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When I started this blog nearly 4 years and nearly 300 posts ago one of the labels I used for it/me was "radical." Perhaps I used it a little unreflectively. Recently I've been pondering what radical means.

A couple of things have made me think of this. Firstly this blog series from my friend Jeremy, which explores a distinction between "radical progressives" and "rational progressives."

There is also this definition of radical, liberal and conservative from Terry Eagleton quoted at Young Anabaptist Radicals:

“Radicals are those who believe that things are extremely bad with us, but they could feasibly be much improved. Conservatives believe that things are pretty bad, but that’s just the way the human animal is. And liberals believe that there’s a little bit of good and bad in all of us.”

What interests me is finding a way to express the tension I feel sometimes between myself and the wider Unitarian movement. One way to express this is to say I tend towards radicalism and the Unitarianism movement tends towards liberalism, but I'm not entirely sure what I mean when I say that so I'm thinking out loud writing this at the moment.

Unitarianism has always described itself as liberal, but what does this mean? It's got something to do with being open to new ideas, believing in progress, tolerating diversity with an incremental agenda for bringing about a better world. And perhaps your assessment of liberalism will depend on what you think about the nature of the world, how reformable it is.

The problem with liberalism can be seen as it's tolerance of opposition. For example there were plenty of Unitarians fighting against slavery (and we rush to celebrate them today) but there were plenty of Unitarian slave-holders, and we never insisted they cease their involvement in the slave trade. We tolerated a diversity of opinions on slavery, because that's more liberals do. This also relates to the econominic position of liberals, who tend to be middle-class.

Or another example: radicals tend to be pacifists while liberals tend to be just war theorists (I'm still working out where I fit with this one). Radicals see war as something so horrific it must be completely renounced, where liberals see war as a possibly necessary evil that must be worked against slowly, possibility fighting a war to prevent war. Liberals see some good where radicals see only bad.

Radicals have a strong agenda for action where liberals want to be open to changing their agenda in the light of new knowledge.

I hope I'm not speaking in stereotypes and generalisations too much.

I'm aware that in many ways Unitarianism can fall into the worse traps of liberalism: well intentioned but unable to build enough consensus on anything to say or do anything very important. We can also in an attempt to be inclusive try to deny our own particularity, history and context, not realising this is ultimately impossible. Andrew Brown has plenty to say about this kind of thing in his own rather philosophically-dense way in places like here.

I'm also strongly influenced by James Luther Adams who (although he also spoke of himself as a religious liberal) emphasised the need for conversion which seems characteristic of radicalism.

So I suppose what I mean by radical is that people and institutions (not least the institutions of Unitarianism) stand in need of conversion (radical change). I am optimistic and hopeful that that change is possible, but not without the death of some things. That change is brought about by understanding our roots and the original dynamism of early movements in both Christianity and Unitarianism.


Guy B said…
If I remember right, Cal Courtney finessed this distinction with the newsletter strapline 'radical and liberal with religion since 1667'. Solves no-one's problem but it sounds good if you don't think too hard about it.
NUFer said…
An interesting post - from the political point of view radicals tend to be successful, when many people recognize that things are bad ; thus Mrs.Thatcher could win in '79 with a radical conservative agenda of privatisation and measures to curb the unions because the Winter of Discontent had been so bad ;Labour could implement a radical socialist agenda in '45 because those who had gone through WW2 were not prepared to accept life as it had been before - so NHS is born - still too radical for the USA ! The first 'house churches' might be considered examples of radical religion - often conservative in theology but in places radical in terms of social action. The current Unitarian movement in the UK claims to be liberal - but its theological liberalism is frequently that of a century or more ago; once radical in its support of 'gay rights', this is now now 'liberal orthodoxy' ; Unitarianism is certainly middle class but no more so than most churches - the dissenters seem to lost the support of the skilled working class, who once forme d an important part of their ranks.
Tim (S Manc) said…
I agree with NUFer that the "liberalism" of much of the Unitarian movement is stale and lacking in any of the radical spirit that is needed to challenge us, whether spiritually, intellectually, or communally.

What Stephen does not explicitly mention are the problems of radicalism. From my recent experience, causes calling themselves "radical" can become highly selective or one-sided in their factual, theological, or philosophical basis. At best this is dishonest, at worst this is hypocritical. Numerous radical causes have also become plain dogmatic in their insistance on being right, as they pitch themselves against an opposing cause. In its most extreme form, radicalism is Fundamentalism.

I believe that the Unitarian movement can provide a forum for radical ideas and adopt a radical programme for change, yet still remain an anti-dogmatic community, adopting an agenda that stands up to questioning and allows room for dissent. The challenge is keeping on board (at least some of) those who disagree or do not want to engage.

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