Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Roots hold me close, wings set me free

Roots hold me close
Every religious tradition needs roots. We need the forebears who shaped our traditions and our thinking. If we were not proud of them, why would we want to be part of our tradition? We need the spiritual practices, rituals and symbolism of our tradition - these are the things that transform us, and help us to cohere as a community.

How does ritual effect transformation? By allowing us to symbolically represent the inner processes of our individual and collective psyche, and change their relationships to each other.

What are the rituals of Unitarianism? There's the hymn sandwich (yes, it is a ritual), the Flower Communion, the Water Communion, the lighting of the flaming chalice.  There's communion. We need these rituals because they are part of our identity as a worshipping community.

But we also need personal spiritual practice, which we have the freedom to choose from many different traditions. However, our roots lie in the Christian tradition, and if we chop off our roots, the plant might die. We can learn about lectio divina, prayer beads, contemplative prayer, and liberal and mystical Christian theology.  All of these practices and traditions were developed by people who were rooted in the same culture that we are, and they fit in with our cultural background. We also have roots - albeit further back - in the pre-Christian polytheist traditions of these islands, and these inform many of our folk customs and festivals.

Of course there's nothing to stop us from learning the spiritual traditions and practices of others, but let's be careful to avoid a shallow engagement with them, one that is not rooted in the philosophical outlook of the tradition being borrowed from. It's worth reading this critique of Pagan UU rituals, which points out that they are often engaging with the fluffy end of Paganism, rather than the full depth of Pagan theology. I have 20 years' experience of Pagan rituals, and they have considerable transformative effect and powerful resonance. I also practice Buddhist meditation (specifically Metta Bhavana), which I find really helpful.

Wings set me free
So I am not by any means arguing that Unitarianism and UUism should only use Christian practices - it could be argued (by those who do not view us as Christian) that this is also a form of cultural appropriation, depending on whether you see Unitarianism as post-Christian, universalist, interfaith, multi-faith, or something else. What I am suggesting is that we should feel free to explore Christian mysticism alongside other spiritualities, and that whatever tradition we are drawn to, a pick and mix approach, or a shallow engagement with it, will most likely not be conducive to spiritual growth.

I think we need to be aware of what we are doing when we borrow any practice, whether it is Pagan, Christian, Buddhist, or whatever. What is the underlying theology and philosophy of the practice? Is it compatible with our values, theology and philosophy? If we adapt the practice to fit our values, theology and philosophy, have we taken the soul out of the practice and made it into something else? If this is the case, should we rename the practice?  If we are going to engage with Buddhist or Jewish or Pagan practices, we need to do so in a mindful way, with an understanding of the underlying philosophical tenets of Buddhism, Judaism or Paganism.

Given the way that the Christian ritual of communion has developed, is it valid for Unitarian communities to practice bread-and-wine communion? (I'd say yes, because we have always done so with our own interpretation of what it means, which is not so far away from other liberal Protestant groups.)

Unitarianism has also developed its own special rituals and symbolism, which help us to form our identity. These are our wings, if you like. Many religious traditions have their own special rituals and prayers and symbolism that make them unique (the Druids have the Awen and the Druid's prayer; Wiccans have cakes and wine; Quakers have Meeting for Worship; Anglicans have their liturgical traditions; and so on). Different Christian denominations do communion differently, and with a slightly different underlying theology.

We can interpret  rituals and symbolism differently from others, but we should be aware of their history and origins, and not lift them out of context without considering the theological and philosophical implications.

Unitarians and UUs cherish our freedom, but let's not use it for a shallow engagement with spiritual practices. Let's use it to engage meaningfully with theology and symbolism and ritual, and to enrich our understanding of both our own tradition and others. If you are not rooted in your own tradition, it's difficult to engage meaningfully with other traditions.

Religions are like languages - you can speak more than one language, but if you don't know the grammar of your own language, it's difficult to learn another one.

