Religious Society of Czech Unitarians (RSCU)

At the end of my last post I noted that I had contributed to a book called The Religious Roots of Contemporary European Identity: Faltin, Lucia and Wright, Melanie J. (eds), Continuum Press, London 2007, writing a chapter entitled The Religious Society of Czech Unitarians (RSCU) and the construction of Czech National identity. I have long had an interest in the work of their founder Norbert Fabián Čapek (1870-1942) and, for various reasons, was asked to present a paper to a conference at Cambridge in 2006 on the subject. I had the privilege of many conversations with two key figures in the Prague church and found myself very impressed at what I found.

As regular readers of this blog will know I'm not at all hopeful (actually I'm very pessimistic) that Unitarianism (if it makes any sense to call it today an 'ism' since it is no longer as a whole anything identifiably coherent) will survive the difficult illiberal years ahead of us. However, the one hope I have is that Čapek's thought might generally be built upon to offer the world (and ourselves!) something strong and coherently liberal. Naturally, his thought as a whole is not without problems but, for contemporary Unitarians who realise that (in the UK at least) we are close to disappearing, I think it remains a good place to start the process of rebuilding a coherent, strong identity and practical world view.

Anyway for those interested in saving this fine liberal religious tradition I do recommend taking a look at the RSCU's Resources Page which has a lot of interesting stuff that gives a good flavour of their history and thought. Who knows, the religious revival Capek successfully brought about in the late 1920's in Czechoslovakia, might happen here too. God knows we need it.


Yewtree said…
If Unitarianism is to survive, we need a definition of it that encompasses all the various spiritual expressions within it, without excluding any of them (and that includes not excluding Unitarian Christians or Unitarian Pagans, imho). Personally I can't see what's wrong with the UUA's principles and sources statement...
Ah, Yewtree, there's the rub. Is the word Unitarian to be thought of as a noun or an adjective (as you have just used it)? If it is used adjectivally then I guess the UUA's Principles and Purposes might be useful. If 'Unitarian' is used as a noun then it seems to me that the P&Ps are utterly insufficient. Most of my 'liberal' religious friends - from what ever religious background - find the P&Ps are utterly unobjectionable but can't for the life of them see how they say anything substantive (or even particularly distinctive) about a 'Unitarian' who claims to hold them as central.

It's a real problem and, again, one of the reasons why I, in the present situation, prefer simply to describe myself as a liberal Christian. If being a Unitarian meant something like what Capek proposed (which is intimately connected to Cliff Reed's description of a Unitarian as "Christians who have moved on" which I cited at the end of my blog on Pentecost) then I think it would be a name that I would be minded (could) to use. Of course, today, the word Unitarian doesn't mean this and, though I may regret this fact, since I can't do anything about it (except write the odd blog arguing my case) I just have admit to myself that I must leave it be. It is only my own deep love of historic Czech Unitarianism as Capek presented it that lures me back once a year (after celebrating the Flower Communion) into talking about what 'Unitarianism' might/should be like. Sorry about that and I promise not to do it again.
ogre said…
No, it's a good question, Andrew.

I know a couple of older Americans raised as Universalists who are satisfied with Unitarian Universalist (and ~ism), because "Unitarian" ended up being a modifier. And in large measure, that seems true.

There are a couple points... American Unitarianism ended up being so named because our more orthodox brethren refused to maintain their communion with the liberal clergy of the Standing Order--many of whom had taken to more unitarian or Arian or... something... views of the divine and more liberal views of the Bible. But the definition of who was in the "Unitarian" camp was largely one imposed by others, and so was the name. Sure, it fit many--but certainly not all. Some were simply those who refused to break their communion, and were thus rejected by those who would.

So North American Unitarianism always had a streak of theological openness that rejected attempts to define it, and who was and wasn't "in."

This religiously parallels the sentiments of Emma Lazarus that are inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty (though, of course, always imperfectly!).

As a result, UUism has become a communion of those who attempt (imperfectly, of course!) to not exclude, to not allow beliefs--as opposed to actions--to violate that attempt at a potentially universal communion. I've described this to some by suggesting that religion, as commonly understood and practiced in the West, and in the Middle East (at least) revolves around the faith, and its dictates. The religious community is built up around that; the core, however, is the faith's dogma. You have to subscribe--at least publicly--to belong.

We've inverted that. The "community gathered in reverence and affection" is our core. We bring our beliefs and practice, but they lie outside the core.

