Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Sermon: "The Quest for Perfection" (Delivered 1-4-09)

Last Sunday I preached about the Puritan roots of Unitarian Universalism and about aspects of Puritanism that we can still locate in contemporary Unitarian Universalism. That sermon was a way of killing two birds with one stone. This coming July, I will be spending a week in Wisconsin as the guest lecturer in history and theology at the Midwest Leadership School, where I will be assisting lay leaders from twelve states across the Midwest, from Kentucky to Michigan and from Kansas to North Dakota, to deepen their leadership skills. My role will be to help these lay leaders develop a concept of leadership that is grounded in a fuller understanding of both our history and our theology. And I figured that you might be interested in some of what I will lecture about this coming July.

This morning I will continue killing multiple birds with single stones. Leaving the Puritans of the 1630s back in 2008, I want to jump ahead 200 years to the first half of the 19th Century. My sermon this morning will speak to us today but it will also look back to our past for perspective, for greater self-understanding, and for some good laughs at some of the wildest times in all of UU history.

But before we do any of that, I want to invite us to pause. So, here we are. It is 2009. And I wonder: How many of you made New Year’s resolutions?

I did make a few. One resolution was to actually return things that people have loaned to me. In December I returned to M. and A. the first season of The Sopranos which they had loaned to me, if I remember correctly, in 2007. I also returned to D. his tent that he had loaned me back in August for a wedding I performed in Yosemite National Park. This morning I have with me a book on psychology that P. loaned to me for a sermon last March. I also have Z.’s trifle dish that was left at my condo when I threw a birthday party last August. I am not proud.

My more serious resolutions include truly re-committing myself to my chosen spiritual practice, a morning routine that involves spending time in active contemplation of a piece of spiritual writing, and beginning each day with a tangible act of gratitude.

I don’t think I’ve ever made more than one or two New Year’s resolutions, but this year I find myself setting goals about reading, practicing the electric guitar, exercise, and I find myself wondering what all this resolving says about me.

Among the things it says about me is that Unitarian Universalist blood runs through my veins. Let’s take a trip back in time. In the early 1900s, a Unitarian named Horatio Alger published a number of morality novels about boys and young men pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. Decades earlier, Charles Dickens, who had connections with British Unitarianism, wrote his famous tale of Scrooge’s ethical conversion. Each of these authors channeled earlier ideas that were central to Unitarian theology.

Those ideas went like this: human beings possess the capacity to do what is good and to make good choices about how they will live. All they need is to be convinced that they are neither hopeless nor helpless, that they can in fact change. They also need good models and examples of character in their lives. In the words of Kathleen McTigue, “Let us begin by remembering that whatever justice, whatever peace and wholeness might bloom in our world this year, [that] we are the hearts and minds, the hands and feet, the embodiment of all the best visions of our people.”

This idea is one that we probably take for granted. But, when it originated, it was revolutionary. Those Puritans who were our ancestors thought very differently. They believed in predestination, that our lot in life was preordained by God and that human beings lived in a fallen state. We were, as the first point of five-point Calvinism put it, totally depraved. (Being totally depraved is a bad thing, by the way.) According to that understanding of the human condition, we were helpless, lacking in free will, and our good works and our sins alike were not something within our control.

And then along came William Ellery Channing, a liberal minister in Boston who preached his most famous sermon in Baltimore in 1819 at the ordination of Jared Sparks who would go on to become the President of Harvard University. Channing’s sermon was actually a brilliant defense of human nature and human agency. Let me put it this way. I spent a lot of time Friday questing for perfection on this sermon and by Friday night I had little to show for it. So, I went over to the house of two friends and played “Rock Band” on the Nintendo Wii. Channing did not have a Nintendo Wii. In fact, he finished his sermon way in advance and published it in advance in Baltimore. A standing room only crowd came out to see if Channing would really dare to say what he wrote. This was what people did before Nintendo. Channing’s sermon is full of memorable lines and great pronouncements, but to me, there is no better argument than one he makes about reading the Bible.

He argues that if you believe that human beings are truly helpless and hopeless and given to sin and error, then anything you say about the Bible or about religion can’t possibly be taken seriously. If you are arguing that human beings are not capable of reason, then you are a very easy debate opponent.
We object strongly to the contemptuous manner in which human reason is often spoken of by our adversaries, because it leads, we believe, to universal skepticism. If reason be so dreadfully darkened by the fall, that its most decisive judgments on religion are unworthy of trust, then Christianity, and even natural theology, must be abandoned; for the existence and veracity of God, and the divine original of Christianity, are conclusions of reason, and must stand or fall with it.
Channing went on in this sermon to elevate the human capacity to reason, to learn, and to exercise free will in our living. About a decade after Channing wowed the Nintendo-lacking crowds in Baltimore, another famous Unitarian, Henry Ware, Jr. published a book entitled On the Formation of Christian Character. It was like the original self-help book. People could actually develop character!

