The Free Mind and the "Rationale of Religious Enquiry"

The Cambridge Unitarian Church noticeboard with graffiti
Readings:

2 Timothy 3:14–4:5 — a New Testament text to disagree with:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
    In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.

The Rev. Charles Wellbeloved (1769-1858) stated in 1823 the then general Unitarian viewpoint about the authority of scripture and of Jesus:

I adopt the common language of Unitarians when I say, Convince us that any tenet is authorized by the Bible, from that moment we receive it. Prove any doctrine to be a doctrine of Christ, emanating from that wisdom which was from above, and we take it for our own, and no power on earth shall wrest it from us (quoted in, J. Estlin Carpenter, “James Martineau”, London 1905, p. 102).

From James Martineau’s “Rationale of Religious Inquiry or, The question stated of reason, the Bible, and the church; in six lectures” (London, 1836, p.137):

The conclusions which the foregoing reasoning [in this book] aims to establish are the following: that it is impossible to attain to any conviction more than rational; that there can exist no obligation, moral or logical, to set aside the suggestions of the understanding in obedience to external authority; that no seeming inspiration can establish any thing contrary to reason; that the last appeal, in all researches into religious truth, must be to the judgments of the human mind; that against these judgments scripture cannot have any authority, for upon its authority they themselves decide.

Ralph Waldo Emerson in his “Divinity School Address” of 1838 to the Senior Class in the Divinity College, Cambridge, Massachusetts:

Let me admonish you, first of all, to go alone; to refuse the good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination of men, and dare to love God without mediator or veil.

—o0o—

ADDRESS
The Free Mind and the "Rationale of Religious Enquiry"

Last week I gave an address the basic ethical power of which might have seemed wholly to rest upon what I was taking to be the authoritative nature of Jesus teachings: the apparent form of my “argument” being, therefore, that because the Bible tells us Jesus taught X we must, therefore, do ourselves what X requires.

But that’s not actually the move I made last week even though it might have looked like that. What I actually did was simply gamble that something of Jesus’ teaching, which once lay at the heart of our own culture’s general ethical outlook, would still have enough residual power to be able to help us see clearly something of the horrors of the systemic injustice and structural evil of neoliberalism, an ideology which continues cynically to allow situations to develop where wholly innocent people are made increasingly destitute, hungry, wretched and despised and are continually being put into life-threatening situations such as those found in Grenfell Tower, Kensington and elsewhere.

There are plenty of things that still need to be said about this but what I’d like to do today is back away from recent events in order to offer you some Unitarian history. It’s a piece of history that shows why we would have a poster in our noticeboard which states “Anyone who is a slave to anything is not free” and which adds that “The first step to freedom is to free the mind.” It’s a relevant piece of history because, as the graffiti that appeared on the noticeboard this week shows, there still remain people who truly fear this freedom. For them it’s a trap and we are the kind of dangerous people against whom the writer of 2 Timothy warned: people who refuse to accept (so-called) “sound doctrine” and who, “having itching ears . . . accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.”

Anyway, I can begin to introduce my theme today by making it clear that my underlying “argument” last week was not “because the Bible tells us Jesus taught X we must, therefore, do ourselves what X requires”, rather it was something like “because the man Jesus uncovered by free-minds engaging in modern, critical biblical scholarship seems to have had many good and challenging things to say it’s still worth seriously thinking about his teachings and considering whether or not we should continue to implement some of them ourselves.”

What this reveals is that in this liberal, free-thinking, religious tradition the Bible, and the teaching of Jesus it contains (in fact any great religious or philosophical text and the teaching it contains), is today, for us, normative and not authoritative.

The key point to understand about norms is that they are things created, modified, kept or abandoned by human societies, they are not things sent down to us in complete, final and eternal form from on high by some divine, omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent being. God does not create norms — we do. God has nothing to do with the matter even though nearly all human cultures have been tempted to give their norms the sheen of the divine and the eternal by claiming that God did, in fact, create them.

Thinking about this during the week I realised that I might usefully use this point to draw your attention to an exceptionally important change of thinking that began in Unitarian and Free Christian circles in 1836 with the publication of James Martineau’s “Rationale of Religious Inquiry or, The question stated of reason, the Bible, and the church; in six lectures.” It was this change in thinking that led to the kind of thought we express on our poster outside.

James Martineau (1805-1900) was a British Unitarian minister and educator and also a highly influential theologian and philosopher. He was born in Norwich, England, where his father Thomas (1764–1826) was a cloth manufacturer and merchant. His mother, Elizabeth Rankin, was the eldest daughter of a sugar refiner and a grocer. The Martineau family were descended from Gaston Martineau, a Huguenot surgeon and refugee, who married Marie Pierre in 1693 and settled in Norwich. Eventually, so many members of the family were active in Unitarian causes that a room in Essex Hall, our denomination’s headquarters in London, came to be named after them.