What matters most is what actions we are led to by our shared community and the outlook and the expression of shared belief that our principles lead to. That we usually come to the same kinds of actions-in-faith from different religious beliefs isn't a problem. In fact, it's a strength--it can be seen as a device that tests the logic of each individual and sub-community against that of the others.

Shorter: Do good and let god sort it all out.

The fact that people who aren't UU can't find anything in the Principles and Purposes is NOT a defect. It's a strength. They are--perhaps unwittingly--looking to find that thing that they can reject, that they can object to... and sadly push it all away in disapproval, while "appreciating" much of it. The circle is drawn so that they find themselves within it, almost always.... They're written in ways that makes them excruciatingly hard to push away.

If we must (and we probably must) redefine Unitarian to mean something, rather than being an artifact of history, I'd take it away from the explicitly theological and Christian use. We're not that obsessed with the singular nature of the divine (though that's a common enough agreement among UU theists--granting that it's come to from all sorts of different angles). We're more attached to the achievement of that imagined peaceable kindom, that beloved republic.

More about divine means, rather than divine ends.
Dear Ogre - thanks and I'm happy to publish your comment (dialogue being absolutely vital). However, I have to say that personally I've come to the conclusion that the UUA's approach to religion really only makes sense in the context of the US and even then within increasingly limited liberal political and religious circles the coherence of whose basic world-view is, today, looking very shaky indeed. I'm particularly thinking here of the powerful criticism made by the philosopher Raymond Geuss of John Rawls' approach (which lies at the heart of the kind of liberalism espoused by many Unitarians).

In essence the problem is that such liberal approaches tend to build everything on concepts that are *assumed* to be universal and that they can only be sustained by "ignoring or blanking out history, sociology, and the particularities that constitute the substance of any recognizable form of human life" (Geuss, Raymond, "Philosophy and Real Politics", Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2008, p. 59).

It is a major unquestioned liberal assumption that there exists a certain kind of pure, essential religion (Theodore Parker's theology is a good example of this in action) which, once articulated can, therefore, go on to identify which practices and customs etc. are epiphenominal and, therefore, non-essential. But that is to fail to understand that these particularities are not at all epiphenominal but the concrete, irreducible expressions of any given faith community or individual person's faith. So a Quaker particularity (with a penchant for a silent waiting on God - though not all Quakers worship this way) is not the same as an Catholic particularity that encounters God in the Eucharist which, in turn, is not the same as the particularity of the Atheist who does not acknowledge God's reality at all - and none of them can reduced to some universal common, essential religion/spirituality.

As I have recently been suggesting in this blog it seems much more realistic (and, therefore, politically astute) to acknowledge that everything is particularity and that particularities cannot themselves be reduced to universals without becoming merely pale and insubstantial shadows of their former selves (in fact they utterly cease to be).

Surely the most one can hope for is a practical political solution that acknowledges these particularities for what they are and which then simply seeks to find a practical way for them to live side by side as best with minimal amounts of conflict and, at times, even great friendship and mutual support?

It seems to me that the UUism of which you speak is as much of an irreducible particularity as any Quaker, Catholic and Atheist particularities and is unlikely to be appealing to any of them but only to that particularity that is a UU person (what ever that is - and I still do not really have any idea of that).

Now this is NOT to belittle the UUism of which you speak (and I know many UU communities are fine, delightful and welcoming) but it IS strongly to say that what you describe cannot be - of necessity - a "universal communion".

If any given UU congregtion cannot decide when it is becoming too "particular" and not UU in the way you have defined it - let's say by becoming too Christian, too Jewish, too Pagan or whatever - then what is it really? Any UU congregation - if it is meaningfully to be called that - has to know when it is no longer UU in this fashion and so begin the process of trying to bring itself back to its own particularity - and that is not to be universal communion.
Anonymous said…
I would describe Czech Unitarianism as United Unitarianism - united with one another, and with their roots.
SC Universalist said…
You'd sure have a lot less comments, if you included a notation with each post that "Unitarians outside the USA are not Unitarian Universalists" :-)

I had assumed the Unitarian shrinkage in the UK was for the same reason for the overall religious shrinkage in the UK.
What's your thinking on what needs to happen to UK Unitarians?
ogre said…
Andrew, Rawls provides a lovely and appealing abstraction--but it is vulnerable to the critique that's plagued lovely and appealing abstractions from at least Plato onward (and certainly lets the air out of both Adam Smith's and Karl Marx's tyres).

