Character and Grace

Rev. Douglas Taylor

August 8, 2017


My heart has been broken as I take in the news lately. The attacks in Barcelona are tragic. That and the events in and following after Charlottesville this past week have featured heavily in my prayers. Extremist ideology, whether in the form of ISIS abroad or Neo-Nazis and white nationalists at home, is a cancer to civilization today. Their hate and intolerance undermine the core values needed in our country and in our world.

Next week I will be preaching more directly to current events. I will attempt to offer an analysis and a compelling call for how we can move forward in light of what is going on in the country and the world around us. But today I want to talk about why we would do so, why it matters to us as a religious community. Today I need to tease out a deeper conversation; one that not only cuts to the theological heart of what is going on in the world, and is, at the same time, a central tension at the heart of our Unitarian Universalist identity and theology.

How do we judge another person’s worth or goodness? The answer to that question is tangled up in these rallies and terror attacks. Who is considered a good person, who is considered worthy, who counts, who matters? The extremists have an answer that leads them to behave in certain ways. Their answers lead them to hatred and in too many cases to violence. Racists, anti-Semites, misogynists, and other intolerant people have answers about how we judge a person’s worth and goodness that leave certain groups of people automatically excluded.

You may be thinking to yourself, our Unitarian Universalist answer is pretty obvious. It is right there at the top of our UU Principles. We affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Done! No one is excluded.

Okay, that answers how we officially judge other people’s worth. What about the other part of that question? How do you judge another person’s goodness? How do we judge if a person, or a person’s words or actions, are good? Is there something in our UU Principles giving us stark clarity about how to judge goodness? No. For that we need to dig a little deeper.

Indeed, worth and goodness as religious and spiritual concepts are fairly well intertwined – so our first principle, about every person’s inherent worth, is still a useful starting point. It’s just that, for Unitarian Universalists, the answers are more (brace yourself) nuanced and complicated.

And here might be as good a time as any for me to confess that every June as I prepare to go away on my vacation and study leave, I set my plan for these August worship services with an eye toward imagining new people, church-shoppers, folks exploring our congregation and our way of faith to see if it is a good fit. So I intended this service to be a window into our history and theology.

As my heart broke over the unfolding news, I discovered this window into our history and theology could be helpful for long-time members as well. Helpful for me! Our historical roots reveal the ground on which we stand, and thus the strength with which we can move forward.

Our history is comprised of a two-part lineage. The two theological frameworks – Unitarianism and Universalism – each arose from liberal protestant Christianity. The questions of worth and goodness back in that context were most commonly understood as doctrines of salvation.

We don’t spend much energy on the conversation of salvation in Unitarian Universalism today. We don’t gather around beliefs here. Instead we gather around shared values. But that doesn’t mean there are no beliefs – just that beliefs are not the binding element of our community. Salvation, and more importantly, a common belief about salvation, is not a central element of our religious community today. But historically back when our theological identities were emerging a few hundred years ago, it was very important. And, I contend, the same content is still important today because that same content shifted from a conversation of salvation into conversations of goodness and worth.

So suffer with me for a few minutes, an exploration of our 1800’s heretical notions of salvation. David Pyle, in the reading we had this morning (the reading was an excerpt of this sermon: talked about a theological tension. What he was talking about is this: We inherit two theological frameworks of salvation.

The Unitarian side offers us what is known as Salvation by Character, while the Universalist side bequeaths us Salvation by Grace. (Thus, my title: Character and Grace.) We were not the only groups espousing these doctrines, and there was more to our theology back then than just this; so I am admittedly oversimplifying but I hope the value in doing so will be made clear.

‘Salvation by Character,’ as lived out in word and deed by early Unitarians, essentially states that we can know to what degree we are Godly people by our good actions. ‘Good’ and ‘Godly’ are synonymous. How you act matters and is the measure of your worthiness.

‘Salvation by Grace,’ as expressed in Universalism, is at base a statement that we are all pre-set as worthy; we all are – or will be – saved. Your worthiness is a pre-existing condition. We can act immorally and unethically, but such behavior does not threaten God’s love for us. We don’t earn it by good behavior and we don’t lose is through bad behavior. It is by grace, irrespective of character.

Our first principle, in which we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, is a version of the old Salvation by Grace doctrine. For us, it is not a doctrine anymore; it is a promise, a covenant. But the theology beneath the principle is a doctrine about human nature and about salvation. It is this that leads us to pray for both sides. This is where we seek to understand the Neo-Nazis and White Supremacists. This is where we have the urge to be tolerant even of the intolerant.

Listen for a moment to Hosea Ballou’s own words on the topic. Ballou was an early Universalist preacher and theologian. In his book Treatise on Atonement, he made the argument for Universal Salvation based on the primacy of God’s love. Essentially, if God’s love is true, than there is nothing we can do that is greater than God’s perfect love for us.

