2021-07-03

UU Minute #47

Joseph Priestley, part 1



The first Unitarian church in England, we have seen, was begun in 1774 – two hundred years after the first Unitarian churches had begun in Transylvania and in Poland. Theophilus Lindsey in London started the first one, and by 1790 there were two – the second in Birmingham, started by Joseph Priestley.

A few years later, 1794, Priestley sailed to Philadelphia. From there he moved on to settle in what was then the wilderness backwoods of Northumberland County, Pennsylvania. Before that move, while in Philadelphia, he gave a series of sermons. Twenty of Philadelphia’s intellectual leaders, inspired by those sermons, and directed and encouraged by Priestley, then formed the First Unitarian Society of Philadelphia in 1796 Jun 12 – the first congregation in the country to name itself Unitarian.

So Joseph Priestley was a founder of Unitarianism in both England and America. Who was he?

Priestley was a chemist, a natural philosopher, a theologian, grammarian, and political theorist who published over 150 works. He was quite the polymath – reminiscent of our earlier founding figure, Miguel Serveto. He
“stands as one of the outstanding embodiments of the Enlightenment, that cultural movement blending philosophy, science, and reason.”
At age 16, Priestley had become seriously ill and believed he was dying. Raised as a devout Calvinist, he believed a conversion experience was necessary for salvation, but doubted he had had one. This emotional distress led him to question his theological upbringing, to reject Calvin’s doctrine of election and to accept universal salvation. We could say he was a Universalist before he was a Unitarian.

More about the life of Joseph Priestley in our next thrilling episode.


NEXT:

2021-06-19

UU Minute #46

The Friendship of Theophilus Lindsey and Joseph Priestley



As we have seen, Unitarian history from its beginning has been the intertwining of its two fundamental principles: critique of the doctrine of the trinity, and support of religious toleration. We get our name from the first part, but it’s the second point that’s most central to who we are.

Theophilus Lindsey, took the critique of the Trinity a further step forward, declaring not only with Arius that Christ was not the equal of God, and, with Sozzini, that Christ not divine, but that Christ was not a proper object of worship.

Lindsey was also strong on the second point: the first Unitarian church in England, which Lindsey began in 1774, was remarkable for upholding freedom of belief.

Five years earlier, in 1769, Lindsey had begun a close friendship with Joseph Priestley. Lindsey was then age 46 and was an Anglican Priest serving as Vicar of Catterick; and Priestley was 36 and minister of Mill Hill Chapel, a dissenting congregation in Leeds, 75 kilometers south. Under each other’s influence, the two friends had become more anti-trinitarian, and more committed to religious toleration.

So when, five years later, Theophilus founded a church committed to not restricting its members’ beliefs, his friend Joseph hurried to his aid. When Lindsey’s new liturgy was criticized, Priestley wrote a pamphlet defending it. Priestley attended Lindsey's church regularly in the 1770s and occasionally preached there.

In 1780, Priestley moved to Birmingham, and before long, there were two Unitarian churches in England – Lindsey’s in London, and Priestley’s in Birmingham.

Theophilus Lindsey and Joseph Priestley belong among the great friendships of Unitarian history, along with Giorgio Biandrata and Ferenc David, and as we shall see later, Curtis Reese and John Dietrich – and Mary Safford and Eleanor Gordon.


NEXT: Joseph Priestley, part 1

2021-06-13

Justice, part 2

So far, our exploration of justice has brought up giving people their due, but we haven’t seen how to determine what that is. Philosopher Tim Scanlon argues that we must be able to justify our conduct to others. It’s inherently relational. Doing right by other people, he says, means treating them in ways they cannot reasonably reject.

Of course, we know that people are often unreasonable – we know that we ourselves are often unreasonable. A person might reject the way you treat them even if they wouldn't reasonably reject -- or a person might not reject the way you treat them even if they reasonably would.

As often seems to be the case in philosophy, the answer to a question seems to raise another question which is only a re-phrasing of the original question. If we had been wondering how to decide what is due, are we not now wondering how to decide what is reasonable? And doesn’t that practically amount to the same thing?

But there is a method here that we didn’t have before. It says: imagine yourself in the other person’s position. This goes beyond the golden rule of do unto others as you would have them do unto you, because it recognizes that others aren’t you, and they might not want what you would want. So we imagine their situation, with their interests and wants as best we can – and it may take some work to do this in detail -- and then we imagine them as having a moment of the greatest reasonability we can imagine. In that moment, would they reject the way we are treating them? To be a just person, one must carefully assess this question – mindful that one’s own greed, the opposite of justice, is likely to distort our imaginings.

