Sunday, 6 March 2011

Lenten Optimisim

"What is man that You are mindful of him, and the son of man that You consider him? For You have made him little lower than the angels and You have crowned him with honour and glory." Psalm 8:4-5

"The goodness of the best man is nothing, compared with the goodness which the worst man is capable of attaining. This is a point in Christianity which we are slow to comprehend. We overvalue present attainment; we undervalue inherent capability. The small house suited to our present convenience, and finished in a year, we value more than the vast palace, the enormous cathedral, the metropolitan city, whose great plan it will require centuries to execute. Esau, selling his birthright for a mess of pottage, is the type of those who despise the common human nature which is in every man, and idolize the talents of this or that brilliant person, here or there. Jesus did not so. Jesus reverenced the great nature which he saw in the soul of every man. Therefore he reverenced the child whose unpolluted soul still beheld the face of God. Therefore he looked with tenderness on the sinner, —spoke words of loftiest truth to the most humble and called upon the common crowd to be perfect, as their Father in heaven was perfect. Therefore he demanded of all, as the only essential thing, to turn their faces the right way in faith, to have courage, to believe in God and in themselves. In this conception of the possibilities of man, the roots of all great Christian ideas find nourishment. Love to God is strengthened when our love is not abject, but hopeful, flowing from the consciousness of what he has made us to be. Love to man is possible only when we see in every man the capacity of goodness, beauty, and power. We can love the sinner when the actual sin appears superficial, and the possible goodness radical. We can forgive an enemy when we see that this enemy, by means of our forgiveness, may not only become our friend, but the friend of God. We can look on ourselves with humility and yet with hope, on the prosperous without envy, on the sufferer without too sickly a sorrow, on our trials with patience, and our successes without elation, when we consider how little all these things are in comparison with the universal soul which is in all, with its boundless capacities, with its glorious destiny."

These wonderful words written by James Freeman Clarke, which I found on the "Boston Unitarian blog" are so redolent of the optimism present in Unitarianism throughout its history. It is so very easy to focus on the unpleasant in man and the world and loose site of the magnificence and goodness to be found in both.

The two prevalent views of mankind throughout history can best be summed up by the phrases "Grandeur of man" and "depravity/lowliness of man". In the case of the ancient Zoroastrians these two views were to be combined within the person of man. Noticing that human beings have much in common with animals and pursue "earthly" bodily needs and pleasures, and yet have a mind that reaches for spirituality and holiness, some in the religion of ancient Persia saw man as a creation of two "deities". They saw this as an explanation of the contradiction built into human nature. An example of this thinking is mentioned in the Jewish Talmud, where a Persian Magi says to a Jewish sage "The upper half of man belongs to Ahura-Mazda (god of Goodness), the bottom half belongs to Ahriman (god/force of evil)."

Such a dualistic understanding of human kind is, I believe, also to be found in the teachings of Plato who saw a clear body-soul divide. These conceptions must have been very prevalent and influential in the ancient world for they certainly found their way into Christianity, seen clearly in the doctrine of Original Sin which often led to a conception of man as a holy soul, trapped in a sinful body, that could only be saved through the redemptive power of Jesus' death. The strong monastic presence in early Christianity which has persisted to this day is again testament to a view of man being in the grip of an evil nature that must be escaped from as much as possible through a life of asceticism.

The pinnacle denunciation of man was to be found after the Protestant reformation, especially amongst Calvinists with their doctrine of Total Depravity. Now man was to be seen as so flawed, as so caught in the grip of sin, that nothing he can do can save him, not even his belief could save him, but only the Grace of God made possible, according to this view, by God having had himself killed on a Roman cross.

Even today there are those for whom mankind is to be regarded as sinful and depraved. There is a strong stream of this thought running through many in the environmental movement who view man as a curse on an otherwise perfect world, some going as far as sterilisation to "save the world". Of course there have been many, especially since the Enlightenment who hold the opposing Rousseauesque view of man's inherent perfection, not always with happy results!

While not forgetting mankind's capacity for wrongdoing, Unitarians have approached the issue of man's nature in a more positive way, again James Freeman Clarke:

"Unitarians commonly believe that in all men there are religious capacities, by which they may come into communion with God. These are reason, conscience, freedom, love of truth, of beauty, of goodness, the sense of the infinite, the capacity of disinterested love; and the kindred sentiments of veneration, awe, aspiration etc. These are found, more or less developed in all men and where properly educated and unfolded make the true dignity and worth of human nature."

