American Unitarian Conference

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President's Letter 3/2006


Dear American Unitarian:

We are, in James Luther Adams formulation, creatures fated to be free. We cannot, therefore, escape the issue of how we should lead our lives and to what end we live our lives. Our choices have moral content, can give meaning to our lives and fulfill, or fail to fulfill, our purpose in life. Thus our moral system must equip us not only to know right from wrong but to know how to choose among good ends. In my judgment, there are two traditions that most effectively help religious liberals address these issues by articulating and analyzing the virtues, by recognizing the need for balance in our lives and by recognizing that a virtue carried to extremes may actually become a vice. The first, perhaps surprisingly, is the scholastic tradition within Roman Catholicism which extends Aristotelian thought regarding the virtues by incorporating Christian thought, and the second is American Unitarian Christianity. 

In the Catholic tradition, to the four “cardinal virtues” of wisdom (or prudence), temperance, courage (or fortitude) and justice are added the Christian (or theological) virtues of faith, hope and love (or charity). The tradition contains depth and subtlety and much food for thought. Unitarian Christianity builds on this foundation in light of the Enlightenment and in the context on Unitarian religious insights. American Unitarian thought emphasizes Jesus’ two great commandments to love God and love our neighbor but unites this emphasis on love with a duty to self-culture and a distrust of extremes and egotism. As James Freeman Clarke put it, “God has placed us here to grow, just as he placed the trees and flowers. The trees and flowers grow unconsciously, and by no effort of their own. Man, too, grows unconsciously, and is educated by circumstances. But he can also control those circumstances, and direct the course of his life. He can educate himself; he can, by effort and thought, acquire knowledge, become accomplished, refine and purify his nature, develop his powers, strengthen his character. And because he can do this, he ought to do it.” Our religious ancestors spoke of educating and strengthening the will and understood that there was much risk in pursuing one virtue at the expense of all others.

These traditions are not deeply explored by religious liberals today. Yet they deserve to be, because they, more than any other, provide a framework, within Christianity but enriched by the philosophy of the Greeks and the Enlightenment, to grapple with the question of how best to lead our lives.

May God’s peace be with you always,

David Burton



© 2006 American Unitarian Conference