Thursday, July 30, 2009

Lecture #8: "Humanism and the Challenge of Modernity"

[This lecture is number 8 of 10 that I delivered at the UU Midwest Leadership School in Beloit, Wisconsin from 7/20 to 7/24. Click here to find the other 9 lectures.]

Standing before approximately 50 students in a lecture hall at Beloit College I began by asking the assembled crowd to get honest. I asked the audience, “Besides Unitarian Universalism, which religious tradition do you draw from or identify with the most?” I then presented a series of options and asked that each person in attendance only raise his or her hand once. No double-majoring.

Of the 50 students and volunteer staff (approximately) who listened to the lecture:

• 23 claimed that they identified most with humanism, skepticism, atheism, agnosticism, free-thinking or the Brights. (A plurality though not quite a majority.)
• 7 claimed to identify with Christianity.
• 6 claimed to identify with Buddhism
• 6 claimed to identify with Native American spirituality, another indigenous tradition, or an earth-based religious practice.
• 5 claimed to identify with mysticism, New Age, or a general theism.
• 1 person claimed to identify with Judaism
• 1 person claimed to identify with neo-Paganism, Wicca, Goddess worship, or the polytheistic traditions of Greece, Rome, Egypt, Ireland, Germany, or Scandinavia
• 1 person claimed to identify most with Taoism
• Zero respondents claimed to identify most with Islam or Hinduism

In this lecture, I want to talk about the influence that Humanism has had on our Unitarian Universalist faith. I want to talk about a question that I do not know the precise answer to, which is how a religion that was avowedly Christian came to be understood widely as a non-Christian and non-theistic religion. For at least the first 100 years of Unitarian and Universalist history, our forebears considered themselves to be a part of Christianity, even if other Christian groups concluded that we were not. Then, in what seems to be a rather short period of time, the dominant theology of Unitarian Universalism became Humanism. How do we account for this rather sudden change? I don’t claim to have the absolute answers to this question, but I hope to suggest some answers in this lecture.

In 2003, UUA President Bill Sinkford delivered a sermon in Fort Worth, Texas where he challenged Unitarian Universalists to reclaim a “Language of Reverence.” When his sermon was picked up by the national media, his sermon attracted a firestorm of criticism. The primary criticism came from Humanists who felt that Sinkford was trying to insert “God-talk” into the Principles & Purposes and was attempting to force a change in the religion that they felt belonged to them. But, clearly it hadn’t always belonged to them. Were these critics unaware of the history behind the first six lectures in this series? It is impossible to read Channing or Ballou or even Emerson and not realize that their writings are full of Christian terminology, God talk, or, at the very bare minimum, non-specific theism.

When we invoke the word “Humanism” I think it important to realize that this term may refer to (at least) two major traditions.

The first of those two traditions we might call Classical Humanism. Classical Humanism reaches back at least to the days of Socrates and Ancient Greece. Classical Humanism was on full display during the Renaissance. And yet, these Classical Humanists did not, for the most part, think of themselves as non-Christians. A figure like Erasmus could be considered a leading humanist while at the same time serving as a Catholic theologian. During the Enlightenment, leading thinkers tended to elevate the use of reason and critique supernaturalism. The watchmaker God of deism remained extremely popular with many Enlightenment thinkers. However, far from abolishing God, the Enlightenment changed the way the idea of God was approached. (The rise of Romanticism in Europe was a reaction against the Enlightenment and claimed that the Enlightenment overemphasized reason.)

When one observes the rise of Humanism in Unitarianism and Universalism in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it is important to pay attention to the social context in which Humanism arose. Paradoxically, the same social conditions that gave rise to Humanism also gave rise to Christian Fundamentalism. Both were responses to the industrial revolution and to advances in science. While strongly influenced by Enlightenment figures, Humanists at the turn of 20th century tended to be future-oriented and celebrated the tremendous scientific and technical advances that the industrial revolution produced. In inventions that harnessed the power of electricity and steam, Humanism’s faith in the power, agency, and capability of humankind was reinforced.

On the flip side, Christian fundamentalism was a movement that began in the industrial centers of England. In the United States, we tend to think of Christian fundamentalism as a movement that grew up out of rural regions. Such an understanding is supported by the fact that fundamentalism had its coming out party at the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial that was held in Dayton, Tennessee, wherever that is. Contrary to belief, Christian fundamentalism originated as an urban movement and as a response to the unsettling social changes caused by the industrial revolution. Factory work radically shifted patterns of work and family life. Fundamentalism offered promises of religious stability amidst the tides of great social instability and therefore helped to quell the great anxiety provoked by this period of great social change.

If we wish to track the rise of Humanism in Unitarian and Universalism we can look to the influence of both ministers and lay people. As we gather this week at Beloit College, the three districts represented at this leadership school—the Central Midwest District, the Heartland District, and the Prairie Star District—represent a central place in the development of Humanism within Unitarianism and Universalism. In 1933, 34 men signed a document known as the Humanist Manifesto. The Manifesto contained 15 articles, each between a sentence and a paragraph in length. You can read the entire Humanist Manifesto here, but let me provide a sampling of its claims.
FIRST: Religious humanists regard the universe as self-existing and not created.

THIRD: Holding an organic view of life, humanists find that the traditional dualism of mind and body must be rejected.

FIFTH: Humanism asserts that the nature of the universe depicted by modern science makes unacceptable any supernatural or cosmic guarantees of human values. Obviously humanism does not deny the possibility of realities as yet undiscovered, but it does insist that the way to determine the existence and value of any and all realities is by means of intelligent inquiry and by the assessment of their relations to human needs. Religion must formulate its hopes and plans in the light of the scientific spirit and method.

EIGHTH: Religious Humanism considers the complete realization of human personality to be the end of man's life and seeks its development and fulfillment in the here and now. This is the explanation of the humanist's social passion.

TWELFTH: Believing that religion must work increasingly for joy in living, religious humanists aim to foster the creative in man and to encourage achievements that add to the satisfactions of life.
Of the 34 signers of the Humanist Manifesto, 11 were Unitarian ministers. The ministers served congregations in Chicago, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Ann Arbor, Evanston, and Peoria.

Looking back, one cannot help but note that the Humanist Manifesto was signed in the same year that Hitler and the Nazi Party took control of Germany. One marvels that such a hopeful document that declares the positive potential of humankind can be signed between one war where all our great new chemical and mechanical technology would succeed in killing 16 million and wounding another 21 million and a second war that would take the lives of between 50 and 70 million soldiers and civilians around the globe as well as debut the creation of the atomic bomb, a weapon that would threaten the destruction of all life on Earth. Exactly how is all this faith in humanity possible?

The exact same questions that the realities of war and genocide caused to be asked of human nature were equally asked about God. Jewish theologians primarily, but also theologians of other faiths, began asking hard questions about how to account for the Holocaust and the atom bomb in light of ideas of an omnipotent or benevolent God. Some reached a conclusion that proclaimed the absence of God, or even the death of God. Questions of human nature needed to be asked alongside questions of the nature of the divine.

The Humanist Manifesto certainly accounts for some of the ascendancy of Humanism in Unitarianism and Universalism. Behind the eleven ministers who were signers, there were probably dozens of other ministers who would have signed, not to mention all of the people they would influence. However, there is a second important factor which contributed to the rise of Humanism.

Starting in 1948, Monroe Husbands and Lon Ray Call led the most successful Unitarian Universalist growth effort of all time. They were responsible for planting hundreds and hundreds of churches as part of what became known as the Fellowship Movement. Husbands and Call centered their growth plan on university and college towns throughout the country. Thanks to the G.I. Bill and a greater number of women seeking higher education, these towns experienced explosive growth after World War II. More and more professors with doctorate degrees were needed to meet the demands of a growing student body. However, while “gown” life was thriving during this period, many of these professors found themselves serving in relative isolation where “town” life offered them very little.

Husbands and Call advertised in local papers and then convened meetings of interested people in these university and college towns. They gave them instructions on how to organize a Fellowship and then moved on to help organize another one. Many of these seedling Fellowships failed and dissolved. A number thrived and grew considerably. A lot have struggled and continue even today to fight for their survival. Some called ministers; others continue as lay-led groups more than 50 years later.

Two dynamics of these Fellowships are worth mentioning. First, by appealing to academics who had already opted not to join the local Methodist or Baptist congregations, Husbands convened Fellowships where Humanism was likely to be the dominant theology. Second, by establishing groups that appealed to professors and other university employees, these congregations often took on the organizational dynamics of the universities from which their members came. Consider the following: the UU congregation in Oak Ridge, Tennessee was founded in 1949; the congregation in Los Alamos, Mexico was founded in 1953; and the congregation in Las Cruces, New Mexico was founded in 1954. Two of these towns were built for the development of nuclear science. The third was a leading site for astronomical research. Imagine the populations that these UU congregations attracted.

Frankly, there is a tension that has been experienced in many of our congregations between humanism and theism. At times, each side has stereotyped the other. The humanists have accused theists of being flaky, anti-intellectual, and superstitious. Theists occasionally type humanists as cantankerous, curmudgeonly, and crusty. Oftentimes, the humanists are stereotyped as the old guard. However, in my experience, theology is not generationally determined.

During his UUA presidency, Bill Sinkford challenged us in our use of religious language. Despite criticisms of his Fort Worth sermon, our movement has accepted his challenge. Consider an essay by David Bumbaugh that Sinkford quoted in his sermon. Bumbaugh’s essay was entitled, “Towards a Humanist Vocabulary of Reverence.” Recently, former Meadville-Lombard President Bill Murry published a fantastic book entitled Reason and Reverence in which he develops a theology that combines humanism and non-theistic religious naturalism. He claims that humanism give religious naturalism an ethical dimension while religious naturalism gives humanism a greater capacity to experience awe.

