Last Known Trajectory
the Baal Shem had a difficult task before him, he would go to a certain
place in the woods, light a fire and meditate in prayer – and what he
had set out to perform was done. When a generation later the “Maggid” of
Meseritz was faced with the same task he would go to the same place in
the woods and say: We can no longer light the fire, but we can still
speak the prayers – and what he wanted done became reality. Again a
generation later Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov had to perform this task.
And he too went into the woods and said: We can no longer light a fire,
nor do we know the secret meditations belonging to the prayer, but we do
know the place in the woods to which it all belongs – and that must be
sufficient; and sufficient it was. But when another generation had
passed and Rabbi Israel of Rishin was called upon to perform the task,
he sat down on his golden chair in his castle and said: We cannot light
the forest, we cannot speak the prayers, we do not know the place, but
we can tell the story of how it was done. And, the story-teller adds,
the story which he told had the same effect as the actions of the other
three. Traditional Hasidic story as told by S.J. Agnon
shows how even when all else of a religious heritage is irretrievably
gone, the story of it, the remembrance of it, is as much a source of
strength as the full slate was in its day. If not for remembering the
story, the religious community loses its identity & direction.
Some would say
that has happened to Religious Liberalism today. I believe it is true.
Temple says you
cannot know a thing without knowing where it came from. Its definition
includes its history. And if we lose our story, we lose our identity. We
You can see this
in the abbreviation "UUs"-- we have not only abbreviated it, we have cut
loose what the actual names denoted.
theologians, I get much of my thinking from comic books. And I recall
one particular issue of Captain Marvel that has a lot to say to us: CThe
World’s Mightiest Mortal one day found himself confronted by a future
version of himself. He called himself “CapMarv” and wore an abbreviated
version of the familiar red and yellow costume: short pants and sleeves,
no cape. He faced a crisis in the future but was unable to meet the
challenge since his powers had diminished over the decades. He had
returned to the past to find out why. Turned out the trouble was all the
abbreviation current in his day, a trendy concern for super-efficient
communication with not a syllable to be wasted. And, what do you know,
Billy Batson (Cap’s young alter ego) had taken to shortening his magic
formula of transformation to "Shaz." The full version was “Shazam,” of
course, and it gave him the combined powers of Solomon, Hercules,
Achilles, Zeus, Atlas, and Mercury. But when he shortened the name, the
word, he forgot what it meant. It lost its power, and “CapMarv” could no
longer win his battles! So with us. As "UUs" we have lost the powers
resident in the names we have cut off! What are they? What is the story?
Think of Michael
Servetus, who called the bluff of the Trinity and with it the
mystification scheme of the Church which kept the flock confused and
obedient: “Sit down and shut up!” He was burnt at the stake.
Think of Faustus
Socinus, who overthrew the belief that Jesus was more God than human and
that therefore it was a waste of time even to try to emulate him.No,
Socinus asked, whay if we could dare to follow the great religious hero?
Radical pacifism and communitarianism were the result. Until Christian
rivals burnt their commune to the ground.
Think of Francis
David, who dared point out that to pray to the human Jesus was idolatry
such as Jesus himself would never have countenanced. He died in prison,
abandoned even by other Unitarians.
Think of James
Relly who insisted that all without exception were objects of God's
saving concern, that God was the good shepherd who will not rest till he
has rescued every straying sheep.
Or of John Murray
who measured God's providence in jokes of which he was the butt, whether
the jokes were played on him by God or human bigots. Washing his
calloused hands of the ministry and of a tragic life in England, he set
sail for America, only to be blown off course. He crash landed at
Barnegat Bay, greeted by a farmer who had been waiting for a preacher to
come and fill the church he had just built. He began preaching the
Universal gospel on these shores and attracted plenty of hellfire for
it, as when once a huge rock sailed through the stain-glass window, just
missing his head. He stopped, picked up the rock and hefted it, saying,
“Brethren, this argument is strong and weighty all right, but it is not
sound”--and went on with the sermon!
Ballou who declared that sin was its own punishment and virtue its own
reward, that God would damn no soul, and that human nature could be
trusted to act nobly without the fear of hell. Once Ballou was riding
horseback to his next engagement along with a circuit-riding Baptist.
