(from “Use Your Mind,” by Rev. Laura Horton-Ludwig)
Almost exactly 200 years ago, Unitarianism was born in this country.
Well, sort of, anyway. The oldest Unitarian Universalist congregations here in the U.S.are pretty old indeed—they go all the way back to the 1620s and ‘30s, founded by the English Puritan immigrants who came over on the Mayflower and beyond. Back in those days, the congregations weren’t yet Unitarian. Their beliefs were pretty different from ours today.
They were Christians, and they believed in the God of the Bible, and they believed God was angry at people for being so messed up. They believed almost everyone was going to go to Hell after they died. It was a scary thing to believe.
But flash forward a couple of hundred years, to the year 1819, and things had changed. Some of those congregations, which were 200 years old at that point, still looked at the world and said, humanity is a mess! But some of those congregations were looking at the world and saying, it’s true, we’re not perfect, not by a long shot, but people are also capable of some pretty amazing things. We can be kind and generous, we can be brave, we can put the good of the whole ahead of ourselves. We’re not hopeless. We haven’t given up on humanity and we don’t think God has given up on us either.
All these congregations had considered themselves as one denomination for generations. But now, it was getting so that they weren’t getting along. They were disagreeing more and more. It felt like their values weren’t the same any more.
Things started to get really tense when there was a really important job opening at Harvard University’s divinity school and the job went to one of the newer liberal ministers. The more conservative people felt shut out and angry. So they formed their own seminary, to teach ministers in their way of thinking. Things were getting pretty polarized.
And so, finally the liberal folks said, look, we want to stay together. We want to be one denomination and one people. But if you keep turning your backs on us, we can’t stop you. So, we’re just going to go forward on our own. We will become a new thing, a new denomination.
Enter the Rev. William Ellery Channing. Channing was the best-known of all the liberal ministers. And 200 years ago, his colleagues tapped him to give a really big sermon that would lay out what this new thing was.
They picked a big day, the installation of a new minister in Baltimore, Maryland, on May 5, 1819. Channing gave the sermon, which was 1½ hours long. Not the service — just the sermon alone ! was 1½ hours long. — can you imagine?
He called the sermon “Unitarian Christianity.” And in this sermon, he laid out what this new thing was all about, this thing called “Unitarianism.” Afterwards, it got published, and it was a national best-seller!
So what was in that sermon? What made it so important?
Let’s hear what Channing said, in his own words, with just a couple of alterations so that we can use the gender-neutral language that feels better to us today. I invite Anne N, our first reader, to come on up.
“Our leading principle in interpreting Scripture is this — The Bible is a book written for human beings,in the language of human beings, and its meaning is to be sought in the same manner as that of other books. All books require in the reader or hearer the constant exercise of reason.”
Thank you! So Channing is saying, the Bible is a book like other books, and we get to use our rational minds to interpret it. This is huge! Each of us gets to use our brains to figure out what we think it says.
Let’s have Randall come on up and take it a little farther:
“The different portions of this book refer to the times when they were written, to states of society, to modes of thinking, to controversies in the church, to feelings and usages which have passed away, and without the knowledge of which we are constantly in danger of extending to all times, and places, what was of temporary and local application.”
Thank you! So this is super-important: Channing is saying there’s a whole lot in the Bible that isn’t relevant to us any more. It’s outdated. It’s not for us. But there’s also a whole lot that’s timeless and important!And we get to use our minds to figure out which is which!
So what does that look like? Let’s find out!Here’s where we’re going to need some help from the kids.We’re going to take a look at a few Bible quotes, and we’re going to ask you to guess what you think our tradition would say.
Are these quotes timeless? Or not? Let’s keep in mind that other religious traditions might call it very differently, and that’s OK! We’re just trying to figure out what we believe.
So, like I said, we need some help — because we’re going to have a little game show.
[Paul plays the “Jeopardy” theme on piano. Pick four kids, sit them with buzzers. Explain that they need to wait until after I have read the quote to buzz in with answers.]
The question again is: Is this idea timeless or not?
[projected on a slide]
Bible quote #1: Love your neighbor as yourself. (Mark 12:31)
Susanne: Would our tradition say this quote is timeless or not?
Bible quote #2: You shall not wear clothes made of wool and linen woven together. (Deuteronomy 22:11)
Susanne: For us, not timeless. But some Orthodox Jewish people still live by this rule, and they get to do that!
