THE CHALLENGE FOR MODERN-DAY UNITARIANS AND UNIVERSALISTS: RECLAIMING THE SACRED AND THE HOLY
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THE CHALLENGE FOR MODERN-DAY UNITARIANS AND UNIVERSALISTS: RECLAIMING THE SACRED AND THE HOLY

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An Address Delivered on 4 October 2009 at the Biennial Conference of the Australian and New Zealand Unitarian Universalist Association (ANZUUA) held at The Centre, Randwick, New South Wales - ...

An Address Delivered on 4 October 2009 at the Biennial Conference of the Australian and New Zealand Unitarian Universalist Association (ANZUUA) held at The Centre, Randwick, New South Wales - Copyright Ian Ellis-Jones 2009 - All Rights Reserved.

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THE CHALLENGE FOR MODERN-DAY UNITARIANS AND UNIVERSALISTS: RECLAIMING THE SACRED AND THE HOLY THE CHALLENGE FOR MODERN-DAY UNITARIANS AND UNIVERSALISTS: RECLAIMING THE SACRED AND THE HOLY Document Transcript

  • THE CHALLENGE FOR MODERN-DAY UNITARIANS AND UNIVERSALISTS RECLAIMING THE SACRED AND THE HOLY The Rev. Dr Ian Ellis-Jones BA, LLB (Syd), LLM, PhD (UTS), Dip Relig Stud (LCIS) Senior Minister, Sydney Unitarian Church An Address Delivered on 4 October 2009 at the Biennial Conference of the Australian and New Zealand Unitarian Universalist Association (ANZUUA) held at The Centre, Randwick, New South WalesGreetings, one and all.At the outset, I should make it clear - and I make no apology for this - that I will,throughout this address, be using the “God” word a far bit. Of course, the word“God”, if one uses it at all, means different things to different people. For some,there is no objective referent at all to the word “God”, and I respect that positionas well. As Krishnamurti used to say, “The word is not the thing.” It’s the realitybehind the word that matters.For me, the word “God” refers to the Spirit of Life - the very livingness of all life,the essential oneness of all life, and the self-givingness of life to itself so as toperpetuate itself. I also use the word “God” to refer to our innate potentialperfectibility, as well as to what I regard as being the sacred, the holy. As regardsthe latter, I find that sense of the sacred or holy essentially in the enchantment ofeveryday life ... in the ordinary as opposed to the extraordinary, and in the naturalworld as opposed to some supposed supernatural world.Sir Julian Huxley, in an essay entitled “The New Divinity” in his compilation bookEssays of a Humanist, had this to say about the word “divine”, after firstreminding his readers that “the term divine did not originally imply the existenceof gods: on the contrary, gods were constructed to interpret [our] experiences ofthis quality”:
  • 2 For want of a better, I use the term divine, though this quality of divinity is not truly supernatural is not truly supernatural but transnatural -- it grows out of ordinary nature, but transcends it. The divine is what man finds worthy of adoration, that which compels his worship: and during history it evolves like everything else.”Being what is referred to as a panentheist (God is the ground of all being, God isin all things, and all things are in God; but all things are not God), I reject alltraditional notions of theism as well as the notion that there is a supernaturalorder, level or dimension to life. I find the sacred or the holy in, as alreadymentioned, the enchantment of everyday life, as well as in all of life, andespecially in those more enlightened souls who have blessed us with theirpresence, teachings and example.Now, even though I believe that there is only one order or level of reality, I trulybelieve and submit that real religious or spiritual experience involves what RudolfOtto referred to as the “numinous”. In The Idea of the Holy Otto expressed hisopinion that, at the heart of religious or spiritual experience, there was this senseof the numinous or the holy. The numinous experience was, according to Otto,“inexpressible, ineffable". Otto saw the numinous or holy as a mysterium tremenset fascinans, that is, a tremendous (read, awe- and fear-inspiring) and fascinatingmystery. The experience of the numinous or holy is, in the words of Otto, a unique experience of confrontation with a power … “Wholly Other,” outside of normal experience and indescribable in its terms; terrifying, ranging from sheer demonic dread through awe to sublime majesty; and fascinating, with irresistible attraction, demanding unconditional allegiance.Further, the experience, writes Otto, grips or stirs the human mind. … The feeling of it may at times come sweeping like a gentle tide, pervading the mind with a tranquil mood of deepest worship. It may pass over into a more set and lasting attitude of the soul, continuing, as it were, thrillingly vibrant and resonant, until at last it dies away and the soul resumes its "profane," non-religious mood of everyday experience. It may burst in sudden eruption up from the depths of the soul with spasms and convulsions, or lead to the strongest excitements, to intoxicated frenzy, to transport, and to ecstasy. It has its wild and demonic forms and can sink to an almost grisly horror and shuddering.
