Wholeheartedly Unitarian

by BC

Our reading comes to us today from the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, in an essay titled, “Character.

Persons with character are as easy to spot as if they were a different color. Self-trust and the perception that virtue is enough is the essence of character. It is the natural tendency to defy falseness and wrong. It speaks the truth, and it is just, generous, hospitable, temperate, despises pettiness, and is scornful of being scorned. Character persists when the mood has passed in which the decision to act was made. Character displays undaunted boldness and a fortitude that does not wear down or out.

When the soul is not master of one’s reactions to the world, then that soul is everyone’s dupe. The person of character is not for sale. He does not ask to dine nicely and to sleep warm. He does not need plenty; he can lose with grace. Character is persistent. The person of character makes a choice based on honorable considerations and sticks with it and, no matter what, does not weakly try to reconcile itself with the world.

Most outstanding of all is the good humor and hilarity of the person of character. The great will not condescend to take anything seriously. The heroic soul is not common nor can the common be heroic. The person of character always does what he is afraid to do. Greatness ignores the opinions of others.

Spending a year living in Concord, Massachusetts was an interesting endeavor.  I lived right in the heart of the town center, just off of the old Cambridge turnpike, my neighbors were the Unitarian parish and the Wright Tavern — the tavern where the minutemen had drinks while waiting for the redcoats to show up and where John Hancock and the provincial congress first met. 

To say the place was charming and overwhelming, humbling and with a picturesque postcard perfection — it cannot capture the feeling of living in the yankee capital of northeast.  To walk the same paths as so many august names — John Hancock, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, and so many others — to walk where they walked, to be in the same buildings they were in, to eat chowder where they also had chowder, it is an American history geeks dream come true. 

An added layer of this journey was that so many of those names were good and pioneering Unitarians.  They pushed the faith to new frontiers and made the path ahead clear for Unitarian Universalism to be born.  Living there was a holy pilgrimage, as close as you can get as  Unitarian Universalist.  It is our Rome in many ways.  But as many of you know, those of you who have had pilgrimages of your own, met people you admire, or dug deep into the history and truths of your idols, ideas, and inspirations — things change.  You start to see up close the scars, dried skin, and weary eyes of history.

When I started my tenure as the intern at First Parish in Concord, I reflected that way back when my family first became Unitarian, I remember when I first heard the lovely words of Emerson and Thoreau — and then upon entering high school, I had a teacher that especially loved these authors.  The words were explored with enthusiasm.  Walden pond became a magical place in my young mind. 

Never in a million years did I think that I would stand in a pulpit in Concord, Massachusetts, as a minister.  I never imagined being able to walk to Walden pond, or to live with Emerson’s house three doors down.  Humbling does not even capture the magic of the moment.  But throughout that year of living there I got to walk and talk with my idols and learned about who they were as people, not prophets.

Henry David Thoreau, with his rugged individualism, civil disobedience, and pure love of experiencing nature, was kind of a schmuck.  When he lived at Walden Pond, in solitude and communing with nature, he would be visited by his mother regularly — who would bring him goodie baskets.  He would walk down to the tavern for pints with the townspeople often.  His solitude was that of his mind, not of his person. 

Further still, his act of civil disobedience — refusing to pay his taxes — an act that has inspired countless people since to pursue their own acts of civil disobedience — saw him endure time in a jail cell.  He spent one whole night in a jail cell.  And it was quite a comfortable one at that.  We’re not talking maximum security prison here.  Thoreau was a human like any other prophet, and he had his quirks and his irregularities of character.

My favorite story of Thoreau involves a camping story. He was gathered with a friend one evening to camp near the Concord river.  Being the rugged environmentalist he was, he decided to build a fire so they could cook their dinner.  Upon starting the fire, an ember jumped to a nearby bush — and since it was a dry season that April, it caught fire quickly.  And it spread.  It spread fast. 

