UU Minute #67

The 1819 Baltimore Sermon: Making the Case for Reason

Continuing from, “The Baltimore Sermon” in our UUA Curriculum, “Faith Like a River”:
By 1812, the young William Ellery Channing became the de facto leader of the Boston liberals following the untimely death of leading liberal Joseph Buckminster. Channing preached about a benevolent, loving God who had endowed humanity with innate goodness, rationality, and the wisdom to discern between good and evil. In a sermon delivered at the ordination of Jared Sparks in 1819 at the new liberal church in Baltimore, Maryland, Channing decided to snatch the label of Unitarian from those who would degrade it and to claim it proudly as his own.

His address, "Unitarian Christianity," stands as a hallmark of Unitarian history. As David Parke writes:
“The "Baltimore sermon" gave the Unitarians a platform and a spokesman. It placed them for the first time on the offensive in relation to the orthodox. It was very probably the most important Unitarian sermon ever preached anywhere.”
In the hour-and-a-half-long address, Channing took on two tasks. First, he established reason as valid and necessary for the interpretation of scripture — not as the only basis for religious belief, but as an aid to revelation, for reading and understanding the meaning of the Bible. Channing said:
“Our leading principle in interpreting Scripture is this, that the Bible is a book written for men, in the language of men, and that its meaning is to be sought in the same manner as that of other books... With these views of the Bible, we feel it our bounden duty to exercise our reason upon it perpetually; to compare, to infer, to look beyond the letter to the spirit...”
For Channing’s second task, be sure to . . . catch our next thrilling episode.

NEXT: The Baltimore Sermon: Channing's Conclusions of Reason


Dickens' Carol, part 2

Early on in A Christmas Carol, when Scrooge has the encounter with Marley's ghost, Scrooge asks the ghost: "Why do spirits walk the earth, and why do they come to me?"

Marley replies, "It is required of every man that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellowmen, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death."

The moral is clear: we must "walk abroad" among each other. We must "go forth" with our lives and not hole up by our lonesomes. We are given but this one brief lifespan, and we must spend it sharing of ourselves – entering into relationships – being a part of other people’s lives and having them be a part of ours. We must go forth – life calls us to go forth – though we may also "go forth" by staying home and extending hospitality to travelers who come to us. Hospitality, too, is a going forth – a whole-hearted sharing of ourselves with others – and this, too, is the spirit of Christmas.

In the mythology of Dickens's novella, if you don’t connect in life, you’ll have to roam about seeking connection after death. With this one brief lifespan we are given, we must become who we are -- which is a collaborative project of taking our shape through the interactions with others -- the giving to and receiving from other people. With this one brief lifespan we are given, we must fashion a life, and that is a joint liability. We create ourselves through our linkages with other people – linkages which set us free. Or we are linked only to narrow material interests, and we are constrained.

As Marley says, “I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.” Linked to narrow material interests, we are bound. As the saying goes, a person all wrapped up in themselves makes a mighty small package.

A page later, Marley observes, with rueful passion: “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!” Linked to one another, we are liberated and expanded. The chain we make can tie us down, or can be used to let others pull us up out of the pit of self-absorption. Marley’s point might be put this way: What you don’t share, you wear.

Most of us are a mix – neither entirely like Scrooge at the beginning of the book, nor entirely like Scrooge at the end of the book. Scrooge’s redemption is of interest to us because we are all partly like him – we have an inner Scrooge. There have been times we turned away instead of turning toward – and we, too, recognize we are in need of redemption.

* * *

One of the newer adaptations of A Christmas Carol is one with Guy Pearce as Scrooge. It was first aired just a couple years ago, December 2019. With a run-time of 3 hours, it is twice as long as most film adaptations – so it’s an expansion of the story and has a number of plot elements that aren’t in Dickens. The focus is on this redemption issue, and it’s handled rather differently than Dickens handles it.

Toward the end, Pearce's Scrooge tells the mute ghost of Christmas future: “Well, actually, Spirit, I don’t care. I don’t care what will become of me. I only care about one thing.”

The viewer is wondering, what is this one thing? Can it still be money? The Pearce Scrooge is then transported to a graveyard where he looks down on a gravestone that says “Ebenezer Scrooge.” As he gazes, a young man approaches and pees on the grave. Scrooge says, “Bravo. Bravo. I know my fate.” Turning to the ghost of Christmas future, he says, “And you know my question. What happens to Tim Cratchit?”

Then Scrooge looks around and not far away sees another gravestone bearing the name “Timothy Cratchit.” Tiny Tim. Scrooge slumps to the ground and sits, leaning back against his own gravestone. He says: “Spirit, I need to know why. What was the reason for all of this? Why did you spirits come to me? Why did you show me all of this? What purpose?”

At that point, in this version Marley’s ghost re-appears, and says: “I’m not sure what the reason is, Ebenezer. But I know the purpose. It’s all to do with redemption, and our joint liability. All three spirits have done their work. I asked them to let me have a final try. We were so, so wrong. Admit that, at least.”

And the Pearce Scrooge says, “No. No, I refuse. I refuse to change. All their efforts were for nothing because I refuse redemption.”