Conversing with the real person, rather than just the imagined version of them, is an important check. It’s true we are all often unreasonable, but we might discover in that conversation some quite reasonable objections that imagination had failed to reveal -- or perhaps the opposite: some quite reasonable justifications for treating them in a way you had imagined they would reject.

What we owe to each other is to treat others in ways they cannot reasonably reject, using a mix of imagination and interaction with the real person to assess the reasonability of any rejection.

Moving to the social level, and the justice of social institutions, what people reasonably reject is inequality. Social justice is about equality. Some inequalities are not a problem. If you can run faster than me, or write books that sell better than mine, or you have more friends than me, that’s not the issue. But we are all entitled to equal concern and respect from society. How is that to be accomplished?

Some have argued for equality of resources. Ronald Dworkin, for instance, argues that a just state would ensure that individuals have an equal claim equal claim to the resources needed to form and pursue their own plans and ambitions.

Others have emphasized equality of opportunity. This takes a number of forms. Richard Arneson argues that individuals are not be entitled to a particular level of welfare, but to equal opportunity to exercise choice and responsibility in their pursuit of welfare. Amartya Sen favors equality of opportunities to achieve particular kinds of valuable individual functionings or states. G.A. Cohen argues for equality of “access to advantage,” which combines elements of some of these other views.

That sounds like worthwhile conversation – somewhat removed from practical reality, as philosophy tends to be, yet orienting us to a way of looking at current reality while paving the way conceptually for what might someday become practical. Tim Scanlon, however, directs our attention to something rather different from all of this.

Scanlon notes that the concern with inequality is not some abstract interest in a particular kind of distributive pattern.
“We don’t just want to see equal distribution of some thing. We want to live together, on terms of equal recognition, in ways that avoid interpersonal domination, prevent the emergence of stigmatizing differences in status, allow people to retain the self-respect that comes with seeing themselves as equal to others, and preserve the kind of background equality that can be a precondition for fair competition in the political and economic domains.” (Martin O’Neill, “What We Owe Each Other: T.M Scanlon’s Egalitarian Philosophy” Boston Review, 2016 Jun 2)
Equality of stuff – or of access to stuff, or opportunity to pursue stuff – is one thing. Creating communities of belonging – places where everyone can feel a meaningful part of an interconnected web – which is itself a meaningful part of larger interconnected web – is something a bit different.

Addressing the inequality of stuff that, in this country, has ballooned terribly since 1980, is a necessary precondition. Current levels of stuff-inequality destroys the sense that we’re all in this together, undermining the chance for true community of belonging. To build the sort of equality that is most important, we probably do need to narrow the wealth gap -- and we probably don’t need to entirely eliminate it. Philosopher Debra Satz puts it this way:
“What we owe each other, what we owe our fellow citizens, isn’t cash to satisfy the strongest preferences people have no matter what they are. We owe them the social conditions they need to stand in relations of equality with us. That is not provided by cash in particular, but by allowing people the rights, institutions, social norms, public goods, and private resources they need to avoid oppression and to function as equals in a democratic society.”
Thus, “securing certain goods like education and health care,” should take priority “over other kinds of goods like surfing opportunities – even if some individuals would prefer surfing to schooling and to health care.”

I hope I’ve whetted your appetite for thinking about these matters. If you'd like a place to start – well, the place to start is Plato’s Republic – or you could go straight to Scanlon’s book, What We Owe to Each Other. If you finish that and would like some other suggestions, let me know.

“You have to give them hope,” said Harvey Milk. “Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow.” To give them hope is to create a context in which meaning may be made –
in which each person may construct a life of meaning, partly by their own personal definitions of meaning, and partly by shared meaings --
in which each may stand with all in a relation of equality –
in which people flourish as they come into their full belonging in a community that flourishes –
and in which the rainbow flag of celebrating our diversity flies in every heart.

Justice, part 1

“You have to give them hope -- hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow.”
--Harvey Milk
Hope, as I often say, and as most of you know well, is not about wishful thinking. Harvey Milk was not saying you have to fill them up with yearnings after fantasies. It might start with yearning and a creative fantasy, but it becomes hope only when there is engagement in a process of moving toward the desired outcome – and that engagement gives meaning to your life whether the desired outcome ever occurs or not. To give them hope is to create a context in which meaning may be made.

This June, this Pride Month, we are remembering Harvey Milk, what he lived for and died for, and what the rainbow flag he designed means to us. Also our theme of the month for June is Justice. All of that we are weaving together today.

Let’s plunge into Justice, explore what that means, and at the end curl back to see how that fits with Harvey, and hope, and rainbows. This morning, the invitation is to think like philosophers on the subject of justice.