Despite Thoreau and his friend attempting to put it out, it continued to spread.  Three hundred acres later, the fire was contained.  To imagine the scope of that fire, it would be the equivalent of 43 of our campuses.  All of our church buildings and all of our land, 43 times over.  This is what you could call, the closest thing Unitarians have in their history to a burning bush moment.  From that day on, Thoreau was called the “Woods Burner of Concord” and he showed no regret.  He wrote in his journal some time later about the incident, “When the lightening burns a forest, it’s director (meaning God) makes no apology to man.  I…was but an agent of God.”

From these stories of Thoreau and all of the other luminaries of our history where we learn of just exactly who they were, with all of their faults, there is one clear theme.  Despite their flaws, they were still known as people of durable character.  Though their actions often said otherwise, their words were very clear in documenting just how great they were. 

For their time, it was important that ones character and principles were documented in words, black and white for all to see.  Words were the greatest and loveliest of tools, they mattered above all else — they were the essential Unitarian tradition.

Today, as Unitarian Universalists, we continue in this tradition of words.  We are a wordy people with wordy welcomes, wordy policies, wordy documents, wordy introductions, wordy primers on the faith — words are a cherished part of our history. 

It is joked often that we do not have one book of scripture, but millions and millions of books that bring forth wisdom, truth, spiritual deepening, and intellectual growth.  But it is so true.  We write of and hold sacred the words that inspire us to imagine a better world and give us the tools to make it a reality instead of simply a hope. 

And not just the world, but of ourselves as well.  We might often describe ourselves as a loosey goosey religion, people might think of us as that, but right there in our DNA and right there in how we actually live our lives as Unitarian Universalists is the undeniable urge to improve our character. 

It’s there in our values and our principles — our search for truth and meaning in the principles is not freewheeling, unhinged, revolutionary, or gregarious.  None of those words are used to describe it.  But, ah, yes, right there in our principles we speak of a responsible search for truth and meaning.  Responsible to each other, responsible to ourselves, responsible to our characters.  We are a people of words.  And we are a people of character.

You’ve no doubt heard of in some way the Catholic and Protestant understandings of salvation.  Catholics are said to believe in salvation by works — meaning the sacraments.  Protestants on the other hand, thanks to Martin Luther, are said to believe in salvation by faith alone.  Two ways of being saved that are still with us in Christianity today.  But for Unitarians in the 19th century, and they were still considered Protestant Christians then, neither of these understandings worked for them.  For Unitarians, they professed salvation by character.

This was a salvation that did not come from on high but a salvation that must come from within. And as with the words and professions of character from people like Emerson and Thoreau, it is a salvation that comes only when it is laid down for all to witness.  It was salvation that was both very deep and person but public — it was not wholly solitary. 

While this idea is present in some form or another with the ancient Stoics, the birth of salvation by character for Christianity comes to us from another great of the 19th century, Rev. William Ellery Channing and his famous Baltimore sermon.  Channing was from Boston and there’s still a lovely statue of him near the Boston gardens, but he gave an ordination sermon for a dear friend in Baltimore. 

Up until that moment, Unitarian was a word people used as an insult, but Channing claimed it.  For over two hours he preached this sermon — marking the official split of Unitarianism from orthodox Christianity in America.  Can you imagine, a sermon over two hours during an ordination?  Not happening.  But what he brought up in that sermon was a proclamation of the very clear beliefs of the Unitarian movement — of Jesus as a great prophet, of heaven as something we experience first in this life, and of character as the currency for salvation. Channing writes,

“No influence in the universe seems to us so glorious, as that of the character; and no redemption so worthy of thankfulness, as the restoration of the soul to purity.  Without this, pardon, were it possible, would be of little value.  Why pluck the sinner from hell, if a hell be left to burn in his own breast?  Why raise him to heaven, if he remain a stranger to sanctity and love?  With these impressions, we are accustomed to value the Gospel chiefly as it abounds in effectual aids, motives, excitements to a generous and divine virtue.”

