Letter from Roger Tarbuck, December 2016 to January 2017

Sometimes we Unitarians say that we “suspend disbelief” at Christmas so that we may take part in and enjoy the religious activities, such as carol singing.  There is no reason why Unitarians should not do this, apart from there being an honourable form of Unitarian Christianity.  Whatever our form of Unitarianism, if we feel comfortable in our faith in a mature and inclusive way, we should welcome Christian beliefs as we might welcome any other beliefs, but, because of our religious history, more of us are affected by Christianity, especially at the time of Christmas, and we might just be a little shy about this.

There is something universal about Christmas.  I have known Jewish people who every year observed the custom of sending Christmas cards and decorating their homes, because it is ingrained in our national experience and character.  From ancient times, this part of the year has been a celebration of the birth of light after the darkest day, and all kinds of modern people, including some Unitarians, accept it like that.  But, according to the history of Christianity, the story of the birth of light is extended into the light of the spirit of God incarnate in a tiny baby – the most powerful in the weakest and most vulnerable.  Some Unitarians find the symbolism of the old story acceptable as a parable – “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning”, as I was taught in Sunday school so long ago.  And under this definition, much of the Bible is a parable.

So we have this glorious mix that is Christmas, with all its magic.  And the bigger the mix, the greater the magic: carols and prayers alongside tinsel and glitter; candlelit churches and colourful shop-windows; strangers joined in fellowship across all social boundaries; an ancient and strong message of peace and goodwill, in spite of all the hardship and bitterness that point the other way, as those British and German soldiers showed so long ago, when they stopped killing each other and played football together.  The spirit of Christmas is so strong.

As psychologists will tell us, our dreams explain much about ourselves: they balance our conscious activity with our unconscious, showing where we lack something, such as love, or that we have under- or over-estimated other people or circumstances in our lives, and so on.  Jung said that myths are the dreams of mankind, so that traditional stories of all kinds of gods and heroes and monsters offer an explanation of some aspect of life.  In this way, for people who think of the Christmas story as myth, it carries a spiritual meaning which ordinary words can’t explain.  Just as the dreams of people like you and me manifest the individual unconscious, with all its spirituality (for Jung), so do myths indicate the spirituality of the collective unconscious of humanity.  Something wonderful is taken and put into intelligible form, something from “on high” falls into the familiar: hence the Spirit of God incarnate in a helpless baby.  The ineffable becomes one of us.  In this way, the myth is a revelation, not an untruth.

If the traditional language puts us off, we are free to use more modern words to express the story and the feelings that fill the very air in this season, but, if we move too far from the traditional expressions and imagery, the myth loses some of its power.  It is the haunting familiarity of the memory that knits our childhood with what we are today and what we hope to be tomorrow, like a golden thread reminding us of the spiritual dimension that runs in and through and beyond our ordinary life.  We can’t express it in any way better than joining with other people in a happy celebration of the constant revelation of the divine in the familiar.  Birth, life and death – yes, death, too – are more than they seem to our earthbound sensibilities.  Messages come from the spirit all the time, but at Christmas the veil is thin, and it is this that haunts us through memory and story and song in this charming yet powerful festival of the light.  Christmas is a great reminder of the spirit in which we live and move and have our being, which some of us call God.

These are big times for the Church of the Divine Unity.  Momentous decisions have been made, and there will doubtless be more to come, calling for wisdom, patience and brotherly and sisterly love, plus hope and confidence.  An awfully long time ago I said that Divine Unity was a strategic church, the only one in the North East between Stockton and Edinburgh.  The same words apply today, and I hope and pray that the church will survive enormously.  May your Christmas be merry and your New Year happy and full of hope.