The time to “Love the hell out of the world” is right now, because time is not on our side


1 John 4:7-8 (David Bentley Hart)
Beloved ones, let us love one another, because love is from God, and everyone who loves has been born out of God and knows God. Whoever does not love has not known God, because God is love.

An brief introduction to George de Benneville (1703-1793)

George de Benneville (1703-1793), born in London in 1703 to aristocratic Huguenot French parents in the court of Queen Anne, was a Christian Universalist physician and preacher. Whilst serving as a sailor as a teenager he traveled around the world and his experiences caused him to begin to question his own religion and compare it to other world religions. During these voyages de Benneville had a mystical experience and, later, a near-death experience which he described in his autobiographical “The Life and Trance of Dr. George De Benneville” published by another important Universalist, Elhanan Winchester (1751-1797).

This initiated an eighteen year period (c.1723-41) when he worked as an itinerant Universalist preacher in France, Germany and Holland where he was sentenced to death more than once. Whilst in Europe he also began to study and practice medicine. In 1741 he emigrated to Pennsylvania where he began working as a physician and apothecary all whilst continuing to preach a Universalist gospel. There he both socialised and traded herbal preparations with Native American groups in the area and his work remains a priceless source of knowledge about their medicine. de Benneville died at home in Pennsylvania in 1793 where his long life had led him to proclaim that all people everywhere are loved by God and that differences of culture, religion, race, and sex have no ultimate bearing on the innate worth of any human being.

Here, now, are a few passages written by him during his later life in Pennsylvania by which time he had become a convinced Universalist. They are to be found in Albert D. Bell's biography, “The Life and Times of Dr George de Benneville” (Universalist Church of America, Boston, 1953, pp. 65-66):

Preach the Universal and Everlasting Gospel of Boundless, Universal Love for the entire human race, without exception, and for each one in particular.

Proclaim and publish to the people of the world a Universal Gospel that shall restore, in time, all the human species without exception.

Our Sovereign Good is the Infinite and Everlasting Love, the only indwelling, all-embracing, undergirding and overshadowing spiritual reality, which is at once the source, the instrument and the object of its power.

He will restore all of His creatures, without exception, to the praise of His glory and their eternal salvation.

The spirit of Love will be intensified to Godly proportions when reciprocal love exists between the entire human race and each of its individual members. That love must be based upon mutual respect for the differences in colour, language and worship, even as we appreciate and accept with gratitude the differences that tend to unite the male and the female of all species. We do not find those differences obstacles to love.

Unity testifies to the many parts of the whole. Each body has features which may be recognized separately, but these have no real usefulness, beauty, or value apart from the body.

The Inner Spirit makes men feel that behind every appearance of diversity there is an interdependent unity of all things. 

My happiness will be incomplete while one creature remains miserable.


The time to “Love the hell out of the world” is right now, because time is not on our side

At the beginning of the week I noticed that today was the 316th anniversary of George de Benneville’s birth (July 26, 1703-March 19, 1793) a little bit about whom you heard in our readings. This fact sent me back to read all the material I have by and about this extraordinary and inspiring figure and, for a couple of days, I thought today’s address was going to be solely about him and his thought.

But then the mercury began to rise and kept on rising and, on Wednesday 24th, three climate studies were simultaneously published in Nature and Nature Geoscience,

all of which used extensive historical data to show conclusively there has never been a period in the last 2,000 years when temperature changes have been as fast and extensive as they have been in recent decades. In short, these studies make it completely clear that we’re the cause of this current, sudden and profoundly disturbing change. As you all know, the following day we in Cambridge experienced the hottest day ever recorded in the United Kingdom (38.7 degrees celsius).

My study on the only slightly cooler Wednesday afternoon
In my super-heated study these two, apparently unconnected things — de Benneville’s universalism and the climate emergency — were suddenly catalysed into this address thanks to a piece in the “New Statesman” by the journalist, author and commentator Paul Mason called “My manifesto for a post-carbon future” which begins as follows:

For two centuries the left was understandably relaxed about time. The arrow of time, which in nature produces complex systems out of simple ones, had replaced feudalism with capitalism, the proletariat and technological progress. In the process it produced Marxism, a secular philosophy that claimed the ultimate outcome might be communism. Revolutionaries wanted the process to be faster, even at the cost of forcing the pace of history; reformists were content with a more natural timetable; revisionists such as Eduard Bernstein were happier simply being en route than achieving the goal itself. Each faction shared the assumption that time is on the side of progress.

