Dissenting Radical

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

Month: August, 2012

Value Politics

“If I had a criticism of the church today, it is that we desperately need that prophetic voice in the public square. We need people speaking up for a different set of values – that says there are values beyond the material – we are more than the sum of contracts, markets and exchange. And in that sense there is a desperate need, I would argue, for the upholding of those non-material values – the belief that actually the equal worth of each human being needs to be celebrated and recognised  in our economic system and in our organisation of society.” (Douglas Alexander – Labour, Paisley & Renfrewshire South).

This is not an endorsement of Douglas Alexander or the Labour Party. There’s much about his voting record, the record of the Labour party in office 1997-2010, and the policy of the current Scottish Labour party on important issues like civil liberties, the constitution and Scottish independence, that I deeply disagree about. But still, he makes a good point that needs to be made, and it’s encouraging to see some traces of the Christian Left still kicking around out there – and maybe, even, in the wake of the financial crisis, twitching with the rebirth of new life.


So, what do you Unitarians actually believe?

Of course, there’s no one answer to this question. We maintain a non-creedal religion, because we recognise the importance of individual conscience. We value our liberty of private judgment in matters of religion over conformity to any kind of formal creed or doctrine. We value this liberty, in part, because it is a good antidote to much that is harmful in religion. It protects us against power-trips, fundamentalism, superstition and legalism. We value it, also, because we recognise that truth is complicated, multifaceted, and sometimes even contradictory; only by a free and responsible search, individually and as members of a free community, can we discern worthy truths from falsehood.

However, this liberalism cannot be an end in itself. Without the radically transformative Good News of the gospel, shown to us in the life, Way and teachings of Jesus Christ, it has no critical edge: it has no ability to change, save, rescue, redeem, heal, restore and edify us; no power to bring justice, freedom and peace to our communities and nations. Without a positive affirmation of the Good News at its core, Unitarian Christianity is nothing but a talking shop for the ‘tea and cake’ brigade: pleasant enough, harmless, but also quite irrelevant, and totally unable to play any part in building up the Kingdom of God or bringing succour to a hurting, striving world.

So, in this post, I’m going to show some attempts to capture, in a form of written words, the essence of the Good News – of the gospel, the message, the teaching, the Way – as many Unitarian Christians might understand it.

The ‘Eight Principles of Modern Unitarian Christianity’ – clearly based on the Principles adopted by the Progressive Christian Alliance – is one good, short summary of the core beliefs that a Unitarian Christian might hold:

1. We believe in One God;

2. We have found an approach to God through the life and teachings of the man they call Jesus;

3. We are open to insights from science and reason;

4. We continue to ask ourselves questions and seek a greater understanding of reality and beyond;

5. We recognise the faithfulness of other people who have other names for the way to God’s realm, and acknowledge that their ways are true for them, as our ways are true for us;

6. We realise that how we behave with one another is key to achieving the aim of being a follower Jesus – therefore we strive to love all people, to be forgiving, to always seek to help others, to struggle for a better world for all.

7. We provide all people sanctuary without insisting that they become like us.

8. We continue to form ourselves into communities dedicated to equipping one another for the work we feel called to do: striving for peace, tolerance, justice & freedom among all people, protecting and restoring the integrity of all God’s creation, and bringing hope to all.

Well, that covers the bases. But it’s dry bones. It is, perhaps, more of a constituting statement, providing a set of workable ground-rules for a church, fellowship, or association, than an affirmation of what ‘an approach to God through the life and teachings of the man they call Jesus’ actually means.

David Miano, author of ‘An Explanation of Unitarian Christianity’, has proposed the following ‘Confession of Faith’ on  the website of the American Unitarian Conference:

We believe in one God, the Creator and Preserver of all things,

And in Jesus Christ, the one Lord of the Church,

whose teachings and life form the standard of our faith and practice,

And in the Holy Spirit, the influence of God within us;

We believe in the divine element in conscience,

In free will and the responsibility that comes with it,

In the inspiration and sanctity of Scripture,

In the forgiveness of sins,

In God’s universal love for all humankind,

And in the future advancement of the whole human family to holiness and happiness.

