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Affirming Instead Religion and Memory

Wednesday, October 12, 2016 23:24
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This is the new affirmation for Hull Unitarians. One preacher refused to say it despite being asked in advance (with an option to refuse), and I do not say it. It is based on a consultation, but the words have not been approved.

We gather as a caring spiritual community,
To help one another
And to seek meaning and direction in our lives
by exploring the vast reaches of our minds and spirit.

I do not like it for various reasons.

The first reason is we do not gather as a spiritual community, caring or otherwise. We gather because we agree on some principles, even a breadth of theology. The people there are not necessarily friends (some may become so), but others we try to get along with because they share certain views and stances. Some of these views and stances may include disagreements. The stances are something like a reasonable, somewhat rational, critical approach to religion, naturalism, liberty, and active toleration of difference, a preference for dialogue and debate over fractious division. These views come about because people are worthy of being upheld, where we value and do not price, and where we are capable and try against some difficult experience to be optimistic.

Nor do we gather in order to help one another. Helping others (including outsiders, indeed it should emphasise outsiders) is derived from the beliefs and stances. Faith and belief come before works, even if works are a way to measure the ethics of the faith and beliefs.

Thus it follows that we should already have some notion of meaning and direction in our lives, and that the gathering is a place to dialogue and debate these, and furthermore to find some sort of collective ritual commitment.

Now I wonder whether our minds and spirits have vast reaches. I’m not exploring the inside of my head, however much I use it. The preacher raised the issue of some disabled people, but of course in a theological sense they may have a vast reach of mind and spirit – but then one has a theological idea of this.

I absolutely dislike this whole emphasis of the ‘spiritual but not religious’, of which this is an expression.

The British Unitarian denomination, and any church within it, is an inheritor of the Presbyterian-Unitarian line, with several other inputs, such as General Baptist and Cookite Methodist. It has an identity and inheritance, partly Puritan, partly Enlightenment, partly Romantic too. As the sociologist Daniele Hervieu-Leger argues, religion has a chain of memory. Even if two or three are gathered, that chain of memory operates. It cannot be rewritten. It can have additions, and it can have memory losses (one of her concerns), but the institution ‘carries’ its characteristics. If you ignore them, they won’t ignore you.

This is not some sort of mystic hocus pocus, but the rationale of gathering that has worked layer upon layer through the ages, producing the characteristic that functions. It is with a language and a culture, one in relationship positive and negative with the environment in which it sits. People who been there and what they do in part inculturate people who come in.

The only way that a church can radically rewrite itself is if a lead person effectively loses the people who were there, or marginalises them to the edges, builds a new following (that agree with this stance) and also drops many of the prior rituals and thought-forms in the collective use of language that has taken place and evolved over decades. So there is a highly radical revolution.

The danger of this is the ‘cult’, as understood sociologically. A cult is a following that takes place around one leading person. When that person withdraws, the cult collapses.

Most examples I can think of are inappropriate to the discussion, and this matter is theoretical. But the ‘cult’ understood this way is a consequence of radical revolution and recruitment.

As regards Hull, recruitment has been limited. I maintain that Hull is extremely tough territory to run any kind of church. I know that evangelicals complain within the city of Hull that they do all the right things and yet cannot make the numbers.

The Unitarian congregation is tiny, but it has to be maintained, and slowly built. This means it has to evolve, and it means others are nurtured. And, in fact, they are. But the affirmation is misleading, because this is not what was implied in the discussion.

The problem is not that we gather as a spiritual community, but that it may not form as a community at all, because of individualism, and yet the discussion warmed to a Unitarian Universalist statement that did recognise its tradition and place as Unitarian Universalist. The danger is a purer individualism, and a dissent among dissent, none of which is ‘solved’ by some up front statement that ‘we gather as a spiritual community to help one another’.

What we do is come in as individuals, but the worship should use collective forms that create a sense of commitment and then community, in the sense of a mutual obligation that we do this together and we try to behave ethically to one another, and spread this out externally as a form of witness.

