Are Unitarians Really Radical Thinkers?
A month or so ago, I received an email from Amazon, the booksellers. ‘We thought you might be interested in the following titles,’ it said. One of them was a series of lectures by Gerald Massey, a radical thinker of the early twentieth century, who claimed that Christianity was derived from the religion of ancient Egypt and was not simply a branch of heretical Judaism. I’d heard of Massey before and wanted some of his work, so I clicked on the link and decided to order the book. But, of course, they tempt you to buy more stuff, and underneath the information on Massey’s book it said, ‘Some of the people who bought this book also bought these’. One caught my eye, Caesar’s Messiah, by Joseph Atwill. I’d never heard of this book or its author, who makes an even more astonishing claim than Massey: Christianity, says Atwill, was an invention of the Flavian dynasty of Roman Emperors – Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian - in the second half of the first century A.D., in an attempt to convert the ever-troublesome Jews to a less warlike version of their religion. Naturally, I ordered this book too.
Both books arrived two days later, and when I’d read the first fifty pages or so of Atwill’s book, I thought to myself, ‘I must get into contact with this man. His ideas on the origins of Christianity seem even more radical than mine, and it would be good for us to compare notes.’ Later that day I went on to Facebook and discovered a little message to Rev. Ant Howe. ‘Dear Ant,’ it read, ‘thanks for the ad; I hope your back’s better’. Why this personal message to Ant had appeared on my Facebook page I have no idea, but what really astonished me was that the message came from ‘Joseph Atwill’. Well, I thought. That’s amazing. Ant knows this man, and, what’s more, he might even be a Unitarian. I immediately emailed Ant to ask for details. ‘Is the Joseph Atwill whose message appears on your timeline today the Joseph Atwill who wrote Caesar’s Messiah? If he is, I’d like you to introduce me to him.’ Ant replied, ‘No. I don’t move in such exalted circles. Joseph is a young man who’s just joined my congregation.’ I googled Joseph Atwill the author and found out that he is a middle-aged man who lives in America.
I mention this strange incident for the simple reason that I want to suggest that neither the coincidence nor Atwill’s theory will be of much interest to contemporary Unitarians, and, what’s more, that this lack of interest lies at the heart of our current decline. We have simply ceased to be radical thinkers. Centuries ago our forebears stood up against the tyranny of the majority and, in many cases, risked penury and even death in order to be true to their principles. They wanted the freedom to think and to worship as their conscience dictated. We claim the same freedom, but, alas, we’ve started to think just like everyone else. In fact, we’ve taken on the prevailing intellectual dogmas of our age with hardly a whimper of protest. Richard Dawkins would probably be more welcome in many of our churches than the Archbishop of Canterbury. We’ve become secularists and naturalists, rejecting the supernatural out of hand, dispensing with God, life after death, petitionary prayer, angels, and much of the rest of what our ancestors would have called religion. And, of course, we have no truck with fanciful theories about coincidences. These are just random events in a chaotic universe, which are endowed with meaning by the pattern-seeking mind. That I should become aware of two men called Joseph Atwill on the same day has no meaning whatsoever. This would be our general Unitarian response.
And as to Atwill’s theory about the origins of the Gospels, well, it can be dismissed without even bothering to read it. Just another fanciful idea, a bit like Bill Darlison’s theory on the zodiacal structure of Mark. We don’t need to read it to realise that it has no substance. We are quite happy to go along with the accepted scholarly account of Gospel origins, and we send our students to conventional universities where they imbibe the fruits of contemporary orthodox scholarship and that will do for us. Forget your crazy theories. And anyway, isn't Darlison's theory based on a taboo subject – astrology - which, as everyone knows, even without giving it ten minutes serious consideration, is discredited and primitive, the preserve of the superstitious and the feeble minded. How do we know this? Well other people have told us, people whose opinions we respect. (Isn’t this what used to be called ‘dogma’, taking on the conclusions of others without even giving them a thought?)
