Joined: 16 Nov 2006
|Posted: Mon Mar 13, 2017 11:25 am Post subject: The Spirit of Love - 1 A Unitarian Doctrine
|This is the first of three addresses by Jo James
The Spirit of Love – 1: A Unitarian doctrine
April 27, 2016
“Love is the doctrine of this church…”
So begins an affirmation familiar to many Unitarians both here and in America, it’s attributed to L Griswald Willliams, a 1930’s Universalist minister and is an a enduring signal of our shared understanding of what brings us together.
Just about my favourite Unitarian affirmation is this one by the Sixteenth century Transylvanian theologian Francis David: ‘We need not think alike to love alike’.*
Both these statements attest to the fact that love is the single defining spiritual ideal which shapes and forms the Unitarian wisdom tradition.
I consider the Holy Spirit and ‘Spirit of love’ are different ways of describing an identical experience of the divine.
I’m confident that Unitarianism remains a celebration of this Spirit and I ‘m reminded of that every time we light a flame, symbol of the Spirit, in a chalice – which is another symbol of the Spirit.
Our first reading today was taken from the work of a fourteenth century mystic Margarete de Porete, she was associated with the heretical ‘Movement of the Free Spirit’ in the fourteenth century, a non doctrinal, unorthodox group outside the mainstream of Christianity – so perhaps they should be of interest to modern Unitarians? The monks and nuns of the Free Spirit tended to be transient and their ministry was to the dispossessed and outcast, they have survived in the folk imagination in the character of ‘Friar Tuck’ and in the mysterious pub signs in London ‘Old Mother (or Father) Red Cap’. Margarete de Porete’s vision of God is shocking even to a modern sensibility because the language of love she refers to is quite explicitly amorous – not quite sexual perhaps but certainly sensual, physical.
“It is the land of green pastures
That the beloved gives in love.
I do not want to ask anything of him,
Too much would be a great misfortune to me.
Therefore I must entrust myself completely
To the loving of such a lover.”
This way of experiencing God has always been problematic in the mainstream (perhaps because its quite hard to place under doctrinal control, and, because it relies on an unmediated communication with God, it is egalitarian and not reliant on church authority) but it has a very good heritage; The Song of Songs in the Hebrew Bible is the response to a direct experience of divinity, a physical experience and not just an intellectual one. The mystical vision speaks of the human experience of God not as something remote, sacred but distant, but instead as something ’embodied’, something into which we are incorporated.
Unitarians can sometimes live up to the characterisation of being all head and no heart, or all light and no warmth, but the truth is that this understanding of the divine is just as integral to our theology as any more rationalist idea. The greatest of the American Unitarian theologians William Ellery Channing, although wary of being accused of mysticism, describes it this way in his famous sermon ‘Likeness to God’ (1828): “There is often a depth in human love, which may be strictly called unfathomable…Thus, God’s infinity has its image in the soul; …The truth is, that the union between the Creator and the creature surpasses all other bonds in strength and intimacy. He penetrates all things, and delights to irradiate all with his glory.”
It’s wonderfully heightened 19th century English but his message, like that of the fourteenth century mystic, is clear enough; that God is revealed to us through our own intuition and through our own physical sensations, and that bringing our own minds into greater harmony with the infinite mind of God is the best aim and true goal of good religion.
In Likeness to God Channing refers to the verse in 1 John 4:17 ‘God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.’ “We call God a mind,” says Channing, “but he has revealed himself as a spirit”.
That spirit of love is the spirit we recognise as being between us, not above us, the real presence which we feel and are aware of, not as a remote or abstract theological idea but as a physical and earthly reality.
Alden Nowlan’s poem expresses just such a reality in his recollection of an impromptu midnight feast, a picnic in a bedsit kitchen, when; “there was nobody in this country/except the three of us, half-tipsy with the wonder/ of being alive, and wholly enveloped in love.”
For me Nowlan gets right to the heart of mysticism, and of the whole point of religion, in this simple description. To me it doesn’t matter how we describe it; Christian or Muslim, atheist or pagan, terms such as belief or unbelief are immaterial besides the recognition of an unfathomable love in which we are wholly absorbed – and the attempt to live as if that were the greatest goal and achievement of which our short lives are capable.
nb: the translation of Margarete de Porete’s Mirror of Simple Souls I use here is by Dr. James Simpson, Robinson College, Cambridge. It was prepared for Raoul Vaneigem’s excellent book; ‘The Movement of The Free Spirit’, which is published by Zone Books.
I know, this is contested – some people point to John Wesley as the originator of this phrase but I follow John Buehrens in thinking that Ferenc David said it first ( in Hungarian not English)