Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Great Awakening (June 3, 2012)

The story of the great awakening is the perennial story of the struggle between thought and feeling. It is also the struggle between the establishment tradition and radical innovation. Now usually when I tell the story of the struggle between the establishment and the radical, we Unitarian Universalists identify with the radical. But at the time when the first great awakening swept New England beginning in  1734 our Unitarian roots were sunk into the  Boston Establishment. Those moved by the Great Awakening felt that the established religion of the day had strayed from Puritanism. One of these was Charles Whitefield who wrote in his journal that: “It has the form of religion kept up, but has lost much of it’s [sic] power. I have not heard of any remarkable stir for many years… There is much of the pride of life to be seen in their assemblies. Jewels, patches, and gay apparel are commonly worn by the female sex. The little infants who were brought to baptism were wrapped up in such fine things, and so much pains taken to dress them, that one would think they were brought thither to be initiated into, rather than to renounce the pomps and vanities of this wicked world.” [i]
But it was not just the worldliness and “lack of stirring” that concerned Whitefield, it was the theology that was emerging among the established churches.  Whitefield wrote that “Bad books are becoming fashionable among tutors and students” By this he meant the new tendency towards “Arminianism” which suggested that people are born with both the capacity for sin and for righteousness, meaning that God’s will was not the final factor; we could chose God’s grace, or we could choose to sin. These ideas, arose in contrast to Calvinism, which taught that God’s will was sovereign, and we were elect or sinners by God’s design, and became popular among Baptists, Methodists, and Congregationalists. It was those Congregationalist churches, that would one day be some of the first Unitarian churches; by the early 19th century, Unitarianism had converted 9 of Boston’s original 13 orthodox Congregational churches.

Whitefield criticized the puritan style churches of his day saying that Many Bostonians “rest in head-knowledge, are close to Pharisees”[ii] In contrast, this radical new movement, the Great Awakening, was characterized by “Great fervor and emotion in prayer”. Whitefield had grown up in England, and came to America in 1739 to evangelize. He worked here as an Itinerant Methodist preacher (traveling town to town) and is considered by many to be a central figure of the Great Awakening. Whitefield had a powerful preaching style that was quite new to his puritan audiences. He was known to preach out of doors, in part because he commanded crowds of thousands which couldn’t fit into the local churches but certainly also because in England the traditional churches would not allow him to preach within their walls. News reports of the day say that he would preach in a field, on  tree stumps, or even, one report said, on a horse. This was a movement that appealed to the lower classes, who felt that the establishment churches did not speak to them. Whitefield even preached to slaves, which scandalized many in the traditional churches. Evangelicals today believe that the Great Awakening fostered such revolutionary sentiment that it fomented the Revolutionary war.

Whitefield was a preacher who could engender great feelings in his audiences.  David Garrick, then the most famous actor in Britain said of his preaching: "I would give a hundred guineas," he said, "if I could say 'Oh' like Mr. Whitefield." Jonathan Edwards's wife, Sarah, remarked, "He makes less of the doctrines than our American preachers generally do and aims more at affecting the heart. He is a born orator. A prejudiced person, I know, might say that this is all theatrical artifice and display, but not so will anyone think who has seen and known him."

The opposition looked on this with suspicion. One of the folks at the center of that opposition was Charles Chauncy (1705-1787) minister of the First Church Boston (Congregationalist). He championed the  role of reason in religion, and was suspicious of all these expressions of emotion. Chauncey wrote on:

 “The next thing I shall take Notice of, as what I can’t but think of dangerous Tendency, is that Terror so many have been the Subjects of; Expressing itself in strange Effects upon the Body, such as swooning away and falling to the Ground, where Persons have lain, for a Time, speechless and motionless; bitter Shriekings and Screamings; Convulsion-like Tremblings and Agitations, Strugglings and Tumblings, which, in some Instances, have been attended with Indecencies I shan’t Mention; None of which Effects seem to have been … peculiar to some particular Places or Constitutions; but have been common all over the Land…” [iii]