Bible quote #3: Sow your fields for six years… But the seventh year the land will take a Sabbath of complete and total rest… you will not sow your fields. (Leviticus 25:3-4)
Susanne: This one is a trick question! Morally timeless? Probably not. But many farmers agree it’s good farming advice.
Bible quote #4: Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed. (Isaiah 1:17)
You get the idea ! Hooray! Now you understand what Channing was saying and why it was so important!
SERMON: Faith of the Free (copyright Rev. Dr. Susanne Intriligator)
Have you ever heard of a dialogue sermon? That’s when two preachers preach together, in a point/counter-point style, exchanging ideas or even debating each other. I’ve seen them done, and I’ve even invited a couple folks here to do them with me, but I haven’t got any takers yet.
So today I’ll do a dialogue with a dead guy, W E Channing. Here to play him are three more readers — I call forward Ellie F, Janice B, and Josh S.
We pause to remember Channing today, because his ideas were/are important to our faith. His sermon was turning point in the development of our movement. But in addition we remember him because he stands as an example of how to lead in times of turmoil.
This is especially important for us today. When things are polarized, when battle lines are drawn, how can we respond respectively, constructively?
There are no easy answers of course.
But there’s a hard answer, a real answer, to be found in Channing’s example. When the going gets rough, we can do as Channing does —
go back to our core values, meditate on them, ask ourselves: How do they inform your work today? What conclusions can you draw, based on those values? Then like Channing, you can dare to speak your truth, come what may.
Channing’s main purposes in this sermon were two. First he argued for using reason in religion. Second, he outlined some of the conclusions that reason had brought him to.
As you can imagine, New England in Channing’s time was a very Christian place; there was not much religious diversity. And most of those Christians were Calvinists— they believed that the Bible was best understood as the literal Word of God, and they believed that God had chosen just a few people, predestined them, to be saved. Most folks were going to hell, because that’s what we deserved, as flawed and sinning human beings.
Channing’s project was to investigate all these claims, in just one sermon, using the lens of reason as he called it.
Remember at this time, modern science was still developing. An educated person could still believe that the Earth was just 5,000 years old and the biblical story of Creation was factual. It was a radical idea in Channing’s day to say that the bible was a collection of stories, written by human for humans, and that as such it might contain errors, opinions, and limitations.
So Channing goes to great pains to explain his project and to invite us all into it. He says we must use reason to interpret the Bible, just as we use reason to interpret the Constitution, to better understand the writers’ intent and to judge how best to apply it to our lives today.
Reasoned debate has its costs and risks, of course, says Channing. But without it we are doomed. Our responsibility is to engage.
Ellie F has our next excerpt from Channing.
“We indeed grant, that the use of reason in religion is accompanied with danger. But we ask any honest man to look back on the history of the church, and say, whether the renunciation of it be not still more dangerous. . . . The true inference from the almost endless errors which have darkened theology is not that we are to neglect and disparage our powers of reason, but that we are to exert them more patiently, circumspectly, uprightly.
The most pernicious doctrines have been the growth of the darkest times. Say what we may, God has given us a rational nature and will call us to account for it. We may let it sleep, but we do so at our peril.”
So . . . If we allow ourselves, as individuals, to use reason to investigate the claims of religion, then where does that lead us? Channing’s reason led him to four bold theological claims — the first of which would lead us to one of our fundamental assertions as a historical movement.
Janice, would you continue?
“In the first place, we believe in the doctrine of God’s UNITY, or that there is one God, and one only. We object to the doctrine of the Trinity, which subverts the unity of God. According to this doctrine, there are three infinite and equal persons, possessing supreme divinity, called the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
We challenge our opponents to adduce one passage in the New Testament, where the word God means three persons. Can stronger proof be given, that the doctrine of three persons in the Godhead is not a fundamental doctrine of Christianity?”
So this is a huge deal. Even now the vast majority of Christians around the world claim to believe in the Trinity, the idea of a three-part God. As Channing points out, that idea is not present in the Gospels or the New Testament, it was put together in the first few centuries after the life of Jesus. And there have been dissenters ever since, several of whom were actually killed over this theological debate.
Channing is saying the doctrine of the trinity isn’t scriptural and it isn’t logical, which was a radical statement in the early 19th century. Up to that point, the word “unitarian” was a pejorative — trinitarians used it to label dissenters. But Channing is the first American to embrace the term, to claim it in a positive sense, and it becomes the name of a religious movement that survives and thrives.
