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Thursday, September 26, 2002

The ethic of morality and the ethic of vocation.

Richard H. wrote:

I remember when I was a member of Arlington Unitarian that then Rev. Kim Beach spoke of the difference between Unitarian Boston and Quaker Philadelphia as the difference between the "ethics of morality" and "ethics of . . . . " something else.

This is a reference to a contrast examined closely by E. Digby Baltzell in Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia, a book I have been meaning to read for some time. I think Beach may have described the contrast between the Quaker "ethic of morality" and the Puritan "ethic of vocation." Check out chapter six, "Puritan and Quaker Patterns of Culture: The Theology of Culture"; there's a great comparative table on page 94 that people on this list would find quite interesting.

Baltzell makes an important distinction about the nature of God's calling. The Quakers understood God's will as expressed directly to each individual through the "Inner Light," which calls them to withdraw from the snares of the world into a life of personal righteousness. They valued their religious lives quite apart from their professional and cultural lives. They were egalitarian, sectarian, inward looking, and perfectionist pacifists.

The Puritans, however, understood God's will as expressed to individuals particularly, and saw their professional and cultural lives as expressions of their religious lives. (The "Protestant ethic" is a Puritan phenomenon, but not a Quaker phenomenon, Baltzell says.) They valued hierarchy (ordained ministers, trained at Harvard); favored institutions; and believed in transforming the world. Although sectarians in England, the Puritans in America built a dominating and established church; they looked to scripture and reason for authority; they were crusaders in war (e.g. the Revolution, the Civil War). (These patterns persisted long after the Puritans evolved into Congregationalists and Unitarians, incidentally, although the Unitarian Transcendentalists developed some Quaker-like forms of mysticism and egalitarianism.)

The Quakers believed that righteousness would emerge from personal conscience; the Puritans believed that righteousness would be enforced (or "cultivated," in the Unitarian version) by social institutions.

One fascintating contrast Baltzell draws: The Quakers were optimistic about man, pessimistic about institutions; the Puritans were optimistic about institutions and pessimistic about man. He also suggests that the Quakers tended toward "anti-institutional spontaneous perfectionism," while the Puritans tended toward "institutional compromise." Each type has clear weaknesses and strengths, from my perspective.

Baltzell also makes an interesting point about war:

War is an evil that the Catholic tradition deemed an inevitable aspect of sinful men's ways. The Roman church mitigated the evil, however, by the concept of a just war, and the double standard of morality allowed the perfectionist ideal of peace to guide the clerical elite, especially the members of the monastic orders, who were not required to bear arms. Rarely have modern Catholics viewed war, as the Calvinists and Puritans did, as a moral crusade against evil. (They once did, of course, in the Crusades.) Catholics, like most Episcopalians, have been reluctant fighters. Thus, in our own Civil War . . . the Northern Episcopalians, in the Catholic tradition, were reluctant participants; the descendendants of the Puritans, crusading idealists against evil; and the Quakers, perfectionists above the conflict. (101-102)

The Quakers saw the world as fallen, and understood the faithful as all being called to the same standard of righteousness. Participation in worldly matters — statecraft, warfare, business — was an affront to righteousness. Many Quakers, Baltzell says, made an uncomfortable peace with business, but maintained their reluctance about statecraft and warfare. He notes, for example, that the major "Founding Fathers" were all from Massachusetts or Virginia: not one was orignally from Philadelphia. Even famous Philadelphia resident Ben Franklin was a Boston boy, baptised in the Congregational church.

The Puritans also saw the world as fallen. They saw the state as having particular obligations to enforce morality, however, and thought of vocation as obligating individuals to fulfill particular duties in society. The Puritans and their descendents generated an elite in Massachusetts that exercised tremendous power for almost 300 years. Baltzell is intrigued by examples like John Adams, his son John Quincy Adams, his grandson Charles Francis Adams, the diplomat, and his great-grandson Henry Adams, the writer. The Quakers produced nothing like this lineage.

What's interesting to me is that Unitarians inherited many of the Puritan characteristics, which played out hugely on into the twentieth century. Think of Unitarian "old families" like the Eliots, for example: three different presidents of the American Unitarian Association, a president of Harvard, more ministers than you can count, and even the poet and convert to Anglicanism, T.S. Eliot.

(Originally posted to UUCF-L 9.26.02)

Posted by Philocrites, September 26, 2002, at 01:26 PM | 1 comments

Friday, September 20, 2002

Malevolent freedom.

Jay N. wrote:

I know that malice is usually a second or, more dangerously, a third person perception. Still, I usually experience or see "sin" as having malice as an essential part. Chris Walton, is there a place for malice in your understanding of sin?

What an interesting question! I think you are asking in part because I had said, "I think of sin and salvation primarily in terms of tragic contingency and creative freedom," which makes sin look like our circumstantial inability to make perfect choices, while salvation looks like our individual ability to act freely.

I had been thinking of "original sin," which I usually think about in terms of the human condition and its limitations.

But I think you're on to something important. I see no reason to believe that people act benevolently by default, or that, as Plato thought, people always strive to maximize the good and only err by selecting false goods. Most modern psychological theories suggest that people sometimes intentionally seek to harm themselves or others, and that they sometimes are quite aware that the choices they are making are malevolent. I can remember occasions in my own life like this. Acting with spite is something I bet all of us have done.

I guess I think of this kind of sin as partly an expression of creative human freedom, which includes the capacity for malevolence. But I don't want to attribute to fate the fact that we sometimes (or often) act spitefully. (It's not due to Adam's Fall.) We're not really predisposed to malice by virtue of being human; those few individuals who do seem predisposed — incorrigibly violent criminals, for example — have other curses besides being human.

(Originally posted to UUCF-L)

Posted by Philocrites, September 20, 2002, at 05:47 PM | 0 comments

Wednesday, September 11, 2002

An idea worth defending.

The Rev. David O. Rankin, in a ten-point statement of widely-held Unitarian Universalist beliefs, writes:

We believe in the worth and dignity of each human being. All people on earth have an equal claim to life, liberty, and justice — and no idea, ideal, or philosophy is superior to a single human life.

While I admire Rankin's statements about what religious liberals believe, I have also believed for a number of years that this one statement has a profound flaw.

Here's the rub: It is in fact an idea that "no idea, ideal, or philosophy is superior to a single human life." There's bitter irony here, because if your enemy opposes this idea, and is willing to kill to oppose it, you have a terrible choice to make. Do you say, "No human life can be sacrificed to the idea of human dignity," even if it means allowing people to be slaughtered and the institutions of freedom to be crushed? Or do you say, in sorrow, that sometimes defending and preserving the worth and dignity of each human being requires the willingness to fight — and to accept the disturbing consequences of that decision?

I am not a conscientious objector or a pacifist because I believe that freedom and human dignity are not self-preserving ideas, but values that require careful and diligent cultivation and protection. Regretfully, a liberal society must be prepared to defend these ideas, even while exercising caution about the very real danger that we will turn our central ideas into idols.

U.S. military action in Afghanistan, as tragic as it is, counts as a justifiable defensive act against a band of fanatics who do genuinely oppose what we mean by the worth and dignity of each human being. That doesn't excuse the military from exercising great care, but it is a way of saying that Unitarian Universalist pacificists and reactionary anti-Americans do not hold the moral high ground. It also doesn't excuse Americans from looking carefully at how our society and our government pursue goals that harm other human beings. But it is a way of saying that many of the defining features of our civilization are actually good and worth our loyalty and commitment.

(Originally posted to UU Books, 9.11.02)

Posted by Philocrites, September 11, 2002, at 05:04 PM | 0 comments

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