The Transient and the Permanent in Liberal Religion
the Rev. Edmund Robinson
Unitarian Universalist Meeting House
August 5, 2018
Sometime early in my ministry here, St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church was undergoing renovations. That church had bought their building from the Universalist Church of Chatham when that institution closed its doors in 1960. The renovations St. Christopher’s was making involved new stained-glass windows, and they offered the old windows to us, since we were sort of the spiritual descendants of those early Universalists. We took them in provisionally, and then spent a year trying to figure out what to do with them. They were not stained glass, they were colored glass, in bad shape and of a style which did not go with the architecture of this Meeting House.
Ultimately their fate was decided at an annual meeting, and the most persuasive argument for not putting them up on permanent display was articulated by Dr. John Raye. He said that the Greek Revival architecture of the Meeting House felt comfortable to him and appropriate to Unitarian Universalism because ours is a religion based on reason. The Gothic arch shape of the windows we had been given not only clashed with the rectangular shape of our windows here, but also clashed in terms of what those shapes denoted culturally, Athens versus Jerusalem, faith versus reason.
This insight has stuck with me. We wouldn’t have gotten to it if we hadn’t been in the throes of that particular decision. It is an example of looking beyond the transient to the permanent.
In my newsletter column this month, I said that our declines in membership and attendance should lead us all to do some thinking. “We all need to be thinking about what we do here, how we do it, how we could do it differently, and especially why we do it.”
Since I wrote those words, the point has only been underscored by the deaths of two of our aged members in one week.
It gets me thinking, what more could I be doing to turn this decline around? Certainly reaching out to the community is one way, trying to make new acquaintances and interesting them in the fellowship and fun we experience here. We all could be doing that.
But I also conceive that one of the best things I can be doing right now is to try to focus our thinking to articulate what we are doing here. This is not an ex cathedra pronouncement, but rather a conversation that needs to happen.
And because I want to take the long view, I take my title from a sermon which is considered a landmark in the history of Unitarianism. Let me set the context: on May 19, 1841, the Rev. Theodore Parker preached at the ordination of Rev. Charles Shackford at the Hawes Place Church in Boston, and he called his sermon “The Transient and the Permanent in Christianity.”
Conrad Wright, historian of liberal religion at Harvard, selected this sermon as one of three addresses which shaped the direction of nineteenth-century Unitarianism in America. The other two were William Ellery Channing’s 1819 sermon “Liberal Christianity” and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1838 Address to the graduating class at Harvard Divinity School.
Theodore Parker was a student at the Divinity School when Emerson spoke there and he must have absorbed some of Emerson’s transcendentalist fire. He went on to become the founder of the Tremont Temple in downtown Boston, and preached to the Brahmins of this day by the thousands. He was a leading abolitionist and transcendentalist and gave us two quotations which have been widely cited by thinkers ever since: the one abut the moral arc of the universe bending towards justice, and the description of democracy as government of all, by and all and for all.
Emerson in his Divinity School Address, laid out in some detail how the religion Jesus preached in his lifetime was corrupted after his death, and the spirit which caught fire among his disciples got strangled by dogmas and rituals.
In his address three years later, Parker elaborated on Emerson’s idea, making a sharp distinction between doctrine and truth. Doctrine was transient, changeable. What was heresy last year was orthodox this year and vice versa. But underneath the surface changes there lay a layer of truth which was unchanging.
Parker analogized it to nature. You can see the many forms nature takes in clouds and sunsets and animal life. There is an underlying unity to nature, though the theories of science which might explain these phenomena are always subject to change. Nature doesn’t change but our ideas of it do. Thus once we thought that the earth was the center of the universe, and we thought that was a fundamental fact, but it turned out to be untrue and and not so fundamental after all.
Ths in the realm of religion, the questions, who is Jesus, is he fully human and fully God, was he born of a virgin, did his death atone for the sinfs of the world, are all matters of doctrine, but the essence of Jesus is what he taught in the Sermon on the Mount: love your neighbors, even your enemies, blessed are the poor, do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
The status of these teachings as a path to the love of God are not dependent on any status of Jesus, but rather they are, as our Declaration of Independence puts it, “self-evident.” They prove themselves.
Parker joined Emerson in believing that Jesus was the Son of God, but not in any sense different from the rest of us. All people are children of a loving God.
Parker, in other words, was trying to pick out the strands of Jesus which were not dependent on particular doctrine or particular interpretation of the Bible. These he considered the permanent elements of Christianity, and the doctrinal threads were transient.
Does this 1841 expression of transcendentalist Unitarian thought have any relevance to what we are doing here? I think it does.
In mid-June, I had just preached my last sermon for the month here, and was preparing to fly out to Kansas City, when it became clear that the discontent over the administration’s immigration policy was coming to a rapid boil. Many members of the President’s own party were saying publicly that we should not be separating families at the border.
