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Apr 1, 2020

Sermon: Illness is Not a Metaphor

as preached for the online service of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, March 29, 2020

I do not know about you, but in these strange days, I have found myself doing many new things. In the last couple of weeks, I have been invited to virtual dinners, virtual dance parties, and virtual cocktail hours. Recently, I was even invited to a virtual tea-time. There was a story on NPR about virtual first dates. My son is starting online--which is to say virtual--school on Tuesday. And, of course, right now you are joining us for virtual worship.

In essence, we are doing new things but calling them by old names. We are in a time of metaphors. “Metaphor,” Aristotle wrote many centuries ago, “consists in giving the thing a name that belongs to something else.” We use metaphors when we say that one thing is another thing. A metaphor is something that represents something else. Metaphor is essential to art and poetry. “And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold,” wrote Edna St. Vincent Millay. “Love is a stone / that settled on the sea-bed / under grey-water,” scribed Derek Walcott. “[V]erdad del río que se va perdiendo;” “the truth of the dying river,” we find in our morning’s reading by Amanda Berenguer. The sun is a bucketful of gold. Love is a stone. The river is dying. Each is a metaphor where one thing is said to be another.

I have come to realize, that for me, virtual worship is a metaphor for life as it used to be. This is our third week of recording our service in an empty sanctuary. There are only a handful of us here. We are practicing appropriate physical distancing.

We are also cleaning the pulpit, microphones, piano, and other equipment each time a different person uses them. In order to safely offer an online worship service, we are filming everything out of sequence. Alma and Scott recorded their portions of our liturgy prior to me recording mine. Mark recorded much of the music in his home studio. This week, he is not even here for the sermon.

Christian and Alma take this out of sequence audio and video and splice it together so that we can provide you with an approximation of our regular Sunday morning service. We want to offer our regular Sunday morning worship participants a continuing feeling of connection to the religious community that is the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston. And we want those of you who are joining us online without ever having entered either our sanctuary in Houston or sanctuary in Richmond to know that when we gather again in person you will be welcome among us. But we do so with the knowledge that virtual worship is not the same as in person worship. You are not sitting in a room filled with people. You are not joining your voices with a crowd of others in song--though I hope that you are singing along with Mark’s excellent arrangements of our hymns.

We do all of this in the hopes that our virtual worship will provide you with a sense of connection and comfort during these strange days. Our hopes for these online worship services remind me of a fable from the Hasidic tradition. In one of his books, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben recounts a version of it that he found in the work of the Jewish mystic and scholar Gershom Scholem.

The Hasidic tradition was founded by the Baal Shem Tov--the Master of the Good Name--in early eighteenth-century Europe. He was reputed to have been a pious, wise, and compassionate man. He was also supposed to have been a great worker of miracles.

It is told that when he had an insurmountable problem before him, he would go into the woods to a special place. There he would “light a fire and meditate in prayer.” And then the problem he had sought out to solve, the miracle he was hoping to perform, would be done.

After the Baal Shem died, his successor went to the same special place in the forest. He had forgotten a little about the ritual. He said, “We can no longer light a fire, but we can pray.” And then he was able to work a miracle.

The Baal Shem’s successor died. And the day came when the Rabbi of the next generation was faced with a great task. So, he went to the special place in the woods and said, “We can no longer light a fire, nor do we know the secret meditations belonging to the prayers, but we know the place in the woods, and that can be sufficient.” And sufficient it was.

The fourth generation came into being. And the Rabbi of that generation was called upon to perform a great task. But he did not even know the place in the woods. And so, he said, “‘We cannot light the fire, we cannot speak the prayer, we do not know the place, but we can tell the story of all of this.’ And, once again, this was sufficient.”

Our online worship services make me feel like we are somewhere inside Gershom Scholem’s tale. We cannot kindle the fire of our faith together. We cannot meditate together. We cannot go to the woods--or gather in our sanctuary--together. But we can offer you a video, a story, about what worship might like if we were to gather.

And we can hope that it is sufficient.

Most of the metaphors we are offering each other these days are offered in the hope that they will be sufficient. We provide each other the metaphors of virtual schooling, virtual dance parties, virtual dinners, virtual dates, and virtual tea times in the hopes that they will be sufficient to see us through these strange days.

But, in these strange days, we need to be careful of our metaphors. Some of them can be dangerous. It is unwise to let some things stand in for others. And here we come, at last, to the title of our service: illness is not a metaphor. Illness does not stand in for something else. Illness is just illness. It is not something that should be freighted with moral weight or political valence. It should be for what is, a global health crisis, and not imagined as something else.

For the virus is not a metaphor. The virus is only a virus. It does not represent something else. It is, like all viruses, a small organic infectious agent that replicates within living cells. It replicates and it spreads, from host to host, and bringing suffering to those who it encounters.

The virus is not a metaphor. It does not have consciousness that imagines, that dreams, that tries to discern truth from lies, or that refers to one thing by calling it by another name. The virus does not write poetry or create the metaphors of music, painting, and photography.

What is more, the virus does not care about human metaphors. It does not respect national boundaries, or religious beliefs, or race or ethnic identities. It is not, as some would say, a Chinese virus. It can potentially infect everyone. There is no cure. There is no vaccine. And while we must pray that these are found soon, we must also recognize that until they are everyone is vulnerable.

