Sunday, 9 September 2012

Church-Off Sunday

So here I am on my first non-church Sunday in - well, years and years. If there was a 'Sunday off' before I'd use it to visit somewhere else. This time I've gone nowhere, not even to a church two streets away.

I visited the Sutton church during a heavy snowfall in 2010 along with fifteen others including some refugees from other places. The sermon was evangelical in content and the lay reader treated people like idiots, and so that was a decision not to return there. Evangelical religion is a kind of intellectual nonsense and if they don't know it they ought to read some simple books on science. And I have no desire to go elsewhere. I know a friend who once migrated from the Unitarians to an intelligent Anglo-Catholic church, although that priest has since gone, and so anyway so had the ex-Unitarian. He didn't stay long.

And the question has to be asked, as I do more on hymns than I'd do towards providing for a Sunday (building up the stock, handling a new choir CD): would I, starting from here, go to any church at all? The answer might be no.

The other day in bed I had in my head one of those blockages where I tried to remember the name of the central postmodernist for our times. I was thrashing my brain around Ps and Bs but could not get the name, so went to my Cupitt books and one in particular, The Long Legged Fly, and found Jacques Derrida straight away. The result is a few of his hovering in the bathroom and about. His Lenin book, that is the 'What is to be Done?', is Radicals and the Future of the Church (1989). It calls for a kind of subversive existence, one that he now rejects. Indeed I reject the central argument of the book, which is the difference between accommodating liberals, for whom the myth is a semi-realist viewpoint, and the radicals, where the myth is a human made-it-all-up useful pathway.

I don't accept Cupitt's blanket across the board non-realism anyway. It applies to religion like art, as he puts it, but there is something different about research in the sciences and social sciences that delivers negative answers to the ones we'd like. We don't make that up: they are powerful narratives because they do reflect truth. I'm not a language fundamentalist even if language is awkward even for the scientist and leads to imprecision. Of course there are schemes of understanding and these can shift, but they shift because of the nuisance of factual discoveries through research. So I am with Cupitt some of the way, regarding language and narrative and schemes of understanding, but end up as a semi-realist in science and social science (measuring culture with the tribal issue of evolved sociobiology nagging).

I reject his then central argument because the problem is not liberalism as such but Christianity. Such (about Christianity) is Cupitt's own discovery. I go much further than him too, in that for me the central problem is the cult of Jesus itself. He wrote a book on Jesus's sayings that was virtually realist and historiography-warning busting: Jesus and Philosophy, 2009). The whole thing turns, and wrongly, on a focus on the man. Much of what Jesus said is interesting, useful, but a lot of it was just plain wrong as a man of his time. He made it up too, along with those he borrowed his ideas from. Cupitt and his Jesus Seminar mates haven't rescued Jesus but sanitised him for a Western audience.

Unitarians also say the worship of Jesus as a deity is a mistake, but then they went and compromised and made him a supreme brother or some such. Francis Newman got it right, when he said Jesus was not morally perfect (and then advocated a pure theism). As to his moral perfection, in some sort of league table: how do we know? We don't know. Indeed there are attitudes to Gentiles and animals that suggest ethical imperfection despite the Gentile wrapping. His ethical perfection is a dogma and comes wrapped up in the theology that dishes up answers before the questions get asked.

The Unitarians haven't escaped the legacy. Well, some have 'moved on' but others still dig in the same hole. Well, that's fine, and people do, and I have too, but let's not then get contradictory. Some Unitarians proclaim their liberal Christianity, and they are like cars going around a roundabout and never come off.

There is no way to be subversive within Christianity: the religion itself is corrupting. It forces anti-ethical positions. You can just about get away with a Jesus-like focus outwards to God, though his God was a supernatural last-days nonsense. The only question is, why would you want to do it - to preserve the place of Jesus? Just let him join the list of sages of old.

In terms of a religious path or three, it comes with taking the kind of spirituality method that has grown up in Christianity and stripping it out into a religious humanism. When you do this, the issue of whether it is non-realist or realist (it remains non-realist, but it is better) actually matters less. The task is to make sacred the major narrative streams of the day provided from outside theology, rather than create a sacred-secular divide (and definitely not the postliberal rubbish of Platonic Christianity or role performance Christianity that splits religion and the secular).

So having come to such a view, I find a lot of Unitarianism just frustrating and 'gimme that old-time religion'. It's 'easy listening' religion. The idea has potential but the reality isn't there but a sort of sugary deposit.

My view is also consistent with Unitarian evolution. A star turn [in more ways than one, perhaps] of Unitarianism in the UK tells us it is not radical because it doesn't embrace questions like astrology and synchronicity. That's not radicalism. It might be plurality, and every idea has a right to be expressed and subjected to argument, but it is more consistent with Liberal Catholicism (of the early twentieth century) and its turn towards magic in ritual. I don't mind a bit of ritual - art is a good leg up. But romanticism was about as far as Unitarians could adopt the non-rational, and magic became self-destructive (as among the Free Catholics). I regard astrology as bunk, because its self-explanation is a nonsense of associations, rather like a Henry Lincoln saying this could be this and then could be that. Same as probability given the kind of 'cause' you see on Deal or No Deal and Noel Edmonds talking about 'strategy'. But in making the secular sacred, there is nothing wrong with liturgical expression, nothing wrong with the personal and the transcending, nothing wrong with shorthand theological words to express a greater oversight.

I'd like to see a new liturgical book from the Unitarians - funnily enough, I've been writing liturgies that could go into one book (and it includes one that raids the Christian tradition, and one that feels traditional but isn't), but of course plurality makes such a book difficult to produce - and I've been trying to address that through identifying the main tendencies within the movement. Unitarianism has become a church of individualist preachers: and, after all, who am I but one more individual?

The problem is that the main tendency within the movement is an absence of self-understanding, or one drawn from a decrepid past. In such a lack of sense of the future, and in the tough conditions of Great Britain, it just faces a journey towards conking out structurally, leaving a few individuals as the Last of the Mohicans. But it was warned about this long ago, and did nothing much then.


Anonymous said...

the question is are you trying to make Unitarianism a new religion? Religious Humanism?

or are you trying to broaden Unitarianism to include wider viewpoints?

what is it you want from Unitarianism? or want it to become?

because most of what you write just seems like anti-christian atheism...... it's all deconstruction, and no reconstruction...... and starts to look like Dawkins style vitriol

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Unitarianism has already moved to a religious humanist position in part; it ought to do it more thoroughly.

Anonymous said...

why not establish a Religous Humanist Association (or Fellowship or Church)?

and what is religious humanism anyway? i've never seen an actual description

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

I don't need to: it's been a part of Unitarianism since the 1920s and advanced well from the 1960s. As for what it is, read anything in the last five years by Don Cupitt.

Anonymous said...

Why don't you become a Quaker, Adrian ?

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Because the Unitarians and Quakers overlap. Left Quakerism is also religious humanist, as represented by the writings of David Boulton. Unitarians take services and sing hymns and Quakers don't. So I'll stick with the Unitarians. And I'd like Unitarians and Quakers to be more religious humanist.