Monday, March 8, 2010

Unitarians: Yes, They Believed in a Divine Jesus Too!

O Holy Night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of the dear Saviour's birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining.
Till He appeared and the Spirit felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices!
O night divine, the night when Christ was born;
O night, O Holy Night , O night divine!
O night, O Holy Night , O night divine!


Ok, I know what you are thinking. What it the hell is Brad doing quoting a Christmas song in March, and what in the hell does it have to do with religion and America's founding?

Well, hold your breaths, I am about to tell you....

Every once in a while you hear people on this blog mention the "fact" that Unitarianism, a more "rational" form of worship that sometimes rejects those silly notions about Christ's virgin birth, divine mission, etc., was seen as a "heathen" form of worship by the more orthodox members of early American society. And though I agree that unitarianism was more "heathen" in its interpretation of scripture, its views on Christ, etc., I think sometimes we can be guilty of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Take for instance the famous Christmas song, "O Holy Night." Originally adapted from an 1847 French poem entitled "Minuit, chrétiens" (Midnight, Christians), "O Holy Night" has become a popular Christmas song throughout America. But it wasn't until one John Sullivan Dwight, a UNITARIAN preacher in the "heathen" Boston area, translated the song into a singing version in English that "O Holy Night" became so popular. Originally published in his extremely popular magazine, Dwight's Journal of Music "O Holy Night" became an overnight success that is now sung, without fail, during every Christmas, by every branch of Christianity (orthodox and "heathen") that exists.

Interesting that Dwight, a devout Unitarian, chose to use such "heathen" words for this song like, "Fall on your knees," "Oh night divine, the night when Christ was born," "Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother. And in his name all oppression shall cease," and "Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we, With all our hearts we praise His holy name."

"Heathen," anti-Jesus stuff if I ever saw it!

Now, I realize that Dwight wasn't around during the founding (he lived in the early to mid 1800s), nor does he represent a fair cross-section of all Unitarian beliefs, but I still think there is a small point here. Could it be that all of this stuff about Unitarianism being a "rational" break-off from orthodox Christianity isn't as true as we may think? Couldn't we argue that unitarians, at least in some degree, were quite devout in their devotion to a divine, orthodox Jesus?

Just something quick to chew on. Maybe I am making a mountain out of a mole hill here but I still thought it would be worth tossing out there.

And for your listening pleasure here is Josh Groban's version of "O Holy Night." Enjoy the "rational" prose of the song for yourself. After all, only 290 more shopping days until Christmas!

88 comments:

cartwright said...

I'd go with mountain out of a molehill. Unitarians of that time believed that Jesus was the "son" of God, but not God.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Yeah, Brad, "divine" is the crux of the matter.

Still, I've also been struck---in reading up on all the Unitarians Mr. Rowe writes about---how many were genuinely devout, and not mere intellectual skeptics or armchair theologians.

Let's not forget Unitarian Julia Ward Howe and her "Battle Hymn of the Republic"

Full story here:
http://americancreation.blogspot.com/2009/04/battle-hymn-of-imagined-community.html

I mean, this is Christian enough to scare the bejesus out of any New Atheist!

I have seen Him in the watch fires of a hundred circling camps
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps;
His day is marching on.
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! His day is marching on.

I have read a fiery Gospel writ in burnished rows of steel;
As ye deal with My condemners, so with you My grace shall deal;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with His heel,
Since God is marching on.
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Since God is marching on.

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat;
Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet;
Our God is marching on.
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Our God is marching on.

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free;
While God is marching on.
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! While God is marching on.

He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave,
He is wisdom to the mighty, He is honor to the brave;
So the world shall be His footstool, and the soul of wrong His slave,
Our God is marching on.
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Our God is marching on.

Pinky said...

.
From what I've been able to learn, many of the Founders were involved in scientific pursuits and many leaned toward Unitarianism and straight out Deism. Enough so, to throw much of the teaching we get into the bag with The Brothers Grimm.
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Trinitarianism is a dogmatic doctrine that has been accepted as the Gospel Truth by populist "christianity"; although it cannot be shown to be so with definitive references to any Bible chapter or verse--only vaguery at best.
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In fact, it has the tendency to pollute the ministryh of Jesus.

Rex said...

Some liberal congregational clergy of New England around 1820 accepted the designation of "Unitarian," despite its intended disparagement. As the chief spokesman at the time, William Ellery Channing, was most adamant in opposition to creedal statements, no uniform exposition of the newly formed denomination existed then or to this day.

My understanding is that the hottest topic of a doctrinal nature at that time had to do with the question of Biblical miracles, even more than the nature of Jesus. The primacy of scripture began to be widely questioned only after Emerson's transcendentalism became popular. Before that the question was, since interpretation was always necessary, how much freedom to deviate from traditional consensus could be accepted. The exchanges between Emerson and the Unitarian faculty at Harvard Divinity School were hot and heavy with disagreement.

While many of us who call ourselves Christians belong happily to UUism, as it is now nicknamed since merger of Unitarians and Universalists, the denomination is not officially Christian. What has not changed is that the disagreements remain hot and heavy.

Hampers said...

Nice blog. enjoyed listening to Josh Groban's version of "O Holy Night.. Thanks for sharing it.

eli said...

The author felt the night was divine, but I see no reason to change my view of unitarians based on a capitalized "He" or two in this particular song.

TvD: of the unitarians I've only read a few of Channing's essays, but I was interested to see how truly devout a Christian he was, given his belief in the undivinity of Jesus.

Brad Hart said...

@ Cartwright:

Ok, maybe this is a mountain out of a mole hill but don't you think you have to at least concede the fact that unitarian theology was not as "anti-Jesus being divine" as many make it out to be?

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@TVD:

Yeah, Howe looks like another excellent example.

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@Rex:

I am familiar with Channing's material. Good stuff. And yes, your points are correct. What I was trying to illustrate in this post is the fact that many unitarians (presumably then and now) still do maintain the divinity of Jesus as paramount to their faith. Would I be wrong in making such an assumption?

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@Hampers:

Thank you and I hope you'll visit us again!

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@ Eli:

Oh I think this goes FAR beyond the mere capitalization of a few words! The song I have mentioned (and TVD mentioned) clearly point this out.

Tom Van Dyke said...

What I think Brad has captured here is that the night, even by Unitarians, was considered divine. God, the Divine, sent Jesus to man, and for a special and unique purpose.

I do not know if Unitarian Universalism of 2010 considers Jesus unique any more than Buddha or any other possible holy men. this would be the difference between Unitarianism of the Founding era and UUism of today.

The Unitarian Christianity of William Ellery Channing, et al., was quite a bit different than UUism today and deism back then. Neither would be comfortable with "O Holy Night" or the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," and I think that's what Brad's getting at.

I've posted this a number of times in the past couple weeks, but to get Eli & Rex up to speed, Channing wrote:


"I fear, that the Author of the Lord's prayer will, according to this rule, be driven as a heretick from the very church which he has purchased with his own blood. In that well known prayer I can discover no reference to the "inspiration of the holy scriptures, to the supreme divinity of the Son and Holy Ghost, to the atonement and intercession of Jesus Christ, to the native and total depravity of the unregenerate, and to the reality and necessity of special divine grace to renew and sanctify the souls of men;" and these, let it be remembered, are _five_ out of the _six_ articles which are given by the Reviewer as fundamental articles of a christian's faith."



So that's what they didn't believe. So what did they believe? Channing wrote:


"The word UNITARIANISM, as denoting this opposition to Trinitarianism, undoubtedly expresses the character of a considerable part of the ministers of this town and its vicinity, and the commonwealth...We both agreed in our late conference, that a majority of our brethren believe, that Jesus Christ is more than man, that he existed before the world, that he literally came from heaven to save our race, that he sustains other offices than those of a teacher and witness to the truth, and that he still acts for our benefit, and is our intercessor with the Father. This we agreed to be the prevalent sentiment of our brethren."

Each will make of that what they will, but at least we'll all be starting together from the facts and source documents.

Andrew said...

It is posts like this that put American Creation on my favorites bar, and why even though my blog has very little to do with American History, I still link to you guys on my site. History might not be my forte, but even a simpleton like myself can learn interesting little tidbits like this. That is what I like about the way you do the posts. Some are way over most people's heads, and then there are those that everybody can relate to like this one. I had no idea of the origins of a song I have sung all my life. It isn't a mountain out of a molehill, but it definitely food for thought!

eli said...

Brad, and Tom:

I don't have Unitarian Christianity in front of me, but all of the sentiments expressed in the song seemed to me to be perfectly compatible with Channing at least.

The only non-unitarian sentiment I can rationalize out of this text is "Long lay the world in sin and error pining". This could be a hint that the author believed in the total depravity of man, but it is also consistent with the unitarian view that Jesus came to express the moral perfection and fatherly love of God to Gentiles, who were previously in the dark about God. Right?

eli said...

