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Beyond Channing and Church

Carl Scovel

Boston, Massachusetts

 

An address delivered at the fourth gathering of the American Unitarian Conference at the Unitarian Church of Grosse Pointe Michigan,  3 May 2003.

 

I. The Present Theological State of Unitarian Universalism

If I understand UU-ism correctly, it is institutionalized Transcendentalism.

Transcendentalism, you may recall, is the belief that each single person's intuition of the divine (the ultimate, the holy, truth itself) precedes all cultural, societal and institutional forms of religion. That is, the person alone, before and beyond all communities and institutions, knows the basic truth which he or she needs to live by, and that all traditions, teachings, doctrines and counsels of religious communities are important only as guides, supports and challenges, but not as final authorities.

The Transcendentalist theologian is Ralph Waldo Emerson, and his great quote comes from the 1838 Divinity School Address: "Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Spirit, cast behind you all conformity and acquaint men (and women) at first hand with Divinity."

The UUA embodies this sentiment. The first of its seven principles is “the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” and the first named source of authority in the seven principles is “direct experience.” Time and again our  members tell us that they joined our churches because UUism affirmed their freedom to believe what they individually valued.

UU’s embody the American intuition that the person is the first order of reality, that community is a secondary order created by a social contract  made between individuals. This is what sociologist Robert Bellah calls “ontological individualism.”

Even the new interest in spirituality in this country and in the UUA is an individual quest in which one chooses from a wide array of physical and mental practices and philosophies. Beneath this new interest is an aversion to community and tradition, evident in the oft-repeated phrase, "I want spirituality not religion." We see this also in the frequent hostility to Christianity, Judaism and any tradition which appears as if it might define the worship of a congregation. It's OK to sample, but next Sunday let's have something different.

Now if the UUA is institutionalized Transcendentalism, what holds local societies together in an association and what keeps members within a society? If I am correct, I think we supply a lack of theological consensus with the force of institutional forms — a  name, a logo, district and continental meetings, a powerful ministers’ association, national licensing procedures, the seven principles, and subtle, but at times very strong, pressures toward conformity.

For supposedly-unique churches, there is a fairly predictable Sunday liturgy inherited from the Protestant preaching service. There are common worship practices, such as lighting the chalice, joys and concerns, flower communion, water communion, a common hymnal which serves as a de facto prayerbook, and "Spirit of Life," which has become a distinctive chant. UU sermons - to my ear - also have a surprising consistency in content, though considerable variety in expression. These forms hold UU’s together and define them.

UU’s have, I think, become that which Emerson left, Parker ignored and Channing dreaded - a denomination. They are institutionalized Transcendentalism.

This is clearly not a problem for the great majority of UU clergy and members. This is what supports them, what they enjoy, what they see as the fruition of their history. Others find something substantial missing. Many leave and some hang on. In either case, it behooves us to ask how UU-ism evolved into its current state.

 

II. The Historical Path to the Present

Unitarianism began as an unnamed and undefined reaction against the determinism, pessimism and judgmentalism of traditional New England theology. When Congregational ministers began to question these themes, their conservative colleagues refused to exchange pulpits with them or take part in their ordinations. Within local churches liberal and conservative members began to argue over the their pastor's beliefs. In 1819 the members of The First Parish of Dedham took their differences to a state court which awarded the building, grounds and monies to the more liberal parish organization, leaving the conservative members to found a new church.

In that same year (1819) William Ellery Channing defined and named the new  movement in a sermon, entitled "Unitarian Christianity," which he preached at Jared Sparks's ordination in Baltimore. In this sermon he rejected four premises:

1. God's existence as Trinity (as defined at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD)

2. God's right to absolute judgment over human salvation.

3. The doctrine of Christ's two natures, human and divine (as defined at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD)

4. The doctrine of salvation by Christ's vicarious atonement as defined by Anselm.

In contrast, Channing affirmed five propositions which he said characterized the new movement among the Congregational churches:

1. The simple unity of God

2. The absolute morality of God

3. The simple unity, namely the humanity, of Jesus

4. The moral and spiritual leadership of Jesus

5. Human salvation by moral and spiritual character.

And how do we know these to be true? Because, said Channing: 1. We find them confirmed in scripture if we read scripture with the eyes of reason, and 2. We find them confirmed in our own God-given sense of morality.

