Unitarian Christianity: Relevance for the 21st Century?

Whenever people ask me if Unitarian Universalism is a Christian faith, I usually respond by saying we have Christian roots but we are not Christian.  This is much like asking if Christianity is a Hebrew faith, Christianity has Hebrew roots but Christians are not Jewish.

It begs the question, what of our Christian roots did we inherit and still hold claim upon?  In Christianity, Christians still hold claim to the creation myths, the necessity of a blood sacrifice for the redemption of sins, and the prophetic vision of a messiah to establish a just world.  These are just a few of the Hebrew sentiments that Christianity brought into its theology with some adaptation but with clear Hebrew origins.

Early in the formation of this nation, the puritans who settled in New England formed covenants on how they were to live together. They sought to create the Free Church where its members would be able to explore their most important loyalties; their most important and deepest loves.   They created covenants such as the following:

We pledge to walk together in the ways of truth and affection as best we understand them now or may learn them in days to come that we and our children might be fulfilled and that we might speak to the world in words and actions of peace and good will[i].

These congregations were not creedal in their formation.  There was an assumption that people were going to be Christian in their creeds and therefore it was not necessary to determine who believed what doctrine.   In time however, it was noted that not everyone was walking together in the same light.  With the First Great Awakening in 1734, there was a backlash by some ministers who believed that such excesses of emotion and hysteria did not result in living a life of good works.  These ministers turned their focus on the potential of humanity to become moral creatures and began to discard the notion of original sin, depravity, and predestination; rejecting the essence of the Jonathan Edwards’ sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.

These ministers also formulated an understanding of God not being a Trinity, three beings in one, but rather God as a unified whole, Unitarian.  Congregations began to not walk together with other congregations based on doctrinal differences.  These differences came to a heated debate in the early 1800s now known as the Unitarian Controversy.

In 1819, the Rev. William Ellery Channing gave the ordination sermon for Rev. Jared Sparks in Baltimore, MD.  In this sermon he lays out the foundation for what Channing called Unitarian Christianity.  Up until that time, liberal religious in New England had resisted the term Unitarian when it was lodged against them by the conservative Christians of the day.  They had up until that time, simply defined themselves as Christians in the Protestant tradition. The Trinitarian Christians had declared these individuals and congregations no longer Christian in their theology, they were considered heretics.  William Channing’s sermon was the first time that liberal religious claimed the nomenclature Unitarian and declared such as being Christian.

In this sermon, Channing laid out the argument for Unitarian Christianity as being based on two things; the principles behind their interpretation of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures and the doctrines this interpretation seemed to express clearly.

Channing writes:  Our leading principle in interpreting Scripture is this, that the Bible is a book written for men, in the language of men, 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?

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.[ii]

In reading the scriptures, one must consider the times in which the writer wrote the passages. What was the society like when the author wrote the text? What were the controversies the early church was facing not only within their community but also within the context of the society in which they found themselves? Channing suggests that such questions must be considered in reading the Hebrew and Christian texts or be found to falsely apply the culture of an ancient time to today’s circumstances.   And one must also consider the personality of the writer that comes through the words chosen to express the scriptures. What influences were present when writing these words?

He writes:  With these views of the Bible, we feel it our bounden duty to exercise our reason upon it perpetually, to compare, to infer, to look beyond the letter to the spirit, to seek in the nature of the subject, and the aim of the writer, his true meaning; and, in general, to make use of what is known, for explaining what is difficult, and for discovering new truths[iii].

From this system of studying the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, Unitarian Christians came to certain conclusions or doctrines for their faith.  Channing definitively detailed what distinguished Unitarian Christians from the other Christians of the day.

He stated their belief of the unity of God, God is one and only one.  In this way, Unitarian Christianity is aligned with the Jews and the Muslims in declaring that God is One.

Channing writes: We object to the doctrine of the Trinity, that, whilst acknowledging in words, it subverts in effect, the unity of God. According to this doctrine, there are three infinite and equal persons, possessing supreme divinity, called the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Each of these persons, as described by theologians, has his own particular consciousness, will, and perceptions. They love each other, converse with each other, and delight in each other’s society. They perform different parts in man’s redemption, each having his appropriate office, and neither doing the work of the other. The Son is mediator and not the Father. The Father sends the Son, and is not himself sent; nor is he conscious, like the Son, of taking flesh. Here, then, we have three intelligent agents, possessed of different consciousness, different wills, and different perceptions, performing different acts, and sustaining different relations; and if these things do not imply and constitute three minds or beings, we are utterly at a loss to know how three minds or beings are to be formed[i].