Marley says: “What in God’s name, Ebenezer, why?” The Pearce Scrooge replies: “This fate, this piss-covered second-class grave – is exactly what I deserve. And if redemption were to result in some kind of forgiveness, I do not want it. Because I would find a way to justify everything I have done according to the consequence. ‘Cause that’s who I am. The only thing – the only thing I want the spirits to do – the only change I want them to make – is to spare the life of him.” Scrooge is now pointing at Tiny Tim’s grave.

And we get it. Even redemption can be just one more self-centered concern. This version depicts in more detail than Dickens does how Scrooge justifies himself and everything he does solely by the calculated consequences. This Scrooge now sees what a mistake that is, and he so wants to be rid of it that he refuses even redemption because he knows he would turn redemption into one more calculated consequence.

But we, the viewers, also get the tension. Even as he renounces redemption, at that very moment he is redeemed. There is a point there that is worth remembering: that even compassion can turn into a strategy – one more self-centered concern. Yes, that is true.

But obsessing about how compassion can turn into a strategy is ALSO a strategy. This new Scrooge’s preoccupation with embracing the horrible fate he is convinced he deserves also becomes one more self-absorbed concern. Just drop all that. Let the fates worry about what fate you deserve. You’ve got one job: love.

Dickens’s original showed us something that this new version hides: that everyone deserves joy and love, no matter how rotten they have been. With the Universalist aspect of his Unitarian faith, Dickens understood that even Scrooge deserves salvation. Dickens’ Scrooge is redeemed -- and implicitly grasps that it’s OK to be redeemed. It’s OK to accept a life of joyous loving because redemption isn’t about putting others ahead while accepting for yourself punishment you think you deserve. It’s about recognizing that others ARE yourself, and that we are all redeemed together. Or none of us are.

Scrooge needs to see that Scrooge, too, counts. As Tiny Tim said: “God bless us, EVERY one.”

It’s OK to be happy – indeed, the world needs you to be. So I conclude with this, from Dickens’ Carol:
“‘I don’t know what to do!’ cried Scrooge, laughing and crying in the same breath; and making a perfect Laocoon of himself with his stockings. ‘I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world. Hallo here! Whoop! Hallo!’”
To that, I say: Amen.


Dickens' Carol, part 1

Charles Dickens was born in 1812. His 210th birthday is coming up in February (get your presents early). He was a Unitarian. In saying that, let me acknowledge that he was baptized and reared in the Church of England and was a nominal Anglican for most of his life. From young adulthood, however, he was averse to evangelical zeal, doctrinal disputation and sectarianism. Nor did he like High Church Anglicanism.

He would probably have first come into contact with Unitarianism while working as a reporter, which job he had from age 17 into his 20s. His reporting work brought him into association with contributers to radical journals such as the Unitarian minister William Johnson Fox, and John Forster, a Unitarian who became a lifelong friend and, eventually, Dickens's literary executor and biographer.

In 1842, the year he turned 30, Dickens made a trip to America. He hoped to find in the United States progressive religious bodies, free from state control. He was disappointed with most American churches, yet he returned home full of enthusiasm for New England Unitarians in general, and William Ellery Channing in particular.

Once back home in London, Dickens began attending services at Essex Street chapel – the church founded by Theophilus Lindsey and Britain’s first Unitarian church. Later, Dickens took a pew at the Unitarian Little Portland Street chapel. Dickens and the chapel’s minister, Rev. Edward Tagart, were friends for 16 years until the minister's death.

Dickens wrote that Tagart had "that religion which has sympathy for men of every creed and ventures to pass judgment on none." In other words, 19th-century Unitarian ministers sounded a lot like Unitarians still sound. Dickens wrote in a letter that:
"I have carried into effect an old idea of mine and joined the Unitarians, who would do something for human improvement if they could; and practice charity and toleration."
So: it’s fair to say he was a Unitarian. And he associated with Unitarians until the end of his life.

What we know of his religious beliefs matched those of most 19th century British Unitarians. He urged a liberal, tolerant, and non-sectarian interpretation of Christianity.
In The Life of Our Lord, written for his children and not published until 1934, Dickens summarized his faith as "to do good always." He believed humanity, created in the image of the divine, retained a seed of good. He preached the gospel of the second chance. The world would be a better place if, with a change of heart, people were to treat others with kindness and generosity. ("Charles Dickens," Dictionary Unitarian and Universalist Biography)
His life’s work was dedicated to social reform – his novels made people aware of poverty, exploitation, cruelty – and helped open readers eyes to the humanity of the poor – and the inhumanity to which they were subjected. Unitarians certainly have no monopoly on working for social justice, but Dickens’ conviction that faith must be lived, and that faith must call us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless – and to change the systems that create poverty, hunger, and homelessness – those were typically Unitarian convictions in his time and in ours.

Dickens was born into a middle-class family, that took a downward turn. Dickens’ father was thrown in debtors' prison. Young Charles, age 12, had to go to work in a dirty and rat-infested shoe-blacking factory. He was sensitized to the lot of poor children for the rest of his life.

