Monday, 23 April 2012

Love In The Face Of Difference.

"And if I have the gift of prophecy and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.      

Now I know in part, but then shall I know fully, even as also I have been fully known. But now abideth faith, hope, love, these three. But the greatest of these is love." 1Corinthians 13:2-12-13

A phrase that we Unitarians like to use in order to describe our religious approach is; "We need not think alike to love alike." This is often attributed (very likely, incorrectly) to Francis David the 16th century founder of the Transylvanian Unitarian Church. This attitude has been present in Unitarianism from the beginning and has been given ample opportunity for testing. From the differences between the Arian and Humanitarian Christologies of our forebears to the doctrinally Unitarian vs Free-Christian philosophies of our mid to late 19th century co-religionists we have always had a variety of beliefs and thoughts in our movement and yet have always valued mutual regard and love. In our contemporary movement we have an even greater spectrum of beliefs and approaches, from those who faithfully strive to keep burning the light of classical Unitarian Christianity, to those who find their spiritual sustenance and nourishment in beliefs and ideas drawn from outside Christianity or even theism altogether. The challenge to love alike despite not thinking alike continues, perhaps not always smoothly, but I believe it is being met by us in ways that can serve as an education to a world unfortunately still divided by animosities brought about by differences in religious, political and social perspectives.

It is, of course, only natural that most of us gravitate towards, and prefer the company of, people who think like ourselves, all the more so is this true amongst those who harbour doubts about our their own beliefs. It is comforting to have your opinions reinforced by those who share them and to not have to listen, too much, to those views which throw your own into doubt. It is far easier to find unity of purpose and a common direction when you share certain basic assumptions and ideas. Even amongst ourselves, a fellowship of religious seekers and dissenters who are amazingly open to new thinking and who usually relish debate and conversation with those who differ from us spiritually, we still enjoy the company of the like-minded and always have. Forming little societies or publications within our wider movement that focus on a particular approach is just one way we have done this.

Some religions even base their regulations regarding marriage partly on this aspect of human nature. Frowning upon any marriage conducted between a member of their faith and someone of a differing religion, and very often finding a scriptural support for their stance.

We, however, are fortunate to have a couple in our Unitarian history, whose lives and affection can serve as an education in how love can transcend differences in even the most deeply held and important beliefs. That couple is Charles and Emma Darwin.

Emma Darwin was a scion of the famous Wedgwood family, and had inherited Josiah Wedgwood's pious Unitarian faith. A free-thinking, intelligent and independently minded woman, who loved her family very much, became, after the death of her sister, even more attached to the beloved teachings and beliefs of our religion. Over time she became enamoured with Charles Darwin, himself of Unitarian stock, and gradually began to admit to herself and to others the feelings she had for him.

Charles differed in many ways from Emma; he was very organised and ordered, she more relaxed and happy with clutter. She was optimistic and carefree; he filled with anxieties and concerns. He was sentimental while she was much less so as illustrated by their respective descriptions in letters to family at the birth of their first child William Erasmus Darwin, whom they called Doddy. Charles wrote that his son was "a prodigy of beauty and intellect", while Emma wrote "a very nice looking one (baby) it is, I assure you. He has very dark blue eyes and a pretty, small mouth, his nose I will not boast of, but it is very harmless as long as he is a baby." Their differences were the perfect example of complementarity, each providing what the other lacked, each becoming whole only once they found the other. This stood them in good stead during the tragedy of their daughter Annie's death in 1851. Emma's love for Charles shines through in the words she wrote in a letter to him on the day Annie died.

'You must remember that you are my prime treasure (and always have been) my only hope of consolation is to have you safe home, and weep together.'

But there was one difference which was far less complementary and which has driven and continues to drive many others apart. Her and Charles' differences in matters of religion. Charles, although having once considered a position as minister of religion, had over the years and partly as a result of his scientific studies began to have serious doubts as to the existence of God and the truth of the Christian religion. As he grew close to Emma, and despite the advice of his father, he revealed some of these doubts to her, but happily, this did not prevent he and Emma from getting increasingly enamoured and when he proposed to her by the fire in the library of her country home, Maer, she said yes without hesitation. (Indeed the shock of that lack of hesitation was felt and recorded by both Charles and Emma long after the event). The potential difficulties created by their difference in the core facet of their beliefs was, however, evident to each of them, and Emma in writing tried to remedy it:

