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"Diversity" is overrated

I've had some "heretical" thoughts knocking around in my head recently. I think it's time I said some of them.

Of course Unitarians claim we embrace heresy, but we have plenty of orthodoxies, some of which may not be helpful, some of which may need challenging.

One orthodoxy is "what we're really all about is diversity" - or as the GA website puts it:

"Unitarianism is an open-minded and individualistic approach to faith that gives scope for a very wide range of beliefs and doubts.
Religious freedom for each individual is at the heart of Unitarianism. Everyone has the right to search for meaning in life and reach their own conclusions.
Unitarians see diversity and pluralism as valuable rather than threatening. They want faith to be broad, inclusive, and tolerant. Unitarianism can therefore include people who are Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Pagan and Atheist."

Unitarians want to be "broad, inclusive, and tolerant." And who can possibly object to that? Well no one. And that's sort of my point. If you're doing something no one objects to, you're doing something wrong.

Let me back up a bit and explain what I mean. A lot of these thoughts I'm having are coming from the current reading I'm doing about British Unitarian history. One of the striking things about Unitarianism, is that it's always really struggled to be an "ism." It has struggled to be a "something."

Unitarianism, as opposed to say Quakerism or Methodism, isn't really a proper religious movement with a clear beginning and a clear founder. It can seem like a sort of vague movement of liberalism within Protestant churches.

One understanding of Unitarianism is that it starts with a sort of attitude or approach. As Celia Parker Woolley said:

"Unitarianism is not so much an organized system of religious belief as a religious movement. It is more a method of thought than an outcome... The inevitable conclusion… is that this ideal church must rest on the broadest possible basis of fellowship, welcoming to its communion all thoughtful, truth-seeking minds."

Although that quote comes from nineteenth century American Unitarianism, it can be applied to the eighteenth century English Presbyterianism that became Unitarian.

The key point is that the churches wanted "the broadest possible fellowship." This was this approach of the eighteenth century Prebyterians: they wanted to be broad and liberal, welcoming all: Calvinist, Armenian, orthodox and Arian. They simply wanted to be "Christians dissenting from the Church of England" and many of them weren't too bothered about dissenting, and would have rejoined the established church if it would have them back.

This was a "catholic" or "comprehensive" spirit that sought to include all Christians, or at least all Protestants. This freedom allowed some to come to a doctrinally Unitarian position, and the Unitarian movement slowly emerged. But soon enough some people began to get twitchy about the word "Unitarian" - wasn't that too narrow a name? Isn't it too sectarian? Shouldn't we be more broad, inclusive and tolerant than that?

Some people began to argue for the term "Free Christian" instead, that seemed much more broad to them. But then even that seemed too narrow to some, and some began to argue for the broadest possible theism. And then some saw that as too narrow, wishing to include all people of faith. And then to include humanism and atheism too. This can be seen in a couple of congregations in the General Assembly who are officially not "Unitarian" but "those who do not wish to be designated."

That would certainly have surprised eighteenth century Presbyterians, and yet in a way it was the inevitable outcome of the liberal "catholic" approach they wanted.

And this is the way we tell the Unitarian story: of becoming broader and broader in doctrines, until we are... well, what are we?

We begin to include everything, everyone. We sort of dissipate out into a wispy thing floating away on the breeze.

But there is a problem with this liberal story of becoming broader and broader on matters of doctrine. The problem is we cease to be a religion. We cease to do what religions do: which is to offer hope, meaning, transformational experiences of the numinous, wisdom, ritual, stories and a solution to the problem of human existence. We reduce such things to personal beliefs, that people are free to hold, but that we as a community must remain staunchly neutral about.

But if we as a community remain staunchly neutral on matters of faith, then there is really no point in the community. We may be a pleasant social club, an effective political lobbying organisation, or a worthy social service organisation, but we are not a religious community, we are not a church.

And we become so broad, so inclusive that our walls are entirely porous: people can float in and float out of our community happily enough without it mattering very much. And so they do. Because if the community is staunchly neutral on religion, then it really makes no difference if you belong to the community or not.

If "diversity" is a terminal value; if "diversity" is the heart of Unitarianism then this is where we end up.

The conclusion, I would argue, is that a faith needs a beating heart, needs a centre, needs a foundation. I continue to be a Unitarian because I believe that we have one. And it's not "diversity."