As the year 1843 began Dickens, at age 30, had already published The Pickwick Papers, Nicholas Nickleby, Oliver Twist, The Old Curiosity Shop, and Barnaby Rudge. Martin Chuzzlewit was in the midst of being published in monthly installments over two years. Early in that year, 1843, Dickens toured the Cornish tin mines, where he saw child laborers working in appalling conditions. In February 1843, Parliament issued a Report of the Children's Employment Commission exposing the effects of the Industrial Revolution on working class children. Dickens read it, and the horror of what he read built upon the horror of what he’d seen, which built upon the horror of what he himself had endured as a child.

He planned to write a political pamphlet appealing to the people of England on behalf of poor children – but then he came to see that
“the most effective way to reach the broadest segment of the population with his social concerns about poverty and injustice was to write a deeply felt Christmas narrative rather than polemical pamphlets and essays.”
In October 1843, then, he started work on A Christmas Carol. Working at it feverishly, he finished it in six weeks. The final pages came in early December, and it was published on December 19. Dickens biographer, Michael Slater writes that A Christmas Carol:
“intended to open its readers' hearts towards those struggling to survive on the lower rungs of the economic ladder and to encourage practical benevolence, but also to warn of the terrible danger to society created by the toleration of widespread ignorance and actual want among the poor.”
The first edition sold out by Christmas Eve. Within a year, thirteen editions were released. “In 1849 he began public readings of the story, which proved so successful he undertook 127 further performances.”

In the process, Dickens's novella re-invented Christmas. It did not do so all by itself. Christmas had been morphing one direction then another for centuries. In the 16th and 17th century in England, Christmas celebrations were getting pretty wild. It was like Carnival – with role inversion, heavy drinking, and sexual liberties. The Puritans were horrified by this. They associated Christmas celebrations with paganism and idolatry, and they didn’t want any of that going on. In America, where Puritans were in control, Christmas festivities were taboo or outright illegal. Even in England, under Cromwell (during the 11-year Interregnum, 1649-1660), laws suppressed Christmas celebration. Those laws were repealed after the restoration of the monarchy.

As Dickens was penning “A Christmas Carol,” the pendulum was already swinging back toward Christmas merriment. Victorian England was in a period of re-evaluating its Christmas traditions. Christmas cards were just beginning to be a thing. The Christmas tree, a tradition from Germany, was popularized by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Carol-singing, which declined in popularity through the 18th-century, was, by the early 19th-century, seeing a revival.

By 1843, the sense that Christmas was a time of “family gatherings, seasonal food and drink, dancing, games and a festive generosity of spirit” was beginning to catch on. Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, gave that picture a significant boost. “The modern observance of Christmas in English-speaking countries is largely the result of a mid-Victorian revival of the holiday” ("A Christmas Carol," Wikipedia) – a revival substantially shaped by A Christmas Carol. Dickens’ novella was regarded as "a new gospel." Reviewers "noted that the book was unique in that it made people behave better" -- like, we might say, an angel, heard on high.


UU Minute #66

Six Theological Disputes

I read today from our UUA curriculum, “Faith Like a River”:
William Ellery Channing was weary of having the epithet "Unitarian" flung at him in disdain. Ever since Henry Ware had been elected to the Hollis Professorship of Divinity at Harvard College, the temperature of public debate between orthodox and liberal factions of New England's Standing Order Churches had risen. Many theological points were at issue.

[1]. The turn to liberalism in New England churches had begun with the unitarian notion of the singular, or unitary, nature of God, antithetical to the trinitarian understanding of God as three: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

[2]. But soon the debate widened. Was God a benevolent and loving presence that wanted the best for all humanity, or, as in Calvinist orthodoxy, a wrathful and exacting God?

[3]. The liberals called into question the orthodox idea of the elect, the notion that some are saved and others damned.

[4]. Soon the controversy encompassed not only the nature of God, but also the nature of Jesus. Was Jesus fully divine, or fully human, or partly each?

[5]. Religious people debated the question of human nature — were humans good, and capable of distinguishing right and wrong, as the liberals believed; or, as in the orthodox view, were humans depraved, and captive to sin?

[6]. And reason—where did that fit in? The orthodox insisted that the Bible alone was the valid basis for religious knowledge, while liberals maintained that the use of God-given reason and conscience was needed along with revelation.

With Ware's election in 1805 to head Harvard College, the liberals had taken control of the primary training ground of New England's ministers. This caused great dismay among the more orthodox.

NEXT: The 1819 Baltimore Sermon: Making the Case for Reason


Blessing, part 2

In the Jewish tradition, the Talmud teaches saying 100 blessings a day over any little thing: a piece of fruit, a cup of tea, a sandwich. "Blessed are you, Yahweh, our God, Source of Life, who creates the fruit of the tree.” Or: “by whose word all comes into being,” Or: “who brings forth bread from the earth.”

The item is blessed by saying that its source is blessed. Blessedness belongs to the source. Just acknowledge where it came from – whether you say God, or Earth, or All That Is.

In this month's issue of "On the Journey," there’s a piece by Martin Seligman in which he recommends a simple practice: Each night, set aside 10 minutes – some time between dinner and bed. Write down three good things that happened that day.

Then, next to each positive event answer the question, Why did this happen? In other words, just as the Jewish tradition teaches: acknowledge the source.