As I approach the end of this lecture I want to mention some things that may challenge us. First, I want to go back about a month in time to the most recent UUA Presidential election where Peter Morales won out over his opponent Laurel Hallman. Laurel used religious language very freely and she had written an intricate guide for a deeply involved spiritual practice called Living By Heart. I think these factors caused many people to assume something about her theology. In 2003 Laurel Hallman delivered a lecture called “Images for Our Lives.” It would be a challenge to find a piece of UU writing that used religious language more liberally. However, in the middle of this lecture she said something surprising:
I recently spoke to our Adult Sunday School Class in Dallas on the topic “Why I am not a Theist”. They packed the room to hear what I had to say, because of course they thought I was. Why did they think I was a Theist? Because I use the word God. Because I pray in the midst of the worship service. I was embarrassed a bit myself, to find that I had failed to make the distinction that the use of metaphors and poetry and scripture has to do with religious imagination, and not with one theological category or another. We had a lively and productive discussion that day, as I spoke, as I am today, about religious language, and how it communicates the depths of experience, and that it isn’t always what it seems.
If religious language is something that really challenges you at a deep level, I invite you to read the poem “Natural Resources” where Adrienne Rich writes,

There are words I cannot choose again:
humanism androgyny
In the context of this poem, Rich is writing from a feminist perspective and renouncing language that claims to speak for both male and female. As a feminist, she is claiming that such language fails to achieve its purposes. All this is really beside the point. Laurel Hallman is a non-theist who uses the word “God.” Adrienne Rich, presumably, is a humanist who is unable to say the word “humanist.” These statements imply significant questions.

Let me conclude with a few words of challenge. Our Unitarian Universalist faith is a lot like this room. If not a majority, we are at least a plurality humanist, atheist, agnostic, etc. But we are also Christian, Buddhist, theist, pagan, Jewish, and mystic. Rather than using the language of humanism to mean something that stands in opposition to the rest, maybe we should reclaim the word “humanism” in its classical sense, when Christian Humanism was not an oxymoron, when Jewish Humanism was not a logical fallacy, when deists were considered enlightened, and the goals of social justice, personal growth and fulfillment, and peace are shared despite the words we use to identify ourselves.

Reflection Questions
What is your reaction to the quote by Laurel Hallman that I included in this lecture?
After reading the short excerpt by Adrienne Rich, how would you feel if a word that you considered a part of your identity was labeled by someone else as a word "I cannot choose again"?
In your UU congregation do you experience a tension between theists and humanists?

Lecture #7: "Unitarian Universalist Approaches to World Religions"

[This lecture is number 7 of 10 that I delivered at the UU Midwest Leadership School in Beloit, Wisconsin from 7/20 to 7/24. Click here to find the other 9 lectures.]

We’ve come very far in this lecture series. We’ve considered our Puritan roots; we’ve trampled the tulips; we’ve seen the ways in which Universalism constructed a faith free from the fears of Hell and how our beloved Transcendentalists played a jazz riff on the history they inherited, taking unsurpassed spiritual risks. We come now to the late 1800s. We are about to roll over into a new century, the century in which every single person in this room was born. This century would turn out to be one of unparalleled scientific achievement and the century in which humankind would succeed in sending a man to the moon. This century would also be scarred by wars of unparalleled magnitude. It would be a century in which the horrors of genocide would be felt by Armenians, Jews, Cambodians, Kurds, Croats, Rwandans, and Sudanese.

We are at a turning point in these lectures. We’ve moved from something that is so clearly history to something that seems we can reach back and touch. This morning we are going to begin in 1893 but then we are going to quickly come closer to the present. I want to invite us into a place of intimacy. This morning and tomorrow morning, I might speak to some things that hit close. I warn you that I am going to be opinionated and that I may say some things that challenge the Unitarian Universalism that we know and love.

Our own lives are full of struggles, tensions, uncertainties, and yearnings. I am convinced that the greater understanding that we have of our history and of the history of our theology—the history not only of our actions but of our thoughts as well—the more able we will be to make some sense of our lives and our movement today. Even if we do not succeed at resolving our tensions, then at least we can hope to understand the long view of history and the struggles, tensions, uncertainties, and yearnings that have led up to the ones that we may face today.

Yesterday I mentioned that one of the many, many contributions that the Transcendentalists made to our movement was that they were among the first to translate many of the texts of Eastern religions into English. Emerson, as far as I know, did not know Sanskrit. The man had at least a couple of limitations. But he did know German so he did translate the Hindu Vedas from German to English. Then, in 1871, Emerson’s close friend and fellow Transcendentalist James Freeman Clarke published the first volume of his two volume work of comparative religions: 10 Great Religions.

Just by perusing the table of contents, two things stand out. First, the chapters indicate that his book considers eleven great religions, not ten. If you are interested, the eleven religions are: Catholicism & Orthodoxy, Confucianism, Brahmanism (by which he means Hinduism), Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Egyptian mythology, Greek mythology, Roman mythology, Scandinavian and German mythology, Judaism, and Islam. Secondly, what is noticeably absent from this list is Protestant Christianity. In fact, most chapters end with a comparison between the “great” religion and Protestant Christianity, which for Clarke included Unitarianism which he found superior to the rest. Clarke published the second volume of his work in 1883, a year after Emerson’s death.

Finally, we come to Chicago in 1893. That year, Chicago hosted The World Columbian Exposition, a precursor to the World’s Fair, which claims to have attracted some 27 million people to the city that year. As part of the festivities related to the Expo, Chicago also hosted the first gathering of the Parliament of World Religions. In world history this was the first formal meeting to include both Eastern and Western religious traditions. It was also the first example of what we would come to know later as interfaith dialogue. The event included many firsts. This was the first time the Baha’i faith was mentioned in America. Swami Vivekananda stole the show with a wonderful speech that decried sectarianism, bigotry, and fanaticism in terms that would be no less valid today. 7,000 people heard Swami Vivekananda speak; this marked the beginning of Hinduism being taken seriously in the West as a world religion.

The event was not without its mistakes. No Native American traditions or earth based traditions were represented and somebody forgot to invite the Sikhs. We all make mistakes. Unitarians were there in force. The sixteen member planning committee included one Unitarian, Jenkin Lloyd Jones. Jones also served as the Executive Secretary of the parliament. Two Unitarian women, Julia Ward Howe and Ida Hultin, delivered addresses. One internet source refers to the Unitarians and Universalists of the Free Religious Association (a grouping of Western churches that preceded our current district structure) as the sponsors of the entire Parliament, though I could find no confirmation that this was the case.

This moment at the end of the 19th century marked a turning in how our faith approached other traditions. For the remainder of this lecture I plan to talk about our relationship with religions of the world.

For those of us who have either come to Unitarian Universalist in the past 25 years or grew up in UUism during that time period, it was basically taken for granted that learning about and experiencing world religions was a part of our tradition. Our present day Principles & Purposes were written in 1984 and '85. Originally they contained 7 Principles and 5 Sources. The third source of our faith is, “wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life.” In the early 1990s our Principles & Purposes were amended to include a sixth source: “The spiritual teachings of earth-centered religions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.”

Those of you who grew up in our faith or who have taught religious education may be familiar with one of our most popular classes, The Church Across the Street. This class took middle-school aged children and brought them to experience the worship traditions of various faiths. Later, this curriculum was updated and renamed Neighboring Faiths because we realized that it was problematic to refer to the local synagogue or mosque as a church across the street.

Though Unitarian Universalists continued to visit communities of faith across the street and to engage in important interfaith work in our communities, UUs also brought the spiritual practices, texts, and ritual of other religious groups into our worship services. This posed questions of legitimacy, authority, “spiritual property,” respect, oppression, and cultural sensitivity.

When these questions were elevated to the level of conflict, this became known as “The Cultural Misappropriation Debate.” It is a debate that is extremely current. As I deliver this lecture, the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association is in the process of rewriting its code of professional practice for ministers. There has been debate about inclusion of language about “cultural misappropriation” and whether it is a standard of professionalism that is enforceable. At the General Assembly that took place a month ago, delegates defeated by the narrowest of margins a massive re-write of Article II of the UUA By-laws, the document that contains the Principles & Purposes. At least one proposed version of Article II contained language about “cultural misappropriation.”

Now, I must confess that for a number of years I was fairly dismissive of this debate. My criticisms of it were based on at least three factors. First, my extensive training in religious studies caused me to weigh in on this question as a historian. My approach was informed by the work of Marshall Sahlins, whose book Islands of History argued that there are no islands of history. That is to say that all traditions are formed in conversation with other traditions, thus calling the notion of ownership into question. That many Native American creation stories were developed after contact with Europeans makes problematic the concept of ownership. Second, I thought these debates had become far too legalistic. As a minister, I felt it was the job of seminaries to equip us with an integrity-based approach to diverse traditions. I saw this as a debate about the arts of ministry and not something that rises to the level of a “hanging offense.” Finally, I saw the amount of energy being poured into this debate as a concern. I thought there were many more justice issues that deserved the kind of outrage and energy that was being poured into this debate.

I still hold these positions, yet there is much in our current practice that drives me nuts and makes me roll my eyes. I question our selectivity. When we use wisdom from Islam, the wisdom almost always comes from Sufism, a mystical branch of a much larger tradition. Still, we have no problem reimagining these texts to serve our own purposes. Hymn #188 is extremely popular in many of our churches. The words come from the great Sufi mystic Rumi. However, when we sing “Come, Come Whoever You Are,” we never think of the original intent of the lyrics. Rumi understood the voice in the song to be the voice of Allah. Allah is inviting us to Him. We really don’t understand this hymn in these terms when we sing it in congregational life.

Such selectivity is nothing new. When Thomas Jefferson organized the Jefferson Bible, he used his own criteria to excerpt passages from the four Gospels and to dispense with the rest. In describing this project, Jefferson spoke of separating the gold from the dross, the wheat from the chaff, and the diamonds from the dunghill. Let me translate that last bit for you: “Your religion is a pile of shit. However, there are some bits of wisdom inside. Let me tell you what those bits of wisdom are.”

A few years ago I was at the UUA General Assembly before one of the big events held in the cavernous plenary hall. While time passed waiting for the event, musicians and a song leader on stage tried to build the energy in the room by having us sing upbeat hymns. A number of their selections were African-American spirituals. I happened to be sitting close to a group of youth, a demographic within our movement that has deeply embraced this concept of “cultural misappropriation.” This group of youth turned their backs on the song leader believing that we, a predominantly white group, have no business singing these songs of struggle and survival.

I disagree with this stance, but there is one hymn in our hymnal that never ceases to horrify me. Hymn #154 is entitled “No More Auction Block for Me” and its lyrics declare that there shall be no more auction block and no more driver’s lash for me. I once attended a UU church on a Sunday when this selection was sung. Looking around the room at the mostly white faces I could not help but wonder if this group was foreswearing the selling, buying, and lashing of other human beings. I found the moment very awkward.