Lovely thought which provides some warm thoughts of what true universal justice might be... which alas doesn't seem to work very well outside of Narnia.

The call then is for something robust, worldly and able to shrug off legitimate and yet often whiny post-modern criticisms. I'm seeing a revival of Pragmatism as a possible philosophical underpinning over on the theoretical side. On the practical, well, Rev. Bill Schulz (former UUA president and former executive director (or some such) of Amnesty International) has made the case that we can't seek much in divine will--because at this point, we don't agree about god, or not god, just for starters, and not to mention which precise formulation of god.... Nor are we likely to.

Were UUism to attempt to put that rabbit back into the hat, I think we'd be in the same sort of boat that Unitarianism in the UK is, fast.

Nor (says Schulz) can we appeal to the dictates of natural law, because the claims are pretty damned tenuous if one seeks human rights and such there (much less anything more liberal).

So we end up, ironically, in the boat warned of in Genesis; aware of good and evil and having to hack our own way through the weeds. We can try it alone...

Or we can try it in company--and I'll just point out that there's a reason that pilgrims traditionally moved in company.

Guess makes the case for irreducible differences. I think that there are arguments for irreducible commonalities, too. We're all human... we can start from there.

As for a universal communion, of course it's not probably possible. But what's religion without some sort of mythic aspiration? But if you have one, you have to at least struggle towards it.

(And we're not worrying that last, at least not until the imagined problem is identifiable as a real, rather than Platonic one.)
Good point SC Universalist!

(Tentatively) to answer your question.

Yes, it is highly likely that the shrinkage of British Unitarian and Free Christians (to give the UK denomination its full title) is closely related to the general decline in the UK of both religious observance and church membership. Indeed membership of all kinds is collapsing in the UK - witness the current state of membership of political parties.

However, it is important to realise that in the US there is a long history of a certain kind of indigenous non-Christian Theism or Deism - think of Jefferson, Thoreau or Emerson's distinctive articulations, the best known ones for Unitarians world-wide. It has to do, I think, with the fact that the US has always been a country of diversely rooted immigrants (I know the about sensitivities that surround the oppression of Native Americans but they pre-date the political and social entity that is the US) and so early on began to develop distinctive ways of dealing with multiple identities that are simply not relevant in Europe and the UK. One very distinctive US solution is that which has been developed by UUs. But, to return to my point I made in an earlier comment, this is not really to form a "universal community" (though it might use that kind of language) but a very particular form of North American religion. The use of a term like "universal community" makes some sense as it is used internally within UU discourse but it can be powerfully bewitching (verhexen - a la Wittgenstein) and tempt folk into thinking it means what it says vis-a-vis the wider world.

Anyway, Europe in general and the UK in particular is in a very different place historically, culturally and politically to the US and its solutions to difference and multiple identities are also, therefore, different from those which have emerged there. With regard to Unitarians I argue, in my chapter on the Czech Unitarians, that this solution is much more closely tied to the particular history of the local region and people (being on THIS bend of the river rather than THAT bend) and that, from this position it is beginning to model ways about how this allows its members coherently to articulate ever wider circles of belonging in which their own irreducible particularities are nested.

That's what I argue but, because US UUs are, in Unitarian global terms, so much larger, wealthy and active (particularly in terms of publishing) than anyone else in the world, struggling European Unitarians are increasingly being tempted (bewitched) to import the UU solution into their communities. It is - for all our close historical relationships - an alien thing and it is no wonder that is contributing to European and British Unitarian ill-health. To use a medical analogy, the transplanted "heart" may have been given in love and hope and taken in the same (although rather desperate) spirit, it is today being rejected by the body's immune system. The trouble is that the patient is by now so weak that, even if you put in what I think is the right "heart" (outlined above), the body is still going to die.

Still, as my blog's subtitle says, I continue to travel hopefully.
There is space in the UK for a denomination that is genuinely pluralist, that is to say where a market place of ideas and forms can be in one place and the worship reflect a borrowing from each and a reconstruction of such a plural group. This is itself a form of definition. There are now a patchwork quilt of religiously liberal groupings across the UK, some of them expanding, but Unitarianism has shown its own traditionalisms to get in the way of its own evolving.
SC Universalist said…
Well the US could probably use a genuinely pluralist religion as well, just to see if it stands any chance of working (when tried before its failed - albeit tried tentatively - and the UUA acts as an alliance of religious groups, doesn't act as one.)
Sorry to hear the pessimism of your answer as to the future of the UK Unitarians - sometimes miracles occur (but just often enough to use that term miracle).
Re: a pluralist religion (rather than pluralism per se). To be such a thing there still need to be sets of rules to decide when the religion is not being pluralist enough.