The Talmud goes on to teach that
“whoever has enjoyment of something from this world without saying a blessing, it is as if she or he had improper enjoyment of the thing – as if she or he has robbed the Holy One and the community."
Robbed, it says. Receiving without blessing – without acknowledging source – is a kind of theft – robbing from the source without giving the payment of acknowledgement and thanks.

There is so much that is granted, and we take it. If we take it, and it is granted, how do we not “take it for granted”?

It’s a simple matter to pause and acknowledge the source – of the food you’re going to eat, of the house that shelters you, of the friendships that soothe and enrich, of the great green earth, clear air, and quenching water.

Thank you, earth and ecosystems of beings, farmers, transporters and marketers, for this food.

Thank you, earth and builders for this housing that shelters me.

Thank you, social institutions that bring friendship into being – and all the forces that brought those social institutions into being.

Acknowledging the source means recognizing that the thing comes from, is produced by, all of reality. It means seeing the thing in the light of its place – its belonging – in the web of interconnection. In the Talmud, the broader whole is recognized in saying Yahweh is blessed. You might choose different language when you bless.

Rabbi Toba Spitzer writes:
“…saying a blessing is an opportunity for a particular kind of awareness. If I were really to think about all that it has taken to bring a plate of vegetables to my table – all the natural elements of sun and earth and rain, and all the human elements of planting and harvesting and transporting and selling, as well as the Godly power that underlies the whole process – I would feel a profound connection every time I sat down to eat. I would have a better realization of the myriad ways that my life is intertwined with people all over this planet.”
It’s a point made in other faith traditions as well. Thich Nhat Hanh, from the Buddhist tradition, for example emphasizes mindfulness of interconnection. The mealtime blessing in Thich Nhat Hanh centers and retreats begins by noting:
“This food is the gift of the entire universe: the earth, the sky, and much hard work.”
Taking a moment to say so calls attention – awareness – to the vast complex to which we are linked through receiving its gifts.

Whatever the faith tradition, the universal need that blessing addresses is acknowledgment, gratitude, interconnection, relationship. Blessing affirms and reinforces our sense of place within an interconnected network – a web of mutual care, a web that looks, if only we can attentively see it, like beloved community itself. Through blessing we help ourselves and one another see that web, realize the beloved community. We bless because we can, and because we need to belong – to know our place – to feel ourselves held in relationships of support that ultimately include all of reality.

We need to live our lives not like a bull in a china shop – charging about, heedless, reckless. We have known people like that. We have sometimes ourselves been like that bull in a china shop.

(To be fair to bulls, they are generally quite heedful creatures. In the confines of a china shop, however, the human concern for protection of the porcelain would scarcely be shared by a typical bull.)

Earlier I asked: How do you become a person whose every action blesses? like a carpenter who blesses the wood just by the way she joins and nails it? Or like a marathon runner whose every step blesses the road?

How does life feel like gracefully moving with things rather than contending against them? How does a life become a dance and not a fight? I don’t know. There’s something mysterious about how that happens, if it happens. But I’d suggest: start with choosing:
- choosing to bless the world;
- choosing to say a blessing (which is to say: to recognize something as a benefit, and be consciously thankful of its source);
- choosing to be a blessing to others.

Gradually, perhaps, the blessing – both the noun and the verb – infuses your way of being. It becomes unconscious habit for you to, as the Dao De Jing says, nourish by not forcing, lead by not dominating, do without outdoing -- not to rule but to guide, not to possess but to bless.


Blessing, part 1

The Daoist text, Dao De Jing, dates back to about the 6th-century BCE. It consists of 81 short chapters, about 100 words each. There have been many translations into English, and I own about 17 of them. There is some scholarly dispute about the proper order of the chapters, but in the versions most common and longest known to English readers, here are the last lines of the last chapter -- the Dao De Jing's last word. First, from the version by Stephen Mitchell, which is by far the best known and best loved.
“The Tao nourishes by not forcing.
By not dominating, the Master leads.”
Those lines are translated by Wang Keping as:
“The Dao of Heaven benefits all things and causes no harm.
The Dao of the sage acts for others but never competes with them.”
Hua-Ching Ni renders it as:
“The subtle Way of the universe is beneficial, not harmful.
The integral nature of a person is to extend one’s virtue unconditionally and to contend with no one.”
William Scott Wilson gives:
“The Way of heaven clears the ground for cultivation and does not hinder.
The Way of the sage is to act but not contend.”
Ursula LeGuin’s version is:
“The Way of heaven profits without destroying.
Doing without outdoing is the Way of the wise.”
Philosopher Archie Bahm gives:
“Nature’s way is to produce good without evil.
The intelligent man’s way is to accept and follow Nature rather than to oppose Nature.”
But my favorite is an obscure, self-published version I happened to come across, produced in the 1980s by the late Unitarian Universalist minister Rev. Jacob Trapp, who died in 1992.
“The Way of the wise is not to rule but to guide.
The Tao of heaven is not to possess but to bless.”
That word “bless” – which I’ve found in no other translation – touched me. Suddenly, the directive felt vivid and clear. Not to rule but to guide. Not to possess, but to bless. It evokes an image of moving through the world, going about all one’s daily tasks, in a way that blesses whatever is contacted, whatever is acted upon. Jacob Trapp's rendering of these lines moves me in a way that “act without contending” or any of the other translations doesn’t.

