Harold Babcock's Sermons

February 8, 2009

Who Are the Non-believers?

Filed under: Uncategorized — newbabcock @ 1:28 pm

“There lies more faith in honest doubt than in half the creeds.”

In his recent inaugural address, President Obama made the perhaps surprising observation, “. . .we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness.  We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus–and non-believers.”

Shortly after the address, our friend David Turner sent me an e-mail asking, “Are we the non-believers?” and suggesting that this might make an interesting topic for a sermon.  This morning I want to share a few thoughts on Obama’s observation, and on David’s question.  Are we the non-believers?

The answer is more complicated than it might at first appear.  But one thing is certain: how refreshing, and reassuring, after years of hearing the United States described as a “Christian nation” by conservative religionists and pundits, to once again have our nation’s foundational freedom of conscience and inclusiveness in religious matters affirmed from the highest office in the land!

Of course, that “patchwork heritage” of which Obama speaks is even more diverse than he suggests.  Not only Christians and Jews and Muslims, but Hindus and Jains and Buddhists and others have found their way to these shores.  All of these religious traditions already exist among us, some of them far outnumbering Christian denominations that all of us take for granted, all of them to be found right here in the greater Boston area if we care to take even a cursory look around.

The United States has been described as one of the most religious countries in the world.  But what does this mean? Are we better people because of it? A surprisingly high percentage of people here claim to believe in God, heaven, hell, and other religious concepts.  Even many of us who disassociate from traditional religions or institutions still claim to be “spiritual, not religious.”

But not everyone.  A small number claim to be atheists, absolutely denying the existence of God, and many more are self-described agnostics–those who doubt the existence of God, but choose to keep an open mind.

And if one probes a bit more deeply, one discovers a remarkable diversity of belief about the nature of God and other religious constructs even among so-called “believers.”

Some of us still believe in an anthropomorphic God–what I like to call sarcastically “guy in the sky” theology.  But many of us have a far more sophisticated, less personal notion of God.  In fact, if one were to probe she would find that there are almost as many beliefs about God as there are people who claim to believe.  Even within the Bible itself, there are many often-conflicting images and concepts of God, from the God in the Garden of Eden who “walks with us and talks with us,” to the “sheer silence” of the prophet Elijah.

As a life-long Unitarian Universalist, I did not find Obama’s remarks the least bit shocking.  Unitarian Universalism has always strived to be a “big tent” when it comes to religious belief.  As double heretics–we disavowed the doctrine of the Trinity and we affirmed universal salvation–we have a long history, both here and especially in Europe, of welcoming those who question the traditional doctrines of the church.  We are non-creedal, which means that there is no doctrinal test required for membership in our congregations.

Over time, not wishing to be exclusive, we have become even more inclusive than we started out, moving from a liberal Christianity rooted in Protestantism, to what Unitarian Theodore Parker in the mid-19th century would call “absolute religion,” through Transcendentalism which downplayed the supernaturalism of Christ in favor of Jesus’ humanity, and emphasized the impersonality though not the non-existence of God, through a “religious” humanism which doubted the existence of God and placed the onus for our salvation mostly on ourselves, to a movement which accepts many different and sometimes even conflicting forms of spiritual and philosophical practice, from liberal Christian to Buddhist to New Age–often, in truth, not particularly well thought out.

Having been branded heretics, we have not wanted to exclude anyone.  One could say that this is the glory–and the bane–of Unitarian Universalism.  Sometimes it’s hard to find the center in such a diverse gathering of beliefs and practices.

Thus one answer to David’s question, are we the non-believers? The honest answer is some of us, but not all of us.  When I hear the familiar blanket charge that “Unitarian Universalists don’t believe anything,” I am fond of responding that there are actually many beliefs among us, but none to which everyone must subscribe.  And, yes, one can even be an atheist and be welcome in our church!  I have known quite a few adamant atheists (I almost want to say “believing” atheists!), because even atheists are often seeking for a community where they are affirmed for who they are and where they are in their search for truth.  Another way of thinking about this seeming contradiction is to remind ourselves that religion is about much more than belief–or non-belief–in God, whether questioned or otherwise.  Just ask any Buddhist.

