Whither Unitarian Christianity?

Two hundred years ago today, William Ellery Channing proudly claimed the pejorative “Unitarian” and gave a 90-minute sermon called “Unitarian Christianity” in which he proclaimed the centrality of reason in religion. Today’s sermon will be shorter, but Amy will take up a related issue. How can reason and the other elements of religion co-exist?

Worship Leaders: Rev. Amy Zucker Morgenstern

Worship Associate: Mike McLaughlin

Music: Teresa Oroco, flute; Orlando Castro, guitar


from the sermon “Unitarian Christianity,” delivered in Baltimore on May 5, 1819, by William Ellery Channing

Now all books, and all conversation, require in the reader or hearer the constant exercise of reason; or their true import is only to be obtained by continual comparison and inference. Human language, you well know, admits various interpretations; and every word and every sentence must be modified and explained according to the subject which is discussed, according to the purposes, feelings, circumstances, and principles of the writer, and according to the genius and idioms of the language which he uses. These are acknowledged principles in the interpretation of human writings; and a man, whose words we should explain without reference to these principles, would reproach us justly with a criminal want of [kindliness], and an intention of obscuring or distorting his meaning. 

Were the Bible written in a language and style of its own, did it consist of words, which admit but a single sense, and of sentences wholly detached from each other, there would be no place for the principles now laid down. We could not reason about it, as about other writings. But such a book would be of little worth; and perhaps, of all books, the Scriptures correspond least to this description.


Samuel Longfellow, who wrote the words to the hymn we just sang (“With Joy We Claim the Growing Light”), was born in 1819, the year the “Baltimore Sermon” was given. And there he is, writing decades later that the light continues to grow.

In 1819, “Unitarian” was an insult. Congregations were in a civil war between the trinitarians who had founded them and the unitarians who had arisen within. The trinitarians said the “u-word” in a sneer, as a scolding and a scandal.

William Ellery Channing was a leader of the despised faction. He was the minister of Boston’s prominent Federal Street Church, and had been engaging in a pamphlet war with Trinitarians; that was the 19th century equivalent of shouting at each other on the Sunday news shows, in the op ed section, or on blogs. In the midst of this dispute, he was invited to go to Baltimore and give the sermon at the ordination of Jared Sparks, the first minister of a newly built church intended to be a home for the Unitarians. And much as the youth of Outlet, whom we’re supporting as our justice partner this month, have reclaimed the slur “queer” for themselves, Channing tore off the badge of shame and proudly waved it as a banner of honor. He called his sermon “Unitarian Christianity,” and spent at least 90 minutes expounding on why it was the true and best representative of the religion of Jesus’ followers (while also saying quite a lot about how Christians of differing doctrines shouldn’t argue with each other or try to prove themselves the best).

He tackled the Trinity, but that wasn’t the main point of the sermon, as indeed it had ceased to be the main point of the wider debate among the churches. It wasn’t the matter of the trinitarian vs. unitarian debate that mattered most to Channing, but the method. He wrote,

Our leading principle in interpreting Scripture is this, that the Bible is a book written for [humans–Channing said “men”], in the language of [humans], and that its meaning is to be sought in the same manner as that of other books. We believe that God, when he speaks to the human race, conforms, if we may so say, to the established rules of speaking and writing. How else would the Scriptures avail us more, than if communicated in an unknown tongue?

So using reason as we read the Bible is one piece; and another important piece of any reader, especially of the Bible, is interpretation, as we heard in our reading:

Now all books, and all conversation, require in the reader or hearer the constant exercise of reason . . . human language . . . admits various interpretations; and every word and every sentence must be modified and explained according to the subject which is discussed . . .

. . . and the circumstances . . . of the writer, and the . . . idioms   . .. which [the writer] uses. In Channing’s view, Scripture cannot be treated differently or we will be led astray.

Led astray from . . . ? Well, the main purpose of religion, which is for us to be moral beings. A good chunk of the sermon is devoted to these moral qualities. Now, because the sermon is, oh, about 18 pages long, that would be about 36 double-spaced pages, which would make it five times longer than one of my usual sermons, I can’t go into all of it. But I just want to share one other beautiful understanding shared with us by Channing, lovely words about Jesus’ being and role that have remained with us and shaped UU Christianity. In fact, they speak particularly to the Universalist side, which shows that Channing was a universalist (small u) as well as a unitarian. He said “that Christ came [not] to change God’s mind [but our] own”: to reconcile us with God, not by appeasing our angry, disappointed creator, but by guiding us into a more virtuous, that is to say, in Channing’s words, a more holy, way of living. That’s what Jesus’ life and teaching were about.

