The secular, conversational spirit of democracy - a meditation on Pentecost

READINGS: Acts 2:1-13

It Matters What We Believe
by Sophia Lyon Fahs

Some beliefs are like walled gardens. They encourage exclusiveness, and the feeling of being especially privileged. Other beliefs are expansive and lead the way into wider and deeper sympathies. Some beliefs are divisive, separating the saved from the unsaved, friends from enemies. Other beliefs are bonds in a world community, where sincere differences beautify the pattern. Some beliefs are rigid, like the body of death, impotent in a changing world. Other beliefs are pliable, like the young sapling, ever growing with the upward thrust of life.

View of Emmanuel Road from the front of the Memorial (Unitarian) Church this morning 
As I said in my address just before our AGM it seems important to introduce to you, every now and then, some important topics relating directly to why we are this particular kind of liberal religious community. Today is Pentecost Sunday and this fact allows me to bring before you one of the primary, motivational theological reasons why we have, historically, gathered as a liberal, democratic, voluntary association.

I'm doing this in part because if you are minded to take seriously Jesus' maxim that, "by their fruits ye shall know them" (Matthew 7:16 and 20), it must also be true in some way that "by their roots you shall know them". Every gardener knows that if you don't pay attention to care of the roots the fruit will suffer and I am continually struck by how this is all too easily forgotten in liberal religious, political and generally secular circles.

So, firstly, we need to do a tiny bit of theology that, although at first sight might appear pointlessly abstract - angels on a pinhead stuff, but I promise I will very quickly ground it in the actualities of our world.

Pentecost is, of course, a celebration of the day upon which the later Christian community came to feel that the Holy Spirit entered the disciples, an event which, in turn, came to be seen as marking the founding moment of the Christian Church as a distinct religious community. Whether Pentecost happened in precisely the fashion Luke tells us it did (Acts 2:1-13) - and that seems highly unlikely - is not really the point. What I want us to note is that the story is a reminder that following Jesus’ death the disciples experienced a decisive renewal and revivification that was powerful enough not only to send them out in the world as apostles to share something of their current understandings of the gospel , the good news proclaimed by Jesus, but also powerful enough to inspire people across two millennia.

Consequently, what we understand the Holy Spirit to be and how we understand how it comes to be among us is very important to the kind of liberal Christian community we both became and, I hope, are still becoming. As Sophia Lyons Fahs said, it matters both what we believe, both now and and what we have believed in the past.

The idea of the Holy Spirit is, in all Christian thinking, wholly tied up with the names of God the Father and Jesus as the son or chosen one, the Messiah, of God. Together these three names came to be understood within the majority of the Western and Eastern churches as eternally bound up in the Trinity.

Click on the picture for an enlarged view
Western Catholic and Protestant Trinitarian understandings of the Holy Spirit looked like the first diagram in the picture to the right. Notice that the Holy Spirit proceeds from BOTH the Father and the Son.

Eastern Orthodox conceptions of the Holy Spirit look like the second diagram. Notice that Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father alone.

This difference in interpretation caused one of the most decisive and bitter schisms in Christendom which still, to this day, divides the Western and Eastern Trinitarian churches. But this difference aside in both these models all three names are bound together in a Trinitarian conception of the Godhead. The direction of travel, the procession of the Holy Spirit and the Son is in both these models, ultimately one of eternal return into the Trinitarian Godhead. (I explored an aspect of this last week in A meditation on the death of God for Ascension Day).

But let’s move on to the third diagram. This is how the German philosopher Hegel understood the direction of movement or procession from God to the Son and the Holy Spirit. In Hegel’s model, God becomes wholly emptied (kenosis) into the Son and then God as the Son gets wholly emptied into the Holy Spirit, into this world. In this model divinity is not to be understood as essentially a movement of return to the Godhead but, instead, as a complete one-way, open-ended, creative out-flowing into the world. To speak of God in this model is no longer to speak of a being “up-there” but, instead, to speak of something that now happens in the world between people and in all creative events of becoming. The theological procession is one which moves from absolute unity into a single person and then, under the name of the Spirit, into an independent, free, open-ended plurality of persons and the world as a whole.

In one way or another, and often using very different terminology to that which I'm using here, our radical-reformation Unitarian tradition of churches began to follow various versions of this latter model (the seventeenth-century Dutch Collegiants are hugely important for us in this regard). Indeed, our own greatest nineteenth-century British theologian, James Martineau (1805-1900) came to say that: “The incarnation is true, not of Christ exclusively, but of Man universally, and God everlastingly.” And so, today, in our tradition, it is all about incarnation, about understanding "God" or the "Divine" as something that, yes, was seen by us in Jesus in a unique way, but only as the self-giving, self-emptying way by which, now as a secular Spirit, God is known radically, and finally, to have entered into all life and I mean, ALL life. In our own congregations we try to mirror this understanding in our democratic ordering.

