SoF and the Unitarian Tradition

David Dulley, a retired lawyer and author of the "Mona" books, contributed this article to the UK SoF magazine shortly before his death in mid-1997

Unitarians began centuries ago as protesters against the illogicalities of the Christian dogma of the undivided Trinity and we have our heroes and even martyrs. But history has put us in the pigeon-hole labelled "Dissent". The controversies out of which our denomination grew now seem meaningless or idiotic to most people; and what could be less inspiring than mere dissent? Yet we survive. In the United Kingdom there are probably more than 5,000 full members and a few thousand "attenders" who come and go as the mood takes them, or as the local group changes.

There are also a few hundred isolated members who keep in touch by writing or through our magazines or our Internet site.

Why have we not turned to dust in our pigeon hole, and what have we now to offer? My own answer after ten years of "attending" and another ten of membership is that we are a religious bran-tub at which one can pick or reject as one likes, uniquely valuable now, when politically powerful religious fundamentalists are so ready to destroy each other, and the rest of us if necessary, for the sake of their certainties.

We don't do much religious dissenting nowadays and we need a new label. Perhaps "Religious Free-Thinkers" would be the best. We are non-credal in the sense that we can "believe" anything or nothing; but we differ from secular free-thinkers who take the observable and understandable universe as their datum and distrust those who try to look beyond it. Daphne Hampson, not a Unitarian as far as I know, expresses what religious free-thinkers have in common -- and it is a very strong bond -- very neatly: "There is more to reality than meets the eye". More ponderously, we recognize a spiritual dimension or space in our cosmos. Most of us would agree with Karen Armstrong, summing up a long line of thought beginning apparently with Parmenides twenty-five centuries ago, that it is very odd that anything at all should exist, and that this sense of mystery is the origin and the basis of valid contemporary religious experience.

This freedom to believe or disbelieve was not really threatened when in 1928 we joined forces with the followers of James Martineau and became "The General Assembly of Unitarians and Free Christians". I do not know from what chain-gangs Martineau had liberated his Christians but the result is that we have among us people who are glad to call themselves Christians but reluctant to join any specifically and exclusively Christian church. They don't expect the rest of us to be Christians, though I think most of us, "Free" Christians or not, regard Jesus, so far as he can be seen through the fog that surrounds the records, as the greatest of all religious teachers. Many of us also think that the word "God" has ceased to be a useful tool of discourse save as a synonym for love in the widest sense, and that in this widest sense there was more of God in Jesus than in anyone else.

The Punishing God, the all-good, all-powerful and also all-knowing Creator of the Universe, is by definition a logical absurdity and a fabulous monster. He would have been free to create anything he wanted, and would inevitably have foreseen all its consequences; but nevertheless he created a planet on which pain and misery, whose reality we cannot evade or deny, flourish exceedingly. The extinction as a credible entity of this monstrous God is essential to the survival of a world endangered by religious intolerance; and it is not surprising that many intelligent people now regard religion as a mere pest, an unholy muddle of priests, sin and hell which survives through its power to blackmail us by trading on our fears for the future, in this world or any other.

But if we accept the secularist view that religion and God are words to be forgotten except as awful warnings of how our minds can take wrong turnings, we have no safeguard against the short-termism and mindless selfishness which makes a nightmare from which we may never wake. Where else except among the Unitarians can we find the recognition of the essence of religion combined with complete freedom? All other religious institutions, even if they are creedless, seem artificially constrained in some way, even if only by custom, authority, or "holier-than-thouishness". We have ministers to preach, take services and help the members as best they can; but none of them would claim the authority of the priest or shaman with his special relationship to the numinous. It is not a job to attract the careerist, and in my experience they generally have a more than average degree of insight, genuine humility and altruism. There are more congregations than ministers, who often serve several congregations.

"God as love and not as Creative Monster" is not an easy notion to preach. It is explicit in Christianity and implicit in all humane religions, but it is untidy, inconvenient and dangerous, often difficult to disentangle from its enemies: cruelty, hate and jealousy. However, it is the only indestructible signpost we have. It points to a wide and continuous spectrum, with mystical ecstasy at one end, cheerful but kind procreation somewhere in the middle, and at the other end that happiness which Gerd Sommerhof, the distinguished humanist who collaborated with Medawar on the relation of mind and brain, must have been thinking of when he wrote: "I regard the doctrinal recognition of the power of love to bring order out of chaos as a milestone in the history of human civilisation".

"Love is in and out of Time", as Tennyson wrote. It is not only professional mystics who can get glimpses of its power to over-ride the limits of time and space. Through it we can occasionally perceive the possibility of a timeless universe in which consciousness of oneness, of one's isolated self, vanishes and a more vivid life replaces everyday living. Most of us would settle for that as Heaven.

There is a lot in all this to disturb the credal religions, but nothing to disturb, and much to encourage, the religious free-thinker. Unitarians are free from the doctrinal, and to some extent from the organisational and customary, straitjackets which are strangling the grand religions, save when some formidable personality or some racial, economic or political situation gives them a dangerous popularity.

The lack of dogma doesn't leave us in a void. Love, especially at Dr. Somerhof's end of the spectrum, is in the thick of the sharpest social, economic problems, local and national. Peace, for instance, involves the removal of the causes of war, such as the increasing gap between rich and poor and the reduction in the exponential growth of the world's human population. The religion of love cannot turn its back on such issues. It can hope to raise the level of controversy, and reduce its brutality, often at great sacrifice.

This is just one English person's view of Unitarians and their function and it ignores the wider world. There are long-established congregations in Eastern Europe -- there was once a Unitarian King in Transylvania -- who have maintained their traditions through centuries of persecution; and there are much newer groups in Western Europe, Australia and Africa. By far the largest numbers, about 300,000, are in North America. They are certainly religious free-thinkers, and mostly label themselves Unitarian Universalists, referring to an early nineteenth-century conviction that eternal damnation was nonsensical blackmail and salvation universal, for everybody. We in England have benefited greatly from the visits and settlements over here of American ministers and members. We have always been an argumentative denomination; and there is a creative culture-clash between American triumphalism and admiration for personal success and the British respect for democratic debate, however long-winded and our tendency to look for a burrow in the past and make a nest there.

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