What's the minister up to?

Flowers in the Cambridge Unitarian Church on Sunday evening
Following yesterday's address I had a very helpful conversation with a regular attender of the congregation who, rightly, challenged me over whether drifting was, in fact, really anything more than collecting some interesting and, perhaps, amusing stories. That same person then kindly wrote to me saying that they'd given drifting a go that evening and was beginning to reassess it. They also asked a general question about what it was that I felt I was trying to do as minister of the congregation and additionally wondered whether the radical role churches had played in the US civil rights movement as vital centres for resistance and organisation of the struggle during the 1960s could become possible once more today?

This helpful email caused me to write the following reply which, given that as a church we are currently beginning carefully to think together again about what it is we are and can/do offer to our ourselves and to the wider community, might usefully be posted here. After all it's not a bad thing to be clear about what the minister thinks he's up to . . .

Dear __________

Thank you for writing — and for risking a reassessment of what I said on Sunday morning as well as going on an an actual drift yourself. I appreciate that more than you might imagine.

Please also don't worry about what you said on Sunday. I didn't hear it as dismissive but as a completely appropriate concern to raise. Indeed, it prompted me to add a short paragraph to the version of my address that was published on my blog. If you go to the following link and then find the paragraph beginning "And the point of this kind of drifting?" you'll see it.

As to what I'm trying to do with the congregation, perhaps the best thing to do would be to meet up at some point for a coffee/beer and to have a proper conversation about it. But, to get the conversation going here are a few things.

The first thing to say is it seems to me that liberal religious communities are not, in their modern forms, as radical and progressive as they like to think they are. To be sure they were once — after all their forebears played key roles in driving along the Protestant Reformation (especially in its radical forms), the Enlightenment (in both its mainstream and radical forms), and the republican revolutions in France and the USA — but today the problem is that so many of their ideas entered the secular mainstream of what became liberal democracy that they have become themselves part of the complex set of problems that, since at least 2008, caused liberal democracy to go into, what may be, a permanent decline.

In all this I'm very influenced by some of Adorno and Horkheimer's ideas found in their "Dialectic of Enlightenment". In it they note that the classical Enlightenment not only limited thought and reason, it also played a key part in leading to, not only old school fascism but also (at least as I see it) to the new kinds of fascism arising out of neoliberalism. Both of these systems clearly applied and still apply Enlightenment principles of order, control, calculability, domination and systemization to the running of society. In such a society people have become merely material — eg personel departments become "Human Resources" — in the same way the natural world has become merely a set of "natural resources" thoughtlessly and brutally to be used up for selfish, narrow and short term aims.

As an Enlightenment inspired religious tradition this massive failure needs seriously to be taken account of. As far as I see it, many aspects of the Enlightenment (especially in its radical forms influenced by people such as Spinoza) are worthy of continuing (after all we don't want to go back/forward to old style superstitious religions and nationalisms etc.) — BUT the Enlightenment project needs now to be continued in very, very different ways than before. This is certainly part of what I'm trying to do with the congregation — getting them to "drift" is one way to help (I hope) get people to see that the world we live in is far more complex and rich than can be understood via thought/reason alone. One needs to get out into the world (and get one's feet back on the ground and one's hands dirty) and actually look for real (if often hidden and occulted) alternative stories, myths and metaphors to help us move forward in genuinely new and more healthy, just and loving ways. I suppose it's to try and create a new kind of empiricism, one sensitive not only to so-called "natural facts" but also to "existential facts." This latter point reminds me that in my own mix is a need to take something from the pragmatists — in my case particularly from John Dewey (1859-1952). I also think that Heidegger (notwithstanding his own problematic Nazism), Wittgenstein and Henry Bugbee can be of help here too — but that's for another conversation.

To put it back into the religious language of the original Unitarian movement in Poland and Hungary from the 1540s on I think what is required is a modern kind of "rational mysticism" (or in a modern version of the same:"free-thinking mystics with hands") that can keep the Enlightenment side of its nature alive but not at the cost of its experiential, existential side. Two key religious/political thinkers for me in this regard are the German anarchist Gustav Landauer (1870-1919) and the German/US philosopher Eric Voegelin (1901-1985). There is a very fine recent chapter by Franziska Hoppen called “A Reflection on Mystical Anarchism in the works of Gustav Landauer and Eric Voegelin” which hold the two together in a way I find very amenable. It can be found in the following new open source pdf book from the University of Stockholm:

You are also right to note that what happened within churches in the civil rights movement in the USA plays a part in my thinking. But for me the direct experience of this [kind of thing] comes about through a real, personal encounter with some of the people involved in churches in East Germany and Czechoslovakia who were able to make their own communities centres of real resistance to the prevailing, repressive ideology of Soviet-style Communism. Their example, in turn, led me to think about how one might try to make the church community here in Cambridge an "interstitial place" (Simon Critchley is important to me here) or a "temporary autonomous zone", a place of real political and religious resistance against both neoliberalism and, alas, the creeping nationalistic and fascistic tendencies now abroad both here and in Europe and the USA. In connection with this last point I sneaked a massive dose of (mystical) Christian anarchism under the door in my Christmas Day address last year.

The national Unitarian periodical, The Inquirer, even published it — though God knows whether many people realized what I was doing. Still, one tries . . .

[I perhaps should also have added in my reply a link to the following address: What else can one to do in so-called dark times but offer the civil humanism of neighbourly love?]

And then there is the continuing massive influence of Ernst Bloch (1885-1977) upon me . . .

So, thanks again for writing and taking time to engage with some of these ideas. To repeat my opening comment, I appreciate this more than you might imagine and, if you ever fancy that drink and conversation, let me know.

Warmest wishes,



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