Derby Unitarians

It Ain't Necessarily So

[When Rev. Chris Goacher was away on holiday in August 2008, Janet and Chris Granger, members of the Derby congregation, took the Service and this is the talk which they gave between them]

JANET:

It's not easy being a Unitarian. For one thing, how do you know you are one? When I first started looking for a church to come to, at the beginning of 2007, I remember searching on the internet using search phrases such as "a religion that doesn't tell you what to believe" and "a faith that isn't anti-women". Didn't help much, though.

I hadn't been brought up as a church-going person, although I'd been Christened (as most babies were in the sixties). I remember going to church once with my grandmother when I was four, and finding it completely unfathomable. Like most people, I have been a guest at a few church weddings. Chris and I attended church a few times in the months before our wedding, as that was a requirement, but although the congregation were very friendly as individuals, what they were told to believe, on the whole I found vaguely distasteful. I think this is quite a common theme in the histories of people who eventually find themselves being aligned with Unitarian ideas.

After we found this Chapel, we started our long (and as yet, unfinished) spiritual journey to find out what exactly it was that we believed in, and why. This involved, for me, hours and hours of reading books, looking things up on the internet, and talking to people about what they thought. In some ways, it would have been much easier to simply have joined a church that told you what to believe - it would have saved so much time! But being of the Unitarian persuasion, I can't bear to be TOLD what to think!

I remember feeling that the Christian tradition had something profound at its root, but that over the centuries, the message had been misconstrued, or completely corrupted. Reading about the Dead Sea Scrolls and Nag Hammadi texts, for example, showed the diversity of what HAD been believed about Jesus at one time. Archaeological excavations happening right now are turning up incredible finds that severely challenge mainstream Christianity - such as the Jesus family tomb just outside Jerusalem. Once I had read about these wider so-called Christian themes, the 'new religion' that Paul of Tarsus publicised and called 'Christianity' in the decades following Jesus' death ended up being more like 'Paulinity', it was so far removed from the teachings of Jesus. It became apparent to me that Paul's Christianity survived the Roman oppression more by careful PR and his Roman connections than by its merits as an accurate portrayal of the life of Jesus (which it wasn't).

So, having explored Christianity in some depth, we both then started to investigate other religious paths. Chris Goacher, being a good Unitarian Minister, has been very supportive in this - pressing into my hands a different book almost every week, saying "you might find this one interesting"- knowing I can't turn a good book down. He has been very enthusiastic in encouraging several of us to explore mindful meditation with a one day taster session, organising the Earth Spirit 'Gatherings' led by Rowan and Willow Songsmith from the Leicester Unitarian Fellowship, which are a regular feature now on the first Sunday of each month, as well as the Liberal Christian small group course 'Living the Questions'. About a dozen of us - some Unitarian, some not - are about a third of the way through this course now, meeting once a month here, and it is throwing up lots of interesting ideas for us to take home and mull over.

Each of these introductions to other faiths and ways of being spiritual has broadened our way of thinking. We have both been encouraged by Chris Goacher's open-minded attitude to seeing the beauty in celebrating difference.

Adlai Stevenson, in a quotation from 'A Chosen Faith; an Introduction to Unitarian Universalism', (p81) says:

"I think that one of our most important tasks is to convince others that there's nothing to fear in difference; that difference, in fact, is one of the healthiest and most invigorating of human characteristics without which life would become meaningless. Here lies the power of the liberal way: not in making the whole world Unitarian, but in helping ourselves and others to see some of the possibilities inherent in viewpoints other than one's own; in encouraging the free interchange of ideas; in welcoming fresh approaches to the problems of life; in urging the fullest, most vigorous use of critical self-examination."

I do remember thinking when Chris and I first started coming to the Chapel, that when we had 'worked it out' (whatever 'it' was), that we would end up in the same place, spiritually. Now, I realise how naive that was - our paths started widely separate, converged for a while, went off in opposite directions sometimes, and occasionally one of us would fall into a ditch (metaphorically speaking, that is).



