UU Minute #107

The Transient and Permanent in Christianity

Excerpts from Theodore Parker’s 1841 sermon, “The Transient and the Permanent in Christianity”:
While true religion is always the same thing, in each century and every land,…the Christianity of the People, which is the religion that is accepted and lived out, has never been the same thing in any two centuries or lands, except only in name….Strictly speaking, there is but one kind of religion, as there is but one kind of love, though the manifestations of this religion, in forms, doctrine, and life, be never so diverse. It is through these, men approximate to the true expression of this religion. Now while this religion is one and always the same thing, there may be numerous systems of theology or philosophies of religion...It seems difficult to conceive any reason, why moral and religious truths should rest for their support on the personal authority of their revealer, any more than the truths of science on that of him who makes them known first or most clearly. It is hard to see why the great truths of Christianity rest on the personal authority of Jesus, more than the axioms of geometry rest on the personal authority of Euclid. The authority of Jesus, as of all teachers, one would naturally think, must rest on the truth of his words, and not their truth on his authority….It is not so much by the Christ who lived so blameless and beautiful eighteen centuries ago, that we are saved directly, but by the Christ we form in our hearts and live out in our daily life, that we save ourselves, God working with us, both to will and to do….God send us a real religious life, which shall pluck blindness out of the heart, and make us better fathers, mothers, and children; a religious life, that shall go with us where we go, and make every home the house of God, every act acceptable as a prayer...

NEXT: Frances Ellen Watkins Harper


UU Minute #106

Theodore Parker, part 3

Theodore Parker, at age 27, was called to serve the Unitarian congregation in West Roxbury, Massachusetts – the congregation that today is named for him. A year later Parker was in the chapel at Harvard’s Divinity Hall listening enthusiastically to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Divinity School Address. Emerson’s eloquent attack on miracles confirmed Parker’s own doubts about whether Jesus had actually performed miracles.

Parker’s emerging theology saw spiritual principles as analogous to laws of matter. As Newton discovered laws of motion, and as Euclid discovered the axioms of geometry, so Jesus discovered and articulated spiritual principles. In all three cases, a certain genius was required – but not a miraculous authoritative revelation. If Newton, Euclid, and Jesus had not discovered what they did, someone else sufficiently clever, diligent, and insightful could have worked out the same truths. The proper approach to Newton and Euclid is not to worship them personally, but to understand the truth of what they said. The same went for Jesus.

The more closely one lived by the principles that Jesus taught, the more one became divinely inspired, took on the qualities of God, and became True, Moral, Loving, and Faithful. For Parker the arc of history was one in which humanity was becoming ever more divinely inspired. Yet those key principles to live by would be the same whether Jesus had discovered them or someone else had. The authority of Jesus' revelation, therefore, was only the authority of truth.

Parker laid this out in an 1841 sermon, “The Transient and the Permanent in Christianity.” There was an uproar. Most Unitarians of the time – ministers and layfolk alike -- concluded that Parker's theology was not Christian.

NEXT: The Transient and Permanent in Christianity


Know Thyself

Know Thyself. It’s an Ancient Greek aphorism. Socrates makes reference to it in one of Plato’s dialogues. And, before we’re done today, we will find a Valentine’s Day message in this maxim.

Supposedly, “know thyself” was the first of three maxims inscribed at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi – along with "nothing to excess" and "certainty brings ruin." So: know yourself, but not excessively, and, anyway, don’t be so sure.

It appears that the ancient Greeks used “know thyself” primarily in two ways. People whose boasts exceeded reality were cautioned to know themselves – because, if they did, they wouldn’t make such boasts. Second, saying “know thyself” was a way to suggest “be true to thyself” – like “you do you” – pay no attention to the opinion of the multitude. So: you’re not as good as you think you are – but you’re better than what your critics say.

Know thyself, the Greeks said -- recognizing that we aren’t always as self-aware as we could be – or, aren’t as self-aware as others think we could be – or, others tend not to be as self-aware as we think they could be – or something. In any case, knowing thyself is no easy thing. Thyself has been built to systematically fool itself in a number of ways.

