Monday, August 20, 2018

God - My Imaginary Friend

I hold the Lion's Paw
Whenever I dance.

I know the ecstasy of the falcon's wings
When they make love against the sky,

And the sun and the moon
Sometimes argue over
Who will tuck me in at night.

If you think I am having more fun
Than anyone on this planet
You are absolutely correct.

But Hafiz
Is willing to share all his secrets
About how to befriend God.

Indeed, dear ones,
Hafiz is so very willing
To share all his secrets
About how to know the
Beautiful
One.

I hold the Lion's Paw whenever I dance.

The psychologist Eileen Kennedy Moore tells the story of a friend of hers who was backing out of her drive one day, with her three children in the car, when one of them cried out “STOP!!”
She hit the brakes and looked around wondering if she was about to hit, or be hit, by something.
“What?” she asked,
“You’re about to run over Boopsie!” was her child’s reply.
Boopise was the child’s imaginary friend.

I’ve noticed over the years that "imaginary friend" is a certain phrase that some of the more aggressive atheists have used about God: God is just an imaginary friend for grown-ups. “You can have your imaginary friend,” they say dismissively, “But don’t expect the rest of us to respect it.” 

I did some research into this. I found that there is a website called GodIsImaginary.com – that gives fifty reasons (plus three bonus reasons – I don’t know why that isn’t just fifty-three reasons, but there you are) why God is imaginary. And a few years ago the American Humanist Association started an advertising campaign aimed at children and teenagers with the slogan “I’m getting a bit old for imaginary friends.” There’s then a picture of a young girl looking dismissively at an imaginary hand emerging out of a cloud. The proposal is that God is an idea that is a bit immature, a bit childish, and that if you grow up, you’d reject the idea of God. 



The comedian Bill Maher has used the term “imaginary friend” for God. I saw a video of him talking about this. In an argument with a debater he retorts, “Tell me: why is the purposeful suspension of critical thinking a good thing?” When I saw that I thought to myself that that was a pretty good question. And one that deserves an answer.  

Why is the purposeful suspension of critical thinking a good thing? We might even ask if it’s a good thing for children. Is it good for children to suspend their critical thinking? To indulge in things like imaginary friends?

I wonder if you ever had an imaginary friend, or if your children did? It is in fact pretty common. Some research found that 37% of children have imaginary friends. Now some parents get a bit worried if they find their child has an imaginary friend. Is it healthy? Is it OK? The good news is there’s nothing to worry about. It’s pretty psychologically healthy. Some parents might worry that it will stop their child having real friends. But in fact children with imaginary friends are generally less shy, they laugh more, smile more, and show a greater capacity for empathy.   

So maybe it can be healthy for children – but surely not for adults? Adults don’t have imaginary friends, right? Well, think of an author. They create characters, but in fact they may feel that their characters have lives of their own. They simply observe what that character does rather than “making” them do anything. In some weird sense they seem alive and real. This is how the creative process works.

How about another example. Do you ever talk to animals or to inanimate objects? Do you say "please" and "thank you" to Siri, or to vending machines, or to cash machines? Many people do. Do you talk to your cats or dogs? What about your computer? Do you ever talk to that? What about shouting at it? Oh yes, I think many of us do that, “Why aren’t you working?” we might scream. I seem to spend a lot of my time doing couples therapy for my computer and my printer. They seem to have communication problems. Why can’t they listen to each other?  

Is this crazy? Is it irrational? Is it unhealthy? Is it bad? With a modern mindset we might think so. But viewing this historically we discover some profoundly wise people did this. The Sufi poet Hafiz once wrote, “The sun and the moon sometimes argue over who will tuck me in at night.”

Francis of Assisi talked to animals and birds and the sun and the moon. One song based on words of Francis addresses the world, “O brother sun… o sister moon… brother fire … sister earth…[even] sister death.” By addressing the world as “brother” and “sister” Francis is acting like the whole world is alive and sentient in some profound way.

And then there was Anthony of Padua was even said to have preached a sermon to a fish.