That, indeed, is one of the lessons of the hour. That we humans, no matter how great or powerful, weak or marginalized, we might be are alike in our human mortality. The Prime Minister of Great Britain has tested positive for the virus. Rita Wilson and her husband Tom Hanks have tested positive for the virus. The basketball player Kevin Durant has tested positive for the virus. The playwright Terrence McNally has died from the virus. Indeed, many people--rich and poor alike--have been stricken ill and died from the virus: people in Italy, in New York, in China, and here in Houston.

There is a way in which the global pandemic reminds me of a verse from Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This was a verse beloved by many of our Universalist religious ancestors. It bespeaks the idea that God loves everyone, no exceptions, an idea that lies at the core of the theology of our Universalist forbearers and Unitarian Universalism today. It suggests a fundamental, non-metaphorical, truth: there is only one human family and we are each a part of it.

Today, we might consider re-casting the words from Galatians as there is neither Christian nor Muslim, neither Italian nor New Yorker, neither citizen nor undocumented migrant, for all are alike to the virus. There are some religious leaders who are saying that the virus must be understood as God’s judgement upon this country and the world. If it is, then the only interpretation that I can find is that we are being reminded, in the words of the Christian New Testament, “that God is no respecter of persons”--words meant to suggest that the divine does not care about human status but instead loves, and calls upon us to love, everyone the same. We are being reminded, in the sense of the seventh principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association, that we all part of the same interdependent web of existence. That we are each, in William Ellery Channing’s famous words, a part of the great family of all souls.

Yet, historically, people have often draw, precisely the opposite lesson from pandemics. They have turned illness into metaphor. One of the oldest ideas in human history is to view pandemics--which we sometimes call plagues--as forms of collective punishment. In such a narrative, one group of people, usually the powerful, label another group of people as responsible for the pandemic. In Europe, during the Black Death, Jewish people were often blamed for outbreaks of the plague. As a result, many Jewish communities were destroyed and many Jewish people were killed. And, of course, the truth was that Jewish people had no actual connection to the plague. They were just blamed for it because they were different from the rest of the population.

Some years ago, at the peak of the AIDS epidemic, before there was a treatment for HIV, the philosopher Susan Sontag wrote insightfully about the dangers of using illness as metaphor. She observed three dangerous things about illness as a metaphor. The first two I have already alluded to. The pandemic is cast as a form of collective, and sometimes individual, punishment. Responsibility for it assigned to “a tainted community.” And, finally, “the disease invariably comes from somewhere else.”

Over and over again, human history has shown each of these ideas to be false. Illness is not punishment. It has the potential to impact all alike. Cancer, one of the diseases that Sontag wrote about, can strike anyone. People across the world have been infected by HIV--babies have been infected with it by their mothers; and, though it was once cast as “gay cancer,” everyone must practice safer sex if they want to reduce their risk of contracting it.

Illness happens because we have organic, permeable, human bodies that can host viruses and bacteria. Illness happens because to be alive is to be mortal and subject to the possibility of pain and suffering. Illness is not a metaphor.

Responsibility for illness cannot be borne by a single community. The virus that causes COVID-19 might have started in China but it is not a Chinese virus. It does not recognize the imagined human community of nation. Instead, it reveals the truth that human beings are far more alike than we are different. Whether you live in Italy, China, New York, Houston, or Fort Bend County, you are vulnerable to the virus. Little can be accomplished by assigning blame for it to one group of people. Illness is not a metaphor.

The disease might have started in Wuhan, it might have come from there, but the virus is teaching us, again, that disease cannot be contained. Quarantines may slow the spread of the virus--and staying home continues to be one of the best things that non-essential workers can do--but they will not stop it. China has paused the spread of the virus and is now trying to prevent its resurgence by isolating anyone who visits from outside the country. This may slow the spread of the virus. But it will ultimately prevent it from continuing to inflict people in China.

Eventually, the virus will reach every corner of our globe. The virus is no respecter of nations, just as the scripture says God is no respecter of persons. It can only be slowed. Pathogens have always spread across humanity--smallpox might have started someplace in the Mediterranean but it eventually spread throughout the globe; syphilis could have originated in the Americas but it is now found everywhere. Every lifeform can become sick. Illness is not a metaphor.

Illness is not a metaphor. Illness is simply illness. But we can learn from illness. It can teach us that the entire human family is in this together and that each of us is vulnerable. All of us are mortal and our bodies are vulnerable to the virus. The threat of the virus will only end when a vaccine is found--not a vaccine for some of the people of the world but a vaccine for all of the people of the world. The spread of the virus will only be slowed when we all act together--engaging in only essential work and practicing physical distancing.

And that will only be possible when we recognize that in these strange days, when all but essential work must stop, most of us are economically vulnerable. I already know of people who are members of this congregation who have lost jobs. I have friends who are wondering if they are going to have to make the choice between paying rent, paying for medical bills, and eating. Some economists are anticipating that the unemployment rate will soon hit twenty, or even thirty, percent.

Such a high level of unemployment threatens massive social disruption. Many people who might, in other times, think of themselves as economically secure will suffer--I know of scientists with PhDs who have already lost their jobs. At such a time, we cannot afford to think of illness as a metaphor. The virus is not a respecter of persons. And the disruptions it brings do not care about your level of education or your current level of economic security. If this pandemic continues for twelve or eighteenth months--as many think it might--it will most likely upend the lives of many people.