It is one thing to see people in our movement lift elements of other religious traditions and reshape or bowdlerize those liturgical works for our own purposes. It is another thing when we edit the liturgical creations of one of our own. Let me call your attention to one more hymn. Depending on the publication date of your version of the Singing the Living Tradition hymnal that you have, hymn #391 has different words. The words to “Voice Still and Small” by UU minister Rev. John Corrado were changed before the hymnal went to press. He fought to have them changed back in subsequent printings. If your congregation possesses hymnals from multiple printings, it makes the hymn a little challenging to sing as a group

If your hymnal is older, hymn #391 reads, “Voice still and small, deep inside all, I hear you call, singing. In storm and rain, sorrow and pain, still we’ll remain singing.” Rev. Corrado’s original lyrics used the word “dark” instead of “storm” and “you” instead of “we’ll.” The word “dark” was eliminated because of racial sensitivities that worried about equating goodness with light and negativity with dark. By changing “you” to “we’ll,” the theology of the hymn was altered. For Corrado, the still, small voice was a thou in the sense that Martin Buber would understand it. By inserting the word “we’ll” in its place, the theology of the hymn was changed to indicate that it is the community alone that has the power to calm fears and quench tears (through all the years.)

I want to conclude my talk by juxtaposing two different images that I equate with two different approaches to world religions. One approach I’ve named “The Chalice in the Center.” The other approach can be called, “The Cathedral of the World.”

During my years at Harvard Divinity School, the UU student group had a small bulletin board on which to display our activities. One year, a poster appeared on the board that depicted a flaming chalice symbol surrounded by various symbols of the various world religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, etc. One day, an index card was found thumb-tacked to the poster. It was clearly written by a member of our UU student group. The writing on the index card pointed to the chalice and said something to the effect of, “I think the poster mistakenly locates our religious symbol.”

The rendering of a chalice in the center surrounded by the symbols of various world religions is widely popular in Unitarian Universalism today. Several congregations use a variation of this theme as their logo. You can buy UU jewelry (click on jewelry and then on pendants) or T-shirts with this logo on it. I know several members of the congregation I serve who wear this symbol on a necklace. I don’t mean to disparage any congregations or individuals who display this symbol; but there is something about it that makes me a little bit uncomfortable. Is there a kind of arrogance in making us the center of things? Is the chalice in the center the religious version of Ptolemaic astronomy? What does it mean to make our very small religion the center and to place religions of the world, at least two of which claim more than one billion adherents, at the margins?

In the book co-authored with John Buehrens, A Chosen Faith, Forrest Church presents an image of the religions of the world that is quite a bit more Copernican. Church’s image of the “cathedral of the world” holds that all religious people—and, I would argue, all people—stand under the majestic ceiling of an enormous cathedral. Around the room there are various stained glass windows. Each religion looks through its own particular stained glass window to glimpse the universal truth that lies outside that cannot be seen directly. In Church’s concept of the cathedral of the world, each religion sees only a part of the whole. As Unitarian Universalists, we do not look through a window that is transparent (despite the architectural proclivities of our Puritan forebears.) We also look through the window of our own biases. I find this view refreshingly humble.

Reflection Questions
If you attend a Unitarian Universalist church, which traditions does your congregation draw from the most during worship?
Have you ever felt awkward participating in a worship experience that has been adapted from another culture or tradition?
How do you feel about "cultural misappropriation"? Is it an issue or a non-issue?
If you take part in any traditions that are a part of your ethnic or cultural heritage, how would you feel about others borrowing and reimagining those traditions?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Lecture #6: "A Short History of Universalism"

[This lecture is number 6 of 10 that I delivered at the UU Midwest Leadership School in Beloit, Wisconsin from 7/20 to 7/24. Click here to find the other 9 lectures.]

Let’s begin this lecture with an exercise that is similar to the exercise we used with my earlier lecture on Transcendentalism. For each of the following statements, please respond with either a “Yea!” or a “Nay!”

Yea or nay? You identify yourself more with Universalism than Unitarianism.
Yea or nay? Universalism is more Christian than Unitarianism.
Yea or nay? Universalism is more diverse than Unitarianism.
Yea or nay? Universalism is a religion of the heart while Unitarianism is a religion of the head.
Yea or nay? Universalists still feel like merger was a bad deal.
Yea or nay? The most famous Universalist in America is an African-American Pentecostal preacher who studied under Oral Roberts and now serves a New Thought church in Chicago.

Many of you know about Bishop Carlton Pearson because you listen to NPR’s This American Life. A few years ago, NPR ran a story about Carlton Pearson, a Pentecostal preacher from the streets of Southern California who studied under Oral Roberts. Oral Roberts referred to Pearson as “his black son,” which I think we can agree is a creepy way to describe someone. Pearson then founded a multi-racial mega-church in Tulsa, grew the church to 6,000 members, and along the way he won a Grammy for Gospel music thanks to his powerful voice and musical talent.

The story does not end there. Pearson went through a religious conversion and began preaching Universalism. He may not have really known that Universalism existed when he began preaching it. He called his theology “The Doctrine of Inclusion.” After coming out of the closet as an "Inclusionist" if not a Universalist he was shunned by the evangelical community and his congregation lost over 5,000 members who disagreed with Pearson’s new heretical theology. The sharp decline in membership forced him to sell the building because he could no longer afford it. The remnant of his congregation went on to rent from an Episcopalian Church in Tulsa in the afternoon, and then during the summer of 2008, All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa offered them free use of their building on Sunday mornings. (During the Summer, All Souls holds only one service instead of two.)

But that is not the end of the story. A young minister who was Carlton Pearson’s protégé and heir apparent died tragically from cancer. At this point, Pearson decided to dissolve his congregation, to join All Souls as a member, and to recommend that all of his parishioners join as members as well. When the summer came to an end, All Souls went back to their two service format. The sermon would be the same at each but the early service would follow the form that the congregation was used to while the late service would be a jumping gospel service. Speaking in tongues* occurs from time to time during the second service. Carlton Pearson recently accepted a call to the Christ Universal Temple, a New Though mega-church in Chicago. Many of his former parishioners continue to attend All Souls in Tulsa.

If you read about Carlton Pearson’s theological conversion to the Doctrine of Inclusion, it bears an uncanny resemblance to The Treatise of Atonement from almost 200 years ago. The Treatise on Atonement is a theological work by Hosea Ballou, maybe the most famous Universalist preacher. The Treatise on Atonement is based upon scripture; the text is full of notes pointing readers to passages in the Bible that support the arguments in The Treatise. The text argues for a scriptural justification for the theological idea of Universal Salvation, a theological position that holds that everyone goes to heaven. Carlton Pearson is sometimes asked how he feels about being compared to Hosea Ballou and other early Universalists. He answers, “I’d never even heard of those people. I’ve been called a lot worse.”

Early Universalist theology was based on scripture and biblical interpretation as well as on the idea of a loving, merciful God. Pearson’s contemporary version of argument goes something like this. The Bible says that Jesus Christ died on the Cross to save humankind. Was Jesus successful? Did Jesus die to save all of humankind or just some? Pearson argued that it is insulting to the Savior to say that Jesus’ death was ineffective at saving some people. What is interesting is that in this theology of Universalism, you still have the “U” and the “I” of TULIP. You still have Unconditional Election and Irresistible Grace. Your salvation is not contingent on anything within your power. You don’t have to do anything to be saved and you are saved whether you like it or not. The major difference is that in Pearson’s theology, just as in Hosea Ballou’s theology, there is no “L”, no Limited Atonement. There is no such thing as a “No Vacancy” sign in heaven.

A lot of research has been given to how Universalism began in America. There were Universalists in England who helped to bring this theological system to America. Some argue that Universalism was founded in America by one man, John Murray, and the story of his coming is a true story, but also the stuff of legend. According to the true story, Murray, a Universalist preacher, was on a ship traveling up the East Coast when his ship got stuck on a sandbar on the coast of New Jersey. A nearby farmer had been searching for a minister to fill the pulpit of a chapel he had erected on his property. The farmer invited Murray and Murray agreed to preach if the boat was still stuck on the sandbar come Sunday. Come Sunday the boat had not been lifted off the sandbar by the tide and Murray preached Universalism on American soil. Murray would later go on to serve as the minister in Gloucester, Massachusetts where he would wed the daughter of the wealthiest member of the church, a common practice in those days. (I know several ministers who wouldn’t mind returning to this practice.) Several of those with us this week are on the search committee for a new minister in your home congregation, so I invite you to consider this practice as an enticement to attract more applicants. Just kidding!

Despite the story of Murray being a great story, historians now contend that Murray was not singlehandedly responsible for bringing Universalism to America. Historians point out that Universalism originated organically in Western Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont as a response to the anxiety generated by "five point" Calvinism. Other historians point out that Universalism was not just a Northern phenomenon; Universalism also originated organically in the Southern states like Georgia, and North and South Carolina. Indeed, still today there are small Universalist churches in the rural south that are not a part of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.

I offer these tidbits of history not to deny the role of John Murray. It is beyond dispute that Murray became a leader of Universalism in America. Instead, I share with you the idea of organic Universalism as both a word of hope and a word of caution. Carlton Pearson did not discover Universalism by going to a theological school library. He did not discover it by trying a variety of search words on Google. He did not even discover it at the UU church in Tulsa. In fact, when I heard him speak, he said that whenever he drove by the UU church as a Pentecostal he would, quote, “try to cast the devil out.” He discovered Universalism in his own heart and through his own wrestling with scripture and his own relationship with Jesus. When I heard Pearson speak at this last UUA General Assembly his co-presenter, Marlin Lavanhar, said something interesting. Lavanhar said that “Unitarian Universalism may die, but Universalism will never die.” As leaders of Unitarian Universalist churches, this is an idea for you to ponder.

In the time remaining in this lecture, I’d like to quickly fly through some key events, starting in 1803 and ending up around the time of merger. I want to start in 1803 with the Winchester Profession. In 1803 a gathering of Universalists convened in Winchester, New Hampshire to hold a church council which produced a creedal statement, the Winchester profession of faith. It reads,
Article I. We believe that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament contain a revelation of the character of God, and of the duty, interest and final destination of mankind.

Article II. We believe that there is one God, whose nature is Love, revealed in one Lord Jesus Christ, by one Holy Spirit of Grace, who will finally restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and happiness.

