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Dangerous Unitarianism

In the last few weeks there have been two articles on Unitarianism in the Guardian. In the first Theo Hobson described visiting a Unitarian church in the US. He describes what sounds like a summer lay-led service that might be different to what he would get a month later. He describes three women who led a service based on a play they had recently put on. In his final paragraph he says this:

"I came away with the feeling that it was very harmless. And maybe that's the key difference from Christian worship. In Christian worship there's a certain sense of risk: we risk affirming an idea of truth that is somewhat at odds with natural wisdom, inner peace. And we risk affirming a tradition that has an aura of violence – the violent rhetoric about the Lord of hosts and so forth – and the references to death and blood in the sombre ritual. There's a sense of potential danger in Christianity – this religion has been used for violent ends, and people have suffered martyrdom for it too. There's a disturbing absoluteness. Unitarianism carries about as much sense of dangerous otherness as a tots' singalong at the local library."

This week Rose McDonagh wrote a response pointing out how literally dangerous Unitarianism can be in that it has led to persecution. She mentions amongst other things, the Knoxville church shooting. (She also reads this blog - hi Rose!)

Now, I do take Theo Hobson's criticism seriously. Much of Unitarianism can descend into meaningless pleasantries. The Quakers (who face the same issues as us) call it "daffodil ministry" - "oh, I saw these beautiful daffodils this morning and it made me think - isn't that lovely, and aren't there a lot of lovely things in the world?"

Yes, religion does need a sense of radical Otherness that transcends ourselves. And yes, we can lose that if we're not careful. Hobson links this "dangerous" Otherness with violence. There is no need to do this. Authentic religion does not offer violence, but neither does it offer only pleasantries and inner peace. Authentic religion is not afraid to pick you up by your ankles and give you a good shake until the silliness and fear falls out of you. Jesus said it this way, "I have not come to bring peace, but a sword."

But Unitarianism, when it is properly rooted in its own radical tradition, does do this. James Luther Adams was all about this. He said that

"[Unitarianism], when alive... is the community in which men and women are called to seek fulfillment by the surrender of their lives to the control of the commanding, sustaining, transforming reality. It is the community in which women and men are called to recognize and abandon their ever-recurrent reliance upon the unreliable. It is the community in which the life-spirit of faith tries to create and mold life- giving, life-transforming beliefs, the community in which persons open themselves to God and to each other and to commanding, sustaining, transforming experiences from the past, appropriating, criticizing, and transforming tradition and giving that tradition as well as newborn faith the occasion to become relevant to the needs of a time."

All religious faiths can drop into idolatry of one form of the other, and Unitarianism can become an idolatry of the self - a religion of "Number One" - in which we think we are the inerrant prophet of our own individual religion.

But Adams and others show us that Unitarianism is truly about a radical challenge to ourselves, as well as to any "orthodoxy."

What I find most challenging is that we are asked to put aside any "belief" and really live out our faith. Jesus' challenge to "follow me" is much more difficult than to "believe in me." To live out in every aspect of our lives the values of peace, love, compassion, justice, non-judgment, non-violence, humility, generosity, hospitality. That is challenging. But it is the work of a Unitarian community.


Yewtree said…
Amen to that.

Pagans refer to "daffodil ministry" (great term, I like it) as "the fluffy bunny brigade" - which is why one of my blogs is called The Stroppy Rabbit :)

I agree that radical otherness should have nothing to do with violence (I found that part of Theo Hobson's article particularly distasteful). It should be about not conforming for the sake of conformity, but deciding everything on the basis of one's own conscience. I've just been re-reading Jane Eyre after going to see the film, and that is exactly what Jane Eyre does.

I've just finished a third blogpost in my series on the relationship between Unitarianism and Christianity, in which I reflect that we are the heirs of heretical Christianity, not mainstream Christianity. It certainly has been dangerous to be a Unitarian.

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