And then there are some stories of animals speaking back. I love the story in the Hebrew Bible of the prophet Balaam who seems to be going over to the enemy side in the context of war. He departs on a donkey but God has other plans. An invisible angel appears, and the donkey sees it and refuses to go forward, and Balaam hits the donkey. This happens three times before the donkey speaks (and it’s impossible not to imagine Eddie Murphy’s voicing this donkey here) saying, “Hey man, what have I done to you that you keep hitting me?” (Numbers 22: 21-41)

Now of course the rationalists will say, “Well this just proves how silly religion is!” (in fact this story makes it to number 70 on the website “100 Reasons to Doubt”). And my answer to that is: of course it’s silly! Of course it didn’t really happen: that’s not the point!” One of the points here might be: how would we treat animals if we thought they might speak up for themselves? That’s certainly worth thinking about.  

So, yes it’s silly and childish to talk to animals or to the moon and to imagine the world is alive with personality. But, in fact, I believe it grows within us a sense of respect and reverence for the world. It increases our capacity for compassion. Think about it: if we’re constantly thinking of the world as having feelings and personality it helps us get into the habit of thinking and acting in that way. We become less self-centred and automatically considerate of others. As long as we’re not avoiding human beings, I think it’s fine. As long as you’re not talking to your cats about how you hate people, I think you’re fine.  

And this is proved by the studies on children. Those who will happily chat away to their doll or to an imaginary friend increase their ability to be empathetic, to feel the pain of another. And why not continue that in adulthood? Jesus said, “become like a child.” Maybe that’s what he meant.

So, to get back to Bill Mayer’s question, that is a good reason to suspend your critical, rational thinking - because it increases your capacity for compassion. Certainly you should still know what’s really true. But you’re also choosing to engage in the world imaginatively.

And what if we see life itself, existence itself, the universe itself, as having personality? Maybe that’s what God is. It might be difficult to feel a connection to the universe itself, to the totality of existence. But what if we imagine that there is a personality with whom we can connect, with whom we can be in relationship? Could that be a way of viewing God?  

What if you were to imagine that the whole universe is a personality that wants to say hello to you? That wants to befriend you? That wants to seduce you and make love to you?

And that brings us to prayer. I’ve come to believe that there is something powerful and important about praying out loud (in your mind), to speak as if someone were listening. Lots of people who are unsure that God exists sometimes find themselves praying. They might say, “I don’t know if anyone’s listening, but I need to say this…” And often people find that they feel better, even if they still don’t know if someone listened.

I’m all for meditation and ways of praying without words. But there’s also something really important about praying with words. Try it. Maybe it feels silly: but do it anyway. In a quiet time, speak your needs, your worries, hopes. Speak as if someone is listening, even if you don’t believe they are.

But you might persist in the question: “Yes, but is there anyone really listening?” Honestly, I really want to say that this is something worth doing even if there is no one listening. If we keep going with prayer, even though we don’t know if anyone’s listening, we will still get the benefit of the practice of prayer in our lives.

But in my experience (and my increasing experience) the answer is yes, for me, over time there is a growing sense that Someone listens. For me personally, the more I pray, the more it feels like there is a Someone to whom I am praying. And I don’t claim more than that: it’s just a feeling, it doesn’t prove anything.  

But even if there is this Reality called God, we still have to use our imaginations to conceive of God. The only way we can think of God is using our imaginations and projecting our thoughts and feelings and images onto this thing called God. And that of course means we can bring all kinds of images to God: father and mother and dancer and whatever other image that feels right to us. We can use our imaginations to conceive of lots of images to capture God: male, female, even animals.

I think Hindus have something to teach us here. They have lots of images of deities, representing the One Reality. And Hindus treat the deities (statues) in the temples like they are real people: they dress them, they feed them, they put them to bed, they get them up in the morning. Now Hindus know the deities are not real people. They’re not stupid. But they use their imaginations to cultivate reverence, worship, prayer, compassion, and in doing so connect with the reality of the divine. We need imagination (the purposeful suspension of our critical thinking) to grow a sense of relationship with the world. This grows our spirits, and it increase our compassion.  