The 86 billion neurons of your brain are firing away across about a trillion synapses – firing anywhere from once a second up to, at peak excitement, about 200 times a second. Some of those neurons, we don’t know what they’re there for. What exactly their function is, we don't know. But all of them are firing away doing something in there. Even where scientists do have a pretty good idea which neurons do what, that, of course, doesn’t mean that I know what mine are doing at any particular time.

Among the things I wouldn’t detect are the biases those neurons have – yet we know from myriad studies that a long list of cognitive biases bedevil human brains. For instance, when we explain other people’s behavior we overemphasize their personality and underemphasize situational factors – yet when we explain our own behavior we do the opposite, overemphasizing situational factors and underemphasizing our personality. That’s called actor-observer bias.

The odds of a coin toss coming up heads are 50-50. But if it’s landed on heads five times in a row, we think that it’s more likely to land tails the sixth time. Nope. It’s still 50-50. That’s the gambler’s fallacy.

We consistently underestimate the costs and the duration of basically every project we undertake. That’s optimism bias.

We are likely to think traveling by plane is more dangerous than traveling by car because images of plane crashes are more vivid and dramatic in our memory and imagination, and hence more available to our consciousness. So that’s called availability bias.

When making decisions, we over-rely on the first piece of information offered, particularly if that information is numeric. This was illustrated in one study in which participants observed a roulette wheel, and then were asked an unrelated question. Half the participants saw the roulette wheel land on 10. The other half saw the roulette wheel land on 65. All were then asked what percentage of United Nations countries is African. “The participants who saw the wheel stop on 10 guessed 25 percent, on average. The ones who saw the wheel stop on 65 guessed 45 percent.” (At the time of the experiment, the correct answer was 28 percent.)(Ben Yagoda, “Your Lying Mind,” Atlantic, 2018 Sep). This tendency to be pulled toward whatever number has most immediately entered our consciousness is called the anchoring effect.

Then there’s sunk-cost thinking tells us to stick with a bad investment because of the money we have already lost on it. Nations will continue to pour money and lives into unwinnable wars – and will have widespread popular support to do so – because, people think, “we’ve already invested so much.” The thought that pulling out would mean that the early casualties died for nothing is so powerful that we send more and more lives to die for virtually nothing. That’s the sunk-cost fallacy.

What you already have is more valuable to you than what you could get. We will put more energy and thought into avoiding losing $100 than we will into gaining $100 – and if we do lose $100 it bothers us a lot, whereas gaining a windfall of $100 feels only a little good. Participants were given a mug and then asked how much they would sell it for. The average answer was $5.78. But when participants weren’t given the mug, but were shown it, and asked how much they would spend to buy it, the average answer is $2.21. Once the mug is yours – even if it’s been yours for less than 60 seconds – it’s more than twice as valuable to you.

Confirmation bias: that’s a big one. We look for evidence that confirms what we already think, and we discount or ignore disconfirming evidence. We interpret ambiguous results as supporting what we already believe. Consequences of confirmation bias can be enormous. The 2005 report to the president on the lead-up to the Iraq War said:
“When confronted with evidence that indicated Iraq did not have [weapons of mass destruction], analysts tended to discount such information. Rather than weighing the evidence independently, analysts accepted information that fit the prevailing theory and rejected information that contradicted it.” (Yagoda)
Why do our brains do this? Because using the available information to solve an abstractly presented problem is never the only thing your brain is working on. Your brain is always also working on relationships.

Whatever else your brain is working on, it is always also processing relationships: monitoring relationships, assessing relationships, considering how to build relationships. It's got an eye on your relationship with A, your relationship with B, and is also watching the relationship between A and B.

