Joined: 17 Nov 2006
|Posted: Thu Oct 15, 2020 12:30 pm Post subject: God v Reason for Unitarians
|Religion is the foundation stone upon which society is built. The social, political and economic life of the country is grounded on the moral laws of the religion. The teachings of Christianity guide everything, the story of the Good Samaritan makes us care for the vulnerable, the parable of the talents advises us to do our best in life, we are taught not to hide our lights under a bushel but develop ourselves to the best of our ability.
That has been the way of society. There was always care in one form or another. It didn’t mean that life was pleasant for everyone in years gone by, but there was a form of care for people who couldn’t manage, even if it was only the workhouse as a place of shelter and relief. The better off belonged to charities that helped the worse off, churches opened schools, philanthropists opened libraries and reading rooms.
We can look back and see there was also a lot of hypocrisy around the moral judgements that were made about people. The systems were in place to help people, whether they were government driven like the police and law, sanitation fire prevention or charity driven. The law courts demanded witnesses swear an oath on the Bible to speak the truth and nothing but the truth. Bishops sat part of Parliament. It wasn’t perfect but people and society believed they were obliged to act because it was God’s will that they should. The philanthropists and a the rich believed they were the moral guardians of God’s law. Life was harsher in those days and when we judge it by todays standards we feel ashamed at the way some people had to live.
The Beveredge Report that gave birth to the Welfare State was based on a conference led by William Temple the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Life changed significantly when in the 1980s the prime minister famously said, ‘There is no such thing as society’. Everyone must be responsible for their own lives. The bedrock was no longer religion but the market place. Success would be measured according to wealth. ‘The Nanny Sate’ was bad for people. The consequence of that change is that the individual has to sort their own life out. If you can’t manage the IT system to get benefits that was your hard luck. You couldn’t expect a council house just because you were brought up in one. You have to sort out for yourself who will provide your gas and electricity.
Society has lost the moral authority based on church and religion. Recently a cabinet minister was told by a television interviewer that the Archbishop of Canterbury was criticising an aspect of government policy. The minister simply said, ‘I wish the Archbishop well!’ and left it at that. He was not to be influenced by the moral authority of his religion.
This is not the first time the moral authority of the church has been challenged. Three hundred years ago in the philosophy of religion a new concept emerged. It was called Deism. It was also a criticism of the church and the religion it taught. This was the beginning of the age of enlightenment, when art and literature flourished, science was revealing more and more about how the world and the universe actually worked. The Deists said the church was trying to prevent progress and was teaching fear of the new order.
The Deist theology said that God created the world and then left it to get on with it.. They said that God no longer plays a part in the world; there is nothing supernatural in the world; what God had done was to give humanity the gift of reason. Thus reason and experience is all that is needed in the world.
This is of course the chant of the atheist - but there is an important difference between the atheist and the Deist.
In 1624 Edward Herbert, the philosopher wrote a book with the title, ‘On Truth” The full title was “On Truth, as It Is Distinguished from Revelation, the Probable, the Possible, and the False).
He wrote, ‘There are five religious ideas that are God-given, innate in the mind of man. They are the belief in a Supreme Being, in the need to worship him, in the pursuit of a pious and virtuous life as the best form of worship, in repentance, and in rewards and punishments in the next world’
Those five ‘notions’ as he called them are the guiding principles to live by. With those notions, inherent from birth, life is pursued by reason and experience.
His book on truth and against revelation and miracles upset the church. The book was publicly burned by the hangman and is on the Index of the Catholic Church.
Not only did it criticise the church but undermined basis of the Christian faith that the church had developed, that Jesus performed miracles, that he ascended into heaven and is the mediator between the world and God.
Most Unitarians could be described as Deists because they believe in freedom, reason and tolerance. Most Unitarians would say they do not believe in the supernatural except there can be times when things happen that are difficult to explain just by reason. There are events in our lives that our present minds cannot explain by reason. Is Intuition part of that God given truth we are born with ?
One of the great Unitarian Theologians was James Martineau. He wrote volumes on the philosophy of religion. He believed that when it comes to decisions and actions we should be guided by our conscience. Conscience is the seat of authority and it comes from God and is inborn, he wrote. That seems as if it came from Edward Herbert’s ‘On Truth’.
Unitarians agree that the best form of worship is living a virtuous life, which is why they often quote the Epistle of James, ‘Show your faith through your works’. We probably still ask ourselves about God. Is God still active and ever present in the world, helping us out sometimes ? Has God really gone and left us to sort things out for ourselves? Is God only a figment of human imagination? Is there a ‘Supreme Being’ that lies beyond and behind the idea of God we were brought up with ? Are we born with a knowledge of God and these five notions?
I think what we do agree is that there is a spiritual dimension to life. We are better making judgements about society, religion and the state from a spiritual perspective rather than anything else. Our spiritual values should be at the heart of our living.