Thursday, 27 September 2007

The Universal Word by Nels F. S. Ferré

Connected with things liberal Unitarian/Christian and Pan[en]theistic (that covers a few bases!) this morning I was having another look at a book I found very interesting when I first came across it some ten years ago called The Universal Word by Nels F. S. Ferré. He's one of those thinkers that seems to have sliped off the radar. Anyway this little post is simply to direct you to an interesting on-line paper called Living toward the age of Unimunity written by his son and younger daughter. It might trigger a few useful new connections for someone . . .

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Improve the campsite, teach children, oust tyrants

Address given at the Memorial Church (Unitarian) Cambridge
23 September 2007
Revd Andrew James Brown

This afternoon, following this service, there will be the naming and blessing of ****. In this ceremony, to which all are invited, we 'celebrate life’s continual renewal' and we will welcome her 'to life’s larger community, seeking God’s blessing upon her.’ In the service I remind the parents that, in 'seeking the welcoming and blessing of their child they dedicate themselves to the fullest development of Isabel’s unique potential; and, in seeking for her the blessing of our free faith and the Universal Church, they pledge to encourage in her, to the best of their ability, the love of truth, the vision of peace and the sense of belonging to one human family. The blessing itself is as follows:

'In the name of God we welcome you to the human family and to the earth, our common home. We welcome you with water, symbol of the purity with which you were born; and with a flower, symbol of the beauty which is yours. May God bless you as we bless you, and may the divine spirit in your heart guide you, comfort you and strengthen you all the days of your life. Amen.’

Now one might say many things about such a service that is of general interest but today I am going to concentrate on one over-arching theme. If you really do hold a genuine Unitarian conception that God is One then, as I have mentioned before, a profound inter-connectedness of all things - and I really do mean all things - becomes increasingly apparent. It forces one to think in a very deep and ecological way. What I am talking about is called Deep Ecology because I am concerned here to stress that an integral part of the ecosphere includes the asking and answering of fundamental philosophical questions about the role of human life. A shallow ecology is simply a branch of the biological sciences or a merely utilitarian environmentalism.

Now the initial spiritual insight that God is One and that there is, in some way, a profound connectedness between God and Creation we owe in the first instance to the man Jesus who was, as we know, a faithful Jew. It was and is incumbent upon every practising Jew to recite daily what is known as the Shema which begins: 'Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength’ - to which Jesus wisely added the other well known Jewish command to love one’s neighbour as oneself. Thought of in a shallowly ecological way one’s neighbour has consistently been conceived as primarily being related only to people but, as we begin increasingly to understand the complex inter-relatedness of all life on the planet as well as the extraordinary inter-relatedness that exists in the quantum realm - the discovery that non-locality seems to be real is a prime example - then in truth there is nothing that is not one’s neighbour. Jesus’ mystical utterances in the Gospel of John at the end of chapter 17 that everything, he, you and me are one with God is beginning to sound not only spiritual plausible - to a unitarian at least - but also scientifically plausible. It also begins to sound like Deep Ecology.

Here I need to add a little excursus. When I talk about a unitarian (lower case U) conception of God I am not referring only to Unitarians (upper case U - many of whom, confusingly, are not unitarians in any technical sense of the word) but to any group or person that conceives of God as One. This includes, most obviously, Judaism and Islam, but it also includes certain kinds of Hindu thought - namely Advaita or non-dualism - and, depending on what you mean by that tricky word God, it can extend into certain kinds of Buddhism and Taoism.

So what DO I mean by that tricky word God!? After all I mention God all the time and don’t always explain what mean by it - a bad habit practiced by most ministers of religion. Well, there are at least two basic types of unitarianism (lower case U). The first one, the classical theistic one (to which I personally do not subscribe - though you may of course, its perfectly legitimate!) is that there is God on the one hand and, on the other, there is Creation. The two, though intimately linked, are understood to be separate. The second unitarianism is much more radical and it is to this view that I subscribe. In this view God is Nature and Nature is God - in Spinoza’s memorable phrase, Deus sive Natura. Western philosophy and radical religion gets this in its most developed form through Spinoza, though we see the same idea regularly pop up from time to time within radical Christian groups across Europe from at least the fifteenth century onwards. A good English example would be Gerrard Winstanley - a fine and interesting man. Whilst mystical forms of Judaism, Unitarian Christianity and Islam have no problem with this pantheistic/panentheistic way of thinking orthodox forms most certainly do. Anyway since Deus sive Natura has nothing to do with a personal creator God but is more to do with the idea of the Divine Unity, the Absolute, the Ground of Being, Ultimate reality or reality in itself - call it what you will - this is what allows me to say that it also connects with Buddhism and Taoism neither of which holds any theistic personalistic conceptions of God. Right excursus over, and anyone interested in following up these very suggestive leads please ask me.