I’m quite certain that there is a lot more doubt and unquestioned belief about religious questions out there than most people are willing to admit.  And let’s face it: certainty–whether religious or political–has done a lot more harm in this world than doubt ever has.  As Unitarian Universalist minister Frank Schulman once said, “The weakest faith is that which fears to doubt.”  As the French essayist Michel de Montaigne recognized way back in the 16th century, it is religious certainty that is the real blasphemy.  I also agree with what Susan B. Anthony once said: “I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.”  But, then, Anthony was a Unitarian, too.

The fact of the matter is that freedom of belief–and even of non-belief–is firmly ensconced in the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights, the roots of which are to be found in Thomas Jefferson’s “Act for Establishing Religious Freedom” in Virginia in 1779:

Be it therefore enacted by the General Assembly.  That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in nowise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.

As Jefferson wrote in his notes on religious freedom in Virginia, “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others.   But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God” [my emphasis].

It was James Madison, however, who saw to it that the kernel of these views was incorporated into the Bill of Rights.  Writing in his brilliant “A Memorial and Remonstrance on the Religious Rights of Man,” in 1784, Madison said, “The religion, then, of every man, must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate.”  By implication, one is free to profess no religion at all.  “We maintain,” Madison continues, “. . . that in matters of religion no man’s right is abridged by the institution of civil society; and that religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance.”

How far we may have strayed from the vision of Jefferson and Madison in enforcing our Constitution and Bill of Rights and in re-admitting religion and even religious “tests” into the conduct of our national affairs, especially in recent years, but even in the instance of adding the words “under God” to our Pledge of Allegiance, I leave to your own consideration.

Abraham Lincoln famously refused to join any particular church or denomination (can we imagine a Presidential candidate today daring to make that refusal?), but one could argue that he was one of the most religious, and certainly one of the most theologically sophisticated, Presidents we have ever had.  Just read his Second Inaugural Address.  Some of us dare to hope that President Obama will bring a similarly broad and tolerant vision of religion back into the American mainstream, and his inaugural address recognizing our “patchwork” religious heritage would seem to be a strong beginning.

Unitarian Universalists are often put in the paradoxical position of being representatives or spokespeople for a cautious and almost “anti-religious” approach to religious ideas and religious institutions.  I actually believe that this self-critical role of Unitarian Universalism is one of our greatest strengths and one of the greatest contributions we have made to the larger religious conversation in America.

The fact of the matter is that Unitarian Universalism is a value centered faith, not a belief centered one.  Most of us are convinced that it is how you live your life, not what you believe, or don’t believe, that is ultimately most important.  As Andrew Sullivan also wrote in the article from which I took this morning’s reading,

. . .Our religion, our moral life, is simply what we do.  A Christian is not a Christian simply because she agrees to conform her life to some set of external principles or dogmas, or because at a particular moment in her life, she experienced a rupture and changed herself entirely.  She is a Christian primarily because she acts like one.  She loves and forgives; she listens and prays; she contemplates and befriends; her faith and her life fuse into an unself-conscious unity that affirms a tradition of moral life and yet also makes it her own.  In that non-fundamentalist understanding of faith, practice is more important than theory, love is more important than law, and mystery is seen as an insight into truth rather than an obstacle.

Or as American playwright and actress Jane Wagner paradoxically puts it, “At the moment you are most in awe of all there is about life that you don’t understand, you are closer to understanding it than at any other time.”

Are we the non-believers of whom Obama speaks?  Perhaps.  But I think it is better to conclude by suggesting that a strong dose of skepticism and doubt ought to be part of any healthy faith, and if that describes the faith of most Unitarian Universalists, and if that makes us “non-believers,” then I say that not only do we have nothing to be ashamed of, but maybe we should be blowing our own horn a little more loudly.

Let us hope at any rate for a more humble approach to religion and its challenging questions in the days to come than we have been subject to in recent years.  May we go forth to live the best lives of which we are capable, believing only that it is possible to transform our world into the world of our dreams.  In that way may we realize the greatest hope of religion in every place and in every time.  Amen.

