Sunday 26 August 2012

Against His Master's Voice (In this case's HMV)

Frankly I don't like recycled sermons. This is where someone turns up and tells you another's sermon, and does so at a level of detail that means it's written and in front. Well it was because it is also online and I'd read the original. You are short-changed by the pretender giving the sermon.

The argument in the original was for a radicalism in Unitarianism that includes the like of seeing Christianity as having origins in Egyptian religion, the perspective of astrology and seeing coincidences as somehow coming together. Those in opposition are somehow not radical. Somehow a measure of the limited perspective of Unitarianism is that more would welcome Richard Dawkins to a Unitarian church than Rowan Williams, the retiring Archbishop of Canterbury.

Well I would, definitely, because Richard Dawkins speaks clearly and directly, whereas Rowan Williams is a professor of double-talk, where theology is a kind of cover for stating things he doesn't really believe or believes in such a convoluted fashion that he deceives himself.

There is a difference between pluralism with positive toleration and radicalism. I'm all in favour of pluralism and so I've no objection to someone who wants to push stranger ideas and even astrology. But then the definition of radical and including a Unitarian identity is that of rational and reasonable religion and that means I'll argue against you. The common narratives for science - for astronomy - happen to be evidence based. Astrology is not evidence based, and only proves there is one born every minute. There is no causal relationship between planetary positions billions of miles apart and a trip down your mother's birth canal on a spinning earth. If there is synchronicity between events then you end up in a puppet and chain type of life, with some sort of dance between joined up symbols of your own language. What are the chances of THAT happening - well, hundred per cent once they have happened: all shuffled cards in a pack turn over and have a sequence.

This is not radicalism. Radicalism is making the common narratives that are evidence based religious again. It is significant that this is religious humanism, in the sense that humanism is a code word for these evolutionary and chaos-system understandings. Reinventing superstition or thinking whacky theories of religious origins (who cares where Christianity came from anyway?) is not radical but irresponsible. There is a place for the careful work of history guided by historiography and not the kind of associationalism that was seen with the likes of Henry Lincoln, where this 'could have been' related to that and then that to something else, ending up with the bizarrest of associations.

The preacher today said he agreed with almost all of the sermon he received, but at the end wasn't sure he agreed with the astrology. Well, radicalism is always about roots. The roots of the liberal search are to discern. This is not discernment but scattergun unreasoning.

Now there is a tradition of romanticism with the rationalism, and this should not be lost either. Art and the aesthetic is important and needs reaffirming. We are not Puritans. But art is art and always subjective, and of course religion is subjective (or postmodern narrative). Religion is, but science and history isn't, and religion is not alternative science or history. That is the mistake made here. Symbolism to assist a religious path, a sort of ethical insight and appreciation of life, is not about alternative realities.

The same argument is to be made to postmodern Christian Platonists. Just do some research. The radical approach is to make the secular religious, but not to lose sight that the secular was found for good reason - by good reason.

Friday 24 August 2012


Imagine Supertrams in Hull - I have. The alternative, I think, is separate concrete roads making unique speedy links through built up areas joining up some roads that cars cannot complete.

Tuesday 21 August 2012

Charismatics and Unitarians

So I took a service as well as operated the CD controls, and the issue was one of homogeneity, the method the Fuller Theological Seminary of California advised when in the 1970s it used sociology, psychology and theology to create a future as used in the Vineyard churches and charismatic-influenced parts of denominations. Sociology of religion is where religion is studied sociologically for its own findings, but here we had religious sociology which is sociology used for religious ends. Religious psychology too, in how to create a 'hook' that entertains an incoming individual spiritually and inculturates people into a church and its beliefs. The theology is that of the individual and the Holy Spirit - the individual to be the agent to built the kingdom, and the Holy Spirit that is supposed to be motivating, or at least to stop the whole worship experience being understood as purely subjective enjoyment.

