Thursday, May 28, 2009

the dark side...

We continue this morning with Rev. on this life as probation. A foundational theme in orthodoxy, the idea that our present life is one of preparation for the one to come was still quite common with the earlier Boston Unitarians.

This from his sermon, "The Disappointments and Uncertainties of Life."

"But is there then nothing permanent on earth ? My friends, I know of nothing in the universe permanent, but God. God is from everlasting to everlasting, and no man is secure but he who loves God, and is loved by him. Can you for a moment think, that this precariousness is too great, when you see how confidently and immoderately attached so many yet are to these transitory possessions, and to a delusion, yet existing and increasing, which all these admonitions cannot cure ? Can you think this uncertainty too great, when you see how proud men are of their short-lived acquisitions, how vain of their precarious accomplishments, how envious of another's flourishing wealth, how discontented with their lot, how unprepared for changes and reverses, how much afraid to die ? Is it for us to complain of the condition of our existence, when it has yet taught us so little confidence in God, the only rock of trust; when we have yet to learn that there is but one possession which is eternal, and that is virtue ; one source of happiness which disappointment and death cannot reach, and that is the favor of God ?

Do you say, that the picture which we have given of human life, so full of disappointment and uncertainty, is too discouraging ? True, my friends, it may be the dark side, but it is not therefore the less true, and it may be of great use occasionally to contemplate it...

There remains, therefore, but one answer to our question, which is, that ours is a state of probation. By this we mean that it is a state of trial and discipline, preparatory to something further; a state in which moral agents are to be formed to active and passive virtue, and in which moral qualities are to be produced, exercised, and matured, with a view to some future condition. This account of human life, is the only one which can be reconciled with the appearances of the world ; the only one which either answers or silences the captious and curious inquiries, which are perpetually recurring to the mind of man, with relation to the government and goodness of God. For when it is once understood, that the present is only a great theatre of preparation or of trial, it is folly to ask Why was there not less uncertainty and disappointment, because it is just as easy and rational to ask, Why was there not more ? If you assert that less would have been sufficient to answer every purpose of probation and moral discipline, I may ask, How much less? And why may not beings placed in a condition less probationary than ours, inquire with equal reason, Why were we not created more provident, more secure, more perfect, and more exalted ?"


Wednesday, May 27, 2009

vain expectations...

Joseph Stevens Buckminster was only 28 when he died and his health was never strong. He was, in his brief life, revered by his fellow Boston Unitarians and his congregation. Reading his sermons gives a hint of why. This excerpt from "Our lot in life not at our own disposal, but ordered by God':

"How is it, my friends, that if left to ourselves, we should consult our own happiness less than it is already consulted by the uncertainties, the disappointments, the casualties of the present arrangement of human affairs? The reason, is simply this; that happiness does not consist in external circumstances. Of course, arrange your situation in life as you please; surround yourself with wealth, power, influence, fame; still, if you bring not with you the temper most proper for your situation, you have lost, rather than gained, by the privilege you have exercised. Such is the wisdom of God's providence, that the temper most proper for every situation, can be formed only by feeling the very uncertainty on which that situation is granted...

However paradoxical it may appear, I will venture to assert, that if the formation of our moral characters depended less than it now does upon unforeseen circumstances, in other words, if the virtues which men sometimes exhibit, were placed more easily within their own power, we should probably be not only less happy, but even less virtuous than we now are. It is not too bold to suggest that even a man under the influence of a pure moral principle, and aspiring after eminent attainments in goodness, if left to choose his own character, would neither consult his own true worth, nor his best happiness. We should see him carried away with false estimates of particular excellences...

Let us bow at the feet of the Omniscient Being who orders our circumstances in life, and say, O God ! I am ashamed of my pride, my discontent, and my vain expectations. I have been disappointed in life, but it was thou who didst disappoint me, and I murmur not. I have been fortunate, but it was thy blessing which gave this unexpected success to my projects, and I am humble. If my plans had always succeeded, they would have interfered with the wise arrangements of thy providence, and merely for my partial good, disconcerted the profound and extensive operations of thy wisdom and beneficence. When I look back upon my life, I see that thou hast trained me up in the sure and progressive order of thy providence, to the character and the hopes, which I now possess. When I have thought myself abandoned, thou hast been watching me with paternal care; when I supposed myself most miserable, I have found myself nearer to the acquisition of the only permanent good. The very circumstances of my life, which I thought the most inauspicious, I find the most favorable, and the very trials, which I thought would terminate in my misery or death, I now find had the most benevolent tendency, the most cheerful conclusion. My expectations have been often defeated, and my views altered, but I still find myself crowned with loving kindness, and surrounded with opportunities for virtue and happiness. In all the events of life, then, I will bless thee. Though the fig- tree should not blossom, and there should be no fruit in the budding vine of my hopes, yet will I bless the Lord, and joy in the God of my salvation. I have trusted thee for this life, and with sentiments like these, in continual exercise, may I not trust thee, O God, for eternity ?"


Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Joseph Stevens Buckminster

Joseph Stevens Buckminster (1784-1812),the young, magnetic, epileptic minister of the Brattle Street Church in Boston and co founder of Boston Athenaeum, was born on this day in 1784. Buckminster was held in awe by many of the founding generation of American Unitarianism, and he became the very model of the literary minister. Buckminster helped introduce German Biblical Criticism to America, thereby influencing the entire direction of the movement. His death following a seizure was devastating to the Boston Unitarians. The historian Daniel Walker Howe reports that "Forty years after Buckminster's death,...'there were Boston Merchants who could not speak of him without tears.'


Monday, May 25, 2009

a master of living well...

Today is the birthday of Ralph Waldo Emerson. It would be difficult to overstate the importance of Emerson in my life. Beginning at the age of 18 in an American Literature class at Northern State College in Aberdeen South Dakota, my engagement with Emerson has, for better or worse, shaped my spiritual life for much of my adult life. We still wrestle regularly...

This from "Domestic Life:"

"I honor whose ambition it is, not to win laurels in the state or army, not to be a jurist or a naturalist, not to be a poet or a commander, but to be a master of living well, and to administer the offices of master or servant, of husband, father and friend."

Happy Birthday and Blessings

Sunday, May 24, 2009

for the use of all...

One more, for now, of James Freeman Clarke on the Apostle Paul. May everyone have a blessed Sabbath...

"Paul believes fully, and with his whole soul, in human progress, — personal progress for the individual, and the development of a happy and pure society. Mr. Emerson once spoke of himself as " a perpetual seeker, with no past behind him." He was only repeating what Paul said of himself, " Not as though I had already attained, or were already perfect. ... I count not myself to have apprehended, but this one thing I do; forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of God's great invitation in Jesus Christ" (Phil. iv. 13).

The wisest thinker of modern times declared it to be the great object of life, and the chief duty of man, " to grow." Paul had long before urged his disciples to constant growth. " Be not like children," said he, — vacillating from one belief to another, carried about like a weathercock with every wind of doctrine, — " but grow up in all things into him who is the head, even Christ" (Eph. iv. 14). And by this he does not mean individual growth alone, but social progress — growth of the whole community. He compares the whole society of Christian believers to the human body, which grows by the interaction of every part, — nerves, heart, lungs, and all other organs doing their work; " by the effectual working of every part, making increase of the body" (Eph. iv. 16). So the Christian body is built up of a like mutual help and common sympathy. In the Christian community every man was to do his part; to one was given the word of wisdom, to another the word of knowledge, to another faith, to another a gift of healing. Each was to use his gift for the good of the whole, and what one had, he had for the use of all...

Thus Paul had an idea of the steady outward progress of the whole Christian community. All rested on one deep principle, — faith in Jesus as the Christ. It would not come — this growth — from science or philosophy, from conscience or reason, from circumstances or environment; it would only come from faith in this divine ideal,— Christ, the fullness of the manifestation of God.
It was by faith in this ideal Jesus that Paul Lived and worked. "


I accept the universe!

Yesterday marked the birthday of Margaret Fuller. The life and thought of this extraordinary soul will be celebrated at next year's General Assembly (I am on the committee helping to plan events-if anyone has ideas for what we could do that would be truly valuable please write and let me know)

Happy birthday and blessings

Friday, May 22, 2009

few born angels...

The Apostle Paul has elicited a comment or two and it is right that he should do so. He is, to quote Whitman, "Large...and contains multitudes." JFC talks of his conflicted soul in this excerpt:

"ONE of the most striking features in the character of Paul is the intense conflict in his soul between his ardent desire for righteousness, holiness, perfect goodness, on one side, and on the other his passionate nature, which he found it so hard to guide and control. There are saints who have risen above temptation. There are those born with such a love for what is good, such an abhorrence of whatever is wrong, that they do not know what it is to be overcome of evil. They have no such conflict; they are too high up. There is another class who are too low down. They simply follow their lower nature and its impulses ; they have no sense of responsibility calling on them to do better or be better. Therefore there is no conflict in their souls. But Paul represents the third class, whose life is a perpetual battle with themselves ; who find in their souls two natures, one inclining to right, the other to wrong. They are impetuous, susceptible to every influence, easily moved from without or within; with souls aflame, and imaginations which cover all things with an illusive glow. What they wish they wish ardently; what they dislike they dislike vehemently. Their life is a series of crises and catastrophes, at one time longing for goodness as the angels in heaven long for it and love it; at other times giving up in despair all hope of improvement, and letting themselves go wherever caprice or the will of the moment directs. They make a thousand resolutions and break them all. They struggle sincerely to conquer bad habits and form good ones; they surround themselves with incentives and helps of all kinds. Their whole heaven is bright, and all the sky serene. Then comes in a moment an unexpected storm, and all the scaffolding of their virtue goes down; so they are left desperate, reckless, hopeless.

This is the class of persons to which Paul belonged, and no one has narrated this experience in more thrilling words than he. Listen to what he says in the seventh chapter of Romans. How he describes the awful struggle with evil which he himself had been through: —

" I was alive without the law once." I was once innocent, following my childish nature freely, before I saw any great law of duty. I was a creature of impulse, and had no sense of sin or evil.

