Dissenting Radical

The Common Good: A 'Christian-Left' perspective on radical theology, progressive politics, authentic culture and sustainable living.

Month: July, 2012

A plea for honest religion

I don’t like deceit in matters of religion. One cannot claim ‘facts’ on the basis of ‘faith’. If the facts are not clear – if claims are unsubstantiated and subject to reasonable challenge, then this should be admitted. Fact claims that concern what we do not know must be advanced agnostically and hypothetically. Fact claims that contradict what we do know are inadmissible.

We can however make value claims, provided we are willing to engage in a reasonable normative argument about what is ‘good’, and provided we can agree on a few basic ethical axioms (and that is probably a feasible project because such axioms, stemming from the social nature of our species, are quite universal).

We can also talk subjectively about our experience, and about the narrative and cultural frameworks through which we interpret that experience.

It is important to recognise this distinction between fact and truth, and how they relate to the interpretation of experience. A story does not have to be materially factual to have some truth value: if you think that the Fox really did try to eat the grapes, or that an ugly duckling really did turn into a swan, that I cannot help thinking you’ve missed the point of the story. Our interpretation of experience might be profoundly true, but that doesn’t mean we know all the facts.

So, when anyone tries to tell me about God, as if they have it all figured out, just because they’ve read one Book (or worse, read one Book, interpreted though the grim doctrines of the Westminster Confession, or the shlock smiles of Sticky Fumble), they shouldn’t be surprised when I turn around and object.

This doesn’t mean religion is all wrong, that God does not exist, that Jesus was not a prophet, that his Way is not excellent, or that the Bible is nothing but an irrelevant old book. It simply means that theology is an on-going process, an unfolding discovery, not a once-and-for-all revelation: ultimately, theology is the point at which our lived experience, cosmology, anthropology, psychology, ethics and literary criticism meet, and we should use the disciplines proper to these fields to better understand it. We should be honest in our search and humble about both our answers and our lack thereof.

(Well, that’s how I read 1 Peter 3:15, anyhow.)

 

The liberation theology of Giuseppe Mazzini

Giuseppe Mazzini is not well known in the English-speaking world. To the extent that his name is remembered at all, it is as an agitator for Italian unification. He is portrayed as a radical intellectual emigre, whose idealism – in an era dominated by the pragmatic, ruthless calculation of Cavour and the dashing, heroic populism of Garibaldi – left him stranded on the outside of events.

Yet Mazzini deserves to be taken down from the dusty, footnoted shelves of history and re-read. His writing is a passionate plea for the liberation of the working class and the peasantry from crippling conditions. He opposed the arrogant selfishness of the ruling class, the corruption of the clergy, and the cold, materialist liberalism of the middle class ‘doctrinaires’. Most of all, he opposed the self-debasement and apathy of the common folk, taking a stand against such debilitating notions as ‘mustn’t grumble’, ‘could be worse’ and ‘not for the likes of us’.

His seminal work, ‘On the Duties of Man’, differs markedly from the mainstream of nineteenth century radical thought, in that it does not appeal to the rights of the individual, but to the duties of the person – their duties to God, country, family and self. Liberation was not about standing up for your own selfish interests, but about standing for a community in which duty would be done to all. Mazzini’s commitment to the good society, based on a deeply Christian ethic of democratic fraternalism, offers a way in which modern progressive politics can reconnect with the ethical concerns of those millions who are moved to moral indignation by our present circumstances. It rejects the culture of ‘me-first’ individualism (which is rightly perceived as powerless in the face of corporate greed and consumerism). It exposes the clash between bankers’ bonuses and benefit cuts, of money for Olympic circuses but not for pensioners’ bread, of billions poured into the machinery of war while the NHS is sold off in slices, for what it is: namely, a gross dereliction of duty by the Government, and a gross dereliction of duty by the people in allowing democracy to atrophy to the point at which successive Governments have got away with it for decades.

In many ways, Mazzini’s writings prefigured what was to become liberation theology. You might even, in a metaphorical sense, call him a prophet. He recognised that at the core of political liberation and of the Good Republic lay spiritual liberation and the Good News. His call for radical change in the political and economic order of society was predicated upon a call for radical repentance in our hearts. The New Democracy was to be born out of the New Life.

