A free religion radiant with a humanising light that the darkness will never overcome

The sanctuary of the Cambridge Unitarian Church

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


A perennial question for a small, free religious church such as the one where I am minister , especially in a time where more and more people are no longer inclined to come to any kind of church, is: What’s the point of coming?

Now there are, of course, certain theological and philosophical reasons for coming to church that centre on answering the big question of “the meaning of life” in general, and the meaning of a person’s own individual life in particular. 

However, today, I don’t want to talk about this reason for coming to church and I’ll return to it on other occasions. Here I’ll simply note that what’s unusual about the liberal, free religious tradition to which I belong is that it’s not so much concerned to provide a person with a single, one size-fits-all, out-of-the-box answer to the question of the meaning of life but, instead — through meditation, music, song and thought — to offer a religious way of being in the world that can help a person live the questions they have so that, one long distant day, they will be able to live into an answer that dawns upon them. As the poet Rilke once beautifully said, in the end “the point is to live everything” and it is only by living everything that any of us can have a hope of finding an answer that will feel like the clarification of something we already know in our bones. As some of you will recall, I talked a bit about this way of being in the world at the beginning of October

So, in a nutshell, this is the theological and philosophical reason for coming to church — well, for coming to a church that espouses free religion anyway.

But there’s another reason for coming to church that is always important but which becomes even more important in dark times such as those we are, alas, now clearly entering into.

In such dark times, churches have again and again provided people with much-needed sanctuary. But it’s vital to see that not all sanctuaries are the same. As the professor of Italian literature at Stanford University, Robert Pogue Harrison notes, they can be “either a blessing or a curse, depending on the degree of reality [the sanctuary] preserves within its haven. Some [sanctuaries] become places of escape that try to shut out reality . . . Other [sanctuaries], by contrast, become places of humanization in the midst of, or in spite of, the forces of darkness” (“Gardens—An Essay on the Human Condition”, University of Chicago Press, 2008, p. 71).

A free religion most certainly does not try to shut out reality from its sanctuaries. It attempts to remain fully aware of the dehumanizing darkness that people have come into its sanctuaries to escape. It knows that the dehumanizing darkness outside its walls is something that must, eventually, be faced, challenged and dispersed and so, each week, within its precincts, it seeks to rehumanize us so we can go back out into the world radiant with a rehumanizing light that the darkness cannot overcome. 

In one of his essays, Harrison explores this idea through a consideration of The Decameron, a collection of short stories by the 14th-century Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375). The very varied stories it contains are told by a group of seven young women and three young men who find sanctuary from plague-ridden Florence in a deserted villa in the countryside of Fiesole. Every evening, except on one day each week for domestic chores and Sunday upon which no work is done at all, each member of the party tells a story. Consequently, by the end of their fortnight-long restorative stay, they have told 100 stories ranging from the erotic to the tragic, the serious to the witty.

This unique book allows Robert Pogue Harrison to point out the following:

“Boccaccio was no moralist. He was not a reformer or would-be prophet. He was not especially preoccupied by human depravity or humanity’s prospects for salvation. He did not harangue his reader from any self-erected pulpit of moral, political, or religious conviction. If the ethical claims for the Decameron which he lays out in his preface are finally extremely modest (the author hopes through his stories to offer diversion and consolation to those in need of them), it is because the human condition itself is a modest one. The plague demonstrates as much. To be human means to be vulnerable to misfortune and disaster. It means periodically to find oneself in need of help, comfort, distraction, or edification. Our condition is for the most part an affair of the everyday, not of the heroic, and our minimal ethical responsibility to our neighbour, according to Boccaccio’s humanism, consists not in showing him or her the way to redemption but in helping him or her to get through the day. This help takes many modest forms, not least of which is rendering the sphere of social interaction more pleasurable through wit, decorum, story-telling, fellowship, conversation, courtesy, and sociability. To add to the pleasure rather than the misery of life: that is the arché or first principle of Boccaccio’s humanism, which is not the triumphalist humanism of later eras (which saw self-reliant humankind as the glory of all creation) but the civil humanism of neighbourly love. (It is not by chance that Boccaccio begins his preface with the word umana, or human: Umana cosa è aver compassione degli afflitti [It is human to have compassion for those in distress]” (“Gardens—An Essay on the Human Condition”, University of Chicago Press, 2008, pp. 94-95).

And so, to conclude, in answer to the question with which I began — and to nuance it a little — namely, “What’s the point of coming to this free religious church?” I say we come, firstly, to live our deepest questions so as to allow the meaning of our lives slowly to dawn upon us, and, secondly and equally importantly, to rehumanize ourselves through wit, decorum, story-telling, fellowship, conversation, courtesy, and sociability, so as be able to go back out into world committed to something akin to Boccaccio’s civil humanism of neighbourly love, radiant with a humanising light that the darkness will never overcome.