Boston Public garden was ablaze with magnificent tulips arranged in patches of flaming red, outrageous yellow, and pretty pink. Last Friday at noon twenty-three members of this year’s Coming of Age Class, along with five chaperones, had a picnic lunch with those flowers.
After lunch we walked to the statue of William Ellery Channing – he stands opposite the Arlington Street Church, a congregation he served from 1803 – 1842. The statue was donated to the City of Boston in 1903, the 100th anniversary of Channing’s ordination.
When the front doors of the church are open, Channing can look across Boylston Street into the sanctuary in a direct line to the elevated pulpit. I like to imagine him admonishing those who occupy that historic platform of freedom to use it wisely, with a renewed sense of appreciation and ongoing responsibility to work for ‘liberty and justice for all.’
After sitting in the box pews, each with its own door, the members of the class climbed into the pulpit and read something from the writings of Channing, including passages from his famous Baltimore sermon in 1819 which launched the Unitarian movement in America.
In that sermon he said, “We believe in the doctrine of God’s UNITY. We object to the doctrine of the Trinity, that, whilst acknowledging in words, it subverts in effect, the unity of God.”
Later he said, “God is another name for human intelligence raised above all error and imperfection, and extended to all possible truth.” He talked about the need to read the Bible with caution; “Our leading principle in interpreting Scriptures is this, that the bible is a book written for men, (sic) in the language of men, and its meaning is to be sought in the same manner as that of other books – it requires the constant exercise of reason than the Bible.”
I asked the class to consider the difference between stating, ‘God is One’ vs. ‘There is one God.’ The following day, when I stood in the sanctuary of Follen Church in Lexington behind the lectern used by Ralph Waldo Emerson, I returned to the question – this time I quoted from the address Emerson delivered to the graduating class at Harvard Divinity School in 1838:
“He who does a good deed in instantly ennobled. He who does a mean deed is by the act itself contracted. 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. 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.”
I did my best to explain Emerson’s theological assertions, giving my own interpretation. I said, “I think Emerson is saying that God and Nature are one and the same. We are part of Nature, so we are part of the One-ness of God. There isn’t a god ‘over there,’ as a separate entity, while we are over here, unconnected from the One-ness. When we feel our connection Nature’s One-ness we feel our connection to and participation in God through goodness.”
We conclude our pilgrimage at Walden Pond, where Thoreau built his cabin, spending $28.12 ½ and where he felt his intimate connection to Nature. He said, “I went to the woods because I wish to live deliberately to front only the essential facts of life…”