Fred Dibnah the steeplejack and mechanical enthusiast has a question when facing a piece of machinery. He asks, "Does it actually work?" This is the question that must be asked of Unitarianism, a creedless body finding itself in a pluralistic setting. Does it actually work? Or is its current tendency towards limited and arguably credal definition necessary to give it an identity.
The General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches now does have an Object, made in part to satisfy the requirements of the Charity Commission that here is a religious body. The statement includes an affirmation of the worship of God, like many an affiliated church and chapel. More controversially, however, the Christian wing of the movement rejected a potential Object statement to "remember" the liberal Christian tradition and instead gained the commitment to "uphold the liberal Christian tradition".
The biblical word "remember" was a clever word by which some could have remembered it in a secular way and others brought it into life in a biblical way. However, the Christian side of Unitarianism saw this obvious weakness. There are no equivalent statements for humanist, Pagan, Eastern or other traditions, only statements about openness to other insights.
It is frequently argued that this is only an Object and only affects the General Assembly, not any churches. This was however changed when the President of the General Assembly of 2001-2002, John Midgley, made it a central mission of his presidency to advocate the Object as an Invocation in worship in the churches. There have been a few variations on this Object (this being Unitarianism) by individuals but the point is that suddenly there is the introduction of what looks like a central statement of belief. He wanted to use it to indicate "what Unitarians believe" but this can only be about what some Unitarians believe. It all depends on the take up, and the probablity is that this Invocation will have a limited life and certainly no official status.
Then the Object was used by the group known as the Unitarian Christian Association as an argument to affiliate to the General Assembly. A number of congregations are themselves affiliated to the Unitarian Christian Association. In this case other bodies of an ideological commitment, eg the Unitarian Earth Spirit Network, may apply to affiliate to the General Assembly.
However, one of the effects of an Invocation was talk of Unitarian members as this "we" compared with others tolerated but not quite fully included (in The Inquirer and semi-official Uk-Unitarian email list).
John Clifford, the Information Officer, wrote this information to the UK-Unitarian list in 2001.
...one of the aims of our Objects Commission 14 years ago was to produce a set of Objects that would not only satisfy British law but ALSO could be used in worship and other areas of church life (e.g. publicity)? Not as a once-and-for-always creed but as a group confirmation of where we are at present?
I believe that definitions are usually necessary for communication and that the process of setting a definition with content will necessarily exclude. This definitional exclusion, however, is not the same as social exclusion.
Suddenly therefore there exists a collective "we" which is rather different from the Unitarian characteristic of individualism which had blurred the difference between a member and supporter. And the definitions run further too:
Unitarians comprise a religious community that has historically been more open to the insights of humanism and science than "other christian" communities have been, but this does not mean that we cease to be a religious community.
So we have a traditional view of religion, that approximates to something like Christianity, and that tolerance is given to "others" outside. It is as if some of the changes in theology and sociology of religion and social anthropology, or the blurring of distinctions from postmodernism, have never happened.
In my view this all comes about because of decline. There is a real sense of panic about future strategy, that in order to recruit to survive there must be a retreat to definitions and prescriptions.
Why is this different to what came before? In the past creedlessness could run with a sense of community by a belief definition because there was support from a general Christian culture. Unitarians could consider that they were objectively trying to get to the kernel of liberal Christianity, the truth behind the credal clutter. The reason they thought this, however, was because of the surrounding environmental almost natural thought about religion, and because of the trend in educational circles lying behind popular changes.
However, now this environment has changed. It has changed because the religious setting is more obviously multifaith. The idea of, for example, single faith schools is now controversial not normal. Secondly, the wider setting is quite secular. No one but a very few in their ordinary daily experience of their lives, except at perhaps points of stress, makes a religious explanation of anything. The "God of the gaps" (against which Bonhoeffer objected, and which spurred a 1950s and 1960s movement in secular Christianity) has completely closed. In our ordinary daily lives we have technological and scientific explanations for everything; art is autonomous, and spirituality can be found in the concert hall, in art and in silence. Furthermore we are more aware than ever before that religious traditions are creations in time, in cultures, and have second hand impact, giving a useful if long way round method of generating ethical messages, because ethics are based on their own arguments too.
Religious bodies have faced a dilemma for some time now as to whether to "hold the line" or to try and discover religion in the new environment, to ask what religion is and how it works. Holding the line is easier, because it means a certain set of practices can carry on amongst the same community of people to which they give definition. It is the postliberal strategy made most clearly by George Linbeck, in The Nature of Doctrine (1984). The alternative is to take the environment and build an active understanding of religion within its plurality and sociology of knowledge.
