PROGRESSIVE CHRISTIANITY FROM LIBERAL CATHOLIC AND UNITARIAN PERSPECTIVES
Progressive Christianity from Liberal Catholic and Unitarian Perspectives by The Rev. Dr Ian Ellis-Jones Published in Communion The Magazine of The Liberal Catholic Church in Australia Michaelmas 2006The Progressive Christianity in which I believe is a religiously liberal and non-dogmatic faith drawing on the wisdom of all world religions, as well as theinsights of science, philosophy and literature. In the past 25 years my ownreligious faith has been fortified by a heavy synergistic diet of both LiberalCatholicism and Unitarianism, and I am very grateful for both. The purpose ofthis article is to highlight just how much these two belief systems have incommon.Both Liberal Catholics and Unitarians have always believed that every idea is tobe tested and every stone turned over. Both denominations generallyacknowledge that there is something of value in most, if not all, of the world’sreligions, provided their teachings are interpreted and applied rationally andhumanely. Insofar as Christianity is concerned, Liberal Catholics and Unitarianshave traditionally stressed that the books comprising the Bible are written infigurative, metaphorical, allegorical, symbolical and spiritual language, and mustbe interpreted and applied in that manner in the light of reason and contemporaryknowledge. Neither Church accepts that the Bible, which contains history, folktales, fables, myths, legends, parables, allegories and symbols, is infallible andinerrant, but both Churches generally admit that the Bible still provides manyvaluable insights into the world and humankind. Most Liberal Catholics andUnitarians would agree with the view expressed by the famous English Methodistminister Dr Leslie D Weatherhead in his seminal work The Christian Agnostic(1965) that “a statement is not true because it is in the Bible.” It is true only whenit authenticates itself to the individual.
2There was, in the United States of America, a common formulation of Unitarianfaith from roughly 1870 until the late 1920s known as “The Unitarian Covenant”,that went like this: We believe in: The Fatherhood of God; The Brotherhood of Man; The Leadership of Jesus; Salvation by Character; The Progress of Mankind onward and upward forever.Although most Unitarians today - as well as, I suspect, Liberal Catholics - wouldconstrue the content of that Covenant differently from the way Unitariansgenerally did in the 1920s there are still a number of important statements in theCovenant that have enduring meaning and significance today.The Fatherhood/Motherhood of GodAny church dedicated to progressive Christianity must exist for people of all sortsof opinions from the far left atheistic (in the traditional “theistic” sense) to theChristocentric. It is sometimes said jokingly about Unitarians that they believe in,at the most, one God. Certainly, not all Unitarians today agree in the necessityfor belief in God, and Liberal Catholics have always eschewed childishanthropomorphic concepts of God, but there would be few, if any, of us whowould disagree with the great American Baptist minister Dr Harry EmersonFosdick who wrote, “better believe in no God than to believe in a cruel God, atribal God, a sectarian God.” If the concept of God is to have any meaning andutility at all, it must unite rather than divide.As Sir Julian Huxley pointed out, the word “divine” did not originally imply theexistence of gods. Both Liberal Catholics and Unitarians have always rejectedsimplistic notions of God and tend to see God in naturalistic terms, such as the
3ground of being, the very livingness and oneness of all life, and the givingness oflife to itself. God is not some vast and shadowy being but rather the namebehind a fairly consistent set of phenomena. Unitarian minister David Usher haddescribed as “the poetic evocation of all that forever eludes our comprehension.”God is that power-not-ourselves that represents the highest good to which wecan aspire. Many Liberal Catholics and Unitarians would identify with RabbiAbraham Joshua Heschel’s view that God is the question put to each of us at ourbirth to which we live our lives as an answer. The beautiful old expression, the“fatherhood of God,” reminds us that we are all one and interdependent, thatthere is only one order or level of reality to which we all belong. For both LiberalCatholics and Unitarians, to call God “personal” is to use a very limiting humanexpression. However, God works through human personalities and is thus madeknown in ways that can only be described as “personal.”The Liberal Catholic Church is a Trinitarian church. It is sometimes said, againjokingly, about Unitarians (even by Unitarians themselves) that they arepermitted to believe in any number of gods except three, but that shows a totallack of understanding not only about the Trinity but also Unitarianism itself. TheUnitarian Church is not anti-Trinitarian - indeed, there are Unitarians who believein the Trinity - it is simply “unitive” in its understanding of the Oneness of all lifeand all things, including the Godhead. (Incidentally, there are 1,300 passages inthe New Testament wherein the word God is mentioned. Not one of thosepassages necessarily implies the existence of more than one person in theGodhead.) Nevertheless, most Unitarians, especially those whose thinking ismore metaphysically minded, accept that the Divine life - indeed, all creativeactivity - manifests itself through a triplicity of mind, idea, and expression, ofwhich there are numerous variants, such as: • thinker, thought, and action • consciousness, desire, and expectation • conscious, subconscious, and superconscious • life, truth, and love • spirit, soul, and body.
