r m p






Last Known Trajectory


When 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


This 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 have.

You can see this in the abbreviation "UUs"-- we have not only abbreviated it, we have cut loose what the actual names denoted.

Like most 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!

Remember Hosea 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!”

Remember Channing 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.

Don’t forget 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.

Remember Benjamin 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 pluralistic world.

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!

We publish 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!

Imagine the 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!

Don't 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.

Practical proposals:

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."






Copyright©2009 by Robert M Price
Spirit of Carolina Web Design