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Contemporary Unitarianism in West-European Francophone Countries: Or How to Realize a Spiritual Chorus in Three Voices

Jean-Claude Barbier*


Unitarianism in Three Parts

In the francophone countries of Western Europe, the Unitarian movement has three major components:

nliberal protestants of Unitarian conviction, united around the journal Evangile et Théolib and, in Switzerland and Belgium, who form the core of the Union Protestante Libérale (UPL) [the Liberal Protestant Union]. According to active clergy, they were able to rely on certain traditionally liberal Protestant parishes (L’Oratoire du Louvres until 2000 and le Foyer de l’ame in Paris, le Lignon in the suburbs of Geneva during the 1990s, Saint-Guillaume in Strasbourg, etc.).

nUnitarian Christians brought together in 1986 in the Association Unitarienne Francophone (AUF). Théodore Monod was its President from 1986 to 1990. Then, after 1996, the Assemblée Fraternelle des Chrétiens Unitariens (AFCU) served this role.

nFinally, the Unitarian Universalists, while telling themselves they are followers of Jesus of Nazereth, remain apart from Christianity and embrace non-Christian traditions in the framework of theism, in a sort of post-Christian Unitarianism similar to that of the German Unitarian Hans-Dietrich Kahl who distinguishes between official Christians, liberal or "also" Christians and the post-Christians. The Fraternité Unitarienne de Nancy (FUN), founded in the 1950s by George Lecocq, came to pass as a liberal Protestant community with a spiritual theism nourished by the sacred texts of the great monotheist religions (Unitarian Christianity, Sufism, Judaism, Buddhism, etc.). The AUF, which has about 70 members since the departure in 1996 of the Unitarian Christians, is principally animated by FUN.

Moreover, Paris is the seat of an important English-speaking community composed of British and American émigrés, the Unitarian Fellowship of Paris, where the faith is welcomed by le Foyer de l’ame.

This state reflects the three variants, except the historic church of Unitarianism (the Unitarian churches of Transylvania and Hungary), that seem possible in contemporary Unitarianism and that one seems to find more or less in other countries: the United States, Australia, Germany, etc. André Gounelle had already made this kind of tripartite presentation in an article in Evangile et Liberté: affirmation by Unitarians of the radical reform that God is one, then unity (or, in other cases, correspondence and convergence) between divine revelation and human reason as affirmed by the Socinians and Anglo-Saxon Unitarianism, and finally the unity of the different kinds of human religions with American Universalism or Unitarian Universalist churches welcoming both Christian and non Christians.

Between Unitarian Christianity and Theist Universalism

The relationship between these variants is not always complementary. The AUF was jolted by two major crises. The first, in 1990, occurred because the association refused to accept agnostic ideas. The second, in 1996, occurred because the teachings of Jesus were no longer considered to be required. Generally, the Unitarians within the Christian tradition did not always accept the movement toward theism which, in their eyes, leads to a religious blandness and the effective creation of disparate communities.

The history of Unitarianism in the United States well illustrates the existence of these tensions. Following up on the ideas of Sébastion Franck that were published in 1530-1531, the franco-american theologian Thomas Paine, originally a Quaker, gave form to an American Unitarian-Universalism with a theist tendency. In 1793, the American Universalist Church was founded in Boston. But the heart of the Unitarian movement was a sermon in 1819 given by William Ellery Channing in which he felt the need to outline what he aptly called Unitarian Christianity. The American Unitarian Association (AUA) was created six years later in 1825. The two currents were united in 1961 with the founding of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). Enlargement seemed to have reached its limits when the UUA knew its first schism in April 2001. On that date, David Burton and his colleagues who wanted to resuscitate the AUA, were moved to hold the first national gathering at Mount Vernon in the state of Virginia. The Hungarian journalist Ferenc Gerloczy gave an account in an article published in the Courrier International with the title "A Catch-all Religion: The Unitarians Divided or A Schism Among the Tolerant." "How far may the Christian faith go with religious tolerance? This is the question over which Unitarianism came to a split," he wrote. The only four Unitarian Presidents were Christians. "The UUA refuses all mandatory doctrines and professes religious freedom as well as total freedom of conscience. It welcomes the entire world, independent of the faith of each. As such, it has as an integral part of its community Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, pagans, [and] atheists. The movement is more and more moving away from its Christian roots," wrote Gerloczy. In short, it is like a Spanish inn where one is able to nestle very diverse communities under the cover of Unitarianism. Finally, as the UUA laid claim to the AUA name as its historical heritage, the dissidents founded the American Unitarian Conference.