  • 3Otto then offers this definition of religion: It is the positive response to this experience in thought (myth and theology) and action (cult and worship) that constitutes religion.In other words, it is not so much the experience of the numinous or holy thatconstitutes religion but rather our response to the experience. Regrettably, mostof those associated with liberal religion have lost this sense of the holy, this realmof the sacred, or the divine. Unless we regain it, we have no future at all. Lateron, I will suggest how we can move forward and meet the challenge.Before so doing, I should also mention that there is another type of religious orspiritual experience that is equally real, and it lies almost entirely in the moralrealm. The ethicist Felix Adler, in his little book Life and Destiny (1913), writes: The experience to which I refer is essentially moral experience. It may be described as a sense of subjection to imperious impulses which urge our finite nature toward infinite issues; a sense of propulsions which we can resist, but not disown; a sense of a power greater than ourselves, with which, nevertheless, in essence we are one; a sense, in times of moral stress, of channels opened by persistent effort, which let in a flood of rejuvenating energy and puts us in command of unsuspected moral resources; a sense, finally, of the complicity of our life with the life of others, of living in them in no merely metaphorical signification of the word; of unity with all spiritual being whatsoever.Professor W. P. Montague, of Columbia University, refers in his book BeliefUnbound (1930) to religion as being the acceptance neither of a primitive absurdity, nor of a sophisticated truism, but of a momentous possibility – the possibility, namely, that what is highest in spirit is also deepest in nature; that the ideal and the real are at least to some extent identified, not merely evanescently in our own lives, but enduringly in the universe itselfand also as the faith that there is in nature an urge or power other than man himself that makes for the kind of thing that man regards as good.Now, most of those here today who are members or regular, or even irregular,attendees of a Unitarian or Universalist church, fellowship or society would
  • 4identify as Unitarians or Universalists. In some places, words “Unitarian” and“Universalist” are conjoined, hence the expression “Unitarian Universalist”.Some may not be sure what they are. All of you are welcome here today, forUnitarianism, and Universalism are for all sincere and honest seekers afterspiritual truth who have love in their hearts and goodwill towards others.I like both words - “Unitarian” and “Universalist” - because they both point to andaffirm a wholeness which is all-inclusive and all-embracing.With its historical roots in early Judaism and Christianity, the religious philosophyand movement known as Unitarianism came out of the Protestant Reformationwhen many people began to claim the right to read and interpret the Bible forthemselves and the right to set their own conscience as a test of the teachings ofreligion. The theological roots of Unitarianism may be found in 16th centuryEurope, in particular, Hungary, Poland (where it flourished in that century) andRomania, when some biblical scholars rejected the idea of the trinitarianChristian God (“Father, Son, and Holy Ghost”), claiming that a single God wasmore consistent with the Bible. (“Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord.”Dt 6:4.) Hence, the name Unitarian.It was not so much the actual Doctrine of the Trinity that those who came to belabeled Unitarians so much objected, but the Doctrine of the Deity (as opposed tothe essential Divinity) of Jesus Christ. Be that as it may, the word “Unitarian”originally drew attention to an emphasis on the essential unity of God, rather thanGod’s trinity or triplicity.The Universalist denomination in the United States originated with John Murray(1741-1815), a convert to Universalism as taught by the Methodist ministerJames Relly (c.1722-1778) in England and who had been also greatly influencedby the preaching of the Anglican minister George Whitefield (1714-1770) inEngland. John Murray arrived in New Jersey in 1770. After preaching there andin New York and New England, he settled in Gloucester, Massachusetts where in
  • 51779 he became pastor of the first Universalist church in the United States. Themovement spread from there, with other ministers, including the Baptist ministerElhanan Winchester (1751-1797) and Hosea Ballou (1771-1852), the latter anitinerant New England preacher who directed Universalism toward his ownUnitarian theology, playing a very important role in the early history of AmericaUniversalism. Susan Jacoby, in her book Freethinkers: A History of AmericanSecularism, writes: The ministers who led this transformation were American originals, men of great passion and moderation, combining a philosophical commitment to natural rights with a pragmatic reliance on empirical knowledge.In 1961 the American Unitarian Association and The Universalist Church ofAmerica merged to form the Unitarian Universalist Association (known as theUUA), which comprises over 1,000 congregations across the USA. The UUAworks closely with other similar organizations in many other areas of the worldmany of which belong to the umbrella organization known as the InternationalCouncil of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU) which, as most of