In my recent studies I came across the notion of Unitarianism and how closely it parallels agnostic deism.
Unitarian Christianity is a subgroup of the Christian faith that rejects the doctrine of the Trinitarian God (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost both as separate and as a single entity), original sin, and the divinity of Jesus as an incarnation of God Himself. According to the American Unitarian Conference web site:
Briefly described, Unitarian Christianity is, like other forms of Christianity, a religion that asserts the divine character, divine spirit, and divine foundation of the teaching of Jesus Christ. It places particular emphasis on reason, conscience, and free will in religion and uses contemporary methods to understand myths and symbols of the past. It is a progressive religion, founded on and patterned after the elemental Christianity of Jesus and his disciples. Like that model, it seeks ever to form surer and nobler understandings of God and of the world by a conscientious search for truth. It lays great stress on the ethical responsibility of individuals, of the Church, and of the human race. Unitarian Christianity is distinguished from other Christian belief systems in four main respects:
1) the belief that human nature in its present condition is neither inherently corrupt nor depraved, but exactly as God created it and intended it to be from the beginning, capable of both good and evil;
2) the conviction that no religion has a monopoly on holy spirit or theological truth;
3) the belief that the Bible, while inspired of God, is written by humans and therefore subject to human error;
4) the rejection of traditional doctrines that malign God’s character or veil the true nature and mission of Jesus, such as the doctrines of predestination, eternal damnation, the Trinity, and the vicarious sacrifice or satisfaction theory of the Atonement.
Other belief systems may hold to one or more of these views, but Unitarian Christianity is unique in upholding all of them. It is the rejection of the Trinity doctrine that gave rise to the name “Unitarian,” although disavowal of the Trinity teaching is hardly the emphasis of Unitarianism. Unitarians have great respect for all forms of Christianity, but are convinced that their Christianity best reflects Jesus’ own vision.
A more detailed explanation of Unitarian beliefs may be found here, but the argument cites a number of Bible passages in which Jesus refers to God as being a separate entity and greater than he, suggesting that Jesus was not an incarnation of God and was therefore subordinate to Him.
What I found enlightening, and rather refreshing, was the emphasis on the message and religion of Jesus, as opposed to the message and religion about Jesus. One continues the tradition of Jesus’ teachings and builds upon their foundation. The other, especially when taken to the extreme, can become a cult that ultimately ignores Jesus’ teachings in favor of his alleged godhead, something the man himself is not recorded as ever having claimed and which closes the minds of its followers to the correct interpretation of God’s word.
With regards to the Cult About Jesus, the biggest problem has to do with what John Cleese and Michael Palin were arguing when defending their film, The Life of Brian, which is that it is not only possible to completely misinterpret the writings of prophets, but to so completely close off all contrary ideas—even if they are closer to what those prophets had in mind—that one misses the point of what is being said.
Last year I came into contact with one such congregation that focuses on the supposed godhead to the exclusion of any mention of Jesus’ actual teachings. It’s all about how much he loves us that he sacrificed himself to save us—with no mention as to exactly why a god would choose to become mortal and suffer a horrible painful death when he could have found other ways to do it. Attending services is like attending a tent revival meeting on steroids, which while not necessarily a bad thing, did lead me to conclude from some of the thousand-yard stares alternating back and forth with dejected and pained expressions that there is something quite wrong with it all. It’s an empty form of Christianity, bereft of the kindness, compassion, mercy, and humility Jesus taught to his disciples. There is no room for questioning, and certainly none for disobedience, be it real or perceived.
By contrast, Unitarian Christianity not only welcomes but encourages the asking of questions, and of critical thought. Small wonder that at least some of the founding members of the United States of America identified as Unitarians! Many of the rest identified as Episcopalians, or simply deists with no fixed religious affiliation. Thomas Jefferson was one such Unitarian and even went so far as to edit copies of the New Testament into a version that removed all references to the supernatural, leaving behind the moral teachings of Jesus.
What one should bear in mind is that while one can have Christianity without the notion of divinity of Jesus, the opposite cannot be said to be true. Without his teachings, what point is there to his ministry, or of his suffering and death on a Roman cross? By reading the teachings, we begin to understand that it was for this that he was executed. Without the teachings, his sacrifice brings up all sorts of questions that cannot be answered adequately because there is no context remaining.
Sadly, many of those who subscribe to the closed-minded Cult About Jesus refuse to accept those of us Christians who deny the godhead as being true Christians. Unless we accept something we know to be a lie, we are to be excluded from God’s grace. That’s a real shame, because I’ve met a good many people within that particular congregation who are indeed nice people. But their closed system of thought prevents them from true spiritual growth and understanding.