Channing declares that Jesus was fully human and therefore inferior to God.  The Trinitarian theology creates a Jesus that is of two minds, one divine, one human; of two wills, one divine, one human.  This two beings within one body, diminishes for Channing the act of sacrifice on the cross.  Channing argues that Trinitarians raise up the suffering Christ on the cross for the salvation of the world but what sort of suffering does this Christ bear if he is also God, full of joy that his death would be the salvation of the world?  The suffering Christ is not suffering at all. He argues this discrepancy in their theology weakens their intent to show the fulfillment of John 3:16.

Channing writes: According to their doctrine, Christ was comparatively no sufferer at all. It is true, his human mind suffered; but this, they tell us, was an infinitely small part of Jesus, bearing no more proportion to his whole nature, than a single hair of our heads to the whole body, or than a drop to the ocean. The divine mind of Christ, that which was most properly himself, was infinitely happy, at the very moment of the suffering of his humanity. Whilst hanging on the cross, he was the happiest being in the universe, as happy as the infinite Father; so that his pains, compared with his felicity, were nothing. This Trinitarians do, and must, acknowledge. It follows necessarily from the immutableness of the divine nature, which they ascribe to Christ; so that their system, justly viewed, robs his death of interest, weakens our sympathy with his sufferings, and is, of all others, most unfavorable to a love of Christ, founded on a sense of his sacrifices for mankind[iv].

Channing also lays out a doctrine that Jesus was not crucified to pluck humanity from the eternal flames of hell but rather crucified to remove the sin that keeps us from living a moral and upright life.

He states such erroneous thinking leads humanity to think, that Christ came to change God’s mind rather than their own; that the highest object of his mission was to avert punishment, rather than to communicate holiness; and that a large part of religion consists in disparaging good works and human virtue, for the purpose of magnifying the value of Christ’s vicarious sufferings. In this way, a sense of the infinite importance and indispensable necessity of personal improvement is weakened, and high-sounding praises of Christ’s cross seem often to be substituted for obedience to his precepts. For ourselves, we have not so learned Jesus. Whilst we gratefully acknowledge, that he came to rescue us from punishment, we believe, that he was sent on a still nobler errand, namely, to deliver us from sin itself, and to form us to a sublime and heavenly virtue.

He adds:  No influence in the universe seems to us so glorious, as that over the character; and no redemption so worthy of thankfulness, as the restoration of the soul to purity. Without this, pardon, were it possible, would be of little value. Why pluck the sinner from hell, if a hell be left to burn in his own breast? Why raise him to heaven, if he remain a stranger to its sanctity and love[v]?

In other words Channing argues that salvation is not a matter of grace which he equates as a kind of get out of hell card but rather through the transformation of the human heart towards moral character and charitable living in this life.  He states:  We regard the spirit of love, charity, meekness, forgiveness, liberality, and beneficence, as the badge and distinction of Christians, as the brightest image we can bear of God, as the best proof of piety[vi].

Now almost two hundred years later, Channing’s words might seem strange to our ears because as I stated, Unitarian Universalism is not a Christian faith.

I began with a question.  What of our Christian roots have we still claimed in our faith today?  We continue in the tradition of a covenantal faith.  We state strongly that we need not think alike to love alike.

It is this loyalty to love one another that we hold dear in our congregations that keeps us from our detractor’s claim that Unitarian Universalists can believe whatever they want. We cannot.  Our loyalty to the value of love for others places us in check should we convey racist, homophobic, transphobic, or any other mean spirited action towards another.  We seek to be accountable in our relationships with one another. We seek to protect and honor each person’s inherent worth and dignity.

We hold dear this claim from our Unitarian Christian roots that development of our moral character is vital to our living a happy and fulfilled life. To adapt Channing’s words, We regard the spirit of love, charity, meekness, forgiveness, liberality, and beneficence, as the badge and distinction of Unitarian Universalists, as the brightest image we can bear of our Species, as the best proof of piety.

We value today the teachings of Jesus’ life as offering profound wisdom of how we might live with one another.  We also value the profound wisdom found in the writings of the Bhagavad Gita, the Dao de Jing, the Qur’an and the various teachers and mystics that have arisen following these texts.    We sift through all of these texts and teachings looking for our revered values and how we might better embody them in our lives.  Like Ralph Waldo Emerson, we believe that one book could never hold the fullness of revelation’s truth.