So, you know what? Yes, God is my imaginary friend, and sometimes I talk to cats and sometimes I talk to my toy dinosaurs. And sometimes the sun and the moon argue over who will tuck me in at night. And maybe that’s childish. But this is what I choose: to see the world as alive and seeking relationship. And I think it makes me a better person. It gives me peace and joy in my life. And you know what, dear one? I'm having almost as much fun as Hafiz.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Edward Carpenter - Prophet of Body and Soul

(This a reflection of mine from a few years ago)

“Do I contract myself?
Very well then I contract myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”  

Imagine yourself in vast museum or art gallery in the pitch black dead of night. You have one torch which shines a narrow beam of light in front of you. You can view the objects and images all around you, but only one at a time by shining your light. Now imagine that each picture in the gallery shows an experience of your life. One picture shows your first day at school, another your first kiss, your wedding day, or when you had children, or the thousand million other individual moments that make up your life. Which picture truly represents who you are? Which experience defines you? Or, do all of the images, all of the experiences, make up who you are? Or is the true “you” the one who carries the torch and who gazes on all these experiences from some other level of existence?

This is an image that is used by Bhagavan Das (1869-1958), the Indian member of the Theosophical Society, and is quoted by Edward Carpenter in his book The Drama of Love and Death (page 272). I want to explore something here about Edward Carpenter (1844-1929). I want to explore the experiences and ideas that made up his life, and about how he might help us to approach that great question “who am I?”

Now I started investigating Edward Carpenter for the simple reason that his name is on the front of Bank Street Unitarian Chapel Bolton. There is a plaque outside the front door which states: “This Chapel and its school served as a meeting place of the Bolton followers of Walt Whitman known as the ‘Eagle Street College’ their wider circle included the writer Edward Carpenter (1844 – 1929)”

When I was minister of Bank Street Chapel we began celebrating Walt Whitman once a year, near his birthday in May, resurrecting those Bolton followers who met there more than 100 years ago. As the plaque says they were known as ‘Eagle Street College’ which was a bit tongue-in-cheek, because the ‘Eagle Street College’ was just a small terraced house in Bolton where one of the members, James William Wallace, lived with his mother. But it was in this place that a small group of men (and later women) began to meet in the 1880s to discuss literature, politics, spirituality and lots of other stuff. They met in several other places in and around Bolton including Bank Street Chapel and Rivington Unitarian Chapel. The group became more centred on the works of the American poet Walt Whitman (1819-1891), which in some ways they took as a kind of a religious scripture. They wrote to Whitman, and he wrote back, and they became connected to a trans-Atlantic network of religious and political radicals, including many of the earliest influential socialists. But I was curious to find out, who was this Edward Carpenter, who was part of this radical network? Other than being a “writer” who was he? I didn’t know anything about him, but I felt like I should as his name was on the side of my Chapel. So I decided to find out.

Edward Carpenter was born in 1844 into an upper middle class family in Brighton. But even as a young boy he was rather different and very uncomfortable with the middle class respectability that Brighton represented to him. He went to Cambridge University and studied mathematics, although he was always interested in a great variety of subjects: scientific, spiritual, political, artistic. He became a fellow of the University, which in those days meant you had to be ordained into the Church of England. He rather liked the idea of a quiet life of academia in Cambridge, but it was not to be. A friend handed him a copy of Walt Whitman’s poems. Carpenter lay on the floor in his room poring over the book in wonder. The unusual free-wheeling style of Whitman at first seemed strange to Carpenter. But it was also liberating: Whitman’s poetry was wild, earthy and unashamedly celebrated the body and the beauty of both men and women. Whitman nudged Carpenter to embrace at least two inclinations that he had been wrestling with: one was a democratic vision of a society that crossed the class divides that were so strong at the time; the other was the acceptance of his own homosexuality, as something not to be ashamed of, but something to embrace and celebrate.

Whitman’s poetry seemed to have this profound effect on many people. It had a profound effect on a number of men and women in Bolton who began to meet and read the poetry and discuss all the issues it brought up. And it had a profound effect on Edward Carpenter. His growing belief in socialism led him to resign his post at Cambridge, begin writing poetry himself and to join the University Extension Programme in which lectures were given in northern towns to people of all classes. From Cambridge Carpenter suddenly found himself in Yorkshire, and there was a bit of a culture shock. He lectured, he joined socialist movements and he tried to live out his ideals in all he did. He eventually settled in a small cottage outside Sheffield where he tried to live out a rustic ideal of the simple life, a bit like the sitcom “The Good Life” growing his own food and living off the land.