Article III. We believe that holiness and true happiness are inseparably connected, and that believers ought to be careful to maintain order and practice good works; for these things are good and profitable unto men.
There are a couple of words that are worth noting in the Winchester Profession. First, it is interesting to note the shortest word, “a.” In the first article, they say that the scriptures contain a revelation, not the revelation. Second, the last phrase of article II is very interesting; the Winchester Profession states that God will finally restore the whole family mankind. Note the word “finally.” These are Universalists who actually believed in Hell. It is just that they believed that Hell was not eternal. They believed that some people would receive a finite period of punishment in the afterlife before eventually going to heaven after they had done their time. This position was later debated fiercely in the early 1800s. A position called “Ultra-Universalism,” that held that there was no Hell and not even a finite period of punishment, won out over those who held that the afterlife contained a period of finite punishment. So, maybe we should call ourselves UUUs. Ultra Unitarian Universalists. Or maybe not.

It would only be just to spend some time examining the life of Hosea Ballou. Born in 1771, Ballou converted to Universalism at age 18 and began preaching the gospel of Universalism at age 20. At a Universalist gathering in 1794, the presiding minister, Elhanan Winchester, called Ballou forward, thrust a Bible against his chest, and spontaneously ordained him. For the next 40 years or so, Ballou would minister, preach, and write. His most famous work was the aforementioned biblical defense of the doctrine of Universal Salvation but a later work of his argued the Ultra-Universalist position. A quote from that text reads:
“It is well known, and will be acknowledged by every candid person, that the human heart is capable of becoming soft, or hard; kind, or unkind; merciful or unmerciful, by education and habit. On this principle we contend, that the infernal torments, which false religion has placed in the future world, and which ministers have, with an overflowing zeal, so constantly held up to the people, and urged with all their learning and eloquence, have tended so to harden the hearts of the professors of this religion, that they have exercised, toward their fellow creatures, a spirit of enmity, which but too well corresponds with the relentless cruelty of their doctrine, and the wrath which they have imagined to exist in our heavenly Father. By having such an example constantly before their eyes, they have become so transformed into its image, that, whenever they have had the power, they have actually executed a vengeance on men and women, which evinced that the cruelty of their doctrine had overcome the native kindness and compassion of the human heart.”
Let’s jump ahead and move a little more quickly. I want us to remember that Universalists were involved in the causes of social justice just like their Unitarian brothers and sisters. Most famous among these was Clara Barton, founded of the American Red Cross and a civil war nurse. However, while Barton is perhaps best known of the early Universalist reformer, a distant relative of Hosea Ballou, Adin Ballou, may have had an even greater impact. There is no denying that he is a fascinating character. Adin Ballou was an ardent pacifist, a founder of an attempted utopian community in Hopedale, Massachusetts, and carried on an epistolary relationship with Leo Tolstoy on theories of non-violence.

If we want to feel really proud of our movement I ask you to consider this: The writings of both Adin Ballou and Henry David Thoreau (who wrote about civil disobedience after spending a night in a Concord jail for refusing to pay his taxes because he did not want his tax money to support a war that he deemed illegal and immoral) made their way to Russia where they influenced Leo Tolstoy. Gandhi, in formulating his own theory of non-violent resistance, turned to the writings of Tolstoy for inspiration. In turn, Martin Luther King studied Gandhi in formulating his strategies of social justice and non-violent protest which included boycotts, marches, and lunch counter sit-ins. There is a direct line linking principles of non-violence and civil disobedience between Thoreau and Ballou and Martin Luther King’s leadership in the Civil Rights movement.

Alas, there is far more to say and little time to say it. How could I possibly forget to mention that the Universalists were the first American denomination to recognize the ordination of a woman, Olympia Brown. Following her service as a parish minister at a number of different churches including the one in Racine, Wisconsin that is named for her, Olympia Brown became a key organizer in the women’s suffrage movement. Many of her sisters in the struggle did not live to see women gain the right to vote. Olympia Brown lived to see the passage of the 19th amendment.

In 20th Century Universalism two movements that are worthy of special mention. The first was the liturgical developments of Ken Patton. David Bumbaugh wrote about Patton, "It was he who taught a monotone rationalism how to sing; it was he who taught a stumble-footed humanism how to dance; it was he who cried 'Look!' and taught our eyes to see the glory in the ordinary."

By the time Patton came around, parts of Universalism had changed from a faith based in Christianity to one heavily influenced by Humanism. Patton was a poet and a worship innovator. He began his ministry as a Unitarian, serving the First Unitarian Society in Madison, Wisconsin. Seven years later he moved to Boston being recruited to serve as the minister of newly created Charles Street Meeting House, an attempt to re-establish Universalism in Boston.

Behind the pulpit at the Charles Street Meeting House there was painted an image of the Milky Way galaxy. In the church were hung symbols of all the world’s religions cast in bronze as well as symbols of science and humanism. The Charles Street Meeting House failed to take hold as a congregation but Patton was successful in generating lots of poetry and worship resources that we still use today. After the Charles Street Meeting House failed, the bronze symbols were rescued and can be found today hanging at the Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, California.

In one of the more interesting chapters of Universalism, a group of young Universalist ministers in the late 1940s and early 50s formed a monastic order known as The Humiliati. They were interested in bringing a sense of spiritual renewal to Universalism. The article on the history of The Humiliati found on the Dictionary of UU Biography web-site explains, “They called it ‘emergent Universalism’ which they described as at once ‘functional, naturalistic, theistic and humanistic.’ They moved away from [an] emphasis on the Social Gospel, having becoming convinced that growth and renewal of the spirit must precede ministerial social action.” The Humiliati also adopted the practice of wearing clerical collars. They created a new symbol for Universalism, a circle with a small, off-center cross positioned inside the circle but in the lower, left corner. The movement went defunct by the mid to late 1950s, feeling that they had succeeded in their reform efforts.

So, there you have it: 200 years of Universalist history in 25 minutes!

Reflection Questions:
1) Did this lecture challenge any of your preconceived notions of Universalism?
2) Marlin Lavanhar said, “Unitarian Universalism may die, but Universalism will never die.” How do you react to this statement?

[* The image of speaking in tongues at a Unitarian Universalist Church may seem startling to some UUs. I love the way that Marlin Lavanhar answered those who greet this practice with discomfort. Lavanhar argues that in our Building Your Own Theology classes, participants are asked to remark about a “peak” spiritual experience. Class participants frequently claim experiences that may include feelings of awe created by an experience of the beauty of nature, the experience of giving birth, the experience of holding your grandchild, or feeling moved by a work of art, music, or literature. Lavanhar then asks, rhetorically, why we claim that these peak experiences have merit, but feeling the Holy Spirit does not have merit. He asks us to examine our own prejudices that allow us to claim that some experiences are legitimate and acceptable but others are illegitimate and unacceptable.]

Monday, July 27, 2009

Lecture #5: "Transcendentalism, the New Nation, and the Second Great Awakening"

[This lecture is number 5 of 10 that I delivered at the UU Midwest Leadership School in Beloit, Wisconsin from 7/20 to 7/24. Click here to find the other 9 lectures.]

Both of the essays I plan to deliver this morning are deeply flawed. To attempt to relate the history of the Transcendentalists is 25 minutes is utterly foolish. To then follow up this essay with a 25 minute attempt to tell the story of our Universalist heritage is even more foolish.

But before we start, I would love to find out if you have any pre-existing biases as regards the Transcendentalists. For each of the follow statements, I would love for you to shout “yea!” if you agree and then to shout “nay!” if you disagree.

Yea or nay? The Transcendentalists disliked church.
Yea or nay? The Transcendentalists were individualists.
Yea or nay? The Transcendentalists were interested in social action.
Yea or nay? The Transcendentalists continue to have a major influence on Unitarian Universalism as it is practiced today.
Yea or nay? The Transcendentalists are more interesting than the Puritans. (I’m not surprised that the “yeas” were nearly unanimous on this last question.)

You don’t need to do much more say the word Transcendentalism and a hush falls over the room and people lean in. Two things are for sure. The Transcendentalists are fascinating and they are hard to pin down.

Take Ralph Waldo Emerson. Here is a figure who would tell a graduating class of ministers to go it alone and resist the good models. (In telling this to the class he simultaneously told off all of the mentors and ministers who had trained the graduating class.) Despite these instructions to experience God “at firsthand” and not to imitate others, Emerson would regularly spend five hours in the morning in his study reading the Classics in their original languages or reading the works of German philosophers and theologians in German. Emerson might go for an afternoon walk in the woods with his friend Henry David Thoreau or he might write an essay in support of the abolitionist cause.

At times the Transcendentalists appeared to be flaky, almost bumbling. Some attempted forming utopian farming communes at Brook Farm in West Roxbury, Massachusetts and at Fruitlands in Harvard, Massachusetts while at the same time knowing little about farming. In living out this utopian vision, these communities insisted that members should work only as they felt moved. (This strategy is one that college students sharing an apartment have attempted time after time, seldom with better results.) One journal kept by a member of the Brook Farm community records one person feeling moved by the spirit to plow a field the day after another member had felt moved by the spirit to seed the same field.

There are parts of the Transcendentalists’ spiritual openness in which we rejoice. We tend to love Thoreau’s naturalism and Emerson’s idea of the Oversoul and a faith that prizes intuition. That Emerson was among the first to translate Hindu sacred texts is another source of pride. We appreciate that he could appreciate the holy scriptures of Eastern religions. However, other examples of their spiritual openness and curiosity are a source of embarrassment to many of us today. Some Transcendentalists enjoyed paying visits to phrenologists and to other spiritualists. Other Transcendentalists recall in their writings being deeply impressed and moved by a meeting with the Prophet Joseph Smith.

Walt Whitman sent his first collection of poetry, Leaves of Grass, to Emerson. When Emerson replied with a favorable letter (or maybe he was just being kind) Whitman had the private letter reprinted as a preface to his book. In Leaves of Grass, Whitman writes, “I am large. I contain multitudes.” Well, so do the Transcendentalists.

So, what was Transcendentalism exactly? It is a word that is often thrown around but seldom defined. (The term likely comes from the writings of the philosopher Immanuel Kant, whose scholarship was enthusiastically read by many of the Transcendentalists.) One professor of mine from seminary was known to answer that it was simply the American version of Romanticism, an answer that fails to be helpful to many. I think Transcendentalism is best described as an intellectual, spiritual, literary, and social movement that was Unitarianism’s contribution to both a new nation that had freed itself politically, but not yet intellectually or culturally, from Europe. I believe that Transcendentalism can be further defined as Unitarianism’s fascinating response to the Second Great Awakening.