Channing faced many detractors of Unitarian Christianity that increasingly became Universalist in theology as well.  We face detractors who state without a unifying doctrine how do we hold together as a community. The conservative Christians today, like the conservative Christians of two hundred years ago have a theology whose glue is avoiding hell and damnation after death. They draw people in to avoid eternal damnation, they tithe to avoid damnation, and they abstain from immoral behavior— as they define immorality— to avoid damnation.

We have no such theology in our faith.  Our seeking to live a moral life is not predicated by the possibility of facing the wrath of god on judgment day. Those of us who may subscribe to theism do not imagine that god would create us in a state of depravity worthy for destruction.  If there is a unifying theology in Unitarian Universalism, it is that we were created in a state of goodness and that we will return to a state of goodness.  And in between we are to do good[vii]. We do good because we have self-agency to choose to do good, there is no overhanging threat of damnation to coerce us to do good.

We seek to live a moral and ethical life like our Unitarian Christian ancestors, because we have come to understand that living a moral and ethical life benefits the uplift of the community as a whole. Not only are we as individuals benefactors of our embodying our values but the whole of the community benefits as well. We come together to support one another in our endeavors to create a better world not only for ourselves but also for our children’s children.  We have maintained the claim from Unitarian Christianity that we not only have the choice but the responsibility to emulate good into the world.

More than at any other time of our Human history, we recognize the systems of oppression and privilege that prevent people from being presented with the choices to do good.  So our faith calls us to intervene with creating justice so that more people will be free to be able to make choices of doing good in the world.  Our faith therefore is a salvific faith geared towards increasing the power to create an abundance of justice and goodness in the world not only for this present generation but for the generations to come.

There is an indigenous saying that when making decisions we need to consider the wellbeing of the lives to the 7th generation that follows us.  Consider this for a moment.  Seven generations.  In my family seven generations back from me is the era of the revolutionary war. The decisions made then by that generation are still being felt by us today either for ill or good.  The systems of oppression that were instituted then are still in operation today in a variety of ways.

The decisions that we make today will have an impact far into the future. I heard Matthew Fox speak this past week and he said we are the first species that can choose whether or not we go extinct.  He added we still have not chosen.

Unitarian Universalists have claimed from Unitarian Christianity the need to make reasoned responses to the needs that surround us in the world.  We look to not only right the social injustices as we discern them but also for the environmental injustices that we have created through our advancing technology. We sift through the ethics of our actions, individually and societally, to determine a reasoned response that may move us towards making a decision for survival—not just for our species but all other species in which only now are we beginning to realize our intricate linkage with on this planet.

The covenantal faith that Channing and others in the early 19th century sought to embody with reason is still very much a living legacy for our 21st century life. This may be the most important aspect of our Unitarian heritage that we can offer a world gone mad with hyper-individualism and narcissistic self-importance.

Connie Goodbread once stated that we are the people of the promise and the struggle. Our promise is our covenant with how we are to be together, our struggle is ensuring that our covenant continues to be ever more inclusive of all people who seek another way of being. This faith calls us to be more than we currently are through our promised intentions and through our struggles to embody those intentions.  May we choose to be the good we wish to see in the world.

[NOTE: The quotations in this sermon reflect the times in which they were written. They reflect the understandings of early 19th century thinking and therefore are not inclusive in their reference to humanity. I felt it was important to honor the integrity of the times in which this understanding was held as it also holds an important truth for us today; namely that revelation is ongoing even until the present day.  This sermon was delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa on November 17 2013 (c) by Rev. Fred L Hammond.]


[i] Alice Blair Wesley, Our Covenant: the 2000-01 Minns Lecture; Meadville Lombard Theological School Press Chicago 2002.

[ii http://www.transcendentalists.com/unitarian_christianity.htm

[iii] IBID

[iv] IBID

[v] IBID

[vi] IBID

[vii]This concept comes from a sermon that Rev. Tandi Rogers gave at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa on October 13 2013

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Published in: on November 18, 2013 at 12:17 pm  Comments Off on Unitarian Christianity: Relevance for the 21st Century?  
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The Spirituality of Ebenezer Scrooge

It might seem strange to be examining in October the life of Ebenezer Scrooge from the classic tale, A Christmas Carol by Unitarian Charles Dickens. Some context to the story itself, Dickens lived in mid-19th century England.  His father was sent to debtor’s prison when he was twelve years old, and as was the custom then, the family joined him in prison and worked in factories for a few shillings.  Many of his stories such as Oliver Twist, David Copperfield reflect on Dickens’ childhood poverty.

