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A short “thought for the day” offered to the Cambridge Unitarian Church as part of the Sunday Service of Mindful Meditation
In the last piece I wrote for you before going away for the summer I encouraged you seriously to consider adopting a philosophy or theology that understands movement, change and process as being fundamental to everything, including God.
Like many people involved with the Unitarian, Free Christian and Universalist tradition, I first came to know about this way of understanding the world through the highly influential process theologian and philosopher, Charles Hartshorne (1897–2000) who was a member of the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Austin, Texas.
Whilst I was away on my summer leave I read a couple of his less well-known papers and essays and here I want to bring to your attention a couple of things that struck me very powerfully.
Firstly, I appreciated the fact that, in a sermon given in the First Unitarian Church in Oklahoma City in 1981, Hartshorne said, “I hesitate to label myself Unitarian.” He said this because, like many of us, Hartshorne was not raised Unitarian and because many of those to whom he felt the closest in religious terms were in other Christian churches and religious and philosophical traditions. It’s not that he was somehow ashamed of the Unitarian tradition—in fact, as you will hear in a moment, far from it—it’s simply that it was for him too limiting to define himself by this label alone.
However, it appears Hartshorne was happy (or at least less hesitant) to describe where he was religiously by using a label borrowed from the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914), namely, “Buddhisto-Christian,” In Hartshorne’s usage this referred to a blending of, on the one hand, Buddhist teachings about the ideas that nothing exists independently of other things (pratītyasamutpāda) and the unreality of a permanent self/soul and, on the other hand, the central Jewish-Christian commandments to love God and others.
It will come as no surprise to most of you to hear that this particular blending is, more or less, where I have ended up theologically and, consequently, I rather like the broadly inclusive term “Buddhisto-Christian.” I’m also fairly certain it will resonate with a number of other people connected with this community. Anyway, I bring the term before you today for consideration and, for those interested in reading it, I have transcribed and posted on my blog the short essay by Hartshorne in which he most fully explores this idea (“Toward a Buddhisto-Christian Religion”, Chapter 1 of “Buddhism and American Thinkers”, eds Kenneth K. Inada and Nolan P. Jacobson, State University of New York, 1984, pp. 1-13).
Related to Buddhist teachings about the ideas that nothing exists independently of other things and the unreality of a permanent self/soul, a second thing to spring out of my reading of Hartshorne this summer comes from two essays, “A New World and A New World View” (in “A New World View”, ed. Herbert F. Vetter, Harvard Square Library, 2007, pp. 47-48) and “The Development of Process Philosophy” (ibid. pp. 111-128)
As I noted in my last piece, one of the major problems faced by our own liberal, free-religious tradition is that, today, most of us can no longer believe in the eternal and immutable God of orthodox monotheism “with whom there is no alternation or shadow of change” (James 1:17). This is because everything, especially the natural sciences, is telling us that motion and change is fundamental to reality. We are increasingly coming to see that to be anything at all, including that ineffable Something our tradition has called God, is to be something in motion.
Now like most people (mea culpa, mea maxima culpa) I have made the mistake of assuming that all our Unitarian forebears believed in a version of the eternal and immutable God of monotheism. However, Hartshorne points out that
“. . . though scarcely any encyclopedia or history will say so [our earliest theologian, Faustus Socinus] rejected the traditional idea of God as an unmoved mover, an immutable and all-determining power. Believing that human beings have genuine freedom, Socinus denied that God either determines or eternally knows our free acts. Rather, we determine the acts, and God knows them only after the fact or as they occur” (“A New World and A New World View”).
In short, as Hartshorne observes, although what Socinus lacked was “the insight that the idea of creaturely freedom, which creates novelty even in God, should be generalized to apply to all creatures, even the humblest—for instance, atoms” he, nonetheless, “anticipated current process theology” (ibid.).
Hartshorne expresses his regret that “the metaphysical originality and courage of Socinus and his followers were for several centuries allowed to go for nothing” (ibid.) but, along with Hartshorne, I strongly feel that the Unitarian, Free Christian and Universalist tradition can (and indeed should) today “find important ground with Buddhism”—especially Mahāyāna Buddhism—and to do this “better than either East or West was able to do in previous centuries” (ibid.).
Anyway, to conclude, please do consider reading Hartshorne’s essay “Toward a Buddhisto-Christian Religion” that I’ve posted for you on my blog and the others I’ve referenced in this piece. I think they are for us, important, if largely unknown works that might, just might, lay out an appropriate, creative and practical groundwork for our own community’s future religious life; a Buddhisto-Christian life that, astonishingly and rather comfortingly (for me at least), is entirely consistent with our free religious tradition’s four-hundred-and-fifty-year-old history.