In regard to The Battle Hymn of the Republic, I do acknowledge this one particular line is a somewhat unusual thing for the Unitarians of my imagination to be saying:

"He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat"

I do remember that Channing in Unitarian Christianity made a point of condemning the contradictory belief of orthodox (is that the right word?) Christianity in regard to both the infinite mercy and infinite wrath and justice of God. Channing sided with mercy and fatherly love over wrath and justice: God is a father, and His "judgement" is always aimed toward our improvement, not toward punishing us for the sake of cosmically balancing His scales. (By the way, I *like* this view!)

Rex said...

Brad and TVD: second try; the first got lost in type heaven it seems; need one continue to select "post comment" until it actually appears on the site?

Thank you for your comments. I grew up in a Unitarian Christian church, so that shaped my sense of foundation. However, I have since studied contemporary philosophy, and so that shapes my personal perspective. The spectrum of belief today among American UUs (continental UUs tend to be more traditional) varies from Channing's versions (one can see his spectrum in TVD's two quotes) to Jesus Seminar doubts about the absence of any valid firsthand information from him or about him. Recently my local UU ministers group felt it necessary to issue a plea to discourage impolite treatment of traditional espousers of our Christian origins.

In the context of the discussion here, the most undeveloped UU idea has to do with the meaning of "divine." The word will be used freely as if we all know what it means. We do not all know what it might mean. Most significant also is that the national denomination does not today officially designate itself as Christian even while there are clear connections to the 4th Century CE Arians and the church father, Origen.

My interest is in the development underway in American higher education to discuss religion in an academic environment, where standards of scholarship and disagreement can be brought to bear. That is compatible with what one is most likely to encounter in UU practice.

However, since UUs have a proud intellectual history, one will also find a "museum" attitude in historical churches. It was my privilege to serve for a short time First Church in Watertown, MA. It makes the claim that it predated First Church Boston because the Watertown church was founded the very day people came ashore, whereas Boston waited until the next morning. So 1630 certifies Watertown as an historic institution.

Rex said...

eli:

I am very pleased to see that American academic philosophers are in the midst of a more favorable reconsideration of Emerson. Treating him as a journalist, as previously thought, excuses an inability to understand him. He supplies very contemporary and profound philosophical insights.

Yet he consistently affirmed what he called the principle of compensation. "As you sow" etc. I do not yet know if that stems from his investigation of Asian scripture or his neo-Kantianism.

Insofar as Howe's line affirms a similar principle, it has a valid place in UU history. Personally, compensation is the most demanding belief for me, having been educated in the value of Greek and Shakespearian tragedy. Compensation for me remains a leap of faith.

eli said...

Rex:

I don't know about Emerson, but the standard Christian view of the compensation principle was also a hard sell for Channing (and for me) in the sense that it means our limited sin puts us in eternal unforgivable debt, which Jesus then completely covers with an uneternal sacrifice, which somehow translates to God forgiving us, even though the debt was paid.

Channing worded his objection to this threefold nonsensical theory marvellously. I should go look it up and include it here, but I should also get back to work. :)

Tom Van Dyke said...

Gentlemen, you may enjoy this history of unitarianism published in 1879. From its zenith of success in 1825, by 1835 it is fragmenting between what is left of a creed and anti-creedalism for its own sake. [The rise of the Transcendentalists doesn't help matters.]

As this [unitarian] author acknowledges, what began as a Bible-based faith becomes a church of reason, with "free inquiry" its centerpiece. Although in 1879 he sees a small rise in unitarianism's fortunes, he also admits that structurally, "unity" is difficult if not impossible when an unfettered individualism is at its core.

Rex said...

Gannett's reputation as a spokesperson and historian for Unitarianism is eminent. I appreciate the resource TVD and your summary of what you found.

So far as I recall, while transcendentalism still stirred enthusiasm in 1879, the introduction from Europe of Hegelianism diminished Emerson's theological influence, while his literary admirers grew. The Philosophical Society established in Concord, MA at that time, in which the aged Emerson was a participant, was led by a prominent Hegelian. Mark C Taylor in his recent AFTER GOD suggests that Emerson be studied in light of Hegel, although he does not elaborate or offer indications why that might make a significant contribution.

If Gannett blamed "unfettered individualism," Emerson stands apart from such a critique, even while it is commonplace to find him lumped into that category. I recently came across an article by contemporary literary theorist Sacvan Bercovitch titled "Emerson, Individualism, and Liberal Dissent" that reviews the distinctions available even during Gannett's time between individualism and individuality.

While much has been written about the distinction between individualism (with which Emerson was identified because it is the word he used) and communalism or socialism, the scholarly usage of the term "individuality," primarily in Europe, has seemingly been lost. Yet Bercovitch explains how it comes closer to accurately describing Emerson's overall position.

It's the difference between the kind of individualism as interpreted by Ayn Rand and libertarians versus Emerson's insistence that when an individual pursues self-development, it inevitably leads to longing for community. It remains a complex historical issue that goes largely ignored by popular and even scholarly commentators.

Daniel said...

The theology of unitarianism was, and is, quite broad. What I find interesting about these hymns is that a movement that is rooted in reason would produce such powerful imagery.

The Battle Hymn is "America's Hymn". But its lyric undermines expectations in a number of ways. No, it doesn't sound like 'typical' unitarianism. Nor is it Lockean -- it is Romantic and radical. The State and the Kingdom of God are One, driving out evil and creating a new world. When I am in church, singing the Battle Hymn, I usually wonder whether anyone else is really paying attention to the meaning of those amazing words (I often wonder the same thing with the Magnificat).

Rex said...

A former professor, Sydney Mead, distinguished scholar of American Protestantism, once lectured on the anomaly of citizens of democracy expressing worshipfulness by referring to divinity in royalist language. While he made no predictions, his tone was one of wondering how long that could last. Apparently it will last until something better comes along as a substitute.

Summarizing Unitarianism today as a struggle between Romanticism and reason as logic would not be far from the mark. From King's Chapel in Boston that uses a reformed Anglican liturgy to small congregations (fellowships, as they are called) where one dare not use the word "God," has been the substance of Unitarianism for the past 75 years. When asked what Unitarians believe, one can only answer for oneself.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I'd say it looks more like 150 years, Rex. The lack of unity in unitarianism is more than a rhetorical irony. Not like herding cats, but collecting frogs in a wheelbarrow.

Where Jefferson [and no doubt Channing] thought unitarianism was the future of Christianity, when Theodore Parker rejected not only Trinitarianism and such dogma, but revelation in toto, the bell tolled for it. What had been a religion became a philosophical society, man replaces God at its center. [Man's reason and Free Inquiry become the raison d'etre for the unitarian "community."

But to harken back to Emerson for a moment, that man is a social animal goes back to the ancient Greeks as a rather routine observation of his nature. hermits are rare.

But how much "diversity" can a community bear before it breaks?

If the Martians grabbed 1000 random humans and deposited them into a city, would they form a "community?" Perhaps, perhaps not. Man has had his chance at that experiment himself, and non-overlapping "communities" live cheek by jowl all over the world.

Now the unitarians had a common enemy at first, the ecclesial centralization of interpreting Scripture. But once Scripture is disposed of by Parker, the First Chirch of Boston denies him the use of its pulpit.

The common ground of the community, a belief in the One God and in revelation, is broken. The Tower of Babel was not a community, in fact, it's fairly the definition of a non-community, people living and working side-by-side, but with no common worldview, no common language.

Hence, George Washington pinned at least some of his for the future of the republic with,

"With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles. You have in a common cause fought and triumphed together; the independence and liberty you possess are the work of joint counsels, and joint efforts of common dangers, sufferings, and successes."


The challenge of "diversity" for its own sake in our day and age---"multiculturalism," if you will---is whether a republic or a nation or a state or a community can hold together absent a common worldview. In Europe, the fit is hitting the shan as we speak, and indeed even "common language" can be taken literally.

Pinky said...

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That's how denominations get started, Tom.
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Do you have any idea of how many different denominations of Baptists exist in North American Christianity?
.
It's really nothing against Unitarian thinking than it is against the Baptists.
.
Of course you know all that. It just looked as though you were holding differences against the Unitarians.
.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Actually, I've just been getting up to speed on the rise and fall of unitarianism. The info has been hard to piece together, since few "outsiders" seem to write about it.

However, there are certain structural differences to Free Inquiry that sectarianism doesn't share. Differences in interpreting scripture pale next to differences in whether scripture even exists as the Word of God. Indeed, Parker came to disbelieve God have ever directly spoken to man atall. This is the primary question of Western religion, that of revelation: the rest is details.

King of Ireland said...

"The challenge of "diversity" for its own sake in our day and age---"multiculturalism," if you will---is whether a republic or a nation or a state or a community can hold together absent a common worldview. In Europe, the fit is hitting the shan as we speak, and indeed even "common language" can be taken literally."