Character, for Channing, was a divine expectation — and it meant aiming for purity, forgiveness, finding the holy, and love of oneself and of each other.  While as a religion, Unitarian Universalism finds Gospels — good news — in many different writings, what remains true is that we hope to equip people with the tools to find the holy, to forgive, and to love without restriction.  We are still a people that embody, in various ways, the concept of salvation by character. 

I see this most evidently in our congregational right relationship document.  Doesn’t that sound exciting?  Congregational right relationship document.  See, we’re a people of words.  But in this document it is abundantly visible that as a community we seek to nurture the growth of our character and to be our best selves. 

We commit ourselves to communicating clearly, to honoring our emotions, to being respectful in disagreement, to honoring each others time, to forgiving and not holding on to bitterness — these are all ideas that are not new, they certainly weren’t new in the writings of Emerson and Thoreau or in the declarative sermon of William Ellery Channing. 

It would appear that being in right relationship has everything to do with our personal and communal character.  But there are some real problems with what we’ve inherited from our Unitarian ancestors.  Inherent in all of this talk of being the best possible human beings that we can be — there is a history of classism, racism, unchecked barriers, ableism, and elitism.  Building up ones character is easy when you have all that is necessary to sit and contemplate your character in the first place. 

Try contemplating your character when you’re busy worrying about your children surviving another day in the inner city, worrying about paying your bills, finding the care that you need, healing the wounds you’ve endured, or suffering the barriers put in place by a culture that simply does not see you. 

Perhaps the idea of salvation by our personal character is no longer completely useful.  Perhaps it just fosters an elitism that pushes away people with significant life challenges.  The Unitarianism of the 19th century reminds us that we cannot just rely on the love of God as the Universalists did and swallow the bitter pill of daily life, but that we must look to the hard work taking care of our needs and tending to our communities in healthy ways. 

If anything is true about that old maxim of being saved by character today, it is that we are saved by the character of our communities.  Are we doing what we need to do to welcome the stranger, to welcome those who are oppressed, to welcome ourselves and each other into the moments where we gather as a church?  Unitarian Universalism has within it the great charge of creating, together, communities where we do not just advocate for the needs of those outside of our community but also advocate for the needs of the congregation.

Just as Universalism reminds us that we are so completely loved and enough, Unitarianism must remind us that we have the joyful burden of service to one another.  We need to all be the balm of Gilead that soothes our community and gives us space to be our best selves.  To find a rest from our worries.  To contemplate spiritual matters.  To know that here the demands of the world can wait — even if just for one hour a week. 

That is our great charge and that is the gift of our Unitarian ancestors.  They were imperfect, Thoreau almost burned down the entire town, Emerson was not very friendly, Louisa May Alcott had parental baggage — but in those moments where they found peace and space to contemplate, they laid out for all to see the yearnings of their hearts. 

It was a wholehearted practice — to search their faults and their strengths and to put forth ideas for a better life and better community.  Being a people of character, then, is being a people of wholeheartedness — a people that make room for each and every one of us to grow and bring it to the world around us.  Universalism calls us to love and be loved, Unitarianism gives us the space to figure it all out.

This brings it all back to right relationship.  There is no excuse for anyone in this community to feel like they need to tip toe around someone else or to be in fear of someone’s anger.  The great hope of any church community is that we all feel welcome to be in fellowship and explore our various paths freely and do the good work of church — without fear and holding one another to our covenants.

Church should be a place where we find strategies to diffuse the things that weigh us down — anger, fear, jealousy, worry — not a place where those very things dominate the dialogue. 

The call of this faith is to respond to an unending love — that’s Universalism — and it is a call to be our best selves in the face of a world that sometimes would rather burn than heal — that’s Unitarianism.  It’s a call from ages past, a call for all who hear the hope of our values, and a call that says simply, “You are called.  Every sunrise and sunset, every shining star, every moment you are called because you live and breath — and you are worth it.”

May we yearn to be a people of character — living wholeheartedly, with all of our flaws, wrinkles, blemishes, and worries — and may we find the peace and space to create the communities we hope for in this moment.

Blessed Be.  Amen.