Now, unfortunately, it is clear that time is something we do not have. 

It is important to realise that that our own Unitarian, Free Christian and Universalist tradition has always had many connections with the wider Labour movement — indeed one of our own ministers, John Trevor (1855–1930), founded what was called the Labour Church at Manchester in October 1891. The church quickly expanded to other towns including Birmingham, Bradford, Bolton, Leeds, London, Nottingham, Oldham, Plymouth and Wolverhampton and by July 1893, a Labour Church Union of 14 churches was organized and within five years there were over 50 churches attracting between 300 and 500 members to each congregation.  A recent book published by Routledge in 2017 called “The Labour Church: The Movement & Its Message” by Neil Johnson argues “that the most distinctive feature of the Labour Church was Theological Socialism. For its founder, John Trevor, Theological Socialism was the literal Religion of Socialism, a post-Christian prophecy announcing the dawn of a new utopian era explained in terms of the Kingdom of God on earth; for members of the Labour Church, who are referred to as Theological Socialists, Theological Socialism was an inclusive message about God working through the Labour movement.”

These kinds of connections — there are many others e.g. John Goodwin Barmby (1820-1881) — should help you to see that what Mason says about the left’s assumption that time was on the side of progress can also be said about us too. For the secular left this progress may have been guaranteed by natural processes described by historical materialism whilst for the religious left it was guaranteed by the moral actions of a God who was conceived primarily as being Love — but in both cases it’s important to be clear that progress was guaranteed and time was on our side. Whether considered as a secular or religious concept the eventual coming of the New Jerusalem, the City of Light, was believed to be assured for all people.

To see why we, as a radical liberal tradition, thought this it’s helpful briefly to turn to the theology of a representative universalist such as de Benneville. As you heard in our readings he believed, having deeply imbibed 1 John 4:7-8, that “Our Sovereign Good is the Infinite and Everlasting Love, the only indwelling, all-embracing, undergirding and overshadowing spiritual reality, which is at once the source, the instrument and the object of its power.” Given this belief he felt absolutely assured that God would “restore all of His creatures, without exception, to the praise of His glory and their eternal salvation.” This, in turn, was personally felt by him as an irresistible call to “Preach the Universal and Everlasting Gospel of Boundless, Universal Love for the entire human race, without exception, and for each one in particular” and to “Proclaim and publish to the people of the world a Universal Gospel that shall restore, in time, all the human species without exception.” All of this caused him memorably to say that the “Inner Spirit makes [us] feel that behind every appearance of diversity there is an interdependent unity of all things.”

But, in the years following the publication of Darwin’s book “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life” in 1859 and Nietzsche’s famous pronouncement of the death of God in “The Gay Science” in 1882, in liberal circles generally, more and more people began less and less able to believe in the reality of the kind of God once believed in by de Benneville and the other early universalists.

But even though (the idea of) God was dead (or still dying) as a group of still religiously inclined people we naturally didn’t want to let go of the kind of beautiful, optimistic universalistic spirit expressed by people like de Benneville and it is this desire that begins to power the rise of what is known as the Ethical Culture Movement. A key figure in its creation was Felix Adler (1851–1933), an influential German-American professor of political and social ethics, rationalist, influential lecturer on euthanasia, religious leader and social reformer. Adler came to feel that belief in a personal god was simply unnecessary and began to argue that the human personality was, in fact, the central force of religion. I had us sing his hymn “Sing we of the Golden City” (to the tune of Hyfrydol) earlier because it perfectly sums up his progressivist, humanistic religious hopes which, despite the death of God, still believed it had time on it’s side. As his lyric had it, he thought we could be assured that our work here on earth would “shine transfigured / In the final reign of right.”

