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?