(Remember, too, that the English word “secular” comes from the Latin, “saecularis” meaning “worldly”. So, when I talk about the Spirit in what follows, even when I call it the Holy Spirit, I am referring to a this-worldly, secular Spirit.)

The carved plaque in our memorial garden
It is vitally important to see that a major consequence of this theological belief - of the spirit moving into ALL life in the world - is that there can be no absolute and necessary requirement that all human communities should either formally identify as Christian or even understand themselves as being formally religious or theistic. Indeed, today, in our secular age and culture, we can, I hope, clearly see that there exist countless non-Christian and non-religious organisations that the kind of liberal Christian community such as our own feels can be described as acting in highly admirable and inspiring ways - or, as we would say using our community's local religious language (or dialect), acting in “the spirit of Jesus.” For us to say this is not to make any of these other groups merely anonymous Christians (many, even most, of them are clearly simply not Christian) rather it is simply to have found a powerful and grounded way of saying in our own religious language (dialect) why we need not think alike to love alike. Anyway, it is not for nothing that every service here starts with the words “Divinity is present everywhere, the whole world is filled with God.”

I hope that it is clear that thinking about God in this incarnational linear, downward, open-ended way (from God, to Jesus, to a secular Spirit coursing through the whole of creation) had a profound political impact on British, European and North American culture. This is because it makes a great deal of difference to the way you will come to structure your societies if you come to think that authority is vested in a perfect, transcendent, divine unitary authority back to which you must always be referring or whether you think that authority is, in truth, vested in many diverse, open-ended, unfolding, this worldly communities who must learn to govern themselves well and get on together through a process of engaged, critical conversation with each other - in, short, living through some some kind of “parley-mentary” process. Our word parliament comes, of course, from the Old French “parlement” (11 century), which means "a speaking" coming from "parler" meaning "to speak".

We are fortunate, indeed, that, although this radical theology of the downward, incarnational procession of God into the Holy Spirit did not win the day in most of our formally constituted Christian churches, it did win the day in the wider radical religious circles who became increasingly committed to the creation of what were  to become our civic, secular democracies. In England this decisively began after the Civil War (the English Revolution), in Europe after the French Revolution and, in North America, after the American Revolution.

The spirit of genuine democracy, of liberté, égalité, fraternité is, for our radical tradition, an expression of the very spirit of Pentecost. It is, as the author of Acts so memorably recounts, a Spirit which gives people of different views and beliefs the “ability” to speak meaningfully with each other “in other languages”. It is nothing less than a collaborative, binding Spirit that is best honoured and acknowledged in some kind of genuine, conversational and dialectical setting - a "parley-ment".

But I am deeply worried that, because we have become understandably (and in my opinion often quite rightly), disconnected from, and suspicious of, the theological language we once happily used to root and inspire our commitment to a secular conversational, democratic system of ordering, our fruit is no longer meaningfully connected to its original life-giving root and is, in so many ways, seemingly in danger of withering on the vine. It is clear as the day is long that there exists a huge motivational deficit at the heart of our secular, liberal democracies (and at the heart of many of our own Unitarian and Free Christian communities).

(Simon Critchley has addressed a number of things connected with this in his books Infinitely Demanding - Ethics of Commitment , Politics of Resistance and also The Faith of the Faithless - Experiments in Political Theology.)

Most people don't (cannot) see that there might be something deeply religious or better, spiritual, about a genuine, conversational democratic process that needs disciplined, dutiful tending. Instead it's just become a fruit to be taken for granted, merely taken or left on the market stall of ideas as it suits the individual in the present moment. The idea that a genuine conversational and democratic self-ordering might be something worthy of calling sacred, as something deeply connected with the way we have understood "God" or the "Divine", just never seems to come into sharp, collective focus for us. It is painfully clear to me that the idea that committing to secular, conversational, democratic living might be to perform a kind of "religious" duty, as I think it is, is very, very far from being a mainstream view.

It is obvious that this is, in part, because of the way formal religions, historically, have dysfunctionally involved themselves in the life of the state or nation - always seeking to create in the people a doctrinal, belief-led, false unity. But I remain convinced that our own religious tradition's radical secular understanding of the Spirit can contribute an important insight to our present-day society to help it find ways to develop some kind of genuine secular, civic spiritual consensus that can Pentecostally re-energise and revivify us all as sons and daughters of the free-Spirit, free citizens of nothing less than a secular republic of Heaven.

May the Holy Spirit, that genuinely free but powerfully motivating Secular Spirit be rekindled in and among us today.


Following the main service a service of communion was held. You can read a pdf copy of this by clicking on the following link:


Yewtree said…
Your post reminded me of this poem:

God’s Grandeur
by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889)

THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil,
It gathers to a greatness like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck His rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And bears man’s smudge, and shares man’s smell; the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights from the black west went,
Oh, morning at the brown brink eastwards springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast, and with, ah, bright wings.