A Unitarian Theology of Helping One Another

UUA lyrics: Love is the doctrine of this Church, The quest for truth is its sacrament and service is its prayer; To dwell together in peace, To seek knowledge in freedom, To serve us all in fellowship to the end that all souls shall grow in harmony with the divine. This do we covenant with each other and with God. Tune by John Ward, Dublin Unitarians.

My suggested alternative: [Sung:  Score   Basic Tune ] Love is intended by this Church, The search with thought is its rationale and service shows its prayer; To dwell together for peace, To seek free understanding, To serve us all in fellowship to the end that all folk can grow in harmony with the divine. This can we covenant with each other and of God. Tune after John Ward, Dublin Unitarians.

Hull Unitarians said version 2015-2016:

Love is the doctrine of this Church
The quest for truth is its sacrament
We seek to dwell together in peace
And to help one another
[the basis of this article]

[Explanation for my suggested changes: Unitarians don't have doctrines nor is love necessarily achieved; epistemology of truth is problematic and a sacrament is of a ritual and Unitarians have rituals; no problem linking fellowship with realising the divine; God covenanted with Abraham and Noah, etc. (it is written): it is God who covenants, and whilst we might covenant with each other we don't covenant with God nor has God covenanted with Unitarians, as far as I can tell.]

This article originates and enhances a sermon dialogue contribution by Adrian Worsfold made on 28th September 2016 at Hull Unitarian Church. Rev. Dr. Ralph Catts responded and gave his own perception.

There are difficulties with the individualist Unitarian tradition regarding collective action and helping one another, or better still 'solidarity'. Other religions and anthropology, and aspects of the Unitarian background, can offer a positive way forwards in an active religious basis of 'helping one another'.

One form of helping one another is counselling: formal and informal. Formal counselling comes along with all sorts of theory, from Pyschoanalysis to Gestalt to Humanistic to Transactional. We can look these terms up, we can even receive training according to what they claim. In the end they are all about affirming one another in relationship. One of the problems in counselling is transference, that is taking upon yourself the anxieties, concerns and personal histories of the other person, and it works both from a client to the counsellor, and from the counsellor to the client. In other words, each person is open to risk, even danger. Thus it is that many a counsellor needs a counsellor.

Beyond formal, trained, examined, counselling is the informal, that which comes about through simple engaging with colleagues and friends, through approaching the other with a listening ear, and to give gentle nudges in a beneficial direction. A little bit of laughter helps. A little bit of self-sacrifice works too, for the other. Just a bit: not to overdo it, if the result isn't worth it. Love others as you love yourself is a good guide.

All this counselling can be understood in humanistic terms. But what about in a religious context?

But before we make too much of a division between secular and religious, Laura Perls (1905-1992), who was one of the founders of Gestalt psychology, knew theologians Martin Buber and Paul Tillich (Parlett, Hemming, 1996, 194). And we'll come back to Marin Buber. But let's start with Christianity and a distinctive contribution it provides towards 'helping one another'.

Catherine LaCugna is an American feminist Roman Catholic theologian who asks how we are to live and relate to others so as to be most God-like. In God For Us: The Trinity and the Christian Life (1993), she claims that the Trinity teaches "a theology of relationship, which explores the mysteries of love, relationship, personhood and community within the framework of God's self-revelation in the person of Christ and the activity of the Spirit."

So she is talking about relationship being fundamental within the Godhead of three persons in relation; this mutuality for LaCugna is not simply internal to the Godhead but is further expressed in our response within creation. This is a communicative Godhead, within and without, and is reflected today in much social Christian theology.

Many Christians really don't understand the Trinity. After all, Unitarians in the past referred frequently to God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, but they knew the Trinity doctrine and knew what was not the Trinity. Actually, this use is known as the Economic Trinity and is in the Christian part of the Bible as early grace and baptismal statements of the rapidly emerging Church.

Even the Church of England Doctrine Commission's We Believe in God of 1987 admits that that "operating the 'rules' of this New Testament language is a very far cry from acknowledgment of God as Trinity. Even Paul's familiar grace in 2 Corinthians 13:14 is not trinitarian in this stricter sense: 'the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the Love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit' clearly indicates that 'God' here means the Father alone, despite the close (but theologically unclarified) juxtaposition of Son and Spirit." (104-105).

So the Trinity doctrine itself is not in the Bible. But one reason why many of my liberal religious and online friends now maintain allegiance to the Trinity is because it is a model of helping one another.