So back to ****'s naming and blessing. In this service, and I trust in this morning’s reflection upon the themes of that service, we consciously acknowledge that we belong to this unified reality - Deus sive Natura - in a way more intimate than we often think because our language and place in the world mean we have concepts such as knower and known, object and perceiver. The service - in fact all the services I try to conduct – is simply trying to use the language of particularity to point to this underlying unity of all things.

Now, if I were offering you this address from the perspective of a sloppy and sentimental new-ager then I would end right now in an ecstasy of pink fluffy cotton-wool oneness. But I’m not and the oneness of which I speak doesn’t only bring a message of deep comfort and belonging - though I certainly believe it does that - it also brings with it a realisation that there are some tough and dirty duties to undertake in existence that entails real work and, alas, real suffering and sacrifice. Eco-warrior, Buddhist and Beat poet Gary Snyder calls us up sharply when he notes:

To be truly free one must take on the basic conditions as they are – painful, impermanent, open, imperfect – and then be grateful for impermanence and the freedom it grants us. For in a fixed universe there would be no freedom. With that freedom we improve the campsite, teach children, oust tyrants. The world is nature, and in the long run inevitably wild, because the wild, as the process and essence of nature, is also an ordering of impermanence.
(Gary Snyder in The Practice of the Wild in the Gary Snyder Reader, Counterpoint Washington D.C. 1999, p. 168)

Although free as intimate aspects of Deus sive Natura we are not, therefore, free with regard to our stewardship of the whole including our children and the ecosystem which sustains them, us and all things – No! we must engage with the ordering of impermanence. This, more than incidentally, is what Jesus was teaching when he said if we are to be first, and by implication free, we must be servants and so last (Mark 10:42-45). So, those of us who really believe in the Unity of God or Nature and our freedom in it really have no choice but to get off our proverbial backsides and start improving the campsite, teaching our children and ousting tyrants.

We improve the campsite, our world, by an ever greater commitment to a more sustainable way of living and by radically reducing our consumption of the world’s natural resources. It really does matter and, because you are an intimate part of the whole, what you do always counts. Don’t take the car if you can walk, cycle or get there by public transport. Put a jumper on - don’t turn on the heating straight away. Don’t fly unless absolutely necessary and really don’t be seduced by budget airline prices. Buy fairly traded foods and try as if your life depended on it, which it does, to shop locally to keep those food miles down. You know all the things that need to be done just as I do. We cannot do them all at once but if we are going to clean up the campsite we must take the first step and then the second and third will come easier. It’s going to be hard for us all. Don’t think by the way that I am some perfect example of the eco-saint, this address is directed at me as much as it is any of you.

We oust tyrants - well, by ousting them. That’s never easy and sometimes costly in all sorts of ways. I understand there are complex political realities which sometimes slow this process down but in the end there are no excuses for endless inaction. But we must not limit the meaning of the word tyrant to the obvious for there are also many tyrannical ideologies that must be ousted - fundamentalisms of all the world’s religions and also of certain forms of secularism. They, too, must go.

To conclude I would like to reflect on the message of one of Gary Snyder’s poems called "For the Children" from "Turtle Island":

The rising hills, the slopes,
of statistics
lie before us.
the steep climb
of everything going up,
up, as we all
go down.

In the next century
or the one beyond that,
they say,
are valleys, pastures,
we can meet in peace
if we make it.

To climb these coming crests
one word to you, to
you and your children:

stay together
learn the flowers
go light

So we must also teach our children by encouraging them to stay together, to learn the flowers and to go light. By 'staying together’ I think he means in part learning what it is to be an individual, with all one’s individual distinct qualities, but always knowing this in community - in relationship with one’s neighbour which, as I said earlier means everything - Deus sive Natura!

By 'learning the flowers’ I think he means in part taking profound notice of what we commonly call the natural world seeing both its beauty and experiencing an associated joy as well as seeing spiritually and scientifically its deep and mysterious structure and inter-relatedness. So it is at heart an encouragement to develop both a gentle unitarian philosophy (lower case U) and to engage in rigorous scientific search. As Spinoza wisely said: 'the more we understand singular things, the more we understand God’ (E5p24).

By 'going light’ I think he means in part living in such a way that when you die there is no blasted and dead landscape where you raped the earth, no pile of refuse where you couldn’t be bothered to clean up after you, no system of religious or political oppression that you put in place or supported. If we go light our most valuable bequest to the world will be to leave no traces in the universe except love, wisdom and compassion. As Snyder also observed, 'Nature’ [which I, of course, also take to mean Deus] 'is not a place to visit, it is home’ (Gary Snyder in The Practice of the Wild in the Gary Snyder Reader, Counterpoint Washington D.C. 1999, p. 169).

So when I name and bless **** this afternoon what I am doing, apart from simply conducting a naming and blessing, is also calling everyone present home to a radical, politically engaged and deeply ecological way of life. If in our freedom we love our children, truly love them, then we have no choice but to get our hands dirty in loving each other, and God which is to say Nature, our home, in all her wild fullness, beauty and joy. To that life, that 'ordering of impermanence’, I call you. Coming? Amen.

Thursday, 20 September 2007

Avignon Manifesto (Manifeste d'Avignon) in English

I post here the English translation of the Manifeste d'Avignon. The photo here shows the Manifesto working party (left to right): Jean-Claude Barbier, Paola Zunino, Dr. Roberto Rosso, Susanna Brown and myself outside the Hotel Bristol in Avignon during August 2007.

The Avignon Manifesto, 17 August 2007, 
on behalf of Unitarian Christian associations
“ In order that Unitarianism preserves its position 
amongst Christians throughout the world ”

Since the 1990s, "Unitarian Christian associations have multiplied: the Unitarian Christian Association (UCA, founded in 1991), l’Assemblée fraternelle des chrétiens unitariens (AFCU, 1996), l’Assemblée des chrétiens unitariens du Burundi (ACUB, 2002), la Congregazione italiana cristiano unitariana (CICU, 2004), et l’Assemblée des chrétiens unitariens du Congo (ACUC, 2004). They are contributing to the growth of Unitarianism in countries where previously this tradition did not exist. The last four of these groups were recognised as ‘emerging groups’ by the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU) in April 2006.

This manifesto is neither a creed nor a confession of faith but the result of a process of reflection in order that these new associations can position themselves in relation to our historic churches and congregations which exist in Transylvania, Hungary, Great Britain and the United States of America on the one hand and, on the other, in relation to Unitarian-Universalism, which presents itself as a new religion detached from its Christian roots.

This positioning is made in a positive and constructive manner and is complementary to the forms of Unitarianism already in existence; in no way is it in opposition to them. But it should be explained clearly and distinctly in order to avoid being presented in a confusing, evasive, not to say ambiguous, way. We are perfectly aware that the diversity of contemporary Unitarianism is a valuable resource but this diversity should not, in any fashion, be confused or give the impression that it is lax theologically and without any points of reference.

Born out of the anti-Trintarian currents at the heart of the Protestant reforms of the sixteenth century, Unitarianism is a movement which has its origin in Christianity characterised by:

  • A radical monotheistic theology (God is One) which implies a rejection of the dogma of the Trinity and that of the Incarnation; even if we think that God dwelt fully in Jesus, a condition we are all invited to experience, Jesus remains a man like us all.
  • Jesus' teaching, as it has been transmitted to us by the evangelists, the other texts of the New Testament, and by the contribution of some of the apocryphal gospels, for example the Gospel of Thomas.
  • An acceptance of reason and scientific progress, notably modern exegesis and the discoveries of first century archeology which have allowed us to understand better who Jesus really was.
  • An affirmation of freedom of thought and the rejection of all imposed dogma.
  • Episcopalian (found in presbyterian/synodical forms), congregational, or even associational styles of organisation in which each Church or local community is free to choose its own direction and develop relationships with other communities.

Unitarian Christians affirm their solidarity with their historic Churches which have maintained this faith. Notably, they have the greatest respect for the Hungarian-speaking Churches which they feel, are worthy of the same order of consideration as that accorded to the Jews by Paul in his Epistle to the Romans (1:16) and John of Patmos in Revelation (7:4-9). The deep respect held for these churches' seniority is voluntary and filial; it is not at all subservient nor is it an obligatory duty. Moreover, these historic Churches demand no such deference.

Christian worship is not limited to discourse (sermons, preaching, meditations, etc.) even if it is very interesting and eloquent. Worship is neither a lecture nor a discussion club. The assembly addresses God (or uses an equivalent term); praises him as creator of the world; thanks him for the life which he has given us; it is in this sense a Thanksgiving.

Christian worship is also the opportunity to reproduce the precise actions of Jesus which are significant for our faith and which have been adopted by our tradition: baptism and the The Lord's Supper (in French le partage du pain et du vin), to which one can add the historic gestures of feet washing, anointment with oil, the laying on of hands, etc. On its own, the lighting of a candle cannot replace these rituals. Our ceremonies should not be diluted or rendered insipid under the pretext of modernisation or by attempting to make them accessible to the greatest number of people.