How do you become a person whose actions bless? like a carpenter who blesses the wood just by the way she joins and nails it? like a gardener whose tilling, planting, weeding, and watering blesses soil and seed -- blesses the water sprinkled and the weed pulled? like a doctor who blesses every patient, and every nurse and medical technician and receptionist, who blesses every tongue depressor just by the firm yet gentle expertise with which he handles it? like a marathon runner whose every step blesses the road?

There’s a kind of blessing that isn’t consciously chosen. It just implicitly flows from one’s actions, an uncalculated beneficence, an un-self-conscious habit of compassion, a gracefulness of motion.

Then there’s a kind of blessing that is consciously chosen. Another Unitarian Universalist minister, Rev. Rebecca Parker, wrote “Choose to Bless the World”:
"Our gifts—whatever you discover them to be—
can be used to bless or curse the world.
The mind’s power,
The strength of the hands,
The reaches of the heart,
The gift of speaking, listening, imagining, seeing, waiting
Any of these can serve to feed the hungry,
Bind up wounds,
Welcome the stranger,
Praise what is sacred,
Do the work of justice
Or offer love.
Any of these can draw down the prison door,
Hoard bread,
Abandon the poor,
Obscure what is holy,
Comply with injustice
Or withhold love.
You must answer this question:
What will you do with your gifts?
Choose to bless the world.
The choice to bless the world is more than act of will,
A moving forward into the world
With the intention to do good.
It is an act of recognition,
A confession of surprise,
A grateful acknowledgment
That in the midst of a broken world
Unspeakable beauty, grace and mystery abide.
There is an embrace of kindness,
That encompasses all life,
Even yours.
And while there is injustice, anesthetization, or evil
There moves a holy disturbance,
A benevolent rage,
A revolutionary love
Protesting, urging insisting
That which is sacred will not be defiled.
Those who bless the world live their life
As a gesture of thanks
For this beauty
And this rage.
The choice to bless the world can take you into solitude
To search for the sources of power and grace;
Native wisdom, healing, and liberation.
More, the choice will draw you into community,
The endeavor shared,
The heritage passed on,
The companionship of struggle,
The importance of keeping faith,
The life of ritual and praise,
The comfort of human friendship,
The company of earth
The chorus of life welcoming you.
None of us alone can save the world.
Together—that is another possibility waiting.”
So choose, Rev. Parker urges, to bless the world. Over time, it may become a habit – an unselfconscious way of being. It begins with a conscious turning toward. Choose to bless the world.

There’s blessing, the noun, a thing that brings goodness, joy, or help to our lives. Food is a blessing. Waking up in the morning is a blessing. Air filling the lungs is a blessing. Friends are a blessing and, if you’re lucky, so is family. In this sense, the theme, blessing, is essentially the same as the theme gratitude. Reflecting on, noticing, attuning to and taking in the blessings in our lives is all about noticing things for which to be grateful -- and being grateful for them.

But blessing also has this other side. Besides the blessings you receive, there is the blessing that you do – that you give. Besides blessings, the nouns, there is blessing, the present participle of the verb, to bless – and it is that present participle verb that I’ve been talking about.

The noun and the verb make a feedback loop: When you pay attention to the blessings you receive, you are naturally primed to look for ways to be a blessing to others, ways to bless the world – which in turn helps keep you attentive to the blessings you receive. It is the feedback loop of – to use other words -- gratitude and generosity. Being grateful strengthens our generous impulses, and being generous strengthens our gratitude. With blessing, the same word names both sides of the loop.

You receive, and have received, gifts -- which you can use to enrich the lives of others, or not. You can choose to notice the blessings. You can choose to be a blessing. By yourself, you can bless the world a little bit. Together with others, more.


UU Minute #65

Pulpit Exchanges and a Foray to Baltimore

New England Ministers of the 18th and 19th centuries typically exchanged pulpits with one or another neighboring minister one or two Sundays a month. As sermons then were scholarly labors: painstakingly constructed essays about an hour and half long, creating a new one every week was not sustainable. The pulpit exchange allowed for prior work to be re-used for a new audience.

The liberals didn’t mind having conservative guest preachers in their pulpits because, for liberals, doctrine wasn’t terribly important. For conservative ministers, however, doctrinal orthodoxy was essential, so conservatives increasingly refused to do any pulpit exchanges with liberal ministers.

The liberals tended to have a “big tent” attitude, feeling that the churches of the standing order could tolerate diverse opinion. The conservatives found liberals intolerably heretical – their faith and very sanity questionable.