If you have an opinion about abortion rights, or about gun ownership rights – and who doesn’t? – that’s partly about assessing fetal value versus valuing women’s equality and autonomy, or about assessing the safety afforded by a gun versus the danger of having a gun around. But those aren’t the only factors your brain is crunching on. It’s also working on relationships – and, arguably, in the case of these two examples, relationships are the main thing. Who are your people? Who are the opponents of your people? You need to be in solidarity with your friends and associates, so you adopt the opinion and the reasoning of your friends and associates.

The function of human reason is to persuade one another – that is, to bring people into agreement. The function of human reason is not (or not only, and not even primarily) to use available information to solve abstractly presented problems. In human evolutionary history, it is typically valuable for a group to agree on its viewpoints and theories. It is typically less valuable that those viewpoints and theories be true, or correspond to reality, or be usefully applicable for addressing the widest variety of isolated problems. As long as the decision-making isn't terrible but only a little bit less than optimal, then group agreement is more valuable than a marginal increase in good decision-making. Having a shared view of things helps us like each other and get along. Very often that’s more important than whether the shared view of things is true.

So our brains are oriented to produce conclusions that the group collectively endorses. Once we understand that, then we see that confirmation bias is quite handy: it keeps us focused on the evidence we can point out to each other to reinforce our consensus and bring lagging skeptics on board.

Whatever particular problem it might be thinking about, your brain is always also thinking about relationships. Why do we value the mug more if we already have it? Duh! It was a gift. Gifts are tokens of and reinforcers of relationship. Even if it was given by some experimenter you only just met, now she’s given you a gift. Aww. Isn’t that sweet? Of course you’re gonna value that more than you would some mug presented to you for purchase.

Every one of those cognitive biases is there because it was, in some way, functional for our ancestors’ survival. Your brain always has at least one eye on your relationships. So the source of our cognitive biases is also the great superpower of being human. At some point in about the last million years, our ancestors developed shared intentionality – that is, the ability to share mental representations of a task so that multiple people can work on it. Take something as seemingly simple as one person pulling down the branch for the other to pluck the fruit, and then both of them share the meal. Chimps never do this. We are profound collaborators, connecting our brains together to solve problems that single brains can’t. We distribute the cognitive tasks. No individual knows everything it takes to build a cathedral, or an aircraft. Our species success comes not from individual rationality but from our unparalleled ability to think in groups. Our great glory is how well we rely on each other’s expertise.

Our strong bias toward relationship means that we run into problems sometimes when addressing isolated questions abstracted from relational context. Knowing thyself means knowing this fact about how ineluctably relational you are.

* * *

We know from a number of studies that a main job of the cerebral cortex is to create an illusion of intentionality – that is, it’s not so much deciding what to do as noticing what you did and making up a story about it.

Here’s one such study. Participants are asked to look at two pictures of very different looking people, and choose which one they think is more attractive. The experimenter then turns the two photos face down, and pushes the selected photo toward the participant. The experimenter says, “Explain, please, why you found that person to be more attractive. You can turn the picture over.”

So the participant picks up the photo, turns it over, and begins telling some sort of made-up rationale for why the person in this picture is more attractive. How do we know it’s a made-up rationale? Here’s the kicker. In the role of the experimenter, a professional magician has been hired. With deft sleight of hand, he switches the pictures half the time. So half the participants pick up the picture they really did select as the more attractive, and half pick up the one they thought was less attractive, believing it to be the one they’d selected as more attractive.

You’d think, surely, they would notice. They’d be like, "wait, that’s not the one I picked." And, yeah, that’s what did happen – 27 percent of the time. Only 27 percent of subjects noticed that the experimenter had slipped them the wrong photograph – despite the fact that the two photographs were very dissimilar, and participants had had unlimited time to choose which one they thought was more attractive. The other 73 percent of participants, when asked to explain their choice, explained it in ways that were no different from
“the reports given by those who were explaining the photo they’d actually chosen as being more attractive....People who were shown the card they had not chosen nevertheless told a completely compelling story explaining why they had chosen that photograph. They failed to notice the card switch and so they devised a perfectly good explanation for a choice they had not actually made.” (Nicholas Eply, Mindwise, p. 32)
This is because your cerebral cortex is good at its job – and its job is to notice what you’ve done and to fabricate a story about why you’ve done it. The story purports to explain how you made your decision, but in fact, the decision was already made unconsciously before the cerebral cortex invents its story. It’s so good at explaining your decisions that it seamlessly does so even when the decision it’s explaining wasn’t the one you made.