The Sea of Faith Network does this for discussions, with its root statement that it exists to "explore and promote religious faith as a human creation", after which members and friends (who are not tested on such a statement) can make their own interpretations. Religious Studies (for some time replacing Theology outside seminaries) does this in terms of education. I believe that Unitarianism could do this for the core activity of doing religion, principally worship.
Whilst I believe that this view has lost the argument (for now), because of the impact decline has had throughout the Unitarian movement, nevertheless there does remain no binding commitment on actual churches or individuals to uphold the liberal Christian tradition, or any other tradition. Nor is there a commitment from churches' and chapels' Trust Deeds about the worship of God. Once such a trust deed statement had obvious trinitarian meaning (for the Presbyterians). Then it drifted towards a Unitarian meaning. With the legal challenges and then political and legal acceptance of evolutionary change built in to the holding of trust funds (after the Lady Hewley case, in 1845), the meaning of the Worship of God has become now as wide as anyone cares. The word God is a theological Humpty Dumpty word.
My question however is different and asks, "What is it to maintain creedlessness in completely plural times?" Where is identity then? Obviously it would not be found in any prior statement of belief, though it might be found in practices. Absolutely no tradition is to be upheld in a present-future sense. Clearly some sort of theoretical approach is needed, and mine would be a reuse of the philosophy of the poststructualist Jean Baudrillard.
Going via Baudrillard...
The French sociologist turned philosopher (but still sociologist) Jean Baudrillard started with a Situationist critique of Marxism and produced a theory of economic consumption (and therefore production and exchange). He then developed this with a deconstructionist approach to semiotics rather than to find in semiotics the objective root knowledge of a sociological situation (e.g. Levi-Strauss).
Marxism was a theory of production and a utility (actual need) of a product distorted by an exploitative system. Baudrillard, like the Situationists, identified capitalism now as consumer led regarding a product. This was in a situation where (most) workers were getting richer and consuming, unlike the Marxist one-way prediction of increasing wage slave poverty and oppression. For the Situationists true need and utility was still there but lost in a sea of advertising, marketing, and all the ways we know the price of everything but the true need and value of nothing.
Baudrillard pointed out that need could not exist outside the semiotic system which transmits meaning. Utility to be known has meaning, and meaning implies language. The structuralists (in language and social anthropology - especially Claude Levi Strauss) decided that reality could still be located in binary opposites (hot-cold, dry-wet) even if we cannot get outside the universe of the language we are born into. Levi-Strass had the opposites of nature and culture. So there is a way of upholding meaning, truth and utility.
However, this was broken down by the poststructuralists and postmodernists. Their argument (as with Derrida) was that each term implies its opposite, and that therefore everything can be critically undermined. It's like the politician who grins when giving one answer and you read into it and its careful wording the opposite. Postructuralism is indeed often political, because it is about power through manipulation of the language. By deconstructing you cut into these power manipulators, exposing all the multiple layers of the statement that is acting upon the other.
When such structuralism is utterly undermined into poststructuralism, the hope that utility/ need could be upheld objectively is gone. The semiotic system is no longer ever capable of telling us the true need and value of anything, and indeed in advanced capitalism there is no possibility of experiencing the true need and value of anything. The whole point is that everything becomes marketing.
This is what happens with all "realities" - we lose them. So what happens when something appears to have value? For Baudrillard it is a simulacra. Any reality "provides its own simulcrum" (Baudrillard, 1983b, 11, in Best, Kellner, 1997, 99). The economy follows the shifting symbolic system. Baudrillard has removed all hermeneutical objectivity from the analysis of this advanced capitalist system.
So whereas the Situationists showed a movement towards postmodernism they were not postmodernists because analysis was available that recovered need and utility. You could get beyond the textual distortions. This is what postmodernism had broken. Baudrillard pushed the analysis of abstraction and inversion to its ultimate consequences; opposites lost their identity, truth ceased to exist, politics died with the collapse of the social, history lost its redemptive meaning, and reality disappeared altogether. (Best, Kellner, 1997, 94)
"Illusion" did have "real" as its opposite, and so both were grounded; but now even the illusory world of the Situationists has fully imploded because the illusory contained the real and the real the illusory. Baudrillard, and other poststructuralists, and postmodernists, seem to deny the foundational nature of anything. You can still talk of and use the language of binary opposites as a convenience, but that's it. For Baudrillard, capitalists and socialists shared the same realist ground, but now there is a factional (my word) implosion.