Let me say just a few words to help us contextualize this movement. We all know America declared its independence in 1776. Yet, American culture and scholarship still looked back to Europe. In 1832, following the death of his first wife and his resignation from the Unitarian ministry, Emerson did something that anyone of learning was expected to do: he traveled to Europe. There continues to be scholarly disagreement about whether the major impulse for Emerson to leave the ministry came from his own personal grief or from objections to performing some of the duties of ministry, such as giving communion. Those who insist that he left for personal reasons point out that Emerson seemed to be picking fights over issues and that the congregation he served was quite willing to compromise, but that Emerson resigned anyways. Traveling to England after quitting the ministry, Emerson met with great thinkers like William Wadsworth, Samuel Coleridge, John Stuart Mill, and Thomas Carlyle. On the ship back from England, Emerson penned Nature. He followed Nature up with a series of other essays. These included a piece called “Self-Reliance,” and another entitled, “The American Scholar.” These pieces, along with Channing’s essay on “Self-Culture,” amounted to an intellectual Declaration of Independence. In “The American Scholar,” Emerson wrote, "We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds ... A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men."

This intellectual and cultural movement took many forms. Paintings by Thomas Cole and other members of the Hudson Valley School depicted a new vision of the American landscape. This new vision did not cast itself backward, to the ruins of Europe’s rich history. This new vision depicted an America that looked westward.

Intellectual freedom from Europe was one of the contexts for understanding the Transcendentalists. A second context is the Second Great Awakening. From the late 1820s (or earlier, according to some scholars) through the 1850s, there was a period of great religious tumult in the United States. The First Great Awakening (see lecture #3) was approximately a century earlier and was marked by the rise of Methodism, revivalism, and a greater emotion in American religiosity. The Second Great Awakening was considerably more diverse. I already mentioned Joseph Smith, but it is important to realize that Joseph Smith was just one of dozens, if not hundreds, of would-be prophets who sprang up around this time. People walked the streets of New York City prophesying and claiming to be a prophet chosen by God, or even the second coming of the Messiah. Many new religious movements began during this period, not only the Mormons, but also the Disciples of Christ and the Seventh Day Adventists. Mainline religions continued to host evangelical camp meetings and revivals. They also joined with great enthusiasm social movements that advocated for temperance, abolition, and prison reform.

An area in upstate New York became known as the “burned over district.” “Burned over” referred, in this case, to the heat that was being generated by revivalists and new religious movements. Joseph Smith emerged from this area in upstate New York on the border between New York and Vermont. One of the interesting things to note is that there was a correlation between some of these new religious movements and towns where Universalism had taken root. Universalism was extremely popular in Vermont some point to Universalism as playing a role in creating a context in which new religious movements could flower.

Utopian communities were another feature of the time. They were not limited to Unitarian attempts such as Brook Farm, Hopedale, and Fruitlands. The most famous Utopian experiment was the Oneida Community led by John Humphrey Noyes. With unconventional teachings on topics from diet to sex, Oneida made Brook Farm and Fruitlands look like a trip to summer camp by comparison.

In this lecture thus far I have tried to capture some of the esoteric nature of the Transcendentalist movement. I’ve tried to capture its breadth, its resistance to being easily pinned down or contained. And, I’ve also tried to situate it in the larger context of American society in the first half of the 19th century.

At the same time, I have to admit that there is something that is a little perverse about lecturing about the Transcendentalists in a room like this. After all, we imagine that if Emerson could stop by this room today, he might say something like, “On a day like this, it is sin to be inside,” and then he would lead us on a walk through the woods. Scholars point out that in Emerson’s 1838 Divinity School address, Emerson delivers a thinly veiled barb at a Unitarian minister in Concord, Rev. Frost. Emerson speaks about attending church in the Winter, gazing out the window at the falling snow outside, and declaring that the storm was real while the preacher was merely “spectral.”

So, even though Emerson leaves the ministry and it is hard to picture Thoreau as much of a regular church attendee, it would be wrong to present the Transcendentalists as forsaking the church for individual communion with nature. Contemporaries of Emerson who were also major players in the Transcendentalist movement would go on to rank among the institution builders of mid-19th century Unitarianism. These builders included James Freeman Clarke and Frederic Henry Hedge. It is a painful irony to note that virtually no church is known for Clarke or Hedge or Henry Whitney Bellows, whereas you can find a congregation named for Emerson in Missouri, churches named for Emerson and Thoreau respectively in the Houston area, and congregations in Minnesota and Washington State named for Michael Servetus. Here in Wisconsin (this lecture was delivered at Beloit College) you at least name your congregations for people like James Reeb and Olympia Brown.

Allow me to conclude with two observations about the legacy of the Transcendentalists in Unitarian Universalism today. The first observation is an irony. One of the roles that the Transcendentalists played was to push for a kind of reform in the spiritual lives of Unitarians at that time. They critiqued ministers who delivered tedious lectures calling for spiritually uplifting orations and a Unitarianism that was far more spiritually vital than the one they had experienced. However, it has been my experience that our members who claim to be allergic to “God talk” and who even have problems with the word spiritual do not rebel against Emerson. Even Emerson’s call for a direct and unmediated experience of the deity does not seem to trouble many UUs today who approach anything even resembling “spiritual” with trepidation.

My second (and even third) observation has to do with tensions between the individual and the group. For some of us, the ideal vision of a Transcendentalist is Thoreau sauntering through the woods. However, history gives us a different image of this movement. The core expression of Transcendentalism is found in their meetings as a club. It was during these meetings that they would discuss spirituality and theology, freely and responsibly. The ideas, perspectives, and epiphanies shared by one member met and mingled with the contributions of the others and deepened the thought and spiritual life of all. Their club was like a modern day UU connection circle, only consisting of the leading figures in the movement. I argue that even for the Transcendentalists the group won the tug of war contest against the individual.

Related to this second observation is one that is slightly different. If there was a tension between the individual and the group, there was also a tension between solitude and collective action. In his amazing 2005 sermon, “Out from Walden,” Rev. Patrick O’Neill calls on us to think of Thoreau’s life in a new way.
When he moved into his rough-hewn cabin on Walden Pond on the outskirts of Concord on the Fourth of July, 1845, Thoreau wrote his immortal apologia for retreating into the sanctuary of Natural surroundings far from the madding crowd: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

When Thoreau came out from Walden two years later in 1847, he wrote: “I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spend any more time for that one.”

It was not until seven years after he left the woods that Thoreau finally published Walden to great acclaim. But in the years in between his leaving the woods and publishing his famous account of why he went there, it was his essay on “Civil Disobedience” which gained his reputation. After the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1851, it was the work of Abolitionism, and involvement in Underground Railroad activity, and lecturing on “Slavery in Massachusetts” that occupied much of Henry ’s time and thought.
If you came to this lecture today with any preconceived notions about the Transcendentalists, one of those notions might have been that they were a broad group. I hope my brief treatment of them has given you an even broader understanding of this fascinating part of our heritage that is large and contains multitudes.

Reflection Questions:
In your opinion, does Transcendentalism continue to impact UUism today? Where is its influence most deeply felt?
Did anything in this lecture surprise you?
What is your comfort level with “God talk” and spiritual language? Does this comfort level impact how you view Transcendentalism?

List #7: 5 Examples of UU Sign Language

I spent the last week at Beloit College in Wisconsin serving as an instructor at the UU Midwest Leadership School. The school attracted 44 adult students, 22 youth students, plus an additional 20 adults who served as volunteer staff or program instructors. During the week, I was reminded of some of the funny hand signals that are used from time to time in UU community. So, I decided to make a list of them as my list of the week.

1) Quiet Coyote. The “Quiet Coyote” is a sign that is made to instruct a group of people to be quiet and listening. When ‘Quiet Coyote” is signed, it is often accompanied by speaking the words, “Quiet Coyote” very quickly. To make the quiet coyote, put your middle and ring finger together and touch the tips of those two fingers to the tip of your thumb. Next, leave your index and pinky finger sticking straight up in the air. These are the ears of the coyote. Sometimes I make my pinky finger curve a little bit, to represent a coyote with a slightly floppy ear. You can also make your middle and ring fingers bend a little bit so as to configure a more coyote-like face. Now, you want for the tips of your thumb, middle, and ring finger to point away from you and you want to lift your hand high up into the air so everyone can see “Quiet Coyote.” Notice, coyote is quiet. His mouth is shut and his ears are alert and listening.

2) The No-Drama Llama. This was a brand new sign to me. I was taught it this past week by a Youth Advisor who uses it with her high school youth group to tell youth who are whining to cut out the drama. To make this sign put your four fingers together but let your thumb stick up. Next rotate your arm out to the side with your palm facing away from you. Your four fingers should be parallel to the ground. Your index, middle, and ring fingers are the llama’s nose and upper lip. Your pinky, which you can move up and down, is the llama’s lower jaw. Your thumb, which you can slightly bend, is the llama’s ear. If you allow you index, middle, and ring finger to slightly curve, it looks a like the unusual facial profile of a llama.

3) The Nodding Dinosaur. This is a popular sign in UU culture. It is used to signify agreement or approval. It is often used to signal strong agreement or to communicate the sentiment, “Right on!” It is frequently used in small or large groups where verbalizing your agreement may be distracting. The “Nodding Dinosaur” is rather easy. Begin by making a fist and sticking your arm out with your knuckles pointing away from you, as if you are giving the “Black Power” salute. Now, relax your arm at the elbow, allowing your forearm to drop to almost a right angle. Finally, nod your fist enthusiastically. An easier way to explain this is to pretend that you are knocking on a door, but allow your wrist to have even greater forward motion.

4) The Snark Shark. The word “snarky” has risen to prominence over the past few years, thanks in part to blogs and internet message boards that allow people to make sarcastic remarks on any topic of their heart's desire. A “snarky” comment is a comment that is highly sarcastic or irreverent and delivered in a biting or stinging manner. A person might make the “snark shark” to signal to another person that they are being overly or annoyingly negative. To make the “snark shark” point your elbow out to the side, perpendicular to your body and bend your forearm back towards your body so that the back of your hand is facing away from you. Your fingers should be parallel to the floor. Now, stick your thumb up into the air, bending it back to resemble a shark’s fin. Next, curl your ring and pinky finger into your palm, leaving your index and middle finger straight. Now move your index and middle finger in a scissor-like motion, resembling a shark biting.

