Unitarians have been celebrating the fact it is the 450 years anniversary of the Diet of Torda. The Inquirer shows that wonderful picture of Francis David speaking at the Diet and proclaiming the freedom of the pulpit and the right of people to follow their own religious conscience.
We don’t have anyone like Francis David.
Francis David had moved through all the denominations. He had been a Roman Catholic and he had been a Lutheran. He had not been satisfied by those religions because they tried to stop him thinking about what he really believed.
That freedom of religious belief is what has given the Unitarians their identity.
Our paper, th Inquirer has been full of reports of the recent theology conference held in Leeds. To be honest I have not read all of it.
It is always interesting to read or hear what other people believe about religion. Other people’s views can help to distil our own thoughts. But I have a suspicion that there is an agenda to push the Unitarians back into the mainstream of the Christian faith.
I could never do that. I left traditional christianity a long time ago. Having left I don’t know whether I have moved back, moved forward or just slipped sideways. Because so much of it has stuck to me.
What is indisputable, is that Jesus, whether real or unreal, fact or fiction, god or spiritual human is the most significant person of the last two thousand years. In a way when we think about our religion and our culture, we cannot escape the importance of his presence in the last two milennia.
I thought I would use the freedom offered to me by the Diet of Torda to tell you what I think.
And my thoughts start with the Wise Men who came from the East. Why are they in the Jesus story and why their religion ?
They were Zoroastrians. Since the time of Alexander the Great, the Zoroastrian religion had spread through his empire. It as they who carried the ideas of life after death, judgement at the gate of heaven, it was in fact a bridge, wicked souls fell off it, good souls walked over easily.
It was the Zoroastrians who Introduced the idea of a spirit redeemer, the Saoshyant, who would come to pass judgement at the end of time on the souls of those who had fallen off the bridge.
This is what Christianity was to pick up.
In the Jewish religion, it was the Pharisees who had been influenced most by be Zoroastrians and were changing the laws of the Jewish people. and it was the conservative Sadducees who were resisting all change.
In the Bible story Joseph, Mary and the baby fled to Egypt. No one seems to know what they did there. There were Jewish religious exiles in Egypt and one of the best known of the mystical religions was Gnosticism, based on a cosmic spiritual being whose body like that of the Egyptian god Horus was broken up and all the pieces scattered throughout humanity as shards of spiritual crystal light.
That shard of light exists in everyone they said but it has to be discovered and then it will light up and you will be spiritually one with the god.
By the age of twelve Jesus and his family are back home and he is already well versed in the Jewish scriptures and is a strong debater with the elders of the synagogue.
Then he is a grown man gathering a following of disciples, healing the sick and performing miracles. Why? What did he want to achieve?
Some will say that he wanted to reform his religion. He wanted everyone to break the rules and release themselves from the strict rituals about the Sabbath and the Book of Exodus which controlled a person’s life in such detail. He swept through the country with his healing and miracles. He preached to thousands. He preached the equality before God of all people. Tax gatherer or Roman centurion, or woman, master or servant or slave.
But in challenging their religion, he was challenging the very identity of the Jewish people. Even today Jewish people are defined by their religion more than by any country, caste or colour.
What sort of a person must he have been? If he was just a man, was he Gentle Jesus meek and mild or an angry reformer with a mission to change the whole status quo of society?
After eighteen months he led his followers on a great march to Jerusalem with a prophesy of change. It was like Gandhi’s salt march to the ocean or Martin Luther King’s march to Washington.
But for Jesus, The thousands who heard him preach never came with him. They had only gathered to see a spectacle, like the old billy Graham fans. They all stayed with the tried and trusted ways of their culture and their identity. They did not want change, well not to their religion. They did want to get rid of the Romans but that revolt came later.
That was the end of Jesus, he had few followers left, none at all in Israel after a while. Some twenty years later, stories were circulating about this Jesus and he became a legend and not real person.
It was Paul who changed it again. He became a follower and he too tried to change the culture and the identity of the people but he was too eventually rejected and tried as a blasphemer by the Jewish priests.
Paul had already taken the religion of Jesus outside Israel and created a new religion with Jesus becoming the spiritual Christ, a cosmic God of Light, giving light to his followers.
And Paul succeeded because he could give his followers an identity. The gentiles he preached to were not restricted by religious rules. They had been used to many gods. Paul offered them a personal God who gave them a religion and a promise of real freedom.
