Making Footprints Not Blueprints

S07 #08 - Why “upholding the liberal Christian tradition" need not be the same thing as upholding Liberal Christianity - A thought for the day

November 05, 2023 Andrew James Brown/Caute Season 7 Episode 8
Making Footprints Not Blueprints
S07 #08 - Why “upholding the liberal Christian tradition" need not be the same thing as upholding Liberal Christianity - A thought for the day
Show Notes Transcript

The full text of this podcast can be found in the transcript of this edition or at the following link:

Please feel to post any comments you have about this episode there.

The Cambridge Unitarian Church's Sunday Service of Mindful Meditation can be found at this link:
"New Heaven", written by Andrew J. Brown and played by Chris Ingham (piano), Paul Higgs (trumpet), Russ Morgan (drums) and Andrew J. Brown (double bass) 

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A short thought for the day” offered to the Cambridge Unitarian Church as part of the Sunday Service of Mindful Meditation.


As many of you will know, the British Government has a requirement that congregations such as the one where I am minister, need to change our status from being an “excepted charity” to a “charitable incorporated organization” (CIO). The 2019 deadline for this was extended due to the disruptions of the pandemic but in the congregation where I am minister we thought it was simply wise to get on with the process because there’s a huge amount of technical, and legal work involved in the process, as our chairman, secretary, treasurer and other committee members will testify if you take time to ask them. If you do ask, don’t also forget to take the time to express your thanks to them for undertaking this legally required but, frankly, often thankless task.

But in addition to the grinding aspects of this technical, legal process, it also allowed us to look carefully at something more religiously creative, namely at our own Charitable Object and to tailor it much more closely to the pleasing plurality of our own current congregation than our present object which, in part, simply mirrors that of our denomination, “The General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches.” For those of you who don’t know the GA Object, it reads as follows:

“To promote a free and inquiring religion through the worship of God and the celebration of life; the service of humanity and respect for all creation; and the upholding of the liberal Christian tradition.”

This was adopted at a national level, after much brouhaha and no little controversy, at the General Assembly Annual Meetings, April 2001.

As you can imagine, although this statement has certain aspects to recommend it, a major problem for us as a local community, concerned to promote a genuinely free and inquiring religion, is that this free inquiry has revealed to us many things that make two elements of the object particularly problematic. The first is the use of the word “God,” and the second is “upholding the liberal Christian tradition.” Of course, historically considered, there is absolutely no problem with either of them, but today, the matter is different.

Firstly, the idea of what on earth is, or might be meant by, the word “God,” is radically different in our own highly pluralist and scientifically aware congregation than it was even in 2001. It’s blindingly obvious that what the Charity Commissioners think is meant by the word “God” is simply not what we mean when we only very occasionally choose to use the word “God” here today. There’s a lot more I would like to say about the meaning and use of the word “God” but, today, I’m much more interested in looking at the phrase “upholding the liberal Christian tradition.”

Because we have an extremely diverse congregation, often with members having dual religious/spiritual identities that sometimes do not include Christianity, this statement increasingly feels to many of us to be an unnecessarily narrow way of talking about what kind of liberal religious tradition it is we wish to uphold. As an initial attempt to get over this problem, in the ongoing process of becoming a CIO, the committee submitted to the Charity Commissioners the following draft text as our proposed object. We told them we were meeting together for:

“The advancement of a free and enquiring religion based on the Liberal Christian heritage which draws also on Radical Enlightenment philosophies, religious naturalism, other religious traditions and humanism;

The celebration of life through service to humanity and respect for the natural world;

The promotion of religious and racial harmony, inclusivity, equality and diversity.”

Now, to put it politely, the Charity Commissioners are notoriously picky about everything. Sometimes this is for good legal reasons, but at other times, it’s because they are deeply committed to upholding, what seems to me and many others, to be a somewhat dysfunctional and no longer fit for purpose, rather conservative religious status quo. As an example of the latter, here is what they said about our proposed objects when they replied to us in February 2023:

“The first purpose is not worded in a way that we would accept as describing an exclusively charitable purpose. Advancing religion is a type of charitable purpose, however a purpose for the advancement of religion must explicitly state which faith is being advanced. The guidance above explains what the law defines as ‘religion’, and what it means to ‘advance religion’. The inclusion of philosophies, religious naturalism, other religious traditions and humanism in the purpose wording could lead to uncertainty over what the faith is that is being advanced here.”