Though Whitefield may have been a particularly skilled orator, the emotional and spiritual passions of  participants in services during the Great awakening movement, including visions and trances, seem to have been wide spread. The preachers would stress the sinful nature of humans and their utter incapacity to overcome this nature without the direct action of the grace of God working through the Holy Spirit. There was a focus, in these services, on the necessity of Conversion or “new birth.”  This conversion would be not a new understand of ideas, but a visceral, emotional, spiritual, transformative experience.
Another hallmark of this movement was the role of Itinerant preachers (often without formal ministerial training). Chauncy retorts:  “Some of these Itinerants, ‘tis evident, have travelled about the Country preaching under the full persuasion of an immediate Call form God; and as to most of them, it may be feared, the grand Excitement, at the Bottom, has been, an overfond Opinion of themselves and an unchristian one of their brethren. It has, therefore been their practice, too commonly , not only to boast of their own superior Goodness, wherever they have gone; but to insinuate suspicions against the fixed pastors, if not to preach against them, and pray for them, as poor, carnal unconverted men.” [in “Epic of Unitarianism p. 52] Chauncy worried about a preacher who “mistakes the workings of his own passions for the divine communications, and fancies himself immediately inspired by the SPIRIT OF GOD, when all the while he is under no other influence than that of an over-heated imagination.” (Robinson p. 12) Ironically one of those Chauncy mentions with suspicion  was “A stranger who has of himself assumed the character of a preacher.” This stranger was John Murray, the founder of the first Universalist church in America.

Another important preacher of the Great Awakening was Jonathan Edwards, a Congregational minister in Northampton, Mass. He had Studied at Yale, where he read Newton and Locke. He lost the church he served as their minister by stating that “a public profession of saving faith based on the candidate's religious experiences as a qualification not only for Holy Communion but also for church membership.” Dismissed from his church in 1750, got job in Indian mission at Stockbridge. Eventually he became President of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton) in 1757. He died young from side effects of small pox inoculation. [iv]

What is important about Edwards is his Influence on Congregational and Presbyterian theology. Being a learned man, he was able to put together a Defense of determinism (Calvinism)-- a sort of neo-orthodoxy. He postulated that the notion of Free will undermines god’s sovereignty. He said in his famous sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God:"
The world of misery, the lake of burning brimstone, is extended abroad under you...Hell’s gaping mouth [is] wide open, and you have nothing to stand upon or take hold of...It is only the power and mere pleasure of God that holds you up...The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you. You have offended him...0 Sinner! You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe...and burn it asunder. You have nothing to lay hold of to save yourself. There is nothing that you have ever done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one moment. [v]

Another who spoke out in opposition to the Great Awakening was Jonathan Mayhew (1720-1766). He was the minister of the West Church in Boston (congregational) and was a proponent of that Armenian Liberalism. Said Mayhew “God is a ‘Wise and infinitely gracious being’” by reason “we resemble God Himself.” He preached that Man can choose right and wrong (the central doctrine of Arminianism) and of the Trustworthiness of reason and conscience (a founding principle of American Democracy). Generally the tenants that held together that opposition to the Great Awakening were important tenants for Unitarians throughout our history: The belief in Human goodness and free will, the Unity of God and the importance of using Reason in studying scripture.

Rationalism, Biblicism and moral aspiration- these were the early response to 1st great awakening. Perhaps for some the cool light of reason was a relief set alongside the heated passion of the revival meetings. For some the use of reason in interpreting the bible restored sure footing in a time when itinerant preachers teaching out of a personal sense of call, imbued with the spirit. And Moral Aspiration- the idea that we could of our own free will choose to do right, is it any wonder that this idea grew in response to the hopelessness of feeling oneself held over a fiery pit on a slender thread “There is nothing that you have ever done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one moment.”

