Tuesday, November 20, 2012

"Values" are overrated

This is the second of my "heretical" Unitarian thoughts.

I think what might be the most unhelpful of the orthodoxies of modern Unitarianism is that what really matters is "values."

As we have become more doctrinally diverse we have seen "values" as the only thing that can unite us. So we can agree on nothing religious, so we decide we will just agree on basically liberal values of tolerance, gay rights, the environment, etc. We have begun to think this is what matters most in our religious community.

You can see this in the language that has been coming out of the leadership of the American UUs recently. This statement from UUA President Peter Morales has caused a lot of discussion. In it he notes some interesting points including the fact that a lot more people in America identify as UU than actually go to congregations, and a lot of people who grew up in UU congregations don't continue to attend as adults. This, in a sense, is the inevitable consequence of defining Unitarianism in terms of values. People have got the values, so they no longer see the need for congregations. You don't really need a congregation to maintain your liberal values, except, perhaps, in a very conservative environment.

I'm not entirely clear what "congregations and beyond" means but it is interesting to note this concluding statement, "The central conviction driving this proposal is that our core values appeal to far more people than are attracted to (or likely to be attracted to) our congregations." (emphasis added). There is also a lot of talk about the increasing number of "nones" in America i.e. those who are not affiliated to any religion. The argument seems to be that these "nones" share the values of Unitarianism therefore this is a great opportunity to appeal to the "nones" and to attract them to Unitarianism. Peter Morales has said "they are us."

I like and respect Peter Morales, but I think there's a mistake in the thinking here. Here in the UK there are many more "nones" than in the US. The majority of the "nones" share the values of Unitarianism. Indeed I'd say that a good proportion of the British public share the values of Unitarianism, and yet British Unitarianism continues to decline. Why is this?

Because (if you'll excuse the sexist language) man does not live by values alone. Although people want a religion that does connect with their values, values are not the "product" that they want to buy (if you'll excuse the marketing language). What actually transforms people religiously are stories, rituals and practices, not values and principles.

That's why I think its a mistake when we think in Britain that what we really need are "principles" like the seven principles of the UUA. We don't need principles; we need stories. No religion is built on principles alone, they're primarily built on stories. The life of Moses, the life of Jesus, the life of Mohammad, the life of the Buddha, the myriad stories of Hinduism, these are the real building blocks of a religion. That and practices: communion, confession, meditation, prayer, worship, devotion, study.

There is nothing wrong with trying to reach out to the "nones." Indeed I would agree it is missionally vital. But I think talk of values is not going to do that. "Come here to hang out with people who share you values" is not an attractive invitation, because it doesn't offer anything.

More powerful is "come here to find liberation from your fears" "come here to find a deeper joy" "come here to find salvation" "come here to find God" and even "come here to have your values challenged, to be freed from the sin of your materialism, narrow-mindedness, anger and selfishness and re-orientate your values to a radical way of compassion, peace, non-violence, simplicity and love."

In other words evangelism should not be "come here to remain the same" but "come here to be changed." And yes, this might put some people off, but the religious path is a challenging one of personal growth, but that path must be our ultimate goal, otherwise, what's the point in what we're doing anyway? And even if you are measuring by a purely pragmatic church-growth outcome, the evidence is that the "come here and be changed" message does attract a lot more people than the "come here to remain the same."

Sharing the basic values of the liberal majority is a helpful bridge to our outreach. But it's not enough on its own. We also need to show what is distinct about the religious path, about belonging to a Unitarian community as opposed to not belonging to anything. We need to offer religious practices, rituals and stories that create human meaning and transformation. Until we do that, I don't believe the "nones" are going to be bashing our doors down to come and share in our values.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

"Diversity" is overrated

I've had some "heretical" thoughts knocking around in my head recently. I think it's time I said some of them.

Of course Unitarians claim we embrace heresy, but we have plenty of orthodoxies, some of which may not be helpful, some of which may need challenging.

One orthodoxy is "what we're really all about is diversity" - or as the GA website puts it:

"Unitarianism is an open-minded and individualistic approach to faith that gives scope for a very wide range of beliefs and doubts.
Religious freedom for each individual is at the heart of Unitarianism. Everyone has the right to search for meaning in life and reach their own conclusions.
Unitarians see diversity and pluralism as valuable rather than threatening. They want faith to be broad, inclusive, and tolerant. Unitarianism can therefore include people who are Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Pagan and Atheist."

Unitarians want to be "broad, inclusive, and tolerant." And who can possibly object to that? Well no one. And that's sort of my point. If you're doing something no one objects to, you're doing something wrong.

Let me back up a bit and explain what I mean. A lot of these thoughts I'm having are coming from the current reading I'm doing about British Unitarian history. One of the striking things about Unitarianism, is that it's always really struggled to be an "ism." It has struggled to be a "something."

Unitarianism, as opposed to say Quakerism or Methodism, isn't really a proper religious movement with a clear beginning and a clear founder. It can seem like a sort of vague movement of liberalism within Protestant churches.

