Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Emerson opened the door - we didn't go through

As I have thought about the development of my Unitarian tradition I have come to the conclusion that there was a point when it took the wrong pathway. The point was 1838.

In 1838 Ralph Waldo Emerson preached his Divinity School Address - a seminal sermon in the history of Unitarianism. In that sermon Emerson preached a religion based not on repetition of the stories of the Bible, but on an unmediated relationship between the soul and the divine.

He said, in part,
"It is the office of a true teacher to show us that God is, not was; that He speaketh, not spake.... dare to love God without mediator or veil... Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost, -- cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men at first hand with Deity."
Emerson's writing is not that easy to read in the twenty-first century (and perhaps it wasn't that easy in the nineteenth) but amongst all the flowery language I think these words seem to me to be very profound. For me these words open a door - a door to God. Emerson says, "It's right there - the door is open - go through - God is right there - freely available."

I'm not an Emerson scholar or historian but it seems to be like this was the challenge that Emerson gave to Unitarianism - and it was a challenge Unitarianism failed to take. Instead of taking this pathway to mysticism it took the opposite pathway. Instead of being inspired by this mystical teaching it took the worst parts of Emerson's philosophy - his individualism and dogmatic anti-traditionalism and defined itself by that. In my view that represents precisely the worst of Emerson.

I don't think Emerson himself stepped through the door. I've never seen any evidence that Emerson did what he was advocating - developed a deep spiritual life, an intimate relationship with God. The problem I suppose, was anti-Catholicism. Emerson and other Unitarians would have been too prejudiced against Catholicism to delve into spiritual practices of contemplative prayer developed by Ignatians or Franciscans. Emerson didn't realise that the very repetitive patterns that he criticised actually represented a trusted practice to achieve a first hand acquaintance with Deity.

In Britain James Martineau, influenced by Emerson, developed a similar theology of divine communion. But again, although in theory he advocated a deep prayer life, I'm not sure if he really worked out how to do it.

Instead, Unitarianism in both Britain and the United States, failed to step through the door, and kept arguing about intellectual ideas and beliefs. Without a solid spiritual foundation Unitarianism has spent 150 years trying, and failing, to find "right beliefs". It has kept up an amateurish philosophical task of trying to define truth and trying to define itself, a task that has always failed. And so we have thousands of sermons about "What is Unitarianism" (while still failing to come up with a good answer) and very few sermons about "How to know God first hand". And yet if we took Emerson's challenge seriously - if we actually stepped through the door - that is what all our sermons would be about (and the sermon would only be an introduction to a time of spiritual practice).

It's not too late I think (but it might be soon). I think there is time to step through the door Emerson opened. I think it is still possible to develop a Unitarianism that is deeply rooted in the mystical. God is still there. It is still possible to know God first hand.

(Image by Konstantin Somov. From

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Protestants and Practice

One of the great differences I have noticed between Christians and Buddhists is how much more confident Buddhists are in their faith - and more specifically their practices.

I read a lot of books about church planting, mission, fresh expressions of church, etc, etc. There's always a new book about how the Christian church should change to become more relevant, more post-modern, more this, more that. There's always a new fashionable theory: secular church, emergent church, fresh expression of church, ancient-future church, liquid church, organic church. You can write one of these sorts of books and people like me will buy them and read them. These books are always agonising about how church has become irrelevant and what needs to change to make it attractive to people again. We go to conferences all about this. We talk about it all the time.

What I have noticed is that my Buddhist friends do no such agonising. They display a deep confidence in their spiritual practice that I don't detect in Christians. Buddhists say, "This is the practice: you chant, or you meditate. You do it every day. You keep doing it. And it leads to enlightenment. Centuries of tradition has shown that this practice is a well-worn path to enlightenment. It works. That's why we're Buddhists, because we believe (and we have experienced) that it does work."

Sure, there are other things to talk about. There's philosophies and beliefs and traditions, and there's questions about community life, and whether to get a new website. But beneath all of that I see Buddhists pointing to a concrete spiritual practice and saying "this is the thing".

Why can't Christians do the same? Well I think some Christians can. I think maybe Catholics can, but Protestants have forgotten how to. Catholics can still say, "here it is: the Mass. Do it every day if you can, or at least once a week. This practice is a proven path to God. This is what we offer."

Protestants though have made the Christian faith all about beliefs and ideas (Unitarians are no less Protestant in this regard). Protestants have lost the ability to point to a concrete spiritual practice and say: this is the thing. The only exception I can think of might be Quakers. Quakers, in theory, can still say, "sit in this gathered silence. Centuries of our practice has taught us that this is a proven path to God." (In reality though, I fear many Quaker communities continue the practice while effectively forgetting what it is for).

So my plea to Protestants is to have the confidence that our tradition does contain proven practices that lead to God. This might mean returning to things thrown out in the Reformation. But at it's simplest it means having confidence that worship and prayer are practices that genuinely lead to God. Hymn-singing is a proven spiritual practice that actually leads to God; liturgy, silence, communion, this things genuinely work in leading us to God, don't they? Don't they? (If not, why are we Christians?) Millions of people still do these, and there's a reason for that.

If we don't have confidence that it is actually true that our core practices lead to God, what is the point of all this faffing around with the latest theory about how to make church relevant or appealing? I would love to see Christians have the quiet simple confidence that their religious practice is actually good and effective. That's what I see with my Buddhist friends, and it is deeply appealing. My Buddhist friends do not display a great anxiety about whether their faith is relevant. I see them saying, "Hey, this is my meditation practice, it works for me, maybe it will work for you. Come along and try it out if you like." Why can't Christians be like that?

(Image: Wikimedia Commons:

Monday, April 15, 2019

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