Saturday, January 14, 2012

Away from Religion; Toward a Philosophy of Life

Rembrandt, Philosopher's Meditation
Proving and Holding

Here’s an historical sketch about the first Unitarian sermon and the beginning of Unitarianism as a distinct religious denomination.

The prevalent, progressive intellectual outlook of the 18th century was The Enlightenment—the Age of Reason.  What we now proclaim as American Exceptionalism was the product of an intellectual elite--yes, an elite including the likes of Jefferson, Washington, and John Adams,--an elite well versed in Reason’s way and thoroughly steeped in Greek and Roman Classicism. 

Included in this intellectual elite of the emergent American Republic was a certain group of liberal clergy within the traditional New England Church, mostly Harvard educated and Boston-centric.  Their influence rippled through the Boston congregational establishment.  These liberals gained control of the Divinity School at Harvard in the first decade of the 19th century.  In reaction, all the conservative ministers abandoned Harvard and the Boston churches, retreating to Western Massachusetts’s newly minted Williams College and then to Amherst college to build a new base, from which a later generation would try to recapture Boston.

For twenty years, between 1805 through 1825, the liberals within the old Puritan church establishment, evolved into a denomination.  The name they took on, Unitarian was originally intended by the conservatives to be a term of derision. In 1825 the fledging liberal New England Churches joined together in The American Unitarian Association.

The turning point for this emerging denomination occurred several years earlier and can be narrowed down to a day and hour in an 1819 sermon given by William Ellery Channing in Baltimore at the ordination of a fellow minister.  This so-called Baltimore Sermon was titled “Unitarian Christianity” by its author. When Channing delivered the Baltimore Sermon, he was the preeminent liberal minister; his pulpit  the influential Federal Street Church in Boston

Channing was a persuasive liberal preacher, distinguished for his presence/demeanor as for his reasoned rhetoric. As the acknowledged leader of the Boston liberals, he had long resisted becoming what he called a sectarian, that is, he didn’t want to tear the liberals who rallied around him from the traditional New England congregational establishment

So, it was a major event that Channing publically declared that the so-called Unitarians were a distinct sect.  That he did so in “faraway” Baltimore cast it as an event of national import.

I still enjoy reading that long ago sermon.  It was a bold declaration offering not only the attributes but also justifications of the new Unitarians.  It’s first among the three important documents of 19th century Unitarianism.  14,000 words in length, it took Channing an hour and a half to deliver it.  It is said that Channing could be heard only by the first three pews. Yet in publication, the sermon became an instant and long running “bestseller.” Through 1830 it was the single must published piece of literature in the country.
As with all sermons of that era, it was preached from a Biblical text, a verse from 1 Thessalonians attributed to Paul:  “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.” 

I maintain that its scriptural verse (“Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.”) has been and continues to be Unitarianism’s (now Unitarian Universalism’s) foundational and fundamental) orientation. It continues to be my orientation to all that is presented to me as truth, especially regarding Religion.

“Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.”

Dr. Suess’s Counsel

Here’s a more whimsical expression of Unitarianism’s proving and holding, from the inimitable Dr. Seuss, Ted Geisel, who once gave an unforgettable and short commencement speech at Lake Forest College:
My uncle ordered popovers 
from the restaurant's bill of fare. 
And when they were served, 
he regarded them 
with a penetrating stare . . . 
Then he spoke great Words of Wisdom 
as he sat there on that chair: 
"To eat these things," 
said my uncle, 
"you must excercise great care. 
You may swallow down what's solid . . . 
BUT . . . 
you must spit out the air!"
as you partake of the world's bill of fare, 
that's darned good advice to follow. 
Do a lot of spitting out the hot air. 
And be careful what you swallow.

My Critical Odyssey

I first studied history, expecting to write and teach it in university.  Generally, I learned that what we call history involves the organization and interpretation of surviving information.  There is no one true history, but a multitude of possible interpretations serving the historian and her audience’s point of view.  My early discipline of History honed my analytical/critical skills.

In my early adult years a skill set relating to my study of history and the essential orientation of Unitarianism came together, informing me when I began to study theology.  Forty years later, I've not been dissuaded.

I first look at any particular religion as embedded in its historical time and place.  I also put all religions into the larger context of Comparative Religion that looks at religion in terms of commonalities—as human phenomena.

I have delighted in what now seems a lifelong journey into Religion, less from a spiritual yearning or quest, more as an ENLIGHTENED UNITARIAN charged to prove all things; hold fast to that which is good.  On this journey, I’ve gained considerable knowledge about a variety of historical faiths as well have come to an understanding of from time immemorial.  In recent years, I have self-identified as a Religious Naturalist, and advocate Natural Religion, while continuing to function with an historic liberal Protestant church and denomination context.  To be fair, my sense of Natural Religion bends more to the natural sciences, such as, psychology, than it does to traditional revelation.

In the last decades of the 20th century I grew into a postmodern perspective that includes the notion of deconstruction, that all attempts to create a system of belief inevitably falls prey to critical analysis—being taken part.  Systems are time bound; and systems are subjective.  Ever-advancing knowledge and an outsider’s point of view cannot be accommodated to make any system universally true.  Postmodernism has made me an ever-more radical Unitarian who proves all things and holds fast to that which is good.  Again, I look at Religion as a human phenomenon.

Having spent a lifetime studying them, I have a lover-of-knowledge’s fascination about organized religions.  For example, the millennia-long conflict among the Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, is a crucial aspect of the world’s immediate future that I actively strive to understand in historical terms and contemporary global dynamics.

And I am studying up on Mormonism, an area of interest way back when, when I studied ante-bellum American history.  Mormonism was one of several enthusiastic religions that followed the course of the Erie Canal’s construction from Albany to Buffalo in the 1820s, a wide swath that earned the region the name of the Burned Over District.   Why my renewed interest?  It looks like Mitt Romney, a respected/influential leader in his Mormon church, will get the Republican nomination for President. His practice of Mormonism will be scrutinized.

A few weeks ago, the NY Times presented a lengthy article on Mr. Romney’s Mormon commitments in Massachusetts, affirming that his Mormon identity is integral in his worldview.

Several years ago, I presented a sermon series on world religions, in part, acknowledging this congregation’s historic interest in world faiths. The leading personality of the epochal World Parliament of Religions (1893), Swami Vivekananda of the Krishna Society spoke here twice in his first brief American sojourn.  In the mid-twentieth century the congregations’ minister was Sunder Joshi, a respected lecturer on World Religions.  During Sunder’s tenure six great paintings, representing six great world religions filled the wall behind me.

My sermon series focused on my approach to world religions, looking not at similarities rather at an “essential truth” each major world religion gives me, for example, Social Order from Confucianism, Justice from Judaism, and Compassion from Buddhism.

As I was putting this sermon series together, I realized my personal perspective on Religion was shifting away from theology/religion and toward what is more properly called a philosophy of life.

A Philosophy of Life Orientation

Throughout my career I’ve striven to keep a practical perspective, that is, how does my counsel relate to two overarching concerns for each and for all: meaning and happiness. That’s what a philosophy of life is concerned with. As a result, I have a growing appreciation for developing personal philosophy of life as compared for a striving to build a personal theology. (This goes against the UU grain a little, since one of the keystone UU adult curricula is called “Building Your Own Theology.”)

To my mind, a philosophy of life recommends a constant testing, a trying out through one’s own life arc and experiences.  A philosophy of life relies on Wisdom.  For me, Wisdom points to a broadly human consensus—a conventional sort of wisdom readily recognizable and affirmed.

 In contrast, a theology has in it the notion of faith, which includes a cluster of attributes such as commitment, trust, and hope without proof.  Theology is religion’s way of knowing, which from an objective perspective makes it easily deconstructed by new knowledge, by other subjective perspectives, or by essential flaws in its tenets of belief.

In my latter years, I’m advocating a philosophy of life over religion and spirituality.  Once again a philosophy of life relates to meaning and happiness.  And it’s also true that a philosophy of life can operate in addition to or to supplement one’s religion, though I also maintain that a philosophy of life can also replace a traditional religion in our postmodern context.

One of my favorite contemporary public intellectuals is William B. Irvine who teaches traditional philosophy at Wright State in Ohio; he has become a contemporary voice for Stoicism, an ancient, influential philosophy of life.  Stoicism’s aim is the achievement of tranquility by taking negative emotions under control.  Professor Irvine speaks not to fellow professional academic philosophers but to an ordinary, albeit intellectually upscale audience.

In October, I spoke to Stoicism via Irvine’s fine recent book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. I mentioned that Irvine fell upon Stoicism while he was seeking, at midlife, a philosophy of life to order his living.  He wrote: “I was contemplating becoming a Zen Buddhist and wanted to learn more about it before taking the leap. But the more I learned about Zen, the less it attracted me.
“Practicing Zen would require me to suppress my analytical abilities, something I found it quite difficult to do. Another off-putting aspect of Zen was that the moment of enlightenment it dangled before its practitioners was by no means guaranteed. Practice Zen for decades and you might achieve enlightenment -- or you might not. It would be tragic, I thought, to spend the remaining decades of my life pursuing a moment of enlightenment that never came. Zen doubtless works for some people, but for me, the fit wasn't good. …
“I mentioned above that the benefits to be derived from practicing Zen are uncertain. Stoicism, by way of contrast, does not dangle before its adherents a moment -- maybe -- of life-transforming enlightenment. Instead, it provides a body of advice for them to follow and a set of strategies for them to employ in everyday life. The strategies in question are easy to use.
Irvine offers a cogent description of what a philosophy of life is: “a body of advice to follow and easy to use strategies to employ in everyday life.”  I add that such philosophies of life are a constant proving and holding.  The proof is in the pudding, with the pudding being one’s progressing life.
One of my foundational/favorite philosophy of life is the Old Testament book Ecclesiastes, the testimony of an Agnostic Realist, a Jew living in the yeasty era of Greek hegemony following Alexander the Great’s death, circa 300 BCE, who finds the meaning of life in enjoyment of the gifts of life through Wisdom.
If you want to consider the possibilities of developing a disciplined philosophy of life, I recommend my guide to Ecclesiastes, Wisdom for the Ages.  I have a couple of websites where you can access more information about this carpe diem, seize the day, approach of an ancient and influential text.
Also look to William Irvine’s materials from his personal website.  It includes a link to a compelling video of a lecture by Professor Irvine regarding a Stoic’s outlook on aging.
You are already familiar with various philosophies of life:  Thoreau’s Walden is a philosophy of life that pares life down to its essentials; William Channing Gannett (our first minister) and his famous essay “The House Beautiful” is a philosophy of life on how to make a house a home.  The collected works and aphorisms of Emerson converge in a philosophy of life that urges “Trust thyself.)

I’m going to end with a brief philosophy of life that is often called “My Symphony,” by William Henry Channing, a nephew of William Ellery Channing:  You can follow along in our hymnal, Reading #484.

To live content with small means.
To seek elegance rather than luxury,
    and refinement rather than fashion.
To be worthy not respectable,
    and wealthy not rich.
To study hard, think quietly, talk gently,
    act frankly,
To listen to stars, birds, babes,
    and sages with open heart,
To bear all cheerfully,
    do all bravely, await occasions, hurry never.
In a word, to let the spiritual,
    unbidden and unconscious,
    grow up through the common.
This is to be my symphony.

And what is your symphony?

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