I should note that in my years as a philosopher, I came to see, to experience, the good of philosophy, if it has any, much less in any particular conclusions one may reach and much more in the way of life, the way of community and conversation, that is embodied when two people engage a philosophical question at some length. Debaters – whether academic debate teams or politicians or opposing lawyers – are always addressing, seeking to win over to their side, a third party: the judge, or the voters, or the jury. Philosophers, however, truly address each other – seeking to win the other over to their side while – and this is crucial -- seriously considering whether to join the other’s side. Debaters can’t do that. Philosophers do, and it opens, I found, a possibility for a depth of relationship like nothing else. Thus I was moved by words of Allan Bloom, with whom I disagreed on many things, describing true friendship: “The true friends,” he said, are
“as Plato was to Aristotle at the very moment they were disagreeing about the nature of the good. They were absolutely one soul as they looked at the problem.”
In our time this morning, I can only gesture in the direction of an invitation to that sort of relationship. When we ask a philosophical question like, “What is Justice?” we are, of course, trying to understand ourselves – trying to better grasp one of the concepts with which we assess our lives and experiences.

One thing that comes to mind when someone says “Justice” is what is called our “Justice System:” the system of police and courts that – ideally – enforces the rules in a way that is just – that is equitable, and fair. And then there's social justice, which has to do with whether society itself is just, equitable and fair in the way its structures and institutions afford to members wealth, opportunities, privileges and rights.

Let’s look first, however, at the sort of Justice that is neither of these: Justice as a virtue, a character trait of individuals. What does it mean to be a just person? What does it mean for you to act justly in your day-to-day life?

Justice has to do with distribution: who gets what. Whether it’s a judicial system distributing penalties to accused criminals and tortfeasors, or a social system through which income and wealth are distributed and maintained, or an individual, it’s about who gets what and who should get what.

Not all wrongs fit under this category. As cowardice is a failure to be courageous, and lying is a failure to be honest, and an indecorous outburst or an overindulgence is a failure of temperance, stealing from people, or not giving them what one owes them, are failures to be just. Cowardice, lying, or intemperance might also effect how something is distributed, though they often don’t – and, if they do, they might thereby also be a failure to be just. It is also unjust if you are called upon to distribute something – whether something good or something burdensome – among members of a group, and you use an arbitrary or unjustified basis for making the distribution. Thus Justinian in the 6th century said justice is giving each person their due.

When Aristotle addressed justice as a virtue, he characterized it as he did virtue generally, as a mean between excess and deficit. Thus each virtue has two opposites: too much and too little. As courage is the mean between being too reckless and being too timid, justice is the mean between giving more than is due and giving less.

For much of his treatment of justice, however, there is but one pertinent opposite of justice, and that is greed, where greed is understood as “the insatiable desire to have what rightfully belongs to others.” Seeing greed as the opposite of justice – greed as what is generally behind injustice – may shed light on a number of levels.

What is due, says Aristotle, is what is lawful and fair, and fairness involves equitable distribution, and correction of what is inequitable. Aristotle recognized that being equitable wasn’t the same as a blanket equality that gave exactly the same to everyone. A doctor, for instance, who gives equitable treatment to every patient, does not give exactly the same treatment to the patient with a broken leg that she would give to a patient with indigestion. Rather, her treatment is equitable to the extent that it represents an equal concern and respect for each patient – however different the treatments called for might be.

Also going back to Aristotle is the maxim, “treat like cases alike” – and treat different cases differently. Of course, every case is different, so when we say “like cases” we mean relevantly similar, or similar examples of the principles that apply. This principle bridges us into the sort of Justice for which our Justice system is named – the system of courts and trials and judges which, ideally, hands out similar penalties for similar crimes or harms.

So we have these two maxims of justice: “Give to each their due,” and “treat like cases alike.” Neither maxim tells us much. Exactly what is it that is due to somebody – and exactly what is relevant when assessing whether two cases are relevantly alike – those are often quite difficult questions, and the maxims offer no guidance. The maxims don’t mean anything, in and of themselves. They merely function as a reminder for us, in a particular situation, to take up the difficult questions of deciding what, in that situation, they ought to mean.

Giving people their due – treating them equitably, whatever equity might require in a given case – these are the aspirations of justice as a virtue. Justice, then, is primarily about what we owe to each other. What We Owe to Each Other, is, in fact, the title of a 1998 book by philosopher Tim Scanlon.

In part 2, we shall take a glance at Scanlon's contribution to this question, and move from justice as virtue of individuals to justice as a virtue of social institutions.