At such a time as this, when illness is not a metaphor, we are challenged to rise to meet the situation with compassion. As Scott told us at the beginning of the month, “Sympathy is the ability to recognize that a person is in pain.” “And empathy is the ability to... experience some [of] their feelings,” he continued. But compassion is putting “those thoughts and feelings into action.” We demonstrate compassion when we move beyond simply worrying about other people, or the state of the world, and try to do something about it.

When we recognize that illness is not a metaphor, we come to understand that the only response to the global pandemic is a compassionate one. We do this, in part, because we recognize that we must protect the most vulnerable among us. It is the moral thing to do but it is also the necessary thing to do. In some cities, but not in Houston, homeless people are being given shelter in closed hotels so that they do not spread the virus. Such an action protects both the homeless and everyone else. For the virus does not recognize rich or poor.

The disruptions can impact everyone. And because of this, the disruptions will only be mitigated if we work to provide for all people during this time. And, here, I am reminded of another passage from the Christian New Testament, this time from the Gospel of Matthew. There we find Jesus say, “Truly I tell you: anything you did for one of... [the people] here, no matter how insignificant, you did for me... A curse is on you... [if I can say] For when I was hungry, you gave me nothing to eat; when thirsty, nothing to drink; when I was a stranger, you did not welcome me; when I was naked, you did not clothe me; when I was ill and in prison, you did not come to my help.”

Those ancient words speak a truth in a time of crisis like this, when illness is not a metaphor and when all of us are vulnerable. And that truth is this: we can only address the health and economic dimensions of this crisis by acting together and protecting everyone. That means that everyone is vulnerable. Everyone must be protected--and that everyone who needs them be given access to personal protective equipment. Such equipment is now, to slow the spread of the virus, a need for all people and something that federal government should be mobilizing to produce on a mass level. If it will not, then local cities and counties must step into the gap.

Here in Houston, we had a troubling illustration of what happens when we personal protective equipment is not available to all. On Thursday and Friday, the Houston Independent School District had to shut down its food distribution sites. A lack of personal protective equipment made them unsafe for both people distributing and collecting food.

At a time when people are food insecure at greater rates than every before a lack of equipment, here in the richest country in the history of the world, made it even more difficult for people to get food.

When we recognize that illness is not a metaphor we also recognize that the only way the virus will contained is if we have a coordinated health care policy that makes treatment and testing available for all. And that the state of Texas is wrong for declaring that some essential health care services, such as abortion and family planning, should not be available at this time. Such actions will prompt to travel. And that brings the risk that they will spread the virus further. If we do not treat health care as a human right, in this time when illness is not a metaphor, then it will be impossible to coordinate efforts to slow the spread of the virus and, eventually, find and distribute a cure.

It is only by recognizing that illness is not a metaphor that we will be able to end this time of living primarily in metaphors. It is only by acknowledging that illness is not a metaphor that we will be able to return to actual shared dinners, dance parties, tea times, and cocktail hours. It is only by rejecting illness as a metaphor that school and non-essential work will resume. And it is only be casting off illness as a metaphor that we will be able gather together, as a religious community, in worship and in fellowship and physically unite in the difficult, though rewarding, work of building the beloved community.

These are my words for you, offered to you from Houston, Texas, in the midst of a pandemic, as part of a virtual worship service, that is a metaphor for religious community. In this time of anxiety and illness, I pray that they are sufficient. And so, I invite you, wherever you are, to say Amen.

CommentsCategories Contemporary Politics Human Rights Sermon Tags First Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston NPR Metaphor Aristotle Edna St. Vincent Millay Derek Walcott Amanda Berenguer Alma Viscarra D. Scott Cooper Mark Vogel Houston Richmond Baal Shem Tov Giorgio Agamben Gershom Scholem Illness COVID-19 Boris Johnson Rita Wilson Tom Hanks Kevin Durant Terrence McNally Paul Galatians 3:28 Acts 10:34 Unitarian Universalist Association New York Italy China William Ellery Channing Black Death Plague Antisemitism AIDS HIV Susan Sontag Cancer Wuhan Compassion Matthew 25:40-44 Houston Independent School District Abortion Reproductive Health

Nov 5, 2018

Sermon: The Virtues of Conservatism

as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, November 4, 2018

This is the Sunday before a truly contentious election. Many of us are deeply concerned about the future direction of this country. Some of us fear that it is on the verge of becoming a totalitarian state. The path forward for most, if not all of us, seems unclear. No matter which party wins control of the House and Senate this coming Tuesday the United States will remain a divided country. No matter which party wins control of the House and Senate this coming Tuesday, democracy in the United States and throughout the world will continue to be in crisis.

One aspect of this crisis is that it is difficult for people with different political opinions to talk to each other. Many of us self-stratify. We choose to live in communities where most people hold similar values to us. I am guilty of this myself. When I moved to Houston from Boston I selected the Montrose neighborhood. It is near the church. There are lots of art museums, restaurants, bars, and cute shops. It has good public transit. It is walkable. It is also a liberal enclave.

People like to ask me how I am coping with the culture shock of moving from the Northeast to the South. When they do, I have to tell them that so far it does not seem that different. I do so with the knowledge that the reason why it does not seem that different is that most of the places I find myself in are places filled with people like myself: liberal or left educated professionals. In such places I find that most people more-or-so less hold similar political, religious, and social values.

