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.

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