Beliefs of a 21st Century Unitarian

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Shades of Belief

A guest post from my friend and colleague Rev. Lewis Rees:
The contemporary Unitarian movement has room for all sorts of theological positions. Theist, Atheist and Agnostic sit (relatively) happily side by side in our pews.
Personally, I have a lot of respect for agnostics in particular. Now, this may seem somewhat strange coming from someone who is an active member of the Unitarian Christian Association. My reasons for this statement are that those who question whether God exists have always, at least in my experience, appeared pretty intelligent.
Agnostics are generally the ones who give faith careful consideration and therefore refuse to just blindly accept long held traditions.
Another reason I have a lot of respect for agnostics is that, much of the time, I would rank amongst their number. Whilst at times I honestly wonder at the concept of the 'Supreme Being' model of the nature of God, I also acknowledge that such a concept is really hard to grasp. And even though I've received a university education in theology I don’t pretend to fully understand what the Judaeo/Christian scriptures say about God.
Whilst, to some, it may sound quite contrary; in my experience agnostics have thought about God more than most theists I know. This is because they have usually taken the time to consider the evidence and to evaluate the arguments and have actually gone on a spiritual search before deciding for themselves, something which I find admirable.
Of course, something similar can be said of atheism. Whilst it is often denied by believers and non-believers alike, atheism and belief have much in common. For a true atheist frequently considers the subject of God, albeit in terms of denial. Therefore, atheism is, in fact, a form of belief.
I totally understand when certain people say that religion is poisonous and deserves to be done away with. I am sure that most of us will be familiar with those arch-anti religionists often titled the 'New Atheists'. The likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have commanded a lot of column inches in newspapers and airtime on radio and television in recent times.
I don't have sufficient space in this post to devote a lot of time to their arguments; however, here is but one quote from Richard Dawkins: 'I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.'
You won't be surprised to learn that in many ways Unitarian beliefs validate the important points some of these atheist thinkers make and, in fact, preceded their thinking them by a century or more.
Unitarians have long believed in evidence and science and encourage a questioning mind. Unitarians value the human intellect and urge its education. Unitarians, having no creeds or dogma have always been keen to eradicate what can be viewed as superstitious and irrational.
For generations, Unitarians have held that the purpose of true religion is to unite all hearts and to bring life and light to each heart, bringing about an end to division and the conflict that comes with it. Therefore, if a religion should become the cause of such division and conflict it would be better to be without it. For a religion that is not a cause of love and unity is no true religion.
Finally, one area where Unitarians and 'New Atheists' can be seen to agree is that religion is meaningless unless it changes ones behaviour towards ones fellow human beings. Unitarians have long believed that 'deeds are more important than creeds'; and that true faith, whether that be theist, atheist or agnostic; means actually bringing ones ideals into practice, both individually and socially.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Thinking for Ourselves

The Unitarian free-thinking independent-minded way of approaching religion and belief is poles apart from accepting a creed because someone higher up the religious hierarchy tells us to. We are free-thinkers, who place a very high value on personal integrity – on finding your own way to the best that you know.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have what I would call absolutist or fundamentalist faiths, those who demand that their believers accept the whole faith package without question, or be condemned as unbelievers and heretics. Conforming to such a faith is easy, so long as you don’t mind your thoughts and actions being dictated by someone else. In effect, you are accepting and measuring yourself against someone else’s definition of integrity. You are told what to do and how to act and think, and so long as you do that, your place among the saved will be assured.

No, sorry, can’t be doing with it.  And yet, such faiths have a far larger following than Unitarianism. Is this because most people would rather not think for themselves, that they would rather be told how they should react in any given situation, rather than working it out for themselves? I think it must be. Because with freedom comes responsibility, and that can be scarey.

For sure, there are many shades of integrity vs. conformity along the way. Between the endless questioning of free thinkers and the blind following of ultra conformist faiths, there are very many believers, who (for example) quite happily chant the creed in church on a Sunday morning, but whose personal lives are lived out in varying degrees of conformity with it. 

And within the “stricter” faiths, such as Catholicism and Islam, there are surely many independent thinkers who live their lives and their faiths with integrity. I’m certainly not saying that we Unitarians and Quakers and other free thinkers have a monopoly on integrity – far from it. But our habit of questioning our beliefs and our actions and not just doing something because the other person says so should surely make behaving with integrity that much easier. 