So how can we possibly know ourselves? Well, for one thing, if you know that your motives are opaque to you, that’s already knowing something very important about yourself – something you wouldn’t know if you went around naively believing what you think.

For another thing, we know ourselves about the same way we know other people. We read our own minds with the same inferential habits we use to read other minds. We aren’t mind readers in the sense of “telepathy, clairvoyance, or any kind of extrasensory power that creates a psychic connection” (Epley, p. xi). But dozens of times a day we “infer what others are thinking, feeling, wanting, or intending.” This is the basic human mind-reading that gives us the power
“to build and maintain the intimate relationships that make life worth living, to maintain a desired reputation in the eyes of others, to work effectively in teams....[It] forms the foundation of all social interaction, creating the web of presumptions and assumptions that enables large societies to function effectively.” (Epley, p. xi)
So: back to that participant smoothly explaining why she chose the photo she actually didn’t choose. Rather than saying she is unaccountably self-deluded, let’s see what she’s doing in a different light. What she’s doing, with remarkable skill, is imagining why someone who did pick that picture would do so. She’s simply applying to her own mind the mind-reading skills she uses to make sense of other minds. As psychologist Nicholas Epley points out:
“The only difference in the way we make sense of our own minds versus other people’s minds is that we know we’re guessing about the minds of others.” (p. 32)
In fact, we are just as much guessing about our own mind – but, with our own mind, we have the illusion of special, privileged access to the causes and processes that guide our thoughts and behavior.

We learned from George Herbert Mead, writing 100 years ago, that the self is the generalized other. We form our conception of who we are as a generalization of the people around us. We get a sense of what makes them tick – how to infer from their behavior what they believe, desire, and intend. Then we apply this to ourselves: inferring from what we see ourselves doing and saying what we ourselves must be believing, desiring, and intending. As Epley writes:
“If you see someone smiling at a cartoon, you will assume that they find it funny. If you find yourself smiling at a cartoon, even if you are smiling only because you’ve been asked to hold a pen in the corners of your mouth so that it makes a smile, then you are likely to report finding the cartoon funny as well. If you see someone hunched over, you will assume that they are not feeling very proud. Find yourself hunching over in the same way, even if only because you’re filling out a survey on a table with very short legs, and you may report being less proud of yourself and your accomplishments, too.” (p. 32)
There are two important spiritual messages here. One is that we ARE other people. We are made of relationships. The way we think – or, more precisely, the way we construct our impression of what we think we’re thinking – was built out of interactions, starting in infancy, with other people. Yes, each of us is unique. That uniqueness lies in the distinctiveness of the significant people in your childhood, combined with the somewhat quirky way you generalized from them to form your self.

Each other is our belonging. Each other is our place. Each other is where we live and breathe and have our being.

The second spiritual lesson is humility. Now that you know that the story of your decisions is just as much guesswork as the story you might have of someone else’s decisions – that your impression of having special, privileged access into yourself is an illusion – you can be a bit more humble about the accuracy of that story.

And this is important. The illusion that we know our own minds more deeply than we actually do has a disturbing consequence: it can make your mind appear superior to the minds of others.
“If the illusions you hold about your own brain lead you to believe that you see the world as it actually is and you find that others see the world differently, then they must be the ones who are biased, distorted, uninformed, ignorant, unreasonable, or evil. Having these kinds of thoughts about the minds of others is what escalates differences of opinion into differences worth fighting (and sometimes dying) for.” (Epley, p. 33)
Know thyself – but remember also those other two maxims at Delphi: "nothing to excess," and "certainty brings ruin." Don’t know thyself so excessively that you regard the interior of your thought-world as the standard of truth. And, know thyself – but don’t be so sure. Know that thou, too, are built with unavoidable biases and illusions.

