Remembering the religious roots of liberal, secular thought - a case for continuing "to uphold the liberal Christian tradition"

Outside the Memorial (Unitarian) Church this morning
Readings: Luke 12:54-57

Selections from Larry Siedentop's op-ed article in the Financial Times (17 Jan 2014) entitled "Remember the religious roots of liberal thought"

The General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches Object:

We, the constituent congregations, affiliated societies and individual members, uniting in a spirit of mutual sympathy, co-operation, tolerance and respect; and recognising the worth and dignity of all people and their freedom to believe as their consciences dictate; and believing that truth is best served where the mind and conscience are free, acknowledge that the Object of the Assembly is:

To promote a free and inquiring religion through the worship of God and the celebration of life; the service of humanity and respect for all creation; and the upholding of the liberal Christian tradition.

To this end, the Assembly may: Encourage and unite in fellowship bodies which uphold the religious liberty of their members, unconstrained by the imposition of creeds; Affirm the liberal religious heritage and learn from the spiritual, cultural and intellectual insights of all humanity.


It is no secret that within the contemporary British Unitarian movement as a whole there continue to come very strong calls for us, finally to abandon any kind of living, explicit  relationship with the liberal Christian tradition. The argument is often made that only by doing this will our denomination survive its continuing, disturbing, decline. Indeed our own national denominational newspaper, The Inquirer, has recently published another flurry of articles and letters on this subject.

Well, today, I would like to place something before you which I hope will persuade you why - as individuals and as a local Unitarian church - we should remain confident in throwing our whole weight behind our denomination's national object which, as you heard earlier, calls upon us to "uphold the liberal Christian tradition." As I hope will be come evident this is not something relevant only to the ultimate health of our own denomination and individual churches but something which is highly relevant to our whole culture.

Before I continue I need to add something that should be held in mind throughout what follows. Although I'm not going to address this in any detail today I think it is important to be clear that it is perfectly possible to continue to "uphold the liberal Christian tradition" without maintaining much (if anything) in the way of Christian, metaphysical belief. The supernaturalist, Christian metaphysical story has for many people in our culture - including myself - become impossible to hold in any way, shape or form. However, as our minister emeritus ably illustrated in his sermon last week, this does not close us down to continuing to be inspired and positively and creatively influenced by the secular, liberal, humanitarian story of Jesus.

So, my words today are occasioned by two things that happened during the last couple of weeks. The first was a very interesting and valuable Wednesday evening conversation had by seven members of the congregation in our common room. The conversation eventually settled on the theme of our own church's identity and I'll return to this in a moment but, firstly, I want to look at the article by the political philosopher, Larry Siedentop which was afterwards circulated amongst the group by one of our number because it contained so many important public, secular themes that overlapped with the themes we were discussing.  

Siedentop had been invited to write this op-ed piece for the Financial Times because he is just about to publish (on the 4th February) a book entitled "Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism" (Penguin Press).  The book, this op-ed piece and the various public lectures he is giving at the moment are all designed, according to the official blurb from Penguin Press: "to ask us to rethink the evolution of the ideas on which states in the West are built". We are told that in this new book Siedentop tries to describe:

"How a moral revolution in the first centuries AD - the discovery of human freedom and its universal potential - led to a social revolution in the west. The invention of a new, equal social role, the individual, gradually displaced the claims of family, tribe and caste as the basis of social organisation." 

The blurb continues by noting Siedendop argues that:

"The roots of liberalism - belief in individual liberty, in the fundamental moral equality of individuals, that equality should be the basis of a legal system and that only a representative form of government is fitting for such a society - all these . . . were pioneered by Christian thinkers of the Middle Ages, who drew on the moral revolution carried out by the early church. It was the arguments of canon lawyers, theologians and philosophers from the eleventh to the fourteenth century, rather than the Renaissance, that laid the foundation for liberal democracy."

This mention of liberal, representative democracy brings us to what is, perhaps, going to be the major challenge of this book and one that we must, I think respond to. Here is the basic challenge, again from the official publisher's blurb:

"There are large parts of the world where other beliefs flourish - fundamentalist Islam, which denies the equality of women and is often ambiguous about individual rights and representative institutions; quasi-capitalist China, where a form of utilitarianism enshrines state interests even at the expense of justice and liberty. Such beliefs may foster populist forms of democracy. But they are not liberal. In the face of these challenges, Siedentop urges that understanding the origins of our own liberal ideas is more than ever an important part of knowing who we are."