Last week I watched a programme on EWTN, the American Roman Catholic channel. It concerned the Gospel of Mark, my area of expertise. I wanted to know what Catholics are teaching about it these days. I wasn’t surprised to find that the Catholic version of the Gospel’s origins and purpose had not even taken account of 19th century scholarship, let alone 20th century scholarship. The lecturer was smilingly and confidently telling us that the Gospel was written at the dictation of the Apostle Peter; that it was a kind of synopsis of the life of Jesus; that the young man who appears dressed in only a linen cloth at the crucifixion of Jesus was Mark himself, and all the rest of the stuff which is routinely trotted out to give credibility to the idea that the Gospel is substantially a historical document. At the end of the programme I thought to myself, ‘Not one thing this woman has said is correct. Not one thing. It is all pious guff’.
And yet, it is pious guff that millions are prepared to swallow. Do we Unitarians fare any better? I doubt it. The prevailing notion among Unitarians is that Jesus was an actual historical figure who went about doing good, who was a bit of a political radical, and who was crucified for falling foul of the Jewish authorities. Of course, we don't believe in the miracles, and we’ve long ago rejected such ideas as the resurrection and the virginal conception, and we think that Jesus got it wrong when he told us that the world was to end soon. But, by and large, he was a good guy and if we all paid attention to loving our neighbour as he taught, we could make the world a better place. Probably even Christopher Hitchens would have gone along with that. This, in substance, is Unitarian Christianity.
Radical? Not a bit of it.
If we don’t have a radical stance on Christian origins, surely we have a radical stance on issues of morality, don’t we? Aren’t we against capital punishment? Don’t we work for a more just and more egalitarian society? Don’t we read The Guardian? Don’t we support the right of gay and lesbian people to get married? Maybe, but there are still influential pockets of conservatism in our ranks. This month’s Unitarian (which we don’t seem to get here in Wakefield) has caused something of a controversy. We were all quite happy with it when it contained anodyne articles about church buildings and reports about coffee mornings and district association meetings. But Yvonne Aburrow, the new editor (she’s taken over from my friend, the late Frank Hytch), is determined to be a little bolder in her approach, and this month she printed an article by Desmond Ravenstone called Leather and Grace which argues that bondage and sado-masochism explore the ‘delicate balance of risk, trust, intensity and intimacy’ and has a deeply spiritual aspect. What?! Sexuality – and particularly ‘kinky’ sexuality – is spiritual? Surely not! Sex is for reproduction or, we might (just) concede, for pleasure. But it’s not a spiritual activity. Haven’t we been conditioned to believe, along with St. Paul, that the spiritual person is the sexless person or, at least, the one who can keep his sexual urges to a minimum and express them within the culturally sanctioned norms of ‘respectable’ society?
That’s what some Unitarians have decided. The August issue has been removed from the magazine table in one church that I know of, and Yvonne has received complaints from individuals and from the Manchester District Association, which sponsors the magazine. Can you imagine that? Unitarian ministers removing magazines in case they corrupt the delicate minds of their members! Editorial freedom compromised by high-handed Unitarians in positions of power! And all this happening when the book Fifty Shades of Grey – which deals with the very issue of sado-masochism - has become the biggest selling book of all time! Some people, it seems, (five million in Britain, and ten million worldwide at the last count) are interested in the idea. Should we Unitarians ignore it?