I realise that I am not in the driving seat, not have no claim to be even at the front of the car. The decision was taken to co-ordinate more and have such a ministry, and the ministry is entitled to build a strategy and definition. So I was there as part of approving the ministry and therefore want to see the direction produce some results: I’d like to be proven to be wrong.

I am further worried that within the chain of memory is the historical-theological content of the church and the denomination, and I argue that these should feature at the heart of the church’s activities and right there in the sermon. The sermon is a very important vehicle of the Unitarian witness. I know that this view is rejected. I am not prepared myself to have the intellectual as a kind of side-show, and in any case my only personal proposal regarding theology was for a more external very critical Christian ecumenical approach, and includes Unitarian stances as only part of the wider mix – as post-Christian theologies.

When given the opportunity I write about history and theology, but I am not going to propose substitution when it is excluded from the centre.

One of the practices I particularly dislike is the ‘theme’ for the month, done as something one might see in a Religious Education class in school, but which in a service starts to take on unpleasant side issues. This is where lots of single name ‘themes’ such as ‘love’, ‘sacrifice’, ‘dedication’, ‘caring’ etc. are put on strips of paper face down. By selecting them you produce your own theme and then a theme for the church for that month. Despite all the denials, this ritual takes on the side-show of magic, because no matter how rational one intends to be, the practice starts to replace probability with some sort of intent, some sort of given meaning. It does this because it is a ritual, and it is a misleading ritual. The nearest equivalent I can think of is the random opening of the Guru Granth Sahib for the daily reading, but then it is invested with the meaning from God; it is supernatural and fits in with the Sikh way. This theme-selecting ritual is divorced from anything else and is really Pagan-magical, and we could use Tarot cards after all. Anyone who looks into Tarot cards knows that they are utterly invented and have no historical background. But Pagan groups charge money for readings, as if something is happening.

There is also the issue of meditation in services. Of course there is a place for silence, and silent reflection, and it might even relate to Unitarian cousins the Quakers, but actual meditation is programmatic, and implies a belief that the mind can be trained and changed, and out of it can come actual non-attachment and personal peace. Now this is Buddhist belief, and that is fine, and also it is fine to pursue it programmatically and consistently, even persistently. But this is of another issue, not discussed as a basis for service content, as if we should just do it. The problem is that those who just ‘sit and be quiet’ do so when the leader of meditation is actually being quite noisy and prescriptive in what is taking place and some of the consequences. So the person sitting in silence is in fact not participating. Now, I am someone who has weekly gone to a Western Buddhist group in the past, and did it because what I was doing had a certain theory about it, and was done by dedicated ordained Buddhists. This is a different matter from going to a Unitarian church where this is not reasoned out, understood, shared: people do not come to Unitarian churches in order to be Buddhists, only that they have certain liberal and tolerant and rationalistic stances that lead to Buddhist understandings. There is a difference here.

Now this may be unsustainable. There simply aren’t the numbers who think religiously, who are liberal, and then want to join with others in the pursuit. It may well be that the ‘spiritual but not religious’ is today better understood. Good – well let’s see if this happens. I will be happy if it does, so long as there is a corner for someone like me.

I am Western religious, a humanist, someone who is non-realist regarding God, though allowing for the possibility of transcendence, with many signals of transcendence. I am liberal, but I also see the collective nature of culture and language – so much of language and communication forms experience. We are social animals with a library and knowledge of impending death. I practice this within the Presbyterian-Unitarian line that I seek to understand. My personal memory joins that collective memory. I am not interested in the ‘spiritual but not religious’ because, in fact, humans are made by institutions, in which one or more has religion, through which any ‘spiritual’ may or may not come.

The affirmation is simply speaking, dreadful, terrible, misleading, and magical thinking is something we ought to be resisting: not a situation where we gather spiritually and then some sorts of belief emerge. That is not how it goes: I am not arguing for tramlines but there are roads and there are directions.

Liberal and Thoughtful Website creator; critical examiner of social sciences and theology, religious liberal, ‘terror blogger’.


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