Last week I found myself at a Halloween party where not everyone held similar political views. And I was reminded of how difficult it is for people in this country to talk to each other. There I was, hanging out on a new friends’ porch as torrents of rain came and the kids ran from house-to-house trick-or-treating in increasingly soggy costumes. Someone came up to introduce himself to me. He seemed friendly enough. He asked me if I had tried the frito pie. I confessed that I did not know what frito pie was. He explained to me that it was a combination of frito chips, chili, and cheese--and pointed over to the table where all three items sat waiting to be mixed together.

Another person entered the conversation. Somehow, the topic shifted, and we found ourselves talking about the horrific events of the last week. It came up that I am in favor of some kind of gun control. And that completely ended the conversation. Full stop. No attempt to find common ground. No discussion. The man I had been talking to said something like, “The Second Amendment is what it is” and walked off. He was not rude or anything. He just made it clear that we had nothing more to talk about.

Have you had a similar experience? Or does this experience seem familiar: You post something political online. Pretty soon your Facebook wall or your Twitter stream becomes a mess of vitriol and bile. You unfriend your aunt. You block your cousin. No one convinces anyone of anything. Instead, everyone retrenches in their own enclaves. Or you decide to embrace the old maxim and refrain from discussing politics at the dinner table.

Some philosophers argue that this dilemma is inherent to our contemporary culture. Different moral and political positions are conceptually incommensurable. That is a fancy way of saying is that there is no rational way to sort out a disagreement between them. They begin from different premises or are rooted in different core values.

This is something you may have experienced on those occasions when you have been able to engage someone from a different political perspective in a debate. I remember one experience I had like this when I was on an airplane. I was on my way to present a paper at some academic conference. My seatmate struck up a conversation. He asked me what I did and where I was going. I told him. It turned out that he was a classics major from a conservative Christian college.

We spent the next two or three hours discussing philosophy, theology, and the classical canon. On the surface it appeared that we influenced by many of the same thinkers. Aristotle, Plato, Cicero, Ovid, Augustine... We had read and appreciated each of them. But, it is like the Greek poet Sappho wrote:

If you are squeamish

Don’t prod the
beach rubble

We failed to follow Sappho’s warning not to go deeper. As the conversation continued, we discovered we did not agree on anything. Despite our common canon, we actually shared no ground. Any position that one of us took the other found objectionable. We did not agree upon racial justice, economics, women’s rights, GLBT rights, federal funding for higher education, the reality of climate change, prison reform, the origin of human life, gun control, the nature of good and evil, the separation of church and state...

There is a lot of ground that can be covered in a few hours. Yet each time we approached a subject we found we had completely incompatible arguments. Take abortion, an issue in American political life that has long proved divisive. I made an argument that ran something like this: In a free society, each person has the right to control their own body. An embryo is part of the mother’s body. Since a mother has a right to do what she wants with her body she has the right to freely make a decision about whether or not she will have an abortion. Therefore, abortion is morally permissible.

My seatmate started from a different place. He claimed that an embryo is actually an identifiable human being. As such, it was accorded rights of its own. The chief of these rights is the right not to be murdered. Therefore, abortion is morally wrong.*

Our positions were, as I suggested earlier, conceptually incommensurable. They were based in different assumptions about what it means to be human. There was no way to rationally reconcile them. It was almost as if we were talking different languages. Actually, it was worse than that. Es posible por me decir el mismo cosa en Español que digo en Inglés. It is possible for me to say the same thing in Spanish that I say in English. But it was not possible for my seatmate and I to agree on what we meant when we used words that were central to our vocabularies. The words like life, murder, and body meant different things to each of us.

Friends, this is where we are right now in our political history. We have reached a point where people cannot agree upon what words mean or what it means to be human. Indeed, this country’s resurgence of white supremacy and nationalism indicates that people cannot even agree upon who is a human being. The poor suffering migrants who are wending their way from Honduras to the United States border are human beings. They breath, they cry, they hunger, they love, they fear, they struggle, the same as anyone in this sanctuary this morning. The same is true of the eleven Jewish elders who were murdered last week as they gathered for worship at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh. The same is true of the two black people recently killed in a Kroeger in Kentucky. The same is true of the two women killed at a yoga studio in Florida on Friday. They were all humans with hopes, loves, fears, families, friends, favorite foods, like any of us. And yet, their murderers failed to recognize them as such. Instead, their murderers saw them as something other than human.

It is not just that we cannot agree upon our fundamental values. It is that we cannot agree upon who is a who human being. The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan may have argued, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts,” but apparently, he was wrong. People seem very much to have their own facts. And sure, you might, and I might, argue that certain facts are, well, facts based in an objectively measurable reality but that would be beside the point. We cannot get everyone to agree to what the objectively measurable reality is. For many people, it is an objectively measurable fact that the scriptures--be they the Hebrew Bible, the Christian New Testament, the Koran, or the Book of Mormon--are divinely inspired. For me, they are great works of literature containing much wisdom and not a little foolishness, testaments to the infinite power of human creativity, the luster of poetry that lies within.

The great challenge before us is collectively finding our way out of this mess. And here I could make the observation that there is no historical example of people defeating totalitarianism through debate. And that it has only ever been defeated through mass mobilization. And that it has not always been defeated. And I could list the examples of the great life affirming, antifascist, movements that have stood against totalitarianism in Europe, in Latin America, and in the United States. And I could talk with you about the tragic defeats of those who stood against the genocide of the indigenous people of this continent in the eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries. Or the loss of Spain to the fascist regime of Francisco Franco in the 1930s. But I do not think that would bring us any closer to figuring out a way forward that does not reenact the great struggles of the past.