This shows, particularly in the connection between holiness and happiness in the last line, some echos of the famous ‘Winchester Profession’ of 1803, that reflected the Universalist heritage of the movement:

Article I. We believe that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament contain a revelation of the character of God, and of the duty, interest and final destination of mankind.

Article II. We believe that there is one God, whose nature is Love, revealed in one Lord Jesus Christ, by one Holy Spirit of Grace, who will finally restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and happiness.

Article III. We believe that holiness and true happiness are inseparably connected, and that believers ought to be careful to maintain order and practice good works; for these things are good and profitable unto men.

A personal favourite of mine is the Covenant developed by Griswold Williams, and widely adopted by Unitarian and Universalist churches in the early 20th century:

Love is the doctrine of this church.

The quest for truth is its sacrament, and service is its prayer

To dwell together in peace; to seek knowledge in freedom;

To serve humanity in fellowship;

To the end that all souls shall grow together into harmony with the source and meaning of life.

Thus do we covenant with each other and All.

An even more pithy version goes like this:

We believe in:

The Fatherhood of God;
The Brotherhood of Man;
The Leadership of Jesus;
Salvation by Character;
The Progress of Mankind
onward and upward forever.

If all this still seems a bit ‘boosterish’ and ‘happy-clappy’, then Matt Grant’s alternative, proposed in the March 2005 edition of ‘American Unitarian’, takes a more laconic approach:

“We believe that there is One God; we affirm the unity of all creation and take the example and teachings of the human Jesus as our Way in life.”

I can see merit and value in all these statements, affirmations and covenants. All get close to defining what cannot ever be fully defined. None of them, of course, would ever be treated as a ‘doctrinal’ statement. They are pointers on the road, signposts to the reality that is ‘God’, ‘the Spirit’, or ‘Christ’: they cannot bound or confine that reality.

To get to the root what that reality means to me, I have to step outside these neat, organised, well-crafted lists of articles, and speak instead from experience. Rather than trying to recite some sort of pseudo-creed of ‘what Unitarian Christians believe’, I can only offer a testimony of what this one individual has come to understand.

It would go something like this.

The Holy Spirit’s beautiful amazing love – the same mysterious, embracing, challenging ‘Christ-Spirit’ that was in the martyred prophet Jesus of Nazareth and in all the prophets and the saints – is working within us. The spirit is healing, refreshing, restoring, encouraging – bringing joy, peace, forgiveness, hope, love and new life in abundance. This Christ-Spirit is a love that welcomes us as we are yet calls us to grow; this we, filled and animated by that love, may take part in the wonderful task of building what Jesus called a new ‘kingdom’, one where the power of divine love rules, where chains are broken, where the poor are filled with good things, where cycles of violence give way to peace, and where everyone is loved, valued and empowered. Jesus was not God, he was not a ‘sacrifice’ for our sins; he was a wise man, a teacher, mystic and revolutionary, who was filled and embraced by this Christ-Spirit, and who taught his followers how to embrace it, live in it, share it, and build a new world. They killed him because embracing this Spirit led to conflict with the rich, the powerful and the religious. The kingdom of God overthrows every form of oppression. This a wonderful, glorious thing – and I know it is real because I have seen it and experienced it.

Now that, I think, is Good News worth living, enjoying and sharing.

Some Quick Thoughts On Secularism

The fact that I often* spend my Sundays walking out of churches in disgust at their bigotry, power-plays, money-grubbing, manipulation, and dishonest, shallow, brittle teaching, means I am well aware of all the negative sides of religion.

But the blanket dismissal of all ‘religion’, as advocated by some in the Hitchens / Dawkins camp, seems unhelpful. Religion is such a complex and multi-faceted subject, so integral to much of human life, ethics, aesthetics and culture. As in any other sphere of human activity, the line between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ of religion is jagged and blurred. To cast it all out is to be so blinded by the bad of religion that the good is obscured.