To expand on a point I made in an earlier comment. What would happen if this 'imaginary' pluralist religion were increasingly captivated by the claims and practices of a particular religion - let's say for argument's sake Christianity? The pluralist minister and the members of her congregation and committee/board would have to take a view on whether (and how) they should act to restore it's pluralist nature or whether to allow its own non-interventionist logic to run through to its conclusion - in this case the end of this pluralist religious experiment.

It is a strange paradox (recently noted by Zizek in a different context) that for this kind of pluralism to succeed, pluralists (a species of atomists) - who believe that there should be no 'Big Other' to decide what their church should look like - need to create one albeit under the guise of 'it' being some set of predetermined 'neutral' liberal, inclusive, non-judgemental purposes and principles. Without this liberal 'Big Other' the pluralist project cannot get going.

But the end result is not, then, a genuinely pluralist religion (if one can actually imagine what that could be like) because one simply ends up with yet another sectarian particularity - here, of course, is the Protestant malaise par excellence. This is why I think modern Unitarian forms of 'liberalism' remain fatally flawed - one simply ends up with an inverted form of 'anti-modernist' fundamentalism such as those being espoused in conservative religious contexts.
Matt said…
This is a fascinating and insightful dscussion...
Sorry Ogre to have only just published your helpful additional comment re Rawls etc. Google didn't notify me of it and I've only just seen it lurking in the "comments to be moderated" section.

Yes, like you I think there is a place for Pragmatism here - if you mean it a la Charles Sanders Pierce.

Also your point about God is important. Do remember that, at least in a technical sense I lean towards an atheistic point of view and one of my issues with Christianity in its orthodox church forms is that it doesn't take enough account of Christ's own cry "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me." A genuinely liberal religion (and I think Christianity can be that) needs to include both those who can witness to God's reality AND to the absence of God. Bonhoffer showed the way here.

Anyway - apologies for positing the comment so late.

Warmest wishes,

Yewtree said…
Q: "A set of rules to determine when the religion is not being pluralist enough"

A: It's not being pluralist enough when it thinks it's the only truth. (Unitarian Christianity: not guilty)

I take your point that if you try to pare religion down to its common essentials, there's not much left. The only thing that I can see that all religions have in common is the symbolism of the union of masculine and feminine: in Christianity, Christ and His Bride the Church, who are waiting till the end of time for the wedding; in Hinduism, the union of Shiva and Shakti; in Judaism, Yahweh and the Shekhinah; in Sufism, the union of Lover and Beloved, or Allah and the soul; in Wicca, the union of the God and the Goddess; and so on.

Each religion has its own stories, its own colours, its own frequency for tuning in to the numinous; and each has blind spots towards certain aspects of the Divine (e.g. mainstream Christianity's is the inability to see sexuality as Divine and spiritual) but that doesn't mean we can't appreciate each other's stories and learn from them.
Yewtree said…
PS - just re-read your reply to my first comment. I wasn't using it as an adjective, I was using it as a hyphenated noun (!)

I'm a Unitarian and a Wiccan, a Wiccan and a Unitarian. It is precisely because of my dual allegiance that I have spent so much time steeping myself in Unitarian history and thought, and I can honestly say that I am a Unitarian, as far as I can tell. OK, so I have been Unitarian for 3 years and Wiccan for 18 years, but the underlying philosophies of the two traditions are very similar. The particularities are different, but again, there's a surprising amount of overlap.
Yewtree said…
I've written a blogpost about this - I'd love to have your comments.

(Sorry for the multiple comments on your blogpost, I keep thinking of more things to add.)
Matt said…
In these troubling times in the UK - where community relations are becoming increasingly fraught (as seen in the successes of the BNP) - I can't help but think that a strong Unitarian voice of hope would have been much appreciated.

Not the modern US and Western European Unitarian voice that says all religions can come under one roof and somehow jump into a melting pot (leaving from what I can see, the same results when children mix too many paint colours!).

