Bowls not Pitchers: Limitation and True Human Freedom - a sermon based on George Kimmich Beech’s essay "The Covenant of Spiritual Freedom"
(All the quotes from George Kimmich Beach are taken from Walter P. Hertz, 'Redeeming Time', Skinner House Books, Boston, 1999, pp. 99-105)
The picture is of a pot made by one of my friends Jane Perryman who is married to my friend and colleague the jazz saxophonist and composer, Kevin Flanagan.
BOWLS NOT PITCHERS
This insight applies, of course, not only to individuals but also to religious communities and it means that I can challenge a popular and dangerous myth that a liberal church such as this is a place where you can believe whatever you want.
Despite what many people think, to be in this liberal church is not to be free to believe whatever you like. No! there are certain clear and distinct limits to our confession. These limits exist because our Unitarian and Free Christian tradition has been in the making for just over four-hundred and fifty years and, over that time, it has developed a particular shape and purpose – a shape and purpose which, whilst it necessarily limits us in certain ways, also gives to those who adopt it a framework by which they may work towards true freedom. This doesn't rule out other ways of gaining freedom (whether Chritian or otherwise) but it is to say that we do have a basic religious shape that can help an individual develop a genuinely free and full life. It is that which we seek to offer week by week.
What it is that we offer is best introduced via a parable told by George Kimmich Beach, a contemporary Unitarian Christian theologian:
'. . . as a potter you form a lump of clay, you make many decisions, exercising your freedom both consciously and instinctively, to one end, a finished ceramic. [. . .] The original decision in pottery making is not unlike the original decision in faith: once a direction is set, soon it will be too late to change your mind. Choosing a bowl excludes a pitcher. Now choices are being made within an ever narrowing range; necessity is closing in on the maker. But this is the miracle of creation: a reversal is also in progress, for the embrace of necessity gives birth to a greater freedom. With each new choice, new, more refined choices arise; creative freedom is growing exponentially. [. . .] The perfect end to the exercise of freedom is perfect necessity. We think: This bowl, or this life, can only be what it must be!'
Key decisions were made by our forebears which were followed by those who came later and who made ever more refined choices and so, today, we are what we are, a particular Unitarian and Free Christian community. That is to be one kind of religious community and not another – in the language of the parable it is to be a bowl not a pitcher. In our four-and-a-half centuries long shaping certain key dimensions have defined our particular shape and they were drawn, primarily but not exclusively, from our normative text the Bible.
The first is a commitment to an insight and feeling that what we call 'God' somehow holds everything together - is, even, somehow meaningfully the whole of creation. As one of our eighteenth-century forebears, George de Benneville, said: 'The inner spirit makes us feel that behind every appearance of diversity there is an interdependent unity of all things.' It is this basic insight that caused us to be dubbed with the name of Unitarians. (In passing, but importantly, this doesn't definitively rule out a person holding Trinitarian understandings of God belong to our number because there are ways of understanding the Trinity that say something very similar to this).
The second is our continued commitment to the values of the prophets of ancient Israel, namely, justice faithfulness, steadfast love, mercy, truthfulness, goodwill and peace. This was summed up in the book attributed to the 6th century BCE prophet Micah (6:6,8):
'With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?'
The third is our continued commitment to and love of the person and teachings of Jesus as our central paradigm of how to respond as a human being to these prophetic values. A response which Jesus summed up in his call to love God and our to love neighbour like ourselves.
The fourth is our commitment to the use of reason in matters of religion. This we also found in the Biblical texts (mostly via St Paul) but it was amplified and clarified for us in our rediscovery during the Renaissance of the great thinkers of Greek and Roman antiquity and which was further developed and refined by us during the Reformation and the Enlightenment.
Now I argure - very strongly - that everything else we do with our tradition – with this thing that is Unitarian and Free Christian tradition and not something else, which is a bowl and not a pitcher – THIS constitutes our freedom. But what we are NOT free to do is to abandon them. These commitments are what have constituted us as a distinct people and which have given us a coherent and practical framework to encourage in ourselves and others (even when they believe differently from us) the fullest possible human flourishing. Thesefour basic commitments are, of course, what drove all our social, political and inter-faith work and enabled us to say collectively that "we need to not think alike to love alike".
Reconnecting with these shaping forces and therefore our community's particular shape (as a bowl and not a pitcher) reminds us, a George Kimmich Beach notes, that we are 'heirs of a noble tradition of liberal concern for civic values, social justice, and peace'. Now the cry is often made by modern secularists and members of our own communities that this heritage is (now) wholly secular but, in truth, our tradition bears witness to the fact that this heritage is rooted in a theological affirmation, namely, 'the dignity and sanctity of every person as a bearer of the image of God.'
George Kimmich Beach goes on to say that:
'We must understand ourselves as engaged in [this] historic mission. We must believe that history is the story of freedom, agonized by the global struggle for justice. Or else our salt has lost its savour and may as well be cast out.'
Too many modern liberal churches are failing to understand this and are betraying the tradition by reducing 'freedom' to 'personal preference' and to a 'do your own thing' attitude. They are confusing 'liberal' with 'lax' and are adopting an ideology of freedom from shared obligations. Such a view is in danger of turning the liberal church into something that is no more than a refuge from 'orthodoxy' and no more than a club for 'our kind of people, a mono-culture of the like-minded.'
My task as your minister is to encourage us strongly to resist this kind of sloppy, ill-disciplined and lax religion. It is to encourage in us a desire continually to be affirming the profound values which makes us one kind of religious community and not another.
So, to conclude. If we find ourselves called (in any way) by the liberal tradition expressed here we are no longer be free to believe whatever we want. We are only free to believe 'what we must and to do what we must in order to fulfil our human vocation' - a vocation which is nothing less than a calling to help create a larger and more flourishing humanity.
To lightly paraphrase the great early nineteenth-century American Universalist Christian, John Murray, we must once again:
'Go out into the highways and byways of our world and give the people, blanketed with decaying and crumbling faiths and philosophies, something of your new vision. You may possess only a small light but uncover it, let it shine, use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men and women. Give them, not hell, but hope and courage. Do not push them deeper into their theological despair, but preach the kindness and everlasting love of God.'
I have always thought that a tradition's theology (whatever it is) cannot exist meaningfully if it behaves as if there were no other possible understandings of the world, but must explain and celebrate the existence of other religions - as liberal traditions general do. For instance, when a liberal polytheistic religion meets another tradition, it adds some of the gods, goddesses and heroes of that tradition to its own pantheon, or assumes them to be equivalents; when a liberal monotheistic tradition meets another tradition, it assumes that they are worshipping a different manifestation of the same Ultimate Reality.
Doing this does not have to undermine the coherence of the original tradition; in fact it should strengthen it, because it takes the other tradition as a confirmation that the Divine is everywhere and speaks to all humanity.
So yes, there are certain values and ideas which are outside the Unitarian tradition - for a instance, I imagine that a "hard polytheist" would be most uncomfortable within it, as would political conservatives. But there is a broad range of ways in which we can interpret the Bible, and cross-reference it with other great spiritual texts in order to elucidate its meaning, as John Andrew Storey did.
I very much liked Stephen Lingwood's outline of Unitarianism and how it brings about spiritual transformation.
Thanks, too, for the link to Stephen Lingwood's piece.
It is worth noting that this address really did not go down at all well amongst a few people connected with the Cambridge congregation. The articulation of clear boundaries - even when they are designed to help create a genuinely engaged and rooted liberal religion - can easily be read by some as an example of exclusivity and illiberality. Ho hum . . .
I don't see what I have written as an ecclesiology at all but simply one way of being Christian in the world that can help someone decide (discern - in a subjective way) in a coherent fashion what they might choose to emabrace as a new insight, keep and/or choose to abandon from a former position. You point, rightly I think, to the importance of the social sciences and the sciences (natural) but a person still has to decide whether they are of value, to be trusted and so embraced (in whole or in part). It seems to me that the four basic shaping influences I cite help shape an argument for why we should embrace them.
So to reiterate very strongly - this piece is not about maintaining any particular ecclesiology at all but simply about articulating a contemporary liberal way of being in Christian community.
I realise you may be of the opinion that my commitment to a Christian way of being in the world (even when it is of a liberal kind) is itself a kind of ecclesiology. But, since my subjective experience of the liberal Christian tradition is that it is still relevant and helpful in the present age, I choose, freely, to maintain and promote it in my ministry.
I know that your particularity is not exclusivity - and have frequently found myself in conversations explaining to people that Unitarian Christians are not exclusivist (at least not the ones that I have met).
In magical traditions, there is a convention that the seeker should follow one particular spiritual system (e.g. Kabbalah, Wicca, Thelema) exclusively for the first year, so as to avoid confusion of the symbol systems - not because the chosen system is held to be more true than another system, but that it should be experienced in its entirety before branching out and trying other things. I see your particularism as the same sort of thing, so I don't have a problem with it. But if I was writing a summary of Unitarianism, I'd want to include all parts of the spectrum.