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The Reluctant Radicals

Rev. Robert Dorris

Channing knew that for him there was a reigning idea -- a high God intoxicated estimate of human nature. He knew also the perils of such an idea.

"The truth is, that a man, who looks through the present disguises and humbling circumstances of human nature, and speaks with earnestness of what is was made for and what it may become, is commonly set down by men of the world as a romancer, and, what is far worse, by the religious as a minister to human pride, perhaps as exalting man against God."

"Life is made up of necessary and free forces," he wrote to Elizabeth Peabody, "and it is a great question which of these prevails in our history . . . It is a superficial philosophy which dismisses this subject with saying 'man rows, but destiny steers.' The question is, whether our 'rowing' springs from destiny; whether this be fate-bound or free? If the latter, then the faithful rower wins the race of life, no matter how steered."

Channing wanted people to listen hard to what he had to say. He was certain enough of his own ground. But he disclaimed imitators. Nothing discouraged him more, he said, than those "looking out for some beaten path." Frankly aware of his charismatic power, Channing confided to Elizabeth Peabody how it pained him to be told that he preached an eloquent sermon. "If I had touched the depths of spiritual energy, my hearers would not express admiration for my words." What Channing wanted others to find was their own motivation.

No one could take another's voyage of the spirit. Eloquence, charisma -- these in themselves could be anodynes for petty egos, leading to the nursing rather than the giving of self. If people were to learn their moral powers, they had to be movers, not mimics. They had to discover for themselves that the self-giving life was a far cry from the self-insisting life.

The freedom Channing staked his life on is at the root of the modern spiritual crises.

Realization that there are not just two worlds, the sacred and the profane, but as many worlds as there are human modes of apprehending them, has fronted us with the necessity of grounding religion, if it is to be grounded anywhere, in the human condition -- exactly where Channing placed it.

And we in turn must discover, if the search is to be worth the effort, that Channing landed where we find ourselves today, not trying to solve outmoded theological riddles, but with the necessity of starting with the human situation, perceiving its multitude of possibilities, and questing simultaneously for more adequate standards of religious action, for greater personal maturity, for sharper social relevance. The test of Channing's germaneness is whether or not he saw in a multiplex reality that religious action is not less but more demanding than ever.

All the above comments come from the opening of the book "Channing -- The Reluctant Radical", a biography by Jack Mendelsohn, published in 1971, publisher: Little, Brown, and Company, Boston.

These few short paragraphs address many of the questions asked over the past month in our chat room. Many of the questions have been asked over and over again since the time man began recording his thoughts.

One thing stands out about Channing as well as about most all of the great ministers, Christian or otherwise; they all sought to improve the human condition in which they found themselves and bring people to a better understanding of God by looking within to bring out the best that they have to offer. They did not preach what was popular or follow church doctrine, but spoke the truth as they understood it.

They all tried to make their religion relevant to the time and circumstances in which they lived.

They challenged themselves.

They challenged the individual.

They challenged their congregations.

They challenged their church hierarchy.

They challenged their fellow citizens.

They challenged society at large.

They challenged the government.

For all their challenging they were branded as radicals and heretics in their time. They wanted their religion to be a living religion not a religion of ceremony, ritual, and blind followings. Above all, Channing and the other great ministers lived what they preached. They challenged others to live what they profess to believe. Professing to follow a given tradition without putting that belief into action in their daily life was not an acceptable mode of living to these great individuals. It should not be an acceptable mode of living to us either.

Our modern Unitarian movement can learn much from the past teaching and writing but the true test and true success will only come when we start to espouse our individual beliefs and put them into action on a daily basis.

Tell your Christian friends, you are a Unitarian who believes in God, and you follow the teachings of Jesus. They will pray for your soul. Then live your faith in your daily actions. They may see the light.

Tell your atheist friends, you are a Unitarian who believes in God. They will think you crazy or misguided. Then live your faith in your daily actions. They may then see the light.

Your actions speak louder than any words you may speak. Make yours a living faith, a faith relevant to your human condition.

Are we to be closet Unitarians or are we willing to be branded radicals and heretics for living what we say we believe?

This is an individual decision each of us must make. It is not an easy one. It may cost you family and friends. You may become an outcast from every Church, Temple, or Synagogue in your area.

The example you set may however over time be welcomed. People may start asking why you believe as you do and act as you do. Some may even wish to be like you, but not yet have the courage to publicly show that they too are "a radical" or "a Unitarian" at heart. One thing we should know for certain however is that the church will not change, people will not change, society will not change, and the government will not change until someone has the courage to lead by example and stand up for what he or she believes.

Each journey in life begins with a single step and a firm commitment to make the journey. The journey is yours and the commitment is yours. No one else can do it for you. Are you ready to make a firm commitment; the commitment to love God with body, soul, and mind and to love your fellowman as yourself? Are you ready to take a step, a single step; to demonstrate your commitment in the way you live your life? Thus begins your journey.


2003 American Unitarian Conference