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The Ongoing Search for Renewed Hope
Having gone through my teenage years and early twenties questioning every tenet of traditional Christianity, starting with the Trinity and working my way through, I found that rationally I could just not accept Trinitarian concepts of God, or the theories of Atonement, Original Sin, Virgin Birth, Physical Resurrection or Eternal Damnation. By the standards set by most organized churches and Christian movements, I knew I would be regarded as no longer being a Christian.
However, I’d always defined Christian as some who studied and followed the teachings and example of Jesus. And so, whilst I knew most churches would have their doors closed to my heresy, I still felt in my heart that I was a Christian and this has remained unchanged.
After rejecting the traditional doctrine of the church, I initially found myself looking for a replacement in other faiths including Sufism, Taoism, Sikhism, Reform Judaism and Buddhism. I could see the beauty in these faiths and their accompanying cultures, yet still felt the pull towards Christianity (although the questions over doctrine remained an obstacle).
After searching for a way back into Christianity, I almost gave up. At first, I decided I would simply need to attend church more and be ‘reconditioned’ into believing. But the more I attended the more I felt spiritually and rationally, that this was not what faith was about. The need for faith was not fulfilled by attending luxurious, splendid church buildings to recite the Nicene Creed and sing songs about helping the poor—this was merely jumping through hoops to get to an imagined heaven.
I attempted to resign myself to being atheist or at best, agnostic. However, I personally found this position to be an intellectual and ethical vacuum, lacking in particular the hope that faith brings. Simply going through the motions of life–as atheism seemed to offer–had no appeal.
I guess this is what has always struck me about the need for faith; ultimately it should be centered on having hope in something greater, that we as humans are not simply biological machines, that we are accountable for the actions we take in life, that humanity is part of some broader plan and that the challenge is to move together as an entity towards this greater goal rather than focus only on our immediate needs.
Unfortunately, many of the world religions seem more concerned in defining exactly what this greater something is—often as a means to maintaining their power—rather than providing the underlying message of hope that humanity needs.
Through the Internet, I eventually managed to find information on Unitarianism—a strand of religious thought that originally emerged as a result of Christian dissenters who rejected the Trinity. Unfortunately, the modern day movement—seemingly made up of members who had undergone the same process of questioning traditional Christian doctrine—had not retained the same desire to remain within the Christian fold. They seemed to have enjoyed the process of questioning so much that this now formed the heart of their movement. And as a result, British and American Unitarianism are now movements that facilitate spiritual exploration (which for many people, is necessary) but provides little else.
Having visited their churches, and read their newspaper, I could see that what seems to be on offer was little more than the vacuums of atheism and agnosticism—more concerned with defining themselves by why they were not Christian or "more-than-Christian," rather than nurturing a life-changing, challenging message of hope and sense of purpose amongst their members.
Within the denomination, I did eventually discover that some Unitarians still retained a Christian identity centered on studying, following and learning from the teachings and example of Jesus within a open-minded, inclusive environment. On visiting a Unitarian church in Leeds, the minister there—as we both stood looking from the balcony across the church pews towards the altar—increased my sense of finally finding the place where I could nurture a spiritual outlook by describing how the place ultimately meant little and that what drove him was a passion to give people hope, whether they were dying of cancer, facing homelessness, battling drug addiction or dealing with other trials. This was not the hope that Karl Marx once described—where religion is used as an illusion to divert from the real suffering people face—but rather a way of driving people forward, empowering them to face their challenges, enabling them to look beyond their immediate difficulties, to think positive and to strive for something better.
For the past two to three years now I have been involved with Unitarian Christianity in one form or another. For the most part, it has been a rewarding and constructive time in which I have begun to reassemble a spiritual outlook and approach to life. I have started to regain the hope that I believe each and every human being needs.
However, a problem for me has always been that because Unitarian Christianity continues to be located within the traditional Unitarian denomination, those who identify with this outlook have to continuously defend and justify it to those Unitarians who do not. This is because those who do not—often having arrived at Unitarianism via very negative experiences with the traditional churches—see Christianity as little more than an intolerant, archaic system of dogma. This situation often leads to repeated, unconstructive debate that cannot even be regarded as healthy theological discussion, and is most accurately described as ‘nitpicking’.