Goaded by these attacks and at the urging of like-minded colleagues, [William Ellery] Channing reluctantly agreed to set forth the tenets of this liberal faith – which he did in a famous sermon in 1819.
“the persons involved were determined, by a conscious, deliberate act, to make it a manifesto to which the religious community would have to give heed. It was not the isolated utterance of an individual but a party proclamation.” (Conrad Wright)
This sermon, it was decided, would be given not in Boston, but in Baltimore. A half a dozen of Boston’s most prominent ministers traveled with Channing 650 kilometers from home. The foray
“signaled the acceptance by the liberals of their own distinctive theological and ecclesiastical position at home; it also declared their intention to carry the gospel of liberal Christianity to other parts of the land as well.” (Conrad Wright)

NEXT: Six Theological Disputes


Not Such a Bad Species, part 2

In World War II, German planes dropped 80,000 bombs on London alone. Forty thousand people in the UK killed -- a million buildings damaged or destroyed. Germany’s war planners were sure this would break the British will to resist – that there would be general social collapse. The British famously kept calm and carried on.

As the tide of war turned, the Allies, refusing to learn from the British experience planned a similar civilian bombing campaign against Germany. Terrible idea. Crisis brings out not the worst in people but the best. Analyses after the war indicated that Allied bombing
“strengthened the German wartime economy, thereby prolonging the war. Between 1940 and 1944, they found that German tank production had multiplied by a factor of nine, and of fighter jets by a factor of fourteen." (Bregman, p. xvii)
The bombs boosted solidarity and thereby efficiency.

Humans are made to pull together and help each other out. The movie, Titanic, shows people blinded by panic – except for the string quartet. “In fact, the evacuation was quite orderly” (Bregman).
“Or take the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. As the Twin Towers burned, thousands of people descended the stairs calmly, even though they knew their lives were in danger. They stepped aside for firefighters and the injured.” (Bregman)
Most people, most of the time, are basically decent. Maybe the worst thing about us is what a hard time we have believing that.

One factor is this: The way we got to be such a cooperative species was by carefully monitoring noncooperation when it pops up. Cooperative, pro-social behavior doesn’t grab our attention much. Our brains are wired to focus on anti-social behavior – so that we can bring social forces to bear to bring the offender back in line.

It’s like our attraction to sugar, which was functional when sugar was scarce and we needed a preference for the riper fruit. Now that we can mass produce sugar, our sweet toothes are killing us. Focus on anti-social behavior was a brilliant adaptation when it was a rare thing to see it. But now that we have mass media inundating us with stories of people doing bad things – which the media does because people doing normal, ordinary, everyday good things isn’t very interesting. It doesn't sell newspapers or attract eyeballs or grab the attention of brains wired to attend to misbehavior.

Functional, normally cooperative people are boring to watch – which is rule number one of any producer of a reality TV show. Hence my prayer and blessing for you all is: may your life be one that would make for the worst reality TV show ever.

We got to be highly cooperative, hyper-social animals by paying attention to rare uncooperative actions. But then we developed media that overloads us with stories that we’re wired to pay attention to. Thus, we end up with the misimpression that people are usually only out for their own narrow self-interests – that people are no darn good.

As Rutger Bregman says:
“Even after the researchers presented their subjects with hard data about strangers returning lost wallets, or the fact that the vast majority of the population doesn’t cheat or steal, most subjects did not view humanity in a more positive light.” (11)
In particular, Bregman notes,
“Catastrophes bring out the best in people. I know of no other sociological finding that’s backed by so much solid evidence that’s so blithely ignored. The picture we’re fed by the media is consistently the opposite of what happens when disaster strikes.”
That’s one factor in why William Golding’s novel seemed to so many to be realistic.

A second factor is this. Power tends to corrupt. Lord Acton was right about that one. It starts in little ways, mild yet telling.

In one study, subjects were put in teams of three and given a task to do together. The researchers would randomly pick one of the three and say, “you be the leader.” As the team of three went about their task, the researchers brought them a snack – a plate of 5 cookies. Five cookies for 3 people. One of the cookies would be left on the plate, as etiquette prohibits taking the last one. That leaves 4 cookies for 3 people. They all get one – and then one of them takes a second. What the study found is that it was almost always the person randomly selected the designated leader who took that second cookie.

In another study, subjects were assigned a car and told to drive it around the block. Some subjects were randomly assigned a beat-up Mitsubishi or Ford Pinto – while others were assigned to drive a high-end late-model BMW or Mercedes. As they approached a crosswalk, a pedestrian would step off the curb. All the drivers of the clunker cars stopped and let the pedestrian go by. The drivers of the fancy cars, however, 45 percent of the time failed to stop for the pedestrian.

Psychologist Dacher Keltner calls it Acquired Sociopathy. Even a tiny bit of power, and we feel like taking that extra cookie. Why are we like that? At heart, we’re such team players that we adapt to the role we find ourselves in – even adopting some traits unconsciously. If you’re assigned the role of an Important Person, you’ll act like an Important Person -- and Important People don’t have time to wait for pedestrians. We are not such a bad species – but we are funny.

People often rise to power by being very friendly, attentive, warm, caring, and helpful. Then they get into power, and it’s like brain damage.
"It transpires that people in power display the same tendencies. They literally act like someone with brain damage. Not only are they more impulsive, self-centered, reckless, arrogant and rude, they are more likely to cheat on their spouses, are less attentive to other people and less interested in others’ perspectives. They’re also more shameless, often failing to manifest that one facial phenomenon that makes human beings unique among primates. They don’t blush.” (Bregman, p. 227)
Neurological brain scans find that
“a sense of power disrupts what is known as mirroring, a mental process which plays a key role in empathy. Ordinarily, we mirror all the time. Someone else laughs, you laugh, too; someone yawns, so do you. But powerful individuals mirror much less. It is almost as if they no longer feel connected to their fellow human beings. As if they’ve come unplugged.” (Bregman, p. 227)
If we are conscious of this tendency, we can counteract it. Many of us have had experience with that boss who was the exception to this tendency – who remained thoughtful and considerate of others even after ascending to power. So it can be counteracted.