He wrote and told them Christ the god, the light of the world was coming to judge the world and coming soon. In his letters he deliberated with them on belief and lifestyles. His followers he said were unchained from the restrictions of everyday living and even the laws of the land. They organised into churches and forsook the temples and synagogues they had been going to.
It caused a lot of trouble because groups of Christians sprung up all over the empire with their loyalty pledged not to Rome but to the Christ in heaven.
That couldn’t last. Paul’s letters show how some groups fell away from his teaching and how they fell out with each other. For the authorities it was a rebellion. People saying they were above the laws of the land and only subject to the Christ.
So the empire took control by establishing this runaway religion as the state religion. They made it establishment and ruthlessly put down any dissent. The church was ruled from Rome. The people lost that freedom and were given the identity of the church. Angry reformers were crushed in the flames of the stake. And it lasted more than a thousand years until the church was undone by its own corruption.
This country formed its own version of the church, the state religion of the Church of England bound together by the Westminster confession of faith and the doctrine of the trinity. Great Britain was identified as a Christian country, Everyone in it a god fearing Christian. Even though people have stopped going to church, most people will still identify themselves as British and Christian. Peake’s commentary was the authority.
It is why the Unitarians had such a hard time in the early years. They dissented from the identity of church and state. For that they were vilified.
They followed the teaching of Jesus, they believed in the fatherhood of god, the humanity of Jesus but they also believed in religious freedom and reason as a tool for exploring faith.
They were probably most influenced by the writings and leadership of Dr James Martineau who wanted to reform the structure of the Christian religion but was not successful.
Martineau’s writings were an authority on Unitarian faith. They probably still might be. He said the authority of the human spirit was conscience.
But the world has changed and that Unitarianism too has had its day. Unitarians have lost that identity as Christian dissenters, because now everyone is a dissenter, they show their dissent by not bothering about church at all.
Everyone believes what we believe. Following those Jesus qualities of being a Good Samaritan and living a good ethical life. We say most people are Unitarians without knowing it. The spiritual light is not necessary.
We Unitarians are small in number because we have lost an identity. We have a new corporate identity logo. But what does that identify?
We have to ask ourselves if we are a faith community then what do we have faith in? If we are a spiritual community how do we display our spirituality. How does it bond us as a community ?
How are we seen by the world and actually is that important ? Can Unitarians be a recognisable community that gives it members an identity that inspires their lives.
Over the years I have often asked the question. ‘Whom or what do the Unitarians worship when they meet on a Sunday?’. To their credit they have never answered.
We no longer have a Dr Martineau. We no longer have any kind of spiritual leader who will give guidance on our faith and practice. No one to explain and elucidate on the writings of our past sages. Martineau, Channing and the others are all history.
There is no one to say to us collectively, ‘Here is some guidance to help our current thinking, or these are our spiritual values that we should be proclaiming, or this is what our history tells us’
ll other faiths have their spiritual leaders or their gurus but not the Unitarians. Would we have an identity if we had our own guru?
It is my view that when we gather to worship, people are not particularly worshipping anyone or anything.
What we do do when we gather with our hymns and readings and talks is simply to affirm ourselves as Unitarians. That we have a personal faith and we belong to this church.. It is a pleasant experience.
The content of the worship may or may not inspire us, it is being here together that makes us Unitarians. That is the bond.
Jesus was trying to change the system. Not just the system but each person too. to seek the light of the spirit and let the light shine within them.
That all people should be treated as an equal whether women, slave, centurion or tax gatherer,
To be a community.
His teaching was hidden in the parables and the miracles.
The Christianity of today is collapsing and the Unitarian bow wave ahead of it disintegrating. My view is that we need to go back to that early beginning. To that spiritual light and then follow its trail through our history. From Imhotep to Ptolemy to Jesus, to Paul, Galileo, Trismegistus, Johann Valentin Andreae, Rudolf Steiner to Martineau.
Each has a message and a teaching for us to distil.
The truth of the spiritual light is not found in the Hebrew Bible nor the Good Friday story of dying for our sins.
I wonder sometimes if we Unitarians should re-examine our Christianity. Do we still believe in the fatherhood of god and gentle Jesus meek and mild ? Do we still tie Jesus to the Old Testament of the faith that rejected him ?
Or should we think of the preacher from Egypt who found the mystical light of god within his soul ? And had a passion to teach the world what he has found no matter what the cost. And think too of all those that have followed that light down the paths of time.
Who will teach us and who will inspire us? Do the Unitarians need. Guru?
But that is only my view !