I think this is right on. Most of the borders drawn on the map were imposed from the outside and drawn purposely to divide and conquer nations(in the ethnic group sense). The India/Pakistan border is a great example of this where all distinctions are ignored and everyone is called Indian or Pakistani.

It is the whole Jihad vs. Mc World thing going on. Modernity meets tribal and tribal loses with the young. I find it ok as long as it is chosen and not forced. It is those that seek the latter I have a huge problem with.

Another good study is that of History of Europe. We see nations with no lines one minute and then they come together and draw a border and then lose it again. Poland is a great example. Look at what is going on in Europe now with all the borders being erased in the name of unity.

I think this is why Madison was such a proponent of federalism and became an advocate for state sovereignty and interposition in response to the Alien and Sedition acts. He understood that a forced unity without meaningful distinctions was harmful to liberty.

I think the modern Tea Party movement and their "nullification" message is taking up this mantle now.

Pinky said...

Interesting

Pinky said...

.
Maybe so, King.
.
When was it, 1948, when we read how the Muslim radicals in India cut out Pakistan and turned it into a religious state. So many doctors, teachers, and other intellectuals lined up and machine gunned into trenches? Hundreds if not thousands.
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I remember, I was a teen ager at the time.
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Rex said...

Thank you all for your comments. I have TVD most in mind as I write this.

Clearly Unitarianism has not fulfilled Jefferson's vision. As I recall his wording, however, it was qualified as apt for every "educated" man. We shall have to forgive him his parochialism and sexism.

I am familiar with the list of objections customarily offered to dismiss Unitarianism. My temptation is to engage the customary responses that, as you no doubt realize, are also well-developed. I fear that leads only to the ambiguous kind of discussion one gets into attempting to, say, define art, when the most appropriate response is, "Look around. It's everywhere. We even build museums for it."

The tensions of unity in diversity and diversity in unity are shorthand for the tensions of every democracy I am aware of. Some of us have begun to develop a theology of unity in diversity. So far our efforts are scattered and preliminary at best. Maybe it is because we find ourselves tiptoeing in the vicinity of doctrines like the trinity. Nothing wrong with that, except when those who ought to have some help to offer find themselves frequently committing the very heresies that the early church councils sought to identify.

Surely an admission such as mine that Unitarianism no longer is satisfied with simple-minded one-dimensional thinking ought to be making the saints happy, right?

As for Emerson, I am willing to be defensive. To throw away the significance of Bercovitch's excellent scholarship with the comment, "that man is a social animal goes back to the ancient Greeks as a rather routine observation of his nature" bothers me. Perhaps that is because I am still excited by the information I found there, whether in a context of understanding Emerson or not.

True, having the extra option of "individuality" as developed in 19th Century European scholarship added to "individualism" and "communalism/socialism" might muddy rather than clarify the waters for some. As always, only time will tell.

Should you be interested, I am also curious about the topic of revelation as you understand it. That amounts to the principle issue between Emerson and his Harvard Divinity School opponents. Resorts to appeals to reason on both sides were not very productive. Kant's FIRST CRITIQUE, which by now has established itself as a benchmark for discussions of knowledge, was still under preliminary consideration in the U.S. Tarnished, as it was, by emerging in Germany, superficial objections satisfied many over here. Emerson was tarred with that brush.

I acknowledge the importance of knowing, "By what authority do you stake your claim." Yet I do not admire those who refuse to examine contemporary issues of authority by pleading that our ancestors knew better than we what is right and good. Distinctions are always required, as was the case for the canon of the New Testament.

Emerson's gloss was to the effect that there will always be a party of the past and a party of the future. So which party do you belong to?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Very nice, Rex. The first thing I would say as a point of order about American creation is that I---and this blog in general, by its philosophy---argues mostly from source documents and not from the well-worn scripts of historians.

Our research is our own, as usually are our arguments. In this case, on unitarianism. Keepin' it fresh, keepin' it real. No recycling of Scholar A vs. Scholar B.

To answer your last before going my merry way, I'm with the ancient Greeks---man's problems are perennial. Why are we here? The problem of god. What is the best society? What is the best life?

The primary philosophical question: What is good?

Better to say "perennial" than "permanent," since "permanent" would discourage us from any hope of deeper knowledge or "progress."

I for one think the American Founding represents some real "progress" over the Greeks. However, if "modernity" is "the party of the future," I'd rather take my chances with the Party of the "past," the past having got us out of caves and the primordial ooze.

The "future," especially since the Founding era, has not established its bona fides. It claims the end[ing] of sexism and racism, which is nice, but also has far more many murders in the name of "progress" than the pre-modern past does.

Neither do I think it speaks intelligently of "liberty." At least not as intelligently as the Founding did.

[Part 2 to follow, character limit exceeded.]

Tom Van Dyke said...

The Founders were not brutes; in fact, in comparison, I think we in 2010 are. They stood on the bridge of history between the ancient and the modern; in my view, they asked better questions than either. And asking the proper questions is the soul of philosophy; answers are secondary.

The Founders' answers were not Gospel wisdom---they were provisional, as all man's answers must be, because the same problems return with every passing year: "perennial." Religion. Politics. What is good?

As for unitarianism itself, I hope to discuss it more fully, especially since the blog's most prolific contributor, Jonathan Rowe, writes on it quite frequently. My own comments above were based on the structural problem of frogs in a wheelbarrow, if Free Inquiry becomes the core of a "community," as opposed to a baseline of agreement that permits a pluralism, but with a common language.

the question of revelation, then, becomes key. Either God talked [revealed] himself to mankind directly at some point in history, or he never did.

Jonathan [and friend-of-the-blog] Dr. Gregg Frazer argue that without the Trinity, there is no Christianity.

I don't buy that---on a socio-historical level anyway. I think Channing's "Unitarian Christianity" comes in under the umbrella, easily in the 51-80% zone

CHANNING: "...that Jesus Christ is more than man, that he existed before the world, that he literally came from heaven to save our race, that he sustains other offices than those of a teacher and witness to the truth, and that he still acts for our benefit, and is our intercessor with the Father."

...especially when socio-historically compared to all other of man's religions, even Judaism and Islam. They can't buy that.

As for "individualism" vs. "communitarianism," I would not want the terms to get in the way. They represent very real concepts, and are more germane to 2010 than a lot of this other stuff, and need a closer examination.

As for "tiptoeing in the vicinity of doctrines like the trinity," we certainly don't do it here on this blog. In fact, it accounts for much or most of what Jon writes about.

The counterargument is only that nobody here gives a damn, and mostly, the Founding era didn't either.

Where the rubber meets the road is on revelation itself: Did God ever fracture the time/space continuum between eternity and temporality, and directly reveal himself, his nature, or his will to man?

This is the nexus of Western Civilization's theologico-political problem, as identified by Theodore Parker. The Unitarian Controversy of the Founding era on the Trinity, although big, was still small potatoes.

Thx for the colloquy, Rex. It occurs to me as a result of our discussion that although unitarianism was certainly a creature of the Enlightenment, it's not until Theodore Parker that it becomes a creature of modernity, where the doubt and skepticism of Free Inquiry finally becomes negation.

Cheers, mate.

King of Ireland said...

Tom,

When you say "modernity" what do you mean? It seems like you use it in a negative conotation. I would assume it is modern philosophy. You may want to clarify that because some may take it that you are anti progress which I would think from your writings that you are not.

Rex said...

Tom, thank you for the orientation to the site. I only happened upon it for the first time on the date of my first post. I better understand now the focus at issue.

My last word on Channing is that he resigned his pulpit eventually when the governing board insisted on a statement that all new members must sign. It seemed too much like a creed, and he was fundamentally opposed to creeds. So if assent to a creed or one's contents is the mark of being a Christian, he would fail that test. But to be sure he considered himself Christian.

The loudest objection to his interpretation of Christianity came from those who said that rejection of orthodoxy inevitably leads to infidelity. That's the cross on which Emerson was crucified by some of his Unitarian brethren. As an advocate of the future, Emerson subsequently had greater influence than Channing, but both remain denominational heroes.

Tom Van Dyke said...

When you say "modernity" what do you mean? It seems like you use it in a negative conotation. I would assume it is modern philosophy.

An appropriate question. There are many factors in the constellation, but my quick and dirty answer is that modernity is the rejection of the belief that an objective truth lies beyond man's reason, and more precisely beyond the human will.

We need only compare

American Founder James Wilson:

"...as the law of nature, in other words, as the will of nature's God..."

"[H]ow shall we, in particular instances, learn the dictates of our duty, and make, with accuracy, the proper distinction between right and wrong; in other words, how shall we, in particular cases, discover the will of God? We discover it by our conscience, by our reason, and by the Holy Scriptures. The law of nature and the law of revelation are both divine: they flow, though in different channels, from the same adorable source...The object of both is ― to discover the will of God ― and both are necessary for the accomplishment of that end."

to the French Rights of Man [1789], which we may fairly or unfairly blame on Rousseau:

Law is the expression of the general will.
______________

Thx, Rex. I simply submit that unitarianism becomes something new and different on an essential level once Parker breaks with the past and becomes truly "modern." For Parker, reason and Free Inquiry become their own end, the highest thing, not a means toward the end---the highest thing---as Wilson would put it, of discovering the will of God, or the "natural law."

