Elargissez Dieu - setting God free. Accepting the gift of "weak theology" and "weak thought" in the contemporary Unitarian movement

Detail of window in Harris Manchester College, Oxford
Reading from: “Philosophic Thoughts” No. XXVI
by Denis Diderot (1713–1784)

Les hommes ont banni la Divinité d’entre eux; ils l’ont réléguée dans un sanctuaire; les murs d’un temple bornent sa vue; elle n’existe point au delà. Insensés que vous êtes! détruisez ces enceintes qui rétrécissent vos idées; élargissez Dieu; voyez-le partout où il est, ou dites qu’il n’est point.

Men have banished God from their company and have hidden him in a sanctuary; the walls of a temple shut him in, he has no existence beyond. Fools that you are, break down these limitations that hamper your ideas; set God free; see him everywhere, as he is everywhere, or say that he is non-existent. 


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Diderot, by Louis-Michel van Loo, 1767
Some of you will recall that during the conversation after last week's address, I mentioned that, in some of the fine Burne Jones stained glass windows of Harris Manchester College, Oxford, attended by both me and Frank, our minister emeritus, there are to be found words by one of the great philosophers of the Enlightenment, Denis Diderot (1713-1784) — "Elargissez Dieu" which means both "set your God free" and "enlarge your idea of God".

Well, after the service in the common room during coffee Frank came up to me and declaimed magnificently, "Les hommes ont banni la Divinité d'entre eux." For a moment, in the confusion of suddenly being spoken to in French, I thought he was telling me off for having banished God from amongst us. This was something, I was about to protest, I didn't think I had done but Frank was in full flow and it was not until a couple sentences later when he said, with extra force, "elargissez Dieu" that, with great relief, I realised he was citing Diderot.

Now, although I have cherished those two words since my time at Oxford, I had never before heard or read the full passage from which they came. I thank Frank profusely for encouraging me to track down their source in Diderot's short early work, "Philosophic Thoughts" which I enjoyed reading in the Botanic Garden last week.

Frank said one other thing to me last week which powerfully struck me, namely, that their placement in a church window meant they functioned as a kind of theological time-bomb.

Recall, that in a church context the casual, but religiously educated visitor, is likely to see these words and, at least the first-time round, translate them as does a BBC history page, "Praise God!" or, perhaps, something like, "Magnify the Lord!" On a first, perhaps even a second or third glance, all seems well, orthodox, safe and secure. We can imagine our visitor thinking that, although this is a Unitarian chapel (i.e. theologically a bit suspect), they seem to be saying the kinds of thing that should be said in church—OK, they are saying it in French, which is a little eccentric and perhaps, even, somewhat pretentious, but let's forgive them that—God is still being praised.

But, as you now know, this is far from being a correct translation "Elargissez Dieu". The fact is, whether accidentally or knowingly, the use of the original French words in an English context created what, in the language of journalism, is called a "delayed drop" in which the substance of the story is deliberately kept from the reader in order to create a feeling of suspense.

The theological substance of Diderot's words is not immediately given to the reader so that when (if) it does come (which it doesn't yet seem to have done for the writers of the BBC website I just mentioned), it does so with even greater force than would have otherwise been the case.

What you see first time round with the language of "praise God" or "magnify The Lord" is, of course, the language of the institutional church with all its (claimed) certainties and authority. This is the same institution which, over the centuries, and for all kinds of complex political and social reasons, has nearly always wanted to control and contain people's ideas about God.

But Diderot, along with many others in the Enlightenment, came to think this authoritarian, controlling approach to God was wrong, profoundly wrong. He wanted to break down the walls of institutional religion and allow the conception of God to be expanded into every nook and cranny of the world. As he wrote in the extract we heard, "see him everywhere, as he is everywhere, or say that he is non-existent".

What we saw in the work of people like Diderot had a profound effect upon our own religious tradition and, as one of our own, Ralph Waldo Emerson later memorably said in his Divinity School Address of 1838, "Let me admonish you, first of all, to go alone; to refuse the good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination of men, and dare to love God without mediator or veil." This thought is consciously and explicitly repeated, of course, in our own service's opening words, "Divinity is present everywhere. The whole world is filled with God."

This is a great achievement and it should neither be underestimated nor forgotten for it helped birth a wholly new world, our secular, post-Christian world. But no major revolution in thought such as this can be affected without incurring any costs. An indication of what, for us institutionally anyway, was an initial cost, may be glimpsed in some words of John Henry Muirhead (1855–1940). In 1885 Muirhead began training for the Unitarian ministry before eventually deciding, in 1889, to pursue what became an extremely successful and influential career as a philosopher. He, too, undertook his training and study at Manchester College (though this was in London before the college moved to Oxford in 1893). Here is how, in his autobiography (pub. 1942), Muirhead writes of the Unitarians and the college after its move to Oxford:

If its Unitarianism may be said to be one of the “lost causes” which proverbially find their home [in Oxford], this cannot be said for the principle of absolute freedom of thought for which it still, alone there among theological institutions, immovably stands.
Now why might he say this and be so positive about the college and it's general stand but so down on the Unitarians - a veritable lost cause?

Well, you need to realise that Muirhead was a kind of Hegalian (a British Idealist in fact - a follower of F. H. Bradley and especially his "Concluding Remarks" found in his "Ethical Studies") and so, like many other people in his own age, he desired to find some kind of single, strong, over-arching, or underlying, absolute truth. The trouble for him was that the Unitarian movement during the Enlightenment, and beyond, really had heeded Diderot's explosive words and had radically set about freeing God. In consequence, it could no longer wall God up and define the Divine in the way philosophers like Muirhead wanted. The cat, as they say, was out of the bag.

The absolute freedom of thought in religious matters that Manchester College had long encouraged in its ministers (which Muirhead liked) was passed on in each generation by those same ministers to their local religious communities - like this one - and, by degrees, this meant it became increasingly difficult, and I think now impossible, to create any kind of strong, corporate ideology, for the theology of "elargissez Dieu" is a weak one. Because of this it was inevitable that, as a conventional religious institution, we became a lost cause.

It is very easy indeed to hear this negatively, God knows for many years I have. But twenty-four years of living and carefully thinking within this movement (fourteen of them in the ministry), it increasingly seems to me that our most beautiful and valuable treasure may well lie in our weak theology and that it is this, paradoxically, that may be the strong, cosmopolitan message of religious and inter-religious hope we need to pass on to our world.

Why? Well, in world which in so many places wants, once again, to imprison God (or an understanding of the Divine and the sacred) behind the walls of repressive doctrine, all supported by frightening ideological and theological strength, Diderot's call to "elargissez Dieu" and the inevitably "weak theology" that follows from it, may be precisely the powerful message of hope we need to speak loudly and confidently to our increasingly interconnected, yet hyper-plural world.

Another way of putting this is to borrow an idea from the contemporary sociologist of religion, Ulrich Beck, and suggest this way of proceeding may help to promote a new type of tolerance whose goal is not old-style metaphysical truth but peace (cf. Beck's "A God of One's Own").

Amen.

With this re-call to "elargissez Dieu" and to peace my address ends today. However, as but a small part of such a diverse liberal religious movement, our problem is how, together, we might be more effectively evangelical about the strength of our "weak theology" and "weak thought". One place this question is faced is at our own Annual General Assembly meetings. This year we were fortunate that four members of our congregation were prepared and able to attend some of these meetings. After the musical offering they will offer you their own thoughts about what they found in the ongoing attempt of our churches to live out the full implications of the call to "elargissez Dieu."

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A postscript . . .

After the report back and the congregational bring and share lunch, Susanna and I made our way down to the Clarendon Arms for a nice, quiet pint in the sun. While we were there we were visited by a beautiful robin. I took a photo (below) of what is, surely, a perfect example of a manifestation of the divine outside the walls of a church. That I felt this touch of the divine in a tavern put me in mind of the verse from Fitzgerald's "translation" of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám:

And this I know: whether the one True Light
Kindle to Love, or Wrath-consume me quite,
One Flash of It within the Tavern caught
Better than in the Temple lost outright.   

Robin at the Clarendon Arms
The Church Garden in the sun after this morning's service
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