you would beaware, is a world council bringing together Unitarians, Universalists and UnitarianUniversalists.As regards Australia, and my own Church in particular, the Sydney congregationwas formed in 1850, two years before what is now known as the MelbourneUnitarian Peace Memorial Church was established, and four years before ameeting of the Unitarian Christians of South Australia was held in Adelaide. TheRev. George H. Stanley was appointed the first minister of the Sydneycongregation in 1853. The first church was in Macquarie Street, Sydney. In the1870s the congregation moved to a new church in Liverpool Street, but thatchurch was destroyed by fire in 1936. Another church was built in Francis Street,which was opened in 1940. In 1970 that church was demolished and, on thesame site, a new multi-storey building was later erected (and since extensivelyrenovated and modernized), which is the Sydney church’s present location. If Ihad more time, I would refer to the early history of Unitarianism in the otherStates of Australia, so please forgive me for that.
  • 6There has never been any Universalist Church, in the strict North Americansense and tradition, in Australia. However, over the years, a few churches,congregations and fellowships have from time to time, and right up to thepresent, called themselves “Universalist” as opposed to “Unitarian”. Nothingmuch turns on it.Today, the word “Unitarian” in most places now points to our emphasis on theessential unity of all life, and all persons, irrespective of whether or not we evenaffirm any belief in a God in any traditional sense of the meaning of the word orotherwise. As Unitarians, along with other religious liberals, we affirm that theuniverse and all that exists within it are one interrelated and interdependentwhole, such that everything and everyone are rooted in the same universal, life-creating ultimate reality.The word “Universalist” originally affirmed the belief, held by most earlyChristians, by the way - right up to the 6th century CE - that no soul is forever lostfrom the all-conquering love of God. No soul - whether male or female, Buddhistor Baptist, Mormon or Muslim, Jew, atheist, gay or straight. Thus, belief in anyspecific Christian doctrine or dogma was not required.Unitarianism and Universalism were very similar in theology except that mostUniversalists, at least initially, still accepted the divinity of Jesus, a doctrineordinarily rejected by most Unitarians. Said Thomas Starr King (1824-1864),who at various times was both a Universalist and a Unitarian minister: The Universalists think God is too good to damn them forever; the Unitarians think they are too good to be damned forever.What L. B. Fisher, a Universalist pastor who for many years was also the editorof the Universalists’ denominational newsletter The Leader, once said about theUniversalists is equally applicable to the stance of most religious liberals: Universalists are often asked to tell where they stand. The only true answer to give to this is that we do not stand at all, we move … We do not stand still, nor do we defend any immovable positions, theologically
  • 7 speaking, and we are therefore harder to count or to form into imposing bodies. We grow and we march, as all living things forever must do. The main questions with Universalists are not where we stand but which way are we moving. Our main interest is to perceive what is true progress and to keep our movement in line with that.Today, the word “Universalist” affirms that the most powerful force in the word –indeed, in the whole universe – is love, strange as it may seem. That love, whichis the fundamental underlying universal principle of all religion, is infinite,adorable, unchangeable, but entirely incomprehensible. Universalism also affirmsthat not only is there a universality of spiritual principles and spiritual experienceunderlying most, if not all, religions (sensibly interpreted, of course, and strippedof outmoded accretions and superstitions) which cannot be claimed as theexclusive possession of any one religion, but, more importantly, there is auniversality in values that are quite independent of any or all religion. They arethe universal values of honesty, integrity, justice, grace, forgiveness andcompassion … also, that truth, properly understood, transcends national, cultural,racial, even faith boundaries.Both Unitarianism and Universalism affirm that the Universe is the Body of God,and therefore is, or at least ought to be, of ultimate and paramount concern to allof us. Now, whichever one or other, or both, or neither of the two labels we choseto identify ourselves with is entirely up to each one of us, consistent with ourlongstanding heritage of religious freedom and tolerance.Clarence Russell Skinner (1881-1949) was the most influential Universalistminister of his generation. He wrote a wonderful book entitled The SocialImplications of Universalism (1915). What he said about Universalism appliesequally to Unitarianism. Skinner wrote that modern religion must sanctify theworld. Our dominant motive and driving force must be, not to escape from earthlyexistence into some supposed world above and beyond this earthly existence ofours, but to make earthly existence as abundant and happy as it can be made,notwithstanding all of the terrible things that happen in this world on a daily basis.No matter how broken we may be, we can be restored to fullness of life. That isvery much the Universalist part of our heritage.