This is not simply the fault of non-Christian Unitarians—although in my experience they are often the instigators of such disputes—but also of Unitarian Christians (including myself). We Unitarian Christians all too often appear to be pre-occupied with the past glories of Unitarianism—on ‘preserving the Christian tradition.’ All too often, we allow ourselves to be dragged into arguments and infighting within the broader spectrum of Unitarianism. And all too often, we seem far too inward-looking, paying lip service to other traditions, new scholarship and other liberal Christian denominations, but enjoying the comfort of our primarily middle-class congregations and associations.
In the 21st century world, this just won’t do. The many tribes of humanity are being pushed together and awakened to new realities by the relentless pace of technological, economic, political, environmental and social change; and this in turn has left their spiritual and ethical systems struggling to adapt and come to terms with this radically different world. Some religions have attempted to address this change by denouncing it and building an ideological bunker. Christianity and Islam both have elements within them who have taken this stance. They're unable to reconcile their parochial communities with the global village and so retreat from it, and often actively work against it. The other end of the continuum sees smaller faith groups, like the Unitarians and Quakers, also proving unable to reconcile their beliefs with the modern world resulting in a rejection of all belief.
Unitarian Christianity has the potential to offer a Middle Way. It is flexible enough to allow its belief systems to be re-evaluated and, where necessary, changed in light of new insight and experience. And yet, because it is centered on a core message of hope, it will continue to provide people with a sense of purpose and vision of something greater—primarily found by reference to the timeless teachings and example of Jesus but often complimented by other sources of wisdom, understanding and insight.
The problem for Unitarianity Christianity can be found in its current position. Unitarian Christians are all too often organized as a movement for preservation rather than progress, as a primarily middle class interest group, as a community often initially becoming organized as a reaction to modern Unitarianism; and as an international collective seemingly frozen in reverence for the original founding church of Transylvania (rather than looking to other groups in their own countries who could offer a much more useful model of how to build a 21st century faith-based movement.)
I have started to consider moving away from identifying myself in such a way. The reason for this thinking comes from being endlessly drawn into games of cat and mouse with other Unitarians who fear the Christians amongst them and, to a certain extent, on witnessing the insular, cliquish mentality of many European Unitarian Christian communities where seemingly what matters most is to be seen to be involved in regular church going/committee work and paying dues to the Transylvanian ‘mother church.’ Working in society with the most needy, aiding charities, campaigning for justice, etc. were not considered in this definition.
I think Rev. Cliff Reed, writing in the recent addition of The Unitarian Christian Herald, demonstrates a different understanding—and one that I think will remain with me for the rest of my life. He notes:
And so as my search for 'Renewed Hope’ continues—the journey that began in my adolescence when I realized the system of hope provided by my local church was little more than a system of doctrine and control—I feel a call growing inside me to walk on from “Unitarian Christianity.” If all we Unitarian Christians aim to do is preserve ‘the tradition,’ to build bricks and mortar Houses of God, to remain frozen in reverence for its founding fathers, to remain in a constant position of defense within our denominational family, then perhaps it is not the place for me.
If we Unitarian Christians really want to contribute to humanity’s 21st century struggle, then we need to undergo a thorough process of re-evaluation. We first need to reconnect with radical new scholarship as found in the Progressive Christian movement. And then, using this theoretical source and scholarship inherited from the past, move out from the comfort zone and re-engage with society as a practical force for compassion, justice and unity—perhaps looking to other socially active Christian groups such as the Salvation Army for inspiration. Building new churches, maintaining glorious old churches, talking about how great the founders were, looking to Martineau et al with little more than a teary eye, publishing the odd journal, holding a lecture here and there, fending off critics who simply enjoy being critics—this just won’t do. The 21st Century demands much more of us than this.
© 2007 American Unitarian Conference™