July 19 2020

On Unitarian Philosophy

No special skills are required to be a Unitarian. A common-and-garden refusal to be told what to do and what to believe, is possibly the most obvious aspect of a Unitarian’s behaviour; another would be an aversion to credulity.

When a few years ago I was teaching our student ministers at our college in Oxford, I used to say to them that I wished our 21st century Unitarianism could have a definable theology, in the same way that tomes could be written in the previous two centuries laying out the sort of beliefs a Unitarian could hold.

Whereas the history of our denomination is a body of information, our practice of Unitarianism now is much more like an open-ended process of intuition, speculation, and interpretation.

Of course we have long discarded dogma and creed, and this has almost led us into a position where now we have no specific content to which we are expected to adhere; no pattern of behaviour or thinking which could be described as characteristic of a Unitarian.

A Unitarian is an individual who explores and questions everything about his or her religious experience and practice; who takes nothing for granted; and to whom the freedom of faith which was won for us in previous centuries is our most precious possession.

If you have a willingness to think things through, despite the probability of never being able to arrive at a satisfactory conclusion; if you have the ability to sit without too much discomfort amid the surroundings of others’ beliefs (beliefs which you personally would never adopt); and if you are strong enough to believe in yourself; then you fulfil the three-fold principles of our faith: Reason, Freedom, and Tolerance.

At Pentecost we saw that diversity of belief is not a fool-hardy cul-de-sac into which Unitarianism has wandered. That so many of us do not think alike does not deter us from loving alike (as Francis David might have expressed it). Just as the Holy Spirit blessed the diversity of expression at Pentecost, our modern pilgrimage embraces the potential for never-ending questioning and open enquiry.

And just as we warmly welcome the diversity which exists within our congregations, and see within it an enhanced potential for discovering and appreciating what is true, – just so, the inquiring spirit which knows that it will never arrive at the end of its inquiries, is not a source of despair, but of comfort, – because we recognise this as being true to the nature of things.

All those faiths which impose creeds and dogmas attempt to put a full-stop to spiritual exploration and inquiry. But as we well know from our own experience of the world, ours is an open system, ever changing, ever evolving, sometimes regressing, sometimes dying, but at the same time always being born anew and different.

A closed creed or dogma cannot deal with this, and therefore to us it feels incomplete and uncomfortable. The system of thought we are familiar with demands that we keep an open mind and be prepared to adapt our ideas as we go along. And that is why an open-ended approach to life and experience is not bleak and incomplete. It is exactly what life teaches us, and as such it is comforting and harmonious with what we know and feel.

I wonder if you watched a recent re-showing of a programme about the Bletchley code-breakers in which it was asserted that the Germans lost the Battle of the Atlantic because we had code-breakers superior to theirs. Because of their Aryan philosophy of white supremacy, the Nazis would never have employed the disparate group of intellectuals we had working for us at Bletchley: Jews, homosexuals, and brilliant individuals who in other ways were sometimes virtually dysfunctional.

For a similar reason one wonders whether the disparate group of principles which together make up Unitarianism provides a more effective approach to an appreciation of life and experience compared to the orthodox rather rigid alternative.

Many of my reflections today have been sparked off by reading the work of a contemporary philosopher, John Marmysz, who advocates this flexible and adaptive approach in relation to his own work in philosophy. It immediately made me wonder whether it might apply to religion as well.

Marmysz writes that this approach “has slowly changed my being into something more yielding to the universe and to its rhythms of birth and decay. All things come and go, including my own moods and feelings, my own attachments, loves and hopes … I have relinquished the conviction that [one day] I am destined to master the world’s mysteries…”

I am sure that most Unitarians would say “Amen” to that.

Our concluding prayer is adapted from Divine Discontent, a collection by Harry Lismer Short, edited by  Rev Frank Walker.

Eternal Spirit, we know that we belong in a world of great variety. There are many kinds of people, with many differences from one another. There is endless variety of circumstance, a complex of ever-changing events with which we have to cope. We know that we cannot fit people or things into neat patterns of comprehension…

So we pray for an honest objectivity in our judgements of the world… for this is the world with which we have to do, and not some ideal world of our own imagining… And we pray for an honest objectivity in our judgements of people. They are not copies of ourselves, but are living their own lives in their own way… It is not our task to mould others into our own likeness, but to find ways of mutual understanding.

The rain falls on the just and on the unjust alike. So we would live with honesty and friendship, according to truth and love, in this complex, rich and challenging world. Amen.

Sunday Service homilies from the Minister during coronavirus period