  • 8So, we have this wonderful word Unitarianism, which affirms the unity - that is,the essential oneness - of all life, all persons, and all things. As I have said sooften in this Church, the One becomes the many so that the many may knowthemselves to be one. Then, we have the wonderful word Universalism, whichaffirms and promotes the universal restitution or restoration of all things andpeople – that is, all things and people will eventually be restored to God, or theirSource, or Original Essence. This is referred to in the Bible, in Acts 3:21, as the“restitution of all things”, or the “restoration of all” (apokatastasis panton). InGreek astronomical and philosophical literature apokatastasis refers to the actualre-establishment of the order of the universe. By what means? Another Big Bangor a series of Big Bangs? Who knows for sure? I am also reminded of what wehave learned from quantum mechanics, namely, that the universe is one,indivisible and conscious entity of which the observer is an essential part. So, forthe adjustment of all things, we give thanks.As Unitarians, Universalists, or Unitarian Universalists, we draw from manysources. Today, I want to draw primarily, but not exclusively, from the Judeo-Christian tradition, and the Bible, sensibly and liberally interpreted. In fact, I drawfrom a number of different traditions and sources, and that is why I am aUnitarian.Now, in the 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, in the New Testament of theChristian Scriptures, we meet what has been called the “Anonymous Christ”, andwe read that the spirit or personality of Jesus - the friend of sinners, thechampion of the poor, and the healer of the sick - can be experienced even todayas a living presence, for he comes to us, and visits us, in our home and in ourcommunity. We encounter this spirit or personality of Jesus in our interactionswith others. Everyone we meet, everyone we serve, is in the image of Jesus, apersonification of the Divine. Roman Catholics understand this so much betterthan Protestants. Yes, the Anonymous Christ, as it is known, comes to us in somany ways, and we fail to recognize that Jesus’ so-called incarnation continues
  • 9all the time, in us and in other people. We read about the Anonymous Christ inMatthew 25:34-40: Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?” The King will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”Jesus’ followers were originally known as “people of the way”. Jesus, in his visionof the Anonymous Christ, offers us a vision and a challenge. The call to follow isnot a call to worship Jesus. He never sought nor wanted that. No, the Way ofJesus is a call to follow Jesus’ path, to live as he lived, and to serve others as hedid.Unitarianism and Universalism offer what I believe is true Christianity, even if wechoose not to identify our particular religion, philosophy, church, fellowship orsociety as being a Christian one, or ourselves as Christians. True it is - and agood thing too, in my respectful opinion - that Unitarianism or UnitarianUniversalism is best described as a post-Christian religion whose memberscomprise some liberal Christians, humanists, agnostics, atheists, Buddhists, neo-pagans, and so on … and so may it be. Yes, let us rejoice heartily in ourdiversity. I do. But, as I see it, the Unitarian (or Universalist) Church is still aChristian Church in one very important sense, and it is this. As I see it,Christianity is the true religion of Jesus – the religion that Jesus taught, and bywhich Jesus himself lived and died. Jesus called it the “gospel of God”, and toldus that the Kingdom of God was within us (see Lk 17:21).