For example, Channing described God as "infinitely good, kind, benevolent,” for "we respect nothing but excellence whether in heaven or on earth. We venerate not the loftiness of God's throne, but the equity and justice with which it is established." (p. 70) In other words, we believe in God because God represents the highest good which we can conceive. Again, Jesus "was sent to effect a moral and spiritual deliverance." (P. 74) "We regard him as Saviour, chiefly as he is the light, physician and guide of the dark, diseased and wandering mind." (p.79)

Now when I read Channing's indictments of the old theology, I heartily assent. And when I read his affirmations, I assent but less heartily. Why? Not because of what he says but because of what he does not say. I hear nothing of God's mystery, God's dynamism, God's judgment, God's creativity and our own distance from that all-perfect source and being.

I hear nothing of a Christ who was judge, rebel and embodiment of holiness. No, in his place Channing speaks of "the mild precepts" of Jesus. Mild, my eye! Are we reading the same Bible? I hear nothing from Channing of our human capacity for evil, indifference, greed, self-centeredness and corruption, which has destroyed the lives and happiness of millions throughout history and in this century, and which now threatens our existence as a species. My experience and observation is that it takes more than mild precepts, education and good will to correct the evil which threatens us from within as from without. In the words of a Trappist preacher, "Sins are not water soluble."

But furthermore I do not hear Channing telling us that we need the church as the imperfect bearer of God's revelation. I do not hear him telling us of tradition as the medium for God's disclosure, nor of the collective faith once given to the saints and renewed in us if we receive it. No, in Channing religion is essentially a matter between the reasonable individual and a benevolent deity with Jesus as teacher and guide.

I am saying that the seeds of the dissolution of Unitarian Christianity were sown in its initial definition and defense. For, when the conflict arose between the first Transcendentalists and the Unitarian Christians, the latter—Channing, Andrews Norton and Henry Ware—tried to defend Christianity on the basis of reason—reason, that is, as they understood it. Christianity, they claimed, was both true and unique because Christ had empirically proved his authority through his power to work miracles. But the Transcendentalists, armed with American pragmatism and Enlightenment skepticism, tore that argument to shreds, and Unitarian Christianity was left with only its dubious claims to a superior morality.

In 1838, less than twenty years after Channing's Baltimore sermon, Ralph Waldo Emerson addressed the senior class in the chapel of Harvard Divinity School and challenged the authority of Christian faith with these words: "The  word Miracle, as pronounced by Christian churches, ... is Monster. It is not one with the blowing clover and the falling rain." Where then is truth, he asked?  In the soul, the individual soul which, as the prophet Jesus taught, is the law to itself. Emerson concluded, "We have contrasted the Church with the Soul. In the soul, then, let the redemption be sought."

Nowhere do we see this debate  more clearly focused than in the differences over Holy Communion. Emerson left his ministry at Second Church because the congregation would not agree to drop communion. Theodore Parker never even held communion at the Twenty-eighth Congregational Society. Of the rite he said, "The Lord's Supper ... is a heathenish rite and means very little, I think. Let all who will come into a parlor and have a social and religious meeting, and eat bread (wine if you like), or curds and cream— baked apples if you will, and have a conversation, free and cheerful, on moral questions ... only let all be  rational and real." (Atlantic Monthly October 1860, p.451)

You see, Parker and Emerson were challenging not just Christian ritual and teaching, but tradition itself in any form, and in time the later Transcendentalists, the Free Religious Association and the American humanists took up their cause. Indeed, by the 1930's generations of Unitarian Christians had already substituted intuition for revelation, reason for ritual and the individual soul for the church. When I entered seminary almost fifty years ago, the crosses had come down in most New England meetinghouses, Holy Communion was a sparsely-attended annual event in the few churches that still held it, the Lord's Prayer and the reading of the Bible had been dropped, and many assumed that in time most Christians and theists would simply disappear.

At the time of merger in 1961 we stepped out of our Unitarian and Universalist heritages to create institutionalized Transcendentalism. The Unitarians set aside the unity of God for the free and responsible search for truth. The Universalists set aside God's all-embracing love for inclusivism, an ideal which one can live with insofar as one does not see how one has failed to live it.

For the UUA’s first few years the UU logo was two intersecting circles, representing the two traditions. Then that unitive symbol was set aside for the flaming chalice, taken from the UU Service Committee, as one more act of Unitarian exclusion of the Universalist component.