2021-06-05

UU Minute #45

Theophilus Lindsey Takes the Next Antitrinitarian Step



Theophilus Lindsey, was ordained a deacon at age 23, and an Anglican priest at age 24. He served as domestic chaplain to the Duke of Somerset, then tutor to the Duke’s grandson, then Parish priest in Yorkshire, and then Dorset. At age 37, he married Hannah Elsworth, and at age 40 began serving the Church of St Anne in Catterick. Theophilus founded a Sunday school; Hannah ran a dispensary and encouraged inoculation.

So far, so good, for the Lindseys. But then antiTrinitarian ideas, which the couple might have been exposed to from books by Fausto Sozzini, or John Biddle, or Thomas Emlyn, or any number of others, began to trouble them. At age 50, Theophilus resigned as vicar of the Church of England, surrendering a comfortable living. Theophilus and Hannah moved to London with hardly more than the clothes on their back, with backing from some friends, rented a hall, and opened the first avowedly Unitarian church in England on April 17, 1774. Theophilus served that congregation for almost 20 years, until retiring at age 70.

Antitrinitarianism comes in slightly varying flavors, and, before Theophilus Lindsey, any of those flavors was apt to be called Unitarian. Arianism, named for Arius, said Christ was divine, but not equal with God. Socinianism, named for Fausto Sozzini, said Christ was not divine, but could still be worshipped. Theophilus Lindsey took antitrinitarianism the next step: Jesus was not the equal of God, not divine, and was not to be worshiped. A Unitarian, said Lindsey, held “that religious worship is to be addressed only to the One True God, the Father.” Worship of Christ is sheer idolatry. With Lindsey, Unitarianism became distinct from its forebears, Arianism and Socinianism.


NEXT: The Friendship of Theophilus Lindsey and Joseph Priestley

2021-05-29

UU Minute #44

Britain's First Unitarian Church



Benjamin Franklin was 68 years old. It was the year 1774, and Franklin was in London. America had not declared its independence, and Franklin was in England in what we now know was the vain hope of influencing England to be more considerate of the needs of its settler-colonialists. While he was there, Franklin heard about a new church that was forming, the first of its kind, called Unitarian. The church’s opening had not been advertised, but word of mouth reached the American visitor, and when he showed up for the service on April 17, 1774, some 200 people were also in attendance – dissatisfied members of the Church of England (a.k.a. Anglican Church).

So it was that Benjamin Franklin was there for the first worship of the first avowedly Unitarian congregation in England – 200 years after Unitarian churches had been established in Transylvania and Poland.

Early Unitarianism in Britain is less a stream than “a series of unconnected whirlpools,” but it seems here to have at last found its footing. Theophilus and Hannah Lindsey and a few friends had rented an auction hall on Essex Street, fitted it as a chapel. Theophilus, then age 51, had just left the Anglican ministry, and he led the service using an unconventional liturgy and without wearing the customary clerical vestment. He preached about the need for a harmonious spirit in religion – which seems to be a particular concern of those who have recently split off.
“The congregation prospered from the start. Within three years they purchased and remodeled the Essex Street property to provide a large chapel above and living quarters below. The time, it seems, was ripe for just such an innovative institutional expression of Christian faith.” (Charles Howe, For Faith and Freedom)


NEXT: Theophilus Lindsey Takes the Next Antitrinitarian Step

2021-05-22

UU Minute #43

Thomas Emlyn



Thomas Emlyn was the first British preacher definitely to describe himself with the word "Unitarian" – though he didn’t at first. At age 28, he began serving Wood Street Presbyterian Church in Dublin, but he had doubts about the Trinity.

At age 34, he wrote to a friend,
"I cannot hope to continue here in my present post when I have once professed [my views]."
Wishing to avoid both insincerity and controversy, he simply avoided mentioning the trinity. Finally, at age 39, he was confronted why, in eleven years of preaching, he had never mentioned the Trinity.

Emlyn acknowledged himself to be an Arian Unitarian and offered to resign. The congregation said: “Take a leave of absence instead.” But critics of his theology attacked him fiercely. In response, Emlyn wrote, “An Humble Inquiry into the Scripture Account of Jesus Christ,” published later that same year, 1702.

That book would be a great influence on Unitarian development. Its most immediate effect, however, was to get Emlyn expelled from the Dublin Presbytery, and then arrested and convicted for blasphemy. He was fined a thousand pounds.

Unable to pay the fine, he was jailed for two years until the fine was lowered. The first British preacher to call himself "unitarian" was also the last person jailed in Britain for denial of the Trinity.

In 1705, at age 42, released from jail, and with no established church willing to take him, he moved to London, gathered a small congregation, and frequently guest preached at London’s nonconforming congregations until the end of his days.

Fifty years after his death, extracts from his “Humble Inquiry” were published in America, where they helped spark our emerging Unitarian movement.


NEXT: Britain's First Unitarian Church