Amid this, Lee, my former wife, posted a newspaper article on Facebook with the provocative title, “If your church is not organizing protests against the policy of separating children from their parents, perhaps you should seek a new church.” At the time this appeared, I was getting on a plane to Kansas City and was not going to be with my congregation for two weeks, since I was slated to be minister on Star Island right after getting back from Kansas City. Moreover, the key members of the Meeting House Social Justice committee were out of town or medically sidelined. There was no practical way to organize a Meeting House demonstration.
Then my former sister-in-law, a freelance journalist who wanted to write about this wave of outrage, wrote me and asked me directly what I was doing about the practice of separating families at the border.
Neither my ex nor her sister were aiming anything at me or this congregation. They were simply trying to chronicle and feed the outrage. And I certainly felt the outrage and said so.
But by the time that any of us on the streets had gotten demonstrations organized – and I know that many of you did actually attend some rallies – the White House had responded by sort of softening the policy, and a court had started to hear an argument for ordering the families reunited, which it soon ordered.
In the meantime, however, I had answered my former sister-in-law by saying that I didn’t feel compelled to respond to every outrage coming forth from the present administration. I think we must pick and choose our fights.
Here’s part of that I told her:
“The decision whether to put aside what one had planned to preach on and address the crisis of the moment has multiple dimensions. In the Trump age, with the President deliberately creating crisis after crisis, you can postpone everyday topics like forgiveness, loneliness, guilt indefinitely, because if you are going to preach by the headlines, there will always be headlines. If you want to give your people something of lasting value, you sometimes have to ignore the headlines. THe most widely known sermon of Theodore Parker, the nineteenth century abolitionist transcendentalist is titled "The Transient and the Permanent in Christianity." I try to give my folks more of the permanent than the transient and wish that Mr. Trump would be a bit more transient himself.”
And what I could have added was, in point of fact the last sermon I gave my congregation was on love; it was an appreciation of Bishop Curry’s fine address to the British royal wedding in May. And my congregation told me afterwards that it was what they needed to hear. And what is a minister but someone who tells you what you need to hear?
What is the permanent and what is the transient in the UU Meeting House? When we observed our 20th and 30th anniversaries in October of 2016, Rev. Jim Robinson, who was responsible as much as any individual for creating this institution, told us we were founded on love. He also told us our voice and our presence were needed now in this world more than ever.
How do we make this love manifest? One, we show up for one another. I had arrived at Pinewoods Camp on Saturday for a week of immersion in one of my favorite forms of joy, English dance and its music. On Sunday, however, I checked my phone and saw that a member of this congregation was approaching death. I drove back to Chatham for a last visit, to tell a dying woman how much she had meant to me and to the congregation.
I showed up for that one and maybe some of you did as well.
Another way we make love manifest is operating a store where clothing and other necessities are recycled and made available to people whose means are limited. This is a vital function in a place where the cost of living is so high.
Yet as central as the thrift shop is to the Meeting House presently, it was not always in operation, and it is possible that a time will come when volunteers can no longer be found to run or to manage it. It looks permanent, but maybe it is actually transient. Love is permanent, but the way we manifest it is transient.
You don’t really get to know what is permanent and what is transient until you start to think about what changes need to be made. The remark by John Raye that the gothic window would be out of place here because this is a Greek temple of reason made us think about this place in a different way.
However, that doesn’t mean that everything about the architecture of the place is part of the permanent and cannot be changed. I have suggested for years to the Board of Trustees that serious thought be given to making the seating in the sanctuary movable to allow for greater flexibility in the use of the space.
This has never gotten serious consideration because, like the Greek exterior, most of us feel that the white, fixed pews are part of the permanent setup of the place.
When you show a visitor around this building, they are often shocked to find that it dates back only to 1958. That is because the Christian Scientists in 1958 made a deliberate attempt to create a building which would appear to be a century older. Though it lasted as a church for them less than forty years, they wanted at its inception for it to look like it had been built for the ages. Our UU forefathers and mothers probably liked that traditionalist aspect as well. While our theology may be radically different from that of our Christian neighbors, we can play down this difference if our Meeting House looks somewhat conventional.
What is permanent and what is transient here? What could we change and what do we need to hold onto?
In the long view, American Unitarianism and Universalism arose in the eighteenth century in a reaction against Calvinism. European Unitarianism arose two centuries earlier out of the radical wing of the Protestant Reformation, but the American version is not a Reformation faith, but an Enlightenment one.
The values of the Enlightenment – the use of reason, the notion that truth can be found by free and open inquiry, skepticism of authority, subjecting the Bible to the same critical techniques we would use with other texts, the notion of Nature as a system governed by impersonal laws rather than by supernatural beings, faith in democratic processes and the value of education, the equal worth of all humans – all these are interwoven into our religious makeup. They are found in one form or another in our seven principles.