His fictional stories as well as his detailed non-fiction articles about child labor, debtor prison conditions, and public capital punishment used as a tourist attraction helped spawn a movement of massive social changes in Britain.  The story A Christmas Carol was the first of a series of stories Dickens wrote about the Christmas season.  In a brief biography online, I read: “He was eventually so associated with Christmas that when Dickens died in 1870, a London costermonger’s girl is said to have exclaimed, “Dickens dead? Then will Father Christmas die too?[i]” A costermonger is a street vendor of the 19th century who would sing chants to sell their wares.

The story A Christmas Carol has gained increased popularity in recent years. There are over 200 [ii]adaptations of Dickens story for Screen, Television, Radio, and theatre[iii].  In addition, this story has been animated and made into operas.  I have this theory about such stories.  When a story line can be easily retold multiple times in multiple ways that story is reflecting a truth about the culture.  Now a popular story line might be a metaphor that is hard to decipher—our current fascination with the story lines of Zombies for example has multiple metaphors layered within them. The story line of Romeo and Juliet also remade and retold various times, perhaps the most famous recasting of this is West Side Story, is a tale more easily to discern. Both of these story lines resonate with our culture.   So there is also something about the story of A Christmas Carol that resonates with contemporary society.

I do not think it is simply that it jives with the current paranormal ghost stories that have become ubiquitous on almost every cable station that exists. These too are resonating with a very core aspect of our current society but A Christmas Carol strikes at another chord of our psyche.

Our society for better or worse is firmly grounded on individualism and this notion of personal freedom versus communal responsibility. This is manifested in a false illusion that the American Dream is attainable by all, if we do as Ebenezer Scrooge did and put our nose to the grindstone and grind away.

What our contemporary society fails to see is that our capitalist mindset is a spirituality that is detrimental to living a full and abundant life. I think the fact that we have produced over 200 variations of this story is proof that we are not fully grasping this point so just as a dog will gnaw at a wound, we need to see, read, or hear this story told yet again in a slightly different voice.  This story is ultimately not about the 1%, while it may apply to them as well, it is about the 99% who have bought into supporting this false notion that career, hard work, material gains is what yields a successful meaningful life.  To be clear careers, hard work, and material gains are only a few of the myriad tools at our disposal to supplement a successful meaningful life. They are not the meaningful life itself.

Shortly after the towers fell in Manhattan, the nation was in deep grieving, so deep a grief that we stopped purchasing manufactured goods.  We needed to grieve.  We needed to mourn our dead. It was a moment when we needed to hear a pastoral message from our President.  In response to this grief, President Bush gave a speech stating that we should continue our participation in the American economy. Buy.  Spend money.  Indulge our pain by layering on material goods and vacations to Disney that at best could only numb our grief.  And because we did not want to appear defeated by the terrorist attack on our soil that is what we did and our economy steered its continuing frenzy towards the crash of 2008.  A crash we have yet to fully recover and now we have a government shutdown with consequences still to be fully realized. But mark my words this shutdown will have profound negative consequences.

The people leading us in congress, I suggest have emulated well the spirituality of Ebenezer Scrooge.  In the story there is a scene where two portly gentlemen visit Scrooge at his office to solicit a donation for the annual Christmas fund for the poor.  Listen to this quote first written in 1843. There have been similar sentiments like Scrooge’s made by today’s leaders.

“‘At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,’ said the gentleman, taking up a pen, ‘it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and Destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time.  Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.’

‘Are there no prisons?’ asked Scrooge.

‘Plenty of prisons,’ said the gentleman,

‘And the Union workhouses?’  demanded Scrooge.  ‘Are they still in operation?’

‘They are.  Still,’ returned the gentleman, ‘I wish I could say they were not.’

‘The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?’  said Scrooge.

‘Both very busy, sir.’

‘Oh!  I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,’ said Scrooge.  ‘I’m very glad to hear it.’

‘Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,’ returned the gentleman, ‘a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink and means of warmth.  We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices.  What shall I put you down for?’

‘Nothing!’ Scrooge replied.

‘You wish to be anonymous?’

‘I wish to be left alone,’ said Scrooge.  ‘Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer.  I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry.  I help to support the establishments I have mentioned — they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.’

‘Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.’

‘If they would rather die,’ said Scrooge, ‘they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.  Besides — excuse me — I don’t know that.’

‘But you might know it,’ observed the gentleman.