So, on this 200th anniversary of his wise and brave declaration, what of Channing’s thinking remains with us? What has changed? What might we learn by returning to his teachings?

One thing that seems very clear to me when I read this sermon, and which might surprise and even dismay Channing if he could travel in time and discover it, is how much he laid the groundwork for the rise of rationalism and humanism, and indeed atheism. (He wasn’t the only one of his time to do that.) And furthermore, people knew it even then. All those critics who charged that the heretical doctrines of the Unitarians would lead them right away from Christianity and God–they were not entirely wrong.

For one thing, since that time, reliance on Scripture has waned. There are many Unitarian Universalist Christians to this day, but I have not met one who believes that the Bible is uniquely the revelation of God to God’s creatures. Channing believed it was; but he noted that it was also speaking to people of a certain time, of matters of importance to them, and therefore we have to interpret it for our own time and our own matters. In this way he planted the seed that grew into doubt about that particular scripture–an awareness that if there is a God who speaks to us, God has spoken to us in many ways. And so today’s Unitarian Universalist Christians are guided by Christian teachings without giving them the unique authority that Channing did.

But another change in the past 200 years touches all of us whatever our theology and whatever sacred sources are most important to us. And that is where I want to spend the rest of my time this morning. It is the question of how deep rationality goes. Is the universe rational? Are we rational?

Now Channing had a particular outlook on this; to him, the universe was rational because it was guided by a wise and rational being. He wrote:

[I]f God be infinitely wise, he cannot sport with the understandings of his creatures. A wise teacher discovers his wisdom in adapting himself to the capacities of his pupils, not in perplexing them with what is unintelligible, not in distressing them with apparent contradictions, not in filling them with a skeptical distrust of their own powers. An infinitely wise teacher, who knows the precise extent of our minds, and the best method of enlightening them, will surpass all other instructors in bringing down truth to our apprehension, and in showing its loveliness and harmony.

Now, when Channing spoke of “a skeptical distrust of [our] own powers,” he was criticizing those who said that we cannot trust reason. They were saying: You Unitarians, you are telling us to apply reason to the scripture, and that is a fatally flawed idea. And they were very unlike us. But their question has come full circle to our time. Our own time’s question about reason is exactly what besets us–as it should. Not because we doubt that there is an “infinitely wise teacher” instructing us, though many of us do doubt exactly that. And not because, as Channing’s opponents might have said, we are but unworthy, flawed creatures and although God knows all, we do not know what we would need to in order to govern our own lives. But regardless of these questions, we do have some problems to work out about reason.

None of them, I should say, are about its value. Not at all. But they call into question our confidence in it–a confidence that was declared so firmly by Channing from the pulpit in Baltimore two hundred years ago.

Now, he saw some problems with it too; he speaks quite a lot in this sermon about the problem of passions versus reason. Probably for as long as humans have reflected upon ourselves, we have noted this struggle to hew to logic and careful thought, given the way we are buffeted by emotions (by hormones, we might say nowadays). And so Channing, as a guard against the buffeting by the emotions–well, the text that he chooses for his sermon is very familiar to anyone who has heard our benediction. It is from the Bible, Thessalonians, and the way Channing read it was “Prove all things; hold fast to that which is good.” “Prove,” here, is used in that now-archaic sense meaning “to test,” which is how a modern-day Bible would translate it. Test everything; hold fast to what is good.

Channing was speaking to people–ministers and religious folk–of a country that was in the throes of the Second Great Awakening. Picture revival tents popping up everywhere; it’s kind of like megachurches: people are preaching and singing, they’re overcome with emotion, they fall to their knees, and that is how they are transformed religiously. Folks like Channing–and like his religious descendants here among us–were really nervous about that. How do we know what is true religious feeling, when we’re so easily lost in this kind of fervor? This passion, this emotional response, can win out over reason so easily.

So he wasn’t naive about how we difficult it can be to practice reason. But I think we’ve taken a turn; something has changed. In the 21st century reason and its champion, scientific exploration, have taken us so far into the understanding of how thinking actually happens that we now have a more sophisticated reason to doubt our ability to reason. You might have encountered this in the work of the Israeli-American psychologist Daniel Kahnemann in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow; in behavioral economics and its challenge to the long-held economic myth of the “rational actor”; in neuroscience and its Great Rationality Debate, which asks, “Just how rational are human beings?”–not how rationally do we generally behave (not very–we’re pretty clear on that) but at our very best, how rationally can we behave. Kahnemann says,

Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance. (Thinking, Fast and Slow, 230).

In this modern way of thinking, the problem is not that our passions can overrule our reason. We know that; it’s not new. It’s that–well, as Kahnemann puts it: “Mind is a machine for jumping to conclusions.” We want to believe we are rational, but it turns out what we are really champion at is rationalizing: framing our biases, assumptions, and emotional responses as logical decisions.