So you focus on one age group and then create the lowest cultural barrier, indeed make an attraction, for that age group, and then use that to attach the higher barrier of the strange beliefs. The beliefs become the price you pay for admission into the group. The Unitarians, in contrast, have a low barrier in terms of beliefs, but offer a higher cultural barrier of the increasingly acquired taste of the hymn sandwich format. Can't Unitarians be more attractive: is the new hymn book 'supplement' more attractive?

But even with the hook, the idea of some nationwide revival is not so. Like the Salvation Army in the nineteenth century, the appeal to popular culture only fragments a group, and in the Vineyard case today recirculates evangelicals.

Reactions to the service were that the Unitarian target group is 50 years and over, that Sing Your Faith (I said it's an inconsistent move to better musical flow) is an inadequate book and not the future (a few hostile responses - I think it is an improvement, but its font and text between the music in some songs is difficult to follow), and that only by singing them through will we learn them. The point of the service was to put a point of view and expect different responses and this is what it achieved.

Sunday 12 August 2012


One of the puzzles regarding the pre-Unitarian forebears, who established the chapels that became Unitarian (that is the very different Calvinists), was why, when in social and political power, if they believed in predestination, did they bother to put on a good show themselves and go around disciplining those fishing on Sunday and engaging in other leisurely activities, as well as carrying out acts of charity?

After all, as a few sectarians did, if your fate is already decided by God, you may as well have sex with as many people as you can and lead a life of earthly bliss. It makes no difference regarding your predestined outcome. But the Puritans, whether Presbyterian or Independent, were a joyless sort. Yes they believed in religious liberty for themselves but not particularly for others, as the early American colonists showed, and those that had a more parish outlook (and accepted that there were collectivities of Christians) expected parishioners to behave. Only later did a capitalistic middle class adopt liberty for Jews and Catholics too as a way of breaking the power of the Anglican soaked feudal regime.

Unitarians forget what a relief there was in the population when the Restoration took place, to bring back some fun into ordinary life as well as a bit of the old naughtiness among the upper classes. The Restoration then involved juddery movement to trinitarian tolerance simply because a rising merchant middle class was, to some extent, connected with early nonconformity. The cat had been out of the bag a little too long. And then the Restoration itself found its limit when James II was overthrown.

Well there is an answer to why they were so joyless and showy in their piety including over others in this perceptive interview about the legacy of Calvinism in Wales:

RTE: What is 'Double Predestination'?

Fr. Deiniol: The Calvinist doctrine is that God has predestined people from before the creation of the world for redemption. 'Double Predestination' is the belief that God has predetermined and preordained not only who shall go to heaven, but who shall go to hell. In other words, He has brought some human beings into existence, having already determined that they shall go to hell for eternity. They maintain that He has done this in His infinite Wisdom and that the logical contradiction between that and God's infinite love is not for us to question and understand. So, the God of love becomes, in their theology, a tyrannical and arbitrary monster, whose excesses are far worse than the worst tyrants of human history, who only tormented people for a limited period of time. The God of Calvinism creates some people in order that they should suffer for eternity.

RTE: And this not only severs any notion of free will, but I imagine that you would have to take care to appear "good" to prove that you are one of the saved, or is that too simplistic?

Fr. Deiniol: No, that's very accurate.
"How do we know who is saved?"
"Oh, by their fruits you shall know them."
Accordingly, observable behaviour becomes very important, and at a certain stage in the evolution of things, when conviction and faith are no longer so strongly present, this preoccupation with appearances becomes a very distinctive characteristic of these societies. That is certainly what I think happened in Wales. Also it means that people don't look at the darker side of themselves, and don't encounter their shadow. Darkness is then projected onto other people, so you have groups that are the scapegoats, the lowest of the low.

So one can imagine that as the Puritan-Presbyterians slipped into Arminianism, the importance of showing piety maintained itself, and formed a kind of spiritual and intellectual elitism. Then, within these chapels, a sort of biblical and early scientific/ technical capitalism and intellectual elitism took hold with its 'in the Bible' unitarian ideology as a sort of theological takeover from within the dissenting academies and among the trustees.