How in contrast can a God of Unity be social? Is such a Unitarian God just a distant transcendence or something that necessarily collapses into the uncommunicated and inactive?

And another struggle for Unitarians is this: that the whole thrust towards individual conscience in belief is often used as an excuse for individualism in a sort of 'look after my own salvation' approach: indeed a licence just to believe and do whatever you want to do yourself regardless of the consequences. A Unity God plus individualism equals something atomistic and only about helping yourself...

And furthermore, the history of Unitarianism is not fully part of those collective movements towards social justice that formed our complex Western societies into recent times.

This matters because Unitarian churches were built by employers and the well-off middle class: architecturally they were merchant house boxes and grand gothic piles, and turned-around boxes; and thus these churches were hamstrung when it came to the more collective help-one-another politics of the emergent Labour movement. In fact the secular collective Labour movement exposed the denominations as middle class: yes, they reached out to the working class and to the poor, but that was the point: they reached out. 'Helping' is not quite mutual enough.

There seems to be a fundamental inadequacy here regarding Unitarianism. So, can any other faith stance help. What about an individualist faith, for example?

Now Buddhism is also often criticised as being individualist. It is your own mind that you are training towards becoming selfless, to become skillfully detached from the over-attractions of this suffering world. Nirvana is portrayed as one final, personal, goodbye. The critics say that far from being selfless, this is selfish. Plus all that about karma and rebirth is as much about fear and magical thinking as can be encouraging collective mutual help.

But the counter-claim is that by becoming detached from such material obsessions, by becoming more skillful regarding being self-less, we therefore are naturally more able to respond to and negotiate suffering and reducing it. In other words, a person who trains towards a quiet and studied compassion will acquire a condition of naturally responding to the other who needs it. Almost unconsciously, but precisely because it is so trained, you jump to assist the one encountered to be in need. The world does not cease to be social, does not cease to have relationships: we are not to shut ourselves away, but find ourselves able, skillfully, to assist the other. And the focus on karma should not be a distracting magical thinking about the past and your own supposed personal origins, but a focus into the future and the merit of your behaviour towards others.

Or, returning to the unity God question, take Islam, with its unified God that is so transcendent, so high and dry, so able to please the Godself itself, that you would think humans are left just to do as they would. But they are not. For the majesty of such a God is awe-making, under which one must be humbled, under which we would realise that all are equal, that we are communal and can be judged. Within the Islamic 'House of Peace', everyone is the concern of everyone else. It becomes very communal. And one of the five pillars is Zakkat or charity. So whereas the Christian God is self-limiting, culturally specific, and gives an example through the life, death and resurrection of the God who became human, the Islamic God that is utterly transcendent results in a kind of human equality the world over. We are to behave well, in submission to God and God's own choice of mercy, when within the Islamic Ulema or community.

Indeed, no lesser document than the previously quoted Church of England's Doctrine Commission book, We Believe in God, points out that in Islam the 'Amr' descends at creation directing the created universe and mandating the prophets - a divine relationship enacted in humanity and history. So we hold God in awe and carry though the straight path with and within humanity (see 1987, 134).

We can also learn from the Sikhs, because having identity as a group needs external defence and internal nurturing. With both Hindu and Muslim as sometimes hostile neighbours, the validity of maintaining any Sikh self-defence has demanded the highest ethical behaviour. To then prosper as a group required some very important foundation-laying: meeting the needs of the people. One of the most basic needs is being fed, and so comes the social and communal provision of the community kitchen or langar. In every gurdwara (temple) is the langar and the activity of eating. This is solidarity and is free food for all. Yet the ethical stance means that food is vegetarian offered to Sikh and non-Sikh alike without specific set rituals. Furthermore, sharing the tasks of preparation, cooking, serving and cleaning shows sewa, the selfless service to: the sadhsangat or community, the gurdwara, and the world beyond.

Food and drink of course, consumed ritually and actually, and denied as a spiritual discipline, are so important in just about every religion.

Participating together in either ritualised or actual eating and drinking is like cooking: we are to be transformed. This is precisely the anthropology of the gift-exchange: one that is consistent with the transformative 'religio' effect of bonding with one another as a spiritual gift. If we bond together, we must be helping one another. Indeed, doing religion together in a group more easily takes away so much of the danger of self-interest.

For me, Unitarianism is like a religious anthropology laid bare. Religion means coming together and exchanging. Yes, theologically, grace is said to come from a God unheralded, but in a religious anthropology laid bare, grace comes from a gift freely generated by people. Theologically, the Jewish theologian Martin Buber called this the I-Thou relationship: a profound relationship, that with a personalist God.