5) Various alternatives to applause. In worshipping communities there is often a debate about the place of applause in worship. Some people consider it to be a genuine outpouring of appreciation. Others consider it disruptive to worship or even disrespectful, placing the focus on the performer rather than on the holy. Various UU groups have come up with their own ways to signal appreciation without the raucous sound of applause. At the Arlington Street Church in Boston, a worshipper might make a fist but leave the index finger sticking out. Then this person waves the finger in a circular pattern above their head. Another popular sign of appreciation is to raise both arms into the air and to wiggle your fingers. (I have heard that this is how applause is conveyed in American Sign Language.) However, my favorite way to express appreciation is to put my palms together and rub. This is not silent, however it does convey a sound that I find to be peaceful rather than jarring.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Lecture #4: "A Theology of Human Nature and Its Social Consequences"

[This lecture is number 4 of 10 that I delivered at the UU Midwest Leadership School in Beloit, Wisconsin from 7/20 to 7/24. Click here to find the other 9 lectures.]

A few years ago, historian Dean Grodzins spoke at General Assembly on the subject of theology. He said something that I believe is extremely important for us to remember. He said that theology is more than academics sitting in ivory towers and churning out scholastic tomes. He talked about how theology is something that is also lived and that we can and should study things like how we worship and what we do in the world. Those actions, even more than the writings that we produce, can teach us about our own theology. This is also known as lived theology or practical theology.

This lecture deals with the Unitarian theology of human nature. It will also consider how, as the theology of human nature radically shifted as Unitarianism emerged from Puritanism, such a shift impacted the shape of our own nation.

There is a bit of irony here. That our religion is named “Unitarian” is actually ironic. The term “Unitarian” refers to the theological denial of the doctrine of the Trinity. However, arguments about the Trinity were not what was most central to this new movement. What was central was a theology of human nature. On the Our American Roots DVD that is produced by the All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, John Buehrens makes this point beautifully. Allow me to paraphrase him, “The Trinity is not something the early Unitarians dwelled upon. It was seen as a kind of metaphysical mystery that they wanted to set safely off to the side so they could get down to the important things. They had more pressing things than arguing about the arithmetic of the godhead.”

What I would like to do is to spend a little bit of time musing about human nature and some of the ways that the theology of human nature exerted itself in early Unitarianism. Then we will stop around 1820 or so and tomorrow we will begin the work of bringing us towards a modern faith.

During this time period between 1776 and 1826, the first 50 years of the new nation, Unitarians and Universalists can claim two significant influences on the course of American history.

The first significant influence that Unitarians can claim is that we were present at ground zero in the battle for liberty in the new nation. There were figures associated with Unitarianism and Universalism present at the signing of the Declaration of Independence. We played a major role in the discourse around religious freedom, liberty from tyranny, and the understanding and shaping of this experiment in democracy.

The second significant influence that we can claim is that we were present at ground zero in the development of various social change movements that would sweep forward and reshape society during the 1800s.

Often these two movements – the revolution and various social changes movements – are thought of as separate. Yet they each have at their core a certain theology of human nature.

After all, what is the point of democracy if people are sinful and servile? A theocracy is actually a good thing if you fundamentally believe that people need to be kept in check and strictly held to an established moral code. Similarly, totalitarianism is not only acceptable but preferred if you believe that letting people make their own decisions will lead to chaos and mob rule.

Fortunately, the ideas of liberty set forth during the American Revolution were premised on a more positive and hopeful view of human nature. Similarly, social reform is basically useless if you hold the opinion that people cannot change and that people are essentially doomed. The more positive and hopeful view of human nature enabled social reformers to feel a sense of urgency.

One of the most influential but forgotten Unitarian leaders of the early 1800s was Henry Ware, Jr. His father, Henry Sr., had held a major professorship at Harvard during the huge upheaval at the school that foreshadowed the schism between theological liberals and conservatives. Henry Ware, Sr. also played a major role in serving as the mentor figure and wise elder to the group of “young turks” that included William Ellery Channing, Theodore Parker, Ralph Waldo Emerson and many others. These were the leaders who would send the Unitarian movement hurtling forward in the coming years.

One of the most under-read texts of this era was written by Henry Ware, Jr. The text is called, On the Formation of Christian Character. It is under-read because it is fairly long and tedious. In fact, it would probably make for good bed-time reading for an insomniac. This text is not read by anyone except Divinity School students. Though available for free on Google Books, like many of the original texts that I cite that are in the public domain, Ware’s text is basically forgotten today. This a testament to how Ware’s ideas are now taken for granted; in fact, they have been built upon significantly.

In this text, Ware lays out his concept of what it means to have “Christian Character.” Then Ware dispenses practical advice about how to stimulate its development within people. Sometimes I feel tempted to call this text the first self-help book ever printed.

So, what were the early social movements that Unitarians and Universalists were involved in? You can hardly name a single one that did not have a UU playing a major hand. However, another thing I probably should point out is that it was not as if Unitarians and Universalists were doing this all alone. Other denominations worked alongside us. I want to conclude my lecture today with a short list of some of the social reform movements that Unitarians and Universalists had their hands in. It is important to realize how each area of involvement is premised on a theory of human nature.

Public schools: Of all the areas in which Unitarians and Universalists were involved in the early 1800s, their involvement in the development of public schools was probably the most important and the most controversial. Horace Mann was one of the chief players in the development of public schools. These schools were not just established to teach the 3 Rs. These public schools also taught “moral character.” However, Mann established schools whose teaching would be strictly non-sectarian. The teaching of sectarian religious thought was forbidden. However, there is no such thing as “general morality.” The schools taught the Unitarian perspective on moral character. Incidentally, this led to the formation of Catholic schools as Catholics demanded the ability to teach their own theology of human nature.

Prison reform: Unitarians and Universalists, as well as members of many other branches of Protestantism took on prison reform during the early 1800s. This movement was based on the idea of better conditions and better treatment of prisoners. It is doubtful that this issue would have attracted significant attention if it was widely believed that reform was impossible.

Schools for the Blind: Samuel Gridley Howe, a man involved in a whole host of reform movements, is perhaps best known for his work promoting education for the blind. The movement he began is best understood in light of other reform movements.

Temperance: Of all the social reform movements of the early 19th century, this one seems to be one that Unitarians and Universalists never like to admit. However, yet again, this movement is based on the general concept that human beings can change and improve.

Abolition: Unitarians and Universalists joined with the members of many faiths in calling for an end to slavery. What we often forget is that the rhetoric that undergirded this stance was surprising. A theology of the development of moral character was central to this discourse. It was argued that slavery as an institution kept slaves and slave owners from fully developing their own capacity for moral character.

Women’s Rights: Unitarians and Universalists would lead the fight for the equality of women up to the passage of the 19th amendment and beyond. Part of this discourse was also based on the development of moral character. In pushing for equal access to education and public participation, early feminists were also arguing that if women did not have access to these roles, their (moral) development would be stunted.

Given what we know now, 200 years later, how do you approach the question of human nature?
Are you more optimistic or pessimistic?
What sources (religious or otherwise) inform your understanding of human nature?

Apologizing to the Cathars

In my lecture on Monday, I mentioned a religious movement known as the Cathars. (My genealogy possibly traces back to the same area in the south of France where the Cathars lived before they were peresecuted and then virtually exterminated by Catholics in the 1,200s. In other words, my ancestors from long ago were possibly Cathars.)

After I posted my lecture on-line, I received a very kind and gentle note from a man named Brad who is part of a modern-day religious group whose religious forebears were the Albigensian Cathars.

The point that I was trying to make by invoking the Cathars was that we as UUs have a tendency to want to identify closely with groups that are deemed "heretical" by the established church, even if our theology or practices are quite distinct.

In my description of the Cathars I may have been flippant and even disrespectful. If I offended anyone with my description of the Cathars, I apologize. I have changed this part of the lecture that I have posted to better reflect what I was trying to say.

Lecture #3: "Trampling the Tulips: The Unitarian Break from Calvinism"

[This lecture is number 3 of 10 that I delivered at the UU Midwest Leadership School in Beloit, Wisconsin from 7/20 to 7/24. Click here to find the other 9 lectures.]

The previous lecture concluded with a list of similarities that present day Unitarian Universalism shares with the tradition from which it emerged, the Puritan tradition in New England. I described many of the features of those old Puritan churches that we often see present in Unitarian Universalist congregational life today.

Even though we came from that tradition, we also broke from that tradition. And, we broke most powerfully from that tradition in our rejection of the doctrine of “five point” Calvinism. In other words, 250 years after Michael Servetus, our first Unitarian martyr, was burned at the stake, our religious forebears were ensconced in the theological system of John Calvin, the man who ordered Servetus’ execution. Our forebears were about to deal Calvinism a powerful blow.

So, what is “five point Calvinism”? It is best remembered by using the acronym TULIP. The five points are as follows:

Total depravity. The Puritans believed that human beings were absolutely sinful and that human nature was wicked. As the first couplet of the New England Primer, a book for children, began, “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.”

Unconditional election. The Puritans did not believe in free will. The Puritans believed that our lives and our fates were predestined. You were born either saved or damned, and there wasn’t anything you could do about it. Your salvation was not contingent on how you lived your life.

Limited atonement. This position essentially meant that there were only a certain number of tickets to heaven. Not everybody got there. Space in Heaven was limited.

Irresistible grace. This principle is the corollary to unconditional election. If it was impossible to do anything to win your own salvation, it was also impossible to do anything to screw up your own salvation. If you were one of the lucky ones who received by grace the gift of being chosen to be among the elect, there was not anything you could do to mess it up.

Perseverance of the saints. Of all five of these theological statements, this is the hardest to wrap our heads around. This fifth point basically says that the chosen, the elect, would succeed during their earthly lives.

Let me step back and make a few observations at this point. First of all, there are still churches in the United States that adhere to “five point" Calvinism. However, I am going to assume that most of you, even if you did grow up in a theologically conservative church, did not grow up in a Calvinist church. We can only see this theological system as outsiders. And, as outsiders, it almost seems absurd. However, if you do immerse yourself inside of it completely, it does have a kind of perfect internal logic. God is supremely powerful; everything plays out according to a divine plan that is perfectly pre-ordained.

