of values. Values, usually presented as behaviours, tend to be the main notion that links Unitarians of different beliefs. I don't think the above question can be answered without discussion of values in opposition to (or complementary to) beliefs and the affirmation of religious doctrine.

I do accept that our speech and actions imply a theology, but it does depend on the listener's experiences and knowledge too. If you haven't done so already, I recommend a look into linguistic theories exploring the fluidity of meaning and arbitrariness of truth by philosophers and lingusits such as de Saussure, Derida, Foucault, etc, which might offer you more light on how what we say carries different meanings at different times to different people. In connection with this, we live in a society in Europe that does not generally understand the language of the Christianity, and of concepts such as "being saved", "salvation through Jesus", etc. This makes traditional evangelism much more difficult today. I am of the opinion, however, that Christianity has to change its beliefs (rather than simply the packaging, such as is found when charismatic worship or "Emerging Church" is the front for a traditional theology.)

I believe Unitarianism still leads the way in offering the opportunity to gain a greater consciousness of the Divine through multiple sources of potential truth, without demanding it be done through the prism of a prescribed religious paradigm.

8:31 pm  

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