The Edict of Torda, Francis David, Arne Naess and a distinctive way to do liberal religion (far more than just a history lesson . . .)

Revd Pap Maria
On Friday Andrew Bethune (the Vice-Chair of the Memorial Church) and I went to Nottingham for the day to our family of churches' General Assembly. One of the people with whom I met for the first time in a few years was the Revd Pap Maria a minister of the Hungarian Unitarian Church (HUC). Maria and I had studied together at Oxford in 1999 and she also came to stay for a while with Susanna and me at our home in Suffolk during the long vacation. This time together provided us with plenty of opportunity both to get to know each other very well at a personal level and to engage in some in-depth theological conversations especially relating to the contemporary challenges facing our respective communities. It was in conversation with Maria in Oxford all those years ago that I began to be able to articulate the basic stance I offer in this address and for her wisdom insights in this area I am profoundly grateful. On Friday, as we said goodbye to each other, with typical Hungarian generosity, she gave me a present for Susanna and also one for me. Susanna can show you her's a little later on but mine was the lovely copy of the Edict of Torda which reads as follows:

His majesty, our Lord, in what manner he, together with his realm, legislated in the matter of religion at the previous Diets, in the same matter now, in this Diet, reaffirms that in every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well. If not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied, but they shall be permitted to keep a preacher whose teaching they approve. Therefore none of the superintendents or others shall abuse the preachers, no one shall be reviled for his religion by anyone, according to the previous statutes, and it is not permitted that anyone should threaten anyone else by imprisonment or by removal from his post for his teaching. For faith is the gift of God and this comes from hearing, which hearing is by the word of God.

King János Zsigmond Zápolya of Hungary
Torda, January, 1568.

Plaque in the Cambridge Church memorial garden
This document was primarily the work of the HUC's first Bishop, Ferenc Dávid (c.1510–1579) (Francis David). As you know every one of our orders of service and our memorial garden is graced with his words that "We need not think alike to love alike." The HUC primarily gathered around Francis David's deeply held belief that God was One and that Jesus was human. But this was, and is not, simply to say that Jesus was *just* human for, as their current catechism says, when as a community they say they "believe in Jesus" these words express their "conviction that Jesus is the greatest child and prophet of God, and his teaching is the surest way by which we can come to a real knowledge of God." Following Jesus in this fashion they felt they had, and still have, a reliable guide to how they should behave in the world. One of the key behaviours they feel they have learnt from Jesus is that "We need not think alike to love alike." The foremost example of this teaching is, of course, found in Jesus' story of the Good Samaritan which we heard earlier. Here's how they currently sum up this insight:

"The very essence of Unitarianism is religious tolerance and a consistently firm attitude in support of liberty of conscience. Francis David constantly emphasized that religion must be free, that in question of faith there is no place for compulsion and that the spreading the Gospel (God's words) requires no weapons or violence, because Faith is the gift of God. In other words, Unitarianism is inseparably bound up with freedom of conscience and faith. There is no greater mindlessness and absurdity than to force conscience and the spirit with external power, when only their creator has authority over them."

But it is important to understand that this openness and tolerance of difference arise from a community that most certainly did, and still does, "think alike". As you have just heard they have a catechism, the contents of which their children must learn before confirmation and their first communion. We need, therefore, to understand how it is possible, even though as a community they "think alike" they were and are able understand to articulate so strongly how and why they are absolutely committed to the idea that "we need not think alike to love alike." A misunderstanding of this dynamic between thinking alike and not needing to think alike lies at the heart of so much of the damaging confusion that exists in so many of our own contemporary British Unitarian and Free Christian communities. So what's going on here?

Well, the best illustration of this dynamic at work I know of is to be found in the Deep Ecology Movement. Deep Ecology is "a contemporary ecological philosophy distinguished by its advocacy of the inherent worth of living beings regardless of their instrumental utility to human needs." One of its founders was the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess (1912–2009) who formulated a diagram which showed how the Deep Ecology movement (which was made up of many people with a huge variety of beliefs) could meaningfully act together.

(Those of you who have attended the Wednesday Evening Conversations and or other informal meetings down the pub will know I often draw this diagram to illustrate some point or another. To the right is my pub sketch - just click on it to enlarge or right click to download the image. Being able to refer to it as you go along will help what follows make sense!)

So let's start at the bottom with level 1. Here you can see just a few of the perhaps almost countless religious and philosophical positions and communities that exist in the world. Although many of them will overlap and interpenetrate with each other it is vital to see that none of them can be absolutely reduced to or completely comprehended by any other. For example, it should be clear that you cannot reduce Islam to Christianity nor vice versa. At this level there is a great deal of disagreement.

Let's move up to level 2. Despite these fundamental differences we are all aware that these very different groups are capable of articulating ideas that can begin to show up as forming the basis for "common platforms." Notable examples of these include, the United Nations, Hans Küng's "Global Ethic", Karen Armstrong's "Charter for Compassion", Médecins Sans Frontières, Greenpeace, our secular democracies, the National Health Service and many others. But, for the purposes of this address, I'll stick to a fictional ecological example, say the protecting of "Foresty Forest". Let's also say that this fictional forest lies at the heart of a wider civic community made up of a variety of religious and secular groups all of whom in some key areas think very differently to each other. However, despite these fundamental, irreducible level 1 differences, many of the groups in this wider community all begin to articulate the desire to save "Foresty Forest" from being cut down and redeveloped and so a common platform develops "Save Foresty Forest." At level 2 there is, of course, a great deal of agreement.