You see I think there is more to the Unitarian story than simply becoming broader and broader in our beliefs. That's not how I see us. That's only the beginning of the story.

Yes, we have sought the freedom to pursue religious truth, but what I'm interested in is what we've actually found in that pursuit. Because I believe we have found some things. I see a collection of religious seekers, trying to work out what's really important in religion, laying aside one thing after the other: creeds, Bible, doctrine, to get to something that's beneath all of those things.

I see a number of religious seekers: Servetus, Emerson, David, de Benneville, Martineau, Socinus, who have independently come to see a similar understanding.

Broadly speaking, this understanding is that we are all embraced by the same Oneness, a mystical, benevolent reality, and yet we "see through a glass, darkly" and so human language stumbles when it tries to describe this Oneness. But that doesn't matter a great deal. What does matter is that we live more fully into this Oneness through a deepening spiritual practice and a justice-seeking practice of creating one human family.

So to say that "Unitarianism is an individualistic approach to faith" is fundamentally wrong. Unitarianism is much more fundamentally a globalistic and universalistic approach to faith.

We are seeking to be universal: to embrace oneness. This is not the same thing as being religiously neutral. It does require standing in one place, and that does exclude other possible positions. We are a religion and that does exclude a purely materialistic understanding of the world. Our religion calls us to encounter Love, and that does exclude belief in a wrathful god. We encounter religious reality in the here and now, immanently present, and that does exclude belief in one particular exclusive revelation, or a religion that points us to another world or another time. Our religion honours the mind, and that does exclude religion that shuts down the mind and reason. We are a religion that practices worship, and that excludes a religion of purely words and thinking. We are a religion that sees justice-making as central, and that does exclude being a religion that withdraws from the world.

And yet philosophically it does allow for a broad approach that can include theism, panentheism, pantheism and religious naturalism/humanism. But that's not the most important thing. It's incidental. Diversity is not a terminal value. Diversity is, at best, an instrumental value. It allows us to do all those other things, but actually we could without being diverse. Diversity may in fact be value-neutral. It's certainly not the beating heart of what we're all about.

I've gone on too long in this blogpost, but broadly I want to say we need to move away from this language of diversity and pluralism in talking about what's important to us. What's really important is Oneness, prayer, Love, Presence, opening the mind, and justice. It's these words that we need to use, and, more importantly live.


UUFreespirit said…
Stephen, as an American UU I would very much like to agree with you on this, but I can't really do that. My background is science and I see our diversity as a critical element in the way we do religion. Healthy ecosystems are not just a part of a rain forest, but have inter-human manifestations as well. We need the rich and spicy diversity as a precondition for an ultimate unity. They are not inseparable in bringing about a healthy ecosystem. To me that's not just good science but good religion as well. Our goal is to see them as complementary more than either-or, and as part of the sacred whole. To me that's also good theology.
Robin Edgar said…
"If you're doing something no one objects to, you're doing something wrong."

Wrong. . .

That platitude *may* be applicable in *some* situations, but it is far from being a generally applicable principle. The fact of that matter is that, more often than not. . . if you're doing something no one objects to, you're doing something right while, conversely. . . if you're doing something that someone does in fact object to, chances are pretty good that you're doing *something* wrong.
Matt said…
Stephen, you basically sum up the kind of heretical thoughts I had about Unitarianism. And then I left to join in fellowship with the Quakers, and with your last bit, you sum up what I have found.

There are things I miss, such as communion and celebration of baptisms and well-sung hymns, but these can be found elsewhere also.

Unitarians want to be "broad, inclusive, and tolerant." And who can possibly object to that? Well no one.

Obvious point, but there are plenty of religious people I can think of who do not value tolerance and inclusiveness.

I see your point though. Whenever the people in my office give out "diversity and equality" awards my eyes always roll because it rings so hollow. If the people who ran my office really cared about equality and diversity then they would ask tough questions about what causes "glass ceilings" and why their "performance management" system underrates people who come from the same predictable social groups over time. But they never do!

