Henry Wordsworth Longfellow’s little poem has deep theological implications. You know the poem:
There was a little girl
Who had a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead;
And when she was good,
She was very, very good
But when she was bad she was horrid.
Why was she good – when she was good? What does it mean ‘to be good?’ What is the source of her goodness?
Why was she sometimes bad, even horrid…very unpleasant, very disagreeable, frightful, awful.
How do you suppose she felt about herself when she was horrid?
How do you suppose she felt about herself when she was very, very good?
Do you suppose she had a choice…about when to be very, very good, and when to be horrid?
Was her being very, very good coerced, was she forced into it by the threat of being rejected? Did she have to be good — ‘or else?’
While these are basically questions about psychology and sociology – the inner life, and the social life – they are also theological questions that boil down to the one basic question: why are we good? What is the source of human goodness?
The Bible says the source of human goodness is belief in God, and the acceptance of his commandments.
If you want to be good, just do as God says. It’s simple. God made a road map to follow, like the yellow brick road. The source of human goodness, says the Bible, is the Ten Commandments, with the details outlined in another 603 commandments, making a total of 613 commandments found in the Torah. But the first ten are the most well known. Just to refresh your memory, they are:
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.You shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself any carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.
You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your manservant, nor your maidservant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.
Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God is giving you.
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.”
Those are the first ten – five on the ‘to do’ list, and five on the ‘thou shalt not’ list. Of the 613 in all, there are 248 on the ‘to do’ list, and 365 on the ‘thou shalt not do’ list – one for each day of the calendar year.
The source of human good, then, simply involves taking direction from ‘on high.’
Just picture a god who is ‘out there’ somewhere…not here. Not now. And do what He says to do, and don’t do what he says not to do.
Theologically this kind of god is transcendent. Out there.
Another way of looking at the commandments, and at God, is called immanence – the God within.
One of my seminary professors once said to me, “You Unitarians are big on immanence, but I don’t hear much about transcendence.”
I pointed out our transcendentalist forebears: Emerson, Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Theodore Parker, etc. And I quoted Emerson, who said:
“That which shows God in me, fortifies me; that which shows God out of me makes me a wart or a wen, there is no longer a necessary reason for my being.”
He smiled, put his fingers together in a gesture of thoughtfulness, as he always did, and said, “Ah, yes, you have Emerson and company.”
The transcendentalists believed in the inherent goodness of people, thus we have the first of our seven principles: the inherent worth and dignity of every person.
Our transcendentalist forebears believed that society and its institutions, including, if not particularly organized religion, ultimately corrupts the individual. They had faith that ‘the little girl with the curl’ is very, very good when she is a free and independent person, what Emerson called self-reliant.
It is only from such real individuals that true community could be formed.
The commandments of a transcendent God are imposed on us humans; the commandments of an immanent God are exposed to us through our intuitive faculty, our innate ability to distinguish right from wrong; those insights come to us through our own deep understanding, like an ah-ha moment: “I get it!”
What is right and what is wrong is revealed to us by our own understanding and our own reflection on experience, which we can attribute to ‘the God within,’ and the process of doing that can be seen as part of our spiritual development, or our spirituality, the religious life, which is ultimately entirely and completely personal.
Institutional religion lacks authenticity. Spirituality cannot be contained in an institution, a creed, or a statement of belief.
The Biblical story of Creation in the Garden of Eden says that we are sinners because our common parents sinned; there sin was disobedience – God told them not to eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but they disobeyed, and as a result they were evicted from the Garden.
So Adam had to get a job and earn his living ‘by the sweat of his brow,’ and Eve had to have babies – painfully.
The story says we inherited the punishment from Adam and Eve — ‘original sin.’ Hannah Arendt coined the phrase ‘the banality of evil’ as a way of describing Eichmann, and by extension it’s a way of describing those who are able to commit evil acts without thinking about what they’re doing, except that they are following orders, or obeying the rules: “…ordinary people who conform to mass opinion without critically thinking about the results of their action or inaction,” in her words.
Traditional Christian doctrine says that as a result of our sin, we need to be saved. Salvation, we are told, is available from those who have a monopoly on the salvation market – if you want to be saved, come join us, and you will get the key to the door to Paradise.
In some ways it’s a charming little story. In some ways it’s anything but charming.
In some ways it’s an awful story – horrid, to borrow the word Longfellow used to describe the girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead.
In truth, the so-called doctrine of original sin is not so simple; it has a complicated, complex history, making a distinction between what we inherited
The formula for obtaining salvation involves an incantation – the recitation of verbal charms will produce the magical effect.
I asked my rabbi friend, “What’s the Jewish answer to the question: why are we good?”
He said, “It’s about reward and punishment – you get a reward for being good, and a punishment for being bad.”
Our Universalist forebears were persecuted for suggesting that reward and punishment, the idea of salvation-for-the-few and damnation for the rest, is a bad idea.
Early Universalists suggested that reward and punishment, heaven and hell, makes religion about fear, on the one hand, and the idea of being rewarded for doing what you should be doing, anyway.
