All aboard for stations to Jerusalem, Athens and beyond - the Christian humanism of the Unitarian tradition

Memorial (Unitarian) Church, Cambridge
Readings: Acts 17:16-28 and from Martin Heidegger's journal “Sojourns – The Journey to Greece” (SUNY Press, 2005, pp. 1–2):

But the thrones, where are they? 
Where are the temples, the vessels, 
Where, to delight the gods, 
brim-full with nectar, the songs? 
Where, then, where do they shine, 
the oracles winged for far targets? 
Delphi’s asleep, and where now 
is great fate to be heard? 
Hölderlin, “Bread and Wine,” Fourth strophe

This “where,” raised out of an immense abandonment, a painful cry this question, what is it looking for? What does the poet see when he cries out? He sees the flight of the gods and along with that, the desolation of men’s dwellings, the emptiness of their work, the vanity of their deeds. He dares to turn his gaze towards the Greece that has already been, although he does not find support in the actual experience of the world of the islands. Why did Hölderlin have no need of such an experience? Perhaps because his gaze was reaching farther, towards the arrival of the coming god, so that only in the region of this fore-seeing that which has already been could reach its proper present. Then, the poetic cry sprung forth not at all from a mere abandonment but, instead, from the confidence in that which is coining and is able to leap over any need? What is coming only draws near and lasts for an insistent call. Are we today still hearing the call? Do we understand that such a hearing, at the same time, must be a call, even more for a human world that borders on self-destruction, and whose machinations drown out and annihilate any call?


At the beginning of last week I posted on my blog a short essay that I had been asked to contribute to a new book of theology to be published by the Hungarian Unitarian Church entitled, "No image, no passion - why this liberal continues to stand up for Jesus". It is an argument to show how and why we can (and, indeed, I think should) keep our church's primary focus upon, as the notice in our vestibule says, the teaching and example of Jesus and its application in the modern world.

It received a lot of page views and also a couple of comments, one of which required me to talk a little about the other chief influence upon us other than Jesus and the Biblical, i.e. the Judaeo-Christian, tradition, namely, the philosophy, art and stories of the ancient Greeks and Romans. In my reply I cited an important twentieth-century Unitarian theologian, John F. Hayward who said:

"I am bold to counsel the leaders of the liberal church the ministers and all laymen in responsible positions [that] . . . Their own personal tastes and decisions relating to theological matters are unimportant compared to their duty as guardians of an ancient institution. They must make available to future generations that basic Jewish and Christian substance from which the power of the church has arisen. They are also under obligation to broaden the conception of heritage by relating the church's life to sources of spiritual insight. They are free to teach and celebrate more than the Bible; they are not free to teach and celebrate less" ("Existentialism and Religious Liberalism" p. 114).

Hayward's call, one which our minister emeritus (Frank Walker) personally passed on to me before became the minister here, I take with the utmost seriousness. Indeed, as a Unitarian minister, I'm in agreement with the American President and Unitarian, Thomas Jefferson, in thinking that:

"Epictetus and Epicurus give laws for governing ourselves, Jesus a supplement of the duties and charities we owe to others" (a letter to William Short, 1819).

In connection with this and before I move on to the substance of the address it’s worth repeating something I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, namely that the design of this church building is concerned explicitly to reference this mix of the Judaeo-Christian and the Greco-Roman (see picture at the beginning of this post). I'm sure it is clear we are meeting and worshipping in a building that is simultaneously referencing both church and classical temple and, were we so minded, architecturally speaking it would not look out of place to put on our altar a cross, a statue of Zeus or Athene, or indeed (thinking of our reading from Acts 17) an inscription saying “Agnostos Theos” (Ἄγνωστος Θεός) - “to an unknown god”.

In short, although our initial primary shaping and power as a religious community - how we got going in the first place - came about wholly because of our desire to follow the example of the human Jesus, our *way* of following him caused us also to help develop, and then fully commit to, the humanist ideals of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Our tradition is, therefore, essentially a Christian humanist one.

