Interpretive Reflection 03 of the
Unitarian Theology Conference 2016

The Rev. Jo James:
The Spirit in Unitarian and Judaeo-Christian Thought

Perhaps it was because it was after lunch, but Jo James started with an explanatory spiritual exercise based around the breath, the explanation of which was its interchangability with 'spirit' across cultures. There is spiritus, anima, psyche, pneuma, atman and ruach to mention some connecting words. The breath and spirit animates, and they are always embodied.

I was reminded of the physics of information, and that it must be embodied, and that information does need energy to organise, store and transmit, and it is part of the movement towards entropy when it becomes inaccessible. Information is what makes the universe and indeed our brains work. Perhaps we could have a physics-informed theology of information.

Jo James has been doing a dissertation, and he has stolen the use of his title containing Spectral Hermeneutics from John Caputo. We were receiving the benefit of Jo James's research and writing.

(Caputo is a postmodern, deconstructing, 'weak theology' theologian and philosopher. Weak theology means a God with an unconditional claim but without force - not all powerful and not intervening. It opposes kenosis, or self-emptying, because this has weakness from the off, but then some see weak theology as the correct kenotic theology. Spectral Hermeneutics focuses upon the event in this context of the weakness of God. Events are the irreducible essence of the flux within things that change, of neither being nor non-being and able to grow within the postmodern space. So this goes beyond any ground of being - as with Tillich - to the event. There is no ontology of being, therefore but hauntology. It's a bit like quantum physics beyond the atom and where it is a fundamental homeless don't know and also a yes, yes (plural). The weakness of God is evident in the Alice in Wonderland crazy realities written about in the New Testament, a sacred anarchy. Christianity cannot be privileged, however, otherwise what is weak becomes strong. There was the death of God and this is part of that but also the understanding behind the return of religion after this death, the hermeneutics of this strange Kingdom of God.)

I wonder how many Unitarians have encountered John Caputo as one of those cutting edge theologies so overlooked?

Once again hear the Rev. Jo James neat. In making a sound file I did edit out his verbal mistakes and long pauses, and whilst his slow delivery might have suited the occasion it doesn't suit listening (when one can rewind). Thus it is speeded up by 20%. The effects of this have been a little widening and distorting, but the microphone quality was already distorting somewhat at source.

So, for the Rev. Jo James, 'spectral hermeneutics' means the Holy Spirit as fugitive doctrine that evades definition. For me he did not emphasise enough the quality of this evasion as seen in Caputo's slightly crazy theological landscape - the event that is a don't know. Unitarians are perhaps more stable: but he said that in its rational, humanist and sceptical thought since the Second World War, Faith and Freedom (published by Harris Manchester College in Oxford) has included a number of articles on pneumatology. And the Holy Spirit is in David Steers' liberal Christianity and Jo James's liberal religion, identifiable in the emphasis on reason in faith, an open and thoughtful approach to the Bible and other spiritual texts, through a preference for unity and dialogue, by individual responsibility for faith and insisting on tolerance and freedom of conscience.

So pneumatology is the central focus, but his own dissertation says it is not the explainer of Unitarianism nor its core hidden doctrine - and in the light of recent discussions (presumably Facebook, where I was stirring it a bit about prescriptive dangers), he was not proposing or prescribing a theology for us all. But he wants to consider theologies of the Spirit.

His dissertation has been supervised by Dr. Justin Meggitt. A speciality of his is early modern religious radicalism and its encounter with Muslims and Islam. (This includes early Quakers and Islam.) Well, I have made a point in the past that Transylvanian Unitarianism grew at a time of the greater influence of Islam and Turkey, and shrank back with the Austro-Hungarian Empire re-expanding. The Jesuit rule destroyed Socinianism in Poland. Later Jo James referred to radical groups coming into the sphere of Dutch and English radicals with keen theologies of the Spirit. So we now extend this to Islam and its transcendence and apocalyptic.