It turns out there were 4 “great awakenings” all together, and I think the Second Great Awakening (1825-35) had the most direct impact on Universalism. This great awakening was another revival movement that emerged during the early 1800s, This second great awakening was a reaction against rationalism and desire for a church that served the needs of common people. The theology of the second great awakening embodied a transition between Calvinism and Arminianism, expressing a movement from god’s absolute sovereignty to god as “moral governor.” In this theological movement sin is seen now as a result of human action rather than predetermination by an all powerful God. There is still the immanent threat of Hellfire and damnation (which once again figured powerfully in the sermons of this second great awakening) but now the response to this knowledge is for humans to “repent.” It was called “New Haven” theology because of influence of Yale. Once again it was characterized by a  personal, emotional response to god. In Kentucky and Tennessee folks held interdenominational 4 day events called “camp meetings” which attracted thousands of people. The Camp meetings emphasized conversion with singing and shouting and dancing, and  folk style music. And once again Unitarians criticized the emotional displays of the revivals and argued that goodness sprang from gradual character building, not sudden emotional conversion.[vi]
One of the leaders of this movement was Charles Grandison Finney (August 29, 1792 – August 16, 1875) who has been called The Father of Modern Revivalism. He was an extemporaneous preacher, known for his innovations in preaching and religious meetings. For example, he  developed the "anxious seat", a place where those considering becoming Christians could come to receive prayer, and he lead public prayer for people by name. He also bucked the establishment by having women pray in public meetings of mixed gender. Finney was also an abolitionist. Perhaps it’s not surprising that a movement where both women and black persons participated, and a movement where folks were responsible for their own moral choices  would spark social action in areas like temperance and abolitionism. This was something I hadn’t realized -- I hadn’t realized that abolition was an area where liberal and evangelical theologies came together to create change. It makes me wonder how many other times liberals and evangelicals have stood shoulder to shoulder in the struggle for social change. I wonder if it could serve as an important model for us today.

This was not the only powerful religious movement  of the day that swept through Western New York in particular. It is because of this period of religious fervor that the area between Albany and Lake Erie is called the “burned over” region of New York. The term was coined during second great awakening by Charles Grandison Finney, one of those 19th century evangelicals, who had said that “the area had been so heavily evangelized as to have no "fuel" (unconverted population) left over to "burn" (convert).”

Universalism became a major antagonist of the Second Great Awakening and evangelical culture under the leadership of  the great Universalist preacher Hosea Ballou. By articulating a doctrine of universal salvation, we pointed out and challenged the Protestant drift away from traditional Calvinist orthodoxy because this idea of repentance actually challenges god’s sovereignty. So in a way, the universalists were the orthodox Calvinists during this period, because they believed that God was still all powerful, but had a loving, rather than a judgmental character.[vii] Between the first and second Great Awakenings, that “stranger” John Murray spread his radical idea through itinerant preaching, and we saw the settlement of the first Universalist churches (including the church of the Restoration in Philadelphia and later UUCAS) Now during the time of the second Great Awakening Universalism grew from the radical fringe to be the 6th largest denomination in the country, as folks were hungry for an alternative to hellfire preaching. It was during this period that many of the churches in the Pennsylvania Universalist Convention were born.

As 21st century UUs, we sometimes look at the passion and drama of the revival movements, those “great awakenings” from the vantage point of cool reason. We are proud to bring our rational minds into those most important questions- of who we are, of how we are to live, of how we are saved, and for what we are saved. It feels good to know that we can figure out with our own minds the important truths of life.  But sometimes we look at the passion and inspiration of these evangelical services, both in history and in our neighboring churches, wishing we could have that much heart, that much spirit in our Sunday worship.  A few years back I was teaching a class on “religion and the media” and we showed the clip of a revival meeting from a popular movie. When the clip was over, a number of us said things like “I wish I could feel the spirit like that in worship” but one of our older members who had been a child in Germany at the time of the second world war said “Oh, I don’t like it, it reminds me of the Nazi rallies during the war.”

This is, perhaps, the natural ebb and flow of religion. We become tired of the old established ways, which seem to them boring, stale, bereft of inspiration. We worry that we and our neighbors are following their religions teachings in name only,  that “one would think they were brought thither to be initiated into, rather than to renounce the pomps and vanities of this wicked world.” Long to wake up from this spiritual sleepiness, we  long for revival. So we shake off the head-bound sermons of the learned clergy, and sing and dance and yell in a field or on a tree stump.