James Martineau (1805-1900)
Between 1822-1827 James Martineau trained for the ministry at Manchester College, York under the Rev. Charles Wellbeloved (1769-1858) and in 1828, following a period as Junior Minister of Eustace Street Presbyterian Meeting House, Dublin, he moved to take up a pulpit in Liverpool. It was during his 25 years there that he published his first work, the “Rationale of Religious Enquiry” which, for reasons you will hear about in a moment, caught the attention of many important religious and philosophical figures including the American Unitarian George Ripley (1802–1880). Ripley’s positive review of Martineau’s book had a profound influence upon the subsequent development of the Transcendentalist movement and it began to help it definitively to move away from a biblically derived Christian Unitarianism. Famous Transcendentalist figures, to name but six, include Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, George Ripley, Samuel Longfellow and Moncure D. Conway (of Conway Hall fame). It seems important to note that most modern British and American Unitarian ministers — including me — see themselves primarily as descendants of this Transcendentalist movement.

Later, as lecturer and then Principal at Manchester New College — the precursor of my own alma mater in Oxford, Harris Manchester College — Martineau became responsible for training ministerial students and, as a leading intellectual of the 19th century he became an admired friend of many poets and philosophers, all of whom willingly testified to their debt to his thought and work.

Charles Wellbeloved (1789-1858)
Now I have have sat many, many times in the Senior Common Room (SCR) of the college and, not surprisingly, where one of the portraits that looks down upon you is of Martineau. But, before we turn directly to him and his revolutionary thought we should first turn to some words of a man whose portrait also graces the SCR, namely that of Martineau’s teacher, the aforementioned Rev. Charles Wellbeloved (1769-1858). In 1823 Wellbeloved stated the then general Unitarian viewpoint about the authority of scripture and of Jesus:

“I adopt the common language of Unitarians when I say, Convince us that any tenet is authorized by the Bible, from that moment we receive it. Prove any doctrine to be a doctrine of Christ, emanating from that wisdom which was from above, and we take it for our own, and no power on earth shall wrest it from us” (J. Estlin Carpenter, “James Martineau”, London 1905, p. 102).

As might be expected, during his early years Martineau held very similar ideas to this and, at his own induction service in Dublin in 1828 Martineau said, “Every Minister of Religion is the servant of Revelation [i.e. the Biblical text], appointed to expound its doctrines, to enforce its precepts, and to proclaim its sanctions” and each minister had a duty to “awake devotion to God, obedient faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, and practical expectation of eternity” (Quoted in Henry Gow, “The Unitarians”, London 1928, p. 108-109).

But major intellectual and religious change was afoot and by the time Martineau was entering into the ministry critical biblical scholarship had begun to come into its own, especially in Germany, and Martineau was one of many liberal thinkers both in Europe and the USA who were powerfully influenced by it. In essence it was an academic discipline driven by a basic insight first had by thinkers during the seventeenth century, such as Spinoza, who saw that when studied closely the biblical texts continually revealed all kinds of contradictions and inconsistencies which, in turn, began to provoke amongst scholars additional questions concerning the Bible’s authorship and overall trustworthiness and veracity as both history and revelation. To borrow a phrase from 2 Timothy 3 we might say that scholars everywhere began to have “itching ears” as they searched for ways to answer the pressing questions raised by their researches.

Martineau, like every minister at the time, struggled with these new questions and by 1836 he finally found words to express his by now radically changed thinking about the authority of the Bible. Here is his pithy summary of that:

“The conclusions which the foregoing reasoning [in this book] aims to establish are the following: that it is impossible to attain to any conviction more than rational; that there can exist no obligation, moral or logical, to set aside the suggestions of the understanding in obedience to external authority; that no seeming inspiration can establish any thing contrary to reason; that the last appeal, in all researches into religious truth, must be to the judgments of the human mind; that against these judgments scripture cannot have any authority, for upon its authority they themselves decide.”

To be sure there were other thinkers within our liberal, radical and free-thinking religious movement who arrived at more or less the same conclusion at more or less the same time but it is this publication that crystallized matters for us and, as such, it represents the moment when a seismic shift occurred in our communities’ thinking and religious outlook.

The Protestant Reformation had helped begin to free us from obedience to the external authority of the Roman Catholic Church with its archaic traditions and hierarchies of priests, bishops and popes; and Martineau’s reformation began to help free us from the external authority of the Bible — indeed from any authoritative, so-called holy texts. In short, for us, the seat of authority in religion moved definitively to “the judgements of the human mind.”

It was this kind of thinking that, in 1838, allowed Ralph Waldo Emerson, himself powerfully influenced by Martineau’s essay, famously to say to the Senior Class in the Divinity College, Cambridge, Massachusetts:

“Let me admonish you, first of all, to go alone; to refuse the good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination of men, and dare to love God without mediator or veil.”

Perhaps not surprisingly Martineau’s conclusions, Ripley’s review and Emerson’s words scandalized many — then as now — but, in the end, for our religious movement anyway, there was to be no going back.

So, to conclude, let me return to the start of this address. Evidence, reason and experience have shown us Jesus was a human being and not God and, like every human (even the most good and gifted) he could be wrong about some things and right about others. Evidence, reason and experience continue to show us that some of the things Jesus seems actually to have said (rather than what the gospel writers would like to have believed or wished he said) remain powerful and worthy of consideration to this very day — they remain as useful, normative teachings about how to live a good life. But, and it is a huge but, the words of Jesus that we continue to take as useful norms are accepted not because they are in the Bible, nor simply because he said them, but because, collectively, we decide they are worth keeping.

If good evidence, reason and experience ever causes us to change our minds on this matter then we will do so for here, thanks in great part to James Martineau and the Transcendentalists, we are  today free, completely free, to encounter reality directly without supernatural assistance or any kind of mediator or veil.
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