Mazzini drew instructive parallels between the circumstances of his own time and the events described in the Bible. Jesus was born into a time of crisis. His country was under foreign military rule, and a rich class of collaborators – the temple hierarchy and the tax gatherers – were oppressing the people. As we know from the work of modern New Testament scholars such as Marcus Borg that the Old Testament laws of the jubilee, requiring the redistribution of land, had fallen into disuse, and that the very things that the Mosaic law had been introduced to prevent (that is, Pharaonic power and slave labour) were resurgent. In the Roman world, meanwhile, the Republic had died: society and civility had passed away, the honour of Brutus had given way to the wealth of Crassus and the power of Pompey, and the ‘easy yoke’ of liberty had been exchanged for the subtle but ensnaring bonds of licentiousness. As Mazzini writes:

“The times were wrapped in shadow. Heaven was a void.  The peoples wandered, pricked by strange fears, or paused torpid, puzzled wonderment.  Whole nationas disappeared; others just raised their heads as thought to see them die.  A hollow sound as of dissolution was heard in the world.  All creation, earth and sky, trembled.  Man seemed in a hideous case.  Placed between two infinities, he knew neither; he knew not past nor future.  All belief was dead: dead the belief in the Gods, dead the belief in the public.  Society was nothing: naught but a power that drowned in blood, or ate itself away in deeds of shame and sin; a senate, a poor parody of the majesty that it had been, which voted gold and statues to the tyrant; pretorians who despised the one and slew the other; informers, sophists, and a slavish and obsequious multitude.  There were no principles of saving virtue: there existed but the calculation of antagonistic interests.  The republic was exhausted.  The solemn voice of Brutus from the tomb had told the world that virtue was but a name.  And the good withdrew from that world, to keep their souls and intellects from stain.  Nerva starved himself to death.  Thraseas made libation of his own blood to Jove the Liberator.  The soul had disappeared: the senses alone reigned.  The people asked for bread and circus games.  Philosophy had become scepticism, or mere sophistries and words.  Poetry was satire.  From time to time man stood appalled at his own solitude, and drew back from the wilderness.  Then the citizens, almost frenzied with dread, clasped the bare, cold statues of the gods that once they worshipped, and of them a spark of moral life, a ray of faith, even some illusion; but they went away unheard, with despair in their hearts and blasphemy on their lips.  Such were those times, so like our own.”

These were dark days indeed. Times, so it would seem, for for despair, despondency, and futile self-destruction. Yet Mazzini saw that Jesus’ birth heralded a new hope. For a light would shine in the darkness, and the darkness would not overcome it.

“But yet, that was not the death-agony of the world; it was but the end of one phase of the world’s evolution.  A great epoch was exhausted, passing away to leave the road clear for another, whose first notes were already ringing in the north, and that awaited only its initiator to declare itself.  He came.  He was the soul most full of love, most virtuous and holy, most inspired by God and the future, that men have ever hailed on this earth: it was Jesus.  He bent over the decaying world, and murmured in its ear a word of faith.  To that obscene thing which retained nought but the aspect and notions of a man, he uttered words unknown up to that day: love, self-sacrifice.  The dead arose; a new life thrilled through that which philosophy had tried in vain to bring to life.  From it came forth the Christian world, the world of liberty and equality.  Man was made manifest, the image and foreshadowing of God.  Jesus died.  As Lamennais has said, he asked on men, to save them, only a cross to die on.  But before he died, he announced to the people the good news.  To those who asked him whence he had it, he answered: From God the Father; and from the cross twice he called on Him.  But from that cross his victory began, and still endures.”

And the consequence of this victory?

“Have faith then, ye that suffer for a noble cause, ye apostles of truth that even today the world ignores, ye that the world condemns and calls rebellious.  Tomorrow, perhaps, that world, today incredulous or careless, will bow with fervour before you.  Tomorrow, victory will crown your banner.  Onward in faith, and fear not.  That which Christ did, humanity can do.  Believe, and you will conquer.  Believe, and the peoples will end by following you. Let not your lips utter the cry of hate, not the conspirator’s hollow phrase, but the tranquil, solemn word of the days that are to come.  From our cross of poverty and proscription, we, the men of exile, who represent in our heart and faith the races of the enslaved, the millions doomed to silence, we will reply to you, and say to our brothers: the alliance is made.”

Mazzini lived in the springtime of the peoples, at a time when democracy was being fought for and new constitutional and social settlements, full of possibility and promise, were being established. I fear we live coming winter, with darkness ahead. But we should not faint nor despair. The Lamb is waiting to be born in human souls, and when it is a new spring will come, a time when the law of liberty, equality, and fraternity, shall be inscribed not on tables of wood or stone, but on the hearts of men. It is for this that we should watch, wait and work. It is for this that we should keep our lights trimmed and burning, ready to seize any opportunity to bring light and to dispel darkness where we find it.

 

Apophatic Theology and Christian Agnosticism

A few years ago I discovered an excellent little book called ‘After Atheism: Science, Religion and the Meaning of Life’, written by Mark Vernon, a philosopher and former Church of England priest.

Mark Vernon sets out an approach to spirituality that reconciles a scientific, realist, understanding of how the universe works with deep-but-silent theology of the divine which is rooted in a mystical Christian ethical and aesthetic tradition.