CHRIS:

My journey followed a very different route. It really started with a love of singing church music in choirs at school. This also meant that when, later, my first wife took our young children to the playschool at the local church, I soon found myself in the church choir. I later became fully immersed in attending services, bible study classes and prayer meetings and soaking up every word that was taught. I underwent adult baptism, then confirmation, and took holy communion. One reason I was so keen, as I can see with the benefit of 25 years of hindsight, was that when she was diagnosed with a terminal version of hepatitis when the children were toddlers, I was desperate for God to answer prayers for her healing. She had an opposite response to facing her own death - she resolved to live as long as possible and enjoy life to the full. I became more devout - she turned away from the church, and from me. We divorced in 1990. The final years during that marriage breakdown left my faith in tatters, and I, too, drifted away from the church, as it no longer seemed to be 'working' for me.

I met Janet in 1991. Apart from the time of our wedding, we didn't attend church, or discuss it much. Then, at the beginning of last year, when Janet suggested coming here, I had a second chance to try to make sense of it all. The difference this time was that in Unitarianism, they don't tell you what to believe, so I had to work it out for myself!

After I had read several books, about the rampant evangelical extremism in America (American Theocracy), the demolition of religion by Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), the surgical dismemberment of the mythological elements in the Jesus story by (ex Anglican bishop) John Shelby Spong (Jesus For The Non-Religious) and the reduction of the same story almost to a conspiracy theory by Peter Cresswell (Censored Messiah), I was left with my former Christian faith reduced to a tattered remnant. At that point I thought I had become an atheist - I had fallen into the ditch, as Janet put it.

After a few more books, in which Marcus Borg, Francis Collins and Bruce Lipton appear to have found reasons to continue in a religion based on Jesus and a belief in God, I began to 'climb out of the ditch' though I still was not convinced.

So - what have I been considering most recently?

I have been thinking: What is it that all the major religions have in common? - they all refer to 'something wrong' in us humans, and point to a desire to escape from it: For Buddhists, humans generate 'dukkha' - which is something like having a wheel on the cart which is stuck, so the cart doesn't work properly. For Hindus, they seek 'moksha', the release into 'nirvana', freedom from eternal cycles of rebirth which result from repeating mistakes in previous lives. For Christians, we are told Jesus was sacrificed 'for our sins', and that we seek 'salvation' because of the curse of 'original sin'. So what is it that we all suffer from?

A quick glance at history and the evening news answers that - the centuries of suffering are the result of a kind of 'craziness', or 'madness' of humans. We are definitely destroying our world and have the ability to wipe out the human race - we need to 'wake up' before we do bring about our own extinction. How can we do that?

Eckhart Tolle wrote the book "A New Earth", and before that "The Power Of Now" in 1997 - which have sparked a revolution in new spiritual thought. In his books, he teaches us that as we grow up and learn language and ideas, we start to think. By the time you are an adult, you have so many ideas in your head about what you believe and who you are, that this accumulation of thoughts becomes a 'person' inside your head, who thinks it is 'you'! (Eckhart Tolle calls this illusion of a person, who thinks they are you, the ego). The ego is responsible for all that feeling 'better than' others, the intolerance, arguments, and suffering that we create - so, if we can become aware of this 'rogue being' inside us, we can then get back to the 'real' person who we were when we were born. The idea is that this real self is part of the whole of creation, interconnected with all other beings, and at one with creation itself. Some call this whole creative energy field 'Truth', 'The Ground Of Being', or 'The Divine' - or 'God'.

It seems that this may be what all religions have set out to seek - the same thing, but in different ways.

Janet and I have tried to briefly show how we have followed different routes to get where we are today. Another analogy would be that Janet has started 'painting a picture' - of what religion means for her - but on a blank canvas - whereas I was given a 2000-year-old finished picture when I joined the church. Janet has had to piece together her picture as she found fragments that seemed right for her - I had to scrape away the layers of paint that obscured the true picture before I could see what mine was originally meant to be! Both of us are still working on our pictures, but they are starting to look a bit similar, now.

It could be said that the great leaders like Jesus, Buddha and Mohammed were especially enlightened 'teachers', who could be considered the 'first flowers' of the human race, as Eckhart Tolle says. Maybe they were all pointing in the same direction, in the expectation of eventually gaining a closer connection with the creative power that put us all here on this planet. We weren't ready for their message then, but we know the course that humanity is on now must change soon, or we will become extinct. Maybe now is the time that we humans are ready to 'start flowering'.

May we all continue to follow 'the path' in the right direction. Let it be so. Amen.

© Janet & Chris Granger 2008.