I find myself having a lot of conversations about the nature of God. This is a peculiar position to find myself in seeing as the only reason I ever set foot in a Unitarian church in the first place (New Unity in Newington Green, the north London hotbed of radical religion conveniently down the road from my flat) was because the Minister, Andy Pakula,was very clear about being an atheist. Like me, he had a background in science, and it seemed obvious that a scientific worldview means that believing in god is out of the question.
In my adventures in church and spirituality since then, I’ve come to see that the whole idea of ‘belief’ in God is just not very helpful — it feels to me like it is the wrong framing, or a question that doesn’t get us very far.
In the services at New Unity, God is never mentioned. Occasionally he crops up in a hymn or a poem and there might be an uncomfortable shuffling in the congregation (or maybe I just felt it in myself). Jesus might be mentioned at Christmas, possibly Easter. And there are a whole host of people in the congregation who wouldn’t describe themselves as atheists.
Other Unitarian congregations are different, each with varying amounts of God, and different ways of describing what God might mean. And each honours that members of the congregation will have their own ideas, and varying levels of engagement in the idea of God. It’s been a revelation to realise that the ideas of God that I grew up with, and that never had the space to mature beyond a child’s perspective, are not where the story stops. My understanding (until very recently) was that he is a being of some sort, all-knowing, all-powerful, bearded, wearing sandals in spite of living in the clouds, and a bit judgey. And with an under-utilised ability to cure cancer and stop wars. I wasn’t interested. I didn’t pay him any mind. I was happy being surrounded by fellow heathens assuming that those who believed in God were probably a bit naive and foolish, while of course politely tolerating their religious beliefs, defending their right to believe what they wanted, and being annoyed about the bishops in the House of Lords.
Then I started meeting people who do believe in God, and aren’t at all naive and foolish. One is a Church of England vicar who studied biochemistry at university. He told me about when he later came to studying theology in his ministry training, and brought his scientific worldview to it, he felt a clash in the different types of knowledge. He told me how he’d struggled with finding the Bible to be internally inconsistent, a trait that just doesn’t fly in the world of science, to the point of wondering whether he really could be a vicar after all. Then he found his way back in through his felt knowledge of what he called the Kingdom of God — not as an idea described in a book, but as something he had felt and experienced and so knew to be true. He also explained how some of the ideas I’d shared with him that I felt and knew to be true he would describe as ‘the divine’. It felt like an important conversation — realising that there were more ways to know things than I had previously appreciated, and that there’s more to the idea of God than my 1980s childhood version gave credit to.
I’ve also found other people of faith recognising me as one (a committed follower of Jesus said to me the other day when I was explaining to her how I thought of church, ‘there is NO WAY that you are an atheist’), and it’s been fascinating to find that what I thought was black and white has some beautiful shades of grey.
Around the same time as I started hanging out with ministers, I started understanding more about intuitive knowledge. I had spent a large part of my career working in scientific journals and evidence-based medicine, and so I understood that knowledge comes from carefully planned experiments, conscientiously written up, and synthesised in a methodical way. I knew how to spot bad science, and when randomised controlled trials are useful, and the importance of asking for people’s conflicts of interest. What I didn’t have much experience of was paying attention to the knowledge that came from inside of me. My understanding of knowledge was that it came from the outside — from books and journals and experts. Once I started learning how to pay attention to the internal, intuitive knowing inside of me, it felt like a new super-power. I suppose it was. I knew that meditating regularly helped me find that knowledge — that somehow it helped my mind be in a state from which clear dollops of knowing could emerge, that were different to when I pointed my brain at a tricky problem and cracked through it until I came to an answer. The intuitive knowledge arrived out of nowhere, unexpected, often while walking or washing up, or they appeared on waking. Once I’d learned that it was ok to trust this knowledge, and that I didn’t have to give citations and footnotes to back myself up, I decided to pay it more attention.
I’ve also learned that there is skill in listening to this inner knowing. Some might call the listening praying, clearing a space each day to be with God, with intention. Some might listen through body work, like Qi Gong or yoga. Some might go for walk, or meditate or just clear a space specifically to tune in to the ideas that live quietly inside of us. Some might use creative practices, like singing or drawing to pay attention to that inner knowing. Some people might see it as something holy, some might not dream of saying such a thing. But I’ve noticed that people who pay attention seem to have a sort of extra power about them. Perhaps it’s the same thing that the poet Mary Oliver means when she says “This is the first, the wildest and the wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness.”