So it’s not that reason is impossible, but that it is far more elusive than the confident religious liberals of the 19th century imagined. They thought the enemy was the passions, battling always with the wiser, higher mind. But we have traveled far into the workings of the mind, and we have met the enemy there, and discovered it to be the mind itself.

Channing’s confidence in our ability to sort out the rational from the irrational is hard to maintain today. He says, for example:

We conceive, that the true love of God is a moral sentiment, founded on a clear perception. . . . We lay no stress on strong excitements. . . . In all things else [besides the “surrender of desire to God’s will”,” that central moral impulse] men may deceive themselves. Disordered nerves may give them strange sights, and sounds, and impressions. Texts of Scripture may come to them as from Heaven. Their whole souls may be moved, and their confidence in God’s favor be undoubting. But in all this there is no religion.

Religion, for him, had to pass “through the fire of thought” (Emerson): through reason. And so all these other things that we might think are religious experiences could be the results of disordered nerves. We could receive the words of an entire text and believe we had received a revelation from God, and be incorrect.

I’m with him entirely except for that phrase, “in all things else.” Channing thought there was an exception. He thought our true love of God was somehow exempt. But I am a child of the 20th century; two hundred years have flowed under the bridge since Channing’s sermon; and I think I am being realistic, not cynical, when I say: We can deceive ourselves about anything, and the warnings he gives about too easily accepting scriptures and religious visions–good warnings–apply even to those perceptions that Channing himself regarded as “clear.” The reason is that the tool itself, this thing in here (gesturing to her own head), is deficient. The lens through which we look is clouded and shows us distortions–and we don’t even know which are true visions and which are distortions.

You know, he thought that the world can make sense to us because God, the infinitely wise teacher, would not leave us confused. That God would not instruct us in a way (through the Bible, for example) that just left us in doubt. That we are given the various forms of revelation, including our own minds, in order to understand this world. But I think there is no reason to think that the world is comprehensible to us, any more than we think it is comprehensible to a slime mold or a star. We are one of an infinite number of creations. So maybe the world, the whole universe, is just beyond us: not in the dismissive sense about humanity that some of Channing’s opponents had, that we do not deserve to understand the mind of the Creator, but just that why should the universe be simple enough for these particular instruments (pointing at head again) to comprehend?

So, there are lots of questions, and I don’t have an answer. We Unitarians, following the banner of “Unitarian Christianity,” fled into reason and found it wanting; and part of our answer is, as it must be, more reason. More understanding. To question ourselves, to examine ourselves, as Socrates and many others in the ancient world said, must be the beginning of wisdom. Test everything; [then] hold fast to what is good. But we also know that not to be enough.

So then what? We can’t just throw our hands in the air and declare that since rationality is in part an illusion, we may as well abandon it. (Channing also spends a few paragraphs on what kind of world that leads to.) And yet I think the death of this illusion might in time lead us back to treating, say, our passions, with more respect. After all, we know they lead us astray, but so does the mind.

So if you look at this passage from 1 Thessalonians, chapter five, the wider context poses a challenge to us. He has used just that one phrase (verse 21); if you expand it a little bit, you get a lovely sentence for Unitarian Universalists:

20 Do not despise the words of prophets, 21 but test everything; hold fast to what is good.

I feel that balance is very much where we are. To bring the words of many prophets in: the many scriptures, the many wise people, the many flawed people, mystics, and teachers, and singers, and poets, and not to despise them, but to test them, to test everything and then hold fast to what is good.

But if we go back one verse more, I think there is a challenge waiting for us there:

19 Do not quench the Spirit.

There is a struggle between spiritual abandon and reason, because in those moments of spiritual abandon, in the moments when we fall to our knees, in the revival tents and the megachurches, there is some sense of the spirit moving. And it’s really hard to do what Channing recommended. That we apply reason to that, but still maintain warmth in religion, he said, still maintain emotion–but in a cool and collected way . . . I don’t think he resolved it satisfactorily, and I don’t think we have either. And the challenge remains, in our congregations, in the wider society, and in the hearts and lives of each of us: to use reason, to test the world using reason, but in the pursuit of reason not to quench the Spirit, which moves in us in mysterious ways. Because we are inhabitants of a universe that–I am sorry, William Ellery Channing–was not made with us in mind. There is no reason to think that our reason is enough to comprehend it.

To be continued, because this problem of reason and spirit will not be resolved in 20 minutes or in 200 years. What I would pray would be that the next 200 years see us increase in the wise use of reason, and the profound exercise of passion, and the practice of morality and virtue that was, finally, Channing’s greatest concern. So may it be ours as well.

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