Freedom becomes an end---its own end---not a means, and the dictum of modernity, "man is the measure of all things" is the new standard for describing reality.

Tom Van Dyke said...



The loudest objection to his interpretation of Christianity came from those who said that rejection of orthodoxy inevitably leads to infidelity.


An old objection, and not without merit, as it all turned out. Via Jonathan Rowe:

http://americancreation.blogspot.com/2008/10/whats-infidel.html


"The observation of Mr. [William] Wilberforce, therefore, seems to be but too well founded, when he says; "In the course, which we lately traced from nominal orthodoxy to absolute Infidelity, Unitarianism is, indeed, a sort of half-way house, if the expression may be pardoned; a stage on the journey, where sometimes a person, indeed, finally stops; but where, not unfrequently, he only pauses for a while; and then pursues his progress."--Rev. Timothy Dwight

[Wilberforce died in 1833, so the quote goes back at least that far.]

Emerson would of course be seen today as "having more influence" than Channing since he more closely resembles modern UUism. However, it seems to me that unitarianism had its greatest influence and its high-water mark during Channing's earlier days of "Unitarian Christianity."

After Parker's break with revelation, it can hardly be called "Christianity" anymore. In the early days of unitarianism, they could sit in the same pew with Trinitarian Congregationalists. But how can you have a "community" that disagrees on the nature of the very Bible you're discussing?

Now I understand that unitarianism doesn't fully go Parker's [and Emerson's] way all at once. But the die is cast.

I seem to recall there was a lawsuit in upstate New York in the late 1800s when a congregation tried to dump its "modern" unitarian pastor. His defense was that although he wasn't a "Christian," since he rejected Catholicism, he was still a Protestant!

As I recall, the court didn't buy that one...

Rex said...

Tom,
On the topic, certainly the identification of natural law with God's will was a very popular conception at the time of the nation's founding. Unitarians, among others, adopted that as a sufficient excuse to dispute revelation and some still do so.

My understanding of the major dimension of "modernity," however, is that it is identified with the recognition of human freedom. E.g., the American Unitarians distinguished themselves from their Calvinist brethren over the issue of pre-destination.

That you regard Parker as an historical breaking point may be justifiable; however I doubt that measuring him by a calculation of means and ends does him justice. The deontological ethics of Kant does use such a calculation, allowing Kant, as I read recently, (and this is off the topic of American Founders, and please forgive my resort to authority, but it represents an idea that it would be arrogant of me not to attribute)

"The truly problematic for the present age is Kant's harnessing of evil, not that of religion, within the bounds of mere reason. The beliefs of rational religion(s) can be easily translated into secular terms to yield the moral point of view, and Habermas completes Kant's task brilliantly." -- Martin Beck Matustik "Between Hope and Terror" p 290

I confess that all this suits my affirmation of a core to reality that is ambiguous. Yes, that works better in philosophy than religion, as Matustik suggests. Today the boundary lines between disciplines understood as personal commitments have become porous. I have confidence that will continue.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Rex, I don't dispute your putting Kant at the nexus of modernity atall, philosophically speaking. I just don't see him and modernity in the US until much later in our history, unlike revolutionary France.

Just as I argue the "real" Locke might have been modern, but the Founders didn't read, understand or explicate him that way. They misunderstood him either dully, or very brilliantly, walking past his modernity and using him as a poster boy for classical, medieval, and Christian thought, all of which unify around "natural law."

In fact, "created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights" is a natural law argument, not a modern one. Again, the French Rights of Man, a "modernized" D of I:

1. Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good.

2. The aim of all political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.

4. Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights. These limits can only be determined by law.


and of course, what is law?

6. Law is the expression of the general will.

Here, man asserts his rights. from the preamble:

Therefore the National Assembly recognizes and proclaims, in the presence and under the auspices of the Supreme Being, the following rights of man and of the citizen:

Yes, an inert "Supreme Being" gets a tip o'the hat*, but it is man, the General Assembly, that "recognizes and proclaims" these rights.

The authors of the ROM had the D of I in front of them. But we see how they cleverly rewrote it, and "modernized" it, and put man in place of the creator. In fact, Jefferson consulted with Lafayette on drafting it.

http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/jefferson/jeffworld.html

[No wonder Jefferson had such a blind spot about the French revolution.]
_________

*As for said "Supreme Being," check this out

http://www.rotten.com/library/religion/cult_of_the_supreme_being/

Tom Van Dyke said...

BTW, now in the winter of his life, Habermas:


“Christianity has functioned for the normative self-understanding of modernity as more than a mere precursor or a catalyst. Egalitarian universalism, from which sprang the ideas of freedom and social solidarity, of an autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, of the individual morality of conscience, human rights, and democracy, is the direct heir to the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation. To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in the light of the current challenges of a post-national constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern talk.”


---[Jürgen Habermas, “Conversation About God and the World,” Time of Transitions, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2006,): pgs. 150-151.]

Rex said...

Tom,

You write there "was a lawsuit in upstate New York in the late 1800s when a congregation tried to dump its "modern" unitarian pastor."

As all UU churches are congregationally governed, I cannot imagine how a pastor would require a court order to be dismissed.

So now I understand that you and I disagree over whether UUs have made progress or have declined since Channing's (and Harvard Div School faculty) days.

Now that religion has become an accepted academic subject in higher education, we shall see which position gains in confidence. I regard the current resort to Radical Orthodoxy, as it is called, a mere delay in the inevitable. My hope is that the baby of faith does not get thrown out in the bath of reaction.

Tom Van Dyke said...


As all UU churches are congregationally governed, I cannot imagine how a pastor would require a court order to be dismissed.


I think my memory is correct, altho I can't figger out what terms to google it with.

But Unitarian Universalism didn't exist anyway until 1961 when the two movements merged. I would think the lawsuit was about a mere breach of contract case, the pastor having being given some sort of employment contract. i reckong the word "protestant" was in the contract, hence the preacher's argument.

As for unitarianism's "progress, since UU membership today is estimated between 200,000-600,000, it remains a more of interest as history than comparative theology, especially since UUs themselves don't seem to agree what that theology might be. If the range is anything from Anglican rite or putting a Wiccan priestess in the pulpit, it's best considered as a philosophical society, and indeed the Free Inquiry rubric of Parker seems to be what has survived as the nexus of "community," if I understand the self-descriptions of UUs themselves correctly.

Merely rejecting the Trinity and Atonement just doesn't swing it anymore as an intelligible description, and the relevance to this blog ends with the post-Founding period, 1835 or so, when things start blowing up [or "progress" is made, depending on your POV].

Rex said...

Tom,

You write "the relevance to this blog ends with the post-Founding period, 1835 or so." I do respect that. I am big on priorities and limits.

But I wish to thank you for that recent Habermas quote I had not seen before. I finally understand, I think, his usage of "post-secular." Since Russia now has a secular nation state but a special regard for the Orthodox Church, that is post totally secular. Dunno about China yet or other anti-religious locales. Habermas' opion seems to be that is likely to be a stable arrangement for the foreseeable future.

bpabbott said...

Re: "[...]modernity is the rejection of the belief that an objective truth lies beyond man's reason, and more precisely beyond the human will."

I've not inferred that. Rather my impression is that nothing is beyond natural law and that right reason is the means to discover it. It is a goal for each of us. One that none of us can reach.

What I think is more prominent today is that, when seeking understanding/truth, our societies favor science over religion. Regarding the physical world, most of this is merited. However, I do think some (many) divert from seeking spiritual fulfillment and instead seek material wealth as a means to achieving happiness.

Ironically, I find spiritual fulfillment in the physical sciences.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Rather my impression is that nothing is beyond natural law and that right reason is the means to discover it

Ben, that's the pre-modern view. Modernity would see man as infinitely malleable, of no fixed nature. By the human will alone, he can remake himself, or "educate" his young into proper modern men.

But natural law need not be "spiritual," although it likely requires a metaphysical dimension. However, modernity rejects metaphysics: there is only the physical, and science replaces philosophy in answering the question "what is good."

For "natural law" would say some things are "good" in their own right: Science tells us what is useful, and that becomes the definition of "good."


And Ben, Francis Bacon, the scientist contemporary of Aquinas, found The Mind of God in the physical sciences, too. What a relief that the universe wasn't an arbitrary set of "magickal" properties, but that The Mind of God was logical, not capricious.

More important than the claim that God does not roll dice with the universe is that he doesn't play Phizzbin."
_______________

Tom Van Dyke said...

Yes, Rex---I do not know how Habermas will achieve his "post-secularism," although he recognizes a need for it. Without a metaphysics---or religious belief of course---man's ideologies, no matter how sensible and utopian, all seem to start out big, but peter out after their promises fall victim to reality.

