Christianity: Is Religious Humanism the Alternative?

Given at Hull Central Library during a 1984 publicity drive organised by me. See below for comment twenty years later.

I have called this public lecture, Christianity: Is Religious Humanism the Alternative? to ask why Christianity in the present age needs an alternative and what my suggested alternative of religious humanism means. A lot of my thinking here comes from the agenda of the Sea of Faith Conference, as I will explain, and the potential of Unitarianism in modern religion. Perhaps the ideas I am expressing here may be part of an agenda for religion today.
I want to lead into today's religious problem by reference to architecture. I think we are all aware of the chord that the Prince of Wales struck when he criticised modern architecture. Yet he can be countered that he is living in a time warp, and that there has to be development.
In the same way religion is in something of a rut. We live lives framed by mechanical and technological realities, we think rationally about what we are going to do and into this structure of how we naturally think and act religion has a problem. It seems to be hooked to beliefs and practices of a former age. We do live in modern times because the arguments for maintaining old forms of religion have subtly changed. I note that in the Church of England many call for the greater use of the Book of Common Prayer not necessarily on the grounds that it is correct, as they used to justify it, but that the old language is preferred. This is a new argument: Cranmer did not write the Book to have language from the past. He didn't want the return of Latin: it is only in the present day when religion seems stuck that we seem to want the equivalent of the return of Latin. I reflected at Christmas in my own Unitarian church that we sang carols often implying a theology that we otherwise might not express, because there is no alternative. When you do try to change the theology and the style and the expression, things go wrong. Like with the architects, modernism might be cold, brutal, unpoetic. Despite the way we have changed our thinking, if you do even so much as to change or modernise a hymn book so much seems to be lost.
Theological distortions also happen in the modern age. We keep the old, because God seems to be there. Thus you end up with what Bonhoeffer called the God of the gaps, where God occupies only those areas left unexplained. This he rejected, and believed that Christianity would have to come to terms with the modern age, but it hasn't because it seems to have nowhere to go.
And yet, although only five per cent of the population now regularly attend worship, at other times even the most secular will engage in naming children, marrying and mark life's end in religious settings. It seems that the social anthropologists' discovery that what matters in religion is not belief but the act of ritually passing through holds strong. Religion is important at a human level. We don't need God: we need human life-affirming religion.
We haven't yet found out how to emphasise the human religion of the ritually passing through kind, including that by which we might be refreshed on a weekly basis, whilst removing old beliefs. It is as though we need beliefs in order to have the essential act of passing through. I suggest the Anglican emphasis on the eucharist has grown because people like that ritual of passing through each week, yet if it wasn't tied to beliefs about the body and blood of Christ it would not work as an essential ritual. It is not just beliefs, of course, it is also the feeling of community and continuity with the past. Yet I am convinced that the existence of many such beliefs in the modern age rubs against the real way we think today and just intensifies the nature of religion as a series of half-truths, superstitions, and oddities. Yet I am also saying that we don't really know how to move on and change.
At this point I will say that Unitarianism has been an attempt to modernise beliefs in the context of religious worship, although as I have indicated we have the same difficulty with problems of beliefs and continuity and thus justifying worship. A lot of Unitarians regard belief in a distinct God as essential to keeping specifically religious worship. I do not. But I'll come to examining this area later.
One alternative to maintaining religion as a ritual passing through system is to keep the beliefs but at the same time disbelieve them. It is an alternative Christianity. At the Sea of Faith Conference nearly 40 ministers and over 80 laypeople of, on the whole, mainstream denominations were attempting to produce atheistic Christianity, that is beyond the normal liberal Christianity to something wholly non-supernatural. But this creates a problem. How do you so frame your language that you can use the old beliefs, the old words, disbelieve them and then use them? And then the problem is that for many, reading those words and beliefs, Christianity is essentially the Incarnation of God at an historical moment and is either supernatural or nothing. Thus if you don't believe in any of it then Christianity per se comes crashing down. But Sea of Faith people say that Christianity also exists as a process of intellectual thinking, as a cultural inheritance and as a language. They say that liberal mainstream thinking has failed because it has produced the unhappy compromise of minimal doctrines and modern thought. So now we have a Jesus, a man, not necessarily born in Bethlehem, who was visibly like God, who taught by example, and who was put to death showing our human nature, and who was resurrected by God in some mysterious way and the disciples believed it. This view cannot remove God or the last miracle of the resurrection otherwise Jesus didn't defeat death and then cannot be called God and saviour. The Sea of Faith people do remove God.
