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.


Paul Oakley said...

In my experience, Bible, while not forbidden (as if anything could be), is not a normative part of UU worship. You're somewhat more likely to hear readings from the Tao Te Ching.

And for myself, I would bristle if a UU tried to argue that UUism is a Christian religion rather than as a post-Christian religion that freely accepts into membership people who would hyphenate themselves any number of ways, including UU-Christian. Saying UU is Christian, though, because of its roots makes about as much sense as saying Christianity is Jewish or Islam is Judeo-Christian or Buddhism is Hindu or Baha'i is Islamic

And I absolutely do not self-identify as Christian. However, I was raised Christian (in a fundamentalist sect), and that fact has greatly affected the shape of who I am.

And when I visit a Christian church that offers either open communion or the semi-open communion that is offered to all baptized Christians, I partake without feeling the slightest twinge of hypocrisy.

I translate the language and symbols and mythology, accept what fits and let those for whom the other stuff speaks be moved by it. It works for me.

Stephen Lingwood said...

I think "rooted" is the right word.

I would hope Unitarians could affirm something similar to the Quakers:

"The Religious Society of Friends is rooted in Christianity and has always found inspiration in the life and teachings of Jesus. How do you interpret your faith in the light of this heritage? How does Jesus speak to you today? Are you following Jesus' example of love in action? Are you learning from his life the reality and cost of obedience to God? How does his relationship with God challenge and inspire you?"

Yewtree said...

I like Cliff Reed's poem, (though there are many liberal Christians outside of Unitarianism who have also moved on).

I also wrote a response to his poem entitled We are the Pagans who move on, which I hope he found to be a sincere homage to the generous spirit of his poem, and not merely plagiarism.

Paul - I'm saying Unitarianism is rooted in Christianity - I'm not saying it is Christian - I think it's Unitarian.

Stephen - re "obedience to God" - depends what you mean by "obedience" and "God", and where you think the source of God's commands is (in the heart, or in a book - I'm guessing the former). See my other post on my other blog about this very issue: What is the source of morality?

Stephen Lingwood said...

@Yewtree, I think Quakerism would understand that as the "inner promptings of the spirit" and Unitarianism (from Martineau) would follow the authority of the conscience.

Yewtree said...

Hi Stephen, yes I think so too. I can't remember who said it (maybe Earl Morse Wilbur) but someone remarked that Unitarianism included the freedom to reason about the scriptures, and the tolerance of others who had reached different conclusions from their reasoning.

For myself (and indeed the majority of Unitarians), whilst scriptures are inspirational and meaningful, they are a human commentary on experience of the numinous, and not the revealed word of Gold.

My personal favourite scriptures are the Tao Te Ching. But I was brought up with the Bible and so it is part of my consciousness, and it is part of the culture. As I have quoted elsewhere, "Look to the rock whence ye are hewn, and the pit whence ye are digged."