Reflecting on and Moving on from Unitarian Perspectives on Contemporary Religious Thought

The problem with the book, Unitarian Perspectives on Contemporary Religious Thought (1999), other than its tendency to come apart in one's hands, is that whilst it may be about contemporary religious phenomena (not always thought as such) it has little in the way of Unitarian perspective. So in this essay I want to try to reflect upon Unitarianism and where it is going, with some reference to the book.
The chapter by Kay Millard (pp.8-23) scores the most in the way of lost opportunity in this regard. When a Christian writes on implicit religion there is inevitably a comparison made between a defined Christianity and this form of popular religion as experienced in Europe and particularly the UK. A comparison is made between the linear and collective historical nature of doctrinal Christianity with Christ as saviour, and the dissipated individualism of implicit religion and the appearance of Christ when relevant as a kind of moral example and avatar. Implicit religion is also quite syncretistic at an individual level. So where is the Unitarian celebration in this chapter of such an outbreak of individualism and syncretism, and criticism of its lack of reason (the drift towards astrology and the like), and the analysis of the implicit religious person's distance from organised religion?
There is a connection between implicit religion and the New Age. The New Age is implicit religion with added definition, shape and commitment: the urban dweller who seeks out to make something of the rural past-into-the-present, and attempts to recreate the magical world in a time of science, producing a kind of psuedo-science. I was writing my notes for this review at Bonskeid House in Scotland, where a group which believes in Bioenergy (auras around the body and the like) satisfied themselves with the effects of what they did (with a paid author leading the session), and when they left they were followed in by Transcendental Meditation group with many more grey hairs. The first group made a kind of pseudo-science of the body, and the second was based in 1960's idealism. George Chryssides chapter on Unitarianism and the New Age (pp. 91-109) illustrates differences between authoritarian cults and Unitarianism, which is hardly the point, and then the New Age and Unitarianism. The main analysis that is lacking is how Unitarianism preserves its identity of reasonableness avoiding both a subculture of its own inherited practices (Old Age!) or absorption into what it sees as a lot of New Age sillinesses.
The argument he makes is valid - that there is something quite uncritical about the New Age. It is also consumerist. The problem here is that in the postmodern or highly pluralist culture (which can retain elements of objectivity and signals of transcendence, but where we cannot know where) leads any freely forming and evolving group in the direction of consumerism. Belief must be recognisably modern (or postmodern) and culture-capitalist in order to relate to this world and to recruit reasonable people, unless it is to be world denying (traditionalist) or world attacking (conversionist) and drive recruitment from such pathological perspectives. However, where is Unitarianism to be, if it is not to be world-denying, world attacking or overly culture-capitalist?
My assertion is that Unitarianism is caught between becoming world-denying by sub-cultural practice and openness culture-capitalism. It is world-denying in the sense that it inherits forms not even recognisably Christian in doctrine yet, in form, very Protestant and of an historically lost world. Yet in terms of belief content it is groaning towards becoming culture-capitalist, by not denying the widest breadth of individualisms as beliefs. There is neo-paganism, there is postmodernism, humanism, various kinds of Christianities, eastern faith (Buddhist, and semi-Hindu/ Nature as inherited from Transcendentalism) and yet these contents are presented not with people sat in circles and in discussions with meditations, but with a preacher and service-taker of sorts, people sat in rows, the singing of the Lord's Prayer (Why? What does this mean anymore?) and prayers to something called a creative spirit or God in some semi-Christian understanding. I've lost count of the times a service form has been one thing only to have a traditional sermon inhabit a more recognisable world (it is worse when the sermon does not either).
In my view, Unitarianism is not harmed by remaining connected with the world and inevitably must take on the risks of the New Age but with a commitment to reasonableness (as opposed to reason - reason only being possible, however, with a difficult belief in Habermas-like objectivity through discussion, which he states is impossible within religion). The task is to relate to implicit religion, to the forces which bring about the New Age, and yet see its own inheritance, not of forms and styles as such (which are, I argue, redundant and rejected) but in the notion of doing debate, discussion and active reasonableness. The task must not be to creating a Unitarian identity as such, but identity which tries to accept as many of "they" as "we" without expecting they to join to be accepted - a transformation of active tolerance and Martineau's view of a Church as something broad and inclusive. In this way Unitarians together disagree while being in their community: acting as a microcosm of what the world could be, a thorough rejection of sectarianism and human participation by getting to know what the other side thinks and engaging with it.
It is very difficult to achieve, however, because we like to be in our club with the like-minded. It is a world of many faiths of course, but Vernon Marshall (pp. 46-60) lazily rests in history on this potential future. How can Unitarianism go on to be a bridge today? Is this bridge now needed when faiths meet directly? How about being a bridge within, by recognising the "revealed" (!) relativity of all knowledge, and the non-objective nature of the religious language game? To be a gospel to a fractured world you have to lead by exaple.