Truly valuing diversity actually carries more weight than it is given credit for. Highest common factors, not lowest common denominators!
Anonymous said…
Just found your blog as I research Unitarianism. I think you're on to something here:"we are all embraced by the same Oneness,... . What does matter is that we live more fully into this Oneness through a deepening spiritual practice and a justice-seeking practice of creating one human family. ". This fits in with some of the stuff in Prayers of the Cosmos by Neil Douglas-Klotz e.g. Jesus use of the Aramaic word for God 'Alaha' (literally The Oneness and with obvious links to Islam)and the expansion of the word for Father (Abwoon) whose roots refer to 'all germination proceeding from the source of Unity'..'the ray or emanation of that father/motherhood proceeding from potential to actual'. The other point you touch on regarding the limitations of the word Unitarian also strike a cord with me. Coming from a 'conventional' Christian background but moving into a Universalist stream I'm looking for a spiritual home which reflects that. The word Unitarian could seem like a negative 'attack' on my previous beliefs but I'm interested enough to keep exploring.
Anonymous said…
Thanks for sharing, Stephen. Have you sent this to The Inquirer? This topic deserves much wider consideration. I have linked this post to the Unitarians Facebook group for further discussion.

You've touched on a fundamental question facing Unitarians today: what holds us together.

If seeking Oneness is at the essence of our existence, how do we uphold that, when no two Unitarians will interpret seeking Oneness in quite the same way? I think building loving community and deepening relationships with one another goes some way to answering that, but by no means entirely.
Yewtree said…
Great blogpost. I have recently concluded that "do not follow where the path may lead, make your own path" is actually not a very helpful piece of advice. We have to get to grips with a tradition, engage with it in depth, really understand it, and then critique it and construct our own version of it - not just wander about vaguely in the foothills hoping for some revelation.

I think that the discipline of sticking to a specific religious tradition (whether that is Buddhism, Wicca, Heathenry, Druidry, Christianity, Judaism, Unitarianism, or whatever), including the bits you don't like, is more character-building than just making it up as you go along.
Robin Edgar said…
Dear Urban Unitarians,

I certainly do not object to those Unitarians aka Unitarian Universalists aka U*Us who actually do want to be "broad, inclusive, and tolerant." Well up to a point anyway. There *is* such a thing as going too far with broad mindedness, inclusivity*, and tolerance.

Sadly there are plenty of Unitarians aka Unitarian Universalists aka U*Us *I* can think of who do not value tolerance and inclusiveness, or take tolerance and inclusiveness too far. . .

I can provide examples if you would like.
Robin Edgar said…
Thanks for being broad, inclusive, and tolerant enough to publish my comment Stepen. ;-)
Louise said…
I think that this is a very important issue and well-written. I don't think that it is possible to do anything that no-one objects to for example those people who are illiberal will object to liberal things and vice versa. But I agree with the general feeling. We should stand for something.

I have written myself about communities. A collection of people can only be communities if they share something - within society this is either geography or a characteristic. So we have to identify the characteristic(s) that we share.

Some years ago we described ourselves by what we did not believe in and we then struggled to identify what we did all share. We have sort of used the diversity debate to settle on something positive. But there are some lines that have to be drawn - we are not open to all. Freedom, reason and tolerance have always been a good starting point for me. But perhaps as Maud Robinson has written in the 2013 Stirrings (produced by the ministerial students of Unitarian College Manchester) it is time to revisit these.

I get Tim's point about Oneness but we might suggest that in other faiths people's approaches to God would have similar problems.

I think that there is a third alternative re paths - make it up, follow an established path or follow where you are led. I take the third approach - I don't know who or what leads me but I am not making it up myself. I feel very real and strong compulsion to go in certain directions (which may well be antithetical to the idea of freedom, but perhaps an internal debate for myself for another day). In the simplest terms I go where the Spirit leads me - sometimes not very willingly.

I agree that this should be produced in one of our Unitarian publications. Excellent post which I am sure will be stimulating and inspiring to many. xx
Unknown said…
Stephen, you're saying that if we strive to be "all things to all people," we end up being nothing, having no central uniting philosophy.

i would argue that in fact we do have a central uniting philosophy, if not a theology. Here in Britain it remains largely unarticulated or at least unwritten/ratified. (Like your constitution?)

This is why I prize the 7 principles, which articulate the shared values and aspirations of American UUs. They help us to understand and explain ourselves.

UK Unitarians DO have a centre, a core identity. But they seem to be reticent about discussing it, internally or externally.
Lucy Ann said…
Stephen you may not have noticed that this blog entry of yours has been noticed again on the Facebook group UK Unitarians - I have left you a FB message about it

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