And so, I want to turn to my sermon title, “The Virtues of Conservatism.” It hints at one path that might be available to us, the path of virtue ethics. Ethics is organized around the question, How should I live a good life? This is the question that faces us today, on the Sunday before the election, just as it is a question that we will face next week after all of the ballots have been counted. It is a question that we must answer within the context in which we live, under the threat of rising totalitarianism. It is a question we will answer somewhat differently ten or twenty years from now when the political, cultural, and ecological world we find ourselves in has changed.

Philosophers and theologians divide ethics into three broad schools. One school claims that ethical action is found by following rules. In such a system, the person who judiciously obeys the law might be thought of as the ethical person. Another school believes that the ethical person is measured by the outcome of their actions. The dictum “the ends justify the means” probably best summarizes this stance. It has been favored by some of the great fighters for freedom and justice. Malcolm X was one of the true heroes of the twentieth-century. He taught us to struggle for freedom and justice “by any means necessary.”

Virtue ethics is the third broad school of ethics. Virtue ethicists believe that the ethical life is to be found by cultivating certain traits of character. These traditionally are categories like honesty, bravery, generosity, gratitude... These traits are called the virtues.

Virtue ethics are favored by many conservatives. Such thinkers tend to treat the virtues as static. There is one meaning to being brave or honest. There is one meaning to compassion. Such thinkers also tend to think that social roles are fixed and that we are best selves when we perform the roles we are given when we pursue the virtues inherent in them. There is one way to be a good, and virtuous, parent, or worker, or child, or spouse or whatever.

Virtue ethicists tend to talk about how the presence of virtue is expressed in character. The conservative intellectual David Brooks writes a lot about the relationship between virtue and character. One of my friends accuses of him being a crypto-moderate, but Brooks speaks for a certain element of patrician conservatives. His interest in virtue ethics is mirrored in other patrician conservatives like William Bennett; Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Education, he wrote an entire book called “The Book of Virtues.”

But here’s the thing, virtue ethics has a long connection to Unitarian Universalism. It was particularly favored by our Unitarian ancestors. Let me give you an example.

Lately, I have been poking around in the church library. It is something I do instinctually. I have spent enough my life doing historical research that if you put me within smelling distance of an archive I will start digging through it like a pig rooting for truffles.

A couple of weeks I happened across a beat-up pale green volume. Coffee stains on the front, it is marked “Scrap Book.” It contains a selection of newspaper and magazine cuttings about First Church and Unitarianism from the late 1920s through the early 1940s.

One of those articles contains a sermon that was preached when this congregation dedicated its first building here on Fannin and Southmore. The minister was then Thomas Sanders. We have already read the closing paragraph of his sermon. I want to draw our attention to its last sentence, “The church must generate moral power as well as instruct, for salvation is found in the development of character.”

Salvation is found in the development of character. It is about a clear a statement of the classical Unitarian theology of New England as I can imagine. In this view, the purpose of the church is to provide people a moral education so that they can strive towards self-improvement and live good lives. These Unitarians understood themselves to be Christian because they believed, as one wrote, “the character of Christ... sets before us moral perfection.” Christ was someone who had developed perfect character and who tried to teach others how to develop it. By following Christ’s teachings, they thought, people could discover the inner light within and begin to approach what they called “the likeness to God.” The great nineteenth-century Bostonian Unitarian preacher and theologian William Ellery Channing once claimed, “The great hope of society is in individual character.” He was suggesting that we become our best selves, and realize our own likeness to God, by nurturing such virtues.

The virtues for someone like Channing were not unlike the virtues for many contemporary conservative philosophers. They came out of respecting a certain set of fixed social roles. Nineteenth-century New England Unitarians contained many of the country’s mercantile elite. They had much clearer ideas of what it meant to be a Unitarian minister or a banker or a ship’s captain or a wife or a husband or a judge or a student than we do today. I suspect that many of us would disagree with how they understood those social roles. I certainly have no interest in receiving the kind of deference from congregants that a man like Channing could expect. Nor do I am interested in serving the elite in the same way that he did.

But that misses the point, the possibility, that I see in virtue ethics. It allows us to possibly find an entry point into a conversation with those who occupy different political, philosophical, and theological positions. We can probe the writings of Channing and discover what he meant by words like courage. His definition was different than ours. It centered on Jesus. I doubt many contemporary Unitarian Universalists would resonate with his claim that we express our moral freedom by leaving “all for Christ.” And yet, we can recognize that he valued, as we do, the importance of speaking our own truth and of being brave in the face of injustice.

I suspect that the same is true of my seatmate on the airplane. We were able to keep talking because we could at least agree upon which words might be important in our lives, even if we had completely different understandings of them. I was able to ask him, What does it mean to live a good life in your community? And he was able to ask me the same. It is true that our conversation went nowhere. But, unlike the man I met at the party, we were able to keep talking.

I have this inkling, this thought, that it might that the best we can hope for over the long haul is the possibility of staying together in a collective conversation. It is true that the ends, the goals, I seek have a lot more in common with Malcolm X than with the man I was sitting next to on the plane. I am against white supremacy. I am against totalitarianism. I am against economic inequality. I am for the great project of collective liberation, the unleashing of the human spark that can leap each to each.