They passed the time in pleasant theological sparring until the Baptist
urged this argument against Ballou’s rejection of hellfire. “Why,
Brother Ballou, if I were a Universalist, there’d be nothing stopping me
from knocking you off that horse and making off with your horse and
provisions!” To which Ballou replied, “My brother, if you were a
Universalist, such a thought would never enter your mind!”
who showed that Unitarianism was a spirituality, not the denial of
spirituality. That Unitarian Christianity took the Bible more seriously
than its rivals, not less.
Or Emerson, a
living witness of rebuke to a Unitarianism that had betrayed itself by
fossilizing into mere institutionalism, that had exchanged the torch of
prophecy for the decorous tea cozy. Emerson, who in our day, is again
dismissed, to their peril, by UU institution-builders who dismiss him as
an immature troublemaker and a crank.
Theodore Parker who declared Christianity not the arrogant king of
truths but, like other religions, one more humble vessel of the living
water of the Universal Spirit. It does us well on this day commemorating
Dr. King to recall how Parker publicly burned the U.S. Constitution as a
pact with the devil since it countenanced slavery.
Rush, Clara Barton, Clarence Skinner, who saw that universalism meant
being as concerned with soothing human misery as God was.
And Kenneth Patton
who saw the need to midwife the birth of a global faith in newborn
Time fails me to
rhapsodize on Thomas Jefferson, Albert Schweitzer, Powell Davies, John
Dietrich, Eustice Hayden, Frederick Henry Hedge, Margaret Fuller, and
many other great characters in this epic of ours.
I cannot affirm
every belief they fought and died for; none of us can. But it was only
each advance they made that made possible the next advance into greater
clarity. The Unitarian Jefferson recommended that each generation have
its own revolution. And the Twin Tribes of Unitarianism and Universalism
have taken him seriously.
Only now I fear
that Liberal Religion is lost wandering in the wilderness of meek
civility, sterile Political Correctness, and banal secularism. We have
forgotten who we were. And thus we cannot remember who we are!
pamphlets with selective quotations proof-texting Emerson or Channing to
draft them as posthumous advocates of our favorite ideological hobby
horses. But the foundational works of Relly, Servetus, Socinus,
Chauncey, and others, even Earle Morse Wilbur's ground-breaking history
of Unitarianism--are all long out of print!
Methodists allowing the works of Wesley to go out of print. Imagine
Presbyterians letting Calvin's Institutes lapse into obscurity. Imagine
Catholics having to consult book search services to obtain Aquinas's
Summa, or Lutherans scavenging antique book stores for Bondage of the
Will. It is inconceivable. That could only happen if those churches
consciously decided to cut themselves off from their pasts. And yet it
has happened to us!
misunderstand me! I'm not urging a theology of nostalgia! We cannot go
back to the past, even to our own glorious past. We must go forward.
But we must go on
further in the course our forbears charted. We must go back and try to
determine our last known trajectory, as they do when trying to determine
the location of a plane that has disappeared from the tracking screen.
And then we will stop wandering. We will soar aloft again, true to
ourselves and our mission.
1. Storming Hell's
ramparts: challenging believers in hell to defend the morality of their
barbaric doctrine in public debate.
2. Urging the
establishment of a permanent World's Parliament of Religions. E.g., to
do what the Unification Church does: common projects, working together
in the common vineyard of need.
3. Urging for the
inclusion of comparative religion as part of multi-cultural education in
the public schools while steadfastly opposing the abomination of prayers
in the classroom.
4. Trying to
develop a way of spiritual searching, a spirituality of inquiry uniquely
suited to our pluralistic world, where exotic religions are a fact of
every day life. A common spiritual existence, new interfaith
congregatuons in which our primary religious background will be like our
individual ethnic heritages, not to be left behind, but not preventing
us from seeking the Spirit in common.
Right now, I think
we are at the point where we no longer remember how to make the fire,
how to pray the prayer, nor even the place in the forest. And we are in
severe danger of forgetting the story as well. Let us remember who the
Universalists and the Unitarians were so that in so doing we may snap
out of our amnesiac wanderings and rediscover who we are. And resume the
tasks that have always been uniquely ours to do. And then we will be
Unitarians and Universalists, not the clip-winged parody "UUs."