Saturday 11 August 2012

More Jokes

A Unitarian unicycle comes with a full set of brakes.

A Unitarian cross country cycle race was held. Each cyclist went by a different route and they all stopped before the finishing line because the travel was more important than the arrival.

A Unitarian jazz band decided to play Dixieland music, except they used violins because they wanted to be heterodixie.

A Unitarian organist played all the right notes but not necessarily in the orthodox order.

A Unitarian vegetarian included a little bit of meat in the meal in recognition of where the tradition had come from (in its arian meat origins).

Friday 10 August 2012

Hartford Appeal

Some of the theological issues raised in the Hartford Appeal in 1975 are still with us, if not more so. I've recreated into one .PDF document the three relevant .PDF sections of April, May and June from that year of the journal Worldview (edited for the British eye) and have added my own comments within. It is on my website in the Learning Area and then Religion and Theologians.

Thursday 9 August 2012

Unitarian Jokes

Apparently, according the the Unitarian Facebook page, there is a Unitarian Joke Book for sale. What? You don't need to buy a Unitarian joke book, when you could write your own.

On that page I suggested these:

A Unitarian went into a hall full of adults only and said, "I know there are no children here but nevertheless I am going to tell you a children's joke."

A Unitarian decided to illustrate ancient and modern. He said, "Look, this is a Double Decker chocolate bar and that is a three decker pulpit."

A Unitarian preacher said he was going to tell a few jokes, and they were all old ones. People started complaining, but he said they don't when he goes around using the same service in different churches.

A Unitarian said he was going to be "really liberal today" and asked his congregation, "Don't you think Jesus was a really decent human being?"

A Unitarian theologian enrolled at University in the History department.

I could write the joke book myself. Wouldn't be very funny. [I added]

Monday 6 August 2012

Neither End Works: Institutional Pessimism

I admit that I am pessimistic regarding the future of organised religion. Many of the times when people take a service and they say 'that was good' I often think otherwise, perhaps at another level.

Let me be clear regarding apparent success. There is no future in anything to do with 'signs and wonders'. This is capitalism religion, an individualism of aspiration and good signs and based on a warm glow spiritual materialism. It was invented with the sociological in mind, in terms of using the religious culture of individualism, but hardly anthropological, in that it draws its religious signs from a past culture of millennialism, getting sick by demons, and the supposed supernatural canopy. Such is not now - not how we think, it explains nothing and is not what works in a practical sense. So the religious sociology is devious and dishonest, as it tries to reuse a lost past. Except it can't, because it has made a concession, in that in the time of Jesus the supernatural belief was collective not individualist and based on what God was about to do to everyone with the Jews as a whole first in the queue.

So Jesus was one of those prophets at that time and place who mined what the other prophets of his stream had said, according to the writings and the intense talk among the rabbis, and set himself up as a Jewish suffering servant for God to then do what he would, starting with sending the Messiah (someone else, some other figure, or Jesus transformed - the latter being what the early Jewish Christians believed along with him having to have been the first of the resurrected, ascended and having to return very soon). When the Kingdom came in, all the dead would rise, all would be judged; such as the Roman occupiers would be simply be swept away; the married would be like angels together; and history as such would come to an end. While Jesus was alive, those he ministered to had healings with the belief that demons escaped and this prepared them for the coming Kingdom, and they were to sin no more while they all waited. They sat and had love meals and thought of a different future where the worst off would be best off.

When Paul turned the collective expectation into a salvation faith through God's sole representative, it still was in the context of those expected collective changes. To have a salvation figure was enough, rather than to have a law. Paul's view remained the same - either or, but he changed sides and then made those necessary cross-cultural changes that would project Jesus into the Gentile world.

The signs and wonders of modern day individualism is a kind of cop-out, and people are not healed by the removal of demons. This whole 'experience' approach is a spiritual placebo and is nothing but a sect of spiritual entertainment that lowers its barriers to contemporary culture while believing the ridiculous and unscientific. No Kingdom will come from it. Of course it attracts those who want and indeed get spiritual entertainment, and individuals so involved are very adapt at living in two worlds at once. Many a time I've tried to examine someone's sociology of knowledge of the present day and their religious beliefs of a past day, and it's like they throw a switch. The sort of beliefs they profess that allow access into the religious form play no part in their expectations of ordinary life. They don't pray for rain because they know it is a chaotic process under a climate system told by scientists called weathermen (and so on). Food grows on its own account in a web of interacting existence - no deity pushes it up.

But there they are, attracting the circulating minority of Christian thrill-seekers. But what of somewhere like I attend?

The service was very good, I'm told, and indeed it was clear in presentation, and I had an active part in its musical choice and indeed affected the service's content. But the service examined prayer and the Lord's Prayer in particular, with it said, then heard as sung by Andrea Bocelli, then read as a Bible reading and then as in a more secular and universalist interpretation - amongst much else said about prayer. As someone who has stopped saying the Lord's Prayer the service didn't (as it happens) address my criticism and the modernising and universalising of it I don't think works.

The Lord's Prayer is not about us as individuals doing good things to bring about a Kingdom. That is a liberal-humanist cop-out, the same kind of individualism used by the charismatics. It is a bit more collective, in the sense of all hands to the practical pumps, but the transformation into the ideal was not presented as some sort of work ethic. Sure we can say sorry and forgive as we would be. Does it need this 'teaching'?

But would this service, and such an intense focus on one apparent prayer, be attractive to the outsider, the spiritual seeker, one of the minorities that comes to a really liberal church? I don't think so. On this level, it all appears far too traditional, and is a slightly radical message delivered in a traditional format. It suits those who are used to the format, but the format is dying on its feet. I try to inject some musical expansion into it, something like the cultural 1970s and Classic FM, but this doesn't break up the format sufficiently.

I just think organised religion is in deep trouble, whether the working is apparently successful (and attracting some) or not successful where the cultural barrier is now high.

Sunday 5 August 2012

New Wine Re-circulating Wine

I've not been blogging much as it is, to be honest, in this a period of waiting between news items that draw comment; also I am recovering from a five minute relationship that got to the stage where I removed myself from dating websites and now have put myself back on them, all thanks to some better and past-related offer. You go through waves of frustration and re-enquiry afterwards and the annoyance of how well she suited, at least from my viewpoint.

Still, life goes on, and in the agenda area of this blog was a comment made at the Unitarians a few weeks ago, about an attractive female seen standing outside a New Wine church while many of her kind were going in to this place. It is not exactly the experience of a Unitarian church, and the Hull church has a side door.

(I'm grateful to Rachel blogging again on this subject to inspire me to comment, where she rates herself as fully into New Wine and its dispersal, also into Anglican (and other) evangelicalism despite a number not accepting women in leadership (and she was the only priested female present), and distant from the indaba-finding of difference and yet loving social commitment across Anglican Churches.)

The New Wine type church is sect-type or conversionist while trying to be anything but when it comes to contemporary culture. It is sometimes referred to as Third Wave because it is a born again Pentecostalism that connects with culture. New Wine is one of a number of such expressions, but it is denominationally a self-organising one. There are a number of theological individuals better known than others that have made contributions. One is John Wimber's Kingdom theology where God will act supernaturally to bring about a Kingdom through the believers as agents. Some of these signs and wonders were visible in the Toronto Blessing, in the 1990s, of animal-like behaviour, physical movements and uncontrollable laughter (apparently). In the 1970s at the Fuller Seminary in teh United States there was a deliberate conscious plan of combining fundamentalist type belief with sociological church growth insights that informed the New Wine movement, so that one of its most noted outcomes is the homogeneity of its gathered crowd - younger, tending to be middle class and with social aspiration. The fact that an attractive lass stands outside the door is no accident, though the origins of this may have been lost in the background detail. Not only was sociology used for church growth, but so was psychology: John White examined the revivals of the past and their psychology, with the intention of using such insights: the psychology of revival can be induced again via individuals.