But it is also true that I suspect that on some level each of us can articulate a vision of the good life. It might not be found in the words we speak. It may only be present in the actions we take. But, nonetheless, I imagine it can found in the lives we try to live and the lives we valorize. I have a suspicion that each of you has some sense of who is a good person and the kind of people you admire. And sometimes, we can even find something to admire, some sense of virtue, in those people we find ourselves in violent disagreement with. W. E. B. Du Bois was one of the greatest philosophers in this country’s history. He was able to say that there was “something noble in the figure of Jefferson Davis” even as he denounced Davis’s white supremacy and observed that there was “something fundamentally incomplete about” the standards by which the old Confederate had tried to live.

Such an appeal to virtue ethics might be a foolish hope. But then again, Unitarian Universalism has been labelled a faith without certainty. I would be lying to you if I told you I knew exactly what must be done, today or tomorrow. I know that totalitarianism has only ever been defeated by mass mobilization. But I also know that even as we confront the present horrors of the day we must try to stumble our way forward for the long haul. And that something must change if we are not to endlessly repeat, as it seems we are now, the cycles of totalitarian rise and defeat. And maybe, just maybe, those stumbles include a focus on the common vocabulary that exists across political difference. As David Brooks has observed, virtue ethics “is a philosophy for stumblers. The stumbler scuffs through life, a little off balance. But the stumbler faces her imperfect nature with unvarnished honesty, with the opposite of squeamishness.” And so, I leave you, on this Sunday before the election, not with a clear charge or solid instructions on what you must do but rather with the glimmer of hope that we can seek and find a common vocabulary with those we disagree. I do not hope that we will agree. I only that we might find a way to remain in a conversation.

Maybe then we might each discover the shining light within. Then maybe, just maybe, against all the odds, and the heart break, and the human error, our lives will echo with the words offered by the African American poet Thylias Moss:

You will be the miracle.
You will feed yourself five thousand times.

May those words be true for each of us.

Amen and Blessed.

* My reconstruction of our argument owes something to Alasdair MacIntyre, “After Virtue,” third edition (Norte Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 7.

CommentsCategories Ministry Sermon Tags First Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston 2018 Election Montrose Halloween Conservatism Donald Trump Gun Control Abortion Sappho White Supremacy Totalitarianism Tree of Life Congregation Daniel Patrick Moynihan Virtue Ethics David Brooks William Bennett Thomas Sanders William Ellery Channing Malcolm X W. E. B. Du Bois Thylias Moss

Mar 31, 2018

Our Foremothers' Blessing

as preached at First Parish Church, Ashby, MA, March 25, 2018

Yesterday, Asa and I attended the March for Our Lives in Boston. It was inspiring to be in a group of tens of thousands walking from Roxbury Crossing to the Common. In a time when it is easy to despair, a movement started by high schoolers against gun violence is inspiring. The leadership of students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School has been an important reminder that no matter how young, or how old, we are we can work to change world.

I understand that here in Ashby the March for Our Lives hosted by the congregation was quite a success. I have been told that over a hundred people turned up and there were moving speeches by several of local high school students. It is wonderful that our social justice group was able to organize such an event.

Before we get started with the sermon proper I thought it would be nice to bring the spirit of the march into our sanctuary and sing a classic protest song from our hymnal. #170 in the grey hymnal "We Are a Gentle, Angry People" is a pretty good expression of the feelings a lot of us have in response to the epidemic of gun violence. We can sing it without accompaniment, a cappella.

Thank you for singing with me. Let me start the sermon proper. When she was very young Margaret Fuller stopped on a staircase in her parents' house and asked herself four questions: "How came I here? How is it that I seem to be this Margaret Fuller? What does it mean? What shall I do about it?" These are big, religious, questions about the meaning of life and the nature of existence. I suspect that many of us have asked ourselves similar ones at various times in our lives. Certainly, as a religious community, we are called to ask parallel questions: Who are we as Unitarian Universalists? How did we get to be this way? What shall we do about it?

Our religious tradition encourages us to draw from a variety of different sources when we try answer such questions. As theological liberals the most important source that we draw from has always been personal experience. It is a core principle of religious liberalism that theological reflection begins with our personal experiences. As the official list of our sources begins, we draw upon "Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder... which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life."

Personal experiences are not enough on their own. To find answers we turn to collective wisdom in its various forms. Collective wisdom tempers our experiences and aids us in their interpretation. One of the places we can look to for collective wisdom is in the lives and teachings of our religious ancestors.

We are blessed to number among our religious ancestors some of history's most illustrious names. Several U.S. Presidents, including John Adams, John Quincy Adams and William Howard Taft were Unitarian. We can claim artists and musicians like the composer Bela Bartok and the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Our rolls contain social justice activists such as the leading women's rights advocate Susan B. Anthony, the civil libertarian Roger Baldwin and the pioneering abolitionist Lydia Maria Child; scientists like Charles Darwin, Linus Pauling and the astronomer Maria Mitchell; and writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Beatrix Potter.

The lives and actions of such people point the way towards the answers we might find for our big questions. This morning, in honor of Women's History Month, we are going to seek answers to our questions by exploring the lives of some of our liberal religious women ancestors. The contributions that Unitarian Universalist women have made to our movement, and to humanity, are significant. They easily merit several volumes rather than a single sermon. So to help us focus we will hone in on the life of a particular Unitarian woman, Margaret Fuller.

Fuller was a central member of the circle of writers, ministers and activists that we have come to call the transcendentalists. She edited their groundbreaking literary journal the Dial. She was also the first full-time foreign correspondent for a U.S. based newspaper and a pioneering women's rights activist. She wrote "Woman in the Nineteenth Century," a book that has come to be regarded as the foundational text of this country's women's rights movement.