‘It’s not my business,” Scrooge returned.  “It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s.  Mine occupies me constantly.  Good afternoon, gentlemen!’ ”

Rabbi Abraham Heschel stated: “There are two primary ways in which man relates himself to the world that surround him:  manipulation and appreciation. In the first way he sees in what surrounds him things to be handled, forces to be managed, objects to be put to use. In the second way he sees in what surrounds him things to be acknowledged, understood, valued or admired.[iv]

The first way is the spiritual path of Ebenezer Scrooge.  The following steps could be taken in order to emulate Ebenezer Scrooge:

  1. Hold a belief that it’s all about me.
  2. Self-interests trump all other interests
  3. Treat everything that hinders my self-interests as personal—if it doesn’t it is not important and should be ignored.
  4. Preservation of privilege is vital
  5. Objectify all others to be tools towards achieving self-interests
  6. Protect self from pain and heartache.
  7. Act as if there is never enough for me.
  8. Take a firm stance of ‘If I can do it so can you.’

Ebenezer Scrooge took on a belief that everything was about him.  Whatever happened within his realm was directed towards him.  His childhood friends’ having different interests than he did was a deliberate shunning of his presence.  Their behaviors were about him.  The actions of others were always suspected to be aimed at hindering his progress towards meeting his self-interests.  When his partner Marley died, death was viewed as an advantage for it meant all the more for him.

What was best for him and his interests trumped anyone else’s interest.  His fiancée telling him he changed after meeting some success at business did not bring about a recognition of what he was about to lose. His financial success was more important than having a relationship with someone who loved him.  He was willing to forfeit love for financial prosperity.

Ebenezer saw the demands of society as being personal against his ability for success. His employee Bob Cratchit was but a necessary evil in order to succeed.  He paid him sub wages, gave him minimal access to heat and expected him to work every day of the year except one, Christmas Day. This one day off with pay was considered a severe sacrifice to Scrooge.

Any law that was passed to benefit others was equally an imposition against his ability to succeed.  He paid his taxes but they cost him his ability to be even more successful.   We see this aspect of Scrooge’s spirituality in today’s businesses refusal to offer health insurance to their employees.

You may recall the stance that Wal-Mart took towards offering their employees’ health benefits.  They resorted to hiring temporary part time workers who had to re-apply for a position every 180 days to avoid offering full time employees health care. Such a move, however, backfired on Wal-Mart.  A recent article in Forbes Magazine stated, “Wal-Mart’s unwillingness to pay most of their workers a livable wage, while avoiding enough full-time employees to properly run a retail outlet, has led to the company placing dead last among department and discount stores in the most recent American Customer Satisfaction Index—a position that should now be all too familiar to the nation’s largest retailer given that Wal-Mart has either held or shared the bottom spot on the index for six years running.[v]”   On September 25th, Wal-Mart announced that they will be converting 35K part time positions to full time status entitling these employees to full healthcare under the affordable care act.

This wasn’t a change of heart but rather an example of self-interests trumps all other interests and objectifying others as tools to promote those self-interests.  It is no longer in Wal-Mart’s self-interest as a business to refuse full time employment status.

But individuals also have taken on this belief of being personally affronted by programs and taxation meant to benefit the welfare of all.  We hear the uproar in our local papers regarding the taxes supporting public education and state taxes that support the social welfare of a community—such as police and fire departments and safety nets for the underemployed.

Ebenezer fought hard to preserve his place of privilege.  Any attempts of others rising up are threats to his privileged placed in society. So his underpaying his employee, Bob Cratchit is an attempt to hold his place of privilege and power over Mr. Cratchit and others like him.  It was Bob Cratchit’s own fault that he decided to have so many children that he could not afford to have on his wages.  It is in Ebenezer’s self-interest to keep Bob Cratchit beneath him.   Cratchit is not a human being to Scrooge, but an object to be used.  If he cannot fulfill his duties, someone else will fill those shoes or as in the case of his partner’s death, simply continue on and reap larger profits.

All other people are viewed in this same manner, as objects to meet Ebenezer Scrooge’s self-interests.  If they do not serve these interests then they are invisible—he hears nothing about them and they do not have any relationship to his life.  They are in Ebenezer’s words “…not my business…”   So to emulate Scrooge, ignore anything that might cause your heart to sway from your self-interest.

If the needs of others do break through to your consciousness, then to place distance between you and them, you must condemn them as different from you. These people must have done something to deserve the treatment they are getting.  They are criminals, the lot of them.  They are moochers and takers; the lot of them. If they are targeted by the police it is only because of the way they dress or talk. They are a threat to your self-interests and therefore they must be kept in their place. Tell yourself and others, if this were not true, then they would be successful.

Declare loudly that everything you have; you earned from the sweat of your own brow. No-one. Ever. Gave you a helping hand.  Keep declaring this aloud to everyone over and over again until you believe it.  If you can do it, so can they, the lazy moochers.