Why am I worrying about all this nature of God business as Chief Officer of the Unitarians, an administrative rather than an explicitly spiritual role? Especially when there are plenty of Unitarian ministers who have actually studied theology and been deeply immersed in these ideas for a lot longer than I have?
I see that the way we express what Unitarianism is all about has a great bearing on whether or not people will come through our doors. The future thriving of the denomination depends on us being able to express what it is that we offer in a way that resonates with people, in order to be able to welcome them and share what we have with them.
Across the UK, membership of Unitarian congregations has dropped 15% in the last five years. Attendance at many chapels is barely in double figures. And for many many people in the UK (most of whom have never chosen to set foot in a church outside of a wedding or maybe Christmas), their spiritual needs – or psychosocial needs if you prefer – are not getting met. There’s a whole lot of suffering, emotional distress, confusion and burn-out, and the damaging consequences of the decisions being made from these places can be seen in families, workplaces, politics, the environment...
It seems clear to me that what Unitarian churches can offer can help address these spiritual gaps. And so I find myself wondering what is keeping so many of our pews empty.
With most people not living religious lives, the idea of God is quite far away, and associated with a lot of the aspects of religion that people aren’t interested in. Of all the babies thrown out with the bathwater with our move to a secular society, God has to be the first one to consider. In our scientific rational worldview, it seems that believing in God doesn’t fit. And yet Unitarians have been riding the wave of scientific rational thinking for over two hundred years – the very first Unitarian congregation was cheered on by Joseph Priestley, who saw his scientific work (that included discovering oxygen) as a sideline to his work as a minister. Rational thought and knowing the value of religion seem to be comfortable concepts to hold together for Unitarians. I’m starting to learn more about the types of idea that Unitarians have in mind when they talk about God, and they seem far away from the God I grew up with.
The trouble is, it takes plenty of space and cups of tea to get into this level of understanding and nuance, if you haven’t grown up with the expansive perceptions of God common among Unitarians. How do we express it to busy people whose response to an invitation to God is most likely to be “nah, you’re alright mate”? How do we catch people’s attention with the riches of what is on offer when ‘God’ can be heard as a shorthand for ‘naive magical thinking with a side order of oppression’? How many people does the language of God keep out of our doors? How can we express what we know to be holy in a way that resonates with people who are suspicious of the word ‘holy’? How do we show that in inviting you to a Unitarian church, we are not trying to convert you to anything, or make you believe something that you don’t?
Stephen Lingwood, a Unitarian minister in Cardiff, has written brilliantly about how we mustn’t pretend to be offering something that we’re not, and must be careful that in finding language that reaches more people, we don’t edit out the very thing we’re offering.
In conversation with a Quaker climate activist recently, talking about the level of nuance needed to navigate some of these ideas, he asked the question ‘where is the place not to be shallow?’, and it seemed like this has to be a starting point. Most people are unlikely to want to talk about the nature of God on a ‘first date’, but many people are hungry for spaces where they can explore nuanced shades of grey that our culture often doesn’t make space for — and perhaps this is the first invitation Unitarians can offer, the opportunity to explore.
I have a Walt Whitman quote on my office wall that includes the line ‘argue not concerning God’. It’s a good reminder, as none of this seems to be a useful substrate for argument. Certainly, as I’ve met Unitarians with views spanning atheism, humanism, paganism, Christianity, Buddhism and many who wouldn’t affiliate with an ‘ism’, I can feel a core that is common. I have heard an urge from many to find a way to express this common core in a way that works for all of us. But maybe it’s a good point to take a steer from the opening lines of the Tao Te Ching (this from Ursula K Le Guin’s version):
“The Tao that can be described is not the enduring and unchanging Tao. The name that can be named is not the enduring and unchanging name.”
The words that we use to express what we stand for seem less important than our actions — daily, personally, collectively — when they are driven by what we know to be true. This truth might be informed by outside knowledge, from science to sacred texts, but its expression can be found by listening carefully inside ourselves.
Credits: Thanks to Charles Davies for helping me know how to listen to myself (and for introducing me to the Tao Te Ching), to Max St John for helping me know what my body’s telling me, and to Vanessa Chamberlin, Dougald Hine, Graham Stephenson, and many many Unitarians for helping me understand God better. And to Sophie Howarth for sharing Walt Whitman with me.