The mass of people in such a situation keep away from the socialists as well as the capitalists who inhabit the same ground. There is no engagement except sporadic and seductive (strategies for resisting power). So a sort of happy depression exists. Terrorism exists as ecstatic violence, pornography the ecstatic form of sex... and the state is the ecstatic form of society too. It's like people who make an argument by shouting ever louder. The real becomes hyperreal, movement turns into speed, ugliness becomes monstrous, truth is instead simulation, the social becomes hyperconformity (a form of resistance), and sex becomes pornography (which Derek Jarman's film Jubilee said is "better than the real thing", in Baudrillardian fashion).
Before moving on to applying (hopefully some of) this, there is a devastating criticism of the Baudrillard scheme. Even Don Cupitt calls his writings "very unsound indeed" (Cupitt, 1992, 187). It is in the traces of idealism left (just as was in Marx, who tried to eradicate this: the notion of independent need). Idealism is a kind of pure measure of a category, something by which to judge everything else in its less perfect state. In Baudrillard's case, purity and knowing is still attainable in primitive societies beyond late capitalism.
Coupled with the fact that Baudrillard is also giving a rational explanation of hyperreality, the hyperreal is suddenly placed, and is quite real! For this scheme to be thorough, even Baudrillard's explanations must be hyperreal simulacras. Don Cupitt has realised this and has always strongly affirmed the language boundedness of his own postmodern/ poststructural Christian-Buddhist-Humanist approaches.
Unlike Cupitt, Baudrillard has an outside: outside late capitalism. So Baudrillard is making an objective cultural criticism of specifically late capitalism and indeed is looking in from the outside! Baudrillard is a social scientist after all whereas Derrida is more thorough.
Creedlessness in hyperreality
The reason Baudrillard is so useful to the religious-economy (instead of political-economy) is because of the concept of the simulacra, and I would apply this to primitive societies as well as advanced in their symbolic activities. Pluralism exposes the truth relativity of all religion, even religion that is stable and uniform, primitive or complex. It creates a universe of meaning when stable, but we now see it for what it was thanks to the relativity we have experienced.
We can in this situation create pre-defined postliberal religious communities. A creedless community, however, is a microcosm of the wider society. Its mission is to suggest to wider society that it can tolerate its differences. This should be the central task and gospel of such a creedless community.
The creedless community should not be thinking in terms of definitions and therefore insiders (tolerators) and outsiders (tolerated) but welcoming difference and generating strategies of inclusion and active toleration.
This then becomes a gospel for wider society. As the creedless community learns to tolerate its own it becomes a light for the society.
The next question is how to do the central activity of worship in such a diverse setting. Worship can be defined in this situation as a set apart symbolic activity for the purposes of reflection and reorientation (if necessary).
Seeing as we cannot know what is meaningful to one and yet not to the other, at this time or another time, other than by discussion and presentation, the notion of the simulacra becomes very useful.
Worship becomes the generation of simulacras for the purposes of reflection and reorientation. The simulacras derive from symbolic activity in the set apart space, simulacras which are communication between the worship providers and the worship consumers. However, it should be said that the simulacras involve everyone in production. Just as it is to be involved in worship when there is a worship leader, so the reader of the simulacras generated is essentially the writer of them, because it is in the context of the consumer that they appear to have positive, negative or no meaning. Someone who takes services, who comes to the hymns and says, "It's your turn now" is simply wrong. Worship is always collective.
Any communion service invokes something of Mauss' social anthropology (and, by implication, theology) of the gift, the giving of something material for the return of something higher and spiritual (this, by Durkheim's nephew, was the forerunner of structuralism in social anthropology). We now have to deconstruct and seriously question the automatic relationship here, but nevertheless it is a process of communication, involvement and exchange.
Whilst we might reflect alone, the prompting of the reflections is delivered into a collective setting and therefore there is a relationship between everyone even in the individualism of reflections.
There might be some money handed over too. The exchange that takes place is also material for spiritual, just as when people give their time for the cause.
An example of "the gift" in worship might be to organise worship around a Flower Communion. The liturgical words which surround this symbolic activity, originated in wartime Czechoslovakia at a time of necessary pluralism for Jewish participants, with words relating to nature, and offering an experience of give and take, will no doubt prove very meaningful to some people and not very meaningful to others. What kinds of reflections, dreams, antagonisms and sleep it induces we cannot predict.
