A liberal still standing up for Jesus - a reply to a comment on my lastblogpost

An early image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd
A very important point was posted on my last blogpost No image, no passion - why this liberal continues to stand up for Jesus by Tim Bartik. Thanks, Tim, for taking the time to post a comment it is much appreciated and I'm very happy to engage with you on this.

(Update 23 June 2013 - the Sunday address following this post picked up on themes introduced here.)

Tim wrote:

This is a well-written piece. However, in the end, I'm afraid I find your message to be somewhat contradictory. Apparently you accept that other bassists may find other models more interesting, engaging, inspiring, exciting, relevant, etc. than your role model of Carol Kaye. But you do not apply the same thinking to your approach to religion. Personally, I find Socrates to be a good role model for liberalism. But your mileage may vary.

So, I'd like to begin with a defensive stroke by pointing out that in the piece I explicitly say that:

"It is true, of course, that there are other models or prototypes one might follow rather than Jesus, and I am not making here some covert claim for his absolute uniqueness and value of him over all other great religious teachers. All I am saying is that Jesus is, without doubt, our own particular culture’s primary religious model and, for all kinds of straightforward, sensible historical and cultural reasons, his example remains the best and most obvious place for us to begin to learn how to live a genuinely liberal religious life" 

I emphasise here the word "begin."

I would like to add before moving on that in this blog (which I most certainly don't expect you to know in any detail) you will find that I, too, cite Socrates as being for us a particularly good role model and I also repeatedly reference the thinking of Epicurus and Lucretius. (In a moment I'll come back to this mix of a Judaeo-Christian model - centred on Jesus - and various additional models from Greek and Roman philosophy.)

Anyway my basic aim in writing this piece was to articulate the need for a model that begins to get us going in the first place, a model that we concentrate on for an initial passionate period and which helps us (and I'm talking here about us as a church tradition which gathers individuals together) actually to ground and shape our desires to be a good and effective religious liberal.

Whether we like it or not there is always the first model (or in some cases, a nexus of models) in any particular domain we are talking about. That model (or nexus of models) ineluctably shapes us in a particular way and gives us an initial grounded identity or *style* (this is important) that is authentically our own and means we are this or that bass player or religious liberal and not another. Of course, as we develop, we can (should) add nuances and even quite major additions to our style but there is something about the initial shaping that never leaves us (even if it sometimes leaves only a negative impression).

In Unitarian circles (whether in the North American Unitarian and Universalist tradition, in my own British Unitarian and Free Christian form or in the Hungarian Unitarian Church) that initial model was Jesus and we can't change that. This is an utterly undeniable historical fact. From it flowed an enormous number of consequences that I simply cannot list here (though I will try if you ask me to) but they were consequences which gave us a radically different style (or shape) from, say, Buddhists or Hindus or Muslims etc. etc.. It doesn't necessarily make us better (or worse) than these other faiths (or shapes), and from them all we can (and should) learn much but, to repeat, following Jesus as our initial model was what began to get us going in a particular way and not another. I've explored something of this in a number of addresses including Our Human Vocation - complete, but not absolute, spiritual freedom and The Edict of Torda, Francis David, Arne Naess and a distinctive way to do liberal religion (far more than just a history lesson . . .).

Now the Unitarian style of following Jesus opened us up to the world in a way that was very different from the style of following Jesus that was pursued in what became Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Protestantism (especially in its magisterial forms). It allowed us to be much more open to other ways of being in the world particularly, in the first instance, to classical Greek and Roman thinking.

In my opinion there has been no better modern articulation within Unitarian circles of this mix of the Judaeo-Christian with the Greek and Roman than John F. Hayward's excellent (sadly long out of print) 1962 book called "Existentialism and Religious Liberalism". But even there Hayward says:

"I am bold to counsel the leaders of the liberal church the ministers and all laymen in responsible positions [that] . . . Their own personal tastes and decisions relating to theological matters are unimportant compared to their duty as guardians of an ancient institution. They must make available to future generations that basic Jewish and Christian substance from which the power of the church has arisen. They are also under obligation to broaden the conception of heritage by relating the church's life to sources of spiritual insight. They are free to teach and celebrate more than the Bible; they are not free to teach and celebrate less" (p. 114).

The trouble is that within contemporary North American and British Unitarian circles there has developed a real tendency to teach and celebrate significantly less than the Bible by increasingly marginalising (and even in some cases actively excluding) our primary, initiating model, namely the Jewish rabbi called Jesus of Nazareth. This denial of Jesus has, in my opinion, not helped our communities become more liberal, flexible and open to other ways of being in the world but often precisely the opposite. We have lost our authentic way of being liberal in the world and, therefore, we struggle to be a strong, disciplined partner walking and campaigning with other religious (and secular) liberals to foster a genuinely plural, liberal secular democracy.

The reasons for our abandonment of Jesus are complex (and often very understandable) but this does not make it the right thing for us to do. All my piece is intended to do is offer our own community just one illustration to show why we need not abandon Jesus as our primary, corporate model. Additionally, I hope it can help reveal why following Jesus in the way our tradition has historically encouraged us to we are, thereby, in fact helped more clearly to see why and how we should open ourselves up to other influences.

To conclude, just a word about with your point concerning the wonderful Carol Kaye. I was only able to "get" her playing and respond to it - figuring out what she was doing in a pop and rock context etc. - because I had grounded myself first in the jazz playing of Chuck Israels which had really captivated me. She could have come first (to me) but she didn't (another model other than Jesus could have come first to our Unitarian tradition but they didn't). It is vitally important to see here that I'm making no hidden metaphysical claim about the primacy of Chuck Israels (or Jesus) - just a claim about how we got going in the first place and how that gave us a certain real and actual authentic style or shape and, therefore, real traction in the world.