Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Personal Improvement: America's Real Religion

New Years is the moment for resolutions. From losing weight (attaining health of the body) to taking up yoga (achieving serenity of the soul), we aspire to be better than we are--reminding us that America’s real religion is the cult of self-improvement. Being good (or failing that, looking good) is our national religion.

This obsession with perfecting both the inner and outer self goes back at least to the nation’s founders. As a youngster, George Washington studied 110 Rules for Civility and Decent Behavior that became a guide to his future conduct. The Rules included such practical advice as “Spit not in the Fire,” and “In the Presence of Others Sing not to yourself with a humming Noise, nor Drum with your Fingers or Feet,” essential tips for social decorum and worldly success. Biographer Willard Randall suggests that these homely proverbs, designed to create a gentleman, became more important to the future president that any official creed.

Think dieting is a recent fad? Thomas Jefferson reminded a granddaughter that “We never repent of having eaten too little.” That nostrum was included in “A dozen Canons of conduct in Life” that included other tips like “Never spend your money before you have it” and “Take things always by their smooth handle.” When angry, count to ten, the sage of Monticello reminded the little girl, or when very angry, count to a hundred. It’s not bad advice—but not otherworldly or intensely spiritual, either.

But Ben Franklin virtually invented the genre of self-improvement. In his autobiography, he relates how “I conceiv'd the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. I wish'd to live without committing any fault at any time; I would conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead me into. As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other.” He created a list of virtues he wished to acquire, from frugality and cleanliness to honesty and industry. Each week, he evaluated his own performance. Achieving perfection was a little more difficult than young Ben first imagined, however. He experienced particular shortcomings in the area of “Order.” Most objective historians would add that “Chastity” was never one of his personal strengths, either.

Our founders practiced a faith that focused on improving one’s own character, getting along with others, and enjoying the good things of life—not unworthy aspirations, if not strictly Christian, either.

What virtues do you want to cultivate in the New Year? What is your definition of success? Whatever resolutions you decide on, “Cleanse not your teeth with the tablecloth” remains a wise rule for ladies and gentlemen of the 21st century as it was for George Washington in the 18th.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Obama's Unitarian Roots

Barack Obama bid farewell to the grandmother who reared him in a memorial service Tuesday at the First Unitarian Church in Honolulu. Madelyn Dunham and her husband Stanley had first discovered Unitarian Universalism on the West Coast, living in Washington State, where they attended the East Shore Unitarian Church in Bellevue.

Many early U.S. Presidents had Unitarian connections, like John Adams (who is buried at the Unitarian Church in Quincy, Massachusetts) and Thomas Jefferson (who told his nephew Peter Carr that he had to be a Unitarian by himself, since there were no organized congregations near Monticello). John Quincy Adams, Millard Fillmore and Howard Taft were card-carrying Unitarians. But since Adlai Stevenson ran for office in the 1950’s, no Unitarians have been near the Oval Office.

Honolulu’s Unitarian Church first came to national attention in 1969, when it offered political sanctuary to U.S. servicemen protesting the war in Vietnam.

President-elect Obama described his grandmother as "a trailblazer of sorts, the first woman vice-president of a local bank" in Honolulu. He called her Toots, short for tutu, the Hawaiian word for grannie.

Perhaps our new president owes some of his intellectual curiosity and willingness to entertain varying opinions to the liberal religious principles of tolerance and respect for diversity that infused his upbringing. It wouldn’t be the first time that the Unitarian faith has had an impact on our nation’s history.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Pastor Rick Warren: Healer or Divider?

Reaching across the aisle is all very fine in principle. But is there such a thing as going too far? What about president-elect Obama’s pick of Reverend Rick Warren, pastor of the 20,000 member Saddleback Church, to deliver the invocation at his inaugural?

Admittedly, Mr. Obama has the right to choose whatever spiritual figure he likes for the role. But the choice angers supporters of gay rights and reproductive freedom. Warren campaigned tirelessly for California’s Proposition 8 striking down gay marriage and opposes a women’s right to an abortion. What message is Obama sending?

Mr. Obama is demonstrating flexibility and bi-partisanship, perhaps. But Rev. Warren didn’t demonstrate much flexibility himself during the general election debate he hosted last August. Instead he tried to pin Obama down on litmus tests dear to the Religious Right. Tell me the exact moment a fetus acquires human rights, Warren demanded. (“Answering that question is above my pay grade,” Obama responded, prompting murmurs of disapproval from the audience.)

