I was at Buyan last month, and we had a Quaker visitor, Mark. He explained to us about Quakers, ran a listening activity and then helped us with a short Quaker meeting for worship. It was all excellent – he was a great ambassador for the Religious Society of Friends, and it was a calm, peaceful way to spend the morning.
Before we started the workshop, a few of us were chatting with Mark about the similarities and differences between Quakers and Unitarians. There seems to be the same kinds of diversity within Quakerism as there is within Unitarianism. And one of the similarities is a tension between Christians and non-Christians in our respective denominations.
I’ve not been a Unitarian for that long, so I accept at face value, someone’s
statement to the effect that the tension between Christian and non-Christian
Unitarians used to be more entrenched. What I think is healthy is that at least both sides can see that it exists and that they are pulling – and if we’re becoming more comfortable with who we are, then that’s awesome.
The conversation moved on to whether there’s a similar tension between theist and non-theist Unitarians – those who belive in God (however defined) and those who don’t. I think not. Sadly, not because everything is hunky-dory, but because we haven’t got to the tension stage yet.
It’s still true that a lot of Unitarians expect all other Unitarians to be theist. Whilst they may not say that you ‘have’ to be theist, there is a sense that being monotheist – believing in one God – is a defining characteristic of Unitarians. I feel strongly that whilst it is indeed the most commonly held opinion of Unitarians on the subject of God, it isn’t in fact a defining characteristic. Unitarians are better described by what they are trying to do, rather than what they believe.
But anyway. If we Unitarians manage to cling on to existence, I think that the tension between theists and non-theists will become more apparent.
Later in the evening, after our Quaker friend had left, there was a long discussion about the marginalisation of non-theists in Unitarian worship. I bowed out because I found people’s lack of understanding frustrating. These are people who are my friends, who I care about and who care about me too. I know that they ‘get’ Unitarianism.
Still, there was a sense that on one side non-theists are treated as if they are not present in Unitarian congregations and gatherings, and on the other side that non-theists can and should just translate God language as appropriate.
This suggests to me that it’s a tension that’s likely to increase. (For what it’s worth, unless I’m missing something crucial the Christian and non-Christian thing is not an issue between us, the default position seems to be that Christianity is a valid and beautiful flavour of Unitarianism with the strongest historical roots – there are other equally valid and beautiful flavours, people should have a choice.)
It is of course, perfectly possible to please both sides. (Not every person on both sides, of course, but then we are Unitarians!)
If we are talking about God in worship, then we should acknowledge that there are Unitarians for whom the defining characteristic of God is non-existant, as well as those who really, really, really don’t like the word ‘God’ at all.
But also, there are many Unitarians for whom the concept of God is central to their faith. Talking to God is one of many ways in which we worship as Unitarians. All Unitarians, including non-theists, should be able to translate words in worship that they don’t like or believe in, into words that they do