When it isn’t counteracted, those suffering from acquired sociopathy assume that others are as self-centered and uncooperative as they have become. Having come unplugged, they forget how cooperative and decent most people are.
“The dynamic during disasters is almost always the same: adversity strikes and there’s a wave of spontaneous cooperation in response – then the authorities panic and unleash a second disaster.” (Bregman, p. 6)
Emergency responders don’t respond, believing there’s too much chaos to go in – or armed authorities open fire on peaceful people. Rebecca Solnit wrote about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. She wrote: “My own impression is that elite panic comes from powerful people who see all humanity in their own image" (A Paradise Built in Hell, 2009, p. 131.) Bregman adds:
“Dictators and despots, governors and generals – they all too often resort to brute force to prevent scenarios that exist only in their own heads, on the assumption that the average Joe is ruled by self-interest, just like them.” (p. 7)
People in power tend to purvey the idea that The Lord of the Flies is realistic. Between our sweet tooth for bad news and the projected acquired sociopathy of the powerful, we’re apt to be convinced we’re a terrible species. As filmmaker Richard Curtis observed:
“If you make a film about a man kidnapping a woman and chaining her to a radiator for five years – something that has happened probably once in history – it’s called searingly realistic analysis of society. If I make a film like Love Actually, which is about people falling in love, and there are about a million people falling in love in Britain today, it’s called a sentimental presentation of an unrealistic world.”
So I will leave you, then, with Hugh Grant’s voiceover words at the opening of Curtis’ film, Love Actually:

“Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion's starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don't see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often it's not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it's always there – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge – they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I've got a sneaky feeling you'll find that love actually is all around.”
Not such a bad species.



Not Such a Bad Species, part 1

William Golding lied to you. He did. He lied to us. It may seem strange to say that a work of fiction is a lie, but Golding’s 1954 novel, The Lord of the Flies, purveyed a lie.

In the book: A plane goes down near a deserted island in the Pacific.
“The only survivors are some British schoolboys, who can’t believe their good fortune. It’s as if they’ve just crash-landed in one of their adventure books. Nothing but beach, shells, and water for miles. And better yet: no grown-ups.
On the very first day, the boys institute a democracy of sorts. One boy – Ralph – is elected to be the group’s leader. Athletic, charismatic, and handsome, he’s the golden boy of the bunch. Ralph’s game plan is simple. 1). Have fun. 2). Survive. 3). Make smoke signals for passing ships.
Number one is a success. The others? Not so much. Most of the boys are more interested in feasting and frolicking than in tending the fire. Jack, the redhead, develops a passion for hunting pigs and as time progresses, he and his friends grow increasingly reckless. When a ship does finally pass in the distance, they’ve abandoned their post at the fire.
‘You’re breaking the rules!’ Ralph accuses angrily.
Jack shrugs. ‘Who cares?’
‘The rules are the only thing we’ve got!’
When night falls, the boys are gripped by terror, fearful of the beast they believe is lurking on the island. In reality, the only beast is inside them. Before long, they’ve begun painting their faces. Casting off their clothes. And they develop overpowering urges – to pinch, to kick, to bite.
Of all the boys, only one manages to keep a cool head. Piggy, as the others call him because he’s pudgier than the rest, has asthma, wears glasses, and can’t swim. Piggy is the voice of reason, to which nobody listens. ‘What are we?’ he wonders mournfully....‘Savages?’
Weeks pass. Then, one day, a British naval officer comes ashore. The island is now a smoldering wasteland. Three of the children, including Piggy, are dead. ‘I should have thought,’ the officer reproaches them, ‘that a pack of British boys would have been able to put up a better show than that.’ Ralph, the leader of the once proper and well-behaved band of boys, bursts into tears.” (Rutger Bregman, Humankind, p. 22-23)
Golding writes: “Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart.”

The Lord of the Flies has sold tens of millions of copies and been translated into more than thirty languages and hailed as one of the classics of the twentieth century. Every year more high schoolers are assigned to read the book. The story is meant to illustrate, as Golding wrote in his letter to his publisher, that “even if we start with a clean slate, our nature compels us to make a muck of it....Man produces evil as a bee produces honey” (qtd in Bregman, p. 23).

That’s the lie. We aren’t such a bad species.

The book was written for a readership reeling from the atrocities of World War II and asking themselves how Auschwitz could have happened. The idea that’s there’s a Nazi hiding in each of us just waiting for the chance to come out was grim, but at least it seemed to make sense of the events that had happened.

William Golding was an unhappy man: an alcoholic, prone to depression – a man unable to take the trouble to spell acquaintances’ names correctly. Biologist and primatologist Frans de Waal said, “there is no shred of evidence that this is what children left to their own devices will do.” And Frans de Waal had not then heard about the real case of shipwrecked boys on a deserted island.