One understanding of Unitarianism is that it starts with a sort of attitude or approach. As Celia Parker Woolley said:

"Unitarianism is not so much an organized system of religious belief as a religious movement. It is more a method of thought than an outcome... The inevitable conclusion… is that this ideal church must rest on the broadest possible basis of fellowship, welcoming to its communion all thoughtful, truth-seeking minds."

Although that quote comes from nineteenth century American Unitarianism, it can be applied to the eighteenth century English Presbyterianism that became Unitarian.

The key point is that the churches wanted "the broadest possible fellowship." This was this approach of the eighteenth century Prebyterians: they wanted to be broad and liberal, welcoming all: Calvinist, Armenian, orthodox and Arian. They simply wanted to be "Christians dissenting from the Church of England" and many of them weren't too bothered about dissenting, and would have rejoined the established church if it would have them back.

This was a "catholic" or "comprehensive" spirit that sought to include all Christians, or at least all Protestants. This freedom allowed some to come to a doctrinally Unitarian position, and the Unitarian movement slowly emerged. But soon enough some people began to get twitchy about the word "Unitarian" - wasn't that too narrow a name? Isn't it too sectarian? Shouldn't we be more broad, inclusive and tolerant than that?

Some people began to argue for the term "Free Christian" instead, that seemed much more broad to them. But then even that seemed too narrow to some, and some began to argue for the broadest possible theism. And then some saw that as too narrow, wishing to include all people of faith. And then to include humanism and atheism too. This can be seen in a couple of congregations in the General Assembly who are officially not "Unitarian" but "those who do not wish to be designated."

That would certainly have surprised eighteenth century Presbyterians, and yet in a way it was the inevitable outcome of the liberal "catholic" approach they wanted.

And this is the way we tell the Unitarian story: of becoming broader and broader in doctrines, until we are... well, what are we?

We begin to include everything, everyone. We sort of dissipate out into a wispy thing floating away on the breeze.

But there is a problem with this liberal story of becoming broader and broader on matters of doctrine. The problem is we cease to be a religion. We cease to do what religions do: which is to offer hope, meaning, transformational experiences of the numinous, wisdom, ritual, stories and a solution to the problem of human existence. We reduce such things to personal beliefs, that people are free to hold, but that we as a community must remain staunchly neutral about.

But if we as a community remain staunchly neutral on matters of faith, then there is really no point in the community. We may be a pleasant social club, an effective political lobbying organisation, or a worthy social service organisation, but we are not a religious community, we are not a church.

And we become so broad, so inclusive that our walls are entirely porous: people can float in and float out of our community happily enough without it mattering very much. And so they do. Because if the community is staunchly neutral on religion, then it really makes no difference if you belong to the community or not.

If "diversity" is a terminal value; if "diversity" is the heart of Unitarianism then this is where we end up.

The conclusion, I would argue, is that a faith needs a beating heart, needs a centre, needs a foundation. I continue to be a Unitarian because I believe that we have one. And it's not "diversity."

You see I think there is more to the Unitarian story than simply becoming broader and broader in our beliefs. That's not how I see us. That's only the beginning of the story.

Yes, we have sought the freedom to pursue religious truth, but what I'm interested in is what we've actually found in that pursuit. Because I believe we have found some things. I see a collection of religious seekers, trying to work out what's really important in religion, laying aside one thing after the other: creeds, Bible, doctrine, to get to something that's beneath all of those things.

I see a number of religious seekers: Servetus, Emerson, David, de Benneville, Martineau, Socinus, who have independently come to see a similar understanding.

Broadly speaking, this understanding is that we are all embraced by the same Oneness, a mystical, benevolent reality, and yet we "see through a glass, darkly" and so human language stumbles when it tries to describe this Oneness. But that doesn't matter a great deal. What does matter is that we live more fully into this Oneness through a deepening spiritual practice and a justice-seeking practice of creating one human family.

So to say that "Unitarianism is an individualistic approach to faith" is fundamentally wrong. Unitarianism is much more fundamentally a globalistic and universalistic approach to faith.

We are seeking to be universal: to embrace oneness. This is not the same thing as being religiously neutral. It does require standing in one place, and that does exclude other possible positions. We are a religion and that does exclude a purely materialistic understanding of the world. Our religion calls us to encounter Love, and that does exclude belief in a wrathful god. We encounter religious reality in the here and now, immanently present, and that does exclude belief in one particular exclusive revelation, or a religion that points us to another world or another time. Our religion honours the mind, and that does exclude religion that shuts down the mind and reason. We are a religion that practices worship, and that excludes a religion of purely words and thinking. We are a religion that sees justice-making as central, and that does exclude being a religion that withdraws from the world.

And yet philosophically it does allow for a broad approach that can include theism, panentheism, pantheism and religious naturalism/humanism. But that's not the most important thing. It's incidental. Diversity is not a terminal value. Diversity is, at best, an instrumental value. It allows us to do all those other things, but actually we could without being diverse. Diversity may in fact be value-neutral. It's certainly not the beating heart of what we're all about.

I've gone on too long in this blogpost, but broadly I want to say we need to move away from this language of diversity and pluralism in talking about what's important to us. What's really important is Oneness, prayer, Love, Presence, opening the mind, and justice. It's these words that we need to use, and, more importantly live.