Now, it stikes me that, as a church rooted in the liberal Christian tradition but which is, at the same time, fully open to wholly secular and humanist understandings of religion it should be clear that we are - in theory anyway - ideally placed to play a key role in both spreading and fostering this understanding.

But you will have noted that I said we are ideally placed to do this only "in theory". What do I mean? Well, as you heard in the extract from his FT piece Siedentop notes that, for various reasons as a culture, today we "lack a compelling account" of the development of liberal, western attitudes and institutions. This, in turn, has meant, as Siedentop says, that "[o]ur self-image comes dangerously close to equating liberal secularism with non belief" and that "a sophisticated version of that view is that our political and legal systems aim to achieve 'neutrality'." But, he continues, "that does not do justice to the moral content of our tradition."

With this point I can return to our Wednesday evening conversation because in it we all acknowledged, in our different ways, that there has been over the last century a pervasive tendency in our own liberal religious tradition as a whole to mirror this (forgetful) move and to try to create some kind of "neutral" liberal religiosity - one that no longer has any meaningful, living connection to the liberal Christian tradition. All too often this self-image of neutrality has eaten away at our own corporate religious commitment and has increasingly rendered us morally incapable of appropriately grounding and vigorously defending certain kinds of liberal religious, social and political ways of proceeding over other, competing, illiberal ways of proceeding.

(In passing, but importantly, I want to make it clear that I think an "appropriate" grounding is always going to be found in our contingent historical realities - it is no longer appropriate to try to find a ground in some permanent unchanging metaphysical reality such as God. I'm, personally, too imbued with Nietzsche, Heidegger and Vattimo's  thinking to believe this is, anymore, either possible or desirable.)

That's the bad news, but the good news is that this situation has not obtained in every liberal setting and it has certainly not obtained here in this local church. We are very much a community that still has a meaningful, living connection to the liberal Christian tradition. Consequently, we can respond in some meaningful effective way to Siedendop's challenge.

But before continuing it is worth indicating a bit more clearly how the secular liberalism Siedendop is talking about is related to us as a church standing in the liberal Christian tradition. The key is found in the title of his book "Inventing the Individual". In the middle of the FT article Siedendop writes:

"It was the Christian movement that began to challenge the understanding [of "society" as an association powerful families rather than of individuals]. Pauline belief in the equality of souls in the eyes of God – the discovery of human freedom and its potential – created a point of view that would transform the meaning of "society". This began to undercut traditional inequalities of status. It was nothing short of a moral revolution, and it laid the foundation for the social revolution that followed. The individual gradually displaced the family, tribe or caste as the basis of social organisation."

As a church tradition we are deeply bound up with everything Siedendop is talking about here. We are a church born out of this movement for we are self-consciously made up of individuals who choose to come together on a voluntary basis to form a congregation whose lives together are structured through democratically arrived at covenants. The verb "choose" is particularly important here for it comes from the Greek word "hairesis" meaning a taking, or choosing. From it we derive the word "heresy". Liberal democracy, as is the Unitarian movement is, quite literally a heresy! (As one of my heroes, Ernst Bloch says, "The best thing about religion is that it makes for heretics"). Our covenants are not a once and for all dogmatic statements concerning the beliefs and rules which it is believed forever govern our community's (and all other communities) relationships with each other and God, as is a creed but, instead, a covenant is a humanly constructed, constantly revisable, evolving framework which helps us shape and guide our relations with one another and the world around us. It is a bond of union that takes seriously the call Jesus made to us when he asked "why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?". Well, in democratic covenantal relationships we do so judge - we do choose.

It should be clear that our own GA Object is covenantal in structure as is our own current, local church covenant (adopted in 1904 and formally written into our constitution in 2002) which reads: "In the love of truth, and the spirit of Jesus, the members of this congregation unite for the worship of God and the service of humankind."

