Why Channing‘s Christianity Still Matters

Speaker: Dot Weinstein

“I have a dream. A dream that one day…” Well, no, William Ellery Channing wasn‘t the inspiration for King‘s famous speech even though both men faced not only persecution but some measure of personal risk for their convictions.

However, in terms of its impact, Channing’s sermon “Unitarian Christianity“ was very much akin to the Declaration of Independence. Even though Unitarianism had been gradually overtaking Congregational churches in New England, this sermon pulled no punches in stating clearly and forthrightly how dramatically different Unitarian theology was from the largely Calvinistic Christianity of that time. As such, it marked the formal separation of Unitarianism from Congregationalism, indeed from most of American Christianity then.

How did I come to think that this benchmark sermon of Channing‘s still deserves our attention and examination? Most of us upon hearing Channing’s name likely nod thoughtfully, recognizing it as that of a Unitarian Universalist icon but beyond that having little knowledge of who he was or what exactly was his role in our history. Those a bit more knowledgable may place Channing as an intimate of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau and thus a distinct influence upon the development of American Transcendentalism even though he did not himself subscribe to it.

Having taught American literature to high school juniors for nearly twenty years, I came to enjoy inflicting the Transcendentalists’ writings upon hapless sixteen-year-olds. Perhaps that says more about the inherently sadistic tendencies of English teachers than I ought to reveal, but I rather enjoyed the almost insurmountable challenge of demonstrating the relevance of the Transcendentalists’ ideas to late 20th century teenagers. So much so that I approached with relish recently the notable biography, Channing the Reluctant Radical, by Jack Mendelsohn.

Once I’d finished that book, which incidentally we have in the church library, I knew that Channing was far more significant than the somewhat quaint figure of the American Unitarian past that I’d believed him to be. Consequently, I decided to dialogue with the man himself via his famous sermon, “Unitarian Christianity.” Part of my motive for doing so was to see how two apparently diametric opposites such as “Unitarian” and “Christianity” could possibly relate. My conclusions as to how they not only can but do so in ways still relevant to us today I hope to clarify for you. Once I’m finished if I’m successful, I think you’ll see as I came to that not only does Channing’s Christianity still matter but it is identical in significant respects to the essence of Unitarian Universalism today.

Channing’s basis for his beliefs, unlike that of most of us today, was the Christian Bible. He was never as adventurous as Emerson and the Transcendentalists, most of whom were somewhat familiar with Asian religions as well as espousing decidedly non-Christian beliefs. Instead, Channing held strongly to the importance of Christianity having its basis in the Bible.

However, Channing acknowledges early on in “Unitarian Christianity” that not all of the books of the Bible are obvious. Those doctrines that appear clearly set forth, we ought to accept, he maintained. But not all of the biblical books are such, he admitted. Those which do not present immediately evident truths we must approach by means of reason.

Revealing himself as somewhat a child of the Enlightenment, Channing asserts that human reason is God-given as are all of our virtues and finer qualities. Thus, we can scarcely neglect to use reason when attempting to determine what exactly God is saying to us in the less obvious books of the Bible.

The various parts of the Bible, Channing insists, are interrelated and dependent upon each other for meaning. Again, this seems very much an Enlightenment-tinged view in that Nature was seen by those of that era as an elaborate mechanism that could be understood once humankind managed to decipher its patterns.

Channing departs dramatically from most ministers of his day when he asserts that since we have other sources of information about human behavior such as observation and experience, we must weigh and sift what the Bible says by what we already know.

I must confess, however, that I’m left wondering what Channing might have thought about the Bible’s relevance if he had had the vast accumulation of knowledge about human behavior that we possess today. Nevertheless, his essential approach was quite revolutionary in his day.

Channing acknowledges that Biblical language is often obscure and challenging when he states, “Its language is singularly glowing, bold, and figurative, demanding more frequent departures from the literal sense, than that of our own age and country, and consequently demanding more continual exercise of judgment.”

Indeed, Channing would have won the approval of professors of literary criticism when he added, “From a variety of possible interpretations, we select that which accords with the nature of the subject and the state of the writer, with the connexion of the passage, with the general strain of Scripture, with the known character and will of God, and with the obvious and acknowledged laws of nature.” Once again, note how he holds to interpreting the Bible by means of careful reasoning in light of what we already know to be true.

In short, Channing felt that we ought to interpret the Bible as we do the Constitution. That understanding the Bible should require that much effort may explain in part why so few of us attempt it today.

Consistent, though, with Channing’s belief that human reason was God-given, he concludes that unless we intend to discard the use of reason entirely, we must certainly employ it upon religious matters. Even though we may make mistakes, the worst religious errors, he argues, come from churches which demand unquestioning faith, churches which prohibit the judicious exercise of reason.

As for Channing’s Unitarianism, most of us today are likely to differ somewhat and perhaps entirely from his view of the unity of God, which was, “We understand by it, that there is one being, one person, one intelligent agent, and one only…” Channing was not yet ready to abandon entirely the belief that there was in fact a being greater than ourselves, what he would later on call the embodiment of “moral perfection.” Even so, his view of God remains somewhat removed from that of God as the all-powerful force directing and manipulating human lives that was commonplace among Christians of his time. God, as Channing viewed him, was certainly more benevolent and far less directive.

To explain further how Channing envisioned the nature of God, we need to look at his perception of the role and nature of Jesus.

Having already established that there is absolutely no biblical basis for a Trinitarian God, Channing points out that Jesus cannot be considered to be God for one additional reason–that Jesus himself spoke always of God as “other than” himself, never implying that Jesus believed himself to be God.

As spokesman for Unitarianism, Channing adds, “We believe that Jesus is one mind, one soul, one being, as truly one as we are, and equally distinct from God.” This was more than somewhat revolutionary for that time. It likely would not be extreme to label it blasphemous. However, Channing once again had a solid basis for this statement in his insistence that no reasonable person can find a scriptural basis for believing that Jesus is God. Surely Jesus himself would have spoken of his dual nature had he been–as Channing puts it–“of two minds.” He explains further, “The universal language of men is framed upon the idea, that one person is one person, is one mind, is one soul…” Channing then asks, probably rhetorically, where does Jesus specify that he sets forth certain teachings as God and others as man? Answering his own question, Channing replies, “Nowhere.” People of Jesus’ own time as reasonably as any of us would take Jesus to be a person like ourselves. The divinity of Jesus, Channing maintains, “was demanded by the errors” of church people of ages after the time of Jesus.

If Jesus was merely human, we might well ask why Channing dwelt so extensively upon the need to venerate Jesus in any way at all. Emphasizing as he did that the Unitarian God is not only the embodiment of moral perfection but the ideal father, Jesus then might be considered the “model son.”

In this respect, our view of God has become somewhat less essential to our faith and rather more abstract than Channing’s. So, what then leads me to assert that Channing’s Christianity still matters? Virtually two-thirds of “Unitarian Christianity” might be said to compare with the lengthy segment of the Declaration of Independence that sets forth the colonists’ grievances. Channing spends a good deal of his time distinguishing Unitarian theology and belief from Calvinism. Remember that Trinitarian Christianity of Channing’s day was still largely one of belief in eternal damnation for all but the chosen few, the elect. The catch was that until one died and found out whether or not you were one of the few, you couldn’t know what your status might be. So the majority of his remarks served to specify how very much Unitarianism differed.

Consequently, Channing insists that what constitutes Christianity is far different from the Calvinistic view, “Follow the rules and hope for the best,” as the model Christian life. He echoes our present-day First Principle by stating that people are by nature moral beings. Experience as a citizen of any human society will soon demonstrate, he insists, that societies establish moral codes and interpret actions as good or bad by means of these codes. People do this because they have an inherent sense of the moral perfection of God and thus model human morality upon that perfection.

Jesus, as Channing saw him, was our savior only in the sense of providing for us the ultimate example of moral virtue. The role of Jesus was not and ought not to be to rescue us or “save” us in the usual doctrinal sense but rather to inspire us to draw forth the best within ourselves as often as we can.

Essentially, striving for moral perfection requires effort day by day, not simply believing certain things or unquestioningly following rules laid down for us. Striving toward the ultimate moral perfection that is God and the love that is God ought to be the aim of religion, not mindless acceptance of what

we are told. “We conceive, that the true love of God is a moral sentiment, founded on a clear perception,…of his moral perfections….Thus, it…is in fact the same thing [as] love of virtue, rectitude, and goodness.”

From this belief, Channing elaborated that the truly pious man can be observed loving and serving his neighbors, living an upright life, disciplining his thoughts and desires. All elements of his life ought to reveal an inner striving toward the moral perfection that is God.

Lest we too hastily conclude that Channing thought leading a moral life was simply a lot of hard work, he stresses that he is not by any means suggesting that warmth and transcendence be eliminated from our pursuit of goodness. Rather he refers to religious warmth as that “of a mind which understands God by being like him.” Since God is love, the person whose actions give evidence of a loving nature is the most religious. The person who lives an orderly life, gives evidence of conscience, and appears cheerful, just and rational–that person is pious by Channing’s standards. “We regard the spirit of love, charity, meekness, forgiveness, liberality, and beneficence, as the badge and distinction of Christians, as the brightest image we can bear of God, as the best proof of piety.”

Channing’s Christianity ought to matter more to us than it sometimes does, it seems to me, when we consider how strongly he opposed Christians who seek to condemn, indeed go so far as to injure or kill, those who believe differently from themselves.

“We have no gratitude for those reformers, who would force upon us a doctrine which has not sweetened their own tempers, or made them better men than their neighbors.”

Once again, the proof of our religion lies in how we live, not in what we say. Or more simply put, “deeds, not creeds.”

Channing came quite close to our Principles and Purposes when he stated, “Charity, forbearance, a delight in the virtues of different sects, a backwardness to censure and condemn, these are virtues, which, however poorly practised [sic] by us, we admire and recommend…”

In short, the essence of Channing’s view on what constitutes the best expression of religion would undoubtedly be the text which formed the basis for “Unitarian Christianity,” 1 Thessalonians, verse 21:

“Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.”