The good news is that those biases are there because we are built for relationship. We are built to love. We aren’t built to be right.

Here, then, is the Valentine’s Day message I promised at the beginning:
Love. And give up on being right.
Blessed be. Amen.


UU Minute #105

Theodore Parker, part 2

Theodore Parker, after reading the entire Harvard curriculum on his own, started an academy in Watertown, which he ran and taught at for 3 years. In Watertown, he met and became engaged to Lydia Dodge Cabot, youngest child of a wealthy Unitarian family. We last mentioned Watertown in UU Minute #78, about Lydia Maria Francis Child. Her brother, Convers Francis, was the Unitarian minister in Watertown. It was Convers Francis who introduced Theodore Parker to the new methods of Biblical analysis being developed in Germany.

Parker, now able to pay the tuition, attended Harvard Divinity school from 1834 to 1836. For a time, he was teaching himself to read a new language every month, and claimed a reading knowledge of 20 languages before leaving Divinity School.

In 1837, he was called to serve the Unitarian Church in West Roxbury and that year began attending meetings of a group that would later be called the Transcendentalist club. Members included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott, Elizabeth Peabody and, indeed, most of the literary lights of the Boston area. Parker would contribute numerous articles and reviews to the club’s periodical, The Dial.

Meanwhile, Parker was gaining notice around Boston for his intelligent, eloquent, heartfelt sermons. His theology, however, made him an increasingly controversial figure. Following the German Biblical scholars he had been studying, Theodore Parker came to see Old Testament miracles neither as factual, nor to be dismissed as legends. Rather, they were poetic expressions of ancient Jewish piety with profound symbolic meaning.

Then Parker came to hold the same true of New Testament miracles.

More on Theodore Parker’s emerging theology in our next thrilling episode.

NEXT: Theodore Parker, part 3


Prayer for UN World Interfaith Harmony Week

Source of healing and wholeness we call by many names,

Ground us in gratitude. May we find our way back from the brink of anger or fear to a foundation of thanksgiving and gladness and praise.

Praise be for diversity. Different people have different experiences of the world. We have different stories we tell to make sense of our world. Some stories about reality feature a creative force that knows and desires. Other stories depict the forces of the universe creating and destroying without anything that could be compared to knowledge, intentionality, or purpose -- rather, beauty, awe, and majesty-compelling reverence are the products, not the source, of unfolding creation.

Still other stories tell of a creative force that metaphorically rather than literally has knowledge and desires. We have different senses of what’s out there. Of course we do. We’ve had different experiences, shaped by different cultures and traditions. We’ve admired and respected different elders, heroes, and saints, so how could we not have different stories about the grounding of this reality we all share?

Let us seek not to minimize real difference – let us seek to celebrate it.

We pray that our hearts grow better able to celebrate the fact of diversity among us. Ground us in gratitude.

We also use words differently. We speak of the same things with different words, and use the same words for different things. Teach us not to feel shame or blame, or evoke forlorn images of Babel’s tower, but to delight in and learn from each other’s creativity, each other’s different modes of expression, the new poetry offered us by unfamiliar traditions -- for new poetry may open our hearts to new depths of connection to the sacred that is beyond all words.

Thank you, thank you, for the riches of expression our diverse traditions offer us all. Ground us in gratitude.

Ground us also in hope, for we know the path ahead is not easy. There is much in all our traditions that is neither about a sense of what’s out there or in here, nor about a sense of how to speak of it. It’s just about: "What side are you on? Whose team are you on?"

We love and are nurtured in the communities of our own. Let us hope not to dissolve all boundaries of identity. Let us hope to uphold our differences while building understanding, maintain our distinctions while cooperating for peace, sustain our separate identities while recognizing participation in a greater unity that transcends the very boundaries we also need.

Ground us in that hope, that we may find the strength and the wisdom to make it so.