" But when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died." That is, as soon as my conscience was roused to see my duty, and I felt a desire to do something good and to become good, I found how little power I had, how often I went wrong, and had no vital force to accomplish my purpose. The law was holy, just and good. The law said, " Love God and love man," and I knew that was right; but how could I obey it ? The law is spiritual, but I am tied to my body, the slave of habit, the creature of passionate desire and caprice. I know what is right, and I do what is wrong. I mean to do right, I long to be better, but somehow I always drift back into evil . " For that which I do, I allow not; for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that I do." " For the good that I would, I do not; but the evil that I would not, that I do."

This is the picture of the terrible battle which many of us have to fight. For there are few born angels, and few who have gone wholly above this struggle."


Thursday, May 21, 2009

not merely toleration (liberal Christianity II)...

James Freeman Clarke on the Apostle Paul, liberty, Liberal Christianity, sectarianism, the transient and permanent, and the only enduring

"Paul's liberality, therefore, was not merely toleration; he not only allowed people to be free, and to be themselves, but he insisted that they must be free — must be themselves. Freedom, to him, was a vital thing; a real step onward.

Most men who contend for Christian liberty mean thereby liberty for themselves and their own party to believe or disbelieve certain doctrines; to adopt or reject certain practices. But sometimes we find a man like the apostle Paul, like John Milton, like Jeremy Taylor, like William Ellery Charming, who believes in freedom as a principle, not for the sake of his own particular interest; and this spirit alone deserves to be called Liberal Christianity.

This nobler kind of liberality can rest only on a deep spiritual faith. A man must see spiritual truth so clearly as to be able to separate it from the form and words in which it comes. He must be able to distinguish the things seen, which are temporal, from the things not seen, which are eternal. This power Paul had in the highest degree. It is remarkable that he, the theologian par excellence, the leader in Christian theology, the first who brought out distinctly a system of Christian doctrine, should be the man to declare that all such systems are transient; that we can know only in part, and that when the perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. It is he who says that all intellectual convictions, all kinds of knowledge are to disappear, all creeds and all beliefs come to an end; " whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away." And it is not John, the mystic, the one who preaches always love, love, love, as Demosthenes taught action, action, action, — it is not John who chants that magnificent strain of adorable music to charity or love, but Paul, the theologian. He it was, who having thought so much, and studied so much, and said words of wisdom which will never die while the world lasts, laid them all down at the feet of Love, and said, " Love never faileth.

I say, therefore, that he was the founder of Liberal Christianity, because he was not only willing that men should be free, but ready to help them to become so; because he believed in liberty as a principle, and told men to "stand fast" in it, and not "be subject to any yoke of bondage;" because he saw that the essence of religion was inward and not outward, in the spirit and not the letter; because he saw that all forms, beliefs, knowledge, were transient and would pass away, but that faith, hope, and love would endure. Bigotry, intolerance, sectarianism, have never had, after Christ himself, so deadly a foe in the world as the apostle Paul."


Wednesday, May 20, 2009

what is a liberal Christian?

Paul is usually and very unfortunately not the first name one thinks of when one thinks of freedom of the mind or heart. And yet, and yet...Freedom was his watchword and that points the way for all liberal Christians.
JFC on the AP and Freedom:

"It is equally true that the apostle Paul is the founder of Liberal Christianity. For what is Liberal Christianity ? Liberal Christianity does not mean the liberty to believe whatever we choose; liberty to believe whatever is pleasant, and ignore what is disagreeable. We are bound to believe whatever is true, be it agreeable or otherwise. Liberal Christianity is not indifference, nor want of earnestness. It is earnestness about the substance of things, not their form.

Nor does Liberal Christianity mean this or that set of doctrines, — Unitarianism as opposed to Trinitarianism, Arininianism as opposed to Calvinism. Liberal Christianity means a principle -which may be found associated with very different creeds. I know many men Orthodox in their opinions, Trinitarian in their opinions, who belong to the front rank of Liberal Christians. Such men were Robertson, Maurice, Stanley, Arnold, in England, and in this country Dr. Bushnell and others.

These men I call Liberal Christians, though belonging to Orthodox churches, and holding Orthodox creeds. And this fact helps us to discover the fundamental principle and essential nature of Liberal ' Christianity. For example, we admit on the one hand that Dr. Channing, the Unitarian, was a Liberal Christian; and on the other hand that Frederic Robertson, the Trinitarian, was a Liberal Christian. What then was there in common between them which made them both Liberal Christians ?

These three elementary characters they both had : Holding earnestly each to his own opinions, his own church, his own religious experience, neither of them insisted that these were essential to Christianity; both of them admitted that men holding different doctrines might be as good Christians as themselves. While always ready to oppose what they believed false and wrong in the opinions of others, they did not undertake to judge the men who held the opinions. They were not only willing that other men should be as free as themselves, but also desired it, and were ready to help to make them so.