The I-Thou is not just momentary: it should be embodied in the very stories of our lives. When we live forwards in time, we have lots of choices towards unknown futures. When we tell the story of our lives, the story is told backwards. Each life makes sense on its last day - each of us is eschatological like this. Our lives are flows, but the final story comes on the very last day and the life becomes an object. The day we die is the day we have lived. But our story is also part of a collective. My story is in my encounters. What did I do when they were doing? More culturally, and institutionally, what collective chains of memory connect with my memory? And did we achieve? Not materially: not how much money was or was not made; but were we enhanced and fulfilled by the other, and did we enhance the other?

Because we are to grow and be enhanced. The best explanation I can come up with is something like this: When we live forwards in time, we have lots of choices towards unknown futures. When we tell the story of our lives, the story is told backwards. Our life makes sense on its last day - each of us is eschatological like this. Our lives are flows, but the final story comes on the very last day and the life becomes an object. The day we die is the day we have lived. And did we achieve what was the best? Not materially: not how much money was or was not made; but were we enhanced and fulfilled by the other, and did we enhance the other? Were our material friends also our religious friends with potential? Better than this, were our encounters with acquaintances and associates able to produce spiritual friendship, in the sense of the gift, into the religious exchange, into the collective? Because each of us finalises life as an individual, yet the story we each achieve included a wide cast of characters. And this does not mean fame. It means, in the 'Yes' we say to life, that even in our relatively unknown existences we were able to enhance and be enhanced.

This means, between us, discovering the signals of transcendence, from the imminence within our exchange-world. It isn't, I suggest, the Economic Trinity, but the Economic Everyone: the gift-exchange that is also the Social Everyone, the Ethical Everyone and, as it turns out of course, the Theological Everyone.

We are supposedly under the unity of the divine, for which we are a collective with purpose; we are individuals, about which we should be selfless - and thus with others. We interact, through which my story is our story, the I-Thou written through every scene, ever chapter, from the 'Once Upon a Time' through to 'The End'. Now every one of us here to some extent identifies with the Presbyterian-Unitarian history, in microscopic detail, and with a big picture. Throughout this collective outcome, is the ethical imperative one to the other and teased out from a complicated history critically assessed.

So what may we conclude? Perhaps with a personalist divine, we can be as under Islam: to function collectively, driven towards our purposes, along with zakkat. Then we are individuals, like Buddhists: to do a spiritual practice towards a selflessness that assists the other. And then we can be like the Sikhs: to get the basics right, to share, and so bond in fellowship, to receive its spiritual gift. But note: we can be like those in Islam, in Buddhism, in Sikhism, yet it is as much ours, in the critically assessed Presbyterian-Unitarian line, recognising historical shortcomings.

And when this Church of ours says, 'help one another', it means more than an option for counselling, but is missional. It is missional because it sets up a place and space among some folk gathered for religious encounter, where we ritualise possibilities for exchange and gift, for spiritual benefit, for a return on little bits of sacrifice (the efforts we make) towards the good of others and ourselves so that, when that final story is told, something was added: something from the gift enhanced us and made us more than we might have been, so that we become.

We hope to achieve a profound relationship, a solidarity: embedded in an institutional culture that we have developed, it should be recommended to others. So this is how we "help one another" and extend such ethical activity outwards.

[LaCugna, Catherine (1993), God For Us: The Trinity and the Christian Life, HarperCollins. LaCugna writes in the tradition of Karl Rahner and the Trinity as Economic and Imminent and socially communicative. She also draws on the Quaker communitarian theologian John MacMurray and Greek Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas. She promotes salvation understanding through the doxology relating both to people open to people through persons in community and practical theology including for Church life.]

[Parlett, M., Hemming, J. (1996), 'Gestalt Therapy', in Dryden, W. (ed.) (1996), Handbook of Individual Therapy, London: Sage Publications, 194-218.]

[The Doctrine Commission of the Church of England [1981-1985] (1987), We Believe in God, London: Church House Publishing, was a response to more radical theologies emerging from universities and seminaries and the 'individualism' of previous Doctrine Commission reports especially Christian Believing (1976) and the reaction of Believing in the Church: The Corporate Nature of Faith. SPCK, 1981. The chapters did not have individual authors. It attempted to represent current scholarship whilst assserting the given doctrinal beliefs of the Church of England.]


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful