A religious humanism open to transcendence—a meditation on the word “God” including a wedding address called "The Human Craft of Loving"

The sunflower—the primary symbol of the Czech Unitarians

Jaraslova Dittrichová in “Czech Unitarianism at the Dawn of the 21st Century” (in “A Global Conversation: Unitarian/Universalism at the Dawn of the 21st Century, ICUU Press, Prague, 2002, pp. 197-200)

Let me tell you about [one principle] from the point of view of Czech Unitarianism . . . — belief in one God. [This] is certainly the main Unitarian principle from the historical point of view. We think that this principle is one of the main principles also in the contemporary Czech Unitarianism. Many of you are of [a] different opinion. Perhaps those of you who are non-theists do not find language about God useful. You may think the word God is much abused, and often used to refer to a kind of personal God. You may believe that the fruits of our life matter more than beliefs about God.

This may be partly true, but there is a possible hidden danger in this idea. We who lived under the communist brand of totalitarianism were able to see and experience the consequences of a system without God, a system that considered man to be the centre of the world, without responsibility to something higher than himself or even without a sense of responsibility to ‘the order of being’. Such a system brought ‘an infinite spectrum of human suffering and enormous human humiliation’ — in the words of our president [of the Czech Republic], Václav Havel, in his address to a Joint Session of the United States Congress in 1990.

[. . .]

We believe together with Václav Havel that in our contemporary world, we should respect what is beyond us. It seems us that it is not important whether we call it the order of nature, the absolute or God. We are not afraid of the word ‘God’. We use it because [our church’s founder] Dr. Čapek (1870-1942) and [his successor] Dr. Haspl used this word in their sermons and books, and because the word ‘God’ is used in other churches in our country which are close to us more now than at any previous time.

We believe that a humanism which considers human beings the centre of the world without respect to something higher allows humans to be driven by their particular interests rather than governing their behaviour in a way that takes account of general interests. This results in the plundering of natural resources and other dangers existing in our civilization.

What we have told you does not mean that we set belief in God against humanism. What we want to emphasise is that humanism should be open to transcendence. Such a humanism may be called religious humanism.


A religious humanism  open to transcendence—a meditation on the word “God”

Back in 2000, shortly before my induction as minister to this congregation, I was involved in the organization of an international Unitarian theological conference in Oxford. It was there that I made my initial, first-hand acquaintance with the Czech Unitarian tradition, one which continues to influence me and about which I eventually wrote a chapter for a book called “The Religious Roots of Contemporary European Identity”.

During that conference Jaraslova Dittrichová offered up to us the words you heard in our readings. In an event that was dominated by a large group of American and British Unitarians who displayed a strong bias towards a certain kind of atheistic humanism, the fact that the Religious Society of Czech Unitarians (RSCU) was so clear about its commitment to the use of the word “God” caused some discomfort and even controversy among some; it was especially puzzling to them because the Czech Republic regularly appeared (and still appears) in surveys as one of the least religious states in world.

The basic argument made at the conference was that, in the context of what was perceived as going to be an increasingly secular twenty-first century UK and US, the continued use of “God-language” in our communities was simply going to be an ever heavier millstone around our necks.

This argument has not gone away within the Unitarian movement — in fact in many cases it’s deepened — and, consequently, my own ministry has been entirely played out with the demands of proponents of both side ringing loudly in my ears. I have to confess that trying to find an honest way to allow atheists and humanists to find a religious home here as much as liberal Christian theists and/or pantheists, has always been like walking a tightrope over a deep abyss. However, for all that, I am grateful to have been able regularly to take succour from Wittgenstein’s words that:

“The honest religious thinker is like a tightrope walker. It almost looks as though he were walking on nothing but air. His support is the slenderest imaginable. And yet it really is possible to walk on it” [Wittgenstein CV 84].

Anyway, since that conference, I have never forgotten Jaraslova’s cautionary tale about what it was like for the Czech Unitarians to live under a political system that proceeded entirely without God and which explicitly ‘considered man to be the centre of the world, without responsibility to something higher than himself — or even without responsibility to “the order of being”’.

Jaraslova was, of course, referring to their experiences under the totalitarian Nazi and Soviet Communist regimes but, for me, the secular “system” under which I have lived and which has “considered man to be the centre of the world, without responsibility to something higher than himself — or even without responsibility to ‘the order of being’”, has been the late-capitalist, neoliberal one which, since 1979/1980, has successfully achieved what still seems today to be an unassailable grip on not only our own but also global culture. It’s an ideology that, to quote the writer, last president of Czechoslovakia from 1989 until its dissolution in 1992 and 1st President of the Czech Republic from 1993 to 2003, Václav Havel (1936–2011), is clearly another another example of

“. . . the arrogant anthropocentrism of modern man, who is convinced he can know everything and bring everything under his control, is somewhere in the present crisis.”

Havel believed that the only way for the world to change for the better was by starting with “a change in human consciousness.” He felt that

“Man must in someway come to his senses. He must discover again a deeper sense of responsibility toward something higher than himself. I think that only through directing oneself toward the moral and spiritual orientation based on the respect for some ‘extramundane’ authority — for the order of nature or the universe, for a moral order and its impersonal origin, for the absolute — can we arrive at a state in which life on this earth is no longer threatened by some form of ‘megasuicide’ and becomes bearable, has, in other words, a genuinely human dimension. This direction, and this direction alone, can lead to the creation of social structures in which a person can once more be a person, a specific human personality” ("Disturbing the Peace", Faber, 1990, pp. 11-12).