But if they do begin to succeed then you must act as if there is not enough to go around.  You must get your share first before anyone else does and you must hoard it away.  Influence the laws to slap them back down a few rungs.  Seek to abolish affirmative action laws by saying they were so successful they are no longer needed. Pat yourself on the back for allowing a few tokens to rise to the top 1%. Use them as examples of what hard work and ingenuity can do towards fulfilling the American Dream.  If you phrase this right, people will not see through your veil of acting on your self-interest.  Remember, self-interest trumps all other actions.

Just as Scrooge did early in his life, you have to hide your love away. No personal relationship is more important than what is your self-interest. Any personal relationship is only a stepping stone for your advancement to a more privileged place in the scheme of things.  So do not get swayed by the interests of another, unless their interests are aligned with yours.  And then only for as long as their interests are so aligned, at the first sign of deviance from your self-interests, cut them off and coldly move on to the next stepping stone.

Only surround yourself with people who agree with you. Nothing is stronger than support from likeminded individuals who do not challenge your thinking on matters of moral or ethical behavior. If someone in your circle of associates does challenge your thinking, warn them to toe the line or be cut off from your good graces. One must not tolerate oppositional viewpoints.  When you cut them off tell yourself that they were holding you back from your best interests and you are better off without them. Then move on towards fulfilling your interests.

So this is the blue print for developing a spirit akin to Ebenezer Scrooge’s.  If you are successful at mastering this spirituality the fruits of such a path will be to inhabit a body that is old, crotchety, and down right mean.  You will be like the person who yells at children for playing too close to their yard or as unfortunately has happened not just once but twice in the last 18 months, shoots the neighbor for playing music too loud[i], then claim a stand your ground defense[ii].

You will take small comfort in interjecting your meanness into every conversation where joy and happiness are expressed.  A strong emphasis of Bah Humbug with a few other strongly worded epithets thrown in for good measure should suffice to bring others back to your level of misery. Make sure to inflict your dour self on others because they have not suffered like you have suffered. Their happiness is after all a personal assault on your self-interests.

If this is not the form of spiritual life that you desire, there is hope for a different path.

Again words by Abraham Heschel:  “Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy. And yet being alive is no answer to the problems of living. To be or not to be is not the question. The vital question is: how to be and how not to be? The tendency to forget this vital question is the tragic disease of contemporary man, a disease that may prove fatal, that may end in disaster. To pray is to recollect passionately the perpetual urgency of this vital question.[iii]

The spiritual life that moves us towards maturity in our relationship with others and the world begins with the question, “how to be and how not to be?”  It is an awareness that we are ultimately in relation with one another.  The realization that what begins as a shout becomes a deed, is it a shout of love that becomes a deed of justice or a shout of fear that becomes a deed of dominance?  How are we to be in the world?  Blessed be.

This sermon was presented to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa on 6 October 2013(c) by Rev. Fred L Hammond.



Published in: on November 5, 2013 at 5:38 pm  Comments Off on The Spirituality of Ebenezer Scrooge  
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Siddhartha: A Man for All Seasons

Siddhartha was born a prince in the region of Nepal sometime in the 6th century Before the Common Era.  When he was born, the story is told that astrologers told his parents that Siddhartha was destined to either become a great king or a great spiritual leader. His father wanted his son to become a great king so he insulated Siddhartha from all awareness of suffering in the world.  As long as he would live within the palace walls, he would never see someone sick, nor someone old or dying. He would only see the abundance of the world.  Siddhartha we are told married a princess and had a son.  They were happy. Life was good.

But Siddhartha had never been outside of the palace and he insisted to see the world.  His father ordered the city to be cleared from anyone old or infirmed so Siddhartha would only see happiness and joy.  However, Siddhartha did see someone who was feeble and old and he was very moved by this.  He went out into the city a few more times and saw someone sick and someone dead.  And he saw someone who was considered a sage, a seeker of the truth.

Siddhartha realized that this was the fate of all people to grow old, sick, and die.  He needed to find a way to handle this realization.  Siddhartha renounced his family and privilege as a prince and left the palace forever.  He wandered the countryside joining the various groups of seekers to understand.  Eventually, he settled under a Bodhi Tree and meditated for a long time.  And during his long meditation he had hallucinations of demons tempting him but he stayed true to his quest. And then one day, he had a realization.  It is said that he attained enlightenment and was thereafter called the Buddha.  He spent the rest of his life teaching others what he had learned.

But what was his realization?  And how is this realization still relevant today.

The Buddha taught what he called the Four Noble Truths.

