Monday, February 1, 2010

Instinct and Odyssey

I’ve got an itch to write a new book. I want it to be commercial, that is, marketable beyond the narrow confines, however friendly, of Unitarian Universalism.

I’m envisioning a hybrid work, something like a scrapbook, something like a catalog, and something like a workbook suitable to the postmodern sensibility, a sensibility shaped so much by the Internet, as well as the contemporary visual media. And I want it to be a capstone of my three decades as an active and public intellectual thinker in the realm of religion—one who’s had the rare privilege of being a free-range forager as only a UU minister can be. For years I’ve noodled around with what I call Natural Religion—an expansive perspective true to Nature and Human Nature.

I’ve had a working title for at least twenty years: Instinct and Odyssey.

Instinct signifies that we’re all hardwired when it comes to belief and morality. In the broader strokes we’re all more alike than not. Odyssey signifies that each of us has a personal journey. In close-up, sharp focus each of us is unique. Instinct and Odyssey, the universally human and the intimately individual, suggests one of the paradoxes that dot the Religious Landscape.

How I look at the Religious Landscape is informed, even inspired, by my chosen faith, Unitarian Universalism.

Channing: Freedom of the Mind

The Unitarian way, rooted in freedom of the mind and freedom of the will, has shaped my outlook regarding the proper understanding of Religion. In this morning’s responsive affirmation we revisited a foundational and continuing source, what William Ellery Channing called the Free Mind.

It was Channing, the leading light of a group of religious liberals, who in 1819 announced that there was a new group in the old New England Congregational Churches, a group infected by the Enlightenment who valued Reason and Free Will. Channing argued that God was a Reasonable/Rational God and humankind was created with an agile mind to apprehend God. In the 1819 sermon in which Channing announced the emergence of the Unitarians, he preached from a text from 1 Thessalonians: “Prove all things, hold fast that which is good.”
The text implies freedom, the proving of things by Reason and Experience cannot be fettered. It was for this reason that Channing set a standard that Unitarians have scrupulously kept for two centuries: that there be no creed, for time has revealed progressing truths. Progress will continue. New truths will emerge. As it used to said, “Revelation is not sealed.”

The Free Mind (Conscience, too) and Free Will, along with No Creed give Unitarians a unique perspective on Religion.

Parker: Absolute Religion

Another important influence of the Unitarian Way is often identified with a second generation Unitarian minister, Theodore Parker who significantly set Unitarianism free from narrow Christianity, the Christianity of sects and doctrines. He too did it with a sermon, The Transient and Permanent in Christianity, preached in 1841. It was a remarkable sermon preached before unreceptive colleagues in which Parker, the iconoclast, dismissed forms of religion in favor of the substance of Religion. He said, “To turn away from the disputes of the Catholics and the Protestants, of the Unitarian and the Trinitarian, of Old School and New School, and come to the plain words of Jesus of Nazareth, Christianity is a simple thing; very simple. It is absolute, pure Morality; absolute, pure Religion; the love of man; the love of God acting without let or hindrance.”

Parker recommended that what Jesus manifested, in word and deed, is possible in every person, that what we recognize in Jesus is our own reflection and that in this we might grow. And he was so audacious as to declare, “So if it could be proved … that the gospels were the fabrication of designing and artful men, that Jesus of Nazareth had never lived, still Christianity would stand firm, and fear no evil. None of the doctrines of that religion would fall to the ground; for if true, they stand by themselves.”
There’s so much going on in this remarkable sermon. For this morning’s purposes I lift up Parker’s insight that each of us has the means to discern what is true—we resonate to truth when we see it. Truth is universal. It does not depend on time, place, or person.

Parker was a scandal in his day, shunned by the Boston Unitarian establishment that saw Parker as an infidel relative to Christianity. More than anyone else, Parker moved Unitarianism toward an ever open and increasingly eclectic outlook and an indelible trust in self. Theodore Parker is one of my heroes.

What encouragement we have in this unique Religious Way:
  • To use our most treasured resource, the human mind to process and understand.
  • To seek in utter freedom, meaning and purpose.
  • To resonate to truth, as well as beauty and goodness, wherever/wheneve encountered.
  • To infuse our world, personal and collective, with meaning, while fulfilling personal purpose.
  • To respect the self and that self in all others.
  • To self-actualize perhaps, but even more to self-transcend.
Surly Bonds

Two weeks ago, in talking about my experiences at McGill where I studied theology, I used the phrase “surly bonds,” relative to getting beyond my own cultural biases and moving toward a more cosmopolitan outlook. (Of course, someone in the congregation recognized the source of the phrase, from a famous poem called High Flight by John Gillespie Magee, Jr.) The phrase also suits my experience through Unitarian Universalism as I’ve soared in the realm of Religion. The poem captures a spirit of Freedom in Religion that I’ve experienced and you can, too.

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air. . . .

Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or ever eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

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