Habermas seems to acknowledge here that the modern West's "secular humanism" has been "running on the fumes" of Judeo-Christianity, Judeo-justice and Christian charity [love = agape].

Onward Kantian Soldiers? The "categorical imperative" just doesn't stir the passions.

This is the complaint and criticism of non-moderns like myself. Plato never quite defeats Thrasymachus' argument that "justice is in the interest of the stronger," and agape's love for fellow man flows from a love of God, not fellow man for his own sake. The categorical imperative is logical, and secular humanism loves humanity in the abstract, but where the rubber meets the road, fellow man as the bum in the subway with his hand out is demanding, smelly, and thoroughly unlovable.

I must admit I haven't spent a lot of time on Immanuel Kant; he's hard and boring to read and I don't see him much in the real world, although scholars---secular humanists---adore him. His arguments are no doubt solid, but no set of arguments has been proven to move the hearts of men.

I have thought that Kant, per some Enlightenment tradition, sought to "Christianize" reason, or reasonably end up the same place as Christianity, and end up in the same place.

Wise Blood, by Flannery O'Connor? The Holy Church of Christ Without Christ?

http://www.enotes.com/wise-blood

"Unitarian Christianity" was a real force in the Founding, even if [IMO] it's overemphasized, and therefore relevant to the blog, as a test of the limits of pluralism. Although it differed on doctrine, it spoke the common language of the Founding's conception of God. It was Enlightenment, certainly, but not "modern."

Modernity is the post-1835 or 1850 unitarianism, or what unitarianism became, that's how I see it. [Most of my post-1835 purpose here has been to audition my understanding of unitarian history for someone who's familiar with it. So far, it seems to pass on accuracy.]

It's not that Parker or Emerson are irrelevant today as much as they were droplets in the gigantic wave of modernity, all making the same post-[Judeo-]Christian argument.

As hard as Plato tried to argue man should be just, man is not just. As much as Kant might argue we should "love" our fellow man, "love" means nothing outside the Christian sense of "agape," which, incidentally, Paul the Apostle hijacked from the Greeks and mutated for Christianity.

Thx for the discussion, guys. Most of this has been waiting for the proper discussion, and this has been a very proper discussion.

bpabbott said...

"Modernity would see man as infinitely malleable, of no fixed nature. By the human will alone, he can remake himself, or "educate" his young into proper modern men."

I think that overstates the modern view. Science certainly understands that humans have a innate nature. Nuture and nature each play a part in determining our character and abilities.

"[...] natural law need not be "spiritual," although it likely requires a metaphysical dimension"

... or just a mataphor! :-)

"For "natural law" would say some things are "good" in their own right: Science tells us what is useful, and that becomes the definition of "good." "

I view science as a refined methodology which seeks to approximate right reason. Neither right reason or science can tell us what is good unless we are able to properly define our objective/desire ... With the goal in mind, right reason would reveal the perfect choice, where science would attempt to provide an approximation for it.

More important than the claim that God does not roll dice with the universe is that he doesn't play."

A side note, I view Einstein's remark " God does not play dice with the universe", to be an metaphorical objection quantum mechanics.

Consider his concept of God; "I said before, the most beautiful and most profound religious emotion that we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. And this mystically is the power of all true science. If there is any such concept as a God, it is a subtle spirit, not an image of a man that so many have fixed in their minds. In essence, my religion consists of a humble admiration for this illimitable superior spirit that reveals itself in the slight details that we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble minds."

What I think Einstein was objecting to was that he had encountered a natural phenomena whose details he was unable to perceive. He had chosen to be skeptical of quantum mechanics rather than be skeptical of the limits of understanding he was capable of. Of course, this attitude is necessary of a good scientist. If one isn't confident he can come to a new and better understanding of the phenomena being studied, then his insecurity will undermine the effort.

Rex said...

Tom,

A couple years back, I wrote a masters thesis on an Emerson essay in which I attempted to demonstrate that, following Cavell on RWE and P.E. Strawson on Kant, one can show that RWE knew his Kant and did a better job of resolving Kant's noumenal/phenomenal split than Kant himself—at least up to the First Critique.

Yes, in RELIGION WITHIN THE BOUNDS OF REASON ALONE, Kant justifies the superiority of Christianity. But he does it without a doctrine of God or with at least an undeveloped doctrine of God. He finds in the model of Jesus a uniqueness of ethical superiority that is unsurpassable.

Unfortunately, while he offers conclusive formal proofs, I confess I am unable to follow his logical arguments. (Took me two tries to pass the required symbolic logic course to get my masters.) His critics now say he left key conceptualities unexamined. Primarily he takes human reflection as self-evident. While I am big on the self-evident (borrowing RWE's association of it with the meaning of "spiritual"), since Kant's time some genuine advances have taken place in philosophy of mind and theories of truth that render Kant's assumptions insufficient. E.g., "faculties" is a concept I borrow on occasion but it is pretty flimsy.

My current interest is in Merleau-Ponty who, in my opinion, uses his life long study of human perception to fill in some of the gaps Kant left. Before he died, he offered us "immanent transcendence," about which I saw mention first in Mark C Taylor's AFTER GOD. In both places it is undeveloped and emerges more from what I think you identify as negativism.

For examples, M-P resorts to poetry (Valery) and Taylor to game theory and quantum physics. All well and good if you are committed to post-metaphysics, as I am. But neither Taylor nor the interpreter of M-P I rely on (Ted Toadvine) are able to get up much headway to lead in their chosen mission of saving the Earth.

The best I can see is that at least we now have Wm James' "moral equivalent of war." Whether we shall succeed or fail is still anyone's guess.

I don't know the Flannery O'Connor but I do know Derrida's "messianic without a messiah" and I think it's Caputo who advocates "the religious without religion."

Tom Van Dyke said...

Rex, thanks for reading Kant SO WE DON'T HAVE TO!

;-)

Thx to all for a fine discussion. BTW, are you familiar with Dietrich Bonhoeffer's musing at the end of his life on "religionless Christianity?"

http://www.spiritualitytoday.org/spir2day/843625kreilkamp.html

I would think it would be of interest to UUs, although maybe it's still too Christian.

A fascinating man, though. A clergyman/theologian who was a pacifist and then tried to help kill Hitler, and was hanged for it shortly before the Allies got there.

Jared A. Farley said...

I was talking with Brad Hart about this on Facebook. I would be cautious with the approach of trying to figure out the individual theological views of historical Unitarian Christians because there is a really good chance that what appears to someone as traditional/orthodox doctrinal language, might not necessarily mean that writer/speaker was using the concepts and phrases in that fashion. There is a tradition in liberal Christianity generally, and in Unitarian Christianity more specifically, of adopting traditional concepts and terms and reinterpreting them symbolically. This allowed Unitarians to keep the traditional language of their faith tradition and allowed them to appear more "mainstream" to other Christians in their communities.
Without going on and on about this point, let me conclude with just two examples to illustrate what I mean. I am a UU Christian and I have no problem with associating Jesus with being "divine" as long as it is understood that any divinity within Jesus came from the Unitary G*d. Perhaps he was a G*d-infused prophet or a chosen human messiah. So using the word divine with Jesus does not necessarily equate one believes Jesus was G*d. I think some lines of Unitarian thought developed along the theology of the Quakers that there was a "divine spark" in all humans.

Another example would be the term "saved". The Unitarian theologian I study, James Luther Adams, often talked about Jesus saving people in his writings, but he didn't mean Jesus saved them metaphysically. Rather, Jesus "saves" us when we choose to follow his example and role our lives after his life and philosophy.

So unless someone left a detailed and explicit personal statement of their Christology, I think it is really difficult to base conclusions just on language in the Unitarian tradition.

I caution everyone in this way because I have read and heard people make this mistake with James Luther Adams' theology. They read what he wrote through the literal lens of traditional Christianity and Adams always means things in a more symbolic fashion.

Jared A. Farley said...

I was talking with Brad Hart about this on Facebook. I would be cautious with the approach of trying to figure out the individual theological views of historical Unitarian Christians because there is a really good chance that what appears to someone as traditional/orthodox doctrinal language, might not necessarily mean that writer/speaker was using the concepts and phrases in that fashion. There is a tradition in liberal Christianity generally, and in Unitarian Christianity more specifically, of adopting traditional concepts and terms and reinterpreting them symbolically. This allowed Unitarians to keep the traditional language of their faith tradition and allowed them to appear more "mainstream" to other Christians in their communities.
Without going on and on about this point, let me conclude with just two examples to illustrate what I mean. I am a UU Christian and I have no problem with associating Jesus with being "divine" as long as it is understood that any divinity within Jesus came from the Unitary G*d. Perhaps he was a G*d-infused prophet or a chosen human messiah. So using the word divine with Jesus does not necessarily equate one believes Jesus was G*d. I think some lines of Unitarian thought developed along the theology of the Quakers that there was a "divine spark" in all humans.