After eighteen years of ministry I still think that Havel and the Czech Unitarians were and are right and that without an orientation towards some ‘extramundane’ authority, which our culture has commonly given the name “God”, we’re in big and increasing trouble.

But always it’s a question of just how one is to use and understand the word “God” in this church context, one which, like that of our Czech brothers and sister, is a species of religious humanism which remains open to transcendence?

I like to think that every Sunday service when taken as a whole reveals some kind of answer to this question. But, yesterday, because Tom and Tom asked me to give an address at their wedding, I ended up writing a piece which I think stands as my best attempt yet at putting this into words. It is called “The Human Craft of Loving” and I give it now in exactly the form I gave it yesterday.

It was born out of a series of conversations with the couple over the course of a year and a half in which a short paragraph by John Dewey came up which, in turn, became the short prefatory reading to the address. I should also say that the two Toms saw the piece before I gave it and very were happy with it’s message. As to whether you will be, well that’s another matter . . .


From “A Common Faith” (1934) by John Dewey 
(2nd ed., Yale University Press, 2013, p. 47)

We are in the presence neither of ideals completely embodied in existence nor yet of ideals that are merely rootless ideals, fantasies or utopias. For there are forces in nature and society that generate and support the ideals. They are further unified by the action that gives them coherence and solidarity. It is this active relation between ideal and actual to which I would give the name ‘God’. I would not insist that the name must be given.

“The Human Craft of Loving”

It is not my usual practise to give any kind of address at weddings but Tom and Tom asked me if I would consider doing so for them. With some measure of trepidation I agreed, as long as I could make it clear to you all, as I do Sunday by Sunday to members of the congregation, that I’m simply offering you a few reflective and hopefully, helpful thoughts with which you are perfectly free to agree or disagree.

So, when, just over a year ago, I first sat down with Tom and Tom to help them begin to plan their marriage ceremony I started by saying that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to talk about what lay at the heart of any marriage ceremony undertaken in a religious setting.

If it were only a matter of ensuring that the law of the land was satisfied then we could all go up to the Register Office on Castle Hill but, clearly, getting married in church is to do something different, something more. But in what consists this difference, at least in this church rooted as it is in the liberal Christian and Enlightenment tradition?

Well, it is all to do with the matter of before whom the two Toms are to make their promises because, in addition to the law of the land, in the church setting there are three further “whoms” whose presence and importance we have to acknowledge.

The first “whom” is, of course, each of the Toms as individuals as they make their promises to and before the other.
The second “whom” before which they make their promises is a collective one. It is, of course, all of us, their families and friends gathered here today.

So far, still so secular, but it is the final “whom” before which they are to make their promises (and we are to make our affirmations of support) which, finally, makes this a religious, rather than a civil, ceremony. The “whom” of which I speak is, of course, traditionally called “God”. But the word “God” is a notoriously vague, slippery and highly contentious one which can cause more problems than it solves — not least of all for those who feel minded for very good reasons to say in their hearts “There is no God.”

Whether it is publicly admitted or not, every modern religious marriage in the UK faces the same reality, which is that when it comes to religion those attending and taking part in the service are highly likely to have a wide range of beliefs, non-beliefs, and all shades in-between. Consequently, in the religious setting this third “whom” before which the two Toms and we will make our promises and affirmations at first glance seems to be hopelessly compromised because “God” is a “whom” carrying many different meanings to us all here today, and before whom not all of us can make any meaningful promises or affirmations.

But in this unusual, even unique, church context we’re very used to addressing this Gordian knot of a problem and, in modest ways over the last century, we have found ways by which atheists and humanists can meaningfully, respectfully and honestly sit next to theists, pantheists, polytheists and many other kinds of “-ists” and yet still engage fruitfully together in the difficult search for a religious yet also secular, common faith.

The American philosopher John Dewey (1859-1952) has been astonishingly helpful in this, especially in his influential lectures Terry Lectures published in 1934 under the title of “A Common Faith”.

As you heard, Dewey felt that all of us, regardless of our religious beliefs, are always “in the presence neither of ideals completely embodied in existence nor yet of ideals that are merely rootless ideals, fantasies or utopias.”

Dewey could see, as we can see, that there really are forces in nature and society that generate and support those ideals which, today, are those expressed eloquently by Tom and Tom in this, their marriage service. Ideals such as love, affection, tenderness, sweetness, thoughtfulness, delicateness, forbearance, magnanimity, politeness, amenity, kindness, civility, attentiveness, attention, courtesy, clemency, devotedness, and all the other words which carry with them a connotation of goodness and which forge between them and us powerful, creative and deeply meaningful connections (this list appears in “A Hedonist Manifesto: The Power to Exist”, Columbia University Press, 2015, p. 49, by Michel Onfray) .

And, finally, Dewey could see, as we can see, that these ideals are further unified by actions such as those displayed in this marriage service, and it is these actions that begin to give the aforementioned ideals their coherence and solidarity. It is here that we begin together to display what might be called the human craft of loving, a craft symbolized later on in this service when the two Toms come to exchange their rings. 

Now for Dewey, and for me, it is to this active relation between the ideal and actual that I would give the name “God” even though, along with Dewey, I would not insist that the name must be given. So, today, alongside your own personal deeply held beliefs about the meaning of the word God it is also before this secular understanding of “God” that the promises spoken by two Toms and also our affirmations are being made and this is why we find ourselves in a church and not a registry office.

So, Tom and Tom, for giving us the opportunity to bring together the forces in nature and society that generate and support the beautiful ideals expressed by your marriage we give you thanks and seek to join with you in the human craft of loving.