However, if you live according to this system, you often face tremendously anxiety. You may wind up spending a lot of time looking for signs that you are among the elect who will be saved and not damned. To become a member of the Puritan church that held these views, you actually needed to present the minister with an account of your spiritual journey and evidence or signs that led you to feel confident about your own salvation. You spent a lot of time looking for signs and then feeling guilty because you knew it was beyond your ability to control. You spent a lot of energy trying to act the part of a persevering saint, and analyzing each success or set-back through the lens of wondering if it was a sign about the fate of your immortal soul.

The well-known Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet once wrote a poem entitled, “Verses upon the Burning of our House.” In the poem she relates the experience of her house burning down. The poem quickly becomes a deliberation about what sign God was sending. What did this event signify about the fate of her eternal soul? Here are a few lines from the middle of the poem,
And when I could no longer look,
I blest his grace that gave and took,
That laid my goods now in the dust.
Yea, so it was, and so 'twas just.
It was his own; it was not mine.
Far be it that I should repine,
He might of all justly bereft
But yet sufficient for us left.
But, by the end of the poem, Bradstreet has twisted the meaning of the fire into one that suggests the fire is a sign pointing to her own salvation,
There's wealth enough; I need no more.
Farewell, my pelf; farewell, my store.
The world no longer let me love;
My hope and Treasure lies above.
Talk about anxiety. This Puritan system has been described as a pressure cooker. A lot of steam needed to be released. Beginning in the mid-1700s, religious alternatives to “five point” Calvinism started to take hold. Among the most popular and most successful was Methodism. Early Methodism was a revivalist movement and stressed emotionalism. It preached that if you felt God’s presence or God’s love than you were saved. In this kind of context, it was very easy to feel the Spirit.

At the same time that Methodism was gaining steam, there was also a movement within Puritanism that was growing increasingly liberal. This liberalizing movement tried to walk a middle path between the strict harshness of Calvinism and the emotionalism of the First Great Awakening. One of the leading ministers who helped to usher along liberal thought was a minister named Charles Chauncy. Chauncy was called to the First Church in Boston at age 22 and served that church until his death at age 82. (You don’t find 60 year ministries anymore.) Chauncy penned a piece in 1743 entitled, “Seasonable Thoughts on the State of Religion in New England.” This piece argued for a middle way between orthodox Calvinist teachings and the “unseasonable” revivals of the day.

Chauncy, along with several other ministers of like mind were among the figures responsible for the gradual liberalizing of Puritanism during the 1700s. If you will permit me just a minor digression, I might also point out that at just about this same time the world of Biblical scholarship was coming completely unhinged. In Germany, a new form of Biblical criticism, known as “Higher Criticism” was rising towards prominence. At the same time, also in Germany, scholars and philosophers were beginning to research the figure of the “historical Jesus.”

To summarize, in the late 1700s five point Calvinism was struggling in the United States. It was facing challenges from within, from congregational ministers and lay people who were challenging the theological ideas put forward by “TULIP.” And, it was facing challenges from without, mostly in the form of revivalism. Puritan churches were not yet going through schisms because of controversy between the orthodox conservative position and the more liberal position, but could a schism be far off?

What had been missing up to this point was a person who would dare to take the liberal position and carry it through to its full conclusion. That person would turn out to be William Ellery Channing. In 1819, Channing preached in Baltimore at the ordination of Jared Sparks. The sermon was a deliberate attempt to make a statement. In fact, ahead of preaching it, Channing distributed the sermon in pamphlet form. The crowd gathered not so much to hear what he was going to say, but to see if he would say what he wrote. The sermon’s title was, “Unitarian Christianity.”

In this sermon, Channing does two things. First, Channing lays down principles for reading and interpreting the Bible. Second, Channing dissects the doctrine of the Trinity, proposing a Unitarian doctrine in its place. It is a powerful and ambitious sermon. The first part, I think is better. But the second part is certainly more daring.

I’m going to quote fairly extensively from Channing’s oration, because I want you to hear how powerful this is. Here is how Channing approaches the Bible:
“Our leading principle in interpreting Scripture is this, that the Bible is a book written for men, in the language of men, and that its meaning is to be sought in the same manner as that of other books.”
He then strongly defends this position,
“We profess not to know a book, which demands a more frequent exercise of reason than the Bible. In addition to the remarks now made on its infinite connexions, we may observe, that its style nowhere affects the precision of science, or the accuracy of definition. Its language is singularly glowing, bold, and figurative, demanding more frequent departures from the literal sense, than that of our own age and country, and consequently demanding more continual exercise of judgment.”
In other words, not only do we not read the Bible literally and uncritically, but we need to read the Bible more critically than other books. All this, though, is the set up for the brilliant argument on which his sermon hinges. Here is what I consider to be one of the most important paragraphs in all of Unitarian thought:
“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. If revelation be at war with this faculty, it subverts itself, for the great question of its truth is left by God to be decided at the bar of reason. It is worthy of remark, how nearly the bigot and the skeptic approach. Both would annihilate our confidence in our faculties, and both throw doubt and confusion over every truth. We honor revelation too highly to make it the antagonist of reason, or to believe that it calls us to renounce our highest powers.”
What Channing has done here is to catch those who believe that human nature is “totally depraved” and helpless in a trap. The second that you begin to argue that human beings are totally depraved and that we are sinful and powerless beings who are incapable of reason, you need to ask, “What does that say about your ability to form an argument?”

To accept any theological statement, you need to have faith that human beings are capable enough to form those theological statements. The logic here is just fantastic. By destabilizing the first principle of “five point” Calvinism, he puts the rest of it on wobbly ground. The other four points are set up like dominos.

Channing elected not to knock the whole system down, but it is easy for us to infer how the whole system would collapse. If human nature is not totally depraved, human beings are in some ways capable. If we are capable, it is possible for us to pursue the truth that might change the course of our mortal souls. If some human beings are capable, perhaps all are capable and atonement is not limited. And, if we are powerful in our use of reason, we can also use our reason for ill, thereby acting in ways that will take away our salvation. Finally, salvation becomes not a matter of a pre-selected group persevering. Instead, it is possible to work for the betterment and salvation of all humankind, “onward and upward forever.”

But in the Baltimore sermon, Channing doesn’t go for the knockout. He has bigger fish to fry. He is about to completely rewrite the doctrine of the Trinity. He makes the following five points.

First, Channing insists that God is a Unity and not a Trinity. Second, he insists that Jesus Christ is a Unity as well, that is, fully distinct from God. Third, he insists that God is morally perfect and frames this moral perfection by presenting God as a loving parent. Fourth, Channing argues about the significance of Jesus’ life. Channing writes,
“We believe, that he was sent by the Father to effect a moral, or spiritual deliverance of mankind; that is, to rescue men from sin and its consequences, and to bring them to a state of everlasting purity and happiness. We believe, too, that he accomplishes this sublime purpose by a variety of methods.”
Channing does leave the door open for different arguments about how Jesus “rescues men from sin.” Fifth, Channing argues that the importance of Jesus’ life is that it inspires morality. Jesus is more a teacher and a role model than he is a metaphysical savior.

I like to call the Baltimore Sermon “The reasoned argument against Calvinism.” A little later, Channing would attack from a different flank, offering an argument against Calvinism from the place of morality. In his 1820 essay “The Moral Argument against Calvinism” Channing argues that the Calvinist image of God is an insult to God and presents a God who is downright immoral. Channing talks about God as supremely good, merciful, and loving. He appeals to our idea of justice and says that the theological system of the Puritans is morally bankrupt.

So, in Channing we have both a refutation of Puritan theology that is based in reason and a refutation that is based on standards of morality. However, insofar as reason and morality are possible as human beings, Channing’s theology invites us into a deep consideration of human nature. That will be the topic of the next lecture.

Reflection Question
In the quotes by William Ellery Channing that I included in this lecture, did anything surprise you?
If you had not previously read Channing, how did these excerpts compare to what you might have imagined?

Monday, July 20, 2009

Lecture #2: "The Wordy Shipmates: Understanding Our Puritan Heritage"

[This lecture is number 2 of 10 that I delivered at the UU Midwest Leadership School in Beloit, Wisconsin from 7/20 to 7/24. Click here to find the other 9 lectures.]

In the last lecture I introduced you to several ways in which Unitarian Universalists think about the origins of our religion. Now, finally, I am going to share with you the interpretive lens through which I am going to present our history and our theology. I contend that Unitarian Universalism is a manifestation of Puritanism’s evolution within the American experience. Let me say that again. Unitarian Universalism is a manifestation of Puritanism’s evolution within the American experience.

How many of you are surprised by this? If you are surprised, it is likely because when I say the word “Puritan,” you associate it with all kinds of practices that seem about as far removed from Unitarian Universalism as possible. [When asked to name qualities that they associate with the Puritans an audience will almost always offer words like: serious, judgmental, patriarchal, witch-burning, close-minded, intolerant, and so on.]

Let me tell you in broad strokes the origins of the Puritans. In England in the 1500s and into the 1600s there was great religious unrest. In the 1530s, Henry VIII declared himself the head of the Christian Church after a dispute with The Pope over Henry’s love life. The official Church of England became Anglican. At this same time the Protestant Reformation was sweeping across Europe and could also be observed in England. During this time period, a whole host of religious movements arose in England. These groups included the Quakers whom we now know for being very mild but were quite wild in their early days. (Their behavior included streaking through services led by Anglican priests; screaming from the pews that this was false religion and if anyone wanted to participate in true religion, a meeting could be found out on the lawn of the church.) They also included a fascinating group known as the Diggers, one of several religious dissenting groups intent on seizing back land held by the British royal system. And, then there were the groups known as the Pilgrims and Puritans.

If you ever get a chance, it is fascinating to read some of the criticisms of the Church of England published by these groups. (Please notice that I did say published. The printing press had been invented by a goldsmith named Gutenberg in Germany in 1440. This technology allowed Protestantism to flourish.) You can find pamphlets and books published listing complaints against the Church of England. One of the favorite targets of these pamphlets was certain Anglican priests. Remember, the Church of England was controlled by the government, so becoming a priest was a government appointment. And many of these appointments were, well, back-scratching gestures. The priesthood was often a place to send the ne’er-do-well sons of the landed gentry. Pamphlets accused the priests of illiteracy, frequent drunkenness, and inappropriate and opportunistic sexual relations.