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Walking the Talk

The words of Edgar Guest’s creed “To have no secret place wherein / I stoop unseen to shame and sin; / To be the same when I’m alone / As when my every deed is known / To be without pretence and sham / Exactly what men think I am” go to the heart of what I believe integrity is – to be honest, straight and honourable in all our dealings and doings, whether or not anybody knows about it. The thing that matters is that we know we have done the right thing for the right reason.

But there is more to it than that. I used to be a librarian, so the first thing I do when I want to find out what something means is to turn to a reference book, in this case The Concise Oxford Dictionary. The dictionary defines integrity as “wholeness, entirety, soundness, uprightness, honesty”. It means adopting a whole heart and soul approach to our lives, so that we do not detract from our spiritual wholeness by any mean action or thought. This is a lot harder than it sounds – most people (and I certainly include me in this) often fall short of this ideal, and compromise our standards of what we know to be right.

I think that integrity means more than this, however. To me, the most important part of that definition is “wholeness”. For example, you can talk about a machine or building having ‘structural integrity’, which means that all the parts of it fit together in the right way and work together. Going back to people, it means striving towards the best we know, acting consistently according to what we believe is right, and not allowing ourselves to deviate from this standard. In this way, our whole selves, body, mind and soul, can have integrity and wholeness.

Acting with integrity also involves thinking for yourself. Abraham Lincoln famously said: “I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. / I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live up to the light I have.” This implies making a judgement about what you believe to be right and true, and then sticking to it, no matter what anybody else thinks. Personal integrity is not cheap – it means refusing to compromise when you are told to do something what you believe in your heart is wrong. It means following your principles, at whatever personal cost. It means putting what you know to be right above what you would like to happen.

Being part of a silent majority is the easy way out in our society. It means that you keep your opinions to yourself, or grumble to your friends, but don’t speak up or act if you believe that something is wrong. I am uneasily aware that I do much less than I should to right the perceived wrongs of the world: I am a member of Amnesty International, but I do not write letters or take part in protests, as members are urged to do. I am a member of Friends of the Earth, yet I do not consistently use green products or make every effort to save energy. In other words, in those areas which I fall short of the standards I perceive to be right, I lack personal integrity.

You might say “Oh, don’t be so hard on yourself. You don’t do so badly. You do your best.” But do I? Does anyone? If we truly believe that acting with integrity is of paramount importance, it ought to apply to every area of our lives, not just when it’s easy or convenient to do so.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

The Journey Towards Authenticity

I have always loved the bit in the original Bridget Jones film when everything has gone wrong at her dinner party - her soup was contaminated by blue string, and her orange sauce turned into marmalade - but her friends toast her health "To Bridget, who we love, just the way you are."

 To be loved "just the way you are" is the most precious gift. And to live as your authentic self is the richest, most rewarding, and possibly most difficult, way to live. The theme of this year's Hucklow Summer School was "The Authentic Self: Discovering the Real You" and it was a good, deep, stretching week.

This becoming who you really are is a long process, full of risk and danger. But also full of light and joy. It is something which tends to happen more as we approach middle-age, than earlier on in our lives, unless we are lucky. In the first half of life, we tend to be preoccupied with growing up, finding our place in the world, establishing a career and a family, or close group of friends, and then settling into that unique niche, which we have carved out for ourselves.

And that is good. I'm not saying for a moment that this first half of life work is not necessary - it is vital. By the time we are approaching middle age, most of us will have a particular position in the world, a particular identity, particular roles, whether in the workplace or outside, and will be identified by particular labels. My principle labels and roles as I started this inward journey were "mother", "wife", "librarian", "Unitarian" and "runner".

This second half of life journey towards authenticity and wholeness is about the attempt to become whole, about being the same "you" wherever you are, and whoever you are with, rather than cutting your cloth according to your circumstances. And it's about doing a lot of shadow work, about digging deep to discover the real you, the open and vulnerable person behind the fa├žade you have spent so many years carefully building. And then working out how to integrate that authentic self into the real world out there.

It's a tough call. And not for the faint-hearted. But it is so worthwhile. It is about waking up and becoming aware of what you are doing and where you are going; about taking responsibility for your own choices and values; and about working out what is important to you, and then living it.