The readings, the sermon, may again have unexpected consequences in terms of meaning and impact. These too generate simulacras. We cannot fix these either.
There is no pretence that any of this represents a higher authority (the traditional view of a sermon in orthodoxy). It might communicate with a higher authority, but perhaps this is best worked out in our imaginations.
In other words, in a creedless community in pluralism, every symbolic activity is experimental. The pluralistic space is like a blank canvas to which everyone brings their own anxieties, hopes and dreams.
Aware that simulacras will rise and fall, the worship creator(s) is someone who has some knowledge of the diversity of a gathering and something of their pastoral condition. So some strategies of the short time period are available regarding communication. If there is no knowledge, then the worship designer should give an integrated account of his or her own reflections, and others participating, which may communicate with others.
Of course a reply from the unconvinced (regarding the whole argument) may say that this happens anyway. The reply is, why does this happen anyway, and what is the theory of knowledge around such agreement?
Words however continue to have a deceptive effect. Like numbers in a spreadsheet, they look hard and certain. Thus in postmodern times and in times of diversity, we perhaps should focus more on the image and sound than on the misleading absoluteness of text. Poetic devices are important.
The looseness of the sign in poststructural communicative exchanges forces a greater emphasis on the signifier (outward symbol) as the sign produced can be ambiguous. Thus a reflective service benefits from some kind of artistic ritual activity. It is perhaps unfortunate that a eucharist is met with resistance in many Unitarian circles, with its strident and negative simulacras in this historical setting, but it is an option amongst many.
This is important too: to recognise the negative. The aim of inventing and reinventing ritual forms involving different senses and artistic patterns is to broaden the potential for reflection and reorientation. We should be aware of the negative and careful in its generation.
So the emphasis is on worship providers using words and symbolic forms in such a way that their meaning is stretched. This is not to generate agreement but flexibility of reception. How words and symbols are received we cannot tell, but the attempt all the time is to generate simulacras. There is absolutely no attempt to generate consensus. It is actually unnecessary. Nor is there any need for unifying beliefs. There is simply the need to tolerate the other and to participate.
The worship provider is like a shaman, going out into unknown or partly known territory each time and seeing what can be collected for others on the journey. Worship becomes in this sense prophetic, changing and surprising.
One thing Unitarianism will always do even in a most optimistic outlook is attract a minority of searchers. This is not an intention, but an observation and is so even amongst the minority themselves who participate in organised religion. It is likely to be a cultured few, class-bound, and ethnically limited given the structures of contemporary society (though this is changing).
Secondly, it will not attract searchers who wish to be within a well defined belief community and who seek the company of the like minded. Like in the way interfaith dialogue attracts those already happy to learn from people of other faiths, Unitarians will attract the liberal minded.
So these two reasons mean Unitarianism is never going to exhibit quite the difference located in wider society,, with its tendencies towards ghettoising groups (which the Unitarian gospel would challenge). Nevertheless, the pluralistic setting means picking up people who draw from different traditions.
These can be identified as liberal Christian, who wish to mix with people who have moved beyond this definition for sharpness of dialogue and also to avoid the weight and confines of their own traditions. There are the humanists who are not secular enough for the humanists who gather together and so retain a relationship with religious language. There are Easterns who are Western minded and whose immersion in the Eastern terms may be limited and participate in worship beyond meditation. And there are Pagans who are not superstitious and may have a postmodern understanding of this reinvented tradition as ritual play, or, if not, a modernity at least that keeps them beyond the confines of the coven.
Of course any of these kinds may also inhabit those faith communities too. Jews have liberal institutions of their own but may also want to engage with other religious languages (this happens Unitarian Universalism in the United States), and it is possible that some critical or transitional Muslims too might come in a Unitarian direction. There are also Bahais wishing to escape from the confines of their Administrative Order.
So the religious culture does throw up some similarities within the pluralistic setting: people attracted are all liberal or transitional, who know that their minds may change beyond the pre-defined group.
This is the point: whereas Unitarianism once was a pluralism of time around a consensus, it is in this scheme a pluralism of space around difference but perhaps a willingness to engage and change. This is because in hyperreality, time has speeded up until it is beyond speed. The second point is that although all these people may be liberals, the range of resources to be drawn upon is huge compared with the situation in the past.
Certainly, if advertisers of Unitarianism wanted definitions, some are emerging now about the process of this approach to religion.
All this makes sense around the purpose that Unitarianism is for worship, combined with pastoral support. So the whole thrust of the pluralistic enterprise is whether it works within worship, huge differences being brought together and yet without seeking a consensus.