  • 10Now, this is my point. Many Buddhists I know, even many atheists and othersecularists, live lives that are so much more nobly and deeply and closelymoulded after that of Jesus than those fundamentalist and evangelical Christianswho claim, ever so proudly, to have been washed in the saving Blood of theLamb – a perverse and pernicious corruption and distortion of true Christianity ifever there was one – and who have forsaken the true human Jesus of theGospels (who never used any language of sacrifice, bloodshed, propitiation orexpiation) and who have substituted for him a Christ of dogmatism, metaphysicsand pagan philosophy. I repeat, many people, who would not identify asChristians, are real followers of the way of Jesus. There is a wonderful hymn,written by Marguerite Pollard, in The New St Alban Hymnal, produced by theLiberal Catholic Church in Australia, which contains this wonderful verse: And there are some who love him well, yet know not it is he they love; he tends the holy fire within and draws them to the heights above.Jesus’ purported utterance, “I and my Father are one” (Jn 10:30), must be seenin its total context. Indeed, on the contrary, Jesus spoke of the Father, who senthim, as God, and as the only God: see, eg, Jn 17:3 (“This is life eternal, that theymight know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent”).Jesus, after having said, “I and my Father are one,” gave his disciples distinctlyto understand that he did not mean one substance, equal in power and glory, butone only in affection and design, as clearly appears from the prayer he offers tohis Father in their behalf - “that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me,and I in thee, that they also may be one in us” (Jn 17:21). Jesus was saying,“The father is in me, and I am in the father”, which is a wonderfully panentheisticand Unitarian view of God. (Similarly, Jesus is also reported to have said, “I amin my Father: and you in me, and I in you” (Jn 14;20).)As for Jesus’ reported utterance, “no one comes to the father except by me” (Jn14:6), my view is the same as that of the great Methodist preacher Dr LeslieWeatherhead, which is also that of the Jesus Seminar – I don’t believe that Jesus
  • 11ever said that. (Just like today’s Jesus Seminar, Thomas Jefferson, working inthe White House in 1804, embarked on the task of putting the blue pencil throughthe Gospels in order to extract the authentic message of Jesus. I’m not afraid todo the same thing.)Now, even if Jesus did say, “no one comes to the father except by me”, I am surehe was referring to his way of life, his teaching, nothing more than that. As youknow, there appear to be a sizable number of Christians who, when reading thisverse, interpret it mean that Jesus is God and that no one can get to heavenexcept if they worship Jesus and accept him as their Saviour and Lord. Thepopular perception that this verse claims that Jesus requires our worship in orderfor us to receive salvation is not the intended meaning of this verse. However, inorder for us to recognize this fact it is necessary to study its context. If we were toback up a little and read from the beginning of John 14, we find that just beforeJesus spoke these words, he said: In my Fathers house are many mansions (dwelling places); if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a mansion (a dwelling place) for you. (Jn 14:2.)The above statement is quite clear. This is what Jesus is saying here. He saidthat in Gods mansion there are "many" rooms. Jesus purports to guide to onlyone of them. The countless other rooms were apparently reserved for other tribesand nations if they would obey their respective messengers. However, Jesus wastelling his followers that they need not worry themselves about the other rooms.Anyone from among his people who wished to enter into the room which wasreserved for them could only do so if they followed Jesus and obeyed hiscommand. So Jesus confirmed that he was going to prepare "a" mansion and not"all" the mansions in "my Fathers house". Further, the verse clearly states thatJesus was the "way" to a mansion. He did not say that he is the "destination"which would be the case if he were God. This is indeed confirmed in John 10:9where Jesus tells us that he is the “door" to the “pasture." In other words, he isthe "prophet" who guides his people to "heaven" (see also Jn 12:44). Howwonderfully Universalist! Finally, remember:
  • 12 Not every one that says to me (Jesus), Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of my Father, who is in heaven. (Mt 7:21)Now, what has happened to Unitarianism and Universalism worldwide, andespecially in the United States of America, but also, I fear, in some parts ofAustralia. Now, as regards Unitarian Universalism itself, as practised under theauspices of the UUA, some persons associated with that movement, includingsome Unitarian Universalist ministers themselves, do not see their movement asa religion per se. For example, Unitarian Universalist minister Beverley Boke, ina sermon entitled “This Cherished Chosen Faith” delivered at the First UniversalistSociety, in Hartland, Vermont, on 12 January 2003, said: Is Unitarian Universalism a religion? Originally it was - rather they [ie the Unitarians and the Universalists] were. We come from two distinct and different