Now, I realise that there are a lot of words to take in here in one go but, basically, what they are saying here is that the kind of creative free-religion, or free-spirituality outlined in our proposed object, and expressed weekly in our Sunday service and other activities, is something to be ruled out of court because the Unitarian movement is only legally recognised in so far as it continues to be an explicit expression of some version of Christian faith. But, although they claimed our statement “lead[s] to uncertainty over what the faith is that is being advanced here”  that’s actually nonsense, because there’s absolutely no uncertainty about our faith as expressed in our proposed object, it says clearly that our faith is in a religion that has moved beyond sectarian religion, including Liberal Christianity. As I’ve been exploring with you in recent months, our faith is in a creative, free-religion or spirituality.

So, I was very disappointed in, and somewaht irritated by, the Charity Commissioners’ response. But, their deeply unimaginative and reactionary response, has served to make me look again at what on earth for us are the actual consequences of “upholding the liberal Christian tradition”? And, for the piece of grit flung into my oyster by the Commissioners, I am truly grateful because helped to reveal something very important, a pearl of truly great price.

To see this pearl we need briefly to run through what we have been called the four “classical,” characteristics displayed by any community standing in the liberal Christian tradition.

The first characteristic of the liberal Christian tradition is a commitment to what is called “historical-critical theology” which accepted that religion needed to be understood historically as a human phenomenon. This approach has shown us clearly that there is no, and has never been, an absolute separation of religions. Every religion there has ever been has been fundamentally shaped by at least one, if not multiple other religions. And so, for example, Judaism incorporates aspects of Babylonian religion and the ancient Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh; Christianity incorporates huge elements of Judaism and so-called, “Pagan,” religions (especially from the Greek and Roman worlds); Orthodox Christianity has two saints Barlaam and Josaphat, also known as Bilawhar and Budhasaf, whose life story is based on the life of Gautama Buddha; and so on, ad infinitum. This has all helped us see that the discrete, individual boxes labelled “Christianity,” or “Judaism,” or “Buddhism,” or “Islam,” or whatever, are at least highly porous if not, at times, utterly illusory. All religion is a mixture, all religious traditions are syncretic.   

The second characteristic of the liberal Christian tradition is a commitment to an anti-dogmatic approach to religion. Key to this characteristic is the use of rational inquiry. This has shown us clearly that many earlier unquestioned religious beliefs — such as those about the nature of, or even the existence of, God — must always already be opened up to intelligent, critical but also loving conversation between us. As the pithy phrase has it, we have learnt the truth that “More dangerous than an unanswered question is an unquestioned answer.”

The third characteristic of the liberal Christian tradition is a commitment to a non-denominational stance. Naturally, during our early period of existence, between the mid-sixteenth to the early 19th-centuries, Unitarians primarily expressed this in relation to other Christian churches. But, by the mid-nineteenth-century, our commitment to historical-critical theology and an anti-dogmatic approach helped us see that this openness to the other must be applied equally to other, non-Christian, religious traditions, and so we became pioneers in the world of inter-faith relations and the dialogue with so-called “secular” philosophies.

The fourth characteristic of the liberal Christian tradition is a commitment to the importance of individual religious experience. We acknowledge that we have no other place to start than with ourselves and our local history and context. But, as the twentieth-century Japanese Unitarian and advocate of free-religion, Imaoka Shin’ichirō-sensei, powerfully points out, this is just the beginning. This is because although we start with faith in ourselves, recognizing our own subjectivity and creativity, this faith helps us see clearly that our neighbour is also a self, and so we learn that our neighbour is ourself as our neighbour, and that if we have faith in ourselves, we inevitably must have faith in our neighbours. Naturally, this then opens us up to seeing the existence of ever wider, cooperative communities and, ultimately, to our intimate, intra-active and cooperative relationship with all other things in this amazing world of ours. So it's worth remeberbeing that Imaoka-sensei talks about us having a tradtion that has a trinity of self, others, and cooperative community.

Now, as far as I can see, this way of understanding what it means for our local community, properly and fully “to uphold the liberal Christian tradition,” means that we are on a journey that is moving us ever further away from being a Liberal Christian community, and into something that transcends this. One perfectly legitimate and coherent consequence of loyally upholding the liberal Christian tradition is to cease to be a Liberal Christian church and to become a genuinely creative, free-religious or spiritual community. 

And, finally, for today anyway, I feel it’s important to add that I think that it is only this kind of move beyond Liberal Christianity that can truly free us to reconnect with the original, generous, free-religious spirit expressed by the human Jesus, a spirit that, today, we have faith is shared with all the genuinely great religious and philsophical teachers of humanity.

Trust me, there is absolutely no doubt about what kind of faith is being promoted here.