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock


February 1, 2009

Thomas Wentworth Higginson and the First Religious Society

Filed under: Uncategorized — newbabcock @ 1:45 pm

“May God help us . . . to redeem this oppressed and bleeding State,
and to bring this people back to that simple love of liberty,
without which it must die amidst its luxuries. . . .”
– T. W. Higginson, from “Massachusetts in Mourning!”, 1854

Whenever I show people around this beautiful old meeting house, I take a certain perverse pleasure in pointing out that our most famous minister, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, whose name you can see inscribed on the plaque to my left, only lasted two years in its venerable pulpit.

A descendent of the Rev. Frances Higginson who came to Salem in 1629; minister, author, soldier, lecturer, biographer, editor, poetic mentor, early advocate of the study of world religions, abolitionist, and women’s rights activist; Higginson surely remains the best known of our congregation’s fifteen called ministers, and justly so.  His many books, including a biography of the Transcendentalist and feminist Margaret Fuller, are still delightfully readable, and at least one of them, Army Life in a Black Regiment, about his leadership of the first Black regiment formed during the Civil War, is a classic.  (Higginson is far less famous than his contemporary Robert Gould Shaw mostly because, though wounded, he managed to survive the war, while Shaw, as we learned from the movie Glory, did not.)  It was during his military service with that regiment that he collected the African American spirituals which our choir is singing this morning.

A young contemporary of Emerson and Thoreau and the New England Transcendentalists who wrote one of the most entertaining reminiscences of that fascinating religious movement–aptly titled “The Sunny Side of the Transcendental Period”–Higginson is today best remembered, for better and worse, for his friendship and editorial relationship with the poet Emily Dickinson.

At the time of his call to the First Religious Society, Higginson was barely twenty-four years old, having graduated from Harvard College at the tender age of 18.  He almost immediately ran into problems with his wealthy congregation over the issue of slavery, a cause in which he, as we learned during yesterday’s “great debate,” was a thoroughly committed abolitionist, though many in his congregation no doubt traced their fortunes to some aspect of the “peculiar institution.”  (Newburyport, like Salem to the south, had many ties to the infamous tri-cornered trade of slaves, molasses, and rum.)

Higginson’s first Thanksgiving Sermon in Newburyport, in 1848, was a scathing attack against slavery and his congregation’s self-satisfied complacency in the face of it.  Entitled “Not By Bread Alone,” it was a sermon which, while it was rightly guaranteed to “afflict the comfortable,” could hardly endear its young preacher to his parishioners.  No doubt Higginson should be forgiven his youthful excesses, and certainly in retrospect his activism has placed him on the right side of history, but suffice it to say that from that time on it was all downhill in his ministry here.

Higginson would go on to run for political office in the “Free Soil Party,” probably the straw that broke the camel’s back as far as his relationship to the First Religious Society was concerned.  He was dismissed from his pastorate in 1849 in what would today undoubtedly be called a “negotiated resignation”–not a terribly auspicious beginning to his ministerial career!

Later on Higginson would move to Worcester’s “Free Church,” where in the years leading up to the Civil War he would preach many more fiery sermons against slavery, perhaps the most famous of them his sermon “Massachusetts in Mourning,” in which he attacked his home state for its support of the Fugitive Slave Law.  He would be intimately involved in the cases of two runaway slaves, Thomas Sims and Anthony Burns, and would be indicted for treason in the Burns case though, fortunately for him, he was never prosecuted.  He would a little later still become an active supporter of the abolitionist John Brown–one of the so-called “secret six.”

In the years following his heroic and groundbreaking service in the Civil War–one thing you can say about Higginson is that he always put his money where his mouth was–he would dedicate himself to the cause of women’s education and women’s rights and to the study of world religions, his modern thinking on the subject summed up in a famous lecture entitled “The Sympathy of Religions.”  In 1866 he was a founding member of the “Free Religious Association” which advocated for the formation of non-sectarian, independent churches in response to the newly formed National Conference of Unitarian Churches which had adopted, in the opinion of the Free Religionists, a too narrowly Christian stance.

Not surprisingly, Higginson has been called “a man whose whole life was a ‘sermon on freedom.’”*  I hope that this brief introduction is enough to give you some flavor for our “most famous” minister, the myriad issues in which he was involved, and the challenging and divisive nature of the times in which he ministered here in Newburyport.  Higginson died in 1911 at the age of 87, his days at the First Religious Society a distant, and not particularly sunny, memory.

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock

* See Historical Dictionary of Unitarian Universalism, by Mark W. Harris

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