Edward Carpenter was a prolific writer and perhaps is best known for his poem “Towards Democracy” which was very much in the style of Whitman, and his book “Civilisation: It’s Cause and Cure.” In that book he put forward the theory, in many ways similar to Karl Marx, that civilisation is essentially a disease rather than representing progress, and we need to be cured of it to go back to a simpler way of life, represented by communism or socialism. Perhaps this seems a bit extreme. But Carpenter knew that people were more complex than theories and he was never dogmatic in his ideas. He moved happily amongst socialist, communists, anarchists, and other progressives, but never put himself exclusively in one camp. His love of Whitman put him in touch with the Bolton Whitmanites and he visited them regularly and they visited him. They were very good friends with him, and one of them was probably his lover. We don’t know if he ever came to Bank Street Chapel, but it seems quite possible.

Now Carpenter was not a Unitarian. Nevertheless he was deeply influenced by a couple of Unitarian ministers when he was in Leeds. He knew Joseph Estlin Carpenter (no relation), who was one of the pioneers in bringing an interest in world religions into Unitarianism. He also spent time with the American William Henry Channing, who introduced him to the Transcendentalists, a group of mainly Unitarian thinkers who embraced nature and intuition. Although Carpenter never became a Unitarian, if anything he was a pagan, he was a pioneer in a lot of areas that have since influenced Unitarianism a lot. Indeed everything that has influenced the development of Unitarianism (and wider society) since the nineteenth century is personified in Carpenter: feminism, gay rights, environmentalism, paganism, world religions, animal rights, vegetarianism. He was ahead of his time in all these areas: a prophet of many progressive causes. He was no saint, though, and one of his biggest moral failures was a persistent anti-Semitism. Nevertheless one person called him a “prophet of soul and body.”

And for me that’s the most significant thing about Carpenter: in how he embraced both body and soul. We are so used to separating those two things in our culture. We divide body and soul, feminine and masculine, religion and science, paganism and Christianity, homosexual and heterosexual. And these are not just ideas: they are divisions within us. Each of us is fractured by these divisions within ourselves. Like walking through that dark art gallery we see different parts of ourselves, different experiences and we ask “who am I amongst all this diversity”? Or perhaps we see it like masks that we wear: a different mask in different situations. In church I am Minister; with my friends, I’m a friend; with my family I’m a son, a brother, a brother-in-law, a fun uncle. However old I get I’ll still be a child to my parents. Who is the “real” me? Who is the “real” you? You are different in church, than you are when you’re at home, when you’re with different groups of people, with family, with friends, with co-workers. That’s always going to be true, but sometimes we divide ourselves unnecessarily and we lose any real sense of a coherent “me.” As Walt Whitman wrote: “Do I contract myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

Each of us is large, each of us contains multitudes, and even contradictions. But some of these contradictions tear us apart. Think of the male Christian leader, who has taken a vow of celibacy calling same sex marriage an aberration, shameful, grotesque and likening it to slavery, who is then later found out to have made inappropriate sexual advances towards men. We should feel compassion towards someone who has so divided themselves. Who contains such harmful contradictions, fighting against each other.

If our Christianity truly flowed from the teaching of Jesus we would clearly see hypocrisy as the greatest sin. It’s the one thing that Jesus condemns most strongly. Dividing ourselves into contradictions tears our souls apart. Jesus said “if new wine is put into old wineskins, the skins are destroyed, new wine has to be put into new wineskins.” Jesus, and other spiritual teachers, promise that we can be healed of our contradictions, our inner conflicts. Indeed this is the great task of the spiritual life: to make the inner like the outer, to integrate all the parts of ourselves into one.

I am a Unitarian because this faith teaches more fully than any other that we need every part of ourselves. Your body, your sexual self, your sensual self, is not to be denied or repressed. Your mind, your thinking, doubting self, is not to be denied or repressed. Your soul, your yearning, feeling, praying self, is not to be denied or repressed. Edward Carpenter, in coming to terms with himself as a homosexual, as a political campaigner, as a philosopher, as a lover, as a gardener, as a spiritual pagan, worked really hard not to deny any part of who he was. Even though some parts of who he was were considered dangerous and shameful by his society. He didn’t always succeed, but he kept up the work.

