Friday, 21 October 2011

Autochthonic, revealed and rational religions

Pagan and indigenous religions are said to be "autochthonic" which literally means "earth-born" or self-generated from the Earth. They are traditional and indigenous practices and folk customs which people develop in order to facilitate their relationship with the land and nature. They are the kind of religions that deal with hunting, farming and fishing. Typically they regard the divine or deities and spirits as immanent in the land; they are either pantheistic or animist.

Revealed religions are those which are revealed by the deity or deities to humanity, and seem to come from a transcendent reality. Most of the religions of the so-called Axial Age (the age of great founder-figures like Buddha, Confucius, Socrates, Lao Tsu and Jesus) are revealed, and are characterised by having scriptures and a transcendent view of the divine.

Rational religion is a child of the Enlightenment, and refers to the idea that people should be able to work out for themselves that the divine exists, and apply their reason to scriptures and other revealed ideas. I am not sure if anthropologists and sociologists of religion actually use this category, but it seems to me that Unitarianism doesn't fit in either the revealed religion category or the autochthonous category. It grew out of a revealed religion but it was trying to get back to "natural religion" and often regards the divine as immanent rather than transcendent.

I am strongly drawn to the idea that the experience of divinity should be compatible with reason, and accessible to anyone. However I do not think that the experience of the divine is a rational experience - it is accessed through the subconscious and the collective unconscious, which are associated with dreams and visions, and therefore not rational. What we should do with these promptings from the subconscious is to test them using our reason to see if they are harmful or beneficial, however.

I also believe that when you get to the heart of the religious experience, whatever religious tradition you are in, it is the same experience, albeit with different cultural trappings. The mystics of all traditions have reported similar feelings and developed similar practices.

Mother Goddess

Sinking gratefully back into the land,
Into the folds of the Mother,
Her creases in time and reality,
Her magic is a wrinkled apple,
A golden ball dropped from a tree's galaxy of branches
into Her green and fertile lap
where it will decay and then grow into a tree.

O Mother I hear your call,
the wild clear call of the Moon,
the barren and compassionate one
who gazes down upon the Earth,
your green and blue sister.

May I dance with the Sun, Moon and stars;
May I feel their dance within me
and know that it is the One at play in the many -
the dance of being and non-being,
the laughter and tears of the divine at play
in each one of us -
wearing different masks,
now tragic, now comic.

May I hear the song of the stars,
feel the rhythms of the Earth pulse in my body,
lie upon the beloved land
and know that my depths are Her depths
all the way to the ends of the Universe.

17-10-2011, 11.35 am

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Blessed are the poor

In previous posts, I have looked at whether Unitarianism is Christian or not, and what kind of Christianity it is heir to. In  my view, it is the heir of Christian heresies. In the ancient world, a heresy was a school of thought, and not a pejorative term implying deviance from the true path.

Some of the earliest Christian heretics were the Ebionites, who were the Church in Jerusalem. They were led by James, the brother of Jesus, who probably knew a thing or two about Jesus' life that did not get into the Gospels. The Ebionites took their name from the Hebrew word for poor; this was derived from the many references to the poor in the Hebrew bible, and from the line in the Beatitudes, "Blessed are the poor in spirit" (which I always assumed meant that the poor were spiritually blessed, not that the poor-in-spirit were blessed). They did not believe in the doctrine of the virgin birth, which was in any case based on a mistranslation of the Hebrew word for a girl or young woman into Greek (parthenos). They also rejected the teachings of Paul of Tarsus. They may have been vegetarians, and they held an adoptionist view of Jesus as the Messiah. They are also said to have denied the pre-existence of Christ, and vicarious atonement (both doctrines which Unitarians have rejected since the Racovian Catechism).

Some Unitarians look to the Gnostics as spiritual fore-runners, but since the Gnostics were world-denying and Unitarianism is world-affirming, I personally do not think that the comparison is helpful, except insofar as the Gnostics denied vicarious atonement, and held that the purpose of Jesus' existence was to bring enlightenment.

Other early Christian groups which broke away from the mainstream were the Miaphysites and the Dyophysites. They rejected the compromise on the nature of Christ which was hammered out at the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

The Pelagian heresy is interesting, in that Pelagius rejected the doctrine of original sin. However, the implication of Pelagianism is that since humans are capable of exercising their free will to become good, we ought to be able to live blameless lives, and there is no excuse for not doing so. Pelagius himself was quite puritanical, and expected people to live up to quite high standards. Semipelagianism sounds more manageable than full Pelagianism.

The Arian heresy (see my previous post) was a very important and widespread view, which influenced early Socinians. Arianism was very popular in the early medieval Germanic kingdoms, and for a while, it looked as if it would become the mainstream theology of the church in Northern Europe.

The Racovian Catechism was an important milestone in the development of Socinian thought, though it is by no means the final statement of either Socinian or Unitarian theology, and it was recognised by its authors that it was a provisional statement, and that the church was open to the discovery of new truth.

Why are all these ideas important? Because they show that mainstream Christian doctrine was arrived at by a series of disputes, controversies and compromises, and was not inevitable or obvious. They also show that real Christian theology is a far cry from the simplistic formulations of many modern evangelical churches, which are usually based on penal substitution theology (a combination of the doctrines of total depravity and vicarious atonement).