With the help of works like this (and others by Marcus Borg, John Shelby Spong and Richard Holloway), I have been able, without unbearable internal tension, to reject most of the ‘fact-claims’ of (evangelical, biblical-literalist, creedalist) Christianity, and yet to maintain a commitment to the ‘value-claims’ of the (loving, transformative, restorative, incarnational) Christian ethic.

I would not necessarily define myself as a Christian Agnostic. In the words of Psalm 34, I have ‘tasted and seen’ too much to remain unconvinced of the reality and goodness of God. Yet I find agnosticism a useful position to take with regard to many of the claims made by religious about God – including the claims of the Bible and of Christian tradition.

I am agnostic, for example, about prayer. I do not know how prayer works. I do not know whether, we, in human language, can meaningfully communicate with the Divine. It seems utterly absurd and inexplicable to me, yet also very uncanny. I’ve prayed for the sick and seen them get well. I have seen the power of the Holy Spirit demonstrated in mighty ways in my own life, and I know it was not simply a stage show or an illusion, because I was the one praying and working in the Spirit. I’ve even had a ‘Daniel in the Lion’s Den’ moment, when I was being mugged by a man with a hammer. As I prayed for him I felt the power of the Holy Spirt upon us. He fell to his knees, turned to Jesus and pleaded for forgiveness. I gave him my pocket bible, and then he gave me back the bag and camera that he had stolen from me just a while before. It was remarkable. And I’m still praying for that man even as I write these words.

I cannot understand or account for any of this. I know every logical fallacy. I know the danger of basing any conclusions on self-selecting samples and small numbers. I know how ‘confirmation bias’, subjective perceptions and anecdotal evidence can mislead us. But I don’t know what happens when we pray. Maybe God hears and responds. Maybe we have a latent, but entirely natural, capacity for telepathic, sympathetic, psychosomatic healing – or, to put is less strongly, a tendency to be highly suggestible. Maybe it is all just a strange coincidence.

Perhaps one day our understanding of the human mind will reveal that we have greater degrees of interconnectedness than we have hitherto realised, and that not only is our physical well-being interlaced with our mental state, but our mental state is interlaced with that of others, so that the thoughts of one can influence the well-being of another. I am not in a position to confirm or deny – or even suggest how we might test – that interesting hypothesis. Either way, until the explanation is clear, I remain agnostic about what happens when we pray.

I’m very comfortable not knowing. In fact, I’m somewhat uncomfortable with those who claim to know, one way or the other, with too much certainty.

Vernon’s vision of Christian Agnosticism is rooted in ‘apophatic’ theology. To do apophatic theology is to talk about God and God’s attributes through negation. It says what God is not. God is not a Man-in-the-Sky. God is not a Book. God is not a Creed. God is not a form of words, or a religious system. God is not (go on, I’ll say it, even if it will annoy the trinitarians) a radical Jewish martyred prophet known as Jesus. On the basis of that approach we can reject the ultimacy of all that is Not-God. The God that is really God is much godder than all that.

There’s a wonderful song by the band Gungor called ‘God is not a man’, the lyrics of which express this approach wonderfully. “God is not a man, not even a white man.”

I like the apophatic way. It fits well with a spirituality which is at once sceptically Unitarian and mystically Universalist. if we are to have a clear, rational, liberal and inclusive faith, then the tearing down of idols, the rejection of all false fact claims, the avoidance of speculative divisions, and the denial of ultimacy to all that is Not-God, is important. But is not, by itself, enough to sustain us as we seek, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to follow the Way of Jesus and to build the Kingdom of God. Just as, after the explusion of a tyrant in a revolution, we must at once move to establish a well-ordered republic, lest the false liberty of mere license bind us again in chains, so likewise, having expelled the falsehoods of all tyrannical creeds from our midst, we must move at once to reclaim the gospel of Jesus.

In the Unitarian Universalist tradition, we are very clear about what we stand against. We stand against fundamentalism, literalism, irrationalism, bigotry, superstition, hatred, legalism, condemnation, angry misogynistic Sky Gods, and all that has ruined, poisoned and degraded religion over the course of human history. In this respect, Unitarian Universalism is ‘apophatic’ to the core. But perhaps need to be clearer and more positive about what we stand for. Not just liberalism, but radicalism. Not just a refusal to worship the deified, mythological Jesus, but willingness to follow the Way of the human, historical Jesus. Not just the denial of the trinity, but the proclamation of the divine unity. Not just the absence of eternal punishment, but the glorious hope of universal salvation and universal reconciliation. Not just the rejection of Empire, but the embrace of the Kingdom. Not just the tearing down of Babylon, but the building of the New Jerusalem. Not just honest and sceptical doubt, but open and trusting faith. Not just Not-God, but God.