In liberal Christianity and liberal religion the Holy Spirit is within (should be within?) the narrative by which we self-understand Unitarianism (echoes then of Melanie Prideaux's Chain of Memory). We can also use lateral points of contact and networks, thus beyond the standard Anglican and English Presbyterian origins to more radical groups and places where God has been seen as active in working towards equality and social justice.

Connections for the Holy Spirit can be found in Geoffrey William Hugo Lampe's book God is Spirit (1977) which constituted the Bampton Lectures in 1976 (four years before his death). Despite being Anglican the theology was unitarian.

(Lampe argued that 'Spirit' properly describes, not one of the three divine persons, but the whole activity of God in his relation to humankind, not distinct from God the Father and God the Son or Word, but God being active towards and within his human creation. There is a strong emphasis on divine immanence, and not bringing people to, say, a new life in Christ. Geoffrey Lampe's work then is often seen as the end point of liberal theology in the Church of England, along with the Doctrine Commission's Christian Believing (1976) and the ecumenical Myth of God Incarnate (1978) edited by the Presbyterian John Hick. Theology had to re-emphasise tradition as a whole and the Church.)

Another source is Celtic Spirituality, said Jo James. But perhaps most relevant are the Anabaptists and other groups from the left wing of the Reformation where the Spirit was part of a rationalising framework.

Many mystics have relied upon doctrine, but the mystical is direct and not dependent upon some Church administration. In fact the mystic is often viewed as a threat to the administered Church with the contribution towards rationality and freedom. So it arrives at a more liberal, immanent, pneumatology.

Historically, Jo James referred to the fall of John Sigismund, King of Transylvania, and the resultant movement of groups across Europe that coincided with the theological output of Arminius and his Universalism: the place of the Remonstrants in the Netherlands.

I was slightly puzzled by this. The end of the launch period of Transylvanian Unitarianism led to its containment but not demolition. It was Poland where Socinianism was demolished, and Socinian Poles had a fortnight to convert or get out (1660). Some of them indeed went to Transylvania. Others went across to the Netherlands. A key group were the Polish Brethren. Of course these ideas had travelled over earlier. How important was Arminius? He was important for undermining strict Calvinism, and these ideas seeped into ministerial academies, but surely Socinian ideas were their own and more radical, and the North Sea was a 'bridge' for bringing the more radical ideas into England, being printed in England and in the Netherlands. Furthermore, English Presbyterians were intolerant of other dissent politically and religiously. Cromwell could handle all but Irish and Scottish dissent (Presbyterians called upon Scotland for support, and did not get it thanks to Cromwell fighting the Scots off), and after the Restoration in 1660 the Socinians were suspected as being a dangerous network of people, whereas they thought their views could be tolerated without threat to the State, the origins for such a view being in Poland.

In Bridport chapel as a ministry student Jo James removed dust-covered pew Bibles to find books underneath and underneath them a Remonstrant book. So there was a physical connection.

Another key person was Spinoza, influenced by refugees from Britain into Europe, including Quakers and Baptists, including Samuel Fisher the ex-Baptist. The upshot was producing The Light Upon the Candlestick or Lucerna super Candelabrum.

(It's a tract, written in 1662, using the religious philosophy of Descartes (1596-1690) and Spinoza (1632-1677), and used the name of William Ames as the Quaker author (he was actually a Baptist) whereas its probable author was Peter Balling, a member of the Collegiants. Spinoza mixed with them from 1660 to 1663 in Rynsburg. Balling after Spinoza claimed that inward experience of the Divine is the only authentic path to Truth, accessible to all, and the basis by which all religious claims, including scripture, get assessed. It was translated into English from Latin by Benjamin Furley, a Quaker merchant from Colchester living in Rotterdam. It was adopted as a Quaker tract and circulated as such in England. It is about transformation from a guiding Light that must arise within the soul itself, as an inward and immediate knowledge. It is The Light of Truth and enlightens each and every one. Furthermore, without this light the scriptures are only words and letters and revelation outward signs. God must be present in the soul first. Without this Light, there is no power or ability to do any good and it overcomes sin. Regarding Samuel Fisher, he was a Baptist minister before becoming a Friend in 1654. In 1660 Fisher published A Rustic Alarum to the Rabbies, a denial of the standard Protestant view that Scripture is the Word of God and he used Spinoza's ideas.)