The most famous example of this movement in the UK is the South Place Ethical Society in what is now called Conway Hall in London. Although it is today committed to a thoroughly secular version of humanism it is not coincidental that it is the direct descendent of a Universalist congregation founded in 1787 by Elhanan Winchester (1751-1797). Remember him from the our readings? Well, it was he who did most to ensure that George de Benneville was not forgotten by history most notably by publishing in 1791 “Some Remarkable Passages in the Life of Dr George de Benneville”. William Johnson Fox (1786-1864) then became minister of the congregation in 1817 and it was he who issued a call for “subscriptions for a new Unitarian chapel, South Place, Finsbury”. It was this chapel which later became the home of South Place Ethical Society before building it’s new premises, Conway Hall, in 1929.

The problem I’m trying to tease out here is that despite our own modern commitment to what is, in truth, a form of humanistic religious naturalism rather than de Benneville's supernaturalist/neo-Platonic theism we have continued silently, along with the secular left in general, to believe in the idea that time is on our side.

This idea — though it is more a visceral feeling than an idea — is deeply encoded in our DNA. As committed social democrats, albeit of a radical kind, we base all our actions on the idea that the best way to build the true, inclusive, democratic New Jerusalem or City of Light is by slow, incremental, reformist means rather than via sudden, revolutionary change. We simply have too many historical memories and personal experiences of how badly sudden revolutions have nearly always turned out.

Our attitude was understandable and perfectly reasonable and acceptable (if still ultimately wrong) when we truly believed that we had all the time in the world but what about now? What are the consequences to our theology/philosophy and its associated radical social democratic politics when we are suddenly confronted with what is now close to being proof positive that we do not have all the time in the world?

Sitting in my oven of an office on Thursday in the hottest temperature ever recorded in the UK, I confess to having what can only amount to a kind of epiphany.

The humanistic religious naturalist conclusions this forced upon me strongly echo Paul Mason’s own secular humanist conclusions.

The first conclusion following on from the recognition that time is not on our side is that in climate related matters we can no longer unthinkingly default to our optimistic, historical norm in which we try to promote and accept slow, incremental change. It is simply no longer acceptable to do what W. H. Auden observed New Yorkers doing on the day the Second World War broke out in 1939, namely, “cling to our average day”. One major practical consequence of this means that in connection with the climate emergency, instead of thinking we can primarily proceed by working through our preferred flatter, federalised, local congregational structures, we are going to have to encourage and accept “decisive, centralised state action and ownership” to do the primary, heavy lifting for us. As Mason notes “The place for creativity, localism, entrepreneurship and consultation will be in the implementation, not the decision.”

My second conclusion parallels Mason’s recognition, that

The eradication of carbon emissions needs to become the lode star and the animating spirit of the left. 

As humanistic religious naturalists it is clear that we, too, must make the eradication of carbon emissions our lode star and animating spirit. It should become part of our religious practice to eat less and less meat and dairy products, to travel less and less in petrol and diesel driven vehicles, to pretty much stop all but absolutely necessary flying and to source our energy only from renewable sources.

And my third humanistic religious naturalist conclusion also parallels Mason’s recognition, that

The alliances we need to achieve this are not those of classic socialism.

To translate this into our terms the alliances we need to achieve this are not going to be those of classic liberal religion. We — I — might not like to admit this but, given that we thought we had all the time in the world, when it came to doing the work of building the New Jerusalem or Golden City, we have all too often been a bit sniffy, if not actively stand-offish, about openly forming alliances with those whom we perceived to be inappropriately less radical, liberal and progressive than ourselves. There will still, inevitably, be limits to be observed but, basically, in the realm of climate change — and the not unconnected fight against right-wing, proto-(and actual) fascist national populisms — we can no longer afford the luxury of maintaining ideological (political or religious) purity any longer. We need to see that because now time is not on our side we simply have no choice but willingly to form strong alliances with religious and secular groups on both the centre and centre-left and right.

If we don’t accept these conclusions and embed them within our own religious practice it seems to me we will simply be playing a part in bringing real (and not metaphorical) fires of hell to our very doorstep. So let’s not do that shall we! Let’s continue, as the old Universalist motto puts it, to “love the hell out of this world” in the here and now. As George de Benneille always knew, in truth, there never was, nor ever will be, anything more important for us to do.


Anonymous said…
Are you a freemason by ant chance?