root stalks. Grafted onto the Mosaic faiths - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - are branches of many denominations. Judaism has many. Islam has many. And Christianity has many - many more than either Judaism or Islam. Two of those branches were Universalism and Unitarianism. In their infancy they could be summarized like this: Universalists disagreed with Christians who said some people would go to Heaven and some to Hell when they died. Universalists believed that all people would be saved. They believed that through the atonement of Jesus all sins could be forgiven. They did not believe that youd go straight to Heaven if you had a lot to answer for. Universalists were smarter than that. But they did believe that you would, ultimately, be saved. God, they believed, was too good to send his children into everlasting torment. Unitarians believed that God had but one aspect, one nature. They disagreed with the doctrine of the Trinity. Jesus was a human being sent by God to teach human beings about love. Jesus showed us how to live. Anyone could attain the level of goodness Jesus had attained. Thats why God sent Jesus to dwell among men and women, so that he would provide the model for our conduct. Human beings, they believed, were too good for God to send into everlasting torment. In [1961], the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America merged to form the Unitarian Universalist Association. Not, mind you, the Unitarian Universalist Church of America. Not church, at all. And since that time the traditional language of church has struggled to stay alive in this denomination, this association. Sin... faith... religion... church... prayer... God... salvation, saved! All these words and others
  • 13 were so laden with what people didnt believe in that we stopped using them.Our own churches and fellowships must offer much more than just a “social-political-ethical system” and some form of tired old secular humanism with a littleadded oomph and emption. Dr Norman Vincent Peale wrote in one of his manybooks that people want more than just the “stone of social action”, they want -please forgive me - the “bread of life”. We are verging perilously close tobecoming a totally innocuous and ineffectual influence in Australian and NewZealand life. If Unitarianism, Universalism, Unitarian Universalism, or whateveryou want to call it, ceases to be a religion in the true sense of the word, or losesits primary spiritual thrust, and simply becomes a social or political movement forchange, as it appears to have become in some places, both here and abroad,then we have no right to call ourselves religious or even spiritual.I am always bemused, and a little saddened, when I hear a person say, “I’mspiritual, but not religious,” as if religion and spiritually were diametricallyopposed. Religion is simply organised spirituality. Spirituality refers to thatdomain concerned with the largeness of life where there is communal celebrationof some Power, Presence, Being or Principle other than self where, in the wordsof Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, “mind, personality, purpose, ideals, values andmeanings dwell”.Yes, I deeply fear at times that we have lost almost all sense of the sacred, theholy, the numinous, and that is an awful tragedy, indeed it is a scandalous stateof affairs.Now, whether we identity as Unitarians or Universalists, or UnitarianUniversalists, or something else (for example, Buddhists or Humanists), andirrespective of whether or not we believe in the existence of God (howeverdefined), what Jesus referred to as the Kingdom of God, and its establishmenthere on earth, should, I respectfully submit to all of you today, be a matter ofparamount importance to all of us ... right now. Indeed, I truly believe that what
  • 14Jesus referred to as the Kingdom of God (or the Kingdom of Heaven), or whatthe writer of John’s Gospel referred to as “eternal life”, is, and can rightly bereferred to as, the “Realm of the Sacred” or the “Beloved Community”.The “Beloved Community”. I like those words, and some of you may prefer themto the more Biblical expressions “Kingdom of God” and “Kingdom of Heaven”. DrMartin Luther King Jr used that expression a lot in his speeches and writings. Imay be wrong on this, but I think the earliest mention of the expression “BelovedCommunity” was from the American objective idealist philosopher Josiah Royce(1855-1916), whose main writings such as The Religious Aspects of Philosophy,The World and the Individual and The Problem of Christianity were publishedbefore World War I. Royce also used the words “universal community” to refer tothe same reality. In The Problem of Christianity (1913) Royce stated: Since the office of religion is to aim towards the creation on earth of the Beloved Community, the future task of religion is the task of inventing and applying arts which shall win all over to unity and which shall overcome their original hatefulness by the gracious love, not merely of individuality but of communities. Judge every social device, every proposed reform, every national and every local enterprise by one test. Does this help towards the coming of the universal community?Please understand me. I am not advocating a return to some form of UnitarianChristianity, although liberal