One way of categorizing the religious dissenters is to ask if they were separating or non-separating. The separating groups basically thought that the Church of England was too screwed up to be fixed. Their only hope rested in separating themselves. The non-separating groups believed that reform was possible.

So, when the separating Pilgrims landed in Plymouth in 1620, they had written off the Church of England entirely. When the non-separating Puritans arrived in Boston in 1630 they believed, naively, that they would form a perfect Christian society that they would be a shining example to the world, and that when their brothers back in England saw what the Puritans had accomplished they would change their ways and follow a new model. The Puritans believed that their trip to the new world was only temporary.

If you are interested in learning more about The Puritans, I could recommend a whole list of boring academic texts. Or, I could show you this one fabulous book, The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell, [here is a sermon I preached on her book] who many of you know as an author and commentator on NPR’s This American Life. Vowell’s book is accurate as a work of scholarship, but it is even more than that. As a cultural commentator she draws connections between the experiences of the Puritans and the American experience today.

We’ve talked about some of the ways that the Puritans seem very different than Unitarian Universalists today. Let’s talk about what we have in common. I am going to name 10 things:

The first thing that links us is direct ancestry. The First Church in Boston was formed in 1630. Today it is Unitarian Universalist. Let me sketch out the trajectory. A church that was formed in the 1630s would, in the mid to late 1700s, experience a tension between liberal and conservative strands of Puritan thought that were competing for attention. In 1806 a series of controversial hiring decisions at Harvard would stoke the coals and ignite these tensions into a fire. Over the next 25 years, or until around 1830, most of the churches in Massachusetts would go through a schism with the conservatives forming Trinitarian Congregational churches and the liberals forming Unitarian churches.

The second thing we have in common with the Puritans is a sense of being outward looking and outwardly facing. For the Puritans, this meant showing the world what a model Christian world looks like; for us, it means a faith life that speaks to the world around us. How many of you sing in your congregations, “This Little Light of Mine”? The words to this hymn are completely cribbed from images from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Jesus talks about how a city on a hill cannot be hidden and exhorts his followers not to hide their light under a bushel basket. In 1630, John Winthrop, who would become the Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, preached the sermon, “A New Model of Christian Charity” on the occasion of the Puritans landing ashore in the New World. Peter Gomes has called it the most important sermon in the last millennium. In it, Winthrop tells the Puritans that they shall be as a city upon a hill, and a light to the whole world. It is no coincidence that our own UUA headquarters is located on Beacon Street in Boston or that our press, which publishes amazing, groundbreaking works promoting social witness and human rights is called Beacon Press.

A third thing that we share with our Puritan forebears is the idea of covenant. Now, the Puritan churches had a creed. They had a notion of correct doctrine and incorrect doctrine. But, they also had a sense of covenant. The First Church in Salem which dates back to 1629 has the following covenant: “We Covenant with the Lord and one with an other; and doe bynd our selves in the presence of God, to walke together in all his waies, according as he is pleased to reveale himself unto us in his Blessed word of truth.” According to my information, the Salem Church, now Unitarian, still recites that very same covenant today, 380 years later. The covenant is simply paraphrased, “We promise to walk together in the ways of God, known and to be made known.”

Many of our congregations have a covenant that we speak. I would wager that many of you speak the following covenant in your own congregations, “Love is the doctrine of this church, the search for truth is its sacrament, and service is its prayer. To dwell together in peace, to seek knowledge in freedom, to serve humanity in fellowship, to the ends that all souls shall grow into harmony with the divine, thus do we covenant with one another.”

The fourth thing that we have in common is that the basis for our governance is the same as the system used by the Puritans. That is because they are both based on a common document known as the Cambridge Platform. What is remarkable is that your church’s by-laws paraphrase parts of a document written in 1648. Chief among the similarities is that both Puritans 350 years ago and UUs today insist that the membership of the church is the chief decision making body of the church and that the authority to call or dismiss a minister belongs solely to the congregation.

There was actually a movement that began around a decade ago that called on UUs to become more familiar with this document and to use it to help shape our idea of what a church should be. Of course there are many parts to the Cambridge Platform that it is unlikely you will find riveting. If you want for me to get into a lengthy discussion about the difference between the church militant and the church triumphant or the invisible church and the visible church, I’ll gladly hold forth over lunch. (And no, I’m not saying that these distinctions are unimportant. In fact, I think they can help us to become better in our understanding of ecclesiastical theology.)

But, there are other parts of the Cambridge Platform that we have forgotten that might be more easily translated into a contemporary context. For example, article 15 of the Cambridge Platform speaks to the “sundry ways” in which churches are in communion, one with another. Those ways are as follows: care, consultation, admonition, participation, recommendation, and support in time of need. Maybe I am too much of a purist, but I do believe Unitarian Universalism would be stronger when our churches are more in relationship with one another, and that relationship might include a public admonishment against a church that is hurting our movement.

A fifth similarity is observed in the ways in which both the Puritans and our churches stressed and continue to stress education. The Puritans were among the most educated societies ever to exist on the planet. Sarah Vowell calls them the “wordy shipmates” because of the volume of writing they produced. They published a psalter and reading primers; sermons were best-sellers; and, literacy was the norm. It was the descendants of the Puritans, the Unitarians who would found the public school system in this country. The Puritans founded the first University in the new world. Harvard was founded for the training of ministers because the Puritans feared that when they had a shortage of ministers, they would have to get ones from England and that would be a weakness that would make them too dependent on those ministers produced by a corrupt English system.

At General Assembly, Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed spoke at a workshop and presented data that said that UUs are more highly educated than members of any other religion in the United States. The average UU has 17.2 years of formal education; or, in other words, the average (average!!!) UU has a little more than a year in a masters program under her or his belt.

A sixth similarity is that there is a sense of restlessness that pervades both the Puritans and us. If you look at their theology, as we will do in more detail in the first lecture tomorrow, you will see that they lived their lives amidst great uncertainty about the condition of their own salvation. Our anxiety lies not in the fate of our immortal souls, but it has to do with many things, including an ongoing search for truth and meaning, our own understanding that our faith is evolving, a strong sense of social ethic that asks us not to accept things as they are but to imagine how they might be, and perhaps other factors as well. If you want evidence of this in our tradition right now, you need look no further than our hymn entitled “A Fierce Unrest.” The lyrics to this hymn read, “A fierce unrest seethes at the core of all existing things. It was the eager wish to soar that gave the gods their wings. There throbs through all the worlds that are this heartbeat hot and strong. And shaken systems star by star awake and glow in song.” The last line of the final verse of this hymn is as follows, “We sing the stinging discontent that leaps from star to star.”

Related to this sense of restlessness is a strong work ethic. I will say more about this in the first lecture tomorrow, but the Puritans believed that idle hands are the devil’s plaything and that hard work was next to godliness. Today, we Unitarian Universalists might be motivated by different reasons, but it seems like we are people who are very work-focused, both in our careers and in the work we do for the improvement of the world.

An eighth similarity is really the same as the fourth, but bears repeating. We lack denominational structures that have authority over the local church. Our UUA headquarters and our district structure exist to serve congregations and not the other way around. No bishop, cardinal, or Pope; no synod or ecclesiastical council will ever show up at your board meeting and dictate from on high how you will conduct business as a church.

A ninth similarity between our congregations today and the congregations of the Puritans 380 years ago is found in our architecture and the actual physical things that we keep in the church, especially in our sanctuaries. This may be changing a little bit. The Puritan meeting house was plain. It featured transparent glass instead of stained glass. It didn’t feature a lot of extra fancy decoration and certainly no depictions of saints and icons. The pulpit was central, not the chancel or the communion table. This may be changing somewhat, but our congregational architecture and our worship spaces tend (for the most part) towards the simple, the unadorned, and the modest. Our congregations today certainly have more decorations than an old-fashioned Puritan meetinghouse, but we still hold more in common with them than we do with a high-church Catholic or Orthodox congregation. If we do decorate, it is often with woodcarving, quilts, and simple flower arrangements.

Generally speaking, our churches do not seek to create a "black box" feeling that is favored by many non-denominational congregations that use videoscreens and extensive multimedia. (In many of these congregations, the weekly worship service feels like a worship service at General Assembly. You sit in a cavernous hall with no windows; the room is dark; you watch the videoscreens.) We don’t do stained glass. We generally like clear glass that allows us to look outside and this connection between worship space and world space has theological ramifications and is a theological statement. If you’ve ever traveled to New England and seen the Unitarian Church on the town green, you can see this theological idea exemplified. Those churches saw themselves, in the words of John Buehrens, as being a religious center with a civic circumference.

Finally, there is a tenth similarity between our Puritan ancestors and our movement today. This one is probably the most interesting and would make for a very interesting discussion group or fishbowl conversation. When the Puritans got on their ships and came across the Atlantic, they all shared something in common. It was an adult decision. And considering how risky it was, it was definitely a venture undertaken by those who were strongest in faith. Of course there were those with other motivations. But if we told you that there were a good chance of death from coming to leadership school, you may have decided not to come.

So, you have this group with a very, very strong religiosity and then they have children. And their children disappoint. On the whole, the children are not nearly as passionate as their parents. It is 1662. The children of those who came over by boat have come of age. And a lot of them don’t meet the requirements for joining the church. So the ministers get together and propose a half-way covenant. Those whose parents are members are allowed to take part in the sacrament of baptism, but not communion. They are considered half members. A generation later, the half-members’ children have come of age and, what do you do? A quarter-way covenant? By the mid-1700s, there are churches where only one or two members are eligible for communion and, in Northampton, now a liberal town but then the home of the fiery preacher Jonathan Edwards, Edwards suspended communion telling the church that none of them were pure enough to take communion. The church responded by firing him.

This is kind of crazy and funny, but I think we face a similar struggle in our churches today. Those who are come-inners, who are converts, have a very different experience than those youth who grow up in the church. To join the church as an adult, you might have to attend a membership class that lasts a couple of hours. Our youth often go through a demanding Coming of Age class. Our youth often carry less baggage about Christianity than the adults. (Of course, this depends on how often they are evangelized in school.) And our youth are generally more open, due to the stage of faith development where they are, and to the context of the church in which they are raised to be curious, syncretistic, and accepting; to not have a strong aversion to certain language; and to not find it strange to “witness” about their own faith.

Reflection Questions
Were you surprised to learn that we are descended from the Puritans?
Which of the ten similarities did you recognize in your own congregation?