October 11 2020

The String Vest

I don’t know where I first came across the idea, or whether I made it up myself, but it consists of the analogy that Unitarianism is like a string vest. Do you remember string vests? Do you perhaps still wear one? I believe the idea of them is that, even though they are literally full of holes like a net, string vests keep you warm by trapping lots of little pockets of body warmth between the strings, and provide a light and comfortable alternative to an ordinary vest. In the summer, it is suggested, they are literally air-cooled and kept you well ventilated.

Why compare Unitarianism to a string vest? Well simply because Unitarian theology is full of holes. The late Rev Bruce Findlow, looking at a modernist sculpture outside an Edinburgh university, was heard to remark: it’s just like Unitarian theology: it faces both ways and is full of holes!

A kinder, and I think more accurate, way of thinking about our theology, is to say that it is “fugitive”,  i.e. transient and flexible, a bit like quicksilver, but not as toxic.

The areas that it doesn’t address, its holes, are those areas which the traditional churches have made up stories in order to fill, e.g. the narrative of the nativity, of the miracles, and the resurrection &c., all the unconfirmed and unconfirmable parts of belief that Unitarianism usually leaves out. Hence the holes.

But the thing about string vests is that they are practically see-through. Unitarians have adopted a theology which adheres to the principles of glasnost, of transparency and openness. All of which are admirable, but none of which are particularly cosy.

As more than one thoughtful person has remarked, Unitarianism is no refuge for sinners! Many individuals come to their religious beliefs in order to be comforted: “Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people,” as the prophet Isaiah said; or indeed they come to be absolved from their shortcomings. We can offer confession and human forgiveness, but not absolution.

St Paul had a saying which has been variously translated, the most popular version of which is, “All things work together for Good, to them that love God.” Generally this is taken to mean: everything will work out alright for those who love God. A moment’s thought tells us that such a statement cannot be true. Life can prove to be very hard indeed, and facing up to it requires heroic resources. There are always those whose response to circumstances is to look to escape them, and some are only too ready to shelter behind others and “pass” on the difficult decisions to be made.

Religion in its popular form is one of those “harbours of refuge” from reality. St Paul’s saying might even confirm it. One writer, who was no longer attracted to religion, has said that “religious people have sought to shift burdens from their own shoulders on to those of a supernatural being, whom they desire to lean on…”

Others, similarly unsympathetic to religion, have said, “Religion is just a device which people have thought of… to make the world comfortable.”

These assertions are undoubtedly true of many, but not many of them will be Unitarians. Many cling to religion because they identify with its comforts first and foremost, and find it saves them from thinking too deeply about things. Whatever may be lacking in our system of faith (and it does lack many things), at least it does not lay itself open to the abuse of escapism. You can’t muffle yourself up in a string vest.

Undoubtedly religion is intended to make the world a more bearable place, and is therefore a form of escapism, but only superficially so. When we look closely at the realities of life and the teachings of Jesus, — and this is after all what Unitarianism strives to do, — we can see that Christianity concerns itself with the very real troubles and trials of people; that it’s about the poor, the widowed, the orphaned.

Perhaps the church has been guilty of escapism, but Jesus taught people to see life clearly, without the interference of prejudice, tradition, and the weaknesses of the past; taught how to face life, and how it was possible to do so with courage and genuine affection.

If life had been given to us so that we may get out of it the maximum amount of pleasure, then there is something wrong with the world as it has been created, because it provides us with a great deal more than mere pleasures. To state the obvious, there are many unsolved puzzles and many mysteries about our world, but notwithstanding, the overall impression it conveys to us is that it is a fitting place for our full development as sentient beings.

However we look at life, whether we interpret it for ourselves through an elaborate system of faith, or only through the bare essentials of something like our Unitarian principles, one thing is sure (as TS Eliot expressed it): people cannot bear too much reality.

Where can genuine assistance with reality and its difficulties be found?

That text from St Paul which I quoted earlier has been wrongly translated. This is how Dr Moffatt gives the quotation: “Those who love God have His aid and interest in everything.” Dr CH Dodd is also close to Moffatt: “With those who love God, He co-operates in all things for good.” All of us can piece together some of life’s broken fragments; can view it realistically and with affection; can demonstrate that it is worth living; and make others thankful too, that we have lived and moved among them. Amen.

May we end with some words adapted from Penny Quest:

What is it within us which wells up when we need it most, the inspiration which appears out of nowhere, the faith in ourselves which takes us by surprise, the moment of understanding which enables us to call upon our reserves to try again?

We all have within us those fundamental resources of love and joy, an inner strength which can be relied upon, an inner wisdom.

There is never a moment when we are alone, never a moment when we are left unsupported, never a moment when we are not connected to the All That Is…   Amen.


Sunday Service homilies from the Minister during coronavirus period