We rebaptized Channing, Emerson, Parker, Hosea Ballou, Henry Whitney Bellows, James Freeman Clarke and all the fathers and mothers of our faith as "Unitarian Universalists" —in a vain attempt, I think, to show that we are their fulfillment. Anyone who knows history, and thus Emerson’s anti-institutionalism, Parker's solo career, Channing's refusal of the first AUA presidency and his disappointment at its founding, will also know that we are not what they had in mind. For, we have almost lost our institutional interest in history. Our whole understanding of how we evolved into what we are was defined by Earl Morse Wilbur, who wrote a detailed, minutely-documented and, I believe, flawed, account of Unitarianism as essentially anti-Trinitarianism. Wilbur told our story as the familiar pilgrimage from Trinitarian dogma  to enlightenment, concluding with (and in the words of Dave Barry, I am not making this up) a new trinity, namely: freedom, reason and tolerance. These were the Unitarian watchwords when I entered seminary in 1954. At least Wilbur had a passion for history. Now we have to require our seminarians to read Unitarian and Universalist history, and that means we have essentially lost our sense of its importance. That too is part of our legacy from Emerson.

 

III. The UU Christian Misdirection

When I began to attend meetings of the Unitarian Christian Fellowship in Boston (and they were only in Boston in those days), it was clear that the founding members felt they'd been betrayed and that humanists had "taken over" the denomination with the connivance or consent of the AUA president Frederick May Eliot, himself an ardent theist. But I found their own form of Christianity ambiguous.

The early members of the Christian Fellowship believed that they believed in the teachings of Jesus, not the teachings about Jesus, but while they were good people, good citizens, good church members, I wasn't sure that their lives reflected the teachings of Jesus any more than other Christians, or even non-Christians.

In seminary as I learned more about the transition into Transcendentalism, I was struck with three things:

1. First, the Unitarian Christians were really preaching an Emersonian version of Christianity, that is that they too believed that religion was first of all a transaction between God and the person. Jesus, the Bible and the church were all invaluable guides in this transaction but when push came to shove it was God and the soul, as the bard of Concord had proclaimed in 1838.

2. The transition from  Emersonian Christianity to institutionalized Transcendentalism was relatively easy. A few theists and Christians objected, and some even left for other churches, but even supposedly-conservative New England churches dropped Christian symbols, texts and practices without losing many members. Indeed, most congregations embraced with enthusiasm the Beacon church school curriculum, the new hymnal, Sunday readings from science and philosophy, and young ministers preached a  tradition-less religion. Most Unitarians found the change not only painless, but positive.

3. History has shown that the liberal Christianity of William Ellery Channing and Andrews Norton was no match for the Transcendentalism of Emerson, Parker and the Free Religious Association. Indeed, Unitarian Christianity had already given away the essentials and thus prepared the way.

Let me put my point this way:

If Jesus is a human teacher of divine truths, why should we not listen to others whom we deem to be teachers of divine truth?

If the scriptures are a book of divine wisdom, why should we not study other books of divine wisdom?

If Christianity is only one religion among others, whose only superiority lies in the reports of Christ's miracles, then why should we not learn from other religions?

Indeed, fifty years ago the proponents of the new Unitarianism, later to become Unitarian Universalism, were not so much denying Christian truth as to claim that they were "more than Christian." They believed their thinking included more truth than Christianity, indeed, that it included all the essentials in all religions. Donald Harrington at the UUA merger ceremony held in Symphony Hall proclaimed that we were a new faith, and the world was waiting to hear our gospel.

These reflections have led me to reconsider two doctrines which Unitarians, Universalists and Unitarian Universalists have long since set aside: 1. the Trinity and 2. the two-fold nature of Christ.

I realize that you may scarcely believe your ears, as I say this. These doctrines have lain for centuries beyond the pale of acceptable discourse within our ranks, but I too am searching for the truth in, I hope, “a free and responsible” way, so I hope you will hear me out. I'll take the Trinity first. I said that Earl Morse Wilbur defined Unitarianism as anti-Trinitarianism. (We are incidentally not the only Unitarians. Doukhabors, Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Scientists, United Pentecostals, Quakers and not a few Baptists worship God undivided as to person.)