Our forebears simply said that heaven and a hell were invented – the idea came from life experience of good times and bad times.
Whitman: “There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now;
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.”
Our Unitarian forebears said that God is One – thus the word Unitarian, which was originally an epithet or accusation, sometimes punishable by death. (eg. Servetus)
Our Universalist forebears said that ‘all souls are saved,’ as opposed to the idea that an all-powerful God chooses some to be saved and others to be damned.
They said, essentially, that we are saved and damned here and now, as a result of what we say and do…and what we think – the mind is powerful and can work against you. The role of luck…
There were many voices that expressed these things – Francis David said it in Transylvania in 1568; Francis David was trained as a Catholic priest before being influenced by Martin Luther and then by Calvin, before declaring the basic tenets that were and are the foundation of our Unitarian faith. He convinced the young King, John Sigismond, to disestablish religion and allow religious freedom – it was the first declaration of religious freedom, though it didn’t last very long. Within three years the young king died and his successor was not so tolerant. Francis David soon found himself in prison for refusing to say that he believed Jesus was a god to be worshiped. Instead he said Jesus was a teacher of morality and ethics challenging people to live a good life – to be good.
I stood at the dungeon in Kolisvar, Transylvania, where Francis David died for refusing to utter what he did not believe.
In the spirit of Jesus, Francis David’s ministry was simply to awaken the moral sentiment.
Down through the ages there have been many such voices. The history of our nation is filled with voices that spoke out ‘loud and clear’ for religious freedom. Those same voices warned about those who would impose religious ideas on the people. There are those who still do their best to impose religion on us – those who declare that we are a so-called Christian nation.
Thomas Jefferson’s response would be loud and clear – keep your religious hands off of this sacred document!
Jefferson made a distinction between the religion of Jesus and the religion about him.
He said that people would rather worship Jesus than live by his moral standards; his assertion was that Jesus was trying to awaken the moral sense that is planted in each of us by what he called Nature’s God.
In other words, a sense of morality is natural; it’s not supernatural, and it doesn’t have to be imposed – it has to be awakened and kept awake by vigilance; by discussion about the moral issues of our own days.
The discussion about morality, about the source of human good, must be free of coercion. A free and democratic process can be applied to religion.
Morality is the religious life as it is lived – it’s about deeds, not creeds.
Our forebears called it “salvation by character.” Morality is its own reward.
The central task of organized religion is to awaken the moral sense – it is there, it is in us – it doesn’t need to be instilled in us, it needs to be awakened.
Look again at Emerson’s address to the graduating class of the Harvard Divinity School in 1838. He said, in part:
“In this refulgent summer, it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life. The grass grows, the buds burst, the meadow is spotted with fire and gold in the tint of flowers. The air is full of birds, and sweet with the breath of the pine, the balm-of-Gilead, and the new hay. Night brings no gloom to the heart with its welcome shade. Through the transparent darkness the stars pour their almost spiritual rays. Man under them seems a young child, and his huge globe a toy…
“The mystery of nature was never displayed more happily.”
“One is constrained to respect the perfection of this world, in which our senses converse.”
The opening paragraphs not only set the tone of his talk, but these sentences make it crystal clear that he is making God and Nature synonymous terms.
About our human nature he says:
“…when the mind opens, and reveals the laws which traverse the universe, and make things what they are, then shrinks the great world at once into a mere illustration and fable of this mind. What am I? and What is? asks the human spirit with a curiosity new-kindled, but never to be quenched.”
“The sentiment of virtue is a reverence and delight in the presence of certain divine laws…this sentiment is the essence of all religion…”
“The intuition of the moral sentiment is an insight of the perfection of the laws of the soul. These laws execute themselves. They are out of time, out of space, and not subject to circumstance. Thus; in the soul of man there is a justice whose retributions are instant and entire. He who does a good deed, is instantly ennobled. He who does a mean deed, is by the act itself contracted. He who puts of impurity, thereby puts on purity. If a man is at heart just, then in so far is he God; the safety of God, the immortality of God, the majesty of God do enter into that man with justice. If a man dissemble, deceive, he deceives himself, and goes out of acquaintance with his own being.”
“The perception of this law of laws awakens in the mind a sentiment which we call the religious sentiment, and which makes our highest happiness.”
“This sentiment is divine and deifying…Through it the soul first knows itself…Then (a man) can worship, and be enlarged by his worship…”
“This thought dwelled always deepest in the minds of men in the devout and contemplative East; not alone in Palestine, where it reached its purest expression, but in Egypt, in Persia, in India, in China. Europe has always owed to oriental genius its divine impulses. What these holy bards said, all sane men found agreeable and true.”
