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Introduction, Workshop 4: William Ellery Channing

In "What Moves Us," a Tapestry of Faith program

Nothing is so hard as to root out bad passions, to be upright, at whatever the cost, and to be benevolent and charitable under all provocations and difficulties. — William Ellery Channing (1780-1842)

This workshop introduces William Ellery Channing's Theology of Emotional Struggle and invites them to test the relevance of Channing's theological assessment of emotional struggle for our own Unitarian Universalist faith today. Channing has been called "the single most important figure in the history of American Unitarianism" and recognized as the man who gave "the liberal Christians of his day a party platform." He was the celebrated minister of the Federal Street Church in Boston for 39 years, and a renowned man of letters whose essays, sermons, and discourses during the 19th century sold more than a 100,000 copies in Europe and America. Channing affirmed human beings' kindred nature with God; he said we "know God through our own soul;" he celebrated our "likeness to God," and confessed he met "perpetual testimonies to the divinity of human nature." Channing's theology was a rational celebration of our rational nature. We celebrate his legacy to us as part of our rational liberal faith tradition. But we do not often peer behind his rational faith to examine his theological understanding that the route to moral perfection was through control of emotions. Channing believed that our ongoing personal, internal struggle to gain control over our tumultuous emotions, immoral feelings, wanton desires, and inappropriate physical passions strengthened our moral character. Emotional struggle, Channing insisted, was a major way to develop the moral perfection of our character. A spirit founded, in part, on the "crucifixion of selfish affections," Channing insisted, animates the "real beauty of religion" and all its harmonious sentiments, views, and desires. How do we reconcile the extraordinary positive message we take from his celebration of rational human nature as divine with his harsh pronouncements against his own unwanted emotional struggles and his harsh treatment of his own body that made him an invalid for life? What can we learn from Channing's theology of emotional struggle that is informative, insightful, and productive for faith development of our head and our heart today?

Before leading this workshop, review the Accessibility Guidelines for Workshop Presenters found in the program Introduction.

Preparing to lead this workshop

Read the William Ellery Channing entry in the Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography. Read Handouts 1 and 2 and Leader Resource 2. Use the questions that follow to help you understand the passages in Handout 2 and Leader Resource 2. You may wish to write your responses in your theology journal.

Handout 2

  • Channing believed that "God is another name for human intelligence," as he says later in this sermon. The source of our intelligence is God, Channing says. God is the perfection of human nature. What do you feel are the pros and cons of these claims?
  • Later in this sermon, Channing says that God is "unbounded spiritual energy." He believes that in proportion as we receive this spiritual energy, we can discern rays of light and hope even in evil, "that dark cloud that hangs over creation." How do you define "spiritual energy? For you, is it mental? Emotional? Sensate?

Leader Resource 2

Section I

  • Channing, after careful reflection, considers his contempt for the woman of "active benevolence" mistaken. What, according to Channing, was the source of his mistaken contempt?
  • Why does Channing believe that to be "in the world," he must throw away his "ridiculous ecstasies?"
  • Why does Channing believe it a mistake to call him a stoic, that is, someone who is ruled only by the dictates of virtue and is singularly disinterested in the external world and the passions and emotions linked to it?

Selection II

  • According to Channing, human nature is designed and created to love the God that the Bible calls upon us to love. This human awareness of God, Channing insists, produces a sublime, rational happiness in humans. Assume for a moment, that someone does not perceive the Infinite as Channing perceives it, as a source of unfailing happiness. How might Channing explain this? How would you explain it? Do you agree with Channing?

Selection III

  • When Channing says we have "felt" a nature within us that is superior to our physical, brutish emotions, to what kind of feeling is he referring? In other words, what does Channing mean when he says we can feel our intellectual nature? Draw on personal experience to determine if his claim makes sense to you. What, according to Channing, is an intellectual feeling? What, from his perspective, are physical, brutish emotions? Is love a physical emotion or an intellectual emotion or both? Explain.
  • What does Channing mean when he says we can enlarge ourselves beyond our present self?
  • What does Channing mean when he says that something eminently perfect invites us to move beyond our emotional bondage to earthly objects of pleasure? According to Channing, what is the nature and source of this invitation?
  • For Channing, in what does true happiness consist?
  • According to Channing, what prompts us to thirst for deliverance from sin?
  • God, according to Channing, is the most worthy object of our hearts. In Channing's view, how does a feeling of God's eminence alter our consciousness of what our hearts should be fastened to?

For more information contact web@uua.org.

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Last updated on Wednesday, February 20, 2013.

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