This time period is extremely fascinating both for Unitarian Universalism and for American religion. People were released from the bonds of state religion and released from a Calvinist theology that told people that they were helpless and hopeless. Told that their lives were improvable, people pushed the limits to find out exactly how improvable their lives were. The 1820s and 30s were the religious equivalent of the cultural revolution of the 1960s. This was the era that gave birth to the Mormons, the Seventh Day Adventists, and scores of wandering street preachers declaring the end of the world and starting tiny religious movements. This is the era that also launched the abolitionist movement, the women’s suffrage movement, and a variety of other movements for social reform.

The other thing that happened was that some people began to have ideas about creating not just improved, but perfect communities. The most famous of these was the Oneida community in New York founded by John Humphrey Noyes. Oneida had no Unitarian connection. Thank goodness for that, because they were a freaky bunch. I can mention one practice of theirs that I can bring up without having to give this sermon an “R” rating. They had a community practice called “mutual criticism” in which they would gather together and take turns being criticized by all the other members of the community. It was felt that this exercise in honesty would reduce tensions in the community at other times.

The Unitarians, however, did have their own experiments with communal living. These included Brook Farm and Fruitlands. Listen to this description [taken from this web-site] of life at Fruitlands, a commune that lasted only seven months,
Fruitlands residents began their days with a purging cold-water shower and subsisted on a simple diet containing no animal products or stimulants. They were strict vegetarians, excluding even milk and honey from their diets. ‘Neither coffee, tea, molasses, nor rice tempts us beyond the bounds of indigenous production,’ Lane wrote. ‘No animal substances neither flesh, butter, cheese, eggs, nor milk pollute our tables, nor corrupt our bodies.’ Diet was usually fruit and water; many vegetables—including carrots, beets, and potatoes—were forbidden because they showed a lower nature by growing downward.

Fruitlands members wore only linen clothes and canvas shoes; cotton fabric was forbidden because it exploited slave labor and wool was banned because it came from sheep. [They] believed that animals should not be exploited for their meat or their labor, so they used no animals for farming.

The biggest challenge at Fruitlands was the farming aspect; the community had arrived at the farm a month behind the planting schedule… The decision not to use animal labor on the farm proved to be the undoing of the commune; combined with the fact that many of the men of the commune spent their days teaching or philosophizing instead of working in the field, which made farming difficult. Using only their own hands, the Fruitlands residents were incapable of growing a sufficient amount of food to get them through the winter.
Brook Farm lasted longer but was not without its own serious problems. As an attempt at utopian living there were no assigned jobs and it was felt that everyone should be free to do as they pleased. That meant lots of philosophizing and little farm work. The forays into farm work proved to be disasters. One group that was feeling industrious went out and seeded a field. They didn’t tell anybody and the next day a different group of people decided to be industrious; they went out and plowed the field that had just been seeded and wrecked the planting.

Enough history. I wonder what it means for us to be the religious descendents of these people, these people who boldly proclaimed the power of human agency, human reason, and that we could be entrusted with our own capacities. I wonder what we can learn by looking at those Unitarian ancestors of ours whose attempts at communal living turned out to be absolute failures.

I think the quest for perfection lives uneasily inside many of us. Kind of like a hip bone on a whale or an appendix inside a human being, we inherit something of this quest for perfection. If we believe in the power of human agency and human choice, then shouldn’t it follow that human perfection is attainable?

One of my mentors, Rev. John Buehrens, had a couple of memorable lines. During prayers, he would often use the line, “Forgive us for demanding perfection from those we show none.” Another line of his: “If you find yourself feeling disillusioned, you may do well to ask yourself why you had illusions in the first place.”

New Year’s resolutions can function as a part of this great self-fooling. If only I get this in line, that squared away, all this taken care of, then I will be on my way to perfection. And then there is the frustration piece, that growing disappointment with yourself because you have not lived up to your own lofty goals… or your growing disappointment with others because they do not live up to your lofty standards.

Perhaps you are familiar with the Greek figure Sisyphus. For disobeying the Gods, Sisyphus’ afterlife is spent in eternal torment in which he rolls a giant boulder up a hill, only to have the boulder roll back down as soon as he gets it to the top. That is what trying to be perfect feels like.

A new year begun. All ambitions before us. All dreams to be realized. All disappointments, too. All devastations and all let downs. And still, all hopes remain as the quest for perfection, or something like it, resides inside of us. We can be happy about it or we can be distressed.

What I am preaching to you this morning is not one way or another. It is not that you should attempt perfection. And it is not that perfection is elusive so you should throw up your hands in resignation. Instead, glory in imperfection. Delight at all that is still in progress, even when that progress has been slow and challenging. Love the struggle. Love the journey more than the destination.

And delight. Delight in the powers of imagination. Give thanks for the gift of being able to imagine a better world than we have known thus far. We are all imperfect people who imperfectly love our imperfect neighbors. By the way, that is the reason why love is worth anything at all. I love you. Amen.