The question itself betrays a literalistic mentality without room for nuance or imagination. Warren sees the world in black and white. ”Does evil exist,” he asked both McCain and Obama in that forum, “and if so, do we ignore it, do we negotiate with it, do we contain it, or do we defeat it? Some of the world’s greatest literature, from the book of Job to The Brother’s Karamazov, has grappled with the problem of evil. But Warren expected a sound bite response to his multiple choice question—because it was not a complex issue in his mind. Judging from his performance that night, Warren seems to me to be fundamentalist in his thinking---dividing the world into simplistic categories of right and wrong, saved and unsaved—and condemning to outer darkness those who disagree with his interpretation of the Bible.

On January 20, I’ll be listening closely to Rev. Warren’s prayer. Does it express inclusivity for Americans of all faiths (and for those without any formal religious affiliation)? Or will Warren pick at the wounds Americans have suffered in the very culture wars our new president is trying to transcend?

Whether Obama begins his office on a note of healing or division will depend on the answer.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

'Tis the Season?

Come the winter holidays, you can bet there will disagreements over religious displays. Should the town square be allowed to have a nativity scene? Can Hanukkah songs be included in a school pageant? What about the star and crescent? In Vermont, the latest furor is over the Charlotte Elementary School, where several pillars near the front door are wrapped to resemble candy canes.

According to the Burlington Free Press, William Gerson wrote the local school board to complain. “To me, the candy cane has only one context — and that is Christmas and because of this it is truly a religious sign.”

I see his point. Candy canes are associated with Christmas, in my mind, too. But so are snowflakes, Norelco razors, eggnog, animatronic polar bears, and Lord Calvert Gin. Surely these aren’t all Christian symbols as well?

The Founders tried to separate church and state, but there was never a bright line of demarcation in their minds. Thomas Jefferson regarded the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom one of his proudest achievements, for example, but saw no conflict in taking his daughters to Sunday worship in the newly constructed capitol building. The Founders gave us a First Amendment broadly written to guarantee free expression of spiritual beliefs, with a prohibition on erecting an official establishment. But we are still interpreting their words–probably because they weren’t entirely sure in their own minds what they intended.

Next month, our president will place his hand on a Bible and swear to uphold a Constitution that makes no mention of God and guarantees people of every faith equal rights of citizenship. This is a logical and legal contradiction, no doubt.

But like candy canes on the school house door, it is a tension I can live with.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Christmas at Valley Forge

Did George Washington pray at Valley Forge? A week before Christmas, on December 19, he camped there with his troops to tough out the winter. According to the famous legend perpetrated by his first biographer Mason Locke Weems (an Episcopal minister):

“In the winter of '77, while Washington, with the American army, lay encamped at Valley Forge, a certain good old friend, of the respectable family and name of Potts, if I mistake not, had occasion to pass through the woods near headquarters. Treading in his way along the venerable grove, suddenly he heard the sound of a human voice, which, as he advanced, increased on his ear; and at length became like the voice of one speaking much in earnest. As he approached the spot with a cautious step, whom should he behold, in a dark natural bower of ancient oaks, but the commander in chief of the American armies on his knees at prayer.”

Why the American commander would have been kneeling on the cold, snowy forest floor is truly mysterious, since Washington preferred to stand at prayer, even when warm and dry inside an Anglican church, where bending the knee is expected. Parson Weems, who invented the episode of chopping down the cherry tree along with other “curious anecdotes” intended to clothe the Virginian’s memory in an aura of piety, never let the facts get in the way of good story.

Still, the fable of Washington at prayer would work its way into American folklore. It became the subject of a Saturday Evening Post cover illustration in 1935, and was commemorated on a U.S. postage stamp in 1977, despite the fact that Washington was not particularly devout or conventionally religious.

He purposely avoided going to church when he knew communion would be served. He never used the Christian terms Lord, Redeemer, Christ or Saviour in his pronouncements on faith, preferring more naturalistic and neutral terms like “Providence.” On his deathbed, he called for no priests, psalms or other spiritual comforts. Bishop William White, frequently a guest at Mount Vernon, said he never heard Washington utter any remark that would lead him to believe our first president was a believer in “the Christian revelation.”