These three, then, are the elements of Liberal Christianity: —
1. To believe that the essence of Christianity is in the spirit, not in the letter ; which belief will destroy all bigotry.
2. To believe that Christianity progresses only by means of freedom, not by constraint; which principle will put an end to all intolerance.
3. To believe that the end and aim of Christianity is inward love, and not outside works; which will abolish sectarianism.


Tuesday, May 19, 2009

more religion, not less...

In an effort of become "relevant" to more people, and in the laudable knowledge that no one church had a monopoly on truth, the mainline churches sought to become less "religious." Ever declining numbers would suggest that perhaps that wasn't the way to go...James Freeman Clarke speaks of another way-the way of Paul...

"The whole of Christianity, according to Paul, grew out of faith in Christ. And by faith he meant a simple trust in him as a sufficient leader, saviour, mediator, and way to God. It was not to believe any doctrine about him, but to believe in Jesus himself, as a personal, ever-present friend. Paul declared it as a gospel of good news, wherever he went, that Jesus had been sent by God to save men from their sins and the consequences of their sins, to purify to himself a peculiar people, and make them happy, full of peace, full of love, full of hope. So those who believed Paul's testimony were united together in mutual fellowship as a Christian church...

Therefore, I say, when Paul denied and opposed this Jewish claim that all followers of Jesus must belong to the Jewish church, he was refuting beforehand every similar claim that could be made afterward by any church, sect or party. The greater includes the less, and when the strongest of all arguments is defeated, all weaker ones share its fate. If Paul utterly confuted and silenced those who said, "No salvation out of the Jewish Church," he at the same time confuted those who say, " No salvation out of the Church of Rome" or, " No salvation outside of our sect, our creed, our baptism, our experience and mode of conversion."...

What, then, was his answer to this argument...? How was he able to resist and to conquer such an appeal ?

He did it by going down deeper and going up higher than his opponents. He overcame their demands for ceremonial obedience by demanding a loftier and larger obedience. He asked for more religion, not less. He claimed liberty, that men might become more than ever the sons of God. He did not ask less for Christ, but more. This is the nature of all true and lasting reform. It breaks yokes, and takes off chains, that men may go up higher."


Monday, May 18, 2009

a universal gospel...

James Freeman Clarke not only absolves the Apostle Paul of most of the things his detractors accuse him of, he make of him the champion of the values he is often accused of destroying. Paul, understood anew, is vital to the universal church and the individual soul: JFC on the AP:

"But I believe, on the contrary, that Paul, of all the apostles, best understood the Gospel as it lay in the mind of Jesus, in all its length, breadth, depth and height. He fully understood the principles which are to make of it a universal gospel, which are to break down and utterly destroy dogmatism and sectarianism in the Christian Church, and cause it to be accepted as the religion of mankind. Paul entered deeply into the mind of Christ, and, by developing the ideas of Jesus, unfolded Christianity into a higher form. Peter and the other apostles were the rock on which the Church was built; but Paul was its leader, its chief, and the true Vicar of Christ. James may have been Bishop of Jerusalem, Peter Bishop of Antioch or Rome; but Paul was Universal Bishop, having " the care of all the churches." We have no evidence from the New Testament, that any one but Paul overlooked the whole field of Christianity, and took a living and active interest in the Christians at Jerusalem, the Christians in Asia Minor, the Christians in Greece, and the Christians in Italy.

When Paul contended for "justification by faith, and not by works," he was arguing the cause of Christian liberty for all time ; he was fighting for our liberty here, to-day, to worship God according to our own convictions and our own conscience. When we understand what he meant by justification by faith, then we have the Secret Of Paul."


Sunday, May 17, 2009

rest the weary heart...

"But Deliver Us From Evil" marks the final message in Henry Wilder Foote's sermon series on the Lord's Prayer. He has been a fine companion on the way...

'So then we can see how our Lord's Prayer should culminate in this final petition, " Deliver us from the evil that is so real." How can we be delivered ? Only by laying hold on and being upheld by Him who is more real.

Men were tempted enough to let the evils shut out everything else from their sight. Therefore it is that our prayer began at the true beginning with the great thought of God, " Our Father," and it passed on to make His Name, His kingdom, His will supremely present to us before it trusted us to speak of our own needs at all. So now at last it brings us face to face with the problem of evil, with our minds full of the thought of God.

And when our minds are illuminated by that thought I think we all feel that every other evil seems small to us except that of sin and conscious wrong. It is that from which in our deepest prayer we pray to be set free. "O . wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death ?"

We in this church may have gained an advantage in the simplicity of our faith, by the omission of certain phrases in our Liturgy. But we lose more than we gain if we fail to remember that the real enemies indicated by the words " the world, the flesh, and the Devil" beset us every hour.

We smooth over life, sometimes, till we smooth away all its meaning. The fact remains, from generation to generation, that human nature has its mingled substance of good and evil, and that it casts its shadow, long and dark, before the light of God's righteous law. If we loose our hold for a moment on the word which is associated with the church and religion, the word Sin, and take the word which carries practical religion into daily life, the word Right, the whole subject is at once depolarized for us.