Perhaps it is useful, when discussing the role of religion in society, to make a distinction between the institutional ‘separation of church and state’ and the operational ‘separation of religion and politics’.

As far as the connection between church and state is concerned, I agree with the the secularist position. I’m in favour of a secular state: religious freedom for all, religious privileges for none. These principles are specified in the National Secular Society’s ‘Secular Charter’, as follows:

a) There is no established state religion.

b) There is one law for all and its application is not hindered or replaced by religious codes or processes.

c) Individuals are neither disadvantaged nor discriminated against because of their religion or belief, or lack thereof.

d) Freedom of expression is not restricted by religious considerations.

e) Neither the state, nor any emanation of the state, expresses religious beliefs or preferences.

f) Religion plays no role in state-funded education, whether through religious affiliation, organised worship, religious instruction, pupil selection or employment discrimination.

g) The state does not engage in, fund or promote religious activities or practices.

h) Public and publicly-funded service provision does not discriminate on grounds of religion or belief.

i) There is no privileged position in society or advantage in law for any individual or group by virtue of their religion or belief, or lack thereof.

j) The state does not intervene in the setting of religious doctrine or the running of religious organisations.

I agree with all that. I find the privileged position of the established churches in England and Scotland difficult to accept in principle (even if it has, over time, become relatively unobtrusive in practice). I have serious objections to the state funding of religious schools, in part because they help perpetuate sectarian divisions in our society.

Moreover, the church and state have different roles to fulfil, and different means of fulfilling those roles. The state is an association of all citizens for their temporal good, regardless of their religion; the church is a gathered body called to live out and carry on the redeeming work of Christ, regardless of their citizenship. The state governs by laws backed, ultimately, by force; the church influences by exhortation backed by practical help and moral example. When one steps into the domain of the other, the result is always to breed corruption, tyranny and hypocrisy.

I’m not so sure, though, about the separation of religion from politics. I see Liberty, Equality and Fraternity in a communion cup, and Faith, Hope and Love on a protest march against austerity. To me, they are so interlaced as to be almost inseparable. My politics are highly religious and my religion very political.

Recognising this, I support the right of religiously motivated people to carry that motivation into their public life. But, when doing so, the “Obama test” should apply. This means that public arguments must be made only on secular, civic and rational grounds, without making any appeals to the purported authority of religious claims, and without demanding special privileges for religious groups.

So when I argue that money spent on imperialist wars would be better spent on providing decent financial support for the disabled, or that instead of bailing out bankers we should have forgiven debts, or that we have a real duty of care to the environment, or that homosexual couples should not face discrimination in their right to marry, I might internally be motivated by a sense of “that’s what the gospel means to me”, but I must translate this into secular, civic, humanistic, terms that do not rely on religious ideas for their validity or their acceptance by fellow-citizens.

If we are to avoid poisoning our politics with divisive and distracting ‘culture wars’, and if we are to confront the problems of resource depletion, climate change, poverty, violence, war, alienation, injustice, and all the rest of it, then the religious left and the secular left will have to work together in all areas where co-operation is possible. Different ultimate ends and motivations have to be set aside in order to unite around common policies, and arguments will have to be made in broadly accessible, non-exclusive terms, that can build the widest possible coalition of support.

Yet this insistence on the application of secular reason to questions of public policy is more than just a pragmatic response to pluralism. It is also laudable for its own sake. As Obama says, a progressive religion shouldn’t belittle or divide. It should edify and unite. It is the duty of the church – the gathered movement of all those who follow the Way of Jesus – to be ‘salt and light’ for everyone; not to convince or convert them, but to help and serve them.