But rather the classical Unitarian voice - the one modelled on the premise that we Unitarians are a united community around certain shared truths but with the scope for individuals to discover truths particular to themselves - a community very much focused on presenting and practicing it's truth within wider society as 'the truth' whilst respecting other community's version of 'the truth'. Essentially, a community that was distinct and united - yet still open and accepting to the world around it.

From what little I have seen of the Unitarians of Eastern Europe, this is how they broadly continue to function.

And there continues to be a place for a community of 'religious liberals' (for want of a less loaded term) of this kind within the UK - a community that maintains its own distinct traditions, gives scope / freedom to its members tto interpret things for themselves, and seeks to build friendship with other communities based on the principle of mutual respect.

It is a very difficult balance to achieve and you can see why communities go one way or another - becoming completing watered down and subservient to the trends of society or becoming increasingly dogmatic / inward looking.

However, from what I have seen on my travels, in the UK there are Progressive Christians, Emerging Churches and a range of western-style Buddhist groups now walking this tightrope - some with great successes (one of the largest churches in northern England seems modelled in such a way).

I think both the Unitarians and Quakers have unfortunately gone too far down one route and have become lost to themselves and to society. Similarly, there are swathes of the Church of England going the other way.

It maybe that for communities attempting to achieve this balance, their development must become cyclic (or more accurately, like a spiral) - alternating between stages of opening up themselves to the 'chaos of world', then returning to its roots to reaffirm those lasting truths and to re-stabilies itself...

What is needed in the UK is more groups to do this - Muslims, Christians, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, Humanists, Atheists - all of them need some 'liberal' or 'progressive' element to show how we can live together in hope...
J said…
With respect Andrew, isn't the paradox of contemporary Unitarianism represented perfectly in your own journey?! is ironic to see the decline of Unitarianism as a distinct, coherent religious tradition mourned by atheists, polytheists etc.
Yes! J. You are quite right and that's why it is so disturbing to me and why I'm flagging up this matter so strongly. Modern Unitarians are very fond of stating (smugly) that "unquestioned answers are more dangerous than unanswered questions" but they tend to use this against other people's perceived dogmatism and rarely do they stop and ask it of themselves. I think that "Unitarianism", at least as it has started to 'understand' itself in at least the last half-century, is a fatally flawed project and needs to be abandoned swiftly. To carry on with it would be, at best a folly, and at worst dangerous.
PS - J, that's why in my description of myself at the top of this blog I removed (about two months ago I think) the wording that I was a 'Unitarian and Free Christian' minister and replaced it with 'liberal-Christian' minister. Though this is a description that has its own problems they seem to me to be ones that can be dealt with positively and constructively. However, I do remain minister of the Memorial (Unitarian) Church in Cambridge and, while they still want me as their minister, I will try my hardest to articulate and instantiate a liberal religious way of life that is somewhat more substantive (i.e. broadly speaking Christian) than much (though not all) of contemporary Unitarianism. Maybe this, too, is flawed project but I promise to keep questioning my own, certainly flawed, interim answers. However, as Jurgen Moltmann said (in a lecture of his I attended last week), stability in this constant questioning is to be found by always to ensure that one does it 'for Christ's sake.'

This last sentence may get me in some hot water but then I've already jumped off the diving board . . .
J said…
Andrew, thanks for your response - that makes a lot of sense.
Anonymous said…
Liberal Christian or Free Christian - what's the difference?
Good question. I use the modifier liberal (lower case L notice) because it is a positive tradtion of Christian living that both takes seriously the gains in human knowledge (from the natural sciences as well as from the humanities in general - particularly history and archeology of course) and also because it is a phenomenon that crosses confessional boundaries (i.e. one can be a liberal Christian and a member of any extant denomination/tradition).

The modifier 'Free' (upper case F notice) came into use because it was about making it clear one was 'free from' certain things - primarily the State religion and confessions - which were perceived to be negative influences upon Christianity. Yes, some kind of protest neded to be made (and I'm very glad it was) but in the present situation I don't really see ways of being Christian that are different from my own as necessarily being 'ways' from which I must be 'free from' and pefer to see them as potential brothers and sisters working hand in hand in the struggle to make the world a better place. It's not easy of course because there are some serious differences between us. However, the adjective 'liberal' seems to catch my general ecumenical hope better than 'Free'.

So it's 'liberal' for me even though it is a word that remains problematic in other ways.