Another example would be the term "saved". The Unitarian theologian I study, James Luther Adams, often talked about Jesus saving people in his writings, but he didn't mean Jesus saved them metaphysically. Rather, Jesus "saves" us when we choose to follow his example and role our lives after his life and philosophy.

So unless someone left a detailed and explicit personal statement of their Christology, I think it is really difficult to base conclusions just on language in the Unitarian tradition.

I caution everyone in this way because I have read and heard people make this mistake with James Luther Adams' theology. They read what he wrote through the literal lens of traditional Christianity and Adams always means things in a more symbolic fashion.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Nice to see you, Jared.

JLAdams is a 20th century figure, so after Parker, it seems prudent to read more cautiously, and indeed the diversity of opinion by then makes it dangerous to describe or ascribe any belief system to UUism.

However, in the early 1800s, which has a relavance to this blog, William Ellery Channing seemed quite straightforward about what the majority of Unitarian Christians believed or didn't believe.

http://americancreation.blogspot.com/2010/02/who-were-unitarians.html

But if anything jumps out at you that would contradict a plain reading, I'd be very interested in your opinion.

Tom Van Dyke said...

And the internet tells us that James Luther Adams was in Germany in the 1930s, hanging out with the anti-Nazi "Confessing Church," led by...[ta-da!] Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Jared A. Farley said...

"When William Ellery Channing declared for "Unitarian Christianity" in his sermon at Baltimore in 1819, it was for a different kind of Unitarianism, which distanced itself from the out-and-out "hamanitarian" Socianian views that Priestly represented. The opposition prevailed, maintains Bowers, until the 1840s, when Theodore Parker's transcendentalist radicalism threatened the acceptability of Unitarianism as a feature of American religious life and it became preferable to acknowledge Priestley's humanitarian Christianity, rather than Parker's humanism." page 131 of Leonard Smith's (2006) "The Unitarianism: A Short History".

If you read further up the page, Smith describes various strains of Unitarian Christianity in the United States around the time of Channing. Based upon this it seems like Channing was advocating, not describing. By its very democratic/congregational polity nature, Unitarianism was never a top-down denomination and a diversity of opinion flurished across the movement.

Adams interviewed Bonhoeffer once in 1936, based upon what I know about his life. I have a copy of the home movie Adams took of their meeting together. Adams was involved in the Confessing Church movement, but was not "high enough" in the underground organization to be really involved with Bonhoeffer much.

Tom Van Dyke said...


If you read further up the page, Smith describes various strains of Unitarian Christianity in the United States around the time of Channing. Based upon this it seems like Channing was advocating, not describing.



Interesting, Jared, which is why I sought your input. And why I noted that the puzzle of Founding-era unitarianism is hard to get to the bottom of. Basically, nobody gave a shit except the unitarians themselves, and each of the writers we have to call on has his own agenda. Hard to figger it out.

I'm comfortable that America was comfortable with Channing's "advocating," as he was seen by the "outsiders" as unitarianism's authoritative voice, that the Scriptures were Divine Writ [revelation] and not just a total fabrication of man, and Jesus was on some unique and divine mission, "more than a man," as Channing put it, and more.

This would be enough for the Christian-in-the-street to find unitarianism acceptably in the Christian zone, socio-historically speaking. The theological details, they left for the boring clergy to fight over. Troublemakers. Chevy is better than Toyota.

...until the 1840s, when Theodore Parker's transcendentalist radicalism threatened the acceptability of Unitarianism as a feature of American religious life.

My point exactly---socio-, politico-, and theologico-. Soon we had Mormons and Christian Scientists and Seventh-day Adventists, and we're well past the Founding by then. Modern-day Unitarianism becomes a footnote in our study of religion and the Founding by then.

Although on a personal level, I find the fact that Dietrich Bonhoeffer---whose thoughts and life continue to leave me stunned, and I find myself saying a prayer for him every time I think of him, not for God's mercy on him, but to thank God that he ever lived---and JL Adams, obviously a sincere man, found themselves in the same circle as Nazi Germany rose to commit its horrors against God and the humanity he created.

That JLA found his way to Bonhoeffer was not coincidence, I think.

Rex said...

Forgive me one last caveat. Jared's quotations from Smith, whom I have not yet read, sent me back to my books—the recent one by Gura on American Transcendentalism and Hutchinson on The Transcendentalist Ministers. In both cases, the contrast is made with the traditionalist Unitarians. From my earlier comments, it's clear whose side I am on.

The issue was not just doctrines. The issue was also whether the denomination would be something old or new, exclusive or inclusive. The Parker story and the Emerson story both represent a new development in denominationalism. Must there be a creed by which to sort the orthodox from the infidel? That's the way it had always been, especially for the descendants of the Puritans. Channing loudly said, "No."

His cohorts found that more than they could manage. Parker was disciplined by his fellow clergy more for his aggressiveness than his innovative theology. Emerson got out while he could. But before the century was out both had become respectable Unitarians.

Tom can judge that as becoming a footnote to history. I see it as denominational innovation as significant as the first amendment to the Bill of Rights. One of us may be whistling past the grave yard; only time will tell. I'd give my left arm for someone of the same genius as Emerson and Parker today. If we UUs have become a footnote, it is because geniuses today prefer science or business to the church.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, your judgment is qualitative, Rex, which is fine. At less than half a percent of the population in 2010 [less than the Jehovah's Witnesses, and a fraction of Mormonism], and having left its theological continuity with Founding era unitarianism behind, its contemporary significance is a different discussion.

But I do think there are probably geniuses in orthodox churches, too.

Rex said...

Tom,

You write, "I do think there are probably geniuses in orthodox churches, too."

Because I am interested in what's going on now, I read a bunch of and about them on the free Web site of the Journal of Cultural and Religious Theory, which seems to have lost some steam in the last year.

My personal list begins with Paul Ricoeur and Paul Tillich. I have not read all their stuff but pretty nearly. Dunno what "Radical" Orthodoxy thinks of them. And, oh yes, the late Mary Daly and Rosemary Radford Reuther. We live in history's time of the greatest scholarship. Great time to have been educated.

My wish is that my own faith tradition had a touch or two of religious studies scholarship other than in history. (PS. Adams was one of my professors and delivered my installation sermon at First Parish, Watertown, MA. He's the closest we got to genius, so far as I am aware.)

Now it's off to play with my grandsons.

Pinky said...

.
Is this the site?

http://www.jcrt.org/

Rex said...

Pinky,

That's it. The prime mover is Carl Raschke at U of Colo, Denver (I think). Hold on to your hat. Or maybe get some oxygen because those are a bunch of high flyers. Peace, over and out, Rex

Jared A. Farley said...

Tom- do I understand your thoughts here correctly, that you are suggesting that theological unitarianism or Unitarianism (after 1825) was not that scandalous to most Americans and to most "traditional" Christians? And further you are arguing that Unitarianism did not become very distinct from orthodox Christianity until T. Parker's era.

If so, based upon a quick Google Books search for the dates 1770-1840, there seems to be a great deal of material published during that time calling Unitarians genreally, and Channing specifically, "heretics".

Has anyone read the book "Federal Street Preacher", a biography of Channing? I haven't, but I wonder what it would reveal about the general views of Channing and the Unitarians.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Jared, what I find is that the opposition to Unitarian Christianity was the work of competing clergy. To the man on the street, I've seen no evidence he gave a damn.

And yes, socio-historically speaking, Channing's

"The word UNITARIANISM, as denoting this opposition to Trinitarianism, undoubtedly expresses the character of a considerable part of the ministers of this town and its vicinity, and the commonwealth...We both agreed in our late conference, that a majority of our brethren believe, that Jesus Christ is more than man, that he existed before the world, that he literally came from heaven to save our race, that he sustains other offices than those of a teacher and witness to the truth, and that he still acts for our benefit, and is our intercessor with the Father. This we agreed to be the prevalent sentiment of our brethren."

...is close enough for rock'n'roll.

Where unitarianism went after Parker isn't, but by then, we're well out of the Founding era.

Jared A. Farley said...

Tom- that is a very difficult theory to disprove because where would someone look for conflicting evidence? Not many common people left much written material for us to investigate. Plus, I doubt many New Englanders were theologically sophisticated enough to even understand the issues separating various denominational camps.

Jared A. Farley said...

Tom- In the Leonard Smith book I referenced above, have you read the 20th chapter? Smith discusses the "William C. Thatcher" letter your Channing quotation is drawn from and basically suggests it was not his true feeling and a piece a propaganda to appease the liberal ministers' critics around Boston. Smith argues that Channing did not reveal his true self and the movement's true stands until the famed 1819 sermon in Baltimore. I don't know if he is right, but....?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, I wouldn't sell them all short as "unsophisticated." My point would be that the man in the street was disinterested in all that "inside baseball."

But in contrast, over in Britain, it seems unitarianism was a far more divisive issue. They burned Priestley's house down!

