Sunday, 14 April 2013

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:

LEVEL ONE COMMUNITIES DO NOT NEED TO BE THEMSELVES HYPER-PLURAL COMMON PLATFORMS IN ORDER TO BE GENUINE LIBERAL RELIGIOUS COMMUNITIES.

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."

12 comments:

Yewtree said...

Another thought - are you suggesting that the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches is a level 1 body? or is each individual Unitarian and/or Free Christian community a level 1 body?

I would have thought that the General Assembly could be a level 2 body - because there are some differences between Free Christians Unitarian Christians, universalists/pluralists within British Unitarianism and Unitarians (let alone Unitarian humanists, earth spirit, etc).

It depends where you want to draw the line; but I would say that Unitarian Earth Spirit (which, by the way, isn't really my cup of tea) is distinctively Unitarian and has roots in both Transcendentalism, and the views of Norbert Capek, Theodore Parker, Frank Lloyd Wright, and even Servetus. When Jo Rogers researched this, she found that most members of the Unitarian Earth Spirit Network identified as Unitarian and didn't belong to a tradition outside of Unitarianism.

Yewtree said...

It might be helpful to formulate this in terms of religious identity and membership - a sense of belonging to a specific community, which is usually reciprocated by that community recognising you as a member of it. It may include adherence to a specific set of ideas about the divine, but in liberal religious communities, is more likely to represent interest in a particular mythology (in your case, Christian mythology; in my case, Pagan mythologies), and a particular set of religious practices, values, and a shared history. You can be a Christian without believing in God as a supernatural entity (so can Brian Mountford); I can be a Wiccan without literal belief in deities. But we both belong to a community with its own shared values, practices, and history. As it happens, Unitarian values have a lot in common with Wiccan values - but shared values are not actually enough for communal ritual, though they are certainly enough for participation in social justice projects.

I am not sure that one can be *fully* a member of two religious communities -- one can *participate* in more than one, but given the time constraints of modern life, it would be hard to do both fully; and unless the beliefs and values of each are entirely congruent, it would be hard to reconcile the worldviews of the two traditions - especially if they are in different "dharma-spaces". I use the term ”dharma-space” to mean a group of religions with compatible or similar world-views (even though they may regard themselves as competing versions of the truth).

I wrote a series of blogposts in January about dual-faith identity issues - might be of interest:

January 24, 2013 Dharma and sangha Yvonne
January 22, 2013 Dual-faith practice (part 4 of 4) Yvonne
January 20, 2013 Dual-faith practice (part 3 of 4) Yvonne
January 18, 2013 Dual-faith practice (part 2 of 4) Yvonne
January 16, 2013 Dual-faith practice (part 1 of 4) Yvonne

Andrew Brown said...

Dear Yvonne,

That is, I think the right question to ask and once asked the real confusion begins to show up.

The GA should be acting as a small scale level 2 common platform. However it is acting (sometimes consciously, sometimes not) as if it were a level 1 body.

It's membership (made up of what should be coherent local level 1 bodies) tends to think that when the word "unitarian" is used that it refers (or should refer) both to themselves and to the GA and that they are the same thing. What happens is that you get level 1 bodies (local congregations) thinking they are really expressing some kind of level 2 common platform and, simultaneously, you have a level 2 body (the GA) thinking it can impose upon its level 1 members some kind of corporate theological identity. Not only that many of our level 1 bodies and the GA often believe they represent some proto universal religion that is able to subsume all level 1 bodies into a new level 1 - namely a universal level 2 body. But, as I indicated in my address this is a kind of colonialisation of what should be an open, plural public space.

It's a complete mess.

Yewtree said...

orsrtp 304Aha, right, I get it. Others have also suggested having some sort of flavour for local congregations - indeed some congregations are of a particular flavour.

The only problem with suggesting that local congregations try to achieve a coherence that would usually characterise a level 1 body is that in practice, many congregations are a mixed group of eclectic people and people whose primary focus is a single tradition (sometimes humanism, sometimes Christianity). The problem (to my mind) is the people who don't want to accommodate others' spiritual interests (whether that happens to be communion or earth spirit rituals). In large congregations, there can be affinity groups for specific interests. This is probably too difficult for small congregations.