4The Brotherhood/Sisterhood of HumanityAs we all have a common source (“Father”/”Mother”), both Liberal Catholics andUnitarians believe in the supreme worth and dignity of the individual and that allpeople on earth have an equal claim to life, liberty and justice, and equal rightsfree from discrimination on the grounds of sex, race, colour, nationality, religion,political opinion, social origin, marital status, impairment or sexual preference.Throughout the years, both Liberal Catholics and Unitarians have consistentlyaffirmed the innate divinity of all humankind, indeed, the divinity of all creation.“You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you” (Ps 82:6), a view affirmed byJesus himself (see Jn 10:34). Unitarian Universalist Dr William F Schulz hasgone further, stating that “Creation itself is holy – the earth and all its creatures,the stars in all their glory … every one of us is held in Creation’s hand – a part ofthe interdependent cosmic web – and hence strangers need not be enemies.” Inother words, there is but one humanity, and we are all one.The Leadership of JesusIt goes almost without saying that Unitarians have traditionally repudiated thedoctrine of the Deity of Jesus Christ. For them, Jesus, although not God, isnevertheless a most important figure in human history, if not the archetypalprototype of what humanity is intended to become - the Way-Shower - who cameto awaken us to the inherent possibilities of our own nature and to an awarenessof our essential divinity that we might have life, and have it more abundantly (seeJn 10:10), leaving us an example, that we should follow in his steps (see 1 Pt2:21). Jesus taught that the kingdom of God was within us (see Lk 17:21). Hedied for that particular vision of the Kingdom of God. He taught us that, in orderto be happy, there must occur, to quote Dr Norman Vincent Peale, a “shift inemphasis from self to non-self.” Insofar as Liberal Catholics are concerned, I amreminded of something Bishop Lawrence Burt said many years ago in a sermonhe delivered at the old St Alban’s Cathedral in Regent Street, Sydney, when hestated that the doctrine of the Deity of Jesus “places an unbridgeable gulfbetween Our Lord and ourselves, and was refuted by Christ Himself.”
5(Remember, Jesus never said that he himself was God. Indeed, he virtuallydenied that he was God, when he exclaimed, “Why callest thou me Good? Thereis none good but one, that is God” (Mt 19:17). He also said, “I can of mine ownself do nothing” (Jn 5:30).)Sadly, the world, and most of the Christian Church, has not followed Jesus.Conventional Christianity - an unhappy mixture of Judaism, Mithraism andGreco-Roman mystery religion which was largely the creation of St Paul ratherthan Jesus - has made a rather sycophantic religion out of Jesus rather thanespouse the simple naturalistic religion of Jesus.For both Liberal Catholics and Unitarians, the life of Jesus is much moreimportant than his death. The way that Jesus taught and walked is the secret toabundant life. Jesus’ way is the way of service, self-sacrifice, joyfulness andbrotherly love. In our diverse ways, both Churches have tried to follow the spiritof Jesus, believing that every person has the potential to express goodness,kindness and compassion, as Jesus did, by being more Christlike in theireveryday life, laying down our lives for the brethren (see 1 Jn 3:16). Jesus is theGreat Example, not the Great Exception. I am also reminded of something thePresbyterian Samuel Angus wrote in his Jesus in the Lives of Men (1933): Jesus is not accredited to us today by his miracles, or by a virgin birth, or by a resurrection from an underworld, or by a reanimation of his body from the grave, or by fulfillment of prophecies; he is accredited by his long train of conquests over the loyalties of men, and chiefly by the immediate, intimate and inevitable appeal made by him to everything that is best and God-like in each of us, and by his ability to “make men fall in love with him”, and “to win the world to his fair sanctities”.Salvation by CharacterBoth Liberal Catholics and Unitarians have a realistic view about human nature.We believe that human beings are neither evil beyond measure nor good beyondcredibility and do not accept the view that Jesus died to save us from our sins.The doctrine of vicarious atonement is, for both Liberal Catholics and Unitarians,
6not part of Jesus’ original, as opposed to interpolated, teachings and moreproperly belongs to Mithraism and other pagan mystery religions. As Bishop Burtpointed out, the doctrine was unknown to the first century Christianity.Both Churches have always affirmed that the world is not to be divided into thesaved and the unsaved, the chosen and the unchosen. Salvation comes fromthe same Latin root as the word salve; it refers to a healthy kind of wholeness.Liberal Catholics and Unitarians have always placed great emphasis on thedevelopment of character and healthy-mindedness. We are not saved by Jesus’shed blood on the Cross. It is what that blood represents that saves us – thepower of suffering love and self-sacrifice in the form of the givingness of oneselfto others. Neither Liberal Catholics nor Unitarians talk much about sin, but isshould be remembered that the word sin has an “I” in the middle. The essenceof sin is selfishness, self-absorption and self-centredness - an attempt to gainsome supposed good to which we are not entitled in justice and consciousness -and we all need to be relieved of the bondage of self. That is what