Now, given this deep connection we have with the Greco-Roman tradition and the interest my reply elicited online it seems worth exploring this a little today. By way of introduction I’d like briefly look at what is a small scale, but nevertheless, interesting cultural and social movement in Greece called "The Return of the Hellenes" founded in 1996 by a philosophy professor called Tryphon Olympios. It's a movement (another article about it can be found here) which wishes to bring back in some fashion the religion, values, philosophy and way of life of ancient Greece. I want to take a quick look at this movement because some of the things expressed by its members seem to me to speak to a general, present, human need in Europe and North America that a Christian humanism such as our own is, in my opinion, able meaningfully to address.

Not surprisingly a spokesman for the Greek Orthodox Church described them as, "a handful of miserable resuscitators of a degenerate dead religion". However, it seems that relations between the movement and the Church have improved somewhat and, in a recent interview, Olympios said that: "They have understood that we are not dangerous and we are not pagans and Satanists. . . . We are peaceful people and come with ideas that are useful for society". All of this labelling (whether of self or others) is a complicated business and not always very helpful in revealing what's going on but one thing that Olympios said did strike me as being very helpful and on the money, he said that the "economic crisis in Greece should be a time of reflection about the values that should govern a society".

This point is, I think, very important for we are clearly living through an age when across Europe all our major public institutions, the Christian church in all its forms, political parties, parliament, intelligence services, the police, hospitals and schools, banks, broadcasters and newspapers, are all in various states of crisis. There seems to me to be no doubt that we have no choice but to spend more time reflecting upon the values that should govern society and, as both “The Return of the Hellenes” movement feels, and Hölderlin and Heidegger felt, the ancient Greek way of being in the world has never stopped powerfully calling to us in this regard.

However, as Victor Roudometof, a professor of sociology at the University of Cyprus, and an expert on religion in Greece notes, “The Return of the Hellenes” is not a movement the majority of Greeks would support and that it is Orthodox Christianity that remains a primary "cornerstone" of Greek identity. To this he adds that those who worship the ancient Greek gods are generally regarded as no more than "interesting curiosities".

It is not only sociologists who are doubtful about this movement but also a number of historians. Robert Parker, a professor of ancient history at the University of Oxford says that, "I don't think you can roll the clock back . . . You can't import an ancient religion into a completely different environment and social system" and he uses two words to describe those who attempt to do this: "kooky" and "ridiculous".

But even as I think Parker is absolutely right in saying you cannot revive an ancient religion in a completely different environment and social system I do not think that the members of this movement are necessarily kooky and ridiculous. In fact I would go so far as to say that they've hit upon something very important for our age that an intelligent Christian humanism such as our own can explore well and bring to the fore - namely that, as Jefferson said, Greek philosophy may still be able to give us appropriate laws for governing ourselves - laws better than the ones we are currently operating under. (In this church I hope something of this work is being done with, for example, our recent "Epicurean Gathering" and via addresses such as that centring on Socrates.)

However, (despite my general openness to it) I'm fairly convinced that the “Return of the Hellenes” movement is proceeding in a way that is not likely to succeed and to show you why I'm going to give you an example that, at first sight, will I’m sure, appear to be bizarrely unconnected with the subject in hand. But hang in there with me!

B12 locomotive on the North Norfolk Railway
I love steam engines and the romance and the lure of a preserved steam railway is irresistible to me. When you arrive at the best of them you find that hundreds of dedicated enthusiasts have created for you an almost seamlessly complete alternative world. You quickly find yourself drawn deeply into it and it becomes easy to think that there you are in touch with the true, authentic tradition of British railways. It can be quite overwhelming. The chief give-away - if you are not too bewitched to notice it - is always the length of your train journey, often-times very short. This always wakes me up and reminds me that, as wonderful, delightful and captivating as it is this is a created “golden-age” world, a simulacrum. Here there is, quite literally, no meaningful, living continuity with the extant railway system. If you want to find that, and many people preferring their dreams to realities don't, then you have to breathe deeply and head down to Cambridge station with all its less than “golden age” qualities.

A Class 365 leaving Cambridge
A diesel or electric train may not be what you desire in an ideal world but, whether, you like it or not the trains currently hauling us and our goods up and down the land are in a continuous living procession with the steam engines of old. The living truth and knowledge of the British railway is for us to be found, not on the North Norfolk Railway being hauled by a London & North Eastern Railways 1928 B12 steam engine but leaving Cambridge Station behind a First Capital Connect Class 365 or 321 electrical multiple unit.