Like I said, it's a tough call.

But luckily, there are many tools and wise ones to help us on our journeys. Such as an empathic spiritual director, a loving Unitarian congregation, and some wonderful books, such as, in my case, Richard Rohr and Andreas Ebert's Discovering the Enneagram, Richard Rohr's Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, and John O'Donohue's Eternal Echoes: Exploring Our Hunger to Belong. All three have had a catalytic effect on my journey.

The words that work for you, or the teachers that will influence you will probably not be the same as mine. This is not a journey for the faint-hearted ... it can (and probably should be) quite painful and uncomfortable. But to discover who you really are, "with unique flaws and gifts" as Forrest Church says, to start to discover your authentic self, is immensely rewarding. It is the work of a lifetime, but each step we take towards authenticity, and away from the masks and concealments of our old lives, enables us to make real connections with other people, and to be at peace with our whole selves. And that is precious.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Peace in the World

On this day, the 75th anniversary of the day that the United Kingdom declared war on Hitler's Germany, two days after the latter's invasion of Poland, a reflection on war and peace.

Unitarians hold various views on pacifism or whether there can ever be a just war. It is up to each person's individual reason and conscience. And that is as it should be. We all agree with the values of peace, compassion, and forgiveness, but also justice and equity, as those which we should aim for if we desire a just and peaceful world. But some Unitarians believe that war is sometimes the lesser of two evils - that is, that intervening with arms may sometimes be necessary to prevent a greater evil. The fight to overcome the evil that was Nazism is often seen as a case in point.
But the beliefs of this 21st century Unitarian are as follows: To fight or to take a pacifist line is one of the deepest and starkest choices of personal conscience. Is pacifism a cause worth fighting for? What a paradox! I write as one who has a fairly volatile temperament at times, and one who is not a naturally pacific person. I admire Vera Brittain enormously, and the Quakers too. And I am deeply impressed by the realisation that we are all human beings, given life by God. What right have others to take that life away? What cause can possibly justify it?
Being a mother has also affected my views. Having grown my children in the womb, and having nurtured them in the years that have followed, I feel a deep fellowship with all women who have done the same, and can imagine the anguish that every parent must feel when their precious child is maimed or killed.

The common humanity of humankind should be an overarching bond that prevents war. After any natural or man-made disaster, we see this in action. Offers of money and help pour in, as we rush to succour our fellow human beings in distress. We just need to be reminded of our common humanity. Often.

A friend of mine sums up the arguments for and against pacifism as follows:

"The fence on which I seem to sit is this:
1. That I am dedicated to the proposition that love will ultimately (but not consistently or progressively) triumph over hate.
2. That by the same token peace will triumph over war - but not consistently or progressively.
3. That there are some things one must do, not believing in their success, but because doing them is essential to one's integrity (actually I'd say 'for the sake of my soul')
4. I know quite well that my blood can be fired by the beat of a drum or the skirl of pipes - just as I can be moved by 'Last night I had the strangest dream'. I am not one of the world's instinctive herbivores." 

It is the responsibility of the living to make meaningful the sacrifices of the dead. It is the job of anyone who is horrified by the futility and slaughter of war to attempt to influence their government and fellow citizens to work towards a more peaceful, happier world, in which war would no longer be necessary. And I know that faith groups the world over are trying to do this - we just all need to work together, and to keep at it, until humankind finally realises that peace is so much better than war, for everyone.

Most wars are allegedly fought to bring peace - a most ingenious paradox! We should remember the dead, and honour their sacrifice, but also pledge ourselves to make our world a better place - to end all wars, to relieve world debt, to feed the hungry, to find a cure for AIDS, to stop destroying our environment. It is still a beautiful planet, or it could be, if we could only learn to live together in peace. 

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Equal Rights, Equal Respect

Unitarians have always campaigned for civil and religious liberty, at first for themselves, and simultaneously and subsequently for other oppressed minorities. We believe that every person is deserving of respect and that every person should have equal access to opportunities in life. Therefore we are firmly opposed to oppression and discrimination on the grounds of gender, age, sexual orientation, race, religion or any other arbitrary grounds.