The catechism published by Bèla Varga, the former Unitarian Bishop of Transylvania, made clear that "the Unitarian religion is historically and effectively founded on the gospels." Similarly, the new Unitarian Bishop of Hungary, Csaba Razmany, intends to represent the Unitarian religion as "tolerant" in contrast the American tendency to describe itself as "liberal." We have then, the two poles, one Unitarian and the other Universalist.

How Fares Pluralist Unitarianism

Is it necessary to consider it a simple dilemma between a "pure" Unitarianism, one willing to evoke the Christian faith, and a "Unitarian Universalism" composed more and more of a dose of diluted Christianity, one of two that will only be a source of misunderstanding for one another in the heart of the same community. Is the Unitarian faith condemned to balance between the Christian charge of Jesus of Nazareth and a minimalist figure of Jesus as one philosopher among many? A glorious Christ who vanquished death or a condemned man stripped of his clothes and only a man? A superman or one sage among others? These divisions commenced very early, as early as the 15th Century in Lithuania (with Simon Budny) and in Transylvania (with Ferencz David). But reducing his personage to the role of a simple sage is to take the risk of no longer understanding him as the miracle worker he was understood to be in his time and as the messiah that his followers had been waiting for. Finally, according to the gospels, his torture was voluntary, a redemptive sacrifice for the sins of the people of Israel, conforming to the suffering servant announced by the prophet in the book of Isaiah. It is this dramatic engagement in a holy history in which he supports by himself all the weight of the world and in which his life concluded full of solitude on the cross, that Jesus becomes no longer only one rabbi among many but, to employ the new language, atypical. Was it, on his part, vain pretensions? But if one wants a rich Christology, to employ the expression of Mircéas Elias, what Christological functions can be conserved if Jesus is not the incarnation of an all-powerful God, the savior of Israel, the redeemer of our sins, the resurrected one overcoming death and showing us the way to heaven, even the judge of us all at the end of time? Our manner of thinking about the nature and role of Jesus divides us. We are able to see the historical Jesus was complex and that interpretations of his words and deeds are more complex still. Long ago set in the creeds of the Church, today our understanding of Jesus breaks apart as it crosses the prism of our religious individuation.

In Christian churches, including those of our liberal Protestant friends, we know well that the collective recitation of a creed masks great variation in individual belief. Why claim it is more so among Unitarians than among other believers? Unitarians are not more divided among themselves than are other religious communities where attitudes sometimes contrast sharply. It is not a good idea, therefore, to over-dramatize the conflict between ideas or persons that one is able to produce. It is true nevertheless that the absence of a mandatory creed obliges each person to position themselves and to unveil their own beliefs. "And you, what do you say?" asked the prophet of Nazareth of his disciples.

One means of acceptance of this pluralism would be that diverse currents of opinion be effectively represented if they want representation. From then on the cohesion of the Unitarian movement would become a function of coordination. It appears that the AUF will play that role. A second means of acceptance would be to join this pluralism in a liberal dynamic that accepts the differences, letting each have its say, knowing that in the cacophony one may leave the concert if one does not like the sound. These are the two exercises inspired by theological liberalism.

Two Exercises in Theological Liberalism

The rejection of the dogma of the trinity is the historical foundation of Unitarianism, dissociating God and Jesus, and we have therefore two distinct levels: a human plan and a divine plan. At the level of the divine, Christian belief henceforth is open to other portrayals. God may be a personal God and master of history as affirmed by monotheists in Mosaic traditions (Jews, Christians and Muslims), and the Lord’s Prayer taught by Jesus or a loving, providential God sharing the mystical experience. From now on, we must reckon with the Supreme Being of the enlightenment, the cause of the big bang at the beginning of time, the God of the pantheists who gives life and who is immanent in his creation, circulating as a vital energy in nature, the divine force of the Buddhists who encircles all and toward whom we converge as we progressively abandon our egos, etc.