More than anything else Carpenter sought to harmonise soul and body, the spiritual and the physical. In his early years Carpenter was influenced by the philosopher Plato who valued the spiritual over the material. He wrote to a friend, “you have two sides to your existence (everyone has I suppose in a way) – the one you live in Duke Street and digest law and perform the usual functions of life… the other you spend in an ideal world… I have just been reading Plato’s Phaedrus – that is the essence of what you dream of.” (Sheila Rowbotham, Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love, 37) But later in life he valued the sensual more, when he wrote: “The kiss of the senses is beautiful beyond all and every abstraction; the touch of the sunlight, the glory of form and color, the magic of sweet sound, the joy of human embraces, the passion of sex – all so much more perfect because they are as it were something divine made actual and realisable. In such a mood asceticism in any form seems the grossest impiety and folly, and the pursuit of the Unseen a mere abandonment of the world for its shadow.” (Sheila Rowbotham, Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love, 217)

Walt Whitman put this much better when he said in Song of Myself, “the scent of my armpits is purer than prayer.” The spiritual life is not an escape from the physical life. The spiritual life invites us to live much deeper into our physical lives. Carpenter approvingly quoted the Chinese Taoist Lau Tzu “these two things, the spiritual and the physical, though we call them by different names, in their Origins are one and the same.” (Sheila Rowbotham, Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love, 273)

One of the most significant spiritual practices we can take on is to pay closer attention to our bodies: to feel the cool air entering our lungs; to pay attention to the many sensations our bodies are experiencing. Often prayer becomes most powerful when it moves out of our minds into our bodies. Mindfulness meditation is paying attention to our bodies. Communion, eating bread and wine, is paying attention to our bodies. Do not turn away from your body, or your mind, or your soul.

As you walk through the dark gallery, looking at all those images of your life, do not deny a single one, all of the experiences make up who you are; every part of you makes up who you are. That doesn’t mean that all your actions are healthy or right, or all your experiences are good. But every fundamental part of you is important: body, mind and soul. All of it makes up “you.”

But as we go deeper into answer that question “who am I?” we discover we cannot answer it in isolation. “You” are also made up of your relationship to the rest of the Universe, or to what we might call God. This is the universal witness of all the mystics. Perhaps we’re not wandering the dark gallery alone. Perhaps there are others who also wander and shine their light on the same moments and experiences. It is only the darkness that deceives us into thinking we’re isolated. In fact we’re connected, related, interconnected to everyone else and to everything else around us. Edward Carpenter called this the “All Soul” (Drama of Love and Death 272). Emerson, similarly called it the "Oversoul".

For Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself is actually the Song of All of Us. Each one of us just one part of a greater whole. Who are you? You are one part of a Soul that encompasses us all. You contain multitudes, and you are one part of a multitude of souls that makes up the greater soul. Edward Carpenter expressed it in this way, “For a time, certainly we cling to our limited and tiny self-life and consciousness and deem that all good comes from the careful guarding of the same. But again there comes a time when the bounds of personality confine and chafe beyond endurance, when an immense rage sweeps us far out into the great ocean; when to save our lives we deliberately lose them… And the hour arrives when we look down on these local days, these self-limitations, as phases - phases of some vaster state of being. … [Then] the body moves freely about the world; life ceases to be the ‘obstacle race’ …which it mostly now is; and… the soul moves freely, because truly for the redeemed soul it is possible to feel that all things and creatures are friendly, all beings are part of itself.” (Drama of Love and Death 286-7)

Let us seek every day to understand ourselves as one part of that greater All Soul.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

The Politics of Baptism

(This is a reflection of mine from a few years ago)

In December 2011 David Cameron gave a speech in Oxford commemorating the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. In that speech he said very clearly “we are a Christian country.” What he meant by that, he said, was, “the Bible has helped to give Britain a set of values and morals which make Britain what it is today.”[1]

It was a pretty reasonably speech, its tone was not extreme, but David Cameron was nevertheless, wrong. I don’t think this country has ever been a Christian country, in the sense that it has never been run according to the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, of any true spiritual teacher.

