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UNITARIANISM 101

A sermon preached by Brian J. Mason
First Universalist Unitarian Church of Wausau
Sunday, October 22, 2017

For some, American Liberal Theology is a milquetoast reaction to the legalistic and literalistic thinking of John Calvin. Reinhold Niebuhr, the former Union Theological Seminary Professor of Practical Theology and fellow alumnus of my own seminary, came to regard the remnants of liberal theology, in the 20th Century, as overly optimistic. Niebuhr, who’d make the cover of Time, in 1948, watched in horror the events of World War II, specifically the atrocities of the holocaust; which, as a result, caused him to reject the optimism of Liberal Theology, creating a rift between liberal theologies still felt today.

And elsewhere in the 20th Century, the Swiss theologian Karl Barth further tarnished the reputation of liberal theology with his Church Dogmatics and neo-orthodoxy, which claimed God’s transcendence and separateness from humankind. Moreover, for Barth, Niebuhr, and other neo-orthodox thinkers, sin isn’t simply ignorance or error. Sin is a part of human nature; and therefore, human institutions or philosophies cannot overcome it; for the neo-orthodox, humankind’s fallen state and sinful nature can only be overcome by God’s grace.

This morning we will discuss the ideas and theology, as well as some of the people who Barth, Niebuhr, and others like them were reacting to. They were reacting to the American clergy people, professors, personalities, and theologies that are the very foundation of the progressive and optimistic theology of Unitarianism. My hope in spending time with these people and ideas is that we can find the beginnings of an answer and appreciation for what Unitarianism might mean to us today.

But if I am to be perfectly honest, the struggle between the worldviews contained within American Liberal Theology and neo-orthodoxy is one that rages deep within me. But I will put that aside for another day, and make a case for optimism in a time ripe with pessimism.

To get a deep understanding of the world that Liberal Theology emerged from we must set the scene and meet a cast of characters beginning with anti-Trinitarian John Biddle of England, who, in the 17th Century, gave birth to the theology that would become American Unitarianism. And later, building on Biddle’s own thinking, people like Isaac Newton and William Paley, followed by John Locke and Richard Price, added levels of sophistication to Unitarianism by systematizing it, coupling it with enlightenment rationalism, science, and academic philosophy.

But the grandfathers of Unitarianism were the Anglican cleric Theophilus Lindsey and the scientist, thinker, and socialite Joseph Priestly, whose friends included the likes of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Richard Price, all of whom would later express Unitarian beliefs in their official or personal writings, or both.

There are two points to be made here: 1) It helps to have powerful friends when your goal is to legitimize a controversial idea, especially when it comes to conceptions about God and God’s relationship to humankind; and very especially, if your conception of God calls in to question the very divinity of that God and his son, Jesus; and 2): What you’re saying has to be compelling and based upon a learned and studied interpretation of what the Bible actually says, and what people have gone on to say about it.

One of my English professors in college said in a class of hers, “if you really want to understand Western Literature, you should read your Bible.” (She’s an atheist by the way.) Lindsey and Priestly took my professor, Dr. Armbruster’s advice. And after very carefully reading their Bibles, what they found, or rather, what they didn’t find, was evidence of the Trinity.

What those thinkers argued, and convincingly, was that prior to the Council of Nicaea, in 325CE, Christianity was an eclectic mixture of religious practices and practitioners who believed any number of diverse and competing things about God, Jesus, and the like.

Let me make this point using a musical metaphor: It would be like a woman named Nicaea showed up to one of the Beatles’ album release parties; and then Nicaea went on to tell everyone in attendance that there is only one true way to listen to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and that is with all of the sound adjusted to the speaker on the right of your headphones only. But Nicaea wasn’t just issuing a bizarre suggestion, she showed up with a government and army that supported this nonsense, and decreed that if you didn’t agree to listen to Sgt. Pepper’s like this, for the rest of your life no less, and publically proclaim its awesomeness, she’d have you humiliated at best, but more likely, tortured and killed.

In sum, what these liberals like Priestly and Locke and Lindsey said were, we don’t have to believe something just because you say so. And just because you do don’t make it necessarily so.

So, Joseph Priestly would work for years in his laboratory inventing soda water, developing the distribution of electricity, and discovering oxygen during the week, and then, on Sundays, preaching his Unitarian ideas, only to be run out of England following riots that emerged as a result of his religious ideas. But I’ll bet they kept the soda water.

So, Priestly fled to the United States where he and his wife would eventually settle in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Turning down an appointment in the chemistry department at the University of Pennsylvania, Priestly went on to found the first official Unitarian society, and later church, in 1796.

Meanwhile, 16 years before Priestly founded the first American Unitarian society, a man named William Ellery Channing was born in Newport, Rhode Island. Channing’s father, a Federalist and state attorney of Rhode Island, was a civic-minded intellectual who instilled in his son a strong sense of Christian duty, which, in those days, was referred to as disinterested benevolence.

The idea being, you do good, not because doing so makes you feel all warm and fuzzy. Rather, you do good because it is good. It’s like Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative without all the junk that makes it nearly unintelligible.

Other duty-minded American leaders like John Jay and George Washington would dine at the Channing’s home, growing young William’s worldview and sense of disinterested benevolence.

Channing, as you might imagine, having been raised within a strongly Federalist family, was taught to believe that his class of people, i.e., the rich and powerful, were the rightful leaders of the world, and that those suffering under the weight of poverty or the sin of slavery were there as a demand of the natural order of things.

Channing was a sensitive and lonely soul who, in his early letters and journals, was already formulating his own conceptions of justice and fairness.

Furthermore, he took great interest in what he was being told by his own minister. On the one hand, Channing admired the piety and dedication of his congregational pastor, who he got to know personally; but he questioned the emotionless legalism of the God found in Puritan Calvinism so prevalent in those days.

It would take decades for Channing to mature and articulate the theology that would one day serve as the bedrock of American Liberal Theology.

Before he got there, he would suffer life-long sadness as a result of his father’s early death; watch his mother struggle to raise her children alone; wrestle with 4 difficult but life-changing years as a student at Harvard; be confronted with the terror of slavery as practiced in the South, in Virginia, which caused him to suffer what I believe was a nervous breakdown.

After witnessing the brutality of slavery, Channing locked himself in his room on the plantation he was staying on, in Virginia, and subjected himself to starvation and other penalties. As a result of this response, Channing suffered ill health and weakness for the rest of his life. But after returning to Newport, walking along the beach, Channing had a religious breakthrough: God isn’t cruel and distant; God is loving and empathic, caring not simply for the elect, but for all of humankind.

While at Harvard, Channing debated being a physician or a clergyman. And in a letter to a former classmate, he described his decision to pursue a life of ministry like this: “In my view, religion is another name for happiness, and I am most happy when I am most religious.”

But Channing’s sense of religion and the holy wasn’t based solely on what he’d been taught in church; it was based upon feelings he’d had within his own heart. The dominant Calvinistic theology preached by ministers in the North and South, and also by those evangelists and Circuit Riders headed west, he surveyed it all and said, “an established church is the grave of intellect.” So, Channing set out to make something wholly new, and totally alive.

With the exceptions of the then Hollis Professor of Divinity, David Tappan, and the logician, Levi Hedge, Channing felt that Harvard had “never [been] in a worse state than when I entered.”

There’s no denying that the Federalist and Puritanical Harvard was struggling to find its ideological mojo, but the young nation was about to undergo a theological reorientation that would shape not only American Liberal Theology, but also society, politics, and culture.

I have to be honest, many seminary professors have never stepped a foot in official church leadership. Many of them tell the same stories about the 2-3 years they spent doing this or that, trying to make ends meet while they completed their PhDs. In Channing’s era, however, some of the brightest theological minds thumbed their noses at boring academic careers, choosing, instead, the chaotic, unpredictable, and exciting life readily found in parish ministry (until Ralph Waldo Emerson came along and dropped the mic on that state of affairs with his “Divinity School Address”).

There were people like Joseph Stevens Buckminster who not only served as pastor to the Brattle Street Church in Boston, while also serving as the first Dexter Lecturer in Biblical Criticism at Harvard following its official liberal turn in the early 1800s. What Buckminster brought to the pulpit and the podium was something called Historical Biblical Criticism.

And what that did was spread the idea that the Bible is a document composed by real people, people who were responding to specific circumstances in their own time that shaped their conceptions of goodness, sin, faith, and God; and further, that science is something that we cannot deny in service to a brutal and distant god; because that god is an aberration created and wielded by the powerful and self-interested few.

What people like Buckminster and later Channing taught was the church isn’t just a place to uphold dogmas and maintain power. The church is not and should not be about conformity and superstition; the church, they believed, like science and law and politics, is about rational inquiry, personal growth, and most of all, truth.

They believed that humankind has the ability to champion its own destiny, bringing freedom and justice and equity for all, not simply because the Bible tells us so, but because like the Bible, science and politics and philosophy are revealing the truth that humanity flourishes when set free. They took seriously science’s findings and incorporated Charles Darwin’s egalitarian conception, yanking human beings off their lofty perch in the hierarchy of the species, and placing us back within the great chain of being, predating the green movement by centuries (take that Al Gore).

It took seriously personal experience and altered the American pulpit from a place of top down authority to bottom up expressions of human kinship.

Unitarianism whole-heartedly believed it is a congregation of people who make a church a church; and it a congregation’s right to call its own spiritual leader, rather than having one forced on them by people with near-limitless power.

These Unitarians refused to maintain the authority of bishops and dogmas from afar; they made the church a grassroots institution that taught benevolent generosity for generosity’s sake. Unitarianism changed Christianity from that of a navel-gazing endurance test to that of an outwardly focused spiritual institution that takes seriously biblical teachings of charity, compassion, and love.

The question I asked in the beginning still remains: “How can Unitarianism inform us in this modern era?”

Truth is, we live in a fractured age. No longer is truth and evidence enough. It seems you’re welcomed to believe whatever it is you want; you can do this because there is almost no penalty for lying, especially when you’re in a position of power and influence.

Unitarianism is about empathy and compassion, it is about investigation and inquiry, personal experience as well as revelation. But it demands that with all that you take into account the miracles of science and medicine, as well as the progress of thought, and then, after learning and receiving criticism and acting on principled suggestions, you think and act with charity and compassion and most of all, with disinterested benevolence towards all of God’s creatures, even fuzzy and slimy ones.

And so, in true Unitarian fashion, I end with a charge: Live lives of benevolent generosity not because I have said so, but because you find a call to live as such within your hearts. Listen to the call of nature, look lovingly on your fellows, and ask from where and for who do you belong; if you believe that it’s a duty to leave the world just a little bit better than the way you found it, then give your life to it. Because, by God, the world needs all the truth and kindness it can get.

That’s Unitarianism 101. Class dismissed. Amen and Blessed Be.

[1] William Ellery Channing, Memoir of William Ellery Channing, in The Making of Liberal American Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion 1805-1900, ed. Gary Dorrien (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 15.

[2] Channing, “Remarks on the Character and Writings of Fénelon,” reprinted in The Works of William E. Channing, from The Making of Liberal American Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion 1805-1900, 17.

[3] Channing, “Christian Worship: Discourse at the Dedication of the Unitarian Congregational Church, Newport, Rhode Island, July 27, 1836,” in The Works of William E. Channing, from The Making of Liberal American Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion 1805-1900, 10.