An understanding of God, such as Channing's, as a pure moral spirit with the best qualities of a humane, dedicated citizen is in the long run a limited class-based view of God. Channing's biographer, David Edgell, says, "His function was to translate and make available to a dominant middle class culture a synthesis of ideas ... which helped to solidify and express American social and religious liberalism." (Page 229, William Ellery Channing, Beacon Press, 1955) (Again, "He reflected the intellectual cross-currents that swirled about him." (p.233)

This God, who had to earn the respect of Channing's generation in order to be credible, was kindly and benevolent to a generation on its way up the socio-economic ladder. Although I prefer such a God to the capricious deity of late Congregationalism, such a God does not meet me in the world where I live—a world of genocide, a world where one generation of victims become oppressors of the next, a world of power and privilege run amok, conflicting isms, danger at every turn, unforgivable wealth and abject poverty, death and affluence living side by side. I do not find in Channing's God the righteous word of the prophets or the voice of the Nazarene who claims God's kingdom was coming - ready or not. I find in this God no mystery, no judgment, and therefore - for me - no hope. And yet I do not blame Channing. He was a child of his time, as I am of mine, and if I am ever noticed, I will probably be judged more wanting in my time than he in his.

Although I cannot accept the Nicean definition of God as tri-personed, I believe that God defined primarily as spirit, eventually floats into the upper stratosphere, that if God is not somehow incarnate in this world and in our lives in all His, or Her, or Its, inherent power, many-facedness and mystery, then God becomes an abstraction and inevitably lesser gods take up His place. 

Let me put it this way. Trinitarian thinking is necessary to counter a monistic definition of God as unmoved and unmoving. Trinitarian thinking says that there are distinctions and dynamism within God, and without this kind of understanding we lose relationship to and interest in God. Small wonder that humanism became more attractive than Unitarian Christianity. I recall a formidable threat from a humanist colleague early in my ministry: “If you Christians don’t come up with something more interesting, we’ll just yawn you out of the denomination.”

Alright. Let's look at the second point: the two natures of Christ. This was defined at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD, namely that in the one person of Christ there were two natures: unconfused, indivisible, unchangeable and inseparable.

Now what does this mean for us? Why should we even be discussing matters like this, long since dismissed by our colleagues? Why is the teaching about the two natures of Christ important?

Let's try to understand what those bishops at Chalcedon were trying to do. I think they were trying to preserve an understanding of Jesus as God's presence to humanity and God's power for humanity, who were caught in a swamp of personal and collective sins and evil. Christ, in order to save us, had to be both part of us and more than us. To be savior, Christ had to be both of God and of humanity, both without compromising either, thus the delicate and essential balance between his humanity and divinity.

If we emphasizes Christ’s divinity to the exclusion of his humanity, we get a divine being who has nothing to do with us, as Channing so aptly said. But if we emphasize his humanity to the exclusion of his divinity, we get another great teacher or prophet.

This I think was the Unitarian error. Eventually Jesus became a great teacher and prophet; but in time we discovered other teachers and prophets, some of whom seemed more relevant, accessible, contemporary than Jesus. And then even Jesus the teacher and prophet became irrelevant.

To be a Christian is to trust that Christ is and has what we need in order to live God’s will and find our way through this world. There is no substitute for this act of faith, as Paul, Augustine, Luther, Theresa of Avila and Dorothy Day knew. Without this risk, one ends up following one’s own preferences, and that is a life without chart or direction.

We see how hard it is to trust in the popular search for what is called the historical Jesus. Robert Funk and the members of the Jesus seminar, Marcus Borg, John Crossan and others, are attempting to construct a model of a historical Jesus based on archaeological and historical findings, contemporaneous documents and critical analysis of the gospels. The aim of this enterprise is to discover a Jesus whom seeking Christians can intellectually believe in. Some of you have read and studied their writing.

I believe that this effort fails on two counts.

First, on the historical. From my reading of 19th century and current literature of this sort, including works by Funk, Borg and Crossan, and from my understanding of the gospels, I simply do not see how the historical data we have on Jesus can yield what a critical historian would call even a likely guess. The gospel writers were writing a proclamation, not history or biography, and I don't see how massaging the existing texts can produce even historical probability. Schweitzer in his doctoral thesis in theology, The Quest for the Historical Jesus, laid this effort to rest when he said, "The Jesus of history emerges from his own time and advances toward us, but then he passes us by and returns to his own time there to remain." We can never find enough evidence to give us even a semi-credible picture of the historical Jesus. When a jury after watching a video of the Los Angeles police arresting Rodney King split on whether or not the police were brutal in their treatment of him, I wonder what kind of data will give us certainty?

Secondly, history is not the issue. Certainty does not lie in historical data, even if we had the data. Empirical evidence does not increase our faith. In fact, the quest for historical certainty distracts us from the essential task of trusting Jesus. The earthly life of Jesus, the fact and facts of his existence, is the seed dropped into the earth of human experience, but it is not the full flowering plant, nor is it the church, the weathering of history, the fertilization given by saints, martyrs, scholars and servants — these all together create the plant of religion and the harvest of faith.