Our religion teaches us that God is Love. Faith in His love implies trust in His loving-kindness. But what kind of faith is that which can trust no further than it can see? Life is hard, you say; it bears painfully upon you. Be thankful still, and all the more be thankful, that you know that behind its stern seeming is this blessed Reality, the one ultimate ground of Christian Faith, the Living God, our Father in Christ Jesus. If, indeed, we may know Him as the Father, we can flee from Him by fleeing to Him; the darkest affliction will drive us to the Heart of the Mystery, which is God; and we shall find that we can rest the weary heart there in communion with Himself."

Friday, May 15, 2009

Life within the soul...

The question of inspiration is, of course, central to understanding Paul. Unitarians have always sat warily by the Apostle but James Freeman Clarke loved him, partly because of Clarke's view of the source of Paul's inspiration...

"WE come now to consider the Inspiration of Paul. This inquiry is necessary before we can properly examine his writings. If, for example, we believe that he was so inspired as to be incapable of error, we must accept all he says, as from God,— even when he seems to contradict the fundamental teachings of Jesus, the dictates of sound reason, or even his own teachings in other places. Our freedom of inquiry being thus hampered, we lose our interest in the investigation. But if we regard his inspiration as an influence which led him up to the loftiest truth, but which did not destroy the freedom of his mind, nor obliterate his past opinions, we shall find great interest in seeing how these new and living convictions gradually emancipated him from his old prejudices, and how, according to the promise of Jesus, he was "guided into all truth." What then do we mean by inspiration ?...

The root and essence of this inspiration was the same in all the disciples and apostles. It was the idea of Christ, formed in their souls. This was the common universal inspiration of all Christians.

The influence of the Holy Spirit is not a mystical influence. It is mysterious only as Nature is mysterious ; it is mysterious as the human soul is mysterious, as the life of plants is mysterious. The source of all life is a mystery; but as soon as life begins, it comes under law, and becomes part of a great order. Mystery therefore is a part of nature, and to believe in mystery does not interfere with practice, with prudence, with good sense, with outward usefulness. But mysticism does interfere with all these. Mysticism interferes with the conduct of the understanding. It despises logic; it antagonizes the reflective intellect. It lives by intuition alone, never correcting its intuitions by observation and reflection; and thus is morbid, because leaving important faculties unused.

Now, when we open the Book of Acts we shall see that the spiritualism of the Apostles was not mysticism. It did not take them away from life, but carried them into life. They were no visionaries nor dreamers; they were neither monks nor hermits. They were the most practical men then living in the Roman empire; for they had the greatest work to do, saw most clearly what it was and how it was to be done, and were doing it with their whole might. Nor did they undervalue the reason. While living in the spirit and walking in the spirit, they were always ready to give an account of their faith, to defend it by facts and arguments. He was surely no mystic who defended himself before Felix and Herod at Jerusalem, who argued with Stoics and Epicureans at Athens, and pleaded before Caesar at Rome. In apostolic times, when the whole life of the church was in the Holy Ghost, nothing could be more practical and nothing more full of intellectual activity. No morbid mysticism had in those days affected it.

The Holy Spirit was in every heart, to make a universal brotherhood, to unite them all in bonds of sympathy and good will...In the beginning, this was the inspiration common to all Christians. It gave to all of them faith, hope, love, courage, patience, submission; it gave them peace in the midst of storms, joy amid trials, life in the hour of death. It was a life within the soul, making all things new."


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

planned on large proportions...

A dear friend is walking in the steps of the Apostle Paul and I am jealous and consoling myself with a reread of James Freeman Clark's, "The Ideas of the Apostle Paul." Written late in his career, the book calls Paul the "first liberal Christian."

" If I...were asked for my opinion of Paul, I might answer thus: " He was one of the greatest souls whom the world has produced, uniting in himself the grandest qualities of mind and heart. He emancipated Christianity from its Jewish form; and, alone among the apostles, fully understood and carried out the ideas of Jesus which have made of his religion a gospel for mankind. He was the founder of Liberal Christianity, believing that there might be many members and yet one body; teaching that in the Christian Church there should be both variety and unity, freedom and order. He was able to be thus wide because he went down so deep in his experience and up so high in his aspiration. He was a logical and a spiritual thinker, possessing both intuitive and dialectic power. His reasonings are so subtle and close that often, knowing little of the question in dispute, we find it difficult to follow the argument. But though possessed of this intense activity of thought, he placed thought far below love. He said that belief would change, opinion alter, knowledge pass away; but that faith, hope and love would abide forever."

Some natures are simple, others complex. And some complex natures are not fully at harmony with themselves. Then they are hard to understand; thus they are often misjudged. So it was with Paul at first; so it has been ever since ; so it is now. He is a complex soul, and never fully harmonized with himself and his surroundings. But he is planned on large proportions, he is moved by the deepest convictions, his heart is on fire with the noblest enthusiasm for a great object. He lives for it and dies for it, and the result of his life is an era in the history of man. He gave a fresh impulse to human thought, and the force of this movement is not yet exhausted. Augustine, Luther, Pascal, Wesley have each, in turn, received from the Apostle Paul the mighty influence which awakened their spiritual natures. His place in universal history is in the front rank of those who create a new epoch in civilization and progress."