To understand this we have to understand a bit more history than David Cameron does. When the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the favoured religion of the Roman Empire Christianity lost any chance of remaining true to its radical roots. Christianity became more and more defined by creeds, and less and less as a radical way of life. Once persecuted, soon it became the persecutor of pagans and heretics, abandoning any Christian sense of forgiveness, compassion and non-violence. Once the religion of peasants and those on the margins, now it became the religion of Emperors, kings and armies. Once preaching that the last shall be first, now it modelled its own organisation on the hierarchical Roman Empire.

As Christianity moved north the story was much the same. Take Clovis, the king of the Franks. In the midst of a battle he decided to call upon the Christian god to help his victory. He did win the battle, and so converted to Christianity. He was baptised, along with 3000 of his soldiers in one mass baptism in 496. [2] The Christian god was now simply a totem to call upon for a barbarian king who murdered his rivals. The Franks became a “Christian nation” in name, but it has to be asked what part of this has anything to do with Jesus of Nazareth? Europe was certainly “Christianised” but was it ever really converted? Was it converted to the values we find in the Sermon on the Mount?

In the centuries that followed it was simple assumed that if you were born in Europe you were a Christian. And so we see the practice of baptising babies, declaring babies to be Christians, not because they had any understanding of Christianity, but because they lived in a “Christian country.” Christianity had become a national and ethnic identity, and very little else. It was in only in monasticism that the idea of Christianity as a radical way of life was kept alive.

But this understanding began to fall apart in the Reformation. For the first time the masses had the opportunity to read the Bible for themselves and come to their own conclusions about what they found there. And many came to the conclusion that what was passing as Christianity had very little to do with what Jesus was actually about. The most radical came to the conclusion that the Trinity was not in the Bible, and people like Michael Servetus were persecuted and martyred for holding this opinion. But that wasn’t the only issue. Some radicals came to the conclusion that it was only now that they really understood Jesus, it was only now that they were truly becoming Christians, and so to mark this as adults they were baptised again. These groups came to be labelled as Anabaptist, simply meaning they were baptised again.

This was both theological and politically radical. By being baptised again they were making a radical political statement. They were saying they were not Christian by virtue of being born in a “Christian country” – they were only Christian when they themselves committed to the way of Jesus. They were undermining the idea of a “Christian nation” that had existed since Constantine and Clovis. And that was very dangerous, because it suggested their loyalty was not ultimately to the state, but to a higher cause.

What we call Anabaptists were a diverse group of radicals across Europe, but one particular movement is part of our story as Unitarians. In Poland in the sixteenth century a movement arose that is sometimes called Socinianism after Faustus Socinus – although the movement actually existed before Socinus joined it, and it was officially called the Minor Reformed Church, or simply the Polish Brethren. These were radical Anabaptist Unitarians.

To understand these Anabaptist Unitarians I want to tell the story of one man whose name was Jan Niemojewski. Jan Niemojewksi was a Polish nobleman and district judge. He studied in Germany and while there caught the spirit of the reformation. When he returned to Poland he met Martin Czechowicz, a radical preacher, and he began to take on Czechowicz’s teaching. Niemojewski was baptised and committed to living a life based on the Sermon on the Mount. He used his considerable riches to found a Unitarian church; he freed all his serfs; he resigned his office as a judge as it might have involved him using the death penalty; he took Jesus’ words seriously and sold his property and gave the money to the poor. When a meeting of noblemen was called he appeared, not dressed finely with a sword as all other nobles were, but dressed plainly and with no sword. Soon after he and others relocated to the town of Raków, which became the centre for Polish Unitarianism, and he was active in the movement for all his life. [3]

Sadly, the Polish Unitarian movement was persecuted out of existence. And I can’t help wondering if we lost something absolutely vital in losing them. You see, we always talk about Unitarian history, and Unitarianism, as if it’s all about the doctrines – even in a negative sense: we don’t believe in the Trinity; we don’t have creeds; or that old phrase “whatever you want to believe, you can believe it.” And we talk about this as if that’s what matters. That’s not what matters! That’s just the process of getting some things out of the way. If a belief truly gets in the way of your spiritual progress, then put it aside. But that process of putting beliefs aside is not what Unitarianism is all about. We put these things aside to a get a clearer picture of what really matters. And what really matters is that faith is a life-transforming experience.

