“Loving Calvin Again, For the First Time by Mark W. Harris – October 29, 2006
“Loving Calvin Again for the First Time” by Mark W. Harris
First Parish of Watertown – October 29, 2006
Given at Andover Newton Theological School on October 25, 2006
Opening Words – from Robert French Leavens
Holy and beautiful the custom which brings us together,
In the presence of the Most High:
To face our ideals,
To remember our loved ones in absence,
To give thanks, To make confession,
to offer forgiveness,
To be enlightened, to be strengthened.
Through this quiet hour breathes the worship of ages,
The cathedral music of history.
Three unseen guests attend,
Faith, hope, and love
Let all our hearts prepare them place.
Service notes: Today, you will not hear the sermon announced in the newsletter. I will save that for another time. Instead my sermon today is a slight revision of one I gave Wednesday at Andover Newton Theological School. On that day, the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association and the president of the United Church of Christ were together in an evening program on the same podium at Andover Newton. To those unfamiliar with our history, the Unitarian side of our tradition and the Congregational side of the UCC tradition once represented the same church. Our church here in Watertown was founded as a congregational (small c) church in 1630. These were the Puritan churches of Massachusetts that were organized as the state church for the commonwealth. They followed the theological teachings of the Protestant reformer John Calvin. I often tell people that a quick understanding of our history on the Unitarian side is that the Congregational church split in half in the early 1800’s. Over the years the Unitarians and their ex-partners have cooperated in many ways, but theologically the UCC has remained in mainstream Christianity, while we have become pluralistic with some among us still calling themselves UU Christians. Because of the event at Andover Newton, Darrick Jackson, our former student minister here, invited me to speak at the weekly chapel there, and suggested that because of the historic conversation which took place on Wednesday evening between the presidents of the UUA and the UCC, that I might share some of my thoughts on the Unitarian/Trinitarian controversy of 200 years ago. Harvard was the primary training school for ministers, and the controversy began in earnest in 1805 when they elected an acknowledged liberal to be the professor of divinity. Theological conservatives responded by founding Andover Seminary, and a 30 year battle ensued.
Reading – from Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Calvin says somewhere that each of us is an actor on a stage and God is the audience. That metaphor has always interested me, because it makes us artists of our behavior, and the reaction of God to us might be thought of as aesthetic rather than morally judgmental in the ordinary sense. How well do we perform our role? With how much assurance do we perform it? I suppose Calvin’s God was a Frenchmen, just as mine is a middle westerner of New England extraction. Well, we all bring such light to bear on these great matters as we can. I do like Calvin’s image, though, because it suggests how God might actually enjoy us. I believe we think about that far too little. It would be a way into understanding essential things, since presumably the world exists for God’s enjoyment, not in any simple sense, of course, but as you enjoy the being of a child even when he is in every way a thorn in your heart. “He has a mind of his own,” Boughton used to say when that son of his was up to something. And he meant it as praise, he really did.
Sermon – “Loving Calvin Again For the First Time” – Mark W. Harris
On this date exactly two centuries ago, Henry Ware had already assumed his place as Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard, signaling that it had been captured by the liberals, Jedediah Morse was plotting ways to expose this liberal heresy, and dreaming of founding Andover seminary, a school that he perceived would train clergy up in the real Christian faith, and not the so-called Boston religion that was jettisoning theology. The Standing Order of Congregational Churches in Massachusetts broke apart in the nineteenth century because they could not embrace both its Calvinist and Unitarian poles. Evidence of this historic split is seen across this state. If you travel to the location of my former parish in Milton, you will see the Unitarian Congregational Church on one side of the town green and the Trinitarian Congregational Church on the other with an ugly modern town hall in between representing the separation of church and state. If you are looking at the churches from the street, the Unitarians, of course, are on the left side of the green.
Massachusetts, as you may or may not know was the last state to disestablish a state church, and did so in 1833. One scholar has called this the most significant event in Unitarian history because the liberals, whose ministers and property were largely being supported by tax dollars, were fooled into thinking they were leading a large denomination. After 1833 the freedom to not affiliate with any church became an option, and people left in droves. Henceforth, the Unitarians had to run successful pledge drives and be evangelical. While many of us can talk about money now, evangelical has always been a dirty word. In his, “Sober Thoughts on the State of the Times, Henry Ware, Jr. remarked that the result of fighting over differing doctrines meant for the Unitarians, that, I quote, “we are a community by ourselves.” Ware characterized the separation as a “crisis of unspeakable interest to us.” It was a crisis because Ware said the Unitarians had to figure out the character of their institutions, the nature of their faith, and how faithful they were going to be to the gospel.
