A Challenge to the Unitarian Church






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May Memorial Church





A Challenge To The Unitarian Church


“O thou that bringest good tidings . . lift up thy voice with strength.” Isaiah 40-9.


We have celebrated the centenary of organized Unitarianism in America. We have recalled with pride the history of our faith. We have honored its founders and leaders, who bore witness in their time to the power and beauty of the Religion of The Free Spirit. They lived for it. They were willing to die for it. And they often did die for it. It was not merely their belief. It was the inspiration of their life. Thus we have rediscovered our rich heritage of the spirit.


And we have discovered something else that should hearten us, and give us courage. We have found that what we call Unitarianism, in its larger aspect, is not an isolated phenomenon. It is not a New England movement, nor an American movement merely. It is world-wide. It has been at the heart of religion always. It has been a force that has urged men to freedom and to truth. In all times and places there have been and are those who have been loyal to the religion of the free spirit. They go by many names. They are of many races and nationalities. But they are one in spirit. Their numbers have not been large. But their influence has been great. They have been the leaven in the lump of conformity. They have been the pioneers of an adventuring faith. They have not been content with things as they are. They have labored for things as they ought to be.


While holding fast to "all the good the past has had," they have sought the good the present has to give; and have reached forward to that better the future has in store. They have not been content to move their bark to the rotting wharf of authority. They have sailed boldly out into the sea, confident that whatever wind shall blow, they shall reach their goal at last.


So much for our past. It is good to look back upon it. We may find in it guidance and inspiration. We may not accept the theology of our fathers. Perhaps that is outgrown. Let us hope it is. Theologies change with the growing light of truth. The spirit that seeks the truth endures. Our forefathers would not have us live in their time. They would have us live in our time, in their spirit. "Prove all things; hold fast to that which is good." It applies to their time. It applies to all time. It should be the heart of our purpose.


Our concern, then, is with the present. More than that it is with the future. What about the next hundred years of Unitarianism? What shall its achievements be? Has Unitarianism a future? If so, will it measure up to the achievements of its past? Shall it in the future as in the past be an impelling motive inspiring in men and women a "passion for humanity" that shall lead the way to a fuller, richer life for all? Shall it lead to a finer and nobler thought of God in harmony with growing thought and unfolding truth? Has it within itself the seeds of a faith that shall satisfy the deepest needs of the soul?


These are pregnant questions. They cannot be ignored without disloyalty to our rich heritage. Ours is the privilege. Ours also is the responsibility. James Martineau once wrote, "If an expanding faith brings us, as we think, an ampler peace, let it stir us also to a deeper fidelity." It is upon our fidelity that the future of Unitarianism rests.


I do not speak now of Unitarianism as a sect. Unitarianism itself, however great our love for it may be, is only a means to an end. All human institutions are means to an end. That end is richer, fuller life. "I came that they may have life, and may have it abundantly." That should be the end of our Unitarianism. The abundant life of the adventuring faith that lives as well as believes the higher spiritual values that give significance to humanity.


We are called to a high mission. We have emphasized freedom in religion. That is good. It is necessary if religion is to be of any power or worth. Truth can only be found when the soul is free to seek her. Freedom is the friend of truth; conformity its enemy.


But freedom is not enough. It is only the first step in the religious life. The question remains, Freedom for what? What are we doing with this freedom our fathers have won for us? We have shaken off the shackles of authority. We have asserted the right of the individual soul to formulate its own belief. To what end? Let us ask ourselves the question, What has your free spirit to offer to a world that is groping for a faith that shall satisfy its longings. The world needs faith at is never did before. The theological controversies of the time are but the froth and spume on the surface of man's profound longing for a satisfying faith. Have we that faith to give?


The times present a challenge to the churches, perhaps more directly to the Unitarian Churches than any other because of our very freedom from creedal bondage. To us is the opportunity. Upon us rests the responsibility. Our very freedom from dogma makes of us the possible hope of the world. I say the possible hope, for if we do not see the greatness of our opportunity and grasp it with self-sacrificing devotion, we shall fail. The world will have no use for us. It will pass us by. We must get into the main current of the spiritual life of the time, and not be content in a little self-satisfied eddy of our own. We must not be satisfied with an intellectualism that leaves the spirit cold. Our faith must live and sing. Truth itself is not truth for us till we have lived it. That is at least one thing that we can learn from the life of Jesus. He lived his faith; and so his spirit is reborn in the lives of men and women. Not, "I believe"; but "I live" was the source of his power. It was not belief about God, but life in God that made him great. It is that life that the world needs today.


For it is a perplexed world. It is groping blindly for it knows not what, for something that shall give stability to its life, shall give assurance and courage. Dogmas that once satisfied no longer satisfy. The world has outgrown them. What shall take their place? The very foundations of faith seem crumbling away. Moral standards are lowered. The world seeks a way out of its perplexity. It needs spiritual guidance. It turns to the churches. And the churches are once more wasting thought and energy in the fruitless task of theological controversy. If the churches cannot satisfy it, the world will turn somewhere else for the spiritual guidance that it needs. If it does, the church alone is to blame. The world asks for bread, the bread of life. Shall it receive a stone?


This is one challenge of the times to our Unitarianism. Can we help the world through its perplexity to an assured faith, that shall give a new and finer meaning to life? It is a great task. Our numbers are small. As we think upon their smallness we sometimes lose heart. But our forefathers did not lose heart. They bore witness to the faith that was in them. That faith has moved the world to higher levels of thought and life. Shall we not be as faithful as they? Christianity began with one man and the eleven who were true to him. Let us think not upon the smallness of our members, but the greatness of our opportunity.


A friend said to me a little while ago, "I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that Unitarianism is only for the few." Why? If it be only for the few, is it worth preserving? Perhaps our actual numbers may be small. They have been. But that does not mean that our faith is for the few only. Think over the past of the church. See how liberal Christianity has run like a golden thread through the warp and woof of the church's history, making it beautiful.


Our numbers may be small, but our mission is great. And what we have to do is to be true to that mission. It may be that the liberal Christians in all churches will come together at last and form a great new church of the free spirit, whose aim shall be life not creed. Then our mission will be fulfilled. The leaven will have done its work. And that united church of the free spirit, "forgetting the things which are behind, and stretching forward to the things which are before," shall be the guide leading the world from perplexity to assurance, from doubt to faith. No matter what that church may be called. It will still be the church of the Unitarian spirit.


The line of cleavage in Christianity today is not so much between the varying sects as between the liberals and the orthodox in every sect. The new wine is working. How long can the old wine-skins remain intact? Let us not hold aloof from this stirring of the free spirit in the churches, but welcome it as the very expression of our own spirit, and the hope of a perplexed world.


Scientists are seeing this vision of the Church of The Free Spirit. In His "The direction of Human Evolution" Edwin Grant Conklin writes, "The time may come sooner than we expect when. . . . . the churches will welcome all 'men of good will'; when love to God and love to fellowmen will be the one requirement for mutual fellowship and service. When that time comes religion and science will be as one."


That has a familiar sound in Unitarian ears. It is the church of Abraham Lincoln, over whose altar is inscribed "Love to God and Love to man." To be of assistance in that great consummation is reward enough for all our efforts. What are small numbers compared to that? Science and religion as one! What a fulcrum with which to lift the world! These two mighty forces united in the common purpose of enriching human life, what a possibility it suggests! They are friends who never should have been estranged. Their alleged antagonism is a fiction. At heart they are one.


And this suggests another challenge of the times to Unitarianism. It is the challenge of science. And that is the challenge of truth. Whatever else may be said about this age, and many things are said about it, some wise and some not so wise,--I think we can safely say that it is the age of science, and the application of science to life. The scientific spirit and the scientific method are dominant among thinking men and women. This is as good as it is inevitable. It is the outcome of man's insatiable hunger for truth. By the very nature of his mind he seeks it: And truth found brings him into harmony with the universe in which he lives. The man of science is motivated only by the passion for truth. The scientist is a worshipper. His laboratory is a temple dedicated to the God of Truth. He reveals the way of God to men. Every new truth of science is another sentence in the Book of Revelations, which is forever being written, and never is finished.


But this revelation is coming upon us with such startling rapidity that we find it difficult to adjust ourselves to it. It has revolutionized thought. It has revealed a new universe. It has revealed a new man. It gives a new, strange meaning to life. It upsets many preconceived notions. It seems to unsettle our faith.


It is the challenge of truth. How shall we meet it? How adjust our faith to it? What is the relation of religion to science?


If Unitarianism is to take its place as a leader in the religion of the future it must accept this challenge of truth without compromise. Itself must follow its leadership gladly and freely, in the full assurance that whatever of its faith is worthwhile and enduring will be enriched and strengthened thereby. For Truth is greater than any 'ism. "Truth, however unpleasant, is the safest traveling companion," wrote Emerson. It is the only traveling companion that will remain with us till the end of the journey. That religion only is worthy to lead whose motto is Loyalty to The Truth.


And that religion will have its sure reward. It will discover that science is its helpmate, a partner in the divine business of the enrichment of life. Science gives to religion the raw material for the building of its temple of the spirit.


In an article on "The Outlook for Western Civilization," Glenn Frank wrote:


For the last fifty years especially the scientists and the scholars have been digging out of themselves and their fields, often without realizing what it was, the clay of which the bricks are made with which religions are built. Science has thrown up a vast mass of religious raw materials that are waiting to be used by a religious leadership that can recognize religious values even when they the unlabeled.

The problem that religious leadership faces today is not the reconciliation of modern science to ancient theologies, but the utilization of the results of science for the enrichment, the increase, and the moral unification of life. Science has forever abolished many of the absurdities that mankind in its ignorance had confused with religion, but science has brought added power to the appeal of every reality of religion. Science is not sniping our religious leadership; it is supplying religious leadership with some of its finest raw materials. Instead of the pathetic and irreligious bombardment of scholarship and scientific findings by certain groups in some of our churches, it is the duty of religious leadership to infuse scholarship and the findings of science with spiritual meaning.


Thus the vast mass of knowledge that has come to man through science and scholarship presents a challenge to religious leadership. That challenge will be accepted and answered just in proportion as religion accepts the new knowledge and infuses it with "spiritual meaning." For its spiritual meanings are life's highest manifestation.


Whatever the process may have been, man has attained to the higher spiritual values of life, truth, goodness, justice, beauty, love. These are the expression of his essential being. It is to the development of these that the evolutions of life has tended. They are here. They are man's divine heritage... They have been realized through struggle and pain. They are in the very nature of things. They are the outcome of the age-long effort of life to realize its true meaning. “In man,” wrote John Burroughs, "nature comes to consciousness." May we not add that in man nature comes to moral consciousness?


The realization of these spiritual values that alone give meaning and purpose to life, the infusing of them into every way of life that they may lead to their destined end of man's perfectibility,--this or something like this, should be the end of the religious leadership of the future.


For these discoveries of science have placed in man's hand power. In view of what has happened in the past fifty years he would be a very wise, or foolish man, who should attempt to set a limit on the power that man is to wield. Not by conquest of nature, but by cooperation with her he not only moulds her to his purpose, as the potter shapes the willing clay, but by the creative power within himself he can if he will use these friendly forces of the universe for the ends of his own spiritual development. And that is the very end and aim of religion. At least, so it seems to me.


For we are at last learning the fundamental truth, fraught with immense possibilities for good or evil, that "the conscious control of civilization is within our grasp." Man is the master of his own destiny. He can guide his own evolution. He is not the mere creature of material forces from without. He is himself a creative force. As he uses the forces of nature for good or ill, so shall the outcome be good or ill.


For the power that sciences gives to man is not moral nor immoral, someone has pointed out. It is unmoral. It may lead to destruction or construction, just as the spirit of man shall determine. It may blow a city to pieces. It may blast a road for the closer intercourse of man. It is just as he wills. A few years ago it almost wrecked civilization itself. But the trouble was not with the power. It was with the wielder of the power.


"It is excellent to have a giant's strength,

But tyrannous to use it as a giant."


It is with the user of the strength that religion has to do. For all the power that science has to give is but a tool in the hands of man. The question still remains, What will he do with it? It is for the religious leadership of the future to answer. It is for the religious leadership of the future to so develop the higher spiritual values in man that he shall put this power to a wise use that it may make for the enrichment of life. The truths that science reveals are a rich heritage. They may thrill life with a finer meaning, they may reveal a vision of divine possibilities. They point the way to that harmony with the source of all life and truth, which is the source of man's greatness. By them man "Thinks God's thoughts after him." So thinking, and so doing, he himself becomes God-like.


So the religious leadership of the future will accept all that of truth that science reveals, interpret it in terms of the spiritual life, and by nurturing in man the higher spiritual values, truth, goodness, justice, beauty, love, make of it a power for good that shall help humanity along the upward way of his aspiring life.


This is the challenge of truth to the Unitarian Church of the future. Shall it accept the challenge, and be the leader of the spirit that the world so sorely needs?


There is needs of a faith that shall lead to that "passion for humanity" without which religion were vain. For the end sought is not the establishment of this doctrine or that, not the furthering of denominationalism, not a mere preparation for a life that is to be, but the enrichment and beautifying of the life that now is. Much of life as we know it is scarcely worth the living. The purpose of religion should be to make all life worth the living. Not duration but quality is the essential thing. Live the eternal life, and the eternal life will be yours.


The world is perplexed and doubting, groping for its way. I seem to hear it calling to our Unitarian Church, "You who would be a leader in the religion of the future, Can you give me a faith that shall reveal the spiritual meaning of the truth of science; a faith that shall enable me to use its power for the enrichment of my life; a faith that shall be adequate to the vast new universe in which we live; a faith that shall answer to the new social call of the time, and bring justice and good-will to earth; a faith that shall strengthen the moral fiber of men; a faith that shall respect my reason and conscience,--that is myself; a faith that shall inspire me with the beauty and the joy of life; a faith that shall assure my moral nature and verify the whisperings of love in my heart that tell me wondrous things of man and God; a faith that shall show to me the way of life, assure me of the high destiny of man, and bring me at last face to face with God ?"


Can we accept this challenge? Can we proclaim and live a faith like that? If we cannot, the world will pass us by. If we can, our church of the free spirit, though small in numbers, shall still be a potent force guiding religion out of the doldrums of fruitless controversy, where baffling winds defeat the purpose of the soul, into the free air of an adventuring faith.


If we have such a faith, and we venture to hope that we have, it is ours not to hold but to share. Selfishly held it will wither and die; shared it will grow in beauty and power.


"O thou that bringest good tidings . . Lift up thy voice with strength."




Prepared for web page display on April 1, 2006