Why I’m Boycotting the Olympics

(1) It is expensive. At a time of ‘austerity’, most of the money spent on the Olympics could better be saved and passed on to poor (e.g. reducing regressive taxes, or increasing child benefit for those on low incomes).

(2) It is London-centric. Once again, our rulers in Westminster and Whitehall reveal that their mental geography is limited to the Babylonish metropole, where everything happens and which sucks in all the funds. The neglected far-flung provinces just foot the bill.

(3) It is a propaganda tool, being used as a fairly blatant push for legitimacy by the Establishment, desperate to cover up the lack of bread with a surfeit of circuses.

(4) ‘Team GB’. Come on. This offends many Scottish nationalists. This is supposed to be a multi-national Union. So the London-based parties and the No camp tell us all the time. But then they show their true colours, and treat it as if it were a simple unitary state. They don’t even understand why this is a problem.

(5) It is being used as an excuse to tighten already super-tight ‘anti-terror’ laws and surveillance laws, that are frequently abused to harass peaceful protest and dissent, ultimately undermining the basis of a free society.

(6) What once was an amateur sporting event has been turned into a commercial enterprise. It is a celebration not of sportsmanship, but of corporate sponsorship, power and greed.

So, this summer, I’m boycotting the olympics and everything to do with them. I’m not going. I’m not watching it on TV. I’m not cheering for ‘Team GB’. I’m not buying sponsored or branded goods.

Instead, I’d rather support the egg-n-spoon or the three-legged race at my local village fete. Because that’s where the good society is to be found: authentic, face-to-face, human scale, do-it-yourself, low-budget, good clean fun for all the family. No need to worry about transport, because you can walk there. There’s no need for any security beyond the local part-time copper, and no need of any corporate sponsorship beyond a stall selling pasties.  And it doesn’t reduce us to consuming, passive, spectators either. We can join in. Go on. Bean bag race is fun.

Problem is, that there is no village fete. There is no village green, either – not since the new supermarket was built. What was once a public green space is now a private expanse of ‘ample parking’. How very convenient.

It is no good griping. One must propose better alternatives, not simply complain. So here’s my alternative. Take one-third of the nine billion pounds being spent on the Olympics to create a Green Restoration Fund (the other two-thirds can be returned to the Treasury). Allow towns and villages which lack a decent green to submit bids to buy and transform some conveniently located space. The fund could provide 150 localities with a two million pounds each, and there are plenty of brown field sites now going cheaply that could be repurposed as greens for that sort of sum. The local parish council or community council should be solely responsible for managing the project and should be the perpetual trustee of the green on behalf of the local community. Note, these greens aren’t just sports fields. They can be used as that, of course, but they are also meeting places. Places to put up marques for flower shows. Places to sit and picnic. Dare I say it, places to hold a market, where people can buy and sell without having to own vast amounts of capital. The work of planting lawns and trees, and putting in benches and skate parks and paths, would create some local jobs. There could also be a role for volunteers. The schools could get involved, for example by forming an after-school club where older children could learn about tree planting and fence building and other practical skills by helping out with the work. The government and the BBC could put the effort that they are putting into promoting the Olympics into promoting these green restoration projects.

And when the work is done and these public amenities are restored – not for one day, but for generations to come – then we can organise games for everyone. For the children. For their parents. For locally owned businesses that want to make a positive contribution to their town or village. For the arrogant old gentleman who likes to chair meetings, and who is slowly learning not to interrupt all the time because it upsets people. For the nice-but-annoying busybodies who run cake stalls. For the cranky ones with the flakey egos who insist that they should be umpire for the 100 meters. For the unemployed recovering alcoholic who gets angry and storms off but comes back the next day to apologise because it was just the red mist and he’s still working on it. For the Polish family who have moved to the area and want their son to make friends even though his English isn’t great yet. This is what building a community looks like – working, living, learning and enjoying together. This is what it means to rediscover our full humanity, to live more authentically, to go from being passive consumers to active citizens.

And afterwards, carrot cake and bramble wine will be served in the parish hall. Bring your musical instruments.

Bastille Day: Gothic Reflections

Today is the 223rd anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, one of the most dramatic and symbolic events of the French Revolution. Those of us who were schooled in the anti-revolutionary assumptions of British education were probably taught that the French revolution was singular moment of financial crisis and misplaced hope that soon collapsed into tyranny, the terror and war. The lesson we are supposed to learn was this: fear God, honour the Queen, revere the ancient laws despite their absurdity, do as you are told, mind your own business, be thankful for your lot whether great or meagre, and be suspicious of well-meaning people with principles. “Principles, dear boy, lead to guillotines.”