Yet radicals are in a dilemma. They know that to have beliefs and then disbelieve them isn't clear, so some also want to purify and make forms of worship equitable with theological thinking. But then they fear that most of what is identifiably Christian will disappear. For them God becomes our ideals and like an alter-ego, a sort of way to check the self, and that is what worship is about. But how do you do it using Christian language?
I was most impressed by Dennis Nineham at the first Conference who showed that in the fourth and fifth centuries a logical tradition was imposed on the Bible giving it an understanding it does not itself contain. But in the 17th century the culture that supported such a view began to break up. So some tried to get to the essential message of the Bible, only to find that it was written in cultures of its own, vastly different from ours. And we discovered we had little hard information on Jesus. So the attempt was made to create a Christ of faith based on many of the old dogmatic formularies but without the historical illusion. It was too selective so emphasis shifted to the text and authors, which showed that there is no one meaning of the Bible. All you find is a process of writing and the reader participates in the meaning a text creates. There is no one meaning of the Bible, and no centrality of Christ.
However, he thought that the Bible would not bend any further for radical Christians because it clashes at every point with modern sensibilities. He thought a radical group could not exist unless it was based on a new story, a new basis, or otherwise it would have to be curiously united together only by all reacting against the same orthodoxy. It seems parasitic.
So when you remove the beliefs you end up with religious humanism. What of it? I'd like to turn to my own Unitarian Church's experience, because it has attempted to move with the times, and one wing produced religious humanism.
In this country the Presbyterians who formed part of the United Reformed Church were those mainly set up by Scottish missionaries. The English Presbyterians had become Unitarians by and large. They had been ejected from the Church of England in 1662 at the Restoration when the bishops where given key powers over the presbyters or ministers. Presbyterians had really wanted to be in the national Church, but they could not get back so they produced their own comprehensiveness by deciding to have no church based dogmas. Liberalising Independent ministers joined the Presbyterians and congregations split and reformed creating a new liberal Church. It was, though, originally, confidence in scripture alone that allowed such a bold move, but as Dennis Nineham showed, the Bible won't support any one view.
Presbyterians were originally Calvinist, that we can do nothing about God's choice as to who is and who is not saved. But some became Arminian, meaning that we could affect our own salvation. A biblical third position in the background was Socinianism which rejected the atonement by shedding blood on the cross and instead emphasised that Christ brought salvation by the example of his life. The fourth position was Arianism: Samuel Clarke in his book The Scripture-doctrine of the Trinity claimed that the Bible said that Christ was pre-existent but God's deputy, which was not the classical position where Christ is co-equal in the Trinity.
Presbyterians read it in college and some preached it in their pulpits, but, like with Socinianism, it was not at first well received. Therefore others conformed to the Church of England where it was also influential. But a group of Arian Anglicans based at Cambridge and beyond wanted relaxation in assenting to the 39 Articles. They failed and so their chief organiser, Theophilus Lindsey, Vicar of Catterick, set up the first avowed Unitarian church in London with a liturgy based on Clarke's book. But the fifth biblical position was Unitarian as specifically promoted by Priestley. Although present at the opening of Lindsey's church, he preached that Jesus was not pre-existent but totally human and in his miracles and resurrection God acted through him. He also claimed that the Bible did not promote the Trinity. When Priestley was forced to emigrate and the movement was attacked for its supposed support for the French Revolution, it was virtually rebuilt by the effort of similarly believing missionary biblical Unitarians.