To simplify all the above, the Kingdom theology and psychology is the belief that God works through the gathered individuals. There is thus a huge emphasis on the Holy Spirit as the collective driver of individual experience whilst, it would seem, the anchor is the retained biblical (more or less) literalism.

Some of its leaders and the Toronto Blessing have come in for ethical criticism, but the biggest criticism has been its claim to pull in new people. The bulk are people who have come from other churches. New Wine has been suspicious of research and its motivation from sociologists of religion despite its use (the use of which has been called Religious Sociology: with roots in French Catholic research for Church purposes). The potential for being regarded as socially deviant does not impress a group that is trying to have both its sectarian cake and eat it in an accepting public.

The question is how to understand the New Wine movement in terms of the various secularisation and pluralism and even postmodern hypotheses of life and meaning today. Clearly it is a non-structure structure, in the sense of both breaking free from existing formal Church structures as well as invigorating some congregations within Churches. It is clearly low barrier culturally - indeed it is an entertainment Church, drawing is mode of operation from the rock and pop culture, even dance culture in some cases, whilst then being high barrier for belief commitment including a previous culture of supernatural signs and wonders (and it would be interesting to see how individuals negotiate those - one way is to contact people who have left the movement to see how the juggled the demands made on them).

Most churches juggle these barriers. The Anglicans are, of course, all over the place. Some of the anglo-Catholic churches have a high cultural barrier when it comes to the speciality of ritual but low belief barrier in terms of what is required for acceptance in the congregation. Some post-evangelicals are attempting to lower the belief barriers in identifying the spirituality of low evangelism. In a liberal Church like the Unitarians or Quakers, there are very low belief barriers but high cultural barriers (plus behavioural for Quakers in their speciality of silence) - the surely realised view that the hymn sandwich is of the past and rather past its sell by date, and yet with no idea of what might replace it. Yes the newest book supplement has hymns more like songs, but it is a tweak on the whole. I like services where a central sermon is broken into fragments throughout the service, but again it is a minor change and not always relevant. Unitarianism isn't exactly New Age, and its future depends on how the liberal religious will circulate around the denominations. One might hope that the Church of England could shed a few as it seeks out homophobia and inequality, but if it ordains women as bishops it is more likely than not to get over this most difficult phase in its evolution.

Bizarrely, the more liberal Anglican also draws on the notion of the Holy Spirit: the one that reveals more, and different, the one that allows cultural and belief flexibility. It is not just the neo-Pentecostals. The point was put to me about Karl Barth after a lifetime's effort being a bit fed up with his own theological method, and what if he had moved on to do a theology of the Holy Spirit even from his perspective? It would definitely not be neo-Pentecostal, and imagine it running through the equivalents of say Hans Frei then: it couldn't then end up with a Lindbeck and his frozen Church culture of performance-recognition.

New Wine is not some fantastic outbreaking movement: it is simply a reordering of the Christian minority, and one that attempts to hold belief and the notion of signs and wonders while relaxing culture. The Internet has now levelled the playing field in terms of knowledge and outreach, so that Unitarians or liberal theologies in the mainstream will not be so unknown. Whether the shake-out will be thoroughgoing we wait and see, but the context of movements now are pluralistic choice, secularisation from old institutions, and ordinary and practical including technological ways of majority thinking that do not employ signs and wonders of the supernatural.

Assistance in materal from Hunt, S. J. 'Sociological Methodologies and the Changing Nature of Contemporary Fundamentalism' in Francis, L. J. (ed.) (1999), Sociology, Theology and the Curriculum, London: Cassell, 93-103.