While Baptists, Universalists and others were struggling to define their faiths and reach out to new converts, as they battled the establishment, their Congregational counterparts were enjoying the fruits of a steady stream of tax paying parishioners. Many of these, especially on the Unitarian side did not care for theological disputations. In fact Ware, Jr. said that many people became attached to Unitarian parishes because they disliked Calvinism, but liked nothing else. They were not only anti-Calvinist, Ware said, they were anti-everything, and had some vague idea that religion was kind of a good thing, but it should never be “severe or urgent.” I think the Unitarians were denying their emotions because the fight was severe. Congregations not only split, and ministers lost their pulpits, but in Dedham they even turned the church building so they would not have to look at each other. I think my favorite story of the split occurred at Second Church Dorchester, where the parishioners were getting fed up with John Codman’s refusal to exchange pulpits with liberals. The parish had voted for his dismissal, but they were waiting for a church council to actually confirm this. One Sunday, Warren Pierce, a liberal who was principal of Milton Academy was invited to preach. A group of liberals went to church early to guard the pulpit against any attempt by Codman to recapture his place. As it turned out Codman got up earlier than Pierce, came to church and conducted worship from the floor, since the pulpit was barricaded by liberals. After Pierce arrived he waited Codman out, and then the pulpit guard let him in, so that the liberals could conduct their own worship. Being no fools, the liberals decided it would be a mistake to leave the pulpit unguarded, and so Pierce was fed his lunch in the pulpit, and then conducted the afternoon service. As you can imagine Codman then returned to conduct his own afternoon service. After all this it became evident to the liberals that the Trinitarians were in the majority as they had more people there for services, and so the liberals withdrew their claims on the parish, and went on to found the Third Religious Society in Dorchester.
In the wake of the Unitarian controversy, the Trinitarians began to tell the now familiar joke that the Unitarians kept the silver, and we kept the faith. People have often remarked on the affinity between financial success and those who chose the less demanding theological position of Unitarianism. I think Perry Miller once remarked that the aspiring capitalist did not want to lie around waiting to be filled with the holy spirit when he could be out making money. Then of course liberals made a correlation between those who God favored, and those who did well materially. Salvation became less and less a sudden emotional revelation of God’s grace on a troubled heart, and more and more a slow educational process, whereby one learned faith more than experienced it. Liberals began to emphasize what each human being was capable of achieving. Career and educational development led to the most cultured and successful kind of person, so much so that salvation no longer pertained to what God could do for you, so much as what you could do for yourself. James Freeman Clarke called it salvation by character. What we need to remember in reflecting upon this old Congregational fight was that it was not a battle primarily fought over the Trinity, and in some ways it is unfortunate that we use that language. It is sometimes said that Unitarianism developed out of Calvinism because Calvin put such a strong emphasis on the sovereignty of God, and thus de-emphasized Jesus. In Protestantism, we don’t see that suffering person on the cross any longer. He is not there for us. In fact, it was the suffering nature of humanity that was the primary reason for the Congregational rift, and not the humanization of Jesus. To make a long story short, liberals rejected original sin, scoffed at predestination, and began a march down the road of affirming the positive character of human nature all the way to Emerson’s notion that the divine dwells within each of us. So the real fight was over the doctrine of human nature. Liberals said we do not want to feel bad about ourselves, and fled from a perceived theology where there was nothing good in them, they were totally dependent upon God’s grace, and where they might go to hell anyway, despite all the good works they performed. It just wasn’t fair.
I had an individual experience of this as a child, when the conservative Congregational church of my youth, which was not part of the United Church of Christ because it was too liberal, made me feel sinful and useless. I rejected this church, and embraced Unitarian Universalism because it allowed me to use my mind to discover a loving God who affirmed my inherent human goodness and worth. The elders of my childhood church probably felt the UCC and the UUA, all the liberals, abandoned theology in favor of the human potential movement and politics so that everybody gets into heaven, and we should all just be nice to each other. I saw the church of my childhood as still trying to affirm Calvin with sin, death and damnation. I had images of Jonathan Edwards’ wrathful God dangling me over the fires of hell like a loathsome spider. With this image of God in mind, John Lowell wrote, “Are You a Christian or a Calvinist?” reflecting his belief that Calvinism was too bloodthirsty to even be considered Christian. If we who claim the Puritan heritage once loved Calvin, we found we no longer did so in mainstream Protestantism. So why would anyone, who once rejected this seemingly repugnant theology ever want to love Calvin again, for the first time? I want to use the remainder of my time to tell you why I believe we should reaffirm this common UCC/UUA heritage.
