March 7 2021

On Difference

Right at the end of the 18th century and just at the beginning of the 19th, William Wordsworth was writing a short series of five lyrical poems about “Lucy”. It is thought she was an imaginary figure about whom he could express some of his deeper feelings.

I would like to begin by reading one of the Lucy poems to introduce (and to conclude) our theme for today, which is about difference and diversity, and why difference is so significant for us.

She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove,
A Maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love:
A violet by a mossy stone
Half hidden from the eye!

Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky.
She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and ,oh,
The difference to me !

When we were young we believed everything our parents told us. Everything they said was literally true, and this included the rudiments of what they believed religiously, or indeed did not believe. When we were young we didn’t dream of challenging their notions of reality.

But then, somewhere along the line our outlook changed gradually. We found their ideas boring or irrelevant, or even downright wrong, and we began to exercise our own rudimentary logic and questioned their assumptions. We started to discover that their picture of the world was as unreal in certain ways as the fairy tales they had brought us up on

While our parents got on with the work of putting the world back together again after the Second World War, we decided to have a party (the 1960’s). They had never had it so good (Macmillan) and neither had we. The atomic bomb was top of the list of issues on which we would disagree.

There is that in our genes which makes rebellion necessary, usually in our teens. I don’t remember deciding to forget about religion, but at some point at grammar school it just ceased being part of the equation. What began to bring my friends and I back was a mutual agreement that it would be pleasant to cycle out to a country church, and if it was open (they used to be) to look inside, and if there was a Sunday service in progress to attend it. It was more aesthetic than religious, and it was also different from what most of our contemporaries were doing, and that was important to us. I have to admit it additionally cleared the head after too much beer on Saturday night.

So the abandonment of religion was for me, as it possibly was for you too, a phase. It did leave a mark, however, and the fact of having once been apostate, atheist, godless, remains lodged in one’s personality. So what we were, and perhaps no longer are, becomes part of the difference and diversity within ourselves. This is something about ourselves which is not difficult to acknowledge, and we usually manage it without too much inner conflict. The difficult bit is when the differences are not just our own, but somebody else’s as well.

How we integrate our views with our family, our friends, the other members of our circle, our congregation, will go on exercising us for the rest of our lives. Difference is our starting point, and unless we wish to become exclusive, rigid or hide-bound, we must accept diversity.

In our Unitarian denomination we make much of celebrating diversity. We challenge ourselves to allow for differences without rancour or resentment. On the face of it that sounds like a good thing. It is, however, no good if, for example, by accepting diversity, we begin to think that the many are essentially one, that beneath the surface we are all one and the same, because palpably we are not.

Accepting diversity is only a great Unitarian principle because we are different. Shades of opinion, belief, politics, gender, colour: everything screams difference. The only common ground we can share is how we think about it and include it.

In a marriage, to give an example, a new oneness is created between two persons who love each other. That is the oneness weddings celebrate. But that oneness only exists because of the uniqueness of the two individuals who create it. It is paradoxical, but the two “become one” (Spice Girls), because they are two.

As you know, the motto of our neighbouring county of Rutland is Multum in Parvo, meaning “much in little”. I have long felt that with a different emphasis the same motto might apply to Leicester, on account of the very broad range of different faiths and ethnic origins we contain. We are a community, not because of sameness, but because of our differences. We are one Leicester because we are many.

The name given to the desire to see our communities homogenised is “pluralistic relativism”. Pluralistic relativism seeks out points of similarity and tries to obscure or diminish our differences.

It used to be a utopian dream that different faiths would one day combine their teachings based on beliefs they held in common.. Different ethnicities too, it was thought, would one day blend together. Do you remember that popular song which described a “great big melting pot” which would eventually produce “coffee-coloured people”? Offensive and profoundly mistaken.

Pluralistic relativism tries to iron-out or diminish the differences among us. It wants to say that we are all the same at bottom, and that your religious truths are equal in value to mine. And it wants to suggest that to make value judgements about one set of beliefs over another set of beliefs is somehow not acceptable. It wants us to come in to the jolly banquet of “we are all the same”, but leave our discernment with our hats and coats at the door…

This outlook is mistaken and leads to careless thinking: such assertions as “Unitarians can believe what they like…” and the “you decide for yourselves” mentality. For genuine Unitarians it is necessary to think really hard about what you believe, and to have tried it in the fires of your own experience. I think it is absolutely necessary that we admit to a degree of exclusivity in some of what we think, as well as having an optimistic desire to encourage inclusivity.

I read the following on a political website recently. I think it can also be true of religion:

It is a mistake to assume that the idea of difference is irreconcilable with that of sameness or uniformity.  In reality the two enjoy a mutual relationship. Sameness is the benchmark by which we gauge difference, and difference is the way in which we notice similarity. One without the other loses its value. Without being able to identify the things we have in common with others, it is not possible to determine in what ways we are different. And so the two ideas are far from being mutually exclusive.

And yet further, it is sometimes only by that recognition of difference that the true value of what we are contemplating becomes known to us. Let me end on a Romantic note, and illustrate what I mean by quoting from another of William Wordsworth’s “Lucy” poems:

I travelled among unknown men,
In lands beyond the sea;
Nor, England! did I know till then
What love I bore to thee.

Tis past, that melancholy dream!
Nor will I quit thy shore
A second time; for still I seem
To love thee more and more.

The prophet Amos (ch 3) asks, “Can two walk together, except they be agreed?” Perhaps we can agree that in matters of faith at least, we will emphasise the ideas of similarity and  of difference equally.



Sunday Service homilies from the Minister during coronavirus period