Of course it is true that the French Revolution led to terror and war. Yet it need not have done. The first French Constitution, of 1791, was radical in its way. It abolished feudal and clerical privileges, created a unicameral Parliament elected on a wide (although far from universal) suffrage, enshrined the rule of law, the rights of citizens, and the independence of the judiciary, and established a limited and constitutional monarchy, in which the King would be a little more than symbolic figurehead while responsible Ministers governed in conjunction with the Parliament. If Louis XIV has been a bit less of a stick-in-the-mud, and had a better sense of his own interest and the interest of his dynastic successors, he could have kept his oath to the Constitution, resigned himself to the life of a constitutional figurehead, and saved France and Europe from years of pain. But he had no such intention. For him, it was quasi-divine absolutism or nothing. He conspired against the Constitution, violated his oath, and lost his head. This unleashed the next stage of the revolution – the Republic of the Enlightenment, with its brutal attempt to obliterate all the remnants of the civilisation of medieval Christendom, even down to renaming the days of the week.

The republic gave way to the plebiscitary-military dictatorship of Napoleon, who became ‘Consul for Life’ in 1802. Yet Napoleon’s rule, for all its faults, left France with two great and enduring institutions: the Civil Code and the Council of State. These gave the French state an administrative regularity which protected equality under the law and defended the rights of citizens from arbitrary power.

In 1814 the precariously restored monarch, Louis XVIII, granted a Constitutional Charter. This was more timid and conservative than the Constitution of 1791. The king retained important personal prerogatives and was expected to take an active role in governing. A Chamber of Peers, consisting of hereditary aristocrats and peers nominated for life from amongst the ‘great and good’ of restoration society was created to act as a bridle on the power of the elected Chamber of Deputies. The electoral franchise was narrow: essentially, only rich landowners could vote, and only very, very rich landowners could be elected. Yet the Charter was also a monument to the permanent gains of the revolution. The Civil Code was retained. There was to be no return to absolutism. Feudal and clerical privileges were not restored.

The French revolution, the terror, and its aftermath, divided French society for a century, condemning the country to an unsettling oscillation of regimes. The restored monarchy collapsed in 1830, to be replaced by the ‘July Monarchy’, under a slightly more liberal Charter, with a marginally wider franchise.  This collapsed in 1848, giving rise to another failed republic, which in turn was replaced by another Napoleonic plebiscitary dictatorship.

It was not until 1875, with adoption of the Constitutional Laws of the ‘Third Republic’, that this long period of post-revolutionary division and instability was brought to a close.  In the pragmatic words of the ever-trimming politician Thieres, the liberal, moderate republicanism of the Third Republic was ‘the form of government which divides us least’. Although anti-revolutionary and anti-democratic elements persisted right up to the Second World War, most of the clerical right ‘rallied to the Republic’, accepting the legitimacy of parliamentary democracy, even if they did not like the anti-clerical revolutionary heritage which had created it. It was this period, incidentally, that saw the first appearance of the Christian Left in France, with the publication in 1894 of ‘Le Sillon’, a journal which sought to connect Catholicism with the workers’ movement and the political campaign for social justice.

Examining the ‘long nineteenth century; of French history, from 1789 to 1914 (ignoring the oscillations and the isolated data-points to focus on the ‘trend line’), the nature of the transformation is clear. In 1789, before the revolution, France was a feudal society, in which rights, liberties and privileges were heritable property. The state, for all its absolutist pretensions, was ‘parcelled out’ to barons and corporatations. The hand of the state was not heavy, but it was arbitrary and unjust: it bore down on the peasant, but protected the baron; it punished the dissident with severity, but was blind to the licentious misdeeds of corrupt courtiers. The privatisation of power was taken to such an extent that offices could be bought and sold, and farmed-out for profit. By 1914, all this had been overturned. The private privileges of barons were replaced by the universal rights of citizens. The Republic had become a truly ‘public entity’ (res publica) – not, as previously, the personal patrimony of any individual, nor cut up and sold off for the profit of a wealthy few, but instead a collective enterprise of the whole citizenry, exercised through parliamentary institutions, a code of universal laws, and a professional civil service.

Looking back at the gains of the French Revolution through the lens of the 2008 financial crisis – and all that has led up to it, and flowed from it – I am struck by the sense that we are living in the midst of what Chris Baldick, a scholar of Gothic literature, called a ‘historical reversion’.

As I look around this country, at the rows of boarded-up shops, the To Let signs, the grey concrete buildings and the anxious, careworn faces of the people, it seems if if there is a great darkness in our midst, a blood-sucking force sapping our vitality. Reflecting on this, I am forced to confront, in Baldick’s words, ‘the nagging possibility that the despotisms buried by the modern age may prove to be yet undead’. Thanks to the effects of thirty years of neo-liberalism, the gains of the French Revolution are being squandered. We are stumbling into a new feudalism, where hard-won universal rights are once again transformed into tradable privileges, and where a new corporate baronage holds us in thrall. The vampires of a decadent, corrupt, evil past have come back to life to torment us again. The monsters we once though to have been slain by our ancestors have returned, in mutilated and modernised form, to stake their claim to ancestral rights, and to drive us all back to the slum, the sweatshop, the workhouse and the serfs’ chains.