The “Return of the Hellenes” movement is, it seems to me, somewhat like a preserved steam railway. Wonderful and captivating, yes - I think I'd genuinely love to attend one of their festivals in a toga and laurel wreath - but, in the end, it is something that, for all the will in the world, is not in a living procession with our present day culture.

Just as we can see that if we want to find a living continuity with the age of steam then we must climb aboard a multiple electrical unit we should be able to see that in terms of finding some meaningful continuity with Greek and Roman thinking then we must climb aboard those institutions that have actually remained continuously connected with it. The Christian Church which, even though in its Orthodox and Catholic forms it often suppressed this thinking as effectively as diesel and electric replaced steam, is, along with our secular universities, a site of this continuity (remember Acts 17 shows Christianity has always been engaged in dialogue and debate with Greek and Roman thinking). Now, clearly not every current expression of Christianity is going to be open and welcoming to such a project which actively seeks to reassess Greek and Roman thinking but I hope you can see that we most certainly are. Here are some more words by the Unitarian theologian John F. Hayward:

[A]lthough we have not inherited directly from Greece any modes of worship which we can naturally and easily assume, we have her art, her drama and literature as a reminder of her profound influence on all our history and thought patterns. Liberal churchmen should carefully inject into the activity of the church the varied legacy of classical Greece, her celebration of natural beauty, her rationalism, her sense for the tragic, and her stoical courage (ibid p. 112).

I wholeheartedly agree and think that in our current European crisis we do need to reconnect with certain aspects of Greek and Roman thinking, especially those offered up by the Epicureans and Stoics with whom Paul debated two millennia ago. From where I stand as a liberal churchman I have to say that basic desire of the members of “The Return of the Hellenes" does not seem to me to be kooky and ridiculous and I find that I share their basic desire. But, as committed representative of our liberal church tradition and a supporter of a secular public culture, then I have a duty to say that if we genuinely want to revive something of Greco-Roman thinking today then we shouldn't be putting our weight behind a movement like the “The Return of the Hellenes” but behind liberal churches such as this one or behind other, secular philosophical clubs and gatherings such as those organised within our universities or through groups such as the “Socrates Cafe” movement. In choosing this unglamorous practical route we may well appear to many people as the philosophical and religious equivalents of modern electrical multiple units and so appear less attractive than the steam trains of old but at least we have the benefit of still running real services to real places for real people, right here and right now.


Tim Bartik said…
I think more relevant to modern attempts to build on the Greek tradition are some of the attempts to revive interest in Stoicism and other Greek philosophic traditions. (I think revival of interest in the Greek Gods is less likely to take off as a large-scale movement.)

In the UK, you might consider the efforts of Jules Evans, in his book "Philosophy for Life" and other work.

In the U.S., you might consider the work of philosopher William Irvine:

I think Stoicism has some issues , as has been pointed out by philospher Martha Nussbaum, but it does represent perhaps the largest ever popular expression of some of the ideals of Greek philosophy.
Dear Tim,

Thanks for the links. I quite agree. As I note in the last paragraph of this address I think Epicurean and Stoic thinking offers our age something important and relevant. As the other links in the address will have revealed I, myself, prefer the basic philosophy of Epicurus and his later follower, the Roman poet Lucretius.

However, on the subject of the Greek Gods, which I don't go into here, there is a fascinating exploration of what a contemporary post-modern "polytheism" might look like (rooted particularly in a certain reading of Melville's "Moby Dick") in All Things Shining by Hubert Dreyfus, Sean Dorrance Kelly. For someone like me, who tends to think Heidegger was on the right track their book is a congenial and thought-provoking read.

Warmest wishes,

Yewtree said…
In this connection it is also worth reading Jordan Paper, "The Gods Are Many". Paper is an anthropologist who became embedded in a polytheistic culture in Indonesia.

One of the issues that I have with reconstructionist polytheism is that it focuses on a particular culture of the past, whereas we are all a mixture of different ethnic groups. And as you say, you can't turn the clock back, you have to take the intervening centuries into account. That is why Wicca, with its ambivalence about belief, and focus n ritual, works better for me than reconstructionist polytheism would.