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Golden heresies

Having said in the previous two posts that Unitarianism has its roots in Christianity, we must ask: in what kind of Christianity does it have roots?

It is the heir of Renaissance humanism; of Anabaptists, Socinians, Arians, Lollards, Universalists, Arminians, and other liberal and heretical schools of thought. And it is the child of Enlightenment Deism, and of Enlightenment thought generally.

In ancient Greece, a haeresis was a school of thought, and diversity of ideas was considered valuable; it was only in the Christian era that a definitive version of truth was thought desirable and so heresy became anathema.

The Renaissance humanists were the first to campaign for education in the humanities (grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry and moral philosophy), and to improve the understanding and translations of Biblical and early Christian texts, as well as translating classical pagan texts. Unitarianism has, for most of its history as a  movement, been keen on biblical criticism, and using one's reason to work out what the texts mean (not relying on external authority for an interpretation).

The Arian heresy, first propounded at the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, is the view that Christ is not "very God of very God" - he is either God's son by adoption or by creation. The Arian concept of Christ is that the Son of God did not always exist, but was created by — and is therefore distinct from and inferior to — God the Father. This being so makes him no longer unique, and also has implications for other Christian doctrines.

The Socinians held an Arian view of Christ, and it is arguably they who discovered the principle of tolerance which is such an important part of Unitarian values. At one of their earliest church councils, they discovered that they could not agree on several theological points — so they agreed to differ, rather than create further schism. The Socinians emerged from among the Anabaptists of Northern Italy in the late 16th century; Fausto Sozzini, their founder, had read the works of Servetus on the errors of the Trinity. When they  arrived in Poland, the Socinians started a printing press at Rakow (which town was subsequently razed to the ground by the Catholics) and from Rakow, Socinian and Unitarian ideas spread to England and Transylvania — where, in due course, the Polish Socinians fled, as Poland was caught in the grip of the Counter-Reformation. In due course the Unitarians of Transylvania became a church which still survives today, and Unitarianism was founded in England by Joseph Priestley and Theophilus Lindsey.

The Lollards do not, as far as I know, have any direct connection with Unitarianism, but they are interesting as the first group to have translated the Bible into English, and to have looked outside the Catholic Church for the source of religious authority. Some of them were thought to have been non-trinitarians.

The Universalists never formed a formal church in England (although the General Baptists, who were much influenced by Arminianism, did reject the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, and most General Baptist churches joined the Unitarian movement and retain a distinct identity within it). However, the idea of universal reconciliation was popular in England, and was held by many Unitarians, who also rejected vicarious atonement.

Many early Unitarians believed in "salvation by character" and so were interested in books like The Imitation of Christ. So it seems that they drew on mystical and contemplative forms of Christianity as well as the liberal and rational Protestant forms mentioned above. Many Unitarian churches started out as liberal Presbyterian; others were Independents.

But the most important aspect of Unitarianism for me is that it is reasonable, and tolerant, and honours diversity. The famous Unitarian values of freedom, reason and tolerance are said to have emerged because people wanted the freedom to reason about what the Bible meant; but then they found that different people came to different conclusions about what it meant, so then they had to tolerate each others' different opinions. Unitarians have never burnt anyone at the stake or killed them for their beliefs. On the contrary, Unitarians have frequently been killed or burnt for their beliefs.

Another massively important aspect of Unitarianism is its positive attitude to other faiths, which stems partly from the idea that Jesus is an exemplar and not a saviour — if he is not a saviour, there is no need to convert people of other faiths to Christianity; and because Unitarians  believe that the Divine reveals itself to different peoples in different ways, other religions are respected (though might be criticised for harmful practices).

The Unitarian insistence on building the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth also appeals to me. And of course the fact that it is inclusive of LGBT people, and has always campaigned for the education and emancipation of women, the abolition of slavery, and social justice generally, is really important.  And so is its positive attitude to science. Charles Darwin was the son of a Unitarian, and his wife Emma was a Unitarian as well. Unitarians were probably among the earliest to accept evolution — certainly Barbara Bodichon (Unitarian and Pre-Raphaelite) had accepted it, as she painted controversial geological views of cliffs.

Modern Unitarianism has also been profoundly influenced by Transcendentalism, which grew out of 19th century American Unitarianism, and also influenced the Pagan revival, and much of American and European life and literature. I have written elsewhere on how Ralph Waldo Emerson, and hence Transcendentalism, was influenced by the translation of the Upanishads into English by Rammohun Roy, founder of the Brahmo Samaj and campaigner for the education of women and the abolition of sati. The Transcendentalists believed (among other things) in an ideal spirituality that "transcends" the physical and empirical and is realized only through the individual's intuition, rather than through the doctrines of established religions.

So these are the kind of ideas of which Unitarianism is the heir — not the narrow and pessimistic doctrines of Calvinists, Evangelicals and scholasticism, but the broad and tolerant strains of the Reformation, which sought freedom and tolerance. The systems of thought which were the forerunners of Unitarianism were optimistic about human and divine nature. They were not world-denying, but world-affirming.