salvation is allabout, and we must “work out our [own] salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil2:12). Further, because we are all one family, both Churches have traditionallyaffirmed that no one is saved until we are all saved. Goodness is that whichmakes for unity, oneness, and wholeness. Evil is that which makes forseparateness.The Unitarian importance on salvation by character, and not by other means,cannot be overstated. In Christianity and Dogma (1933) Samuel Angus wrote: The world realizes that character is the supreme possession of man and believes that religion should steady man in his purposes and guide him in the arduous task of character-building; whereas this controversy has given the impression that the Church exists not primarily to promote Christian character but to produce and conserve dogmas.Insofar as the development of character is concerned, there are three great calls
7for Unitarians: think truly, act justly, and speak bravely. Few Liberal Catholicswould have a problem with those three things.Liberal Catholics are renowned for their beautiful, stately liturgy. For Unitarians,worship can take several forms, but is generally much less liturgical. However,both Unitarians and Liberal Catholics would agree that, whatever form or forms itmay take, worship can greatly assist in the shaping of character. Worship meansshowing reverence for life, which is the basis of morality. Prayer is important aswell. Unitarians pray in their own way, though many, like Liberal Catholics, wouldsimply call it meditation. In the words of an old hymn, “Prayer is the soul’ssincere desire, uttered or unexpressed.” It is a matter of concentrating one’sentire intellect, emotions and will on that which is seen to be of ultimateimportance and value. In prayer and meditation, particularly in the time of quietknown as “the silence,” we focus on a power-not-ourselves that leads us torighteousness (right thinking and right action), lifting our consciousness to thelevel of the answer (which, in many cases, is a calm acceptance of that which is).Like Liberal Catholics, many Unitarians believe that, as we raise out thoughts inloving obedience to those of Jesus and other inspiring figures, enormous spiritualpower and dominion, as well as peace of mind, becomes available to us. BothChurches also believe in the power of forgiveness, affirming, as did Jesus, thatour claim to forgiveness is conditional upon our having forgiven others.In short, both Liberal Catholics and Unitarians would agree with the viewexpressed by John Baillie, Professor of Theology, University of Edinburgh, whosaid: What makes a man a Christian is neither his intellectual acceptance of certain ideas, nor his conformity to a certain rule, but his possession of a certain Spirit, and his participation in a certain Life.The Progress of HumankindBoth Liberal Catholics and Unitarians have always been fairly optimistic aboutthe potential of human beings to improve themselves and our world. Human
8problems are of our own making and can only be solved by human beings,working collaboratively, and digging deep within themselves for the answers toour problems. We are all, individually and collectively, responsible for our planetand its future, and life should be as satisfying as possible for every individual.Both Churches believe that there exist in each of us enormous powers which canrevitalize our lives and recharge our spirits. Sadly, we tend never to fully realizeour physical, mental, emotional and spiritual capabilities and, as the LiberalCatholic Church Liturgy points out, wander from the path that leads torighteousness. However, we must never forget that, as Bishop C W Leadbeaterpointed out in The Hidden Side of Things (1913), we are all part of “a mightyscheme of cosmic evolution”. He further wrote that true conversion is “a turningtogether with”: … [T]he moment that the magnificence of the Divine Plan bursts upon [our] astonished sight there is no other possibility for [us] but to throw all [our] energies into the effort to promote its fulfillment, to “turn and go together with” that splendid stream of the love and wisdom of God.Onward and Upward ForeverUnitarians have always believed that this life, rather than a future life, is our mainconcern. To quote Dr William F Schulz again, “the paradox of life is to love it allthe more even though we ultimately lose it.” Some Unitarians believe in life afterdeath, many do not. A few Unitarians have embraced reincarnation. MostUnitarians believe that, although we may ultimately vanish from view, the effectof our lives can be felt long after we have died. However, in common with LiberalCatholics, Unitarians believe that although life may change forms, it remainsbasically indestructible. Although Unitarians tend to reject the view that there is asupernatural dimension to life and that there is a supernatural power to guide us,most Unitarians believe that, despite all the turmoil and strife, “To those who loveGod [however defined] all things work together for good.”As liberal Christians our reverence is for the Spirit of Life. Both Liberal
9Catholicism and Unitarianism bring the Kingdom of God, indeed God Itself, rightdown into the here and now. In the words of William Channing Gannett, “Webelieve that we ought to join hands and work to make the good things better andthe worst good, counting nothing good for self that is not good for all.” Yes, thereis much to be done, and I am reminded of Bishop Leadbeater’s reported finalwords, “Carry on.” -oo0oo-