"When I am with you I think all melancholy thoughts keep out of my head but since you are gone some sad ones have forced themselves in, of fear that our opinions on the most important subjects should differ widely. My reason tells me that honest & conscientious doubts cannot be a sin, but I feel it would be a painful void between us. I thank you from my heart for your openness with me & I should dread the feeling that you were concealing your opinions from the fear of giving me pain. It is perhaps foolish of me to say this much but my own dear Charley we now do belong to each other & I cannot help being open with you. Will you do me a favour? Yes I am sure you will, it is to read our saviour's farewell discourse to his disciples which begins at the end of the 13th Chap of John. It is so full of love to them & devotion & every beautiful feeling... This is a whim of mine, it would give me great pleasure, though."

Charles for his part did as his wife asked and strove to be open to the beliefs he now found so difficult to accept. He was so moved and touched by one letter written by his wife, a letter I might add which encapsulates both the tolerance and the reason that are the hallmarks of the Unitarian approach to faith, that he wrote on it; 'When I am dead, know how many times I have kissed and cried over this.'  These are some excerpts from that letter:

"The state of mind that I wish to preserve with respect to you, is to feel that while you are acting conscientiously, and sincerely wishing and trying to learn the truth, you cannot be wrong....It seems to me also that the line of your pursuits may have led you to view chiefly the difficulties on one side, and that you have not had time to consider and study the chain of difficulties on the other, but I believe you do not consider your opinion is formed. May not the habit in scientific pursuits of believing nothing till it is proved, influence your mind too much in other things which cannot be proved in the same way and which if true are likely to be above our comprehension... I do not know whether this is arguing as if one side were true and the other false, which I meant to avoid, but I think not. I do not quite agree with you in what you once said that luckily there were no doubts as to how one ought to act. I think prayer is an instance to the contrary, in one case it is a positive duty and perhaps not in the other. But I daresay you meant in actions which concern others and then I agree with you almost if not quite....I am rather afraid. my own dear (Charles) will think I have forgotten my promise not to bother him, but I am sure he loves me, and I cannot tell him how happy he makes me and how dearly I love him and thank him for all his affections which makes the happiness of my life more and more every day." And from another letter: "I do hope that though our opinions may not agree upon all points of religion we may sympathise a good deal in our feelings on the subject".

Charles and Emma went on to live an exemplary life together at their home in the (then) small Kent village of Down, supporting each other through life, raising their children in an atmosphere of love and joviality (despite Charles' chronic health problems) and being the greatest comfort to each other when life's difficulties came their way. It was this secure love-filled home that gave Charles Darwin the strength to write and publish his 'On the Origin of Species' that forever changed our understanding of human development, and to cope with the criticisms that followed. Their theological differences never drove a wedge between them and never even came close to straining the bonds of love and respect that bound them together. They are truly worthy of admiration by us all. By individuals learning how to relate to those who disagree with them, by couples who are building a life and family together and who may not see eye to eye on fundamental issues, and for our special religious community that strives to build an edifice of faith and goodness with the contributions of people of many differing opinions.

"A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; even as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another." John 13:34-35

"God bless these hands united,
God bless these hearts made one:
Unsevered and unblighted
May they through life go on;
Here, in earth's home, preparing
For the bright home above;
And there, forever sharing
Its joy, where "God is love".
J.S.B Monsell.


Casper said...

Apologies if slightly off topic but re the reference to the unitarian/free christian tension do you have any recommendations on good sources to read up on this?

Naomi said...

Thanks for this post, Joseph. My partner of 23 years was an agnostic person and I am an Unitarian Christian. We spent long hours discussing religious and spiritual things, but I never remember these conversations leading to a time of serious falling out. After his death I found amongst his papers this sonnet, which might interest you:

Presumptuous heart, what gives you that authority
To stand among the crowd, yet be alone?
What rights endow that incoherent quality
To know beyond a doubt that you don’t know?

With all my heart what my heart knows embracing,
Though it be dark and fearful, still it must
Hold to the dark and keep the heart’s eye tracing
Patterns of truth amid the doubt and dust.

But when it comes, like some great river flowing
Singing and sure as love’s clear light evolves,
How shall I know you? Truth, you are the knowing.
One with my heart as all the dark dissolves.

Who speaks of rights? Our poor eyes nothing see
Save as our love gives them authority.