1)    There is Dukkha—a word that is really untranslatable into English.  Dukkha has been translated as suffering but this word alone does not capture the fullness of this word. It also includes the notion of impermanence, emptiness, imperfection.[i]  A recent conversation I had with friend of mine who is a Buddhist Abbott suggested that a better word to use to translate the word Dukkha instead of using the word suffering is to use the word Stress.[ii] We all experience it.  And in our country of privilege, it is perhaps a more prevalent an experience than suffering. So the first Noble Truth states there is stress.

Stating there is stress does not negate that there is suffering, or  happiness or joy, only that there is stress.  There are three aspects of stress; there is ordinary stress, stress caused by change, and conditioned states.  Not getting what one wants, the death or separation from a loved one, these are examples of ordinary stress.  The being downsized at work, the beginning of a marriage, these are examples of stress caused by change.  We are saddened when a love affair ends.  The conditioned state of stress refers to the notion of a being, of an individual self, this conditioned state is made up of the flow of energy that differentiates you from me.  The Buddha refers to five aggregates that make up the self.  There is Matter, Sensations, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. These are the things that define this being from any other being.  They include the physical characteristics, the ability to sense and form ideas about the information those senses deliver, the ability to act in word and deed, and the awareness.  All of these work together to make up the self which as a conditioned state results in stress.  All three aspects of stress is the result of attachment. How does one cling to this moment, to this moment, now to this moment?  One cannot, no matter how enjoyable that moment may have been, it is now gone.

2)    The second Noble Truth states there is an origin to Stress. Stress comes from desire, or thirst for something.  That something can be tangible like wanting a nice house to live in to something more intangible like will my retirement fund be solvent or cover my living expenses when I retire. It is easy to see how the desire for power can be a source of stress but even the desire for peace can also be a source of stress.  Not having peace or rather the lack thereof is stressful.
The continuance of the thirst or drive or volition “denote the same thing: they denote the desire, the will to be, to exist, to re-exist, to become more and more, to grow more and more, to accumulate more and more.[iii]”  All of this desire is stressful.

The notion of karma arises in this second noble truth. Because this thirst, drive, volition is the cause and its actions have an effect.  It may either be good or bad in its effect, but it continues in the direction set forth and additional stress is the ultimate result.

3) The Third Noble Truth is There can be a cessation to Stress.  The answer is rather simple.  This reminds me of a childhood joke.  A person goes to the doctor and says, “Doctor my arm hurts when I do this.”  The doctor said, “Stop doing that.”  The cessation to stress is to stop craving and desiring. Part of this stopping is to no longer be attached to what is craved or desired.  If we must have something to be so in order to be happy, then we will never be happy.  If we are in a state of want, we are not happy.  If we should receive what it is we want, we are fearful we will lose it, and therefore we are not happy.  So letting go of attachment to the desired state be it tangible or intangible is the key to ending stress.

4) We do this through the fourth noble truth which is the middle way in between the two extremes of pleasure seeking and avoiding stress.  It is also known as the Eightfold path.

  1. Right Understanding
  2. Right Thought
  3. Right Speech
  4. Right Action
  5. Right Livelihood
  6. Right Effort
  7. Right Mindfulness
  8. Right Concentration

This Eightfold path is combined into three categories of ethical conduct, mental discipline, and wisdom.  This path is not like an AA step where one focuses on Right Thought this week and then next week focuses on Right Speech.  These are meant to be worked on simultaneously.

Ethical conduct is based on love and compassion. It includes Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood of the Eightfold path.  Right speech is abstinence from lying, slander, gossip, maliciousness, and hate speech.  Speech is to be truthful and kind, purposeful and meaningful.  My mother would say to me when I was a child, if you don’t have something nice to say, then don’t say anything at all.  This is practicing right speech.

Right action is promoting moral and peaceful living.  We are to abstain from destroying life, stealing, dishonesty actions, and sexual misconduct. We are to help others to lead a peaceful life.

Right Livelihood means to work in a profession that will not lead to harm of others.  There are many professions today that while the professions themselves might not lead to harming others, the way they are being embodied are leading to harm.  Today we have extended the concept of harming the lives of others to contain the entire ecosystem in which we live and breathe.

James Ford, Unitarian Universalist Minister and Zen teacher puts it another way.  He states[i] we are to

  1. “Foster Life
  2. Speak truthfully
  3. Respect boundaries
  4. Respect your body and others’ bodies
  5. Remain clear and open”

The next category in the Eightfold Path is Mental Discipline.  This encompasses right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.  Right effort is to focus on thoughts that foster life, respect self and others.  Right mindfulness or right awareness is also known as being attentive in the moment. Attentiveness is not only to the activities of mind; but also to the sensations of the body, the sensations of the heart or emotions, and to ideas and thoughts.  It is to be aware of what is without pushing away or pulling towards oneself.  One of the exercises that Buddhists use to strengthen this ability of right awareness is sitting meditation.  This is the meditation practice that allows one to become attentive to ones breathing.  How the air flows in and out of the lungs.  Thoughts that arise are to be noticed and then let go.

