Monday, December 15, 2008

"Likeness to God" your New Year's Resolution?

Tis the season of resolutions (or getting close) Are you a maker of resolutions? I must confess that I am an inveterate resolution maker (but only an occasional keeper.) I was put in mind of such questions by this morning's scripture reading which came from Ephesians (that wonderful and challenging letter) 5:1, "Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children." This verse serves, of course, as the epigraph for one of William Ellery Channing's most enduring sermons, "Likeness to God" Some excerpts:

"The text calls us to follow or imitate God, to seek accordance with or likeness to him; and to do this, not fearfully and faintly, but with the spirit and hope of beloved children. The doctrine, which I propose to illustrate, is derived immediately from these words, and is incorporated with the whole New Testament. I affirm, and would maintain, that true religion consists in proposing as our great end, a growing likeness to the Supreme Being. ..I begin with observing, what all indeed will understand, that the likeness to God, of which I propose to speak, belongs to man's higher or spiritual nature. It has its foundation in the original and essential capacities of the mind. In proportion as these are unfolded by right and vigorous exertion, it is extended and brightened. In proportion as these lie dormant, it is obscured. In proportion as they are perverted and overpowered by the appetites and passions, it is blotted out. In truth, moral evil, if unresisted and habitual, may so blight and lay waste these capacities, that the image of God in man may seem to be wholly destroyed...To hold intellectual and moral affinity with the Supreme Being, to partake his spirit, to be his children by derivations of kindred excellence, to bear a growing conformity to the perfection which we adore, this is a felicity which obscures and annihilates all other good... I would show that the highest and happiest office of religion, is to bring the mind into growing accordance with God, and that by the tendency of religious systems to this end their truth and worth are to be chiefly tried."

To the charge that God cannot really be approached by our depraved natures, Channing replies:

... to me, scripture and reason hold a different language. In Christianity particularly, I meet perpetual testimonies to the divinity of human nature. This whole religion expresses an infinite concern of God for the human soul, and teaches that he deems no methods too expensive for its recovery and exaltation. Christianity, with one voice, calls me to turn my regards and care to the spirit within me, as of more worth than the whole outward world. It calls us to ' be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect;' and everywhere, in the sublimity of its precepts, it implies and recognises the sublime capacities of the being to whom they are addressed. It assures us that human virtue is ' in the sight of God of great price,' and speaks of the return of a human being to virtue as an event which increases the joy of heaven...
We call God a Mind. He has revealed himself as a spirit. But what do we know of mind, but through the unfolding of this principle in our own breasts ? That unbounded spiritual energy which we call God, is conceived by us only through consciousness, through the knowledge of ourselves...
The same is true of God's goodness. How do we understand this but by the principle of love implanted in the human breast ? Whence is it, that this divine attribute is so faintly comprehended, but from the feeble development of it in the multitude of men ? Who can understand the strength, purity, fullness, and extent of divine philanthropy, but he in whom selfishness has been swallowed up in love ?
The same is true of all the moral perfections of the Deity. These are comprehended by us, only through our own moral nature. It is conscience within us, which, by its approving and condemning voice, interprets to us God's love of virtue and hatred of sin; and without conscience, these glorious conceptions would never have opened on the mind. It is the lawgiver in our own breasts, which gives us the idea of divine authority, and binds us to obey it...
What then is religion ? I answer ; it is not the adoration of a God, with whom we have no common properties; of a distinct, foreign, separate being ; but of an all-communicating Parent. It recognises and adores God as a being, whom we know through our own souls, who has made man in his own image, who is the perfection of our own spiritual nature, who has sympathies with us as kindred beings, who is near us, not in place only like this all surrounding atmosphere, but by spiritual influence and love, who looks on us with parental interest, and whose great design it is to communicate to us forever, and in freer and fuller streams, his own power, goodness, and joy. The conviction of this near and ennobling relation of God to the soul, and of his great, purposes towards it, belongs to the very essence of true religion ; and true religion manifests itself chiefly and most conspicuously in desires, hopes, and efforts corresponding to this truth. It desires and seeks supremely the assimilation of the mind to God, or the perpetual unfolding and enlargement of those powers and virtues by which it is constituted his glorious image. The mind, in proportion as it is enlightened and penetrated by true religion, thirsts and labors for a godlike elevation. What else indeed can it seek, if this good be placed within its reach? If I am capable of receiving and reflecting the intellectual and moral glory of my Creator, what else in comparison shall I desire ? Shall I deem a property in the outward universe as the highest good, when I may become partaker of the very mind from which it springs, of the prompting love, the disposing wisdom, the quickening power, through which its order, beauty, and beneficent influences subsist ? True religion is known by these high aspirations, hopes, and efforts. And this is the religion which most truly honors God. To honor him, is not to tremble before him as an unapproachable sovereign, nor to utter barren praise which leaves us as it found us. It is to become what we praise. It is to approach God as an inexhaustible Fountain of light, power, and purity. It is to feel the quickening and transforming energy of his perfections. It is to thirst for the growth and invigoration of the divine principle within us. It is to seek the very spirit of God. It is to trust in, to bless, to thank him for that rich grace, mercy, love, which was revealed and proffered by Jesus Christ, and which proposes as its great end the perfection of the human soul...To complete my views of this topic, I beg to add an important caution. I have said that the great work of religion is to conform ourselves to God, or to unfold the divine likeness within us. Let none infer from this language, that I place religion in unnatural effort, in straining after excitements which do not belong to the present state, or in-any thing separate from the clear and simple duties of life. I exhort you to no extravagance. I reverence human nature too much to do it violence. I see too much divinity in its ordinary operations, to urge on it a forced and vehement virtue. To grow in the likeness of God, we need not cease to be men. This likeness does not consist in extraordinary or miraculous gifts, in supernatural additions t6 the soul, or in anything foreign to our original constitution ; but in our essential faculties, unfolded by vigorous and conscientious exertion in the ordinary circumstances assigned by God. To resemble our Creator, we need not fly from society, and entrance ourselves in lonely contemplation and prayer. Such processes might give a feverish strength to one class of emotions, but would result in disproportion, distortion, and sickliness of mind. Our proper work is to approach God by the free and natural unfolding of our highest powers, of understanding, conscience, love, and the moral will." (this in only a hint of the richness of this discourse: for the full depth and breadth,

This disccourse is one of the first that I read in the Unitarian corpus and it has an important place in my heart and mind. Many of Channing's great themes are included; the nobility of human nature, God as benevolent Father, virtue and morality as spiritual path, and the belief that you can start where you are...Blessings

1 comment:

PeaceBang said...

Imagine if we lived in a culture where trying to achieve Likeness to God was more honored than trying to achive Likeness to Angelina Jolie.