The New Age and postmodernity, by contemporary fuzziness and linguistic irony, contributes towards tolerance. Frank Walker's chapter (pp. 110-127) describes Sea of Faith and Peter Hawkins pp. 24-45) gives a very good overview of postmodernity in an ironic comical postmodern manner, yet both do not readily apply Unitarianism to these related phenomena. Why I suggest Unitarianism finds it hard to adapt and is becoming subcultural (forms that are becoming world-denying) is that it has a history that has found itself against the postmodern logic. Unitarians have behaved with the view that Christianity has an essence that is true and a surface that is clutter. It has applied critical methods to remove the clutter in its attempt to get at the truth of religion. But in doing this it has found that there is no such essence to be agreed upon (anti-Habermas!) but has produced instead a bare religious humanism with only a religious clutter of ever more unjustified service forms to hang on to for identity. It peeled an onion and it never found the kernel in the nut. As a result its language remains objective in implication, whereas postmodernists realise that this game was lost a long time back. God was not being revealed - God was dead and died into art and culture and writing and symbolism itself.
Indeed, just like implicit religion's over emphasis on symbol-in-itself (thus a continuing desire for ceremonies of marking public disasters, collective occasions, child naming, marriage, funerals - on individuals' terms, however), and like the New Age recreation of science into a religious language game, postmodernism is about rebuilding in a world of religious fictions. It is remythologising, not demythologising. Spirituality has now to be found in doing drama, not some enlightenment quest for the truth at the end of the rainbow. And the Unitarian problem is that if you try to fix at some point where the majority in one place has found truth, the result is some horrid traditionalism at a point where few others understand of stripping away tradition and cultic practice but leaving something left. It becomes that present day Unitarian half way house chapel culture, of the "family church" long after the Sunday school movement is dead (where grandparents bring a handful of children) and where God is still that kindly distant male father figure (and, again, Ann Pearts chapter is another chapter that is good on history but leaves the present chapel-based resistance to feminism among older women in the pews unanalysed). This is the world-denying element - where the outsider asks "What are you doing?" in that somehow there is an in between land where practice has become frozen.
Well what do Unitarians do? They inhabit a quiet corner of regularity, where indeed more women than men attend and they all do what they have known for decades, where there is a completely missing generation (like in the rest of declining Christianity), and where the last person out will switch off the light. Because the chapel culture once supported by an seemingly wider and general objective Christian culture, a culture that inter-related to theologicans, now runs like a religious museum, where the form and inheritance are of that objective religious world and finding the truth in religion.
The argument here is that whilst the doctrinal version of Christianity is fictional, Unitarianism is exposed as just as fictional. But whereas doctrinal Christianity retains some sense of public recognition (if kept at arms length), Unitarianism is a peculiar hybrid of traditional form and altered content.
Because suddenly the clutter is the important part, not some essence within, where the psedo-science works for them, and human spirituality continues to find a place on the broken rafts that float about the sea. And so my criticism of the book is that it simply has not grasped the totality of the situation Unitarianism is in - which is:
That Unitarianism is an old and declining movement, bereft of overall strategy much due to its congregational system. It has a ministry but knows not why any more, it retains worship practices but knows not why, and has an age range which dooms it to extinction because its population is not being replaced - and no one outside could understand why to become involved. It contains the remains of a theological method which believed in rationalism and objectivity within romanticism, buuilt into practices which it cannot let go because of a fear of losing a sense of identity and being religious.
It is probably impossible to offer a strategy for survival. My own view is that chapel after chapel will collapse. There will be a few left which survive on inherited money. There will be a few such ministers left too. Then there will be a national group of maybe one to two thousand of historically informed people who will perhaps meet regionally from time to time. They will finally drop regualr practices which seem irrelevant. They will discuss more, debate more, accept their differences more and make that the basis of meeting. They will adopt more of the pracitices of the New Age as ritual forms but subject what they are doing to reasoned analysis. They will understand the tradition as active toleration, inclusivity and discussion and apply it broadly. Ten, and only then, will the age profile begin to change (as it must for sheer survival!).
Surprisingly, perhaps, the best chapter by far in the book is by Margaret Wilkins (pp.77-90) asking if a purely human Jesus can be risked. Does this sound too traditional or focussed in past concerns. This is not the point. What shines through is the method. The method is quite ruthless, to the nth degree. She convincingly shows that a singularly human Jesus cannot be a figure to be followed by religious logic. He cannot be because, among the scraps of biography about him, and indeed the literature on him, he may well be morally flawed (for example, regarding the contemporary concern for animal rights). Only a some kind of doctrinally supported Jesus can be so followed as Unitarians once did. This chapter is Unitarianism at its best, because it applies critical method to everything. It is positive to be critical - not because there is something else objective to be found afterwards but so that if there is to be worship based around Jesus (or anyone or anything else) then participants need to be sure of the basis of such activity. This is the practical inheritance of Unitarianism - to be fearless not cosy, to not give up the examining, and yet to rebuild expressions of collective spirituality with eyes open. Religion is such human social anthropology, featured within its language game, where we are aware of the dramas we make for the spirituality we try to express.

Adrian Worsfold

Chryssides, G. (1999), Unitarian Perspectives on Contemporary Religious Thought, London: The Lindsey Press