A Strategy for change?
This is an intellectual account of Unitarianism according to a logic of a situation. It can translate into a strategy for change, but in itself this is not what is presented here.
In a way, however, Unitarianism must now change, even though this account is consistent with a history of creedless evolution.
Postmodernism creates a predicament which precludes the same experience of change. For most of its creedless history British Unitarianism has changed in time, and quite slowly. It has had crises, but not the ideological disruption of say the American experience where humanism broke away and then had to come back, and where Universalism was a separate distinctive tradition and arguably more liberal than Unitarianism. British Unitarianism is thus more conservative.
Unitarianism evolved from a loosening and decaying trinitarian Presbyterianism, was injected by liberal and biblical Unitarian ideology, which parallelled a broader looser strand (thus two Christianitities) and then lost the argument, and then there was a slow change towards an increasingly Christless humanism, facing a unified Christian opposition. The looser humanism hardened in the context of a secular sixties and seventies, and then softened again into a more multi-faith and humanist spirituality, again with Christian opposition.
This bipolar history has been shifts in relation to reductionism in theological terms. There is a parallel here with 1960s and 1970s modernist theologians who demythologised to get to the essentials of Christianity. But now the requirement is to remythologise, even though and especially realising that this is created myth.
The period of reductionism is at an end and this is where postmodernism injects the change. So logically what must follow is either a postliberalism of sorts or a postmodern liberalism.
My observation is that Unitarianism is slowly becoming postliberal. It is doing the other change, away from freedom and creedlessness and towards definition. As there is no longer an essence of religion to be found, a kernel within Christianity, the result is a defensiveness that props up practices and forms that existing members find familiar. It is this preservation of practice, the commitment to uphold the liberal Christian tradition, that defines the group.
There would be, properly, an invocation, a creed of sorts, and there would be content such as the Lord's Prayer, Prayers to God understood on Judaeo-Christian lines, Biblical readings and sermons which followed such readings. There would be rituals with a clear Christian content. This content would create a boundary of (still) simulacras to define the community.
The problem with this conservative approach, which could be a Unitarian version of premodernism (a Unitarian version of the Anglican John Milbank!) is that it is done quite well elsewhere. For example, aspects of the Anglican Church maintain a faithfulness to the documents of the tradition and its practices whilst, under the influence of those practices, allows a freedom of thought among the community so defined.
So, sociologically, Unitarianism is moving towards (in my view) little point in existence, unless one really wants to preserve an esoteric historical tradition (very postliberal!). Already its forms look not Christian enough for Christians, yet Christian from the outside, with inherited rules of the tradition that few outsiders can understand. Evidence of this is the discussion that happens around understanding Unitarian history. In the postliberal community, theology is only ever internal, and history in fact replaces theology.
The alternative, postmodern liberalism, is future orientated, with the focus on the people who are not (yet) attending. Tendencies to close the plural space within would be resisted and broken in order that experiences are kept fresh.
This is different from the old Unitarianism because it is a plurality of space as much as time. It is highly creative, and not particularly comfortable.
I think it would work, and may even do so after a limited period of postliberalism that seems to be emerging, but do so in a different structure from now.
Decline will inevitably lead to structural implosions. As people simply cannot go on living longer and longer, and recruitment into an esoteric tradition must be random and inadequate, the scenario must be of buildings still existing and yet vacated, money still in funds but unused or transferred.
Out of this would come a far more regional structure than is the case now and perhaps a small paid ministry who know of the tradition and analyse the current situation. With a flip across to the pluralist approach, they would become regional trainers in skills of the plural and diverse people who from the outside use the available spaces to gather and share in spiritual practices.
|A church which could be a regional gathering place for a diverse collection of peoples|
A benefit of this would be a correction to the autonomy that sees some congregations demanding that preachers fit in with their current ideological approach. Liberalism does then become liberal-constitutional rather than (somewhat) liberal about one religion.
It might be that Sea of Faith people and others who discuss religion, and Religious Studies people who learn about religion, come to such an open plural space to practice religion. These centres could be truly interfaith.
This crystal ball gazing is theoretical, pushing the underlying reused Baudrillard approach to religion into the future. The current observation, however, in decline, is a trend towards definition well as some confusion. And it may be that this is the only option on offer for some time, and could even be the last tradition of Unitarianism. However, this has been an explanation for the alternative, its sociology and theology, and a suggestion that it might actually work.
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