But to receive the harvest, to know the meaning of Jesus requires a giving of one's mind, one's heart, one's will in an act of surrender, always without sufficient evidence and data. This leap of faith, as Kierkegaard knew so well, is the essential act of becoming a Christian. There simply is no substitute.

 

IV. My Own Response

Given this situation, what are the Christian and the theist to do? I find that I cannot prescribe for another, since my own path has been so often and remains unclear. After 42 years in parish ministry, reflecting on my own experience and observing churches today as I see them, realizing the variety of viewpoints and experiences among my UU friends, parishioners and colleagues, I find the parish church both essential and inadequate. That is why I titled this "Beyond Channing and Church."

As a Christian, I live out of the church. If God is my source, the church is my conduit. I must worship with my fellows. I must read and reflect on the wisdom of my predecessors and contemporaries. I must be upheld by their faith. The Christ in my heart is often weaker than the Christ in the heart of my brother and sister; I need their Christ to strengthen mine. Indeed, I am a Christian because I believe that what we believe is greater and more true than what I believe.

But while I believe that the church is essential, it cannot do my work for me. In his last talk, Thomas Merton told his audience of monks and nuns that their orders, their monastic houses, and even their traditions were not sufficient. "From  now on," said Merton, "it's every man (and woman) for himself." I think I know what that means. Being a dedicated, loyal church member is not enough. Having the right opinions about Jesus is not enough. Being a UU  or Methodist or Catholic or Orthodox, is not enough because, although the church is the essential conduit and celebrant of faith, it is not the agent for completing God's work. That is our work.

In a godless culture and in a dangerous world, it's every one for themself, and the work of achieving our own salvation is also the act of working for the salvation of others. There is no distinction between self-interest and altruism at this point.

Therefore, as a Christian my task is to try to live as a disciple and live in fellowship with other would-be disciples. This is primarily not a matter of thinking right things about Jesus, or believing certain doctrines, or celebrating certain liturgies, and not celebrating others, or obeying certain authorities without question. It means knowing that if the rest of my life, however long it may be, is to have any significance for me or others, any validity, any integrity, I must live as one who is trying to be a disciple of Jesus, that is, as best I can, trying to live his teachings, love my fellows, learn from and help my fellow disciples, but above all trusting this one who in the words of Paul reflects to us God's glory — trusting his promises, trusting his pardon, trusting his power, trusting his peace, trusting his judgment, trusting his teachings and trusting the one who is uniquely both human and divine.

For me, Christ's command to love my fellows is also a command to stay in communication with and in relationship with the men, women and children of the Unitarian Universalist fellowship. It seems that God has called me to be here. As long as I am sustained and nourished by Christian thought, worship and experience that I need, I must attend to those who befriended me when I was a nonbeliever and who have been the context for my ministry for over four decades.

I would gain nothing by trotting off to another denomination where I could doubtless find a place, but it would not be my place with my people. And even though the UU world at times drives me nuts, I'm sure at times I dismay my fellows.

In other words, I choose to stand within both the community of Christian revelation and the community of Unitarian Universalist seekers and individualists.

What does this mean for my non-Christian confreres and consoeurs? For those  who are happy with mainline UU-ism, who believe in the enlightenment myth of our progress toward a more universal faith, in ontological individualism and in our being the fulfillment of our mothers and fathers in faith, I doubt that I have much to say. For those who feel that we have lost something, that our present stasis in membership and funding reflects some fundamental fault, that we lack depth and direction, I can only say that one must search indeed, but at some point one must make a non-rational commitment to some one, some faith, some revelation and ultimately some faith community, if one is to grow in depth. One must choose at some point to move beyond the limits of one's own choice and stand within a community which is an arena of both instruction and exploration.

For me to live, not in, but out of Christian community is to know the one of whom Schweitzer spoke in the last paragraph of his Quest for the Historical Jesus. He said (and I have added a few phrases to the last sentence): "He comes to us as one unknown as of old, by the lakeside he came to those who knew him not. He speaks to us the same words, 'Follow thou me,' and sets us to work at tasks which he must complete in our times. He commands, and those who obey, whether they be rich or poor, wise or simple, shall find his peace, and as an ineffable mystery they shall know in their own lives who he is." And I would add, "Who they are, where they are and where they are going." That at least is our partial experience and our hope as Christians.


© 2004 American Unitarian Conference