Let's now move to level 3. Here the various groups involved in the common platform now have to sit down to discuss how best to proceed. Each group, rooted in and acting out of their own fundamental beliefs, will have developed, often over centuries, certain deeply held norms and values which help guide them in engaging in appropriate "right" actions. Let's now say that one group decides to suggest that the best way to stop "Foresty Forest" being cut down is to spike the trees. Tree-spiking is when you drive into the trunk of a tree metal, or mostly ceramic, spikes. This doesn't harm the tree itself but it does do two other things. One, for obvious reasons, it instantly reduces the commercial value of the timber and, two, it wrecks any chainsaw that happens to strike a spike. The problem with this second consequence is that a violently disintegrating chainsaw can cause serious injury to the operator. Naturally because of this there are many philosophies and religious positions whose norms and values will rule tree-spiking out of court. At level 3 there is often, as with level 1, a lot of disagreement here and you can easily imagine the kind of heated and difficult conversations that might follow the tabling of this proposal. However, here, let's simply say that the majority decide that tree-spiking is the way to go even though a couple of groups feel they have to resign from the common-platform.

So now we move to level 4. Action. The trees are spiked and . . . well you can imagine the various scenarios that could follow including success with no injury, success but with an injured or killed chainsaw operator, failure with or without injury and a variety of other more complex outcomes.

The point is that once the action has been derived via a journey from core beliefs, through common-platforms, through an intense discussion concerning norms and values, the consequences of the action demand a further process of philosophical and theological reflection by going back down through the levels (see arrow on right of diagram). What ever the final outcome every group involved has to ascertain whether the action upheld their norms and values, was true to the aim of the common-platform and, lastly, whether it was consistent with their core beliefs and principles? During every journey through this process some change within a group nearly always occurs as it becomes clear that some ideas need to be held more firmly, some more loosely, whilst some may need to be modified or more subtly nuanced, and so on.

But when this process is working at its best it does not result in the reduction of one set of fundamental religious or philosophical beliefs to another. Rather, firstly, it helps those different groups better to work together at the level of common platforms. Secondly, this better, practical working relationship (i.e. which is a kind of "loving alike"), has the beneficial side-effect of helping these very different groups sit better with their basic differences and disagreements (i.e. it helps a group see,say and mean that "we need not think alike to love alike").

One particular advantage of this approach is that, to use what is I hope an appropriate parallel, it keeps the genetic pool of human thought and action healthily large - different and often helpful perspectives, as well as subtle different nuances of meanings, are kept alive and, therefore, at least potentially accessible to human kind.

The point of all this is that it helps all level 1 communities (whether big or small) see that they most effectively express their liberalism by committing to common platforms and to a public secular space in which these shared platforms can be articulated and acted upon. This means that their commitment to a liberal society doesn't require them to be excessively internally plural and open themselves to every kind of belief and philosophical position. This means - and I want to shout this out loud to my own group of liberal churches:


The Hungarian Unitarian Church is a perfect example of an historic liberal church that knows this truth deeply - it is clearly Unitarian Christian and nothing else yet it consistently articulates a coherent religious liberalism. This is something that I am profoundly grateful to Maria for showing me. (Please click here to read Maria speak herself on a connected topic.)

But, for all our deep connections with the Hungarian Unitarian Church we at the Memorial Church are not exactly what they are - we have a very different history and culture. But we do, of course have our own core liberal Christian identity found, in summary, in the texts contained in our order of service. But it's a stand which I, and our minister emeritus Frank Walker, think is perhaps best and most fully expressed in John F. Hayward's 1962 (alas out-of-print) book "Existentialism and Religious Liberalism".

But any religious or philosophical community goes seriously wrong whenever it seeks - whether consciously or not - to colonise level 2 and pretend it is *itself* the common platform. There are countless historical examples of such attempts from obviously illiberal positions - for example Nazism, Stalinism, neo-liberalism, various theocracies and many others. But it is often forgotten that liberal religion often sins greatly in this regard. Here is how a misreading of Francis David's words can contribute to this.

Whenever a *liberal* religious group starts to think that the phrase "we need not think alike to love alike" refers not only to the wider, secular context but to itself as being a perfect model and precursor of an ideal universal inclusive, highly pluralistic common platform, then that community very quickly begins to lose its own coherence and strength. It very quickly finds that it can no longer agree on what are its shared rituals nor  what is its shared religious, moral, ethical language, its shared disciplines, norms and values. Consequently, it is no longer able to bring to the common table of secular society its own distinctive, nuanced ideas, positions or insights that can contribute creatively to a healthily wide human gene-pool. Neither can it any longer dialogue meaningfully with another group because it can no longer properly recognise, nor can it deal creatively and life-enhancingly with, real human differences of belief and praxis - of which there are many. All this may be summed up in the wonderful joke sometimes told about us. It goes like this: "Did you ever hear the one about the Unitarian who tried to convert the Native American Indians to Unitarianism by dancing Native American dances?"

The plain truth of the matter is that to be an effective liberal religious community we have to see that we must not be seduced into thinking we can be ourselves the common platform. It is vital to be clear that the project of liberalism must always be a highly plural and collaborative one in which no single group is ever allowed to dominate and colonise level 2.

We have to see that we cannot (nor need not) be all things to all people for us to remain a liberal religious community - this is something the Hungarian Unitarian Church eloquently shows us.

So let us, like them, confidently embrace our own core tradition, be content to recognise our limits and take our distinctive place down at level 1. And then? Well, then it's all about constant collaboration with others who do not think like us so that together we can show the world, in countless common platforms, the truth that "we need not think alike to love alike."