Christians should always be made welcome in ourchurches and fellowships along with all others who have love in their hearts. Allthat I am advocating is that unless we embrace and promulgate a positive, life-affirming, transformative religion with reason based on a spirituality withoutsuperstition that meets the particular needs of modern day individuals as well asAustralian society at large, then we will cease to exist in next to no time. Indeed, Iwould submit that we would deserve such a fate.Now, if our only or primary concern be, say, Amnesty International, Greenpeace,global warming, the plight of refugees, socio-economic reform or whatever -admirable organizations and causes they may be – then, in my respectfulopinion, we ought to devote all of our time and effort to such groups. Unitarianism
  • 15is, or ought to be, much more than that. It is for those who wish to concernthemselves with faith-based ideas, beliefs, practices and activities directedtowards a celebration of that which is perceived to be not only ultimate but alsodivine, holy or sacred. The Kingdom of God (irrespective of whether or not wechoose to use that particular expression, or even believe in God whether in atraditional sense or otherwise), or the Realm of the Sacred, is, or ought to be, anopportunity for deep self-reflection, self-abandonment, self-surrender and self-sacrifice … and for developing and experiencing a sense of the numinous.Now, don’t get me wrong. The true message of all religion, sensibly interpreted,is that it is better to give than to receive, and to love rather than hate, that gettingrich at the expense of others is evil, that oppressing, subjugating, exploiting andmanipulating others is evil, that destroying the planet and all that is sacred andholy is evil, and that helping others (especially those who are marginalized andotherwise unable to help themselves), working for justice and to end oppression,and promoting harmony, peace and goodwill is good. However, true religion orspirituality is also about the birth and the ongoing rebirth, that is, the bringing intodaily conscious existence the Kingdom of God - the Realm of the Sacred, or theBeloved Community - which is something fundamentally spiritual (that is, non-materialistic) in nature, even though its various manifestations are entirelypractical, physical and earthly. We are here to build this kingdom, and it is in thedoing, rather than the questioning, that the truth reveals itself, and the kingdom ismade manifest ... a kingdom “not of this word” (Jn 18:36). The religion of mostAustralian, and I dare say, New Zealanders as well, is materialism, andconsumerism, and if religions are to serve any purpose at all they must, in thewords of the Rev. Cathal Courtney, a Unitarian minister in Glasgow andAberdeen, and author of the wonderful book Towards Beloved Community, be“harbingers of non-materialism”.Courtney, in an article entitled “Move ‘Towards Beloved Community’” andpublished in the October 20, 2007 edition of The Inquirer, wrote:
  • 16The great weakness of liberal religion is a fear of being illiberal that frequently leads tothe avoidance of what we might call the substantial questions. Afraid that the‘secularised’ mass will feel further alienated by the use of religious language, the liberalreligionist frequently thinks that by removing religious language from their vocabularythey will make what they represent more appealing. The result is a meaningless free-for-all, an anchorless voyage requiring no commitment or dedication, an à la cartespirituality that requires nothing from nobody because nothing is important, a non-conformity for non-conformity’s sake, an abdication of the call to search deeply for themeaning of our lives, even if that meaning is meaningless by its very nature. The clearbenefit of such religion is that it creates a place of comfort in a world that knows only toowell how to reject. The disadvantage, however, is that we reduce religion to the lowestcommon denominator in order to avoid offence.Forget “end times” theories. Let us make this Beloved Community both a presentand a future reality … until that day on which there will be no sunset and nodawning, yes, that day of universal restitution and restoration of all things andpeople, when all things and people will eventually be restored to their Source andOriginal Essence. The age in which we live has been variously describedphilosophically and ecclesiastically as being Post-Denominationalist, Post-Modernist and Post-Christian, among other things, and there is truth in all of that.Theodore Parker (1810-1860), the great American Unitarian minister, said this: The church that is to lead this century [Parker was talking about the 19th century] will not be a church creeping on all fours, mewling and whining, its face turned down, its eyes turned back. It must be full of the brave spirit of the day, keeping also the good of times past. It demands, as never before, freedom for itself, usefulness in its institutions, truth in its teachings, and beauty in its deeds…. Let us have a church for the whole person: truth for the mind, good works for the hands, love for the heart; and for the soul, that aspiring after perfection, that unfaltering faith in God which, like lightening in the clouds, shines brightest when elsewhere it is most dark.