So, absent similar stuff here in the US, at this point I feel comfortable saying the man in the street didn't care who believed what.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, again, Jared, it goes back to our primary debate here at AC, how "Christian" was the Founding? I say nonTrinitarianism isn't enough to make Unitarian Christianity unChristian. You still had the perception by the man on the street that they accepted the Bible as Holy Writ [even if they disagreed on some interpretations], and Jesus as some sort of Messiah.

Close enough for rock'n'roll.

Also key here is that at least until 1819, unitarianism kept up that perception, and 1819 gets us past the Founding and the first few presidents and "key" Founders.

That's what's important in the socio-historical analysis.

We have only one more unitarian, JQ Adams in 1824, but quite "traditional"---as we know, [from the internet]:

When he was Secretary of State, he accepted the presidency of the American Bible Society because he became alarmed at the nation's religious attitude: the contrasting appeals of Unitarianism and Evangelicalism. Now his diary was filled with rebuttals to liberal Unitarianism and intolerant Fundamentalism.

There were two Unitarians he didn't like: Joseph Priestly because Priestly ranked Socrates with Jesus, which John Quincy called absurd; the other was Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson's graduation address given at the Harvard Divinity School in 1838 was seminal in the development of Transcendentalism. In his diary he wrote: The speaker was ambitious of becoming the founder of a new sect.


And indeed, my argument has been that Emerson, et al., did indeed form a new sect, and the trail of unitarianism's association with the Founding ends there.

Rex said...

One quest here may be to find distinctions that either validate or invalidate the designation of a founder as a Christian. So, does the ascription of Deism, either by the person himself or by others of the person, deny all claims to being a Christian?

My sense of what I know of our deistic founders is that they considered themselves still to be Christians. However, in the quick review of Parker's problems with his fellow Boston clergy in Hutchison's book last night, at least two citations made clear that to stand convicted of Deism at that time was sufficient evidence to deny such persons standing as Christians.

In an exchange with those presumed to be most amenable, Parker retorted by asking what "quiddity" is required to be a Christian. The answer was the miracles and the authority of Jesus. Others stipulated wider ranging requirements but even those who praised Parker for his work on behalf of the disadvantaged agreed he did not meet the minimal standard.

Rex said...

PS. By fellow Boston clergy I meant they were all Unitarian. Parker's was an intra-Unitarian dispute. So there were Christian Unitarians and deistic Unitarians and the latter, at this time, were outcasts to the former.

Tom Van Dyke said...

So, does the ascription of Deism, either by the person himself or by others of the person, deny all claims to being a Christian?


Rex, we've had quite a struggle with "Deism." Technically, it believes in a God who's uninvolved with mankind [denies Providence].

Also [and I haven't done the proper work on it, so this isn't definitive], supposedly Hume had killed such "natural religion" by 1750 as being as preposterous as Christian orthodoxy. Then there were folks on the more classically theist side like James Beattie and his very popular "An Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Truth, in Opposition to Sophistry ," which was seen at the time as an effective refutation of Hume.

For the record, my own admittedly loose socio-historical definition for "Christian" is a belief that the Bible is Holy Writ---which is to say direct revelation from God---regardless of dissents from othodoxy about interpretation or even about the authenticity of some parts, and a belief that Jesus had a unique divine mission [something akin to "Messiah"].

These constraints seem to hold up well when applied to the controversies of the times. Unitarian JQ Adams, president of the American Bible Society, no problem. Parker or Emerson, big problem. I think JQA would agree with these standards, and he's not bad backup.

bpabbott said...

Re: "Rex, we've had quite a struggle with "Deism." Technically, it believes in a God who's uninvolved with mankind [denies Providence]."

The terms Christian and Deist are central to much of what is discussed here.

If technically definitions are applied then the terms have specific and clearly understood meanings ... we may treat them objectively.

However, if such orthodox definitions are applied, then there are few, if any, founders who would qualify as Christian or Deist. Thus, the orthodox definitions don't convey a positive meaning; they don't help describe what the faith of the founders was. They are only useful in describing what the faith of the founders was not.

If we accept sufficiently broad definitions of Christian and Deist, then most of the founders can qualify as either, or both. In this case, the terms lose their descriptive value ... For pragmatic reasons, they become meaningless.

In either case, the utility of the terms is lost.

Rex said...

To muddy the waters a bit further, isn't it necessary to add to bpabbot's criteria of "orthodox" and "broad" definitions the historical issue of "as used in their own times" versus "as used today"?

I realize that Parker's turmoil is post-founders since it occurred after 1835. As it was documented widely, however, it provides a good sample of a later version of the turn in debate in New England.

He saw himself as Christian by adhering to the message of "love to God and love to man." His critics saw that as sufficient only for Deism. Indeed, Parker's comments show that he defended himself most stoutly as being "religious" while still Christian.

As Hutchison concludes, by the end of the 19th Century, Parker and Emerson, both having had less than full support from Unitarian authority (Emerson and Harvard Div School; Parker and the Boston Alliance of Ministers) were fully ensconced as heroes by the national Unitarian organization, as is the case today.

Tom sees that as a departure from minimal standards of Christianity. While I identify myself as a Christian UU, I am happily part of an organization, the UUA, that no longer features itself as strictly Christian. I am happy because I believe a promising future for organized religion requires a willingness to be inclusive rather than exclusive.

Daniel said...

Rex,
Your further muddying seems appropriate. And it does muddy. In the Founding era, we find the terms "Christian" and "Deist" used in various ways. Most of the Founders referred to themselves as "Christian", in some cases implicitly using a broad definition. Most of the Edwardsians used a narrow definition of "Christian." "Deist" is used in such varying contexts, that the meaning is often impossible to determine.

Rex said...

Daniel,

Your comment would justify the conclusion I am sneaking up on, which is that Deism, practically speaking, means people who think of themselves and call themselves religious but choose not to be members of any institutional form of religion.

I would be interested in historical personages who contradict such a description?

Pinky said...

.
Depending on what you mean by the word, institution, Rex. they may even consider themselves to be Christian. And, even more so than the Fundamentalists, Evangelicals, and Catholics.
.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Rex, it's not all semantics. At some point the concepts actually matter.

John Adams called Christianity a "revelation." Parker would reject this.

Once you reject the Bible as coming from God, you're not recognizably Christian anymore, even in the broadest definition.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Or put another way, you have to accept some meaningful sense of the "Christ" in "Jesus Christ." Otherwise, he's just "Jesus" and you're just a "Jesusian." [Like Jefferson.]

Rex said...

Tom,

I'd be interested in knowing whose definition of the Bible that represents. At the time of the founding of American Unitarianism, the new biblical scholarship out of Germany was beginning to stir up things. Form criticism took another century to develop but there are a whole lot of folks who call themselves Christians who accept the tenets of current biblical scholarship.

They may not be willing to go as far as the Jesus Seminar folks, some of whom assert that maybe the passage of the exchange between Jesus and the woman who refused drink to him could be authentic but as far as the historical records attributed to him, that's it. Even at the Jesus Seminar there are a whole lot of good Christians who don't qualify under your definition?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Oh, I don't have any problem with critical Bible scholarship, Rex, in fact it certainly was a part of the unitarian thing. That's not what I meant---Parker rejected the possibility of revelation on the whole.

I enjoyed the Jesus Seminar very much, BTW, and highly recommend it to believer and skeptic alike.

http://www.amazon.com/Five-Gospels-Really-Search-Authentic/dp/006063040X

Rex said...

Tom,

So far as I am aware, we only have one active UU clergyman who is a member of the Jesus Seminar--he serves one of our churches in Austin, TX.

About Parker and revelation, I would have to review that. My guess is that he relied on a form of natural theology. Some UUs today still rely on it. One of our guys at U of Chicago recently wrote a book on it, as there was a "chicago school" other than the business school there. It included UUs, Disciples, Baptists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians of a liberal stripe.

So far as "messiah" goes, you probably know that claims to the title at Jesus' time were ubiquitous. One story out of Judaism has it that if you are planting a tree and you hear that the messiah has come, first finish planting the tree, then go see the messiah.

bpabbott said...

Re: "Once you reject the Bible as coming from God, you're not recognizably Christian anymore, even in the broadest definition."

This is a gray area as well. We need to qualify if the Bible is literally correct, originally correct, or (perhaps) imperfect due to man having been transcribed by man.

We are still stuck with ambiguous definitions that vary form so broad that they convey little meaning, or so narrow that they aren't descriptive of the founders.

Tom Van Dyke said...

We need to qualify if the Bible is literally correct, originally correct, or (perhaps) imperfect due to man having been transcribed by man.

I don't. God either spoke to man directly, or he never did. This is the dividing line, not details about this or that. Acceptance of revelation is a worldview, not a mere sectarianism.

This article by Avery Dulles was well-received around here from all points of view. Let us know what you think, Rex.

http://www.sullivan-county.com/deism/reason2.htm

Rex said...