The cult of neo-liberalism is gothic in itself. It is based upon the superstitious, idolatrous worship of ‘market forces’. Its holy orders of economists chant the repetitive mantra of ‘privatise, cut, deregulate’, and hide beneath their expert cowl a wanton, heedless lust for the alchemical elixior of ‘perpetual growth’. Safe within the walls of their generously-endowed enclosures, they preach the duty of obedience and submission to the innocent, ravaged villagers. “If only you will appease the market vampire,” they say, “if only you will take a pay cut, extend your hours, forgo your benefits, pay more taxes – then perhaps you will be spared.” Most fall for it. After all, the alternative, like Greece, Spain, Italy and Ireland, is to have your blood sucked out.

Neo-liberalism puts nothing above the market-orientated ‘choices’ of self-seeking rational egoists. It never challenges whether to be self-seeking is ethical. Indeed, it derides any such appeal to ethics, to notions of the ‘Common Good’, or social justice, or even the ‘good life’. Neo-liberalism proclaims, with Hobbes, there is no ‘good’ only ‘utility’. We are taught to see ourselves not as people, but as commodities to be sold, and as ‘human resources’ managed, and to see others not as our fellow brethren, but as competitors or tools in the endless struggle for advantage. It opens the  door to an economy devoid of all restraint. It sees nothing wrong the poor selling their kidneys to the glutinous rich. It only seeks to find ways in which to profit by speculating on the kidney futures market. The morality of the transaction cannot be challenged, so long as there the theoretical right of ‘freedom of contract’ is preserved. “Can’t pay your bills? Facing eviction? Your fault, should have sold a kidney.”

As a consequence of this rejection of the Common Good, neo-liberalism is inevitably opposed the ‘res publica’ – that is to the principle that the democratic collective action of all can – and must – counteract and restrain the private powers, privileges and dominion of the few. Its approach to the body-politic is essentially parasitic: it loves to get its fangs into the state, and to turn the state – through lobbying, and special interest legislation intended to defraud the public – to its own monstrous ways. So now we have private prisons, and private prison companies lobbying for the increase in sentences for minor crimes, so that their dungeons can be filled. We have private healthcare companies buying up chunks of the National Health Service, sucking blood out of the system to swell their own veins.

Now, 223 years after the French Revolution, the state is no longer a ‘res publica’, or ‘common-weal’. It is no longer a collective entity of fellow-citizens coming together to provide for their common good. Instead, it has become an instrument for the peddling of private advantage – a tradable commodity, put up for sale to the highest bidder. Just as feudalism privatised and personalised power, so the corporate baronage can now buy public powers and exercise them, as corporate fiefdoms, for their own profit. With the powers of the ‘good king’ (i.e., the democratic state) neutralised, the corporate barons are free to exploit us with impunity: the obedient serfs get a minimum wage job, lucky them, while the corporate barons get the profits.

Just as we needed a revolution in 1789 to end feudal privileges, we now need a similar legal revolution to end corporate privileges. We need to reassert the priority of the democratic state, the res publica of citizens, over their corporate baronage. In my mind I see an image of the storming of the Bastille, the Sans Culottes rising against the dark castle, its gothic stones symbolic of violence, injustice, blood and oppression. The image looks strikingly similar to a Hammer Horror portrayal of a group of brave villagers, rising en-masse to hunt down the aristocratic vampire that terrorises them and to drive a stake, once and for all, through his cold heart.

So, on this Bastille day, let us join in singing the universal hymn of liberty. As we do so, let us proclaim our attachment to the values of the Republic. Let us – in our speaking, our voting, our organising, our peaceful and lawful protest – tear down the strongholds of vampiric power. Let us challenge the self-serving superstitions of the neo-liberal economists with a clearer gospel of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.

Aux armes, citoyens
Formes vos bataillons,
Marchons, marchons!
Qu’un sang impur
Abreuve nos sillons!

Amen.

Unitarian Universalism: Radicalism vs Liberalism?

Do you believe in God? What’s your religion? Do you go to church? Are you saved?

When I first started identifying as a Unitarian Universalist, in my early 20s, these questions used to phase me. I’d get flustered. The problem is that, for a Unitarian Universalist, these questions have no answers that are simultaneously brief and accurate. Any brief answer is likely to lead to a mess of incomprehension. Any accurate answer will necessarily take time to explain. I was afraid of being misunderstood and then put into the wrong category: labelled by atheists as a religious nutcase, or excluded by Christians from being part of their special holy club.

So now I respond to these questions with another question: “Do you want the three second answer, the three minute answer, or the three hour answer?”