Jesus’ ministry began with a transforming spiritual experience at his baptism, where he saw a dove and heard a voice saying “you are my beloved.” He then went into retreat in the desert. And when he appeared and began to preach, what is it that he said? His first message was this: repent! [4] Now we Unitarians can be quite uncomfortable with a word like “repent.” It feels like a word connected with shame and guilt. We can think it means to feel sorry for the things we’ve done wrong. But repentance is much more than that. It means turn around, the Greek word used means “turn-about” like a soldier, it means transform, it means free yourself. We’re talking about that transformation that Jesus lived after his baptism, that transformation that Jan Niemojewski lived after his baptism.

James Luther Adams, the greatest Unitarian thinker of the twentieth century said, “The element of commitment, of change of heart, of decision, so much emphasized in the Gospels, has been neglected by religious liberalism, and that is the prime source of its enfeeblement. We liberals are largely an uncommitted and therefore a self-frustrating people. Our first task, then, is to restore to liberalism its own dynamic and its own prophetic genius. We need conversion within ourselves.” [5]

I’ve told the story of the conversion Jan Niemojewski because I think that’s what Unitarian stories should look like: not just a story of finding a spiritual home, but a story of turning around and living radically different values. We need to re-discover than dynamism of our spiritual ancestors. We need that emphasis on conversion, that emphasis on living radically that we find in the Polish Unitarians. We need conversion – a conversion rooted in direct experience of the Holy. It’s not a matter of do-gooding out of a sense of guilt, it’s a matter of finding freedom in a spiritual path that makes us realise what’s really important, and what isn’t. And it begins in that experience of knowing our own belovedness, our own divinity, as Jesus realised at his baptism. When we are converted, to knowing our own belovedness, we begin to find that freedom, that dynamism. And we find a new faith. Not faith as a set of beliefs, but faith as a radical spiritual way of life.

So when David Cameron is talking about us as a Christian country he is talking about the Christianity of Constantine and Clovis – a Christianity that endorses war, a Christianity that endorses the agendas of the elite. He is not talking about the Christianity of Mary’s song in the Gospel of Luke (known as the Magnificat) that says that God lifts up the poor and sends the rich away empty. Rather, our country lifts up the rich and sends the poor away empty; our country sees the richest continuing unscathed, as David Cameron has rejected the Robin Hood Tax to tax banking transactions and yet the poorest are suffering the harshest cutbacks. David Cameron is not talking about the Christianity of the Beatitudes that says “blessed are the peacemakers” – when this country continues to promote arms sales to regimes who continue to oppress their people, [6] and when this country continues to spend billions and billions on its own weapons of mass destruction.

Our country stands in need of baptism, of deeper conversion to the way of justice, compassion, love. As do we, we stand in need of baptism. Maybe not literally (although I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the practice of adult baptism) and maybe not once and for all; maybe every day we need that baptism – that spirit descending on us – telling us that we are loved and challenging us to live as if everyone else is too.

May that spirit of love and spirit of challenge guide us each day.

[1] http://www.number10.gov.uk/news/king-james-bible/
[2] Kee et al, Christianity: A Social and Cultural History (Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1998), 165.
[3] Earl Morse Wilbur, A History of Unitarianism, Vol. I: Socinianism and its Antecedents (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1947) 336-337.
[4] Mark 1:9-15
[5] Stephen Lingwood, The Unitarian Life (London: Lindsey Press, 2008) 167
[6] http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/15973

Thursday, August 09, 2018

What is Christian Universalism?

I've been thinking today about how I would express a contemporary understanding of Universalism. Something like this:

Universalism means believing in the universal and unconditional love of God. God loves every person and everything in the universe. God loves everyone regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. God loves everyone regardless of their religion. God does not say you have to believe any particular doctrine to know the love of God.

God loves everyone in life and death. There is no such thing as hell - that is a nasty lie.

God is in love with you. God desires a love relationship with you. This faith is about loving God and loving neighbour - that's all that's needed. But it's not easy. It means becoming a disciple of love - letting love transform the way we live our lives - pursuing compassion and justice.

Jesus is the prophet of love. He is the teacher of the way of love.

Our faith is in the love of God, the oneness of humanity, and discipleship to Jesus, the prophet of love.