Now, if we were Hindus, this article would not have caused a ripple. The Hindus are much more open about sex than we are, and much more likely to accept that sexuality and spirituality are indeed intimately linked. The Kama Sutra is a sex manual, but, like tantric sexuality, it is based on the notion that physical ecstasy can lead us to the divine. Some years ago I saw an article in The Guardian about a group called the Bauls, Bengal’s wandering Tantric minstrels, at the centre of whose faith lies the idea of reaching God through opposing convention, challenging comforting ideas and violating approved social values. The Bauls see sex as a way of awakening latent energies in the body, using it as a sort of ‘rocket booster….to drive the mind out of the gravity of everyday life, to make sex not so much enjoyable as something approaching a divine experience.’ They use sex, along with other yogic and meditational practices, to make the body supple and coordinated, because, as one of them put it, ‘the body is a chariot that can take you up into the sky, towards the sun.’[i]
That, I contend, is a genuinely radical approach, which challenges our puritanical, hypocritical cultural assumptions. Isn’t this what Unitarianism should be looking at, instead of tut tutting disapprovingly at anything which makes us feel uncomfortable?
And God forbid that we should ever feel uncomfortable! Let’s not do anything in services which might cause someone even the slightest twinge of intellectual disquiet. Let’s not do anything new in case we offend the traditionalists. Let’s not sing a hymn which mentions God in case we offend the atheists. Let’s not say the Lord’s Prayer in case we offend the feminists. Let’s not even say the word ‘prayer’ without numerous caveats explaining that this is not a prescriptive term and is to be interpreted according to one’s own preferred definition. Is it any wonder that the only people we seem to be attracting are ‘difficult’, inflexible people who are only too ready to find something to be offended by?
I think that the laughable toothlessness of contemporary Unitarianism can be summed up in our approach to the story of God’s Hat. You know it, I’m sure.
One day God decides to go for a walk. She (remember, this is a Unitarian version of the story!) dresses in her finest clothes and takes a stroll through the streets of a small town. A few days later, two of the townsfolk are talking about the event. ‘Did you see God the other day?’ asks one.
‘Yes I did. Didn’t she look lovely? I particularly liked her red hat!’
‘Her hat wasn’t red, it was blue.’
‘No it wasn’t. It was red. I saw it clearly with my own eyes!’
‘Well I saw it with mine and there’s no doubt about it: she was wearing a blue hat.’
The two continue to argue. Their language gets stronger. They begin to insult each other. Bystanders take sides, blows are exchanged and eventually there’s mayhem. At this point, God herself shows up. ‘What’s all the fuss about?’ she asks.
‘Some people say the hat you were wearing the other day was red, others that it was blue.’ This makes God smile. ‘They are both right,’ she says. ‘I was wearing my two-colour hat – red on one side and blue on the other!’ When this information is relayed to the warring sides, hostilities cease and all are amused at how this misunderstanding could cause such a commotion.
The moral of the story is pretty plain: our view of God is partial, and while we have got some things right, those who think differently could well be right too.
But this liberal, saccharine, Unitarian version of the story is a cop-out. The original story comes from West Africa; it’s a myth of the Yoruba people, and it concerns the god Edshu. When Edshu walks among the people he is wearing a hat with four colours – red, white, green, and black – and his presence provokes argument, even warfare, just as it does in the modern version. But at the end, when Edshu appears, he does not come as a reconciler, as one who points out that it is all based on a simple misunderstanding. Instead, he says, ‘These people could not help but quarrel. I wanted it that way. Spreading strife is my greatest joy!’[ii]
Why does he want to spread strife? Is it because he’s wicked? Does he enjoy watching people suffer? No. Like the Greek philosopher Heraclitus he realises that ‘strife is the mother of all things’. Like the Unitarian philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, he realises that we can either have truth or repose, but not both. Like Jesus, who tells us that he has come not to bring peace but a sword,[iii] Edshu wants to wake us up, to force us out of our lethargy, with our cosy, non-threatening, inoffensive assumptions, so that we can present a genuine challenge to the tired but arrogant intellectual conventions of our time.
Here’s to the future, then. A dangerous, risky, exciting future, I hope, in which we, as a denomination, genuinely and fearlessly ‘bid the soul, in search of truth, adventure boldly and explore’. It’s our only hope. If we persist with our current decaffeinated, bland inoffensiveness we are doomed. We may as well sell up now.