Cultivating Ourselves

Here we are gathered as a Unitarian Universalist congregation. We worship in an evolving tradition – a living tradition, as the title of our hymnal says ("Singing the Living Tradition"). Certain themes run throughout: freedom, reason, tolerance – and critique of the trinity.

Unitarianism in Europe goes back 450 years. And then it started – almost independently – in America – with William Ellery Channing, born 1780. The Unitarian ideas were bubbling up from a number of places. It was Channing who consolidated them and gave them their most forceful presentation, and who developed them in some new directions which became deeply influential on the Unitarianism of his time and thereafter. Ralph Waldo Emerson called him “our bishop.” We could be called Channingites. (Or maybe you’d like “Channingans” – which is kinda fun in that it sounds a bit like shenanigans.) Yes, we’ve evolved quite a bit from Channing, but, then, Lutherans are still called Lutheran even though they’ve evolved quite a bit from Luther.

Self-cultivation – cultivating ourselves – is our theme for February, and it's a theme that goes back to William Ellery Channing. He emphasized that we should always seek to grow, to develop. He spoke of human perfectibility – which may give you pause. It gave me pause when I first encountered it. Perfectible? But then I learned that Channing said that we, actually, are infinitely perfectible. Infinitely perfectibile.

The “infinitely” takes the sting out of the “perfectible.” Perfect might sometimes seem to suggest some static standard. Maybe it’s impossible to achieve, or maybe it is possible to achieve – in any case, there’s a static standard. If you were to achieve it, you’d be done. At that point, your only task would be to stay that way. But if you’re infinitely perfectible, then there is no place of being done, no point at which one just stays that way.

Running through the history of Western thought is an association of perfection with unchangingness. That was Plato’s idea, and it was enshrined in neoplatonic Christian theology of ancient and medieval times. God, on this conception, represented perfection and immutability – unchangingness. The perfect, it seemed to Plato and neoplatonists, was necessarily immutable because anything that changed was, ipso facto, not already perfect. If it were perfect, it wouldn’t need to change.

Channing turned that idea of perfection on its head: he said perfection was change. Granted, not just any change would do. After all, decay and collapse and degeneration are also changes, but Channing wasn’t championing those. He was talking about growth. Multiple different paths of development are open to us, but to grow, rather than to decay, is to develop in some positive direction.

So you might have the thought to substitute "improvable" for “perfectible.” And you’d be close. Still: Is a 50-year-old oak tree an improvement over the sapling? The large oak has done its job of growing, but it doesn’t feel quite right to say it is an improved version of the sapling – something better.

"Well," you might argue, "if the large oak isn't improved, by the same token, it’s not more perfect either." But there was something about the traditional notion of perfection that Channing was holding on to – there was a reason he used that word, some connotation that he wished, in fact, to evoke – even though he was entirely reversing the unchanging bit. What he wanted to keep and evoke was the sense of awe and wonder that the concept of perfection pointed toward – the God-like-ness of things suggested by saying “perfect.”

As Channing once wrote in a letter: “My mind seeks the good, the perfect, the beautiful.” The perfectibility on display as we contemplate the grand oak tree isn’t that this tree is an improvement upon the sapling it once was. Rather, it’s the awesome path of growth that brought it from the sapling to what it is now. It is the process through time, not the end product, or not just the end product, that properly incites our admiration. I mean, yes, the end product is magnificent, but our awareness of its magnificence comes in part from the knowledge that it took many years of growing to arrive at what it is.

So, for Channing, our task as human beings is to cultivate ourselves – to grow in some way, to develop. This is not about having some image of an ideal, a perfection in our mind, and then working to get closer and closer to it – as close as we can before we die. There are no surprises in that model. There are successes and failures, but no surprises. Instead, Channing's model of growth allowed for surprises. We know not into what we may grow. We grow in order to find out.