The three-second answer is this: “Kinda. I’m a practicing Christian, but very liberal – not one of those scary fundamentalist ones”. Then, one hopes, in the absence of any tricky supplementary questions, the subject can be changed back to something more tangible.

But there always are supplementaries. No one asks these sorts of questions unless they care passionately about the answers. And, whether the interlocutor is an Atheist or an Evangelical Christian, this wishy-washy answer is never the one they are hoping for.

So the next step is to move to the three minute answer. This involves explaining that I am a Unitarian and a Universalist. That I belong to a liberal, progressive, non-creedal religious tradition that comes out of the radical reformation. That I have experienced the transforming, loving, power of the Holy Spirit, but I do not believe in a personal Man-in-the-Sky God. That I am inspired by the ethical teachings and moral example of Jesus of Nazareth, but that I understand Jesus to be a radical martyred prophet, not a divine Son-of-God. That I am immersed in the mythology, legend, history, poetry and prophecy of the Scriptures, but that I believe that the Scriptures are ultimately a product of human experience, and neither inerrant or necessarily authoritative.

By this point, if the questioner is an atheist, I have usually been consigned to the loony-bin of ‘religious insanity’, dismissed as a bible-basher, told to read ‘The God Delusion’, and given six examples of why religion is evil. If they are a Christian of more orthodox or evangelical views, they are already stoking the fires of hell to make way for my obviously unsaved soul, and quoting bible verses as if they were hammers.

Resolving this usually requires a bottle of red wine and plenty of oatcakes and cheese. Three hours is barely enough to get to the bottom of it. The aim is not necessarily to reach a point of agreement, but simply to reach a point of comprehension.

This is where, on reflection, the parallels between conversations with atheists and conversations with evangelical Christians become very illuminating. In both cases, the challenge is the same: to convince them that not all Christians are necessarily ‘crazy fundamentalist bible-bashers’ (as the atheist might put it), nor ‘bible-believers saved from the hellish consequences of Adam’s fall by the perfect atoning blood sacrifice of Jesus, the Son of God’ (as the evangelical might put it).

Essentially, the discussion devolves into an argument about what ‘Christian’ means, and whether a Unitarian Universalist, who would claim to follow the human Jesus rather than to believe in the theology of Paul or Augustine, can call themselves a Christian. We are back to labels, to ‘in’ and ‘out’, to defining the boundaries.

I find it fascinating, and somewhat troubling, that the same discussion takes place within the Unitarian Universalist movement. Who are we? What do we stand for? What, if any, are our boundaries?

The Unitarian Universalist community is split in half on this. For some, including myself, we have (and should retain) a Christian identity. We are, in accordance with our tradition and origins, the radical left wing of the Jesus-following movement, committed to a transforming gospel of love and salvation. Others welcome the transformation of Unitarian Universalism into a post-Christian, syncretic, ‘New Age’ religious movement, where Jesus is put on the same level as magic stones, pagan chanting, and ill-understood fragments of Buddhism, in a religion of personal well-being.

Our understanding of ourselves will shape our motivation and all our activities. Ultimately, it comes down to the question of what our Unitarian Universalist Church, Fellowship or Meeting is actually for. Does it exist to build the Kingdom of God and to declare the Year of the Lords’ Favour through a mission of social justice and preaching against the greed, violence and oppression of what might be called the ‘Kingdom of Darkness?’ Are we trying to tear down the imperial rule of ‘Babylon’ and build the ‘New Jerusalem’ of ‘tikkun’ (repairing the world) and ‘shalom’ (righteous peace)? Are we trying reach the lost and edify the saints? Or is it just a hobby? Are we just in it to salve our post-modern existential anxieties with the help of a bit of nice-sounding, inoffensive ‘spiritual-but-not-religious’ dabbling?

At the root of this identity crisis within Unitarian Universalism is an unresolved tension between liberalism and radicalism.

Liberalism in religion – a commitment to orthopraxy (right living) over orthodoxy (right belief), and to the critical application of reason in matters of religion – is one of the great inheritances of the Unitarian and Universalist movement. The Jesus whom we have followed, according to the gospel accounts, did not bind people to articles of faith, or lay down creeds, or tie people in knots over matters of Old Testament law. He saw the bigger picture: that Love fulfils the law, that the sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath, that ritualism and legalism poison and corrupt the heart of religion, which should be to live well, or, as he put it in the Great Commandment, to love the divine and to love others.