So, if God is one thing, what does that mean for Jesus? Is he divine or human or what?
Janice, please continue.
“We believe in the unity of Jesus Christ. We believe that Jesus is one mind, one soul, one being, as truly one as we are, and equally distinct from the one God.
We complain of the doctrine of the Trinity, that, not satisfied with making God three beings, it makes Jesus Christ two beings, the one divine, the other human; the one weak, the other almighty; the one ignorant, the other omniscient.
Now we maintain that this is to make Christ into two beings, and this is to abuse and confound language, and to throw darkness over all our conceptions of intelligent natures. We think it an enormous tax on human credulity.”
At this point in history, in Channing’s moment, there really is no clear consensus on the nature of Jesus. Liberal Christians, even those like Channing willing now to allow reason and science to impact their religious ideas, don’t agree on this. Some say Jesus was fully human, others that he was something more, some “Son of God” who was different from us. What they do agree on, however, which we now inherit, is a commitment not to create illogical theological doctrine about it. They agree to allow diversity of opinion on the issue, and that’s our inheritance.
Now we turn to the nature of God. Josh?
“We believe in the moral perfection of God. We believe that God is infinitely good, kind, benevolent, in the proper sense of these words; good in disposition, as well as in act; good, not to a few, but to all; good to every individual, as well as to the general system.
To give our views of God in one word, we believe in God’s Parental character. We believe that God has a parent’s concern for their creatures,
a parent’s desire for their improvement, a parent’s joy in their progress, a parent’s readiness to receive the penitent, and a parent’s justice for the incorrigible.
We look upon this world as a place of education, in which God is training people by prosperity and adversity, by conflicts of reason and passion,
for union with God, and for a sublime and ever-growing virtue in heaven.”
So together the group Channing represents is turning away from the Old Testament God, the judgmental God, the one that creates us as sinners and punishes us for our flawed humanity. This is a modern, liberal Christian idea of God, based solely on the revelation of the divine character that Jesus conveyed. It stands in stark contrast to the punishing Calvinist vision that was dominant in Channing’s day and age and still lives now in some places, 200 years later.
In this context then, what role does Jesus play?
Josh, please give us today’s last Channing excerpt.
“With regard to the great object which Jesus came to accomplish, we believe, that he was sent by God to effect a moral or spiritual deliverance of humanity; that is, to rescue people from sin and its consequences, and to bring them to a state of everlasting purity and happiness. The idea, which is conveyed by the popular system, that Christ’s death has an influence in making God merciful, in awakening God’s kindness toward people, we reject.
We believe this communicates a very degrading view of God’s character. No error seems to us more pernicious. We can endure no shade over the pure goodness of God. We ask for one scripture text, in which we are told,
that God took human nature that he might make an infinite satisfaction
to his own justice; for one text, which tells us, that human guilt requires an infinite substitute. Not ONE WORD of this description can we find in the Scriptures; not a text which even hints at these strange doctrines.
They are altogether, we believe, the fictions of theologians.”
In Channing’s view then, God is and was eternally good. He didn’t demand any sacrifice. He didn’t create Jesus just to offer him up for crucifixion. God is not a vengeful God, or an unjust God, or a merciless God. God is good, God is loving and kind. That’s the point of being God, says Channing, and that’s what the scriptures say. That’s what Jesus said.
Maybe this all seems so obvious to us now, so clear and straightforward, to those of us standing here, in this room, which was literally built on these ideas.But it’s our duty to remember that it wasn’t so clear in Channing’s day. In this sermon, he was standing up to his entire culture, questioning the foundations of 1800 years of tradition and doctrine, speaking truth to power and risking his career and reputation in the process.
I don’t expect you to remember these five complex theological statements. If you take away just one thing from today’s service— make it this:
Our tradition was built by people like Channing, who, when controversy stirred, when battle lines were drawn, when congregations and friends were polarized and splitting up, chose to engage, chose to dig deep
chose to return their values —values like freedom, reason, tolerance, like worth and dignity for every being — and then, by the light of conscience
He and they examined their inheritance and decided what is timeless and what is not. They and we choose how to interpret the bible, the constitution, our guiding principles for their current culture, climate, and situation.
May we continue this fine tradition.
May we like Channing build upon it, so that, 200 from now, our descendants might have a strong foundation and a strong hope.
So may it be and Amen.