So we have rooting in Anabaptist, Socinian and mystical thought with unclear boundaries. It generated Unitarianism in the eighteenth century (indeed - the ideological sources). Jo James said that Spinoza went into the Bible and tradition for sources of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, but also claimed that the Spirit - Ruach (breath) - was with nature and (as above) God's intention in Spirit and our spirit are overlapping. The Spirit then is one substance throughout, and thus stands with relationship, diversity and community. There is a merging then with nature and humankind, leading to a God-world relationship problem. We might see it as pantheism, even atheism...

But, in any case, how can a pure experience be validated? He said there were competing claims by each faction of sanctification by the Spirit of their precise positions but without central authority there was no way to decide between them. The Collegiants, he said, had so much difficulty with this problem that they dropped the Spirit altogether, and secularised, and so he wondered if Unitarians now have disavowed the Spirit with similar secularisation. Unitarians had needed the Spirit to be based on relational and ethical forms for denominational coherence in community; Enlightenment and rational Unitarians evolved into romanticists (Wicksteed, Tayler, Thom, Martineau) and Transcendentalists in the US; Martineau and colleagues in the UK steered Unitarianism in Britain from secular-naturalist and conservative-Christian expressions to an expilcitly spiritual free-Christianity with a pnuematalogical basis emphasised. Charles Hargrove wrote God is Spirit as a semon at Leeds (where Jo James ministers). Martineau pursued the idea of divine agency in our humanity and the sovereignty of the conscience, where Spirit is present with spirit; he took time to publish an influential defence of Spinoza in 1868, who was being accused of atheism. Martineau showed that Spinoza is linked to the Collegiants and mysticism and had influence on Schleiermacher (the defence of essential Christianity as dependency) and Coleridge (the romanticist). Joseph Estlin Carpenter at Leeds promoted Comparative Religion; Sydney Spencer his student followed this and he developed essentialist interfaith universalism and radical spiritual mysticism (or Protestant Mysticism) together (in the 1950s) which is unifying. In these, revelation is not sealed and no one tradition has a monopoly of truth or exclusive access to the imminent Spirit. It promotes compassion and social solidarity, and was to be echoed by Lampe.

So pneumatology as the basis of developing a genuine liberal approach to religion cannot be overstated. From Ochino and Socinus onwards, the Spirit has been part of developing liberal religion. More recently a gender free spirit has moved thinking from dogma and patriarchy. Low Christology is still combined with religious naturalism with the divine incarnation in every day life (not Christ exclusively, as with Martineau).

It impacts on New Age and non-traditional religion, which was the context of Paul Heelas, (Bronislaw Szerszynski) and Linda Woodhead studying Kendal Unitarians, part of (The Kendal Project: Patterns of the Sacred In Contemporary Society , and they identified a human inner experience of the divine above anything scriptural, sacramental or external forms. They found that the spiritual is the depth that connects life with life.

(The field research was mostly carried out by Ben Seel and Karin Tusting. Ben Seel identified over 50 non-Christian groups with some sort of spiritual dimension to their activities; Karin Tusting was the other full time researcher. Services were attended at Kendal’s 26 different churches. They used participant observation, interview (200) and a later questionnaire. With student helpers the study counted attendance on 26th November 2000 (8% -  a lower attendance day; 45 Unitarians). There has been a 'subjective turn' in spirituality (and in other engagements in the West). So categories of church they classified were: Congregations of Difference, of a subjective life constrained by doctrines and moral codes; Congregations of Experiential Difference with informal worship  and lay involvement where deep experience takes priority over doctrinal and external forms; Congregations of Humanity that praised God with human duty and self-sacrifice over freedom; and Congregations of Experiential Humanity like the Quakers and Unitarians where the tradition of God speaking in the heart of the individual are more likely to develop subjective-life spiritualities than other churches. Congregations of Experiential Difference held up their numbers best. Heelas & Woodhead, 2005.)