Tom,

Many thanks for that resource. It summarizes in a very teachable form a very complicated history. I had no doubt how it would come out, but it showed that the trip is sometimes more exciting than the destination.

Still, I was disappointed when he finally got to the question on my mind; to wit, in his words,

"Today, therefore, we are faced with new questions. Can the biblical religions maintain themselves and win new adherents or must they resign themselves to becoming a minority? Should the American consensus be modified to make room for a broader pluralism? Can Islam, the Eastern religions, New Age religion, and even agnosticism and atheism, find equal acceptance in American society?"


Darn. He lets that hang like a sweet cherry just out of reach. My answer is that is our American task today. What UUs have to offer is that we have been working on that (ok; from Parker and Emerson) for 150 years.

The good cardinal does mention that we are now far beyond Newton. We live in a universe that has no center and no edge. Yet things seem to manage to find a way to keep on going. That is to say, will we be able to make religious sense out of a global culture where no one is excluded by reason of race, religion, sex or national origin? I am torn between being happy that I will pass that on to others and wanting to see which way it's gonna go. In Freud's view, will the erotic survive thanatos? I can get really excited about which side to take there.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I draw a distinction---perhaps idiosyncratically---between "pluralism and "diversity."

"Pluralism" would share a copmmon baseline, a "deist minimum" if you will, whereas "diversity" might as well be a Tower of Babel.

Again, the Habermas quote:

"“Christianity has functioned for the normative self-understanding of modernity as more than a mere precursor or a catalyst. Egalitarian universalism, from which sprang the ideas of freedom and social solidarity, of an autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, of the individual morality of conscience, human rights, and democracy, is the direct heir to the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation. To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in the light of the current challenges of a post-national constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern talk.”


So, we had Aquinas Christianize the Greeks, unifying the two major currents of Western Civilization. The result was the political theology of the Founding, a Christianized natural law.

Now, India is having some success Hindu-izing or India-izing this political theology, and is coming out of a Dark Ages toward liberal democracy. So far so good.

But can every tradition successfully synthesize the Christian natural law tradition?

It would be ignorant to treat all religions and cultures as the same. Perhaps some have a fundamental incompatibility with this Christianized natural law.

And neither is it clear, as the Kantian Habermas suggests, that the modern, post-Christian wave in the West [despite Kant's efforts] can synthesize this tradition.

And there's the rub.

Pluralism is fine, diversity is suicide, as tolerance for the sake of tolerance destroys its very foundation.

Glad you liked the Dulled piece. It's hard to establish a baseline, a lingua franca, on a blog as "diverse" as this one, but it got most folks on the same page so that the discussion as outlined by Dulles and Habermas can even take place.

Tom Van Dyke said...

In Freud's view, will the erotic survive thanatos


Heh. If you want to get all Greek on me, agape is neither, especially after St. Paul got done Christianizing it.

;-)

But seriously folks, Habermas is indeed referring to the Christianized agape as "the Christian ethic of love," and places it as a pillar of the modern Western civilization.

Can the dry abstraction of a "categorical imperative" replace it in the hearts of men? Does agape translate to other other "diverse" theo-philosophical traditions? For it is this agape that becomes the foundation for American "tolerance": Indeed Samuel Adams [1772] says John Locke "proves" tolerance is a Christian thing.

And is not the modern definition of the pursuit of happiness as the pursuit of pleasure thanatotropic? Does his "brother's keeper" let him kill himself in the name of tolerance and liberty? Is that the Golden Rule?

bpabbott said...

My Google-Reader is flaky today. So I missed Tom's comment below when I responded earlier.

Re: "Or put another way, you have to accept some meaningful sense of the "Christ" in "Jesus Christ." "

I find this definition to be consistent with how the term is used here. I'll try to remember it.

I also think it encompasses all those who call themselves Christians (except for Jefferson who referred to himself as Christian with specific qualification that, I think, more appropriately qualifies him as a follower of Jesus)

Re: "I don't. God either spoke to man directly, or he never did."

Tom, do you imply that the Bible must be accepted as literally true (a direct revelation), or something else?

I suspect the latter, but from your response, it isn't clear.

Rex said...

Tom,

You write, “"Pluralism" would share a common baseline, a "deist minimum" if you will, whereas "diversity" might as well be a Tower of Babel.”

That is a great question, and one for which I have no concise comment. I mentioned way back that I and a few other UUs are working on a theology of unity in diversity, where both dimensions are required. The critical factor for me, based on Merleau-Ponty as interpreted by Ted Toadvine, is that it is neither unity nor diversity but what emerges from the self-evident dynamic of the two. The model is M-P’s concept of “chiasm,” which emerges from the visible and invisible dynamic, the bodily and meaning dynamic, that he uses the term “the flesh” to refer to.

Then you also write, “But can every tradition successfully synthesize the Christian natural law tradition?” Another great question. It brings to mind the work of the Catholic philosopher Eric Vogelin whose massive history (and I have read only a single volume for a class taught by a prof who has read more) concludes that so far in world history we have had three *complete* religions—Judaism, the Greeks, and Christianity. His standard is that of each of those having reached an appreciation of the Absolute, understood in classical terms as in Aristotle and Aquinas.

I am in no position to argue with a genius like Vogelin, but my commitment to a post-metaphysical solution has problems with that dimension of both Aristotle and Aquinas. I understand the post-metaphysical as delineated by Heidegger and applied by Levinas, Derrida, Habermas, etc. moving in an alternative direction.

Frankly my sense of the self-evident, which I understand as neither metaphysical nor simply physical, is so far from articulation that it is cheating on my part to bring it up. What else can you say about the self-evident except “Look. There it is”? I don’t yet have more than that, except the dilemmas of the philosophers I read and the inspiration of Emerson who I interpret as trying to tell us how and where to look.

Let me see if I have anything to say about your agape comments.

Rex said...

Tom,

Off the top of my head, I'd have to argue that it is agape rather than St. Paul's philia, charity, that wins the competition for a form of love that we humans can aspire to. The theology of agape I understand as orthodox Christianity that the cardinal's history relies on. I do not know of any developed alternative.

However, Habermas I maintain most likely refers to philia, as his foundation in critical theory makes agape unlikely.

And, yes, the categorical imperative, as well as the Golden Rule, has a problem. I have posted here and there my suggestion that the categorical imperative is fulfilled as well by the capitalist who says "Greed is good." It means that he expects everyone to try to take advantage of him and so he willingly tries to take advantage of everyone. My rule of thumb is to read Kant for ontology and Hegel for ethics.

Do we let people harm themselves because to interfere with their freedom is wrong? I once counseled a woman who was cursed by her former friend whom she had come upon shortly after ODing and who the paramedics saved. In some situations the best I can do is hold someone's hand and weep along with them. No, we do not let people harm themselves, so long as we do lesser harm. When the cure is worse than the disease, we have a problem.

Rex said...

Opps. Not "it is agape rather than St. Paul's philia." Instead "it is St. Paul's philia rather than agape..."

I am capable of recognizing a couple dozen Greek words at best. Maybe that comes from being in the tradition of "homoiousias" rather than "Homoousias."

Tom Van Dyke said...

No point in us parsing the Greek.

What Habermas means by "the Christian ethic of love" is what we're talking about, and it's not eros and it's certainly not thanatos.

Give it a name, Rex, and we'll use it. It's something specific, unique, beautiful, and foundational.

Words often get in the way of ideas, and we are not sophists here.

Rex said...

Touche'

Tom Van Dyke said...

Oh, it wasn't about you, Rex. I'm a bit techy about sophistry, as most debate everywhere devolves into arguing terms and ignoring concepts.

We watch too much Law & Order, where it's adversarial and not cooperative, about winning instead of the joint pursuit of truth.

Terms are only helpful as shorthand, when all parties agree on their meaning. These days, they kill more discussions than they facilitate.

A Tower of Babel, you might say.

;-)

Pinky said...

.
And, speaking of Law and Order, if anyone watched the show last night about the Afghanistan drug traffic, my son is the actor who played the U.S. Army captain.
.
You can also catch him in Mama Mia on Broadway whenever you're in the Big City.
.

Rex said...

Tom,

I couldn't agree more about not letting our terms do our thinking for us.

I have very much enjoyed and benefitted from what I have learned here. I understand my own tradition better now.

As I have tried to indicate, my primary interest is in ways to incorporate what I believe are genuine contributions from contemporary thinkers. I prefer the ones who have respect for and knowledge of the past so as to not repeat mistakes already corrected. As we must teach each new generation what we have learned, it is a perpetual task. Maybe that's just my rationalization for a learned clergy.

American creation is on my list of places to check regularly. See ya later gator.

Tom Van Dyke said...

And thank you, Rex. I'd done a lot of work on unitarianism, but this is the first time it seemed worthwhile to write it all out. You're certainly very welcome here anytime.

As for contemporary thinkers having a clue about the past, I suppose some of them do. Habermas, at least.

;-)