Sometimes this divide between those who let the heart rule and those who are ruled by the mind, the reason, can be  the deepest divide in religion, perhaps deeper than that of theological conflicts. If we understand and explore both kinds of knowledge, both kinds of spiritual truth, we increase not only our own spiritual wisdom but also our capacity to understand the spirituality, the theology of our neighbors. Our UU faith is not just the cool reason of our enlightenment forefathers. We have also in our history the passionate preaching of our itinerant Universalist forbearers. In fact, this very church, so the story goes, started out as a Baptist church. When an itinerant preacher called Noah Murray began  preaching in this area he drew such crowds that the Rev. Moses Park (minister of the Baptist church here) went to debate with him but was himself  converted and soon his congregation with him”

This morning’s service seems kind of rooted in the head. We sang kind of old timey hymns and talked about our history, (except joys and concerns, which many call the heart of our service) but those were hymns of the great awakening. The words of John Edwards of dangling over hellfire seem strange to us now, but  that same preaching sent folks into visions and trances. Yes sometimes, we are  rooted in our heads, but also in our hearts and in the spirit of life. About a month ago we gathered in a park down the street to sing and dance in celebrate the earth. So Awakening, reviving is not something that can be done once, but is something which must be done again and again, each time we fall into rote routine, each time we fall out of balance whether that be as individuals, as a congregation, or as Unitarian Universalism. Let us always be awakening.

[i] Robinson. p. 10- from Whitefield’s journal
[ii] Robinson. p. 11- from Whitefield’s journal
[iii] From Chauncy ”Seasonal thoughts on the state of Religion in New England” cited in  Epic of Unitarianism p. 53
[v] []

Catch and Store Energy (April 22, 2012)

Each Summer Eric and Nick and I go to a music festival up in Trumansburg. Because we like to camp, we need to get up and get on the road as early as we can stand that first morning. But no matter how early you get up, as you turn onto the road approaching the festival you will see that the line of cars already waiting at the camping entrance goes farther than the eye can see. So you pull over at the end of that line of cars, turn off your engine, and get our your lawn chairs and your cooler, because you are going to be there for a while. Last year, this coincided with the hottest day of the year, maybe the hottest day in years. In an incredible stroke of luck, at the moment when we pulled up the end of the line was in front of an old old house with a border of old old trees about 10 feet from the road. We threw down a picnic blanket in the abundant shade provided by those trees and lay there reading and daydreaming as the day got hotter and hotter, until some hours later we finally we saw signs of motion up the road and entered the parade of vehicles into the camping section of the fairgrounds. As we crawled along in our station wagon loaded down like modern day pioneers, the hot sun blazed. It turns out there were very few trees on that road old enough, tall enough, with a canopy large enough to block out the mid day sun. We had been the beneficiaries of some wise person, generations ago, who had the foresight to invest in a few saplings, and the vision to see the shade canopy those trees would provide in their maturity to grandchildren or great grandchildren playing on the lawn.

It turns out, once again, that our grandparents were right; it is critically important that we put something away for a rainy day. I remember my grandfather was the one to walk me over to our local bank to help me open a pass-book account when I was just a little girl. I’m pretty sure he gave me $10 to get it started too. Because you all are a fair compensation employer, you make a contribution to my 401K each year so that I will have something tucked away for my retirement. Saving money is one way we “catch and store energy.”

It’s easy for us to forget, however, that money is only a means of exchange for what we really want and need. Eric and I once showed up at an outdoor concert where we were sure they would be selling food, and spent the day with grumbling stomachs wishing we had brought a couple of sandwiches instead of that $20 bill in our pockets. As the bumpersticker goes, “you can’t eat money.” My dad, who lived through the depression, taught me to always have reserves in my pantry as well as emergency savings in the bank. One of the most basic things that the Red Cross recommends people do to prepare for an emergency is to have an emergency preparedness kit- a backpack or trash can filled with things we might need in an emergency- bottled drinking water, shelf stable food, prescription medication – because when there is an emergency just having money in the bank will not get us through a time when basic services have broken down. We have only to remember the impact of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and surrounding communities to know that this is so.

Because this is the last of this year’s sermon series on the “Principles of True Abundance” I want to talk a little bit about how nature catches and stores energy. The most basic form of energy that you and I and everyone being on this planet need is not fuel for our cars or electricity for our computers. It is the energy that runs our own bodies- food. And ultimately our food comes from the sun- the sun’s energy turned by plants into carbohydrates which we, and the animals we eat, turn into fuel. But plants also need good soil to grow. The soil itself is this amazing savings account, storing and transforming all the nutrients that arrive by rain and gravity, and the falling of dead leaves and bodies. All those nutrients of beings who have died become the ultimate inheritance for future generations. When you ask yourself, what is the best form of investment- is it stocks? Is it bonds? Gold? A mutual fund? Really, the best most enduringly valuable investment the best way to catch and store energy, is good fertile soil. Another one of Mother Nature’s good long term savings plans is seed. In these tiny packages not only all the Genetic material to create a highly evolved life forms, but also some really dense nutrition for that seed to start its life. This is why nuts and other seeds are so nutritionally dense, and also so fattening. This is why the great Indian environmental activist (and physicist) Vandana Shiva has devoted so much of her career to creating a seed saving bank, because no matter what the future holds, if you have a diverse collection of seeds and some good rich soil, you can feed your community.

Another of Mother Nature’s really long term savings plans … trees. Trees take carbon, one of the basic building blocks of life, and store it for hundreds, even thousands of years. We talk a lot about “carbon sequestration” when we worry about global climate change, because we know that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere leads to the green house effect that dramatically chances our earth’s climate. But Carbon Sequestration is not just about taking carbon out of the atmosphere. David Holmgren, one of the Co-Originators of the Permaculture Concept, reminds us what a great savings account a stand of trees can be. Wood is also a good way to catch and store energy, because not only can be used to fuel fires as humans have done for warmth for over a million years, but because homes, furniture, even battleships have been made from timber until quite recently. Trees also provide shade and habitat for birds (who, you will remember from a few weeks back, are one of nature’s best insecticides). And finally as the leaves fall to the ground or when the trees decompose and all that wealth joins the savings plan that is our humus. When I get my 401K statement in the mail, there is always a reminder to “diversifying my portfolio” Which usually means to have both stocks AND bonds. But they never mention trees. And not just trees, but all perennial plants. We’ve all enjoyed the abundance of our neighbor's rhubarb plot over the years. Rhubarb is a hardy perennial, an investment that pays off every after year as the plants catch and store energy that we enjoy in pie form.

Then of course we must consider water. There can be no life for us without water. And it just falls right out of the sky around here- for anyone to use! Sure we could go to work and earn money and take that money to the store to buy bottled water for our emergency preparedness kit, but we could also build a water catchment system to use now when we water our plants, and also to have a self-renewing source of water should our local wells become contaminated. Creating small catchment systems (which, when mother nature does it we calls lakes or ponds or aquifers) is a great way of putting aside something for when we need it later.

But this year, our series on Principles of True Abundance is not just about how we can let Mother nature teach us practical lessons, like how to make sure there is always enough to eat, but to let Mother Nature be kind of like a scripture for us, to read the bio-systems of our world for wisdom we can use in our own spiritual lives.

For example, have you ever felt burned out? You know you are burned out when you have no energy for the work you are doing, and even though you know you should care, and even though the work may at one time have been something you felt very passionate about, now it just feels like something you have to slog through. A person whose spirit is burnt out is a lot like land that has been over-farmed. All the nutrients were taken out with no system for restoring those nutrients to the soil. Sometimes burnout is caused because we just plain work too hard for too long. Our society really encourages us to do this. In some workplaces seeing a co-working still plugging away at their work at 9:00 pm is considered the sign of a committed worker. In some work places going home before 7 shows that you are kind of a slacker. In most cases your boss doesn’t care if you are living a balanced life, or if you are spending enough time tending your relationships, their job is simply to increase productivity.

Have any of you read the books of Tamora Pierce? She is young adult author who has these great strong heroines. And when the heroine comes for her great battle with evil, she uses every bit of strength she has left, and then passes out. Seriously. Then the heroine wakes up later in a hospital bed or something, and the friend or nurse or teacher who has been caring for her while she was unconscious explains that she has used up all her energy and has been resting, unconscious, for hours or days trying to “get her strength back.” And I always wonder- what if that friend or teacher hadn’t been there to drag her off the battlefield and dress her wounds and keep her safe and dry while she “got her energy back?”

So part of burn out is using up all your energy, but the other part is about not catching and storing energy as you move through life. Where does our spiritual energy come from? It’s different than physical energy, right? I am crazy about the women’s marathon, and when those women finish, even if they can barely walk, they are not “burned out” they are flying high. They are proud and fulfilled even though they are exhausted. So part of catching and storing energy is about giving our energy to something that gives back. For me yoga is one of these things. I often go to yoga at 4:00, which is a time of day when I am normally grumpy and useless. So I go invest a little time in my physical health- in flexibility and strength, and in my spiritual health, by paying attention to my breasting and centering myself. I think of yoga very like the savings club at my son’s elementary school Every Thursday he brings a dollar and his Alternatives Federal Credit Union passbook, and builds his savings a count a little at a time. When I go to yoga I rarely see a big leap in strength or flexibility, but when I look aback over 5 or 10 years I a amazed at the changes I see in what my body can do.

There are also big investments in the spirit. 2 weeks ago I spent the weekend at the Rowe Retreat center with an old professor of mine. It was a weekend filled with “Aha”s that I am still unpacking and that are still feeding my spirit. I realized the other day that my last sabbatical, about 7 years ago, is still providing nutrients and richness for both my spiritual life and my professional life.

One of the best ways I catch and store energy in my own life is by giving energy to my relationships. It is invariably true that the relationships to which I give my time and attention grow and thrive better than those I neglect. And yes, probably that friend I spend so much time with will be there for me if I pass out unconscious after defeating the giant, or when I face one of those staggering losses that life deals out to all of us. But just as importantly, really good healthy relationships feed us as we feed them. And that nourishment is something we can draw on when things get tough. We are more resilient when we are healthy and nourished and strong, and less likely to pass out at the end of that important battle.

One more way we catch and store energy is one we talked about a few weeks back when we discussed the first Humanist Manifesto. They believed very strongly that not only was working for a just world for all the right thing to do, but they also believed that it feeds our spirits and helps us develop as persons. Sometimes, for financial reasons, we have to spend our days building widgets, even if we don’t particularly are about widgets. And if we are leading a balanced life and our work environment is decent this can be fine. But when we are doing work where we believe that we are making a real difference, whether we are paid for this work or do it as volunteers, the meaning of that work feeds us. Moreover, whenever we work for an equitable infrastructure to our world this is also like putting something away for a rainy day for ourselves.

Or consider art, or music. Think of all the hours Beethoven put into writing one of his great symphonies, or the time the Beatles took recording their albums. Every time we hear Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on the radio, Every time we go to an art museum, or the library, we are enjoying the fruits of energy caught and stored for our benefit.

One of the keys to catching and storing energy is balance. First a balance between short term yield and long term security. In balance, that family vacation that deepens relationships and creates good memories may be just as good an investment as that same amount of money in a 401K. The other balance is investing in all the different kinds of vitamins and minerals a healthy person needs to live. I have known families where both parents work 50-60 hours a week or even more. They don’t’ have time to make their own food, or clean their own homes. The children are in daycare until 6 every night, or have a nanny to take care of them. And so such a system requires a lot of money to make it go. And all of the energy is being caught and stored in the form of money. I have seen a lot of burn out in communities that demand such long hours at work. But energy could also be stored in the form of a garden where we grow some of our own food, or a big Sunday dinner made from scratch with leftovers in the refrigerator for lunch the following week. Energy could be spent mending clothing instead of earning money to buy new clothing.

Like a tree we catch and store energy in the health of our bodies, in the trunks and branches of the lives we build for ourselves, and in the seeds we grow each year as hope for the future, and ultimately in the layer of humus, the minerals and nutrients that once made up the leaves of a certain season, and now are recycled, decomposed into raw fertility for all life to use, passed down from generation to generation like a family heirloom. This week, as you move through the patterns of your daily life, notice where you are catching and storing energy like a tree, and when energy is running out of your life like rain washing fertility out of un-covered soil. Notice where energy is being caught and stored all around you, like a row of towering shade trees planted by someone as wise as my grandparents.