Saturday, July 25, 2015

Unitarians and the imperialism of pluralism

Unitarians have a problem with pluralism. We think of ourselves as cool pluralists, and constantly tell ourselves we are all about pluralism - that our congregations are full of religious diversity. "We are very diverse people!" we shout ad nauseam. But I want to argue that we're not actually true pluralists.

We're not true pluralists but imperial pluralists. An often unexamined theology we espouse is that we are building a "religion of religions" - that us (and us alone) offers the possibilities for all religions to come together "under one roof." What we fail to see is how imperialist this is. We expect all religions to come together on our terms and under our auspices. It looks something like this:


Unitarianism is the holder of religious diversity in this model. But can you not see that this gives Unitarianism a privileged place? We are the ones in charge. We are the ones who create the context into which all of the world's religious diversity must fit within. This is patronising to all other religions, and gives us all the power. This is imperialist pluralism.

A true pluralism sees Unitarianism as one of many religious traditions. It looks more like this:


Here Unitarianism is just one branch of one tree of religious diversity, and a tiny branch at that. We are one tiny branch in the complex bush of Christianity, and if we were being objective we wouldn't even be big enough to be mentioned. Our place is not to include all the world's religious diversity within our tiny tradition, but rather appreciate that we are one out of many. Our pluralism is not to include all religious diversity within our tradition, but rather to see and appreciated that we are connected to all others. Some traditions deny this (exclusivism); we affirm it.

We are not THE ONE that encompasses the many. But we are one amongst the many, and we know and celebrate that.

We need to be a faith

I am responding (admittedly probably too late - apologies for that) to the Unitarian conversations started by the Executive Committee on "Vision" following a Vision Day last year.

Of course this day (as these things always do) ended with a lot of words that are now being reflected upon. But I think the first phrase is in some ways the only thing that matters:

"We want to be... a faith that matters."

 In fact, I would say this is still too wordy. The challenge is that "we need to be a faith."

That's it, simply being a faith. If we're not engaged in the things of faith: prayer, God, soul, forgiveness, theology, then we're not really being a faith and everything else is just window-dressing.

But this leads me to another really important point. It it not the Executive Committee's job to nurture faith in Unitarianism. In fact it's not the Executive's job to do most of the things suggested in the Vision document. What we're talking about is cultural change which the Executive has almost zero influence over. I worry, once again that the Executive are promising more than they can possibly deliver. This is only setting the Executive up to be criticised by the rest of us, and encouraging the rest of us to be too passive in expecting "them" to do things for us.

The fact is we are now too small to be "a denomination" - we are still acting like we're the Methodists (and the Methodists are pretty small nowadays but still seventy times bigger than us). We are tiny and we just haven't got that into our institutional head yet. We can't expect "the denomination" to do anything. You have to do it or it won't get done. We need to really realise that there is a limit amount of vital life-saving work the General Assembly structures can do, and they need to concentrate on that and nothing else. We should support them and pray for them in that work.

Meanwhile, those of us who feel called to do so, should work for the spiritual, liturgical and theological renewal of Unitarianism. The grassroots needs bold experimenters and faithful mystics prepared to go deep and go out. That's where our salvation lies, God willing.