One version of ‘the atonement’ is that Christ died on the cross to appease Adam’s sin, to pay humanity’s debt. Ballou said that is backward. Ballou insisted instead that God never turned away from humanity, never needed to be appeased, never carried a debt against humanity, never stopped loving us. And Ballou used logic and reason to demonstrate this. He writes:

To say that God loved man any less, after transgression, than before, denies his unchangeability… Where there is dissatisfaction, it presupposes an injured party; and can it be hard to determine which was injured by sin, the Creator, or the sinner? If God were unreconciled to man, the atonement was necessary to renew his love to his creature; but if man were unreconciled, the atonement was necessary to renew his love to his Creator. The matter is now stated so plainly that no person, who can read, can mistake.  -Hosea Ballou, A Treatise on Atonement 1805 [excerpt from A Documentary History of Unitarian Universalism Volume One (p138)]

This is to say, no mistake you make – no sin or moral failing – will ever be larger than God’s love for you. This is not a love based on good behavior, it doesn’t matter what swear words you keep saying, how much you litter, with whom you have sex, or whether you attended that KKK rally intentionally or accidentally. It doesn’t matter. God loves you. Your salvation is assured.

Fast forward to today, to our congregation where we have a multitude of beliefs about the nature of God – or the lack thereof. We still have a core value of tolerance and acceptance and grace at play in our community. For some here it is still rooted in God’s Love or a doctrine of Salvation by Grace. But for most Unitarian Universalists, these values are simply part of our shared core values. We affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

Ah, but the other shoe must drop. Perhaps you already see the tension David Pyle was referring to in our reading. If not, allow me to tell you about Salvation by Character. Unitarianism begins from a different salvation doctrine. It still leads to a version of our current first principle, but it starts in a very different place.

Salvation by Character does not start from a place of universal salvation and grace. Early Unitarianism held a firm belief in the eternal punishment of hell; that salvation was for some but not necessarily for all. Now, they were still rejecting the idea of predestination; that God had picked some people at the beginning of time. Instead they ascribed to the belief that character matters in the grand scheme. To oversimplify it: good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell.

William Ellery Channing, ‘the father of American Unitarianism” expressed it cogently in his sermon Likeness to God. Similar to the Ballou, Channing begins with a basic assumption about God and uses logic and reason to make his argument. Instead of naming Love as God’s most important attribute, the Channing and the other Unitarians name Goodness. Channing contends that the ‘image of God’ within every person is our capacity to be like God in exactly that attribute: goodness. Channing writes:

To understand a great and good being, we must have the seeds of the same excellence … God becomes a real being to us, in proportion as his own nature is unfolded within us. To a man who is growing in the likeness of God, faith begins even here to change into vision. He carries within himself a proof of Deity, which can only be understood by experience.  -William Ellery Channing, Likeness to God, 1828 [excerpt from A Documentary History of Unitarian Universalism Volume One (p214)]

This is to say, it is possible to know who is saved and who is not. But the telling attribute is not devotion and quoted bible verses. The telling attribute is not about attending the ‘correct’ church. The telling attribute is not wealth and material prosperity. No. The way to know if someone is saved is simply that they are a good person. Of course, the measure of morality is not a fixed and obvious thing, so this simple definition of goodness is actually a little more complicated than it may seem. The definition of a morally upright person in 19th century New England is not the same as in 20th century Guatemala, 5th century Japan, or the trenches of World War II.

Fast forward to today and I see a debate on my Facebook feed about punching Nazis. Is it always a good thing to do, or only under certain circumstances? I read an article in which a self-proclaimed fascist said some people call him a hero and other call him a terrorist. By whose definition of Good are we to measure? A year ago I would not have thought there to be any debate about where Neo-Nazis and the KKK were on the moral spectrum in the eyes of the average American. I now learn my assumption has been misplaced and some people thing there are good Neo-Nazis.

I have no qualms standing here and saying Neo-Nazis and the KKK and White Nationalist groups are morally bad. I have a pretty good idea how to judge another person’s goodness. But I don’t know that I can say or have the authority to say definitively for all people for all time. I have difficulties with absolutes. Plus, in truth, I am Universalist with Unitarian leanings rather than the other way around.

Here is the tension. The Universalist side tells us all are saved. The Unitarian side says all can be saved if they do good. Updating the language from beliefs about salvation to values about goodness and worth, helps (me at least) uncover a way to navigate the tension. The Universalist side says all are loved, while the Unitarian side says all are capable of doing good. This is how I navigate the tension.

In this religious community, when we raise our children and nurture their moral upbringing, these two doctrines echo through our values and are at play. We teach our children that they are loved and accepted, and we challenge them to strive to do good, to become better. When we put a justice-oriented banner outside our building, these two doctrines are in tension as we do so. When we welcome someone into membership, when we take part in an interfaith vigil, when we have a special collection for a charity or local organization, when we restructure our committees into teams, when we serve others … this tension of character and grace is at play.

If you find yourself wanting to respond to racist rallies with peace, love and understanding, praying for people on all sides – the racists and the anti-racists, I hope you have heard that such a response is a noble response and a fairly traditional one given our theological history.

If you find yourself wanting to respond to racist rallies with a clarion call for justice, declaring a challenge to those wrong-doers who spew hate, perpetuate violence, I hope you have also heard that such a response is a noble response and fairly traditional one given our theological history.

And if you find yourself torn between these and perhaps other similar responses, I welcome you to the tension that is the vibrant center of our shared faith. This is not merely our history. We are living it out today.

We are called to be a community of acceptance, exemplifying God’s love for all humanity. And we are equally called to be a beacon of justice in the world, doing our part to build a better world, challenging those who would bring hate to the table. Through the values of acceptance, grace, and Universal Love, we can grasp the values of character, integrity, and justice. And in the tension, we find our way.

In a world without end, may it be so.