Fuller's life was tragic. She drowned, with her husband and toddler son, off the coast of New York at the age of 40. Emerson, wrote on her death "I have lost in her my audience."

Fuller possessed a mind and an education that was almost unparalleled by any in her generation. She was born into a prominent Boston area Unitarian family. Her father, Timothy, was a congressman and successful lawyer. He sought to give her all of the educational advantages that he might have given a son.

He oversaw her education himself and before she was ten Margaret could read Greek and Latin. As an early adolescent she worked her way through the major works in the Latin canon and read Shakespeare and other English poets. Later she was sent a progressive school where she studied French, Italian, mathematics and the natural sciences. This was at a time when schooling was not available to most girls. The schooling that did exist for them emphasized the development of the skills necessary to manage a household and attract a husband.

New England society in the early 19th century was not structured to give women like Fuller opportunities. She wished to attend Harvard College, but it was only open to men. She wanted to make her own way in the world but all of the professions were closed to women.

She was, however, able to find a position as a teacher in a progressive school run by Bronson Alcott, the father of the writer Louisa May Alcott. She taught there and then briefly at another school for about two years before launching out on her own. Instead of starting a school she developed her own educational model. It was called the conversations and it was only open to women. A conversation differed from a lecture in that it was more participatory. Instead of announcing a topic and then holding forth on it the converser tried to inspire participants to engage in their own reflections.

Alcott, who had launched a co-educational series of conversations, called it a "Ministry of Talking." The hope was to bring the participants into a communion around a shared idea. For Fuller her conversations were essential as they offered, in her words, "a point of union to well-educated and thinking women in a city… boasts at present nothing of the kind..." She wanted her conversations to be a place where women "could state their doubt and difficulties with hope of gaining aid from the experience or aspirations of others."

In this way Fuller's conversations combined emotional support with intellectual stimulation. At a time when she could neither teach at a university nor preach from a pulpit Fuller was able to create a space where she and other women could further their education and deepen their spiritual lives. It was a safe space to explore matters that were largely regarded as the domain of men.

Her conversations proved to popular. They attracted many of the leading women of Boston, a number of whom were Unitarian. Women from as far away as New York came to participate.

It was not enough for Fuller. She wanted a larger audience and after running her conversations for a few years gradually stopped to concentrate on her editing and writing. Over the next few years she published two books, "Woman in the Nineteenth Century" and "Summer on the Lakes," edited the Dial and, ultimately, secured a position on the New York Tribune.

She worked in New York for close to two years before, in her mid-thirties, accepting an offer to travel to Europe. The newspaper did not want to let her go and so made her what at the time was a remarkable offer. It would continue to pay her as long as she wrote about her travels for its readership.

Prior to Fuller's offer no newspaper in the country had a full-time correspondent in Europe. When she accepted the Tribune's offer she made journalistic history. She also created a remarkable record of mid-19th century Europe. She met with, and wrote about, many of the leading literary, political and artistic figures of the continent. She visited the poet William Wordsworth, befriended the French writer George Sand, Sand's lover the composer Frederic Chopin, and the Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini.

Mazzini was to a play an important role in both Fuller and Italy's future. In a Tribune column about him she wrote words that ultimately might be taken for a summation of both her personal justice philosophy and Unitarian moral theology. They read, "there can be no genuine happiness, no salvation for any, unless the same can be secured for all."

This sentiment was certainly present in her "Woman in the Nineteenth Century." In it she argued that human development and liberty would never be complete until both men and women enjoyed the freedom to develop their full human potential. In this she was partially inspired by her own Unitarian tradition, particularly the teachings of William Ellery Channing and the pioneering British feminist Mary Wolstonecraft, author of "A Vindication of the Rights of Women."

Fuller noted that Channing's claim that all souls contained within the likeness of God extended to women as well as men. Wolstonecraft's call for women's rights inspired Fuller but it was her achievements as a writer in general, and not her "Vindication of the Rights of Women" in particular, that was important. Someone like Wolstonecraft, who was both successful and, because of her gender marginalized, demonstrated to Fuller both the women's potential and the sad reality that that potential went largely untapped.


The intellectual and religious relationship between Channing, Fuller and Wolstonecraft suggests how exploring the life of one of our foremothers is related to our annual stewardship campaign, which runs the month of March. We have a religious tradition because of those who came before us. Fuller's work built off of the teachings and writings of other religious liberals like Channing and Wolstonecraft. Our religious community benefits from the heritage Fuller and others like her have bequeathed us.

That bequest is a generous gift. It is a gift that we can repay by preserving and, if possible, improving our community for the next generation. This is the very definition of stewardship, preserving what we have been given so that it might be passed on. Such stewardship is rooted in both gratitude and generosity. We do it because we are grateful for the gifts that we have been given. We are generous because the generosity of previous generations has ensured that we have a tradition to inherit.

As stewards of a tradition we are also tasked with its guardianship. I am reminded of this each election season when politicians and religious leaders on the right try to co-opt our liberal religious tradition for their own purposes. An example of this which you may be aware of is an anti-abortion group called the Susan B. Anthony List. The list creates voting guides to anti-abortion politicians. It claims that in doing so it is working "in the spirit and tradition of the original suffragettes."