Monday, May 11, 2009

carving out your own territory...

The essence of why I love Emerson is contained in the "Prospects" chapter (the conclusion) of his first book "Nature" which I will let speak for itself:

"In the uttermost meaning of the words, thought is devout, and devotion is thought. Deep calls unto deep...

So shall we come to look at the world with new eyes. It shall answer the endless inquiry of the intellect, -- What is truth? and of the affections, -- What is good? by yielding itself passive to the educated Will...

The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common...

Every spirit builds itself a house; and beyond its house a world; and beyond its world, a heaven. Know then, that the world exists for you. For you is the phenomenon perfect. What we are, that only can we see. All that Adam had, all that Caesar could, you have and can do. Adam called his house, heaven and earth; Caesar called his house, Rome; you perhaps call yours, a cobbler's trade; a hundred acres of ploughed land; or a scholar's garret. Yet line for line and point for point, your dominion is as great as theirs, though without fine names. Build, therefore, your own world. As fast as you conform your life to the pure idea in your mind, that will unfold its great proportions. A correspondent revolution in things will attend the influx of the spirit. So fast will disagreeable appearances, swine, spiders, snakes, pests, madhouses, prisons, enemies, vanish; they are temporary and shall be no more seen. "


Sunday, May 10, 2009

sifting the soul

An animated series that my children love begins with the son of the evil ruler relentlessly chasing the character that represents good. Well into the series he renounces his evil heritage and joins the forces of good in the world. His first few efforts don't go well however, and at one point he screams, "Why is it so hard to be good?"
This is the question that Henry Wilder Foote takes up this morning in our continuing Sabbath series on the Lord's Prayer.

"Lead us Not Into Temptation"

The true function of temptation in our human life was stated by Jesus in one striking pictorial sentence, in a conversation with his disciples, when he warned Peter that temptation was the very sifting of the soul. "Simon, Satan hath desired to have you, that he might sift you as wheat."
How vivid the picture which it must have called up to his disciples' minds, that primitive process which they had seen every harvest time since they could remember!...

It is a living parable of that which Christ seeks to teach by the illustration. So, he would tell us, temptation is no light thing; it shakes the soul with a perpetual disquiet and annoy; it will not let it remain in peace, any more than the grain which the energetic holder shakes in air can sleep in its receptacle. The winds of heaven, cold and searching, must blow through it.

Every test must be applied which will sift the golden grain of character, sweet and wholesome, and free it from the chaff of a light- minded and frivolous spirit, which the breezes may blow where they will, — from the lumpish and earthy sins which only by this thorough winnowing can be purged away from the wheat of the soul. And if the sifting reveals the substance of the character to be but poor stuff after all, at least the test has been applied ; the opportunity has been given. We are revealed honestly, as we are, as we have chosen to be. And how searching the tests are by which the whole being of man and woman is tried and proved in this world of God!...

The discipline of temptation is what we must have to toughen the moral fibre. How can the soul learn to choose good rather than evil, unless it has the evil presented to it as well as the good ? This world mysterious...

The sum of the whole doctrine of temptation is in this, — that it is the needful discipline of the immortal soul "Temptations," says a Roman Catholic writer, "are the raw material of glory." And every step of the long struggle, in which the higher gains the mastery over the lower, the spirit over the flesh, is a step onward and upward, at which we may well believe that the very angels of God raise songs of triumph.

I know, indeed, — ah ! who does not ? — by what slow degrees and toilsome and difficult ascent we struggle upward. I know the infinite evil if we fail. But shall we not still rejoice to be called to the solemn privilege which belongs to the children of God ? Shall we go complaining all our days of the hardships which prove to us the worth of the soul educated at such a cost ? No! if temptations are your lot in life — the school of trial which is the school of faith — you will go on resolved the more to wrestle with them till they disclose their heart of meaning, remembering that the Captain of our salvation was tried in the same furnace, was "made perfect through sufferings," was tempted and overcame.


Saturday, May 9, 2009

angle of vision...

Emerson was fond of having children bend over and look at the world, upside down, through their legs...Its all about the angle of vision. This from the "Idealism" chapter of "Nature":

"When the eye of Reason opens, to outline and surface are at once added, grace and expression. These proceed from imagination and affection, and abate somewhat of the angular distinctness of objects. If the Reason be stimulated to more earnest vision, outlines and surfaces become transparent, and are no longer seen; causes and spirits are seen through them. The best moments of life are these delicious awakenings of the higher powers, and the reverential withdrawing of nature before its God...