Secularism is therefore a point of religious principle. It says that we do not need to convert our neighbour in order to love them.  It means we must get out of the defensive, tribal ‘Christian bunker’, where some have made a lot of futile noise fighting over irrelevant, petty and divisive things, such as being able to wear a cross at work, or deny hotel rooms to gay couples. Instead, we should embrace a larger, more liberating, vision of our contribution to public life, where we lay aside differences of religion to work for the common good of all our fellow citizens.

* OK, not that often. But I have walked out of various churches on a few occasions over the years, generally in response to blatant money-grubbing, clerical empire building, or hate speech from the pulpit.

Why should we be beggars with a ballot in our hand?

Dear political parties,

If you want my vote, here’s what you have to do:

(1) Absolutely reject the neo-liberal agenda of ‘cut, deregulate, privatise, outsource’.

(2) Be willing to shift tax burdens from the poor and middle class to the rich.

(3) Be determined to regulate banks, big businesses, and international trade, in order to protect workers, consumers and the environment.

(4) Be committed to quality universal healthcare, education and public services.

(5) Reform the welfare system so that it provides a realistic safety net for everyone (not just a trap, keeping people in a no-pay/low-pay underclass).

(6) Take ‘post-growth’ issues seriously: make environmentalism, sustainability, and quality of life, central to every aspect of policy.

(7) Recognise the importance of family and traditional social values to the common good of society, while being moderate and pragmatic on questions like same-sex marriage, abortion, euthanasia, prostitution, etc.

(8) Understand localism, subsidiarity and the importance of the ‘human scale’ – including the importance of locally owned businesses and co-operatives to the economic vitality of our communities.

(9) Make a serious commitment to real democratisation and fundamental constitutional reform – starting with the adoption of a modern written Constitution, restriction of the Crown prerogatives, electoral reform, replacement of the House of Lords, more scope for direct and participatory democracy, etc. Restore civil liberties,  bring the out-of-control ‘surveillance state’ to heel, and be generally less paranoid and distrustful of one’s own citizens.

(10) I don’t mind if you are pro-Scottish independence or for maintaining the UK, but if the UK is to be maintained, it must be reconstituted in a way that recognises the sovereignty and autonomy of Scotland within it – as an equal partner, not subordinate province.

(11) Oppose war and imperialism. Get rid of Trident. Adopt a more ethical foreign policy that puts human rights, and the mitigation and avoidance of human suffering, above great power status.

(12) Finally, have a commitment to actually getting things done. There should be a workable, costed, thought-through programme for government, not just slogans and childish posturing. Avoid all cults of personality.

I don’t think I’m alone. This is what we in the centre-left of politics (and, I believe, the majority of the people, even if they wouldn’t necessarily put it in these terms) are yearning for. It is the sort of platform that might provide a viable and acceptable alternative to the Evil Wicked Tories.


Finding a church: A Parable.

There used to be this great restaurant in town. The food was good, healthy, tasty, organic – and beautifully served in a pleasant ambience. I used to go there for brunch every sunday. Then I discovered that there was a war going on in the kitchen; some of the staff didn’t like cooking that amazing healthy brunch menu, and wanted to go back to serving nothing but stodgy fry-ups. So they started to sabotage the place, making it unsanitary and a health-hazard to eat there. Eventually the manager/head chef was driven out, and the place has gone straight downhill.

So, I tried this other place. It wasn’t the same. Some of the food was a bit pre-packed, mircowaved, and boil-in-the-bag, but it was nicely served and edible enough if you’re hungry. But today, there was broken glass in my food – big shards of broken glass! I tried to pick around it as best I could, but it really prevented me from eating it. I left most of it on my plate (but, of course, I’m too polite to complain, and other diners seemed to be lapping it up without any problem, so maybe I’m just picky). Now I’ve got an empty belly and a cut lip.

The cut lip will heal. And fortunately, the fridge is full of food, and I can cook. So lonely home cooking it is.

But I wonder what would happen if, instead of being forced into the binary choice of going to a bad restaurant or cooking at home alone, we could all get together and have a friendly pot-luck, or a big cook-out on the beach.