Monday, December 1, 2008

"An immortal germ"

Along with Ralph Waldo, William Ellery is probably among the most quoted and little read in the pantheon. This is much to our detriment as reading Channing is a challenging and very rewarding experience. In the "Introductory Remarks" of his Collected Works, Channing summarizes his main themes:

"Some topics will be found to recur often, perhaps the reader may think too often; but it is in this way that a writer manifests his individuality, and he can in no other do justice to his own mind...The following writings will be found to be distinguished by nothing more than by the high estimate which they express of human nature. A respect for the human soul breathes through them...the greatness of the soul is especially seen in the intellectual energy which discerns absolute, universal truth, in the idea of God, in freedom of will and moral power, in disinterestedness and self-sacrifice, in the boundlessness of love, in aspirations after perfection, in desires and affections, which time and space cannot confine, and the world cannot fill. The soul viewed in these lights, should fill us with awe. It is an immortal germ, which may be said to contain now within itself what endless ages are to unfold. It is truly an image of the infinity of God..."

This is not all, however, as Channing makes clear:

"There is, however, another and very different aspect of our nature. When we look merely at what it now is, as its present development, at what falls under present consciousness, we see in it much of weakness and limitation and still more, we see it narrowed and degraded by error and sin..."

It is just this part of our natures, for Channing, that makes the high view so crucial:

"An enlightened, disinterested human being, morally strong, and exerting a wide influence by the power of virtue, is the clearest reflection of the divine splendor on earth; and we glorify God in proportion as we form ourselves and other after this model...We do not honor him by breaking down the human soul...It is his glory that he creates beings like himself, free beings, not slaves; that he forms them to obedience, not by physical agency, but by moral influences; that he confers on them the reality, not the show of power; and opens to their faith and devout strivings a futurity of progress and glory without end. It is not by darkening and dishonoring the creature that we honor the creator."

In becoming a Unitarian, one of the first intellectual hurdles I had to overcome was this view of human nature. I was a Christian of the "We are born in sin and cannot free ourselves" variety (I still partly am and do not find a complete contradiction in Channing) We are free. Our souls shroud us with immense dignity and worth. We often fail to live up to that dignity and worth. This only intensifies my belief in that ultimate dignity. In striving for that disinterestedness, love, self-sacrifice and in "aspirations after perfection" we live religious lives and become like God. Blessings

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