Andrew Brown said...

I think that you are absolutely right about the difficulties faced by some present day small, local congregations (and, actually, some larger ones) but this is, for me, an indication that, as far as the U&FC family of churches as a whole is concerned, it's game over. Which is not, however, to say that some individual churches might not be able to find ways to move coherently into the future as meaningful level 1 liberal churches (and whether expressly Christian or not).

Yewtree said...

I don't know whether it is "game over" or not, but I do think there needs to be a clearing-up of the confusion between level 1 functions and level 2 functions (the same applies in Paganism, where Paganism, as an umbrella term, is not really a religion, but a level 2 common platform for a number of different religious traditions; and yet there are groups and people who want to talk about Paganism as a coherent collection of ideas).

The thing about Unitarianism is that it has always contained these tensions. In the 19th century, there were seventeen (!) different Unitarian hymnbooks. The movement included about 3000 spiritualists who joined en masse (according to an article by Vernon Marshall in F&F 2006); the Free Catholics; the Free Christians; the Transcendentalists; the more traditional Unitarians; the Cookites; the General Baptists; etc etc. Of course many churches can trace their origins back to these groups and are proud of the connections.

I think the idea of a church working out what its distinctive philosophical and theological stance is, and running with that, seems to work. It has worked for New Unity and Kingswood and various others that have taken that approach. It almost does not matter which of the various strands of the U&FC movement a church focuses on, as long as it has a distinctive focus.

Andrew Brown said...

Your point is well made. My "game over" comment refers to the whole GA of U&FC churches in so far as it continues to try to be an -ism - i.e. Unitarianism. In so far as it stops trying to do this and becomes a much more clearly a level 2 common platform for liberal religious communities then, perhaps, something like the GA might (though renamed) might have a chance. But I'm not hopeful about that even though I am hopeful individual congregations may survive and even thrive.

Yewtree said...

In a way, I think the name GA of U&FCC, whilst being too long, emphasises the diversity. The problem, as you rightly point out, is labelling it an "ism" which tends to imply a coherence which does not exist.

That's why the ending "ity" would be better. (Interesting that in French, Christianity is "Christianisme", if I recall correctly, which seems a more accurate label.)

I have used your 4-stage model as the basis for a blogpost about Paganism, as I think it is very applicable (and I have linked back here). The model was just so applicable to the ongoing discussion about Pagan identities.

Andrew Brown said...

Dear Yewtree,

I'm delighted for you to use it he idea - it's really Arne Naess' idea anyway! I have long been impressed with the thought that "there is no end to what we can achieved when we don't mind who takes the credit" and that wisdom should be wholly open source - especially the kind of wisdom that helps us both meaningfully to work together and retain our distinctive identities. I'm very pleased (even honoured) to be working in a way that may help the wider pagan community in its own thinking.

I enjoyed your post. However, although "planning" does occur at level three I'm not sure this word really does the job (though I take your point about preferring to use a word rather than a number). Because it involves the playing through of deeply held norms and values rooted in level 1 (your "irreducible diversity") it's more than just planning and more like an existential wrestle with other realities showing up around you. Planning makes it sound a wholly rational activity and, though a good deal of emphasis should be placed upon the use of reason at this level, it's also about our embodied feelings concerning the universe and the world. Does that makes sense?

Yewtree said...

When I do planning, it is not an entirely rational process (for example, planning a ritual should allow for serendipity, divine inspiration, and will certainly involve emotions). I think, however, that "existential wrestling" is an excellent (and much more memorable) name for level 3.

Will P said...

I shall come back since this conversation is very meaningful. In the meantime:

"...but they shall be permitted to keep a preacher whose teaching they approve."

I approve!

Andrew Brown said...

Dear Will,

Thanks for this comment and your affirmation. It is much appreciated. I look forward to your further thoughts on the subject.

One thing I'll add here is that Pap Maria asked me to contribute a chapter to a new book being published by the Hungarian Unitarian Church. An honour indeed.