These people were denominationalists and much unlike those of Presbyterian style: some in the latter group using the principle of comprehensiveness were denying the importance of the Resurrection and miracles as proof of Christ's role, and this caused some biblical Unitarians to demand that they be expelled. But the Bible group were so noisy that orthodox dissenters began legal action on mainly Presbyterian funds. This nearly succeeded until Parliament stepped in. As a result the biblical group were blamed for causing the crisis and the more Presbyterian, gothic, romantic, semi-catholic "less belief more faith" wing took the upper hand. The movement as a whole moved away from relations with orthodox dissenters and towards liberal Anglicans, which reflected that old desire for comprehension.
And then something happended. In the 1870's, out of this rebirth of the "less belief more faith" Presbyterian Free Christian element came non-Christian and anti-supernatural types. Then in the early twentieth century the biblical group revived with the rise of the Liberal Party in power, but it was in its last days. It was absorbed by the Free Christians and in a sense the anti-supernatural and non-Christians became the new missionaries. It's a reversal of roles: now it is these religious humanists who claim that Unitarianism has to be distinct, which was once the role of the biblical party, and what's left of the bible approach is in the now quite conservative Free Christians.
But I am dealing with rough labels here. On the principle of comprehension, and sheer necessity, individual churches must cater for both kinds: liberal Christians and religious humanists.
Freedom allowed religious humanism to emerge within a Church. These kinds of Unitarians have considered that Christianity implies doctrine, and such ministers and lay people do not as such follow Christianity. The Sea of Faith Conference may prove them too dismissive, unless its form of Christianity is only sustained by the parasitical relationship that Dennis Nineham referred to. I don't know. It could be that different ecclesiastical relationships produce different forms of radicalism, or that real development needs freedom and the Sea of Faith group may lose any identifiable Christianity.
So how do I understand religious humanism, as an alternative? Humanism is one of those terms that changes in meaning. In its earlier uses, as in the Renaissance and Reformation, it did not deny the religious aspects of people, or their spirituality, when relating to the nature of humanity. It was the Industrial Revolution which first saw a mechanised view of human progress excluding the sacred, such as capital versus Labour, or utility being materialistic, generating a thoroughly secular view of politics and progress.
This sort of mechanised humanism affected our language and culture so that our categories of thought have been separated and compartmentalised, and spirituality has been separated from humanity. But to talk of religious humanism is to participate in the breakdown of these narrow categories, which have caused a lot of the problems that I referred to earlier about beliefs being needed to justify the essential nature of religion. Religious humanism suggests that people by contemplation and effort can improve human and moral problems, and that they do so through knowledge and understanding. Such requires freedom of thought, the place of challenging views, justice, and an understanding of happiness. Here is a revived classic liberalism, still utilitarian, which has remained more or less the measure of progress: that is the pursuit of maximum happiness for the greatest number. In this setting old religious doctrines are only kept if they offer direct human value.
The key is that humanity has a religious nature, not separate, but within. Such is not the biblical notion that it is the light that lighteth every man, although that might artistically be referred to, but is the very nature of evolved man, from the energy and the chemicals, that makes us what we are in our brain structures and in our language and culture. Language and culture is the key: we have unlike all other animals the ability to lie, and curiously that gives us value, meaning and truth. We are fully human, fully religious.
There are references here to Christianity that we can note. You see, I think Christianity is a mythological system that noted important things about humanity and not the other way around. So I'd stand on its head what Hans Kõng, a now unofficial liberal Roman Catholic theologian, said when he notes that "Christians are no less humanists than humanists" and that: the light of Christ they [the Christians] cannot support any kind of humanism that simply affirms all that is true, good beautiful and human but can support a truly radical humanism which is able to integrate and cope with what is untrue, not good, unlovely, inhuman: not only everything positive, but also - and here we discern what a humanism has to offer - everything negative, even suffering, sin, death, futility. (Kõng, On Being a Christian, 1974, p. 602).