In his own way, George Washington was a man of the strongest possible convictions and highest principles—just not “born again” or doctrinally correct. As usual, fact is more interesting than fiction. And the best possible tribute we can pay our Founding Fathers is to appreciate the religious complexity that has characterized our nation from its very beginning.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Pursuit of Happiness?

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

When Thomas Jefferson sat down to write the Declaration of Independence, he
probably couldn’t have foreseen where his words would lead. And of all the
Declaration’s promises, the pursuit of happiness may be closest to the core of the American Dream.

It hints at what’s visionary. More than a promise of good government or popular
sovereignty, the pursuit of happiness captures the deep yearnings behind our nation’s birth. The hope for a new beginning, a fresh start; possibilities to make a meaningful life for oneself, attain a measure of felicity and personal fulfillment in this world.

But for a birthright, happiness still seems to elude many of us. Polls tell us who’s
happy, which is sometimes surprising. Men are happier than women, for instance. Married couples are happier than singles, and the mainly monogamous at least say they have better sex than swingers. Those whose work involves an element of service, like school teachers and firefighters and nurses, report being happier with their choice of vocation than tax accountants or corporate attorneys who usually get paid a lot more.

People with a strong faith or spiritual practice are likelier to say they are generally
satisfied than those without any religious grounding. But money isn’t completely
insignificant, either, and people earning middle-class incomes are more content than individuals struggling with poverty. Still, having a bigger house, or a fancier car, doesn’t correlate with feelings of inward well-being in any direct way. So if there’s a secret of happiness, it’s not a simple one. And if there are ingredients for more joyful living, many of us are still looking for the recipe.

What was Thomas Jefferson thinking when he said that following our bliss was a
fundamental human right? In his rough draft for the document, Mr. Jefferson had at first written, “We hold these truths to be sacred and inviolable,” but at the urging of Ben Franklin thought better of this religious phrasing and substituted “self-evident” for “sacred.” The truths Franklin wanted to enunciate didn’t come from Bibles or theologians, but were more like the laws of physics or geometry, not dependent on any special revelation but obvious to all.

But the terminology “pursuit of happiness” was Jefferson’s own invention. Conventional wisdom in the eighteenth century said that governments were instituted to protect “life, liberty and property.” Those were the exact words of John Locke, the English philosopher whose theories of the social contract were so influential with the nation’s founders. Protecting property was the impetus behind the Tea Party and the rallying cry “no taxation without representation.” Pocketbook issues were at stake. But Jefferson’s genius was to realize that accumulating wealth was not among the chief ends of life, an insight that probably came from his study of philosophy.

Not all of the founding fathers had opportunities for such leisurely education. Franklin had just two years of formal schooling. As a teen, Washington learned surveying but never went to college. But Jefferson was luckier, attending William and Mary where he gained fluency in Latin, pursuing the kind of classical education common for gentlemen of that time. In Williamsburg, he studied the thinkers of Greece and Rome, who had a major influence on him.

The central inquiry that occupied all the philosophers of antiquity was the question of how to be happy. What constitutes the good life? How do we define success? Stoics and Cynics and other schools formulated differing answers, but the figure Thomas Jefferson found most enchanting was Epicurus.

He lived roughly at the same time as Aristotle, and most of his original works have been lost, so Epicurus is known mostly through his followers, but even more from his detractors. He gained a reputation as a libertine and hedonist, advocating a life devoted to the cultivation of refined tastes and sensual delights. For “epicure,” my dictionary gives synonyms like “gourmand” and “bon vivant.” But these are distortions of the philosopher’s actual teaching.

Epicurus indeed believed that pleasure is the greatest good. But virtue was the
gateway to pleasure. For without prudence and self-restraint, unlimited appetites could only lead to misery. “Nothing is sufficient for him to whom what is sufficient seems little,” he wrote. “Bread and water produce the highest pleasure, when one who needs them puts them to his lips. To grow accustomed therefore to simple and not luxurious diet gives us health to the full, and makes one alert for the needful employments of life, and when after long intervals we approach luxuries dispose us better towards them.”

In short, Epicurus believed in moderation and balance, tempering desires which tended to multiply without end, like the desire for immortality or life without limits. Fear of death, the dread of personal extinction, caused undue misery for the mass of the human race.

But Epicurus held that the end of life was nothing more than a cessation of the five senses and, like the quenching of any desire, and ought to be looked upon with equanimity. As he put it, “Death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And when it does come, we no longer exist.”

