The Roots of Character

Sermon by Sue Browning
Minister, Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at Easton

At last week’s service, Jim Richardson and Martha Hamlyn shared that UUFE’s long time minister, Rev. Daniel Higgins, had died on June 9. He was a Minister Emeritus here at this congregation – a life time honor – and he held that same distinction in other congregations.
Dan’s family will have a memorial, likely in the fall, and at his service there will be time to share memories and stories. This morning is not the time for Dan’s eulogy, yet Dan’s presence has filled me this week. I never met Dan, yet outside my office hangs his picture and my office is named for Dan – check the lettering on the door.
This week people have shared stories with me about Dan. And recently while visiting the UUs of the Chester River, when we needed a lectern for me to speak to a small gathering, they brought in a small pulpit from their foyer – a pulpit I was told later that evening was a gift to their congregation from Dan.

Dan’s obituary highlighted his life’s milestones – his education, vocation, and the organizations he gave much to – from St. Michaels fire department, to the NAACP. It mentioned where he’d served and his role on the UUA staff, and named his family members and his deep ties to the Eastern shore.
Beyond these specifics, there is an underpinning to the stories about Dan. One senses that at every level Dan was perceived by others as “a man of character.”

We’re all characters in some way – in the “what a character” sort of way. “What a character” fondly captures the nuances of personality – the quirky parts of each of us. Maybe today it’s a sense of fathers, and father figures in our lives which come to mind.

Yet a “person of character” carries something rooted more deeply. It’s an honorary term, bestowed by others. I imagine someone comfortable in his or her own skin who lives with clarity about what matters most.
In his book Reclaiming Virtue author John Bradshaw notes, “Whatever else character is, it is distinguished by continuity and commitment to acting on ones beliefs and values.” He happens to use Billy Graham senior as exemplifying these traits, seeing him as a man of man of virtue.

David Brooks in his book The Social Animal, sums up one as being of ‘good character’ who is energetic, honest, and dependable. Brooks finds a person of good character is persistent after

setbacks, acknowledges one’s own mistakes, has the confidence to take risks and the integrity to live up to commitments.

As these authors define ‘good’ or ‘upright’ character, implicitly they claim there is a desirable way of being, and by omission, an undesirable way of being. It’s ‘good’ they find to be honest, dependable, respectful, confident, humble and determined – ways to be of good character, and character is in turn seen as a way to live with integrity – where actions match values.

This framework of character was at the heart of Unitarian tradition as it was shaping into a unique American religious tradition back in the early 1800s. Long after the Puritans of colonial times, the Congregationalist tradition had emerged and had a stronghold in much of New England. By the late 1700s and early 1800s there were debates within this traditions as an alternate understanding of Christianity – an even more liberal religious tradition – was emerging.

In a defining sermon back in 1819, in Baltimore, William Ellery Channing expounded on the nature of Jesus, and salvation, and an understanding scripture and the gospels in light of experience and reason. The sermon was titled Unitarian Christianity and was a defining moment in our Unitarian ancestral heritage.

No religious debate is settled in one sermon, and active debate and sorting went on for decades. In time many churches split, in some cases leaving the congregational churches on one side of the town square, the less orthodox Unitarian one on the other side. Splits had happened before, and would happen again and while dramatic, I speculate most average folks weren’t diving into the depths of these theological debates.

In time a sound bite for this new Unitarian version of Christianity was offered by minister James Freeman Clarke, a Channing follower. He summarized his Unitarian faith this way: “I believe in the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the leadership of Jesus, salvation by character and the progress of man onward and upward forever.” This is summary is still used in some form in some UU congregations in the Boston area today.

Channing and Clarke were reflecting the core values of the founding fathers of the country. Good character which emphasized personal striving, which was synonymous with progress. In their context, the optimism of the landowners – those who were white, male, and from Europe – were looked to set these norms for good character.
The incentive in ‘salvation by character’ was to improve and improve – trying for perfection as exemplified by Jesus, the image of God to please God. Our Unitarian ancestor’s had rejected Calvin’s God – who was at times wrathful, and had rejected pre-selection, and had rejected original sin. In its place, the new theology was in part grounded in ‘salvation by character.’

Character for Unitarians was about being personally good. Doing so was equated with ethical andmoral living. There was a belief that if all behaved well against rigorous standards of right and wrong there was potential for a better world.