While the battle was over their respective doctrines of human nature, the split occurred because the Calvinists did not want to abandon specific theological positions, and the Unitarians wanted to be tolerant of all positions within a broad Christian framework. What this eventually meant was that doctrine no longer mattered. Theology was replaced by ethics, and many came to believe you were Christian if you were a good person. Parker’s Pure Religion made people wonder if Jesus mattered. And Emerson’s oversoul made God into a universal force rather than a paternal being, so that Henry Ware Jr. concluded it might as well be atheism. Unitarianism then continued its long march through humanism and now pluralism. Liberals by the 21st century had developed a very tolerant perspective. We say we value everybody else’s point of view. So we have the goodness of religion in general, but we lack perspective on the particular. What this means especially for Unitarian Universalists is that we may have no singular perspective, except valuing everybody else’s perspective. I cringe every time I hear about a colleague who says to a congregation or a search committee I want to reflect your theology, thus implying that he /she has no theology of their own, but desires to be a mere mirror of the people. While I have some reservation about much of what he says, Sam Harris in his book, The End of Faith makes the crucial observation that we liberals often become so tolerant of every perspective under the sun that we let violent, misogynist and crack pot religion off in the name of pluralism.
Now there is also an interesting paradox here. We are at once tolerant of others, but we are also invariably right. This was brought home to me this summer when I was the theme speaker for a history conference on Unitarian Universalists and Class. As I researched my fourth lecture, I became deeply disturbed about the heritage I love and teach. I discovered something I should have been aware of, but mostly was not. In the late 19th century an America eugenics movement began to develop hand and glove with social darwinism. What was so disturbing was that into the 20th century the leaders of this eugenics movement, many of whom were also leaders of the social gospel movement, were our very own liberal Unitarians, Universalists and Congregationalists. It made sense once I reflected upon it. Salvation by character meant all the best educated, most successful people were Unitarians. They were the top of the heap, and if everyone was just like us, the world would be a better place, even the kingdom of God would be revealed. It was a short step to we have the best blood and the most culture and respectability, and those other kinds of people – poor, black, immigrants, what we now call developmentally disabled – those populations need to be brought under control. The result was the prevention of certain kinds of people from marrying, and a broad state by state program of sterilizations. It puts an entirely different perspective on such liberal issues as birth control, euthanasia and even the antiwar movement. Some people were pacifists because they believed the “defectives” got to stay home, and the genetically superior people were killed off. The elite moral aristocracy, that is our liberal religious heritage believed it knew what was best for America. Hitler learned a great deal from the American eugenics movement.
Many of us would surely say that was then, and this is now, but I wonder. When I studied James Fowler’s stages of faith, I remember thinking that I was at the top of his religious hierarchy, which placed the rational, educated types as the most enlightened.. Often when we have no particular perspective, and claim to understand all of the other perspectives, we reflect our superiority to all of them. This hierarchy puts us above everyone else. We sometimes joke that liberals love people in general, but hate them in particular. Locally, I think many of the liberals feel like the “townies” get in the way of our implementing the truly enlightened positions, and we may try to do so without listening to their struggles. This summer at the conference on class one of the most painful things was to hear from several people how difficult it was to be part of a Unitarian Universalist congregation if you had experienced failure in any way, either in your own life or with your children. People stayed away from church if they could not emulate their fellow successful parishioners. I thought how sad this was, that we could not feel each other’s pain and sadness. But then I thought of that Calvinist church of my youth which I rejected. It was made up of people who once would have been called sinners – the addicted, the shunned, those hurt by life in some way. It became clear why I wanted to love Calvin again.
Last year I gave a lecture on the 200th anniversary of Hosea Ballou’s Treatise on Atonement, which was the seminal work on Universalism, and the universal salvation it reflected. Universalists were a small, evangelical group who had to battle against the established church here in Massachusetts to be recognized as legitimate. Universalism is an interesting corrective to Unitarianism especially in its early embrace of Calvinism, which has mostly been wiped from our historical memory. That is unfortunate because it is the kind of corrective I believe liberals need today. What it does is help me see how rejecting Calvin means rejecting equality and community and understanding our common humanity.
Ballou did that in three ways. He said God’s loving intention for humanity is salvation. God is not going to defy God’s own intention. God means for us to be saved, and we will be saved. Universal salvation meant that everyone goes to heaven. There are no distinctions. It took the moral superiority of all groups, including the liberals, and said this is garbage. No one is any better than anyone else. Remember the liberal seems to talk equality, but historically it is equality on the basis of becoming exactly like me. Ballou said we all have a place in the choir, as God’s grace fills us without us having to “do” anything.