He saw in many passages of scripture, and in many of the teachings of Jesus proof that:

"That man in his natural state has the power to do right and that such right-doing is well pleasing to God"
Manual of Unitarian Belief 1884

What are the causes of our positive view of humankind? I think the strong belief in the inherent dignity of every person, in everyone having been made in the image of the Divine, has played a central part in shaping our attitude. Also an intense focus on God's Unity reinforces the notion that everything stems from Him, and that our fellow man, being His creations, are precious to Him and endowed by Him with all we need for righteousness. This was explained briefly by Alfred Hall, when he wrote:

"There is a divine element in every man, and could he only be brought to believe in its power, what aspirations he would have and what a noble life he would attain! Beloved, now are we children of God...our nature is richly endowed. God has put such inspiration into the soul, that if we will only exercise it, evil will become powerless to overcome us"
The Beliefs of A Unitarian 1947

Our rejection of the Orthodox doctrine of "Original Sin" has also played a part. Unlike Calvin who said

"Though newly-born infants have not yet produced the fruits of their iniquity, they have still the seed enclosed in them".

We prefer to follow the instruction of our teacher and guide when he said:

"Except ye become as little children, ye cannot enter into the Kingdom of God" Matthew 18:3

Our non-acceptance of another Orthodox doctrine, that of the Trinity, has also propelled us into viewing the human condition through such positive lenses. If we were to regard Jesus as God, then there would be nothing to wonder at either in his example or his teachings, for all things are possible with God. It is only with his simple humanity, that we can see him as our guide and template. From his overcoming temptations, from his diligence in serving his and our God, from his willingness to sacrifice himself to testify to the truth, we too can learn the extent of human potential.

Ultimately reason shouts loudly at us that human beings are not born stained with the guilt of their parents or of some original transgression. We all perceive infants and children as completely innocent, which is why the harming or abuse of children rightly raises such anger and grief. The existence of morality, itself dictates that we are born with the potential for goodness, and even a type of perfection.

"According to the plainest principles of morality we maintain that a natural constitution of mind, unfailingly disposing it to evil, and to evil alone, would absolve it from guilt"
William Ellery Channing.

The former Chief Rabbi, Lord Jakobovits in his 1969 Rosh Hashanah broadcast on the BBC contemplated the moon landings and recalled a sermon published a decade earlier about an imaginary account of what the first man to set foot on the moon would see and experience. In this sermon the spaceman, gazing in wonderment at the overpowering solitude around him heard a message in the silence of his soul;

"You, Astronaut of Earth, are now standing upon an uncontaminated celestial body. Ac
ross these dusty plains and in these towering mountains there is not, and never has been, the slightest stain of sin or evil. No lie has been told in this silent world. These rocks are unstained by the blood of war. This is the purity of the universe as it was when it left the mighty hand of God"

The Chief Rabbi then went on to contrast this contemplation with what an astronaut suffused with a Jewish ethic would have thought. He would view the empty wastes of the moon no so much unstained by any sin or vice, but rather as wastes unsanctified by any virtue or noble deed. True no lie had yet to be told, but more to the point neither had any truth ever been told or proclaimed in that lifeless world. No stone in those barren surroundings has ever borne witness to a feat of heroism or to an act of self sacrifice, no site has been hallowed by prayer or love and no grandeur of human creativity testifiers to the partnership between God and His creatures in perfecting the universe He created. That Jewish ethic, is also the optimistic ethic of Unitarianism.

When we begin a relationship we are always so very careful to present the best of ourselves, and only after some time do we relax enough, in the confidence of our partners love, to be able to let them see our faults. Likewise, it is only when we have internalised our goodness, our nearness to God, our human grandeur, that we can then turn our attention with confidence to our flaws and sins, and work to improve ourselves.

In a sermon reaffirming the essential Unitarian beliefs of God as One not Three in One, in Christ as a real true and noble man, in the Bible as being the only creed, and reminding his listeners of our rejection of Original Sin, William Gaskell demonstrated that Unitarians are inspired with a more generous confidence in human nature and concluded with;

"We are created capable of good, and it is our duty to promote it".

As life begins to wake and emerge after its winter's rest, let us focus on broadening our view of humanity, focusing on and promoting the good, and giving thanks to the Only True for his endless gifts to us all.

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