In the twentieth century John F. Hayward (1918-2012) claimed that secular liberalism absorbed pneumatological language, and this view is in agreement with Caputo in After the Death of God (Caputo et al., 2007). It's the transcription of God into time and history.

In terms of worship, advice is we should invoke at the beginning of a service the invisible realities, but with the UK Unitarians going beyond its Christian roots, such an invocation is contentious, and such a sought breadth of understanding means lack of philosophical or theological clarity - and even more problematic with the growth of religious humanism and religious atheism. But whereas Christian and Earth-Centred forms can alienate, calling upon the Spirit is sufficient and workable for most, being inclusive and personal. The song Spirit of Life by Carolyn McDade has become almost an anthem of British Unitarianism (since Sing Your Faith was published). (It was sung).

Questions included a noting of the publication of a book Humanism and the Holy Spirit, that validating spiritual experience is not a new problem - indeed so with the radical dissenters and even radical political groups, that the late Sydney Knight said the Holy Spirit was the neglected part of the Trinity among Unitarians, and that D. H. Lawrence invoked the spirit in his literature and thus the spirit is in aesthetics.

My reflection upon this is that the case was well made with historical ballast in the early infusion of the Spirit into the left wing of the Reformation and then the development of rationalist and romantic more subjective religion. On the other hand it omits reference to the standard liberal theological route - Schleiermacher (1768-1834), Ritschl (1822-1889), Harnack (1851-1930) and Troeltsch (1865-1923) that had little to say about the Spirit, and influenced Unitarian academics, nor of Hegel (1770-1831) with the embodied Spirit into idealism and progress and arguably stands behind Ritschl onwards. We might address too some of the speculations of the Cappadocian Fathers, being Basil of Caesarea (330-379), Gregory of Nysa (335-395) and Gregory Nazianzen (329-390), struggling to identify the Spirit and process, as background. However, a lecture is about what is in it, not what isn't, and arguably as a read paper is was dense enough with content.

Indeed the language of Spirit has been used, implied and lost, and into contemporary times it revives again as a 'safer' language than Lord, God, and specific forms like Goddess and Christ. Perhaps 'Spirit' with its various humanist and theist implications, of both intervention and non-intervention, is the only coherence available. Caputo does imply absence of coherence except at some sub-atomic level and in the realm of don't know/ paradox. But I wonder if it is a weak word, and if other words from science like 'information' and 'energy' carry more useful, contemporary and meaningful resonances, especially as our creation myth today supported with mathematics and observation is that of energy borrowed and exploded, of the 'left hand of creation' (etc.) and an expanding universe towards eventual oblivion, in which we are transient travellers trying to come to terms with personal and eventual total death. But then these are of one choice among many. I think we each have to make our choices and throw them into the pot and see what sort of liturgies emerge. When I attempted to write a book of emergency liturgies (when preachers don't turn up), they were divided into more traditional, more radical, more christian, more eastern, more pagan, more secular - each a complete service. So arranged, I needed to use Spirit language little at all. In a more traditional sense, it is God acting and moving and causing human movement, and words like 'Creator Spirit' and even 'Creative Spirit' have also been contentious. To me, the world is chaotic in build and then organises interactively like systems. Again the Sociology of Knowledge makes these religious words fairly meaningless. It's a problem.

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Caputo, J. D.  Vattimo, G., edited by Robbins, J. W., afterword by Vahanian, G. (2007), After the Death of God, series: Insurrections: Critical Studies in Religion, Politics, and Culture, New York: Columbia University Press.   

Hayward, J. F. (1962), Existentialism and Religious Liberalism, Boston: Beacon Press.

Heelas, P., Woodhead, L. (2005), The Spiritual Revolution: Why Religion is Giving Way to Spirituality, of the series: Religion and Spirituality in the Modern World, Oxford: Blackwell.

Lampe G. W. H. (1977), God as Spirit: The Bampton Lectures 1976, London: Clarendon Press.


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful