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The Five Points to the New Theology
Presenter:Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date:Sun, 01/24/2010
Once upon a time, towards the end of the 1800s, there was a magical period when liberal religious thought was the dominant way of thinking in American culture. Unitarian and Universalist theology of that time meshed so well with popular culture that for a while it seemed that everyone was a religious liberal and everyone always would be. Those times – the last thirty or so years of the 1800s -- did not last, partly just because of changing times, and partly because the circumstances of those changing times revealed weaknesses in our liberal religious theology that have actually persisted until this day, more than 100 years later.
I’d like to take us on a trip back in time, to 1886, when Unitarian minister James Freeman Clarke wrote a little piece called “The Five Points of Calvinism and the Five Points of the New Theology.” This week we’re going to look over Clarke’s five points, see how they were born of their time, and examine how much resonance they have with the Unitarian Universalism practiced today.
Next week, we’ll look back into what was James Freeman Clarke’s future, the early 20th century. We’ll see how two world wars affected the sort of popular religious thinking that Clarke inspired, and how the events of the day led to a new form of religious conservatism that liberalism couldn’t contend with. And we’ll also see how we might do a better job of contending with that same religious conservatism today – a better job answering the questions today that liberal religion had such a hard time with in the 20th century.
So to start with the basics, the first part of Clarke’s essay title “The Five Points of Calvinism and the Five Points of the New Theology” refers to the five points of Calvinism. Clarke himself refers to Calvin’s theology in his essay as “the most popular theology of modern times”. Calvinism, you may remember, is the brand of Christianity that the Pilgrims came to Massachusetts with, it was the sort of theology that we were referring to in the story this morning, that Hosea Ballou came to disagree with. Sometimes these Calvinist points are remembered by the acronym TULIP, and they include ideas like human beings are totally depraved or fundamentally sinful, and that God only saves a very limited few of us by sending us to heaven, and the rest of us go to hell after we die.
Another main point of Calvinism is the idea that God has already selected those who are to be saved before they are born, and there’s nothing to be done about it – but you’ll be able to tell who is saved because being saved is so compelling that it makes us act good. So those of us who are acting good may well be those who are saved, but just acting good won’t save you, if you know what I mean. In Calvinism, there is nothing that the individual can do to affect his or her salvation. Whether or not you go to heaven has nothing to do with the way you act in this life here on earth. God already decided before you were born.
If you are sitting there thinking, “Wow, that goes against EVERYTHING I believe in as a Unitarian Universalist,” then I am not surprised. Because both Unitarianism and Universalism were founded in direct contrast to Calvinist thinking, as I’ve mentioned in past sermons. Universalism, aided by Hosea Ballou, protested the claim that only some people are saved by God. Ballou and others proclaimed that a loving God would not pick some of his children to save while damning the rest to hell; hence, UNIVERSAL salvation: Salvation for all of us.
Meanwhile, the Unitarians were reacting to the idea that human beings are totally depraved by nature, and are only good by the redeeming grace of God. Surely, early Unitarian thinking went, surely creatures made in the image of God must have something good about them. Surely, if one tries to be good, that must count for something. And so you see that our modern day Unitarian Universalist First Principle, that each human being has inherent worth and dignity, is the evolution of this idea that there must be a little good in human beings after all, and is in contrast to Calvin’s teaching that no, we’re bad through and through.
James Freeman Clarke’s essay is still reacting to the Calvinist ideas of the pilgrims, even 150 years after Plymouth Rock, and rightly so – those Puritanical ideas formed and still form a lot of the foundation of our American culture, in the same way that the Puritan work ethic and the thanksgiving stories are in our culture as well. But changes are well afoot in Clarke’s era of the latter half of the 1800s, cultural and religious shifts that make it seem as if liberal religious thinking might be gaining more of a toehold. These cultural shifts changed our American culture, and the “new” theology by James Freeman Clarke helped the culture name those changes, back in 1886.
So what are Clarke’s Five Points, what does Clarke offer in contrast to Calvinism? While you’re hearing about them, I invite you to monitor your reaction to them. What of what you hear are you surprised is part of our Unitarian Universalist theological history, because it’s so different from what we do today? And what doesn’tsurprise you, but feels right at home?
Clarke’s first new theological point is labeled The Fatherhood of God, and here Clarke points out how much like a loving father God really is. Now, it’s important to know that in Clarke’s time period, the mid-19th century, it was popular to romanticize the home and the participants of a family. I think fathers of Clarke’s time were just as likely to run the gamut between great and really bad as fathers do today, but the culture of Clarke’s time frequently held up an ideal version of a model father – one who loves, protects, and nurtures his children. If you’re into Louisa May Alcott books like Little Women at all, then you’ll see that idealized father there – in fact, Alcott and Clarke were contemporaries and I’m sure they shared the same circles of friends.
For Clarke to call upon this idealized, infinitely wise and nurturing model of fatherhood as an example of what God is like doesn’t sound so striking to our modern ears, probably because of how popular the notion became. But for people used to thinking of God as an angry, punishing, damning overlord, this was a calming and compelling image. God, as Father in this model, is infinitely deserving of our respect and our attempts to live up to his standards. God, as loving Father, is a vastly different sort of God than the judgmental one that had been held up by Calvin and his followers for so many years.
Clarke’s second point is The Brotherhood of Man. This logically follows from the image of God as our father. If God is our father, then all human beings are siblings to one another. Clarke says that from this doctrine “proceed[s] all the charities,” because brothers don’t look down on one another, don’t judge each other, but instead do what they can to help each other improve. Enough said there, I think.
Clarke’s third doctrine is The Leadership of Jesus. Here he makes a really interesting point, which I’ll just quote to you directly: After saying that a Platonist is one that follows Plato, and a Swedenborgian is one who follows Swedenborg, Clarke says “[a] Christian is one who takes Jesus as his guide in religion, and who goes directly to his teachings for religious truth.” Obvious, right?
But then Clarke says this: “But hitherto, instead of considering those as Christians who have studied the words of Jesus, and sought to know the truth, the name has usually been given to those who accepted some opinion about him. Not what he (Jesus) himself teaches, but what the Church says he teaches, has been made the test of Christian fellowship. Men have been told to go to Jesus, but on the understanding that they shall learn from him only the same thing which the Church has already learned. Instead of sending us to the teacher himself, we are sent to our fellow-students. We, therefore, in reality take them (the fellow students), and not Jesus, for our leader,”1(italics and parentheses mine.)
This is some rabble rousing talk from back in the day. Clarke is not the first to say that what the Christian church teaches does not always line up with what Jesus preached – Theodore Parker delivered a long address about that subject some 40 years previously and got in a lot of trouble for it.
But here we do see thought that is echoed today, the wondering if what the established Christian church teaches is really what Jesus intended for his followers to believe or to do.
And, I think we can see here some interesting roots to that strong rebel streak that runs through so many of us in Unitarian Universalist churches, and also a rationale for why so many of us are anti-institutionalists. You can almost hear Clarke’s subtext here: You Christian people aren’t going to tell me what to think. I’m going to figure that out for myself. And presto, the idea that became our Fourth Principle, that we support the individual’s free and open search for truth and meaning, is born.
Clarke’s fourth doctrine of his new theology is that of Salvation by Character. In this point, Clarke emphasizes that “salvation means the highest peace and joy of which the soul is capable,” and that salvation can occur here on earth, through the development of a fine character, just as it can be experienced in an afterlife. This point is an excellent example of “this-worldly” theology, which we Unitarian Universalists certainly still promote today – the idea that what matters most is what we do here in the world in which we live now, not what we may or may not experience in the hereafter. Clarke’s point is also in direct conflict with the Calvinist teaching that I mentioned before, that it doesn’t matter what one does in life because it’s all been figured out already. In Clarke’s doctrine, what you do now not only matters, but it may well be the thing that makes heaven appear right here on earth.
We have come to Clarke’s fifth and last doctrine of his new theology. This last point is incredibly interesting because it is such a product of his era, because it is a theory that still pops up today, because it ended up causing us liberal religious a lot of headaches (as we’ll hear more about next week), and because the doctrine is, in my opinion, wrong. This doctrine has some heavy wording at first: it is “the Continuity of Human Development in all worlds, or the Progress of Mankind onward and upward forever.” The progress of mankind onward and upward, forever.
In other words, Clarke says, mankind’s progress – towards improvement, toward betterment – humankind’s progress will continue onward and upward forever. No blips in the trajectory in the improvement. No rough patches where things go wrong for a time against our best efforts. None of that. Onwards and upwards, for ever.
You have to see it from Clarke’s point of view. The industrial revolution was in full swing, and all of a sudden human beings could make all sorts of things that they never could make before, things that improved the quality of daily human life drastically.
Medicine was beginning to actually be effective, and changes in sanitation and health practices were leading to longer lives and less constant sickness and tragic early death.
Darwin’s theory of evolution was still hotly debated, but those in agreement with Darwin saw a lot of practical social applications for this theory of evolution that Darwin expounded. Because if development of character was a holy act, then evolving into better people must not only be scientific destiny, but also might be our sacred work as well, right?
Clarke also lived in the era of the social gospel movement, one of liberal religion’s great contributions to the country. Remember when we said that Clarke believed in the brotherhood of man? The implications of this idea were huge. Instead of seeing people suffering around you and thinking all that was clear evidence of their sinful nature, as Calvin had suggested, suddenly it became clear that people could improve if you helped them to do so. This was the era of the dawn of social work, when do-gooder religious folks flooded tenements and poor parts of town and changed laws and set up social services because for the first time they believed that doing this would actually improve people’s lives. And they were right. Here we see the birth of the labor movement, including child labor laws. Here we see laws preventing tenement living. Here we see an attempt to really educate poor children, including in Sunday school, instead of leaving them to their lot.
All of that is born right in Clarke’s time, right at the end of the 19th century. All these changes made a huge difference in the human condition. And that, combined with the leaps and bounds of development in technology, medicine, and science, convinced Clarke and his contemporaries that we were really on the train headed up the mountain, heading up to a pinnacle where human suffering and ignorance would come to an end. Many liberal religious leaders thought we were on the way to heaven on earth, well on our way to ushering in the Kingdom of God. Our progress would continue, just as Clarke said, onward and upward forever. It was obvious and it was natural and it was what God wanted for us. So they said. So they thought.
Couple of things to think about, as we head into the exciting conclusion of this story next week. First of all, if you happen to believe that our human lot in life will always get better and never fall back, then what do you do when there are two wars that devastate nearly the entire world – twice? War started by folks who seem educated, cultured, and like they should know better? What’s the explanation, when someone has had all the best advantages that modern society has to offer but they still turn out…bad? How do you account for unexplained evil in the world? Tough question – and one that liberal religion had no answer for.
Worse yet, though, was a deeper flaw that rose to the surface through the beginning of the 20th century. Believing that people can self-improve is a positive thought, but what happens if people don’t want to improve, but are happy as they are? Who gets to decide whose life is better or “higher” than other lives? And how far are you allowed to go in forcing people to “improve” according to your standards? How much more likely are you, if you believe you’re bringing heaven to earth, how much more likely are you to think that society or religion or government should decide whose life is more evolved than others, whose life is more valuable or higher up on the road to ultimate progress? Well, I’d say you’re more likely to think that government should play a role in ranking people and encouraging – forcing – those at the lower ranks to “improve.”
And what happens when the aforementioned bad people co-opt your idea and decide that the more evolved people can be picked out based on, say, their hair color, or their sexual preferences, or their religion? Let’s say that some of them go on to kill millions and millions of people, based on your idea? What would you do then?
Come back next week and find out.