Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Mind Your Language

This is the third in a series of pieces I have written on religion

I was recently driving with Derek Brown chairman of one of congregations I serve. I enjoy travelling with Derek it gives me a chance to listen to him. One advantage of driving with people, I have discovered is that I tend to say very little and listen a lot. During the journey he mentioned a telephone conversation he had with the curate at the local Parish church. She was curious to know what exactly a Unitarian is? What they believe in? What they don’t believe in? We chatted about this for a while. Due to the fact I was driving and therefore not really able to talk as freely as I can the answer I gave was pretty vague and fairly evasive. I did not give him a firm straight answer.

It is a good question to ponder though. How do I articulate my faith? There is no easy answer to this. Unlike the Anglicans we do not have a creed to subscribe to. Quite the opposite we say ours is a religion without a creed. One of our cries is “Deeds not Creeds”. A lot the publicity I’ve recently seen declares “one faith, many beliefs”. Both statements speak powerfully to me. I have no desire to be part of a community which tells me what I must believe and what I must not believe. That said my faith must mean something, otherwise it just becomes the empty meaningless vessel that some folk accuse it of being.

Like many folk throughout the world I love the tv series “The Simpsons” It has a wonderful way of communicating to a wide range of people, at many levels. This is why it is so popular. I discovered a few years ago that its creator, Matt Groening, is himself a Unitarian. Religion is explored, along with all aspects of life in the program and Unitarianism rears its head every now and again. It is poked fun at. There are no sacred cows in the Simpsons, except perhaps in Apu’s home. In one episode the church pastor Rev Lovejoy offers the Simpson children a bowl of Unitarian ice cream. When one of the children replies that the bowl is empty his response is that this is the point. The bowl is empty.

This is the point an empty bowl. He is saying there is nothing in it. It is an empty vessel which will not feed or sustain you. Now I don’t believe and have certainly not found this to be true, but it is certainly how others view my faith. Why is this? Well I believe it is because we find it hard to articulate exactly what our faith is about. We can say what it isn’t far more easily, but find it hard to say what we are really about. I know I do.

Language is so very important but it is limited. We all use it differently. When we use words like God, spirituality, soul, religion, prayer, worship are we all talking about the same thing? Or are we more like the blind men trying to discover what an elephant is? I’m not convinced that when we use these words we are all talking about exactly the same thing, it really depends which part of the elephant we are holding. I think that perhaps the fundamentalists both of religion and atheism are but they are just a small proportion of the population. It seems that the rest of us are using these words in different contexts and different ways. Personally I see nothing wrong in that. It is honest no two people see the same thing in exactly the same way. I do not believe that anyone has the right to claim ownership of language. We should never be afraid to express what is true to us.

Of course some Unitarians would prefer our faith to let go of religious language all together. They claim that there is too much baggage that comes with it. How do we overcome this hurdle that causes so many shutters to go down in most ordinary folk when they hear words like God and soul and prayer etc? We can’t simply avoid this language. Many have tried to do so in the past and it is this I believe that has led to the accusation that we are an empty vessel and that there is nothing in our faith. This is not true. We are a genuine and open faith, but one which does not subscribe to creedal statements.

So what exactly is it that holds a Unitarian community together with a network of other communities in this country and throughout the world? And how do we articulate that to other folk out there? How do we get our message across to those people who think that to be in religious community must mean that you have to subscribe and adhere to a certain set of beliefs and practices?

The honest answer is I don’t know. I’m not sure any of us know.

I know that does not sound very helpful and sounds a bit like an empty ice cream tub or just plain evasion.

Is this true? I do not believe so I actually think it’s an honest and dare I say humble starting point. By surrendering to the fact that I don’t have the full and complete answer, I believe I can find the room within myself and encourage that space in others to seek out those answers. This enables dialogue, open and honest dialogue. It encourages folk to ask the questions of themselves and each other, what it means to be people of faith? To be people who come together in a free religious community that is not told what it must believe about life, the universe and everything.

I need to always remember why I joined my first Unitarian community. I came to make sense and explore. Not sure I’ve achieve the making sense bit, but I have found freedom to explore and as a result I have experienced far more than I could ever have imagined or even wished for. Something I could never have achieved on my own by reading or by sitting under a tree and meditating. There is something very powerful about coming together in open relationship. 

To me this is essence of religion.

I am going to end this little chip of a blog with some words by Rainer Maria Rilke

"Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the question themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer."


  1. Someone once said to me that Unitarianism is an empty path. They meant it as a criticism, but I thought it sounded rather positive and Taoist. "The way that can be named is not the true Way" (usually written as "The tao that can be named is not the true Tao", but Tao just means "way").

    The point about an empty bowl is that you can fill it with whatever you like; it is clean and receptive, and it gives form to whatever fills it.

    The point about an empty path is that it is not cluttered up with extraneous symbols, meaningless rituals, and pointless prohibitions.

  2. absolutely and thank you...in some ways it is the very emptiness that God can be expereinced, not in the clutter...i was once asked to decide on whther god is everything or God is nothing and it was important to come to terms with that then...today though I feel closer to the truth that God is everything and God is nothing...thank you for your thoughts as always

  3. My feeling is that if the mind is closed due to dogma, how can it possibly find an open path appealing or attractive? For those people, there is no imagination or searching as they have all they need in the constraints of what they believe by following their structured religion, whatever it is.
    Since I opened up my mind to other faiths and ideas by living honestly, I am on such an exciting journey, seeking one path, then another to explore what is available to learn. Such a great experience and I hope it lasts a long time, with no need for time goals as to when I need to fill my cup as it is already overflowing

  4. Thank you Eileen and it's areal joy to watch and in some sense experience this journey with you...just lovely