God was presumed benevolent, but nonetheless with He had a strict code of conduct, and He would be served in the move to perfection. Being good did require humility and changing direction after having done wrong.
Unitarians though in setting a high bar for character (salvation did depend on it!) risked being a bit ‘judgey.’ – So maybe humans would not be kept in line by the threat of God’s wrath…but once in a while a bit of our Puritan ancestors’ assessments dominated – we’d keep others in line by using our character measuring stick. Note who is falling short – whose kids aren’t on the schedules we deemed for good parents…whose food choices are virtuous, and not.

This striving for perfection had a tendency to squeeze out hope, and fun and joy – toward a noble end…and yet. What is our sense of desirable character today? Do the roots of ethical and moral living need to be tied to onward and upward progress and perfection? What helps expand our vision of ‘good’ character?

Dan Higgins offers a model. He embodied his values – values often most present and visible in relationship and in community.

As I read the Star Democrat’s expanded article on Dan last Friday, his strength of character was evident in the comments regarding his role with Habitat for Humanity. Jo Merrill describes, “What I remember about Dan was that he was a faithful servant. Whenever the Unitarians were scheduled to be on a Habitat site, Dan was there. He knew what to do and quietly went about teaching others. Never critical, always encouraging. If he said he would be there, you could count on it.”

An old adage says, “Character is how you treat those who can do nothing for you.” I sense this character that supports others also offers a sense of hope – a saving grace broad enough to embrace and lift up others.
Dan and others of strong character don’t stumble into these traits – the traits must have been nurtured into being, and to have evolved with experience. David Brooks sees character as grounded in three strengths or skills…how one learns to perceive a situation…how one uses reason to make choices, and…how one then exercises will power to execute the decisions.

Consistent with Unitarian patterns, Brooks finds lots of attention has been paid over the last 200 years on reason (looking at pros and cons) and will power (temperance and self-control), and less attention has been paid on the benefits of skillfully and patiently perceiving the situation one is in – taking the time to see ‘what is.’
And that may be at the heart of those we see as men and women of character. They build skills of listening and seeing, and do so in ways which value and respect others for their abilities. They cultivate ways to take in new settings bits at a time. And from these skills they form their own deep wells which feed a strong and flexible character.

Brooks notes, “…that it is not one crucial moment that shapes character. Character emerges gradually out of the mysterious interplay of a million little good influences. The model emphasizes the power of community to shape character.” Community helps in self-control, and “emphasizes the power of small and repetitive actions to rewire fundamental mechanisms of the brain.” He finds it best if people collect information before making up their minds, ask for various views, seek nuance, and avoid absolutes. It is in these habits that strong character is formed.
I sense this is true. This is why Religious Education and other connections for our children and youth matter. Character is a muscle – always under development – for all of us.

And while our proud Unitarian roots early on claimed onward and upward as the focus, rather than higher, might we reach wider?

At a recent UU minister’s workshop on understanding congregations, the facilitator for the workshop (who was an expert in conflict and organizational dynamics) was asked a question about the dividedness of our country, and the possibilities of creating more bridges. The questioner seemed to ask how he, the organization expert, might analyze the situation and recommend the start of remedy.

The facilitator responded we will never create change by speaking from a stance of moral righteousness – of moral indignation. The room of UU ministers gasped a bit. Translating the gasp … maybe it captured something like, “BUT if we know what is right, and what is wrong, aren’t we called to point it out – and to do so powerfully, clearly?”
We want to be people of character to and we think that means digging deep and standing tall – we ministers (and maybe a few others of you?) want to stand for truth and justice. Yet, this leader had put a mirror up against our sense of character – how did our sense of judgment, our sense of ‘all knowing’ fit in?

If the question was on ‘salvation’ for the country, would we do better to emphasize those character traits more closely tied to relationship? Could we spend more time taking in the situation, understanding nuance and perspective?
Rather ‘onward and upward’ and pressing for personal moral perfection and always finding oneself (and others) falling short, colleague Rev. Rebecca Parker wonders if rather than imagining an arrow (pointed onward and upward), we might think more of a spiral where we weave together connections which calls us to our higher selves…which ask us to be comfortable in our own skin and to continually move toward greater justice as we see need through a lens of compassion and openness. Possibly less discouraging. Possibly more productive.

I sense Dan Higgin’s deeply understood that good character was mostly not about following a narrow set of rules, nor competitive striving, nor judging others using a narrow filter.

My sense is Dan – a man of character – had learned somehow to first take in…to see a situation deeply – the context, the individual, the group – and to see in multiple ways – and to hold in tension many truths. And to then act, and learn and act again.

This is a lesson we can learn from. When we express love, live in relationship, and build and sustain trust, we, like Dan, can live into a refreshed hope guided by our understanding of salvation by character.

May It Be So

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