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Beyond Channing and Church
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
I understand UU-ism correctly, it is institutionalized
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.
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."
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.
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
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.
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
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.
have, I think, become that which Emerson left, Parker ignored and
Channing dreaded - a denomination. They are institutionalized
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
Unitarianism began as an unnamed and undefined reaction
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
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:
God's existence as Trinity (as defined at the Council of Nicea in 325
God's right to absolute judgment over human salvation.
The doctrine of Christ's two natures, human and divine (as defined at
the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD)
The doctrine of salvation by Christ's vicarious atonement as defined by
In contrast, Channing affirmed five
propositions which he said characterized the new movement among the
The simple unity of God
The absolute morality of God
The simple unity, namely the humanity, of Jesus
The moral and spiritual leadership of Jesus
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.
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)
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.
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
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.
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."
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)
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
seminary as I learned more about the transition into Transcendentalism,
I was struck with three things:
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.
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.
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
already given away the essentials
and thus prepared the way.
me put my point this way:
Jesus is a human teacher of divine truths, why should we not listen to
others whom we deem to be teachers of divine truth?
the scriptures are a book of divine wisdom, why should we not study
other books of divine wisdom?
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?
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.
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.
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.)
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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
other words, I choose to stand within both the community of Christian
revelation and the community of Unitarian Universalist seekers and
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™