The goat path ahead less travelled by . . . or Liberal religion back at the crossroads

Goat on a goat path (Photo: Guilhem Vellut)

A short thought for the day” offered to the Cambridge Unitarian Church as part of the Sunday Service of Mindful Meditation 

(Click on this link to hear a recorded version of the following piece)


Because, for a few weeks, the liberal religious, Unitarian community to whom I minister is back in its hall where it met for worship between 1923 and 1927, I’m taking the opportunity to look at some of its liberal roots.

One root idea alive at the time was that the Unitarian movement was a “progressive” one which could also be called, quite unproblematically, “a religion of the Open Road” (Alfred Hall in Aspects of Modern Unitarianism, ed. S. H. Mellone, Lindsey Press, London, 1922, p. 2).

What are we to make of this claim a century on? 

Well, in the 1920s, and despite the horrors of the First World War, it’s important to realise my forbears still believed they were travelling an open road which would, in time, assuredly and progressively lead everyone into an increasingly liberal, utopian, universalist religion and society.

Following the Second World War this optimistic belief took a further blow and, like all liberal religious movements of the time, it realised it was standing at a crossroads at which it needed to make some new decisions about its future manner and direction of travel.

This was explored in 1973 in a book called “Liberal Christianity at the Crossroads” (Westminster Press) by John B. Cobb. Cobb noted that many communities decided to take the road to the theological right. This was a closed road along which only one tradition was to be affirmed and which privileged and promoted only its own symbols and memories.

However, because the Unitarian movement simply could not “reaffirm one tradition against the others” and, despite their obvious value, it had also come to see that “the symbols and memories of the Christian heritage . . . no longer encompass[ed] the whole to which [it] must be open”, not surprisingly, by the 1970s it was boldly striding along the theological road to the left. 

This has proven to be a well-travelled road but, as Cobb noted, the record of its travellers has “not been entirely inspiring.” The basic problem has been that “commitment to openness as such” has not “provide[d] a place to stand” nor a position from which a person can properly “evaluate the many claimants for [their] attention and belief.” This has sometimes led to an unexpected consequence.  

Over the years, frustrated by a “commitment to openness as such,” and finding no place to stand, more and more people travelling on the open road have decided to join or adopt some kind of religious “movement or vision” which has suddenly “end[ed] the openness to which [they were] first committed.” In short, this has meant such people have, via a rather circuitous route, found themselves travelling on the closed road to the right.

Cobb was acutely aware of this phenomenon and he chose the image of the crossroads because it suggested that for liberals there was, thankfully, “a third way” to go, namely, “straight ahead.” 

However, as Cobb realised, whereas the roads to the right and the left were easy to make out and which, by then, had well-known destinations, the route ahead was more like a faint “goat path up a steep mountain.” Then, as now, very few people and/or communities have chosen to explore this trail and the reports of those who have done so have been “conflicting.” As Cobb said, we simply “do not know whether at the top we may reach a new plateau for travel or only more rugged cliffs” and, in 2022, this situation has not changed.

Anyway, as a child of the religion of the open road, I fully understand why in the post-World War Two period my own religious community confidently took the theological road to the left. However, in our own increasingly illiberal and peri-pandemic age, my strong feeling is that if it genuinely wishes to keep alive the liberal spirit of theological openness and freedom of its forebears and yet still have a chance of offering liberally inclined people places where they can take real, if always provisional, stands on the key spiritual and ethical issues of the day, then the road it needs to be travelling is neither that to the left nor to the right but the unclear, rocky goat path that goes straight ahead.


Lucifer said…
I won't go into details, but somebody accused me the other day of being mentally ill. I must admit - it knocked me. I sought confirmation from my wife, and I asked her, 'do you think I'm mentally ill?' She smiled in a manner which suggested, 'don't be daft,' but then qualified her warmth by saying, 'no, but I think you might be a little bit lost.' Unlike the other's classification of illness, however, this characterisation of "lostness" did not knock me.

Now, funny enough, this happened a few days after I had read this post. And I thought, 'yes - I am lost, but - I let it be'. Do you think this might be the distinction between the "middle way" you speak of, and the 'left/right' 'distinction' of 'lostness'. That is, do you think the distinction is basically contained in the following sentiment, 'yes - I am lost ... but I'm ok with that'?
Dear Lucifer, greetings,

Thanks for writing.

For what it is worth I have always thought that knowing and admitting one is lost, or at least extremely unsure about which path/direction to travel and how to do it, is to know something important about where one is. In my experience most people who strongly claim they are not at all lost and know exactly where they are are, paradoxically, likely to be lost in some really important, even fundamental, way.

As I have written elsewhere, I think the poet John Keats was spot on when he talked about the need to embrace our “negative capability” (click HERE to read/hear that). Also, don’t forget Plato’s philosophy which centres on the idea of that the only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.

I hope this makes some sense and is, at least moderately, helpful.

All the best,

Thanks Andrew,

Yes - that makes sense. It appears that my wife may be a reincarnation of the Oracle of Delphi.

I think I must have missed your piece on Keats so thanks for the link. I have never read any of his poetry. I shall go and attempt to lose myself a little further in it ...
Dear Chris, I'm glad it made some sense. Be assured I'll be turning my attention to the piece you recently sent me very shortly. We've had a string of house guests - it's been lovely but, obviously, my reading/thinking time has turned into talking/eating/drinking time!

As ever,