Channing called it "self-culture" – meaning what we call self-cultivation. The “culture” he was speaking of was the “culture” in agriculture – that is, the cultivation of growing things. Channing said:
“To cultivate anything, be it a plant, an animal, a mind, is to make grow. Growth, expansion is the end. Nothing admits culture, but that which has a principle of life capable of being expanded. He, therefore, who does what he can to unfold all his powers and capacities, especially his nobler ones, so as to become a well-proportioned, vigorous, excellent, happy being, practices self-culture.”
So, you see, this idea of cultivating ourselves is baked into Unitarian Universalism from it’s very beginning – or, to be precise, it’s baked into the Unitarian side of our heritage. It was emphatically there in Channing, and has remained a key part of who we are for the last 200 years. We are the people who grow – or, at least, who believe in the idea of growing. It’s right there in our theology, as articulated by Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams, writing more than a century after Channing's death:
“Religious liberalism depends first on the principle that ‘revelation’ is continuous. Meaning has not been finally captured. Nothing is complete, and thus nothing is exempt from criticism. Liberalism itself, as an actuality, is patient of this limitation. At best, our symbols of communication are only referents and do not capsule reality. Events of word, deed, and nature are not sealed. They point always beyond themselves. Not only is significant novelty both possible and manifest, but also significance is itself inchoate and subject to inner tensions of peril and opportunity.”
In saying revelation is continuous, Adams is saying we hope and expect to be continually growing our understanding. Our rejection of all dogma – which is a rejection of freezing any statement in place and saying it cannot be criticized or altered – is, at root, our commitment to the ongoing cultivation of our understandings.

Channing called it salvation by character. By "character," he didn't mean some permanent nature you have. He meant the character you cultivate and grow. And the word, “salvation” comes from the root “salve” – like a healing ointment – a balm in Gilead that will heal our wounds, repair our brokenness, and make us whole. Our growth is our salve. My colleague Rev. James Ford describes Channing’s “Salvation by Character”:
“Our salvation, salve, that is our healing from the hurts and bruises of life, the woundedness we experience, our shortcomings we’re so painfully aware of, our failing our ideals so often, and all the harm that follows these failures of our deepest aspirations, for ourselves and the world, is resolved in how we choose to live, in who we become through what we do. That is salvation by character. Healing, the great healing is in our hands. Channing preached this good news from the rooftops. Who we are counts. What we do counts.”
The exercise this month in the February issue of “On the Journey” is to complete the sentence: “The areas of myself I’d like to cultivate are . . .” What are the areas of yourself you’d like to cultivate? It is a familiar question for many of us.

But there is a dark side to the force – "the force," in this case, being the force of our will to grow. The idea of self-cultivation can be taken as implicit self-criticism – as saying that what you are is not enough: you are inadequate; you need to grow into something else. And as we know, whatever we don’t like about ourselves we tend to project on others who we then don’t like. So the injunction to always grow, develop, and unfold can be a source of self-righteousness toward people we might happen to think aren’t or haven’t been growing as well as we. We want to grow and learn – and we do – and then, sometimes, we get smug about it.

So while we have this notion of what Channing called “Salvation by Character” coming to us from our Unitarian side, we have a counterpoint coming to us from our Universalist side: “Salvation by Grace.” From our Universalist side comes the teaching that our worthiness, our value as human beings is assured no matter what our expression of our character might be. Even when we fail, even when we are less than we might have been, we are loved, and worthy of being loved.

Our Unitarian side calls us to express our worthiness in this world through acts of character. Our Universalist side guarantees our worthiness through divine and universal love. Is there some tension between these two sides? As the Zen master Shunryu Suzuki said: "You are perfect just as you are – and you could use some improvement."

We express both of the two sides in our third principle – which just might be probably my favorite of our principles. Not the first principle: the inherent worth and dignity of every being, as important as that is. Not the seventh principle: Respect for the Interdependent Web of All Existence of Which We Are a Part – as crucial as that is. But the third principle: Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth. On the one hand acceptance of one another. We accept each other just as we are. Just as we are we are whole, we are complete, we are lacking nothing. And – at the same time – we want to encourage each other to spiritual growth, to change.

