American Unitarian Conference

Promoting the American Unitarian Tradition

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President's Letter 3/2005


Dear American Unitarian:

“But in all extremes there are dangers. The modern equivalent for ‘the glory of God’ would be Truth, Goodness, Humanity, Universal Progress, or some such generalization. But the same danger of egotism emerges here also. Men whose lives are devoted to these large abstractions, patriots, philanthropists, and reformers of all sorts, are often forgetful of daily duties, neglectful of home ties. This, at least, is their risk, —if they fall, they fall in that direction.”  So wrote James Freeman Clarke in “Man’s Duty to Grow,” in Self-Culture: Physical, Intellectual, Moral and Spiritual in 1892.

These sentiments draw heavily on the Aristotelian idea of wisdom and virtue as being the path of moderation between two extremes. Perhaps the most Unitarian of prominent 20th Century philosophers of religion, Charles Hartshorne, even penned a book, Wisdom As Moderation: A Philosophy of the Middle Way.

Almost any virtue, taken to extremes, becomes a vice. Industriousness and a good work ethic are virtuous. Greed and avarice, on the one hand, or sloth, on the other, are not. Courage is laudable. Rashness or cowardice is not. Zeal in support of an honorable cause is good. Fanaticism or apathy is not.

As we seek to find our way in this life and to make our mark, we can profitably draw on two great ethical traditions. The first finds expression in Jesus’ two great commandments to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. This wisdom, of course, is not unique to Jesus but is found in the Torah. The second is a tradition flowing from Aristotle through the synthesis of Aristotelian thought and Christian teaching fashioned by St. Thomas Aquinas and then modernized by the early American Unitarians (notably Channing and Clarke).

This is not a “feel good,” “do your own thing” or “anything goes” religious tradition. It is a tradition that honors the virtues, recognizes vice, and provides a set of analytical tools for thinking about how best to lead our lives. It is a tradition that is demanding; it is a tradition of substance and worth.

In this time, where political and religious extremes or vacuous post-modernist nihilism challenges the core of all that we hold dear, it is important that we fight for a rational moral center that is motivated by love, honors the virtues, censures vice, seeks truth, and cherishes moderation, freedom, tolerance, and reason. We should all rededicate ourselves to this task.


David R. Burton


American Unitarian Conference

© 2005 American Unitarian Conference