Skip to main content

Reason needs tradition

This is partly a second part of my review of William Murray's book on Religious Humanism, partly an ongoing set of thoughts I've been having for a while.

Murray's chapter "The Responsible Search for Truth" talks about the important place of reason in humanism. He writes, "The important thing is to be a reflective and reasonable person who does not accept beliefs as true simply because they are taught or because someone or some group believes them. On the other hand no one can possibly verify everything, so we are all dependent on the results of the work of others." (99) I agree with this entirely but I'm not sure we Unitarians, or religious liberals, have thought about it enough.

About 100 years ago some liberals talked a lot about "scientific theology" - and I think there's something to be said for this. So often liberals look to science as a symbol for what they want to do in religion: not rely on received dogma but encourage experimentation and independent thought.

The image is of the lone brave scientist carefully measuring and observing things for themselves and coming to their own conclusions - often against received wisdom and dogmatic conservatism. This is the way progress happens we think.

Except it isn't. This struck me recently as I was reading a book about the history of science.

Science really got going when scientists began to effectively communicate with one another. When they were lonely practitioners in their isolated laboratories science didn't really make much progress. What really created scientific progress was when scientists formed organisations like the Royal Society and regularly met and presented ideas to each other. They would spark off each other and one scientist could build on the work of others.

Science needs independent thought. But it only functions if there is also dependent thought. Thought that is dependent on engaging with other scientists, learning from them and taking the next step. Science needs institutions, science needs journals, science needs conferences, science needs universities.

This is often what religious liberals fail to understand and apply to the world of religion. We can revel in our ignorance of religious thought, religious history and separation from religious institutions.

In fact religious liberals are often unreflective and irrational postmodernists. We can hold "personal opinion" as infallible and unassailable even when it is ignorant of millennia of religious thought and practice.

Religion, just like science, needs institutions, publications, human meeting. Religion, just like science, needs people to take time to study the work of others before you can jump in with your own theories. Anything else is just a free-for-all and does not get us anywhere near truth. Such an approach does not deserve to be called rational religion.

In other words religion needs tradition. Liberal and rational religion needs tradition. Not to simply repeat the past, but rather to understand the past to be able to ask "where next?"

Some still doubt this. Some people ask, for example, whether Unitarian ministers really need to be trained in biblical studies, or Christian theology and tradition. They certainly do. Ministers need to be the educators, facilitators and pioneers of religious thought.

Of course science and religion cannot be perfect analogues. Science deals with the almost infinite complexity of the physical world. Religion deals with the problems of the human condition. I think this means the past is even more relevant. Our understanding of the physical world has been revolutionised in past centuries, but our understanding of the human soul is not that different. I wouldn't look to a thinker from three thousand years to tell me much useful about how a flower works as a biological phenomena, but I would still look to a thinker from three thousand years ago to tell me about its beauty.

I think Unitarianism is only truly powerful when it understands the power of the tradition that it is a part of.

Comments

Anonymous said…
As an example of someone trying to create a tradition. De Botton's School of Life is a good example. As you say Unitarianism has a rich tradition already, one in a sense atheist humanists such as De Botton and his co creators of the School are trying to emulate. De Botton is in effect saying if religion didn't exist to exercise the soul then it would need inventing. And he does not shy from saying inventing is what he is doing. Yet perhaps he misses that it exists and the long history ( with so many illuminating stories) is a tradition filled with salve for the soul. Nigel

Popular posts from this blog

From liberalism to radicalism

I've been reflecting recently on the journey I've been making from liberalism to radicalism, and how I'm beginning to see it as a necessary evolution if you're not going to get stuck in a kind of immature liberalism that fails to serve both you and the world. By liberalism I mean ideas and movements that emphasise personal freedom and not being restricted by the patterns of the past. By radicalism I mean ideas and movements that emphasise justice, solidarity, and liberation from oppression. Yes, I'm using broad categories here. Let me give an example. Let's talk about sexual liberation in a Western context for example. We can talk about women getting more agency over their bodies; gay and bi people being able to have sex with one another and marry one another; we can talk about the work of overcoming shame around sexuality. All of that is liberalism. It's good stuff. It's still ongoing. So we might ask the question "where next for sexu

Am I an activist?

  I remember being at some protest outside the Senedd once, and someone introduced me to someone else, and said, "Stephen is an activist." I remember thinking - am I? I don't know. What does it mean to be an activist? Who gets to use that title? Am I an activist because I turn up at a few protests? Or do I have to be one them organising the protest to be an activist? Do I have to lead? Do I have to do the organisational work to be an activist? Because the truth is that since I moved to Cardiff I have kept myself at the periphery of a lot of activist groups. I go to meetings, I hear about things, I turn up at protests, but I have rarely got really fully involved. Why is that? It's not for the reason that I don't have time. I do, in fact. But often I sit in these meetings and protests and think "Is this effective? Is it worthwhile? Is it going to produce something at the end of it all that is worth the effort?" I suppose, coming from the world of church I

LOST and theology: who are the good guys?

***Spoiler alert*** I'm continuing some theological/philosophical reflections while re-watching the series LOST. One of the recurring themes in LOST is the idea of the "good guys" and the "bad guys." We start the series assuming the survivors (who are the main characters) are the "good guys" and the mysterious "Others" are definitely bad guys. But at the end of series 2 one of the main characters asks the Others, "Who are  you people?" and they answer, in an extremely disturbing way, "We're the good guys." The series develops with a number of different factions appearing, "the people from the freighter" "the DHARMA initiative" as well as divisions among the original survivors. The question remains among all these complicated happenings "who really are the good guys?" I think one of the most significant lines in the series is an episode when Hurley is having a conversation with