What tension there is between our Unitarian side and our Universalist side is all contained in the tension within our 3rd principle. As another colleague, Rev. Paul Sprecher put it:
“There will always be a struggle between the complete acceptance, the grace we can offer to everyone, and the striving to do what is right and to persuade others to work with us to do what is right. This is the tension in which we must live all of our lives. Wholeness – or salvation, to use the theological term – is about aligning ourselves as clearly and consistently as we can within this tension between right purpose and love, between justice and mercy, between striving and accepting.”

The metaphor that most readily expresses cultivating ourselves is gardening – and in that very metaphor is a certain resolution of what tension there may be between Salvation by Character and Salvation by Grace – between acceptance of ourselves and each other just as we are, and encouraging ourselves and each other to further growth.

Each of us is both the garden and the gardener. There is work to do. Inch by inch, row by row – as the song says ("The Garden Song," by David Mallett, recorded by Pete Seeger, among others). Plant your rows straight and long. Pull the weeds and pick the stones. But you didn’t and couldn’t make the seeds. You didn’t and couldn’t make the soil. You didn’t and couldn’t make the rain come tumbling down.

We are like gardeners who have been given a bag of unidentified seeds. We won’t know what they are until they sprout. Yet we have this task before us to plant, to nurture – to cultivate. Who knows what will come up? We cultivate ourselves, not knowing what we will become. We can only do what is ours to do, and then turn it over to grace.

As Wendell Berry said: “The seed is in the ground. Now may we rest in hope – while darkness does its work.” And as Wendell elsewhere said: “Not by your will is the house carried through the night.” This is a reminder to humility, an antidote for arrogance or self-righteousness about other people’s gardens, and for our inner critic about our own garden. It is mysterious darkness that does the work. We but contribute a little facilitation.

We cannot make a tomato plant. We can only hoe and plant and “rest in hope.” Maybe a tomato plant will happen. Maybe it won’t. We can only do our part. After that, it’s not up to us.

We are made of dreams and bones: bones (this perfect material body that we are), and dreams (the aspirations that hearken us forward). Dreams and bones. Dreams and bones alike can be broken – and can be re-set. Dreams and bones alike can become brittle – and can be made more resilient.

And all our dreams – and all our bones – come forth into this world from sources beyond our control and beyond our ken. We are both the gardener and the garden – and the gardener we are is just as much a grace as the garden we are.

We are here to cultivate a self – but what self that may be, or grow into, is not ours to decide. Mulch it deep and low – make it fertile ground – and delight in what sprouts. In our metaphorical gardens, we are free.

May you keep up the planting, good people! May you keep up the hoeing, and the weeding, and the watering. And may you allow whatever sprouts in you and in your world to be for you a thing of wonder and joy.

Blessed be. Amen.


UU Minute #104

Theodore Parker, part 1

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” said Martin Luther King, Jr. in several of his sermons and addresses. He was paraphrasing a Unitarian minister named Theodore Parker, who said
“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”
Parker’s original is not as succinct and memorable as King’s paraphrase, but Parker’s ideas influenced King and helped shape our Unitarian movement. You may remember from UU Minute 99 that:
“Channing’s Baltimore Sermon, Emerson’s Divinity School Address, and Parker’s South Boston Sermon have long been accepted as the three great classic utterances of American Unitarianism.”
So who was this Theodore Parker who completed the trifecta of early 19th-century Unitarian influences?

Born in 1810 in Lexington, Massachusetts, the youngest child of a large farming family, Theordore Parker took to academics as much as his farm chores would allow. At age 19, he walked the 10 miles from Lexington to Cambridge to apply to Harvard College. He was accepted, but could not pay the tuition.

Harvard had a program that would allow him to show up at the end of each term and take exams for classes for which he had not paid tuition. So he lived and studied independently at home, continued to work on his father’s farm, and went in to Cambridge for exams – about three terms’ worth at a time, and thus completed three years of study in one year.

For what happened next, but sure to catch our next thrilling episode.

NEXT: Theodore Parker, part 2