Nature is made to conspire with spirit to emancipate us. Certain mechanical changes, a small alteration in our local position apprizes us of a dualism. We are strangely affected by seeing the shore from a moving ship, from a balloon, or through the tints of an unusual sky. The least change in our point of view, gives the whole world a pictorial air. A man who seldom rides, needs only to get into a coach and traverse his own town, to turn the street into a puppet-show. The men, the women, -- talking, running, bartering, fighting, -- the earnest mechanic, the lounger, the beggar, the boys, the dogs, are unrealized at once, or, at least, wholly detached from all relation to the observer, and seen as apparent, not substantial beings. What new thoughts are suggested by seeing a face of country quite familiar, in the rapid movement of the rail-road car! Nay, the most wonted objects, (make a very slight change in the point of vision,) please us most. In a camera obscura, the butcher's cart, and the figure of one of our own family amuse us. So a portrait of a well-known face gratifies us. Turn the eyes upside down, by looking at the landscape through your legs, and how agreeable is the picture, though you have seen it any time these twenty years! "


Friday, May 8, 2009

a child of God

Today marks the anniversary of the death of the poet Jones Very (1813-1880). Without question, Very is one of the more fascinating figures of Boston Unitarianism (an online biography can be read here) I will no doubt write more on Very as time passes, but for now a couple of poems...

The Son

Father, I wait thy word. The sun doth stand
Beneath the mingling line of night and day,
A listening servant, waiting thy command
To roll rejoicing on its silent way;
The tongue of time abides the appointed hour,
Till on our ear its silent warnings fall;
The heavy cloud withholds the pelting shower,
Then every drop speeds onward at thy call;
The bird reposes on the yielding bough,
With breast unswollen by the tide of song;
So does my spirit wait thy presence now
To pour thy praise in quickening life along,
Chiding with voice divine man’s lengthened sleep,
While round the Unuttered Word and Love their vigils keep.

The New Birth

Tis a new life;--thoughts move not as they did
With slow uncertain steps across my mind,
In thronging haste fast pressing on they bid
The portals open to the viewless wind
That comes not save when in the dust is laid
The crown of pride that gilds each mortal brow,
And from before man's vision melting fade
The heavens and earth;--their walls are falling now.--
Fast crowding on, each thought asks utterance strong;
Storm-lifted waves swift rushing to the shore,
On from the sea they send their shouts along,
Back through the cave-worn rocks their thunders roar;
And I a child of God by Christ made free
Start from death's slumbers to Eternity.


glad to the brink of fear...

Emerson reading this morning included his famous (or infamous) transparent eyeball passage caricatured by Boston Unitarian Christopher Pearse Cranch. The passage from "Nature":

"Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear. In the woods too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life, is always a child. In the woods, is perpetual youth. Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, -- no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, -- my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, -- all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God."


Thursday, May 7, 2009

an original relation...

A couple of days ago, we marked the "beginning" of the American Unitarian movement with WEC's Baltimore Sermon. Today, I take up again the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, starting with his first book, Nature. Published in 1836 and generally recognized as the "beginning" of the transcendental movement, "Nature" was received with some respect and some bewilderment by the Unitarian establishment and, of course, transcendentalism (largely composed, at first, of "Boston Unitarians") had much to do with the short lived period of Boston Unitarian Christianity. This blog celebrates that period up to, and including, Emerson and the transcendental movement (roughly 1819-the Civil War.) It was an amazing period in American religious history and it defined us in many ways.

From the Introduction to "Nature"

"Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?...The sun shines to-day also. There is more wool and flax in the fields. There are new lands, new men, new thoughts...

Philosophically considered, the universe is composed of Nature and the Soul. Strictly speaking, therefore, all that is separate from us, all which Philosophy distinguishes as the NOT ME, that is, both nature and art, all other men and my own body, must be ranked under this name, NATURE."


Wednesday, May 6, 2009

let there be light...

This from Emerson's "Literary Ethics"
"Be content with a little light, so it be your own."


Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Have you read your Channing today?...

...the old teacher-man in me asks? Just as individuals, families and even whole towns used to read the Declaration of Independence on the 4th of July (come to mention it, don't you think its time to bring that custom back?) Unitarians should organize readings of this sermon each May 5th.


Monday, May 4, 2009

hold fast that which is good...

Tomorrow (May the 5th) marks the anniversary of William Ellery Channing's "Unitarian Christianity" sermon in Baltimore (given in 1819.) One of the most influential of American Sermons, it is nearly universally accepted as the point of reference for the beginning of "formal" Unitarianism in this country. I encourage all Unitarians to give it a read tomorrow (or today if you are reading this on the 5th.) It can be found online at: Blessings

Horace Mann

Today is the Birthday of Horace Mann. Often called the Father of the Common, Normal, or Public School, Mann, a Massachusetts lawyer and politician became the first Secretary of the Mass. State Board of Education. In this position he became a reformer and national spokesman for free common education, teacher training and much else. Later, he became President of Antioch College. Though raised a Calvinist, Mann later became a Unitarian.
As the son of parents who met while teaching in public schools and who both served the noble cause of public education for many years, I believe I owe Mann an extra bit of gratitude...
A brief excerpt from The Common School Journal:

"No joys thrill the soul so deeply, or so long, as those which flow from generous self-sacrifice. If any man aspires, not merely to the highest post of honor, but to the highest rewards of bliss, let him enlist as one of the life-guards of Truth, when she is menaced by danger. In vain do they talk of happiness who never subdued an impulse in obedience to a principle. He who never sacrificed a present to a future good, or a personal to a general one, can speak of happiness only as the blind do of colors. These principles, — few, though of mighty import, — must be kept in view by all who would act as guides and counsellors for any portion of their fellow-beings; — whether the mother in her nursery, the teacher in his school, or the philosopher, promulgating truths to regulate the vast concerns of mankind. The highest service we can perform for others, is to help them to help themselves."


Sunday, May 3, 2009

"melt our hearts into a fervor of love..."

Last Sabbath, Henry Wilder Foote, in his series on the Lord's Prayer, spoke on the Divine side of forgiveness. This week it is our turn. But, of course, part of the point is that we can't have one without the other. Some excerpts (and you can read the full sermon here)


Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. — Matt. vi. 12.

Then came Peter to him and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him ? till seven times ? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, until seven times : but, until seventy times seven, Matt, xviii. 21, 22.

"And I say again the spirit of forgiveness is hard to attain. For consider how great and utter a virtue of soul it is. In its true meaning forgiving is the giving away of an offence; and the Greek has the same idea even more delicately expressed; it is the sending away of a thing, that is, the making it to disappear from between two persons...

The true forgiveness must be a part of the very temper of the soul itself; not merely a word or act, but a disposition...

For we ourselves have lived, and having tasted life we know how hard it is not to sin against one's neighbor. Experience should teach us tolerance. In these paths where it is so easy to stumble, so difficult to walk with sure and steady step, we should rather learn to reach out a helping hand to a brother than to push him further if he fall. Says Marcus Aurelius : " It is right that man should love those who have offended him. He will do so when he remembers that all men are his relations, and that it is through ignorance and involuntarily that they sin, — and then we all die so soon." He died sixteen centuries ago, but the golden thought lives to teach us charity. The sense of human frailty should prevent us from crowding this little span of life with hates and discords that leave no room for serener thoughts...

Nay, not alone on the side of human fellowship, but on the side of God's loving-kindness, does the principle of forgiveness come to us. For the strong sense of God's love for us should melt our hearts into a fervor of love which can see His children in all men, and feel His pardon moving us to pardon.

Forgiveness is the duty of sinners. In the presence of the perfect justice which we have offended, and the absolute purity before which the very angels bow themselves to the dust and cry, " Unclean, unclean," knowing that we too deserve to suffer, humility should teach us a long-suffering charity. "He that cannot forgive others," says Lord Herbert, "breaks the bridge over which he must pass himself; for every man has need to be forgiven."

Forgiveness is the obedience of disciples. For it is in the law of Jesus Christ that we should forgive our enemies, and pray for those who despitefully use us, and return good for evil.
Forgiveness is the privilege of God's children. It is a gift whose exercise is the sign and pledge of our divinity, of the victory of His loving spirit in our hearts. Said Martin Boos: " People think it a weakness to forgive an insult. Then God would be the weakest in heaven and on earth; for no one in heaven or earth forgives so much as He."


Saturday, May 2, 2009

Even-Tide hymn...

This eventide, a hymn in Sabbath preparation with words ascribed to Goethe...

O'er silent field and lonely lawn
her dusky mantle night hath drawn;
At twilight's holy, heartfelt hour,
In man his better soul hath power.

The passions are at peace within,
And stilled each stormy thought of sin;
The yielding bosom, overawed,
Breathes love to man, and love to God.


Friday, May 1, 2009

unbroken obedience...

"Whilst the multitude of men degrade each other, and give currency to desponding doctrines, the scholar must be a bringer of hope, and must reinforce man against himself." So says Ralph Waldo Emerson at the beginning of one of my favorite essays, "The Method of Nature." Given in 1841 at the small Baptist College in Waterville, Maine, the essay, or rather "oration" was partly written on vacation at Nantasket Beach following the publication of Emerson's first book of essays.

"The method of nature: who could ever analyze it? That rushing stream will not stop to be observed. We can never surprise nature in a corner; never find the end of a thread; never tell where to set the first stone. The bird hastens to lay her egg: the egg hastens to be a bird. The wholeness we admire in the order of the world, is the result of infinite distribution. Its smoothness is the smoothness of the pitch of the cataract. Its permanence is a perpetual inchoation. Every natural fact is an emanation, and that from which it emanates is an emanation also, and from every emanation is a new emanation. If anything could stand still, it would be crushed and dissipated by the torrent it resisted, and if it were a mind, would be crazed; as insane persons are those who hold fast to one thought, and do not flow with the course of nature. Not the cause, but an ever novel effect, nature descends always from above. It is unbroken obedience. The beauty of these fair objects is imported into them from a metaphysical and eternal spring. In all animal and vegetable forms, the physiologist concedes that no chemistry, no mechanics, can account for the facts, but a mysterious principle of life must be assumed, which not only inhabits the organ, but makes the organ."