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02/09/2012

Unitarian Hope

Yesterday I stumbled upon Bill Darlison's blog, a retired minister who served at Dublin Unitarian Church and currently serves as Vice President of the General Assembly of Unitarians and Free Christians.

I read his two most recent posts ('Impossible Things' and 'Are Unitarians Really Radical Thinkers?') with interest and, although I of course recommend they are read in full, I have included some standout snippets below:

“...it seems to me increasingly strange that we can hold up to scrutiny the theological assumptions of our culture, while blithely and unquestioningly accepting its scientific dogmas.  The atheistic and humanistic mind-set of our time is predicated upon the tacit acceptance of scientific theories which are staggeringly improbable as they are generally presented to us, but which we never question because we have unconsciously invested their proponents with an authority which the popes and priests of old could only dream about.  We may be like Alice in matters of religion, but we are very much like the Queen when it comes to science.

… I think that we Unitarians have a duty to examine every dogma, no matter what its source.  We have no excuse for lazy thinking.”

And:

“We have simply ceased to be radical thinkers. Centuries ago our forebears stood up against the tyranny of the majority and, in many cases, risked penury and even death in order to be true to their principles. They wanted the freedom to think and to worship as their conscience dictated. We claim the same freedom, but, alas, we’ve started to think just like everyone else. In fact, we’ve taken on the prevailing intellectual dogmas of our age with hardly a whimper of protest. Richard Dawkins would probably be more welcome in many of our churches than the Archbishop of Canterbury.

…And God forbid that we should ever feel uncomfortable! Let’s not do anything in services which might cause someone even the slightest twinge of intellectual disquiet. Let’s not do anything new in case we offend the traditionalists. Let’s not sing a hymn which mentions God in case we offend the atheists. Let’s not say the Lord’s Prayer in case we offend the feminists. Let’s not even say the word ‘prayer’ without numerous caveats explaining that this is not a prescriptive term and is to be interpreted according to one’s own preferred definition. Is it any wonder that the only people we seem to be attracting are ‘difficult’, inflexible people who are only too ready to find something to be offended by?

…If we persist with our current decaffeinated, bland inoffensiveness we are doomed.”

Personally speaking, I think he is insightful about the intellectual / theological state of Unitarianism (and by connection, Free Christianity) in Britain & Ireland and, as much as I can say from this side of the water, Unitarian-Universalism across the Atlantic. I think he touches on important questions about the nature - and authenticity - of Unitarianism's claim to be a voice of religious radicalism and the voice of religious liberalism (by this I mean rational inquiry matched with an interest in the mystical, the encouraging of debate, a pledge not to try impose uniformity of thinking, placing primacy on equality and democracy, a passion for social justice). I happen to think the dual torch of religious radicalism and religious liberalism (in many ways a delicate balancing act) has been taken up in parts of many of the churches traditionally viewed as irrevocably conservative, most noticeably via the Progressive Christian and Emerging Church movements.

With regards to the specific issue of the 'Leather and Grace' article controversy (which Bill Darlison touches upon in his 'Are Unitarians Really Radical Thinkers?' post) from the August 2012 issue of The Unitarian (which I have not been able to readily get a copy of, having been withdrawn by the local congregation) and discussed further in the September 2012 issue (which I have read), I share the same view (as much as I can, having not been able to read the original article) expressed by one of the commenters on Bill Darlison's blog - that it resembles a Monty Python sketch. For me it's not a question of whether the links between sex and spirituality should be discussed - of course they should - but it is a case of how it is being handled, and the commentary in the September 2012 issue had a comedy rather than philosophical value (I say this as graciously as possible, acknowledging I may just not 'get' its seriousness).

And the sad fact is other churches such as one I know of affiliated with the Church of England and Baptist Union - which I guess many Unitarians would probably instinctively regard as regressive - were positively discussing sex and spirituality some years ago. Discussion prompted by Rob Bell's 'Sex God' book, a weighty yet highly-readable theological work, not the badly written spiced-up Mills and Boon that '50 Shades of Grey' ultimately is. But therein lies part of the problem - many Unitarians seem to have tuned out of this growing radical current within Christianity, either simply not knowing it exists or, I suspect, actively not wanting to know because it challenges their post-Christian agenda.

Certainly Bill Darlison speaks to my condition, to pinch a Quaker phrase, when it comes to Unitarianism. And it's heartening to read he is due to become President of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christians in 2013.

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