First Exercise. With respect to a creator God, the Supreme Being, the One God, we can no longer confine our prayers to one single fixed representation of God. The God of Israel, and of others who are not of Israel? The God who revealed himself, but to whom? The providential God who protects the devout, and those who do not pray to him do not have a right to his love? Today, having taken stock of religious pluralism, we fashion our ideas about his path which, if God exists, is without a doubt very far from our conceptions of it, our conceptions being marked by anthropomorphism if not nationalism. So why not let each express his praise to God in his own fashion, in his language, in his original religious tradition, by his songs and hymns without worry about orthodoxy because God is in all cases well beyond our definition. In our praise to God, the believing theist, who does not assume a particular spiritual voice, still feels a belief in revelation or that he is following some spiritual master. Before God, we are all truly equal and it is the sincerely of our heart that counts. It is precisely this that Jesus taught with the Lord’s Prayer (especially if one reads the entire passage in the gospel of Matthew 6:5-15).

The same liberation of our reason and our senses from now on is equally permitted toward Jesus. What if we want to pour perfume on the head of Jesus to tell him of our love as did the woman from Bethany? The disciples of the master criticized this gesture. Let us, as loyal followers, express our attachment and say without insincerity why we follow Jesus of Nazareth, the teacher and the person. When the young rich man approached the prophet to ask him how he can enter the Kingdom, Jesus did not respond with a question about his beliefs but told him simply that he must sell all his goods and give the proceeds to the poor. It is not necessary therefore to put our ideas, our beliefs, our theological reasoning at the forefront. In particular, do not confine Jesus in a Christian theology that is too abstract, risking that we will create a caricature of the person he was. In a recent article in Evangile et Liberté, Pierre-Jean Ruff asked why the development of Christian doctrines and institutions had somewhat hidden the figure of Jesus the teacher that the apocryphal gospel, attributed to the apostle Thomas, had so emphatically stressed. We have the need – the catechism writers among us but more importantly the historians -- to rediscover the historical Jesus and more freely embrace Jesus the person and the teacher.

Second Exercise. As before, this time with respect to Jesus of Nazareth. That each person also expresses his method – but not only his – the type of adherence (that is the faith according to expression of André Chouraqui) that relies on a spiritual master. Many theists and agnostics who regard Jesus as one master among many tell of feeling just as effectively called by him. Jews and Muslims have expressed similar sentiments.

Why the choice of this prophet as the greatest, most powerful, and closest to God? The response is simply a historical matter. Unitarianism emerged in a Christian context in the Reformation, and it is the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth that, here, was chosen as central for guiding us in our spiritual life. This choice is not entirely exclusive of other spiritual paths; it comprises theism. Other religions are as respectable and the voice of Jesus is not at all "superior" to the others. It is only one worthwhile choice among other worthwhile choices. The Bible is not our only lecture but we know nevertheless to read it.

The discord between historical Unitarianism and theism as it developed in Britain and the United States in 18th and 19th centuries is not fatal. It is even less so if the believing Unitarian profiting from 16th century European anti-Trinitarianism establishes necessary distinctions between God and "his son," and does not install a hierarchy between the spiritual voices that exist, those that are revealed by the prophets and those that want to be rational, between the Occident and the Orient, between the mystics of all disciplines. In other words, if the practices that we advocate are well realized, a cohabitation should be possible within the heart of same community, between Christians that want to rediscover the Jesus of Nazareth in his humanity, the historical Jesus, and theists that do not adhere to Christian doctrine or rituals but have an interest in Jesus and the model he represents about how to live life. At the least, however, it is necessary that there be maintained a reference to the person and the teaching of Jesus, if there is not to be a concert that quickly transforms into a cacophony. If Unitarian Christians are invited to actively participate in an open Christianity, then conversely Unitarian theists should join, totally voluntarily, in an assuredly Christian collective history that commenced in the 16th century by the founding of Unitarian Churches in Eastern Europe.

* Translated with permission from the French by David R. Burton. This article will be published in French in a Forthcoming issue of Evangile et Liberté. It will also be published in the Romanian language in the journal of the Transylvania Unitarian Church.

© 2002 American Unitarian Conference