Such claims are revisionist history. Anthony's opinions about abortion are not particularly clear. The quotes that the List uses to bolster its claim are ambiguous. One for instance, seems to point more to a critique of a male dominated society than an attack on abortion. Anthony observed, "The statutes for marriage and divorce, for adultery, breach of promise, seduction, rape, bigamy, abortion, infanticide-all were made by men." Another comes from a diary entry written after she visited her brother and found her sister-in-law sick in bed after an abortion. She wrote, "She will rue the day she forces nature."

Even if these quotes represented an anti-abortion sentiment on Anthony's part it is difficult to use them to suggest that she would have been part of the so-called pro-life movement. Abortion in the nineteenth-century was something different from abortion in the twenty-first century. Abortions, like most medical procedures then, were risky and pregnancy itself was frequently life threatening. Just as importantly, children often did not survive childhood so attitudes towards the importance and value of a child's life were different than they are today.

These differences remind us of one of the most important lines separating religious liberals from religious conservatives. As religious liberals we hold truth to be mutable and changeable. What is true for one generation might not be true for the next because human culture is always changing and human knowledge is always expanding.

We believe, in other words, that revelation is ongoing and continuos. As Fuller's good friend Emerson preached in his famous "Divinity School Address," we are charged to "speak the very truth, as your life and conscience teach it, and cheer the waiting, fainting hearts of men with new hope and new revelation."

This is not true of religious conservatives. In contrast to us they belief that the truth is unchanging and that religious knowledge is fixed. In their minds, a quote taken from a scripture written three thousand years ago must mean the same thing today that it did then. Likewise a passage from a diary written a hundred years ago must mean the same thing today that it did then. Because of this lack of critical sophistication, Emerson described conservative's belief about revelation this way, they understand that "the revelation as somewhat long ago given and done, as if God were dead."

It is not our tradition to believe that revelation was given once for all time. If it was women like Anthony and Fuller would have accepted the roles society assigned for them. Instead, Anthony and Fuller believed that social norms and society change over time. If those were unjust people could struggle to change them.

In evaluating whether a group like the Susan B. Anthony List can claim to be the stewards of the tradition they say they represent we must ask two questions: Are they comfortable with the changing nature of society and a changing understanding of truth? Or do they seek to preserve the current social order and social understandings? If the answer is that they are comfortable with social change then they can rightly claim their role as stewards. If not, then not.

At the core of the tradition that Fuller and Anthony represent is the conscience; the idea that within us we each have the ability to make moral decisions. The way Fuller cultivated this ability suggests that most elusive of beasts, the Unitarian mystic and spiritual tradition. It is often lamented that we Unitarian Universalists do not have a tradition of spiritual practice of our own. The majority of us who engage in spiritual practice borrow it from another tradition. We practice yoga or meditation, we engage in prayer. But when asked what sort of spiritual practice we have within our tradition we are frequently at a loss.

The life of Margaret Fuller, and her transcendentalist contemporaries, suggests that there is an authentic Unitarian spiritual practice. The purpose of that practice is to nurture the conscience. Its discipline is three-fold. It begins with contemplative journal keeping. In the journal a person regularly records his or her daily interactions with others and struggles with the wider world. One of the reasons we know so much about people like Fuller and Emerson is because we have access to their journals.

Journal keeping is supplemented by engagement with the natural world. Each of the transcendentalists wrestled with humanity's relationship with nature. In "Summer on the Lakes," for instance, Fuller sought to understand how the Great Lakes region was being transformed as it was settled by Europeans. She wanted to know what was being lost in that process and what was being gained. Additionally, throughout her life she regularly took three or four hour daily walks to center herself.

The third part of the discipline is putting the conscience into action. As the conscience is discovered through the journal and stimulated in the natural world it leads one to act. For most of the transcendentalists these actions were taken as individuals. Henry David Thoreau famously went off into the woods and committed civil disobedience on his own.

Ideally, this spiritual practice all takes place within a community where people are free to dialogue about their discoveries. The community can offer support when the struggle of conscience becomes difficult. It can also offer correction and guidance when one appears to act counter to the conscience.

Fuller's time in Europe led her to put her conscience in action not as an individual but as part of a reform movement. In the late 1840s she moved to Italy and supported the efforts to unify the Italian peninsula under a single democratic government. At the time Italy was broken into nine different states, each ruled by a monarch or despot.

Inspired by her friend Mazzini, Fuller became part of the movement to change that. In doing so she met and married a young Italian aristocrat. The two had a child and when the Italian revolution of 1848 collapsed they fled to the United States together. They did not to make it. Their ship sank, and the entire family drown, within sight of the shore.

But after her death Fuller's legacy has lived on. Looking to her life we find some possible answers to our questions: Who are we as Unitarian Universalists? We are a justice seeking people called to follow our consciences. How did we get to be this way? Through a rich tradition that reminds us that truth is ever changing and knowledge ever expanding. What shall we do about it? Be good stewards and carry that tradition forward.

That it may be so we close with these words from another liberal religious leader, Loretta Williams:

We, bearers of the dream, affirm that a new vision of hope is emerging.
We pledge to work for that community in which justice will be actively present.
We affirm that there is struggle yet ahead.
Yet we know that in the struggle is the hope for the future.
We affirm that we are co-creators of the future, not passive pawns.

So may it be
and Amen.

CommentsCategories Ministry Sermon Tags First Parish Church Ashby Margaret Fuller March for Our Lives Susan B. Anthony Ralph Waldo Emerson Mary Wollstonecraft William Ellery Channing Loretta Williams Susan B. Anthony's List Abortion Giuseppe Mazzini

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