The second issue that Ballou makes us look at directly relates to the classless idea of salvation. Historically, salvation has been about how I am going to get into heaven. And for some it seemed that worldly success, money or that Harvard degree meant that you were earmarked for the pearly gates. Ballou said no, you are all going to get in. Salvation then was not about self-fulfillment, it was about communal sanctification. No one is saved unless everyone is saved. So Ballou takes our personal, materialistic, selfish, get ahead of your neighbor, I’m better than you, idea of salvation (heavenly then, earthly now), and says no. He says if someone is hungry or enslaved, then God’s intention of “happifying” the human race is being denied. God wants everyone to experience the joy of salvation. Now you might be saying that with predestination my idea of loving Calvin goes right out the window. Granted, Ballou does give me a chance to embrace a different kind of pluralism where all truths become salvific, but it is not quite the same. For me, it has do with original sin, and the value of seeing sin as part of the human spirit with the end result the creation of a holy commonwealth.
In Ballou’s scheme of salvation, sin is never denied, and everyone participates in it. One of the values of believing in original sin, which Ballou eventually rejected, is that it unites the human race and prevents us from making distinguishing judgments between sinner and non sinners, saved and non saved. I am not suggesting we embrace original sin again, but rather look at liberalism’s failure to understand the human condition, and the struggles that regular people have. Ballou’s theology acknowledges the incredible brokenness of life that most of us do experience in one way or another. This reality which is reflected in every day’s Boston Globe was expounded upon by Martin Luther King in his essay “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” where he said he cherished liberalism’s use of reason, but then went on to say “The more I observed the tragedies of history, and man’s shameful inclination to choose the low road, the more I came to see the depths and strength of sin . . I came to feel that liberalism had been too sentimental concerning human nature and that it leaned toward a false idealism. I also came to see that liberalism’s superficial optimism concerning human nature caused it to overlook the fact that reason is darkened by sin.”
One of the values of recognizing sin in this theological matrix is that we recognize that every single person struggles. In her novel Gilead, Marilynne Robinson in her reflections on the modern day Calvinism she embraces writes of how Boughton recognizes that the thorn in his side that his son represents, and the reflection that he has a mind of his own are really praise for his very human being. This being is damaged in some way, and lives in a broken world, and yet is loved for his very being despite the fact, that “he is up to something.” Calvin’s sense of sin is important because it makes us one human race of equals, and it also recognizes the secret struggle of each person. Liberalism, at least the Unitarianism I have known, has sometimes ignored those struggles, and it has reflected a moral and intellectual superiority that has made it difficult for regular people to affirm it. When Robinson quotes Calvin she reaffirms this because when we live and strive for ourselves alone, or seek only our own advantage, we violate the commandments in a most basic way. This is why, as with Ballou and Calvin, we must embrace the human race “without exception in a single feeling of love.” Liberalism taught me to love myself, but its extreme implementation of this leads us to neglect love of neighbor. Instead of learning only to love ourselves and nurture our own spiritual development, we would begin to build communities with all of our neighbors.
The other night I was watching Al Gore’s film on Global Warming, “An Inconvenient Truth.” During the film Gore talks about how his family had raised tobacco for generations, it had been something they always did, and it had given them a good livelihood. The tragic irony of this, and the ignorance of what evil we can perpetrate without even knowing it came when he shared how his sister had died of lung cancer. What goes around comes around. It made me think of the dark skinned boy with the Armenian name who moved to my rural town in Western Massachusetts when I was a boy. He was new. He was foreign. We called him names and we beat him up. Forty years later I moved to the town with the largest Armenian population outside of Armenia. The evil I had done in bullying him came back to me. What we have done to the earth comes back to haunt us. The last thing that I love about Calvin is that his central doctrine was the sovereignty of God. This sounds severe for a liberal to be preaching, but what we liberals have often lacked in our arrogance and pride of achievement and know it all answers is humility before the creation. We have failed to have due reverence for all the greatness that is much more great than we. And perhaps in these days of melting polar ice caps that is the message of Calvin that must beat strongest in our hearts. Get on your knees before this creation and be startled into action before the rushing waters flood your pride out of existence. Marilynne Robinson posits that we are actors on God’s stage here for the enjoyment of the sovereign. We liberal Congregationalists and Unitarians have depicted Calvin as a bad guy for a long time, and yet through his legacy we may once again feel a common sense of frailty and struggle, we may feel a sense of common humanity and unity, and we may feel a sense of reverence for and humility before the great powers of creation. Calvin foresaw the creation of holy commonwealths not individual fiefdoms of salvation. There is still time if we could embrace this urgent need to feel the joy of the creation, and act to save it.
Closing Words – from Hosea Ballou
If we agree in love, there is no disagreement that can do us any injury, but if we do not, no other agreement can do us any good. Let us endeavor to keep the unity of the spirit in the bonds of peace.