In order to strengthen one’s ability to be aware this meditation needs to be done daily.  This is where the work is in Buddhism.  It is one thing to have a philosophical understanding of the teachings of the Buddha and it is another to allow it to transform one’s life.  The person doing sitting meditation applies right effort and right mindfulness into the process of sitting.  They notice their thoughts, their emotions, let them go and as they do they raise their awareness towards equanimity.  “To be rightly aware on the absolute level is to be aware of the true nature of reality…no-self, impermanence and the nature of stress.[i]”  This is training the mind towards becoming open to the enlightenment the Buddha experienced.

The final two aspects of the Eightfold path fit into the category of Wisdom.  These are right understanding and right thought. Right thought includes detachment, love and non-violence towards all beings.  Right understanding refers to seeing the true nature of everything.

So here we are, 2600 years after the Buddha lived on this earth. He has attained nirvana. Another word that is hard to translate. Nirvana is the moment when the burning wood is no more and the fire that was held to it is then set free.  Nirvana is the mind set free.

The teachings of Siddhartha are just as relevant today as they were centuries ago. This is especially true when we use the notion of stress as being a more accurate  translation to Dukkha. We are always hearing the warnings of stress on the physical body.  Obesity and heart disease have been connected to the forces of stress in our lives.  There is stress in our workplace, in our households, in our families.  We live in a world where the possibility of a new war is one day away.  Terrorism is no longer just something that happens over there. It is happening in our schools, in our communities.  Stress is mounting. Many people are at the breaking point.

What are we to do?

Thich Nhat Hahn describes the self as being a garden filled with weeds and flowers.  The weeds are anger, jealousy, fear, discrimination.  The flowers are love, compassion, and understanding. If you water the weeds you strengthen the negative seeds.  If you water the flowers, you will strengthen the positive seeds.  Which kind of garden will you grow?

Another way of looking at this is that we are all addicts to our emotions.  And like addicts when the craving of an emotion wells up we frantically look to find something to quench it before we get the shakes.  We do not know how to handle them when they rise up.  Some of us run away from what we are feeling.  Others seek to subdue them with drugs and alcohol.  And still others push other emotions up front as an act of bravado to hide the true feelings felt inside. The truth is emotions are not permanent.  They will rise and fall away.   We already know this.  Perhaps there is a way to release the negative emotions sooner through meditation.

Meditation has been used as an anger management tool for decades.  Not only does it help relieve stress, it also can help a person who is angry to take a pause and regain their sense of control so they do not lash out in a harmful manner. Be attentive. Take some time out of your day to go and do some focused breathing.  Use the song we sang as a chant to guide your breathing—”when I breathe in, I breath in peace—when I breathe out, I’ll breathe out love.” Or simply just count your breaths, 1 on the inhale, 2 on the exhale, 3 on the inhale. Etc.  And if you lose count, and you will, simply begin again, 1 on the inhale.  And if your mind wanders, and it will, notice that it did and begin counting your breaths again.

Those who meditate everyday have noted they are more attentive throughout their day.  Not only do they have lower blood pressure they are more able to cope with the stressors of the day.  Aim for ten minutes a day and then in time stretch that towards 30 minutes over time.

Siddhartha found a way to help the world be together. The fact this has lasted for over two millennia is testament that it is a viable way.  Unlike some of the faddish methods that one finds in the self-help section of the bookstore, this middle way has worked in and out of season.

Blessed Be.

 

This sermon was presented to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa on November 3 2013 (c) by Rev. Fred L Hammond


[i] Phone conversation on November 2, 2013 with Wisdom Sakya, Buddhist Abbott of Middle Way Meditation Centers in Danbury, CT


[i] James Ishmael Ford, If you are Lucky, You’re Heart will Break, Wisdom Boston, 2012


[i] Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, Grove Press, New York, 1959

[ii] Phone conversation on November 2, 2013 with Wisdom Sakya, Buddhist Abbott of Middle Way Meditation Centers in Danbury, CT

[iii] Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, Grove Press, New York, 1959

Published in: on November 5, 2013 at 5:18 pm  Comments Off on Siddhartha: A Man for All Seasons  
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