Friendship was among the chief pleasures of life for Epicurus, and in a home with
fragrant gardens nearby he gathered a company of like-minded souls to live out and apply these teachings in everyday life. Kind of an Athenian ashram. Because
philosophy, in ancient times, was no mere intellectual pastime. It was intensely
practical, a seminar in the art of living.

That’s how Jefferson understood it, and early on he called himself an Epicurean, a lifestyle he described as dedicated to “ease of body and tranquility of mind.” He
enjoyed fine wine but refrained from hard liquor, for example. As Chief Executive, he dressed simply and informally, often receiving dignitaries in worn out slippers. In contrast to the rather regal ways of his predecessors, he walked to his own inaugural from the rooming house where he was lodging. No one can visit his home in Virginia without seeing the classical influence on his taste: the emphasis on balance and restraint. For while an estate like Monticello can seem grand by some standards, compared to Versailles and the palaces of Europe’s ruling class, it is remarkable mainly for its modesty.

As President, however, Jefferson began to re-evaluate his philosophy. For in the spring of 1803, he received a small pamphlet titled Jesus and Socrates Compared from his friend, the Reverend Joseph Priestly.

Priestly was an English Unitarian who shared many of Jefferson’s scientific interests. It was Priestly who first discovered oxygen, who initially recorded the tale of Benjamin Franklin flying a kite, who was in some ways a British version of old Ben: inventor, philanthropist and political gadfly.

But because of his democratic sympathies, his laboratory in Manchester had been burned by angry mobs, and he’d emigrated to the newly formed United States in the 1790's, where he’d settled and opened one of the first Unitarian churches in the new world, outside Philadelphia. Priestly was the author of two volumes on The Corruptions of Christianity that Jefferson claimed to have read “over and over.” And Priestly’s little pamphlet on Jesus and Socrates made the third President pause and reflect.

The pagan philosophers whom he once felt offered a “more full, more entire, more coherent” ethic than Christian moralists had begun to seem too narrow, too concerned with self-fulfillment and too little with the greater good. So in a little booklet called a "Syllabus of an Estimate of the Merit of the Doctrines of Jesus, Compared with Those of Others,” Jefferson spelled out his growing sense that personal happiness involved caring for others, in broader feelings of benevolence.

Of Jesus, Jefferson noted that “like Socrates ... he wrote nothing himself.” But unlike Socrates, he had no Plato to transmit his wisdom to succeeding generations. “On the contrary,” said the President, “all the learned of his country, entrenched in its power and riches, were opposed to him, lest his labors should undermine their advantages; and the committing to writing his life & doctrines fell on the most unlettered & ignorant men; who wrote, too, from memory, & not till long after the transactions had passed ... According to the ordinary fate of those who attempt to enlighten and reform mankind, he fell an early victim to the jealousy & combination of the altar and the throne.” And yet “notwithstanding these disadvantages, a system of morals is presented to us, which, if filled up in the true style and spirit of the rich fragments he left us, would be the most perfect and sublime that has ever been taught by man.”

Love God and neighbor, Jesus taught; love everyone and love the whole creation, with all your heart and all your mind and all your strength. The recipe for bliss, for entering into the kingdom, is as easy (and as hard) as that.

In a letter accompanying the syllabus, Jefferson went on to explain that “to the
corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed, but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to him every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other.”

I think Jefferson was right, that Jesus was one of the great spiritual reformers of all time. And I think Jesus was right, that the happiest people are the ones who love the most; more than passing satisfactions, they find abiding joy in living. I agree that virtue is essential, in the sense exercising self-control, particularly in regard to material possessions in this culture of excess and instant gratification. And I think the wisest people are the ones with a consistent philosophy of life, who know that the chief end of human existence consists in something more than accumulating property, but in pursuing higher aims.

More than pleasure, we need purpose in our lives. More than immediate rewards, we need a sense that our struggles and frustrations have some relevance in the longer view of history. More than happiness, we’re called to pursue beauty and fairness, to seek justice and kindness, to strive to be good as a prerequisite for feeling good.

These are truths I hold to be self-evident, but that America in its obsession with endless wealth and power seems to have forgotten. Ironic that a pagan from Greece, a Jew from Galilee and a Unitarian might call this supposedly Christian nation back to the real meaning of its creed.

Blog Archive