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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.


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

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