 This fundamental belief in the importance of civil and religious liberty has inspired Unitarians to become involved with a variety of social and political issues over the centuries: the abolition of slavery, better conditions for factory workers, universal education, equal rights for women (for example, we were the first denomination in Britain to have a female minister, Gertrude von Petzold, in 1904), and more recently, equal rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

Our leaflet, Where We Stand: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People and the Unitarian & Free Christian Churches, explains that the Unitarian and Free Christian commitment to equality in the UK is long-standing and wide-ranging; individuals and congregations have always been involved in different areas of social reform. For example, as long ago as 1977, the General Assembly passed a resolution: "That the ministry of the denomination be open to all regardless of sex, race, colour, or sexual orientation, and expresses an abhorrence of discrimination solely on the basis of sexual orientation." 

Most recently, together with the Quakers and the Liberal Jews, we have been prominent in the successful campaign for equal marriage - that gay and lesbian couples should have the right to be married in church or chapel on exactly the same basis as heterosexual couples, because we believe that marriage should be about two people committing to love and care for each other for the rest of their lives, rather than on the ability to procreate.

Our concern for the socially-disadvantaged and oppressed has also led many individual Unitarians to work with various different pressure groups such as Amnesty International, Shelter, women's groups and others. This is what walking the talk is about.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Keep It Simple

Henry David Thoreau was an American Transcendentalist and friend of leading 19th century Unitarian theologian Ralph Waldo Emerson. He is perhaps most well known for his book Walden, or Life in the Woods, in which he describes the results of a two-year experiment in simple living. In July 1845, he moved to a small, self-built house on land owned by Emerson in a second-growth forest around the shores of Walden Pond. The house was in "a pretty pasture and woodlot" of 14 acres that Emerson had bought, a mile and a half from his family home. A quote from the book explains what he was trying to do:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.” 

Simplicity is a different way of looking at the world, of appreciating our blessings and being grateful for the wonders and joys of everyday life, and I think that this is what Thoreau was getting at. For we live in a world of wonders. Computers, especially the Internet, have transformed our lives. It is salutary to think that my  little iPod has more technological whammy in it than the computers used to support the Apollo 11 mission forty years ago! And my faithful sat-nav guides me on all my journeys; a small machine that somehow links up with satellites up in space, and knows exactly where my car is on the planet’s surface. It really is amazing.

But the shadow side is there too. Technology has enabled many evils as well as many benefits: the surveillance of everyone, everyday via CCTV; climate change caused by acid rain and holes in the ozone layer – the list goes on. And all this technology doesn’t seem to have made us any happier or given us fuller, more meaningful lives. So perhaps we need to look at an alternative way of living, one which doesn't come with such a high price-tag.
The Quakers have Simplicity as one of their testimonies. As they explain on their website: "Simplicity involves constantly challenging the way we live and what our true needs are, and especially how our own standard of living is sometimes achieved at the expense of others. It means standing aside from the fuelling of wants and manufacturing of new desires.” 
This is a very different approach to life. Closely linked to Enoughism, it involves taking life as it comes, with thankfulness, appreciating what we have, and not always wanting more. Most importantly, it involves being aware, all the time, of the marvels around us, whether they are people or places or things. And also being aware of the resources and people who have been instrumental in enabling us to have these marvels. And making judgements, as to whether this or that material possession is worth the cost. And whether we, as individuals, can live with what it costs others to provide it for us.

I’m not saying that we can do all this all at once; it is the work of a lifetime. But just being aware of this different approach to life may make a difference; it may help us to realise that the world is a pretty amazing place, and to count our blessings and recognise the wonders with which we are surrounded. And to have the insight to realise that actually, we don’t need the latest gadget / thingummy that is being plugged as a “must-have” in the media. Enoughness is good.

At the time I was writing this, I broke for lunch at this point. So I ate my lunch mindfully, thinking about the food I was eating – where it had come from, all the different people and resources involved in bringing it to my plate, what it tasted like, and gave thanks. I didn’t read as I ate, which is my usual practice, but concentrated on the act of eating. And it made the food taste nicer! I really appreciated the simple meal. When I got back to the computer, my lovely Lord of the Rings screensaver was working away, and I took the time to wonder at its beauty, and at the technology that made it possible.

May we all remember to count our blessings, and realise how very rich we are, and like Thoreau, realise that “Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.”