It turns out there is such a story. And while millions have read William Golding’s fable, almost no one knew about the true story until more than 50 years after it happened when Rutger Bregman, researching his book that came out in Dutch in 2019, dug it up and tracked down the now-elderly survivors.

In June 1965, Luke, Sione, Fatai, Kolo, Tevita, and Mano -- six boys, ages 13 to 16, all pupils at St. Andrew’s, a strict Anglican boarding school on the South Pacific island of Tonga -- were bored. They longed for adventure instead of school assignments. They came up with a plan to escape to Fiji, some 800 kilometers away. Or maybe all the way to New Zealand. The boys stole a 7.3-meter boat from a fisherman they all disliked. They brought two sacks of bananas, a few coconuts and a small gas burner – and that was pretty much it. No map. No compass.

The first night a bit of weather came up. They hoisted the sail, which the wind promptly tore to shreds. Then the rudder broke. For eight days they drifted – without water other than what rainwater they could collect in the coconut shells – which they shared equally, each taking a sip in the morning and another in the evening.

On the eighth day: a miracle. They spotted a small island – a hulking mass of rock, jutting up more than 300 meters out of the ocean. The boys had stumbled upon Ata, an uninhabited island 450 acres in size.
“It had once been home to about 350 people, but in 1863 a British slave trader kidnapped about 150 of them, and the Tongan king relocated the rest to another island, where they would be protected.” (NYTimes, 2021 Apr 22)
For over 100 years, the island had been deserted, and is today considered uninhabitable.
“At first the boys lived off raw fish, coconuts, and birds’ eggs. After about three months, they found the ruins of a village, and their fortunes improved — amid the rubble they discovered a machete, domesticated taro plants and a flock of chickens descended from the ones left behind by the previous inhabitants.” (NYTimes, 2021 Apr 22)
For 15 months the boys were on that island – a year and a quarter – before they caught the attention of a passing fishing trawler. The captain that rescued them wrote that,
“By the time we arrived, the boys had set up a small commune with food garden, hollowed-out tree trunks to store rainwater, a gymnasium with curious weights, a badminton court, chicken pens and a permanent fire, all from handiwork, an old knife blade and much determination.” (qtd in Bregman, p. 32)
“after countless failed attempts, managed to produce a spark using two sticks. While the boys in the make-believe Lord of the Flies come to blows over the fire, those in the real-life Lord of the Flies tended their flame so it never went out, for more than a year.
The kids agreed to work in teams of two, drawing up a strict roster for garden, kitchen and guard duty. Sometimes they quarreled, but whenever that happened they solved it by imposing a time-out. The squabblers would go to opposite ends of the island to cool their tempers, and ‘after four hours or so,’ Mano later remembered, ‘we’d bring them back together. Then we’d say, “OK, now apologize." That’s how we stayed friends.'
Their days began and ended with song and prayer. Kolo fashioned a makeshift guitar from a piece of driftwood, half a coconut shell and six steel wires salvaged from their wrecked boat, and played it to help lift their spirits.” (Bregman, p. 33)
Fatai slipped and fell off a cliff one day
“and broke his leg. The other boys picked their way down after him and then helped him back up to the top. They set his leg using sticks and leaves." (Bregman, p. 33)
The leg healed perfectly.

Says Rutger Bregman: “The real Lord of the Flies is a story about friendship, and cooperation, and human resilience.”

In the delayed discovery of this story, the New York Times wrote: “The six boys flourished in their spontaneous community, suggesting that cooperation, not conflict, is an integral feature of human nature” (NYTimes, 2021 Apr 22)

William Golding lied to us. So why has his novel seemed to so many to be realistic? I’ll look into that in part 2.


UU Minute #64

Accepting the Label, "Unitarian"

When the Unitarian Controversy first erupted in 1805, with the appointment of Henry Ware as the Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard, the liberals bitterly resented being called Unitarians. The liberals tended to be Arian – meaning they held that Jesus is divine, more than human, but not equal to God the Father. The liberals did not go as far as the English Unitarians, for whom Jesus was, in all respects, a fallible human being.

Over the next dozen years, as the controversy evolved, the liberals came to accept the label Unitarian.

For one thing, the word “Unitarian” evolved. The label was used for the liberals so often that the word lost any meaning much beyond the people to whom it referred.

For another thing, the liberals themselves evolved, growing closer to being Unitarian in the British sense.

The two wings of congregationalism grew further and further apart. Conservative ministers, increasingly, refused to do any pulpit exchanges with the liberal ministers.

When the Unitarian Controversy broke out in 1805, William Ellery Channing was 25 years old and had been the minister of Boston’s Federal Street Church for two years. He avoided controversy when at all possible, and sincerely hoped for reconciliation among the churches. Yet he found himself more and more speaking out as a champion of the liberals. Finally, in 1819, Channing delivered a sermon called “Unitarian Christianity.” Reprinted as a pamphlet, “Probably no other sermon ever preached in America has had so many readers and so great an influence” (Earl Morse Wilbur)

It was a manifesto for a new denomination.

NEXT: Pulpit Exchanges and a Foray to Baltimore