I've practised Wicca for 20 years, so I would say that I speak the language of Wicca really well. But I was brought up as a Christian, so I speak that language too. Whether I like it or not, Christianity informs my thinking to a certain extent (even if I am reacting against some aspect of it). Over the last three years, I have immersed myself in Unitarian history and thought, so I would say I speak that language pretty well too. I also see it as a distinct language, rather than as a dialect of Christianity.

One of the things that I really value about Unitarianism is that it allows me to speak in all three languages, and to offer translations between them - as well as bringing in concepts from other religions which may shed some light on the ideas being discussed.

I also find it helpful to interpret and critically evaluate ideas from all three traditions in the light of ideas from other religions. The ideas of Sufism (which was partly derived from Neoplatonism and Gnosticism) are particularly helpful for understanding what Jesus was talking about. The ideas of Hinduism are really helpful for developing a deeper engagement with Pagan theology and philosophy.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Is Unitarianism Christian?

There has been much debate recently about whether Unitarianism (and Unitarian Universalism) is Christian, post-Christian, universalist (in either the modern sense or the 19th century sense), or something else.

In our insistence on being non-creedal, have we adopted an "anything goes" approach?

Many Christians would claim that Unitarianism is not Christian, because most Unitarians do not believe in the Trinity and the doctrine of vicarious atonement. But not all Christians believe in vicarious atonement (at least not in the penal substitution theology version of it). The Orthodox Christian view of Christ's role and function is quite different from that of Western Christians. Early Christians did not believe in the Trinity; the doctrine was finalised at the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. So neither of these beliefs are essential to Christianity. It might be argued that certain values (such as forgiveness, social justice and compassion) are unique to Christianity, or promoted by Christianity more than by other faiths - but in fact Roman polytheism listed compassion as a virtue. It is difficult to define any religion by listing its beliefs and values, because religion is about identity and community rather than beliefs and values.

Many Unitarians would claim that Unitarianism is not Christian, sometimes for the same reasons that some Christians would make that claim, and sometimes because Christianity is viewed as exclusivist (in the sense of regarding itself as the sole possessor of truth) - but many Christians take part in interfaith dialogue and study other faiths in a spirit of humility which avoids cultural and theological imperialism.

My own view is that Unitarianism has Christian roots (and that the tree is made of the same wood). We use the Bible in our services. We are rooted in a Christian culture (whether you like it or not, Western Europe has been Christian for centuries - and yes, that religion was imposed by the sword, but it's still part of our culture, rather like the way that British law and morality is part of the culture in post-colonial countries). The values promoted by Christianity (and by other traditions) are still widely valued in our culture, and by Unitarians. We still celebrate Christian festivals, together with all the Pagan trappings that come with them (who doesn't like Christmas presents, Easter eggs, Christmas trees, and all that?) We still think Jesus was a good bloke.

And yet... Unitarianism and Unitarian Universalism include some unique traditions of our own: Transcendentalism, Deism, Universalism (in both senses), the Flower Communion, the Water Communion, the flaming chalice. We have the writings of our Unitarian and Universalist forebears. And, inherited from Servetus, some Unitarians have a pantheist understanding of the Divine that was partially informed by Neoplatonic and other hermetic writings, which has fed into the Pagan revival via Ralph Waldo Emerson and other Transcendentalists, and made room for Pagan spirituality in the 20th and 21st century.

So it is true that Unitarianism is both Christian and non-Christian, depending on your understanding of what "Christian" means. Given that mainstream Christians can't agree on what it means, it's hardly surprising that Unitarians can't either.

I think the key to defining whether a group or an individual fits into any particular category is, in the end, about membership and identity. What do you identify as - and do the other people with that identity agree with your self-identification?

I do not identify as a Christian, but I do identify as a Unitarian, because I am accepted as a member of a Unitarian community; I share the views of the majority of Unitarians about the value of the Bible and the Christian tradition; I espouse the values of Unitarianism; and I am pretty well versed in the history and culture of Unitarianism.

But there's nothing to stop a Unitarian from identifying as a Christian. Unitarianism does after all emerge from the Christian tradition, and there's much to value in the Christian tradition (as well as much to criticise). And if we reject the Christian tradition outright, we reject much that is of value.