Sunday, October 01, 2017

Can I be a Unitarian and not believe in individualism?

Recently I've been thinking a lot about Unitarianism. In some moments I even question whether I am, in fact, a Unitarian.

And for me it has come down to this question: if I reject individualism can I still be a Unitarian?

What I mean is that I'm considering this sort of a definition of Unitarianism:

  • Individual Unitarians can believe whatever they want to. What matters if that you come to your own conclusion and Unitarianism offers the freedom to do that. 
I have decided that I wholeheartedly and passionately reject this idea. I think it comes from our neoliberal individualistic culture and I think it is a philosophically and morally bankrupt idea. I reject it. 

If I do reject this idea, is there a still a place for me in the British General Assembly? Or is this essentially the creed of the General Assembly, and if I don't sign up to it, I should leave?

Why do I reject it? Well, honestly, so many reasons. I think it's impossible to build community based on this idea. I think it precludes the possibility of people in any way growing in their spiritual life. I think it bears almost no resemblance to what Unitarianism has actually stood for across its global 450-year history. I think it indulges selfish awkward people who disrupt community life. I think it offers no challenge for people to become better. I think it makes church incredibly boring. I think it actually allows people to concentrate more on beliefs, not less. I think it's actually impossible to build faith community on this basis. I think it fails to make faith do what it's supposed to do - offer meaning-making stories. I think it's not true, I think there are lots of beliefs that are precluded by Unitarianism. I think it leads to "iChurch" where people want church to be about "me, me, me." I think encourages a weird counter-dependent relationship with orthodox religion. I think it prevents people from healing from their previous harmful religious experiences. I think it fails to offer children growing up among us the solid spiritual foundation they deserve. I think it makes us arrogantly believe we are better than other religions. I think it encourages a dysfunctional anti-authoritarianism that prevents any kind of leadership or useful change. I think it fails to appeal to people with no religious background. I think it makes it impossible for our theological and religious ideas to evolve any further. I think it kills progress. 

Ultimately I think, along with the recent American book Turning Point that this idea is killing British Unitarianism. I've genuinely come to the point when I believe this individualism is a hostile virus that has infected British Unitarianism and is killing it off wholesale. 

So... again I turn back to my question: if this is my position, if this is what I believe, is there a place for me in the General Assembly? Is there a place for someone who does not sign up to this vision? Or is this vision, this definition of Unitarianism, now mandatory? 

Is it possible to be a Unitarian, to be affiliated to the GA of U and FCC and reject the model of individualistic Unitarianism? I would really like to know. 


Blogger Unknown said...

I read your blog as an interested outsider. Well, not outsider to Unitarianism, but outsider to British Unitarianism, being the only (to my knowledge) U*U in Luxembourg, and being a member of EUU and of the Unitarier RfG in Germany. I really like your thought-provoking blog posts.

I cannot respond to your question as it relates to GAUFCC, but I would like to comment on the broader theme.

To my understanding, in Unitarianism and UUism there certainly isn't absolute individualistic freedom to believe whatever one wants. The individualistic freedom of belief applies primarily to belief about details of theological metaphysics that have caused a lot of stirrings in the Western world over the past few centuries. In contrast to the individualistic freedom in this domain, there is actually a strong (and at least implicitly also strongly enforced) collective agreement on many ethical questions, especially questions related to avoiding discrimination as well as questions about how to organize religious life. Additionally, there is a less strongly enforced common approach to many questions relating to spirituality and to learning from the diverse faith traditions of our world, as well as to questions about ethical and religious progress.

Are these forms of collective consensus enough to build a community around them? I think yes, as North American UUism seems to prove this possible. Does such a community constitute a religious faith community? Well, that depends on the details of one's prefered definition of "religion" and "faith", but it has been the tradition of Unitarians to continue calling themselves a religious community, and in my humble opinion, this tradition does more good than harm.

9:25 pm  
Anonymous Nick said...

Hello Stephen, 'Unknown'

I joined Unitarianism because I could never settle down in movements with fixed and narrow belief systems, so I can see how the individualistic side of it is attractive (on the surface at least) to some people who distrust authority and like to decide their religious path by themselves. I can see sense in your post Stephen, surely there must be an alternative to a pure individualism which on its own I agree is an unstable foundation for a religion. No wonder we find it hard to express to the public what Unitarianism is really all about.

Like 'Unknown' I don't know whether the stance of the GA is one of individualism so can't comment on them. So what is the alternative, I would like to read Stephen's thoughts, but mine are along these lines: it doesn't need to be a black and white choice between individualism and communalism. Can there not be a compromise: after all, most of life is a mixture of the two: family life, working life, even politics. In fact life is a paradox between the two poles of being an individual and part of the whole; religion is how we resolve the paradox.

Supposing for the moment that Unitarianism has swung too far to the pole of individualism: what do we do next? We have clearly uprooted ourselves from the past, and are no longer really in an unbroken tradition. We can't simply turn back the clock to being a straightforwardly Unitarian Christian church because so many of us have other types of faith. The first stage of the 'Vision for our Future' programme was trying to express our communal vision of Unitarian future, and in my view we moved on to stage two too soon, creating a vision of a religion is a major project requiring real spiritual insight. Doing it properly is in fact a prophetic task, just like the prophets of previous generations we were called to renew and reinvigorate our faith. So perhaps we should revisit the Vision - preparing better this time, in fact how do we really find our vision? Can we start with that?


6:55 pm  
Blogger Stuart Abram said...

If Unitarianism (or perhaps simply a group of Unitarians, from among the many) wished to be a liberal religion, with both a coherent doctrine and freedom of conscience, it would hold to the following:

1. A negative approach as regards older faiths - given its historical provenance, Unitarianism is well-placed to reject, albeit sympathetically, those parts of religious faith it holds to be irrational, inhuman or incredible (i.e. unworthy of belief), such as a literal creation, a perennial, unchallengeable hierarchy, etc. This would be attractive, I imagine, to the curious;

2. The second, more positive aspect, would be to select the best in religious tradition as worthy of belief and to ponder how it might make sense today in the light of science, politics and the insights of individuals and other sources;

3. The third, most positive aspect would be to frame a coherent morality and theology of God, drawing on notions of social justice, individual rights and the belief in a loving God. I don't really know any body, or any person, who has yet done that.

God still speaks, but let her speak through us.

12:33 pm  

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