Now in the Wednesday evening conversation I suggested that it was vitally important for us to begin to talk more often about what kind of covenant might we choose today. It's not that I feel the current one is wholly unsuitable but rather that now might be the time produce or adopt something that is more wide-ranging and more clearly specific to our own age's needs and concerns. This is why I suggested we look again at George Kimmich Beach's covenant which has graced our main noticeboard for the last five years. I noted in the conversation that such words would carry much more weight if, as a whole congregation we were consciously to adopt it or, if not this precise text, then at least something as similarly wide-ranging and more clearly specific. (I have copied the text of his covenant at the end of this post).

This mention of being more clearly specific allows me to come back to Siedendop and begin to draw my remarks today to a close. During that evening conversation, and in an increasing number of others I have had with various members of this church, I have come to detect a growing desire, firstly, to be much clearer, crisper and firmer in our expressions of in what consists the liberal Christian tradition and, secondly, not to pretend that we practise here some kind of liberal neutral religion but to admit and clearly commit to, as Siedendop describes it, religion based on a rights-based culture of principles rather than of rules. After all, I sense that many of you, like Siedendop, believe that this "our enormous strength, reflected in [for example] the liberation of women and a refusal to accept that apostasy is a crime."

And I, of course, feel this too but, being the kind of person I am, i.e. one temperamentally predisposed not to engage in polemics (and, to steal a line from M. R. James, always "to have everything Pleasant about me") I can assure you that I'd really prefer not to be one of the people called upon to stick my head above the parapet and get a lot tougher and clearer about the value and desirability of liberal secular thought in general and our liberal Christian tradition in particular. I don't particularly want to do it because I know it will draw considerable criticism from many quarters (both within and outside the Unitarian movement) - it will, in short, get us (me) into trouble. But the time has come for me to admit that my reasonably extensive experience in the fields of liberal religion, inter-faith and politics has brought me today to the point where it seems liberal secularism and our own liberal Christian tradition must be much better and more clearly promoted and defended in public by people like me and a church like this.

The time for maintaining an easy-going liberal neutrality is rapidly coming to an end and the future of secular liberal democracy assuredly depends on people like me, and church communities like this one, saying, as once did Luther, "Here we stand, we can do no other." As Siedendop says at the end of his FT piece:

"We should acknowledge the religious sources of liberal secularism. That would strengthen the west, making it better able to shape the conversation of mankind."

"Amen!" to that.

A Covenant proposed by George Kimmich Beach 

We covenant in spiritual freedom for a new humanity. We covenant: We freely commit ourselves to high and holy aims, aims that transcend us, aims of the Spirit. Not in freedom from obligations to others, but in freedom to enter into common endeavours for the common good. Not in freedom from the nourishing roots of our faith in ancient ages, but in freedom to give fresh interpretation to ancient symbols and stories. Not in freedom from being called to aims that surpass us, but in the freedom that springs from knowing that “we've caught a moving train” (Johnny Ray Youngblood), and, together, we're on our way. 

We covenant in spiritual freedom for a new humanity. We find at the centre of our faith an energizing mainspring, a drive for meaning and dignity implanted in every soul in every land—the wonder of being alive and awakened to life, the grace of beginning anew. Not in the self-enclosing isolation of the self, but in the quest for a more inclusive covenant. Not in narrow-mindedness or in mean-spirited debunking of things cherished by others, but in listening for the spirit of life and truth wherever it arises. Not in fearfulness that life runs out and nothing can be done, but in the courage to turn every crisis of life into an opportunity for growth and spiritual depth. 

We covenant in spiritual freedom for a new humanity. We seek a better world where all peoples can flourish, sharing in the resources of planet Earth and sustaining her natural ecology, a new humanity within the covenant of being. Not closing our eyes to the awesome tasks that stand before us, but committing ourselves to labour tirelessly for the physical, moral, and spiritual well-being of all. Not despairing of the human prospect, but affirming hope, and the sacredness of the image in which we are made. Not stonyhearted when we are called to make a new beginning, nor giving up when our need is to persevere, but affirming our quest for wholeness and holiness.


Will said…
The 2 covenants ("object" and Beach) are in stark contrast (stylistically) and I know which one resonates far more powerfully!
There is a balancing act here and one shouldn't forget the aim is not necessarily to just grow numbers. That said, it seems to me there are important lessons that would be of great value to many people if only they had a chance to hear them.