Moreover, just as Unitarian-Universalists’ deep commitment to democracy stems from the spiritual principle that the Holy Spirit lives and moves and breathes within us all, so likewise our commitment to liberalism and freedom of conscience stem from the spiritual principle that no one person has all the answers. We affirm that truth does not appear as once-and-for-all dictation, but emerges from a discursive processes, informed by evolving experience. We see this evolution within the Bible, from the brittle legalism of Leviticus to the social justice prophecy of Amos and Micah. We see it in the extra-biblical development of theology, as insights from science and nature cause us to have a better understanding of reality, and invite us to re-examine our believes in the light of superior knowledge to that possessed by the authors of scripture.   We take seriously the injunction to ‘test all things, and hold fast to that which is good’.

But liberalism is not, and cannot be, an end in itself. Testing all things does not mean accepting all things. A free and responsible search for truth is a mandate for ’empirical theology’: not a license to believe and do what one likes, but an obligation to think clearly and critically, and with a sincere spirit to follow truth where the reasonable examination of the best available evidence leads.

While theological empiricism, and liberal, rational, critical approach to religion, should rightly lead us to reject many of the claims made about Jesus as the mythological inventions of a superstitious age, the heart of Unitarian Universalist Christianity is the belief that the evidence leads us to find truth, salvation, hope and purpose in the radical teachings and the moral example of Jesus of Nazareth.

I believe that Jesus called us to live out that  radical Way, to transform ourselves and the world around us, to build ‘Kingdom of God’, ‘Loves Dominion’, or the ‘Beloved Community’. It is a call not just to personal salvation, but to joining in the work of profound social, economic and political change, to ending systems of oppression, to bringing good news to the poor, binding up the broken hearted, setting the captives free, and making real all the promises of Isaiah 61, of the Magnificat and of the Beatitudes. That is the core of the Gospel: all else is cultural packing, irrelevance, idle speculation, or the corrupt imposition of priestly guile, preached-up by tithing pulpit-squatters for the enslaving of the people, and for the diminishment rather than enhancement of the Gospel.

The question is whether such a radical gospel can be preached and practiced within the Unitarian-Universalist movement. Can radicalism and liberalism be held together in a creative tension, or has it gone to the point where the radicalism of Jesus is too ‘offensive’, and where liberalism has slipped into a lazy lack of intellectual and moral discrimination? In the eyes of evangelicals and creedalists, Unitarian-Universalism has always been dangerously heretical. We are comfortable with that. We are a people who can live with questions and uncertainties. But has it slipped from critical, radical ‘heresy’ to outright apostasy?

The Unitarian Universalist Association in the United States has become almost wholly the latter – it has largely abandoned the centrality of Jesus in favour of becoming a new age syncretic religion, whose only absolute standard is that there are no absolute standards. The General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches – the governing body of Unitarians and Universalist congregations in the UK – contains more variety, although the general trend (anecdotally, in my personal experience) is for congregations to move further and further away from identifying with Jesus to avoid upsetting those who would identify as pagans, atheists or Buddhists within our ranks.

My plea is not for boundaries. We do not need a creed or a statement of faith, and certainly not one that becomes a idolatrous totem or a test of fellowship. We are Unitarians and Universalists because we refuse to leave our conscience at the door, and we could never recite or sign binding statements of that nature. Instead of boundaries, this is a plea for a centre. Not a marker of who is in or out, but a beacon of the common direction to which we are, from our different perspectives, heading. I know this sounds dangerously radical (and perhaps a little too illiberal for some) but I believe that we should re-assert the centrality of Jesus within Unitarian Universalist congregations. Of course we should not worship Jesus. Of course we should not repeat the mistake of the early church in deifying their martyred prophet and founder. But we should make the teaching of Jesus the centre of our teaching, the mission of Jesus the centre of our mission, the Way of Jesus the centre of our way, the passion of Jesus for the Kingdom of God the centre of our passion for its realisation.

This general affirmation of the centrality of Jesus (however and in whatever form of words it is adopted) should reinforce, and not detract from, our distinctly liberal, rational and inclusive faith. It should acknowledge that there is no monopoly of truth, and the same Holy Spirit that was in Jesus might also be found in all of humanity’s honest strivings for the Good. It should embrace freedom of conscience and not require uniformity of belief. Yet it should unequivocally put God at the top, put Jesus at the centre, and put the practical work of the church as a radical and restorative social movement at the foundation, of everything we do.

It might not be possible to do this. Unitarian and Universalist congregations are mostly small, elderly and struggling. The refining fire that was in the movement in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (when it did preach and live out the radical teaching of Jesus) died out in the twentieth, and now we see only smouldering embers. In practical terms, getting the bums on seats is necessary if we are to repair the old roof, so we don’t want to scare the moon-worshippers and the rune-scryers away.  If this is the case, then I see no case for remaining within the existing denominational structures. Our beautiful old Unitarian meeting houses going back to 1662 should be abandoned, and we should set up independent congregations and house churches (perhaps under the aegis of the Progressive Christian Alliance) that will be committed to the radical message and transforming work of the Gospel.