Because God has already given us life and all his grace we do not think that the sacraments will give us additional rewards. These acts simply connect us to our spiritual master, Jesus, whom we love and to whom we wish to be faithful. They establish a fraternal spirit amongst us and invite us to love all people.
Further to these Christian rites, it is well understood that each community will find other modes of spiritual expression which suit them.

When Unitarian Christians find themselves in multi-faith meetings (in French assemblées composite) where there are agnostics and non-believers for whom Christian rituals no longer have any significance, they can invite all to share in the spiritual traditions of those present. In this case, each person can present what is meaningful for them; Christians can offer bread and wine in the sense found in the Didache: the fruit of the earth and of the work of humankind.

Likewise, they can offer the Flower Communion as created in 1923 by the Czech minister Norbert Čapek, or the lighting of our chalice (explaining its historic significance as a symbol of liberty and of resistance in the context of Nazism).

Unitarianism has at its disposal a theology, a history, a tradition both spiritual and cultural, and its own rituals (the flaming chalice and the Flower Communion). We are extremely proud of this and have no reason at all to abandon the field of Christianity which saw the birth of our movement. On the contrary, we should collaborate with all other Christians who wish to construct a modern Christianity with a liberal spirit more faithful to its origins. As such, we launch a pressing appeal to European Unitarian Christians to actively participate in the European Liberal Protestant Network (ELPN).In reaffirming a radical monotheism (God is One), Unitarian Christianity allows the establishment of theologically continuous relations with Judaism and Islam. The major obstacle to inter-religious dialogue with these religions lies, in effect, in the divinisation of Jesus.

During the twentieth century, some Unitarian congregations decided that a belief in Christianity (One God and reference to the teachings of Jesus) was no longer a prerequisite for the recruitment of new members. These assemblies have thus become progressively multi-faith (hétérogènes). It is because of this that Unitarians who remain faithful to their original tradition call themselves "Unitarian Christians." (Previously this was a tautology because all Unitarians were Christians.) In order to remove ambiguity about our faith and for clarity's sake we recommend the use of this name.

Unitarian-Universalism presents itself as a new religion which concentrates on immediate universal approaches to the concept of religion. We share with it many things, notably the first part of our history (up to the American thinker William Ellery Channing), our reference to Michael Servetus (his work and his martyrdom), our solidarity with the Transylvanian Unitarian Church, the Unitarian rituals of the Flower Communion and the flaming chalice and our liberal conception of the Christian religion and other sources of religion, etc. We have to establish solid and friendly partner relationships with Unitarian-Universalists, as is already the case within the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU). The same attitude advised in whichever country a UU communinity exists.

The ICUU was founded in 1995 from three spiritual families: Unitarianism (including our historic Churches and Unitarian Christian associations); Universalism (namely the sphere of influence which was that of the Universalist Church, a Christian Church in the United States between 1779 and 1961); and, lastly, Unitarian-Universalism (created in 1961 by the merger of American Unitarian congregations and the Universalist Church). Those Unitarian Christians and historic churches remaining faithful to the origins of Unitarianism in the sixteenth-century form an important part of this whole and intend to preserve their own identity. Respectful dialogue and fruitful exchange is conditional on the avoidance of any confusion and ambiguity as well as any cultural and religious imperialism. For this reason, we ask that ICUU should be written with an 'and' (i.e. Unitarians and Universalists), and not with a hyphen (in French), nor with an asterisk.

The ICUU is an entirely appropriate meeting space and Unitarian Christians intend to participate in it with complete loyalty. It would be a mistake to envisage a separate international organisation reserved solely for Unitarian Christians. Likewise, all our activities are open to Unitarians of all kinds.

As the ELPN has existed since 1998, it makes sense for European Unitarian Christians to make the most of this network so as to meet and consult with each other more easily and maintain close relations with their liberal Protestant friends.

We hope that all believers and humanists around the world will participate in the advent of inter-convictional societies where liberty of conscience prevails and not just a single system of thought, where the mutual benefits of engagement with each other rather than forced encounters are recognised, where laity and democracy (necessary for dialogue that is free from any kind of fanaticism) are found, and where respect for life and our environment exist so that we can pass on a better world to future generations. We Unitarian Christians can contribute joyfully to a creation, made by God at the beginning of time, still growing, ever progressing and moving towards greater fellowship, the bearer of understanding and love.

English translation by Susanna and Andrew Brown with Marie-Claire Lefeuvre