For me Christianity learnt about humanity, and that element of Christianity, mindful of its humanism, I can still affirm. And humanism which does not take account of the the untrue, the unlovely and the inhuman, suffering, sin, death and futility, I reject. We have to take account of the complexities of life, and the sheer drag factor of our nature. And we have shown an inability to manage the ecology of the earth, and we don't easily understand economics. More so, real happiness can be extremely complex and simple quests for it can result in profound unhappiness. We always have to compromise with present day realities in moving forward.
In such a situation it is tempting to go back to the old certainties, but nothing reaffirmed is truly old. Today what reaffirming the tradition means is sectarian fundamentalism. The old certainties when put in new winebottles are not the same.
We might even appeal in desperation to the Christian intervening God, which for me diminishes humanity, or we might dwell in a non-intervening deism which still maintains old but now ineffective memories of a God behind everything created. No, I think we must be thoroughly anti-supernaturalist and ideally be purged of any God beyond our own selves. As for claimed "signals of transcendance", well, we may like the progress we do make, we may find the countryside attractive, we may find value in service and sacrifice and see that all who suffer have value. But it does not mean that anything, so to speak, joins the dots and makes a God exist behind it.
Some may say why have services at all? My thought is that certainly prayer in the old kind would not survive. There would be no asking a God for things or hoping for guidance, or reflecting that any kind of God created us, or that value was somehow injected into the material world by a God, and certainly not acting as if there is salvation by any events in history. God as a relativist iterm of language is a means of self-expression beyond any out-there existence. And in the essential religion of ritually passing through, I want to reflect on the world and myself in it, to contemplate action, to have the support of others and to give support in a pastoral sense, and also to discuss ideas through which we make our world meaningful. All this means modern services.
We need to purify, but modernism is not always welcome as I have said. So for some time we will be left with post-modernism, a clumsiness of language and references to past thought. I think of purifiers like the Quakers where surely their services will allow religious humanism to thrive. But it is a style that may not suit everyone. What of extra warmth? In the nineteenth century, after the Anglicans' Oxford Movement, many Unitarians went gothic and later with others became Free Catholics. They had a short lived life: some went to Rome and it all rather dissipated in its incense. "Symbols unite, dogmas divide", was its principle, and it's a good idea. But today we who want warmth know the reality that there are no easy-to-find symbols. Some say the eucharist can focus ritually, and I would, but it is wrapped up in meanings like bloody sacrifice and the lamb to the slaughter which just do not always appeal to everyone, particularly religious humanists.
So there is no easy solution to this. I'm about to start training for Unitarian ministry, and as well as trying to add to its intellectual life I will be attempting to discover if we can purify and provide warmth at the same time . It is a lifetime's experiment. We want dignified hymns, music, poetry, thought, and what else? Well, for a bit of charismatic style non-dogmatic happy hymns we might use something like the first BBC Come and Worship (which takes account of humanism and faiths as well as Christianity) and a good stereo system for appropriate music helps.
Religious humanism, developed as I have expressed it, is an attempt to take how we have arrived at the modern situation, and develop it today. Its difficulty is in finding a language: this is its crucial agenda. But it is a way forward, and an attempt to put religion back on the modern map, and perhaps it is an alternative to the rut that religion in the present day seems to be in.


Adrian Worsfold (1984 - the original script restored)

Comment 2004

There is a struggle of thinking going on here. One is between religion of old and modernity, and that I am split between these two as well. I have already gathered that Unitarianism expresses a theology in which it does not believe (Christmas carols). My own eucharistic bias
 from Anglican times is here:
...human religion of the ritually passing through kind, including that by which we might be refreshed on a weekly basis...
This I have since rediscovered as a theology and social anthropology: Mauss and The Gift.
The debate throughout is not Unitarian: it is Anglican via the Sea of Faith applied to Unitarianism. There is Unitarian history to find a place in which to plug in this approach. The approach, however, is one of essentially a religion of content but without a high God, and in a sense this is the opposite of Unitarianism which kept a high God but stripped (minimised) out the content. Religious humanism then, as suggested here, is quite different from the Unitarian understanding. I wanted to apply warmth and purity at the same time.


Adrian Worsfold 2004