In the present political climate, Enlightenment values are under assault every day. And we could be out on the streets demonstrating every day.
A few weeks ago a parishioner from the Staten Island congregation I served as interim before I came here visited us here for Sunday services, and we went to lunch afterwards. She described how that congregation had become sort of a clearing house for several community groups which had sprung up in the wake of the 2016 election. She said she thought it vital that the church existed and persisted, though as a church it did not take an active role in any of the groups.
If you’re looking to identify the permanent in the existence of this congregation, you could do worse than to say we defend the Enlightenment. But of course there are several problems with that.
One is the gap between ideals and reality. Thomas Jefferson, who wrote all men are created equal, owned slaves and refused to free them before his death even though he as related by blood to many of them.
The transcendentalists understood this. We are bending the arc towards justice, we aren’t there yet. Lincoln’s Gettysburg address is best read as a transcendentalist meditation on the idea of equality at its most trying testing-ground.
Second, the distinction between permanent and transient which was so clear to Parker has become fuzzy since Charles Darwin two decades later showed life at a very basic level to be in a constant state of flux. Of course, before Darwin, Heraclitus and the Buddha had shown that the only thing which does not change is change itself. And in the twentieth century, process theology asserted that God herself was also evolving.
An organism faced with change in its environment has three choices: adapt, move or die. We are in a time when the old ways of doing church aren’t working for the generations now coming along.
So we might well ask, is anything permanent here?
Maybe not, in the sense of being totally unchanging, but there are deeper concerns and more shallow ones. Take the freedoms found in the US Constitution. An examination of history will show that the content of freedom is constantly being reinterpreted by the courts. That is why we produced Freedom Forums in response to the 2016 elections, to remind ourselves what we actually have.
And a lot of that constitutional order is still holding. It is clear that the courts have not fled from their responsibilities wholesale. They are providing an essential brake on the more destructive policies of the present time.
There may be nothing permanent and unchanging, but some things are deeper than others. The Chinese character for crisis is that same as that for opportunity. We are given the reality of change as a gift so that we can bend the arc of history towards justice. Let us rejoice that we live in such interesting times.
From “The Transient and the Permanent in Christianity”, by Rev. Theodore Parker 1841
Christ says, his Word shall never pass away. Yet at first
sight nothing seems more fleeting than a word. It is an evanescent
impulse of the most fickle element. It leaves no track
where it went through the air. Yet to this, and this only, did
Jesus entrust the truth wherewith he came laden, to the
earth ; truth for the salvation of the world. He took no pains
to perpetuate his thoughts ; they were poured forth where
occasion found him an audience, — by the side of the lake, or
a well ; in a cottage, or the temple ; in a fisher’s boat, or the
synagogue of the Jews. He founds no institution as a
monument of his words. He appoints no order of men to
preserve his bright and glad revelations. He only bids his
friends give freely the truth they had freely received. He did
not even write his words in a book. With a noble confidence,
the result of his abiding faith, he scattered them broad-cast on
the world, leaving the seed to its own vitality. He knew, that
what is of God cannot fail, for God keeps his own.
Looking at the Word of Jesus, at real Christianity, the pure
religion he taught, nothing appears more fixed and certain. Its
influence widens as light extends ; it deepens as the nations
grow more wise. But, looking at the history of what men call
Christianity, nothing seems more uncertain and perishable.
While true religion is always the same thing, in each century
and every land, in each man that feels it, the Christianity of
the Pulpit, which is the religion taught the Christianity of the
People, which is the religion that is accepted and lived out ;
has never been the same thing in any two centuries or lands,
except only in name. The difference between what is called
Christianity by the Unitarians in our times, and that of some
ages past, is greater than the difference between Mahomet
and the Messiah. The difference at this day between opposing
classes of Christians the difference between the Christianity of
some sects, and that of Christ himself ; is deeper and more
vital than that between Jesus and Plato, Pagan as we call him.
The Christianity of the seventh century has passed away. We
recognise only the ghost of Superstition in its faded features,
as it comes up at our call. It is one of the things which has
been, and can be no more, for neither God nor the world goes
back. Its terrors do not frighten, nor its hopes allure us. We
rejoice that it has gone. But how do we know that our Christianity
shall not share the same fate ? Is there that difference
between the nineteenth century, and some seventeen that
have gone before it, since Jesus, to warrant the belief that our
notion of Christianity shall last forever? The stream of time
has already beat down Philosophies and Theologies, Temple
and Church, though never so old and revered. How do we
know there is not a perishing element in what we call Christianity
Jesus tells us, his Word is the word of God, and so
shall never pass away. But who tells us, that our word shall
never pass away , that our notion of his Word shall stand