“(This kind of religion) … is an intuition. It cannot be received at second hand. Truly speaking, it is not instruction but provocation, that I can receive from another soul. What he announces, I must find true in me, or wholly reject; and on his word, or as his second, be he who he may, I can accept nothing…
“Jesus Christ belonged to the true race of prophets. He saw with open eye the mystery of the soul. … he lived in it, and had his being there. Alone in all history, he estimated the greatness of man. One man was true to what is in you and me. He saw that God incarnates himself in man…He said in his jubilee of sublime emotion ‘I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me; or, see thee, when thou thinkest as I now think.’
“But what a distortion did his doctrine and memory suffer in the same, in the next, and the following ages! … ‘This was Jehovah come down out of heaven. I will kill you, if you say he was a man.’ … He spoke of miracles; for he felt that man’s life was a miracle, and all that man doth, and he knew that this daily miracles shines, as the character ascends. But the word Miracle, as pronounced by Christian churches, gives a false impression; it is Monster. It is not one with the blowing clover and the falling rain.”
“(Christianity) … has dwelt, it dwells, with noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus. The soul knows no persons. It invites every man to expand to the full circle of the universe, and will have no preferences but those of spontaneous love.”
“That which shows God in me, fortifies me. That which shows God out of me, makes me a wart and a wen. There is no longer a necessary reason for my being…”
“To aim to convert a man by miracles is a profanation of the soul.”
“It is a low benefit to give me something; it is a high benefit to enable me to do somewhat for myself.”
“Men have come to speak of the revelation as somewhat long ago given and done, as if God were dead.”
“…the man who aims to speak as books enable, as synods use, as the fashion guides, and as interest commands, babbles. Let him hush.”
“…the need was never greater for new revelation than now…I believe, with numbers, of the universal decay and now almost death of faith in society. The soul is not preached. The church seems to totter to its fall, almost all life extinct. On this occasion, any complaisance would be criminal.”
“In how many churches, by how many prophets, tell me, is man made sensible that he is an infinite soul; that the earth and heavens are passing into his mind…?
“Whenever the pulpit is usurped by a formalist, then is the worshipper defrauded and disconsolate. We shrink as soon as the prayers begin, which do not uplift, but smite and offend us. We are fain to wrap our cloaks about us, and secure, as best we can, a solitude that hears not.”
“I once heard a preacher who sorely tempted me to say, I would go to church no more. Men go, thought I, where they are want to go, else had no soul entered the temple in the afternoon. A snow storm was falling around us. The snow storm was real; the preacher merely spectral; and the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him, and then out of the window behind him, into the beautiful meteor of the snow. He had lived in vain. He had no one word intimating that he had laughed or wept, was married or in love, had been commended, or cheated, or chagrined. If he had ever lived and acted we were none the wiser for it. The capital secret of his profession, namely, to convert life into truth he had not learned. Not one fact in all his experience, had he yet imported into his doctrine. This man had ploughed, and planted, and talked, and bought, and sold; he had read books; he had eaten and drunken; his head aches; his heart throbs; he smiles and suffer; yet was there not a surmise, a hint, in all the discourse, that he had ever lived at all. Not a line did he draw out of real history. The true preacher can be known by this, that he deals out to the people his life,--life passed through the fire of thought. But of the bad preacher, it could not be told from his sermon, what age of the world he fell in; whether he had a father or a child; whether he was a freeholder or a pauper; whether he was a citizen or a countryman; or any other fact of his biography. It seemed strange that the people should come to church. It seemed as if their houses were very unentertaining, that they should prefer this thoughtless clamor.”
“(But) I am not ignorant that when we preach unworthily, it is not always quite in vain. There is a good ear, in some men, that draws supplies to virtue out of very indifferent nutriment. There is poetic truth concealed in all the common-places of prayer and of sermons, and though foolishly spoken, they may be wisely heard…”
“It is already beginning to indicate character and religion to withdraw from the religious meetings.”
“Wherever a man comes, there comes revolution.”
“It is the office of the true preacher to show us that God is, not was; that He speaketh, not spake. The true Christianity,--a faith like Christ’s in the infinitude of man,–is lost. None believeth in the soul of man, but only in some man or person old and departed. Ah me! No man goeth alone. All men go in flocks to this saint or that poet, avoiding the God who seeth in secret…they think society wiser than their soul, and know not that one soul, and their soul, is wiser than the whole world.”
“Once leave your own knowledge of God, your own sentiment, and take secondary knowledge as St. Paul’s, or George Fox’s, or Swedenborg’s, and you get wide from God with every year this secondary form lasts, and if, as now, for centuries,--the chasm yawns to that breadth, that men can scarcely be convinced there is in them anything divine.”
“Let me admonish you, first of all, to go alone; to refuse the good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination of men, and dare to love God without mediator or veil.”
“Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost,--cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men at first hand with Deity…Let their doubts know that you have doubted, and their wonder feel that you have wondered.”
“Society’s praise can be cheaply secured, and almost all men are content with these easy merits…”
“…now let us do what we can to rekindle the smouldering, nigh quenched fire on the altar…let the breath of new life be breathed by you through the forms already existing…the remedy to their deformity is, first, soul, and second, soul, and evermore, soul.”