Page 10


Twice Born By Forrest Church Delivered August 15, 1993, at the Unitarian Church of All Souls “The happiest life consists in ignorance, before you learn to grieve and to rejoice.” Sophocles, Ajax Since the beginning of recorded thought, which is also the beginning of recorded experience, a litany of dark sages poets, philosophers, theologians have been perfecting the cure for happiness. In generic form, their prescription contains the following ingredients: “Take a little failure, mix it with suffering, sickness and death, and call me in the morning if you are not feeling worse.” This may seem paradoxical. That’s because it is. Cornmon sense, if not literary taste, far prefers the bromides confected by today’s pop psychologists to help trim our soul of all unnecessary pain. Am I Well Yet? When am I Going to be Happy? “If you are not well yet,” such titles gently taunt, “if you are not as happy as you should be, pick me up and read.” What an alluring promise. Anyone who can follow a simple recipe, exercise the right thoughts and keep their life on a moderate diet should soon develop a happier spirit and a healthier mind. The pursuit of happiness is as American as the Declaration of Independence, where it is codified as a natural right, the right to be happy. Does this mean we deserve to be happy? Not exactly. Thomas Jefferson, who borrowed these words from the vocabulary of contemporary political thought, had something loftier in mind. For him, the word pursuit meant more a calling than a race, and happiness something that could only be enjoyed when shared by all. Even so, the right to be happy, as marketed and understood today, is a matter of individual privilege, not a code for civil conduct. Reduced to its most crass variation, “If my neighbor is not happy, it is her own damn fault. If I am not happy, someone else is to blame.” If victimization is in vogue today, our self-help culture generally promotes something more benign, the mixed notion that happiness, though certainly an entitlement available to all, has to be earned. This lends happiness the cachet of a moral attainment, the right to be happy so long as we are good. Born of a positive worldview namely that we are the masters of our own fate this Horatio Alger “bootstrap” approach to human destiny gives a rosy blush to much homegrown American religion. One finds it in such 19th century oddities as Muscular Christianity, Mind Cure, the Gospel of Relaxation and the Don’t Worry Movement. Today it colors American thought from Christian Science and Norman Vincent Peale’s Power of Positive Thinking in the 1950s, on into fields where bloom the thousand flowers of our so-called New Age. The common signature of all these movements is blue-eyed American optimism. Evil, sin, and even disease are unpleasantries that can often interfere. The cures may be varied, but the goal is not. Whether the secret is exercise. diet, meditation, or attitude, to arrive at true happiness, all we have to do is follow a simple set of instructions. “Buy the light map. Get on the suggested path. Stick to it. Follow the numbers. When you arrive at the gate, you will find the key to heaven on earth right in your own pocket. Paradise is yours. Welcome back to the .garden. Eat any fruit you like, so long as it isn’t fattening. Smile. And have a nice day.” As a Unitarian, I am well acquainted with the sunnyside of American religious thought. If redeemed by a corrective dose of social ethics and a refreshing lack of doctrinal presumption, most Unitarian thinkers rank in the vanguard of what William James, in his classic study, The Varieties of Religious Experience, labeled “the religion of healthy-mindedness.” Adapting Frances W. Newman’s dichotomy of “the once-born” and “the twice-born,” James’ healthy minded individuals have little inclination to enter the soul’s dark night. Life is good, God is good and we are good. With the right combination of clear thought and honest labor, we can perfect our lives and cleanse the world. To epitomize this religious type, James selected two influential Unitarian ministers from Boston, Theodore Parker and Edward Everett Hale. Near the end of his life, Parker, a fiery abolitionist whose life was nothing if not stormy, confessed, “I have swum in pure clean waters all my days.” In the same spirit, Hale, author of “The Man without a Country” and chaplain to the U.S. Senate, wrote how grateful he was to have been “born into a family where the religion is simple and rational. … I observe with profound regret, the religious struggles which come into many biographies, as if almost essential to the formation of the hero.” Both men perceived the presence of evil in the world, but in the idealistic sense as an absence of good. Hence, the world could be reformed. Their respective efforts to battle prejudice and “lend a hand” to others were impressive. They even entered dark nights, but not of their own souls. Their sympathy was with reason, not mystery or madness. They knew nothing of Jonah or Job, of the holocaust or the cross. Among those with a thick ethic and a thin theology, Parker and Hale were exemplars. The self-help advice they offered was to help others. It is sound advice. But it begs every unanswerable question, especially, in Paul Tillich’s words “the religious question which is asked when the poet opens up the horror and the fascination of the demonic regions of his soul, or … leads us into the deserts and empty places of our being, or … sings a song of transitoriness, giving words to the ever-present anxiety of our hearts.” In the life of the soul, the chief enemies of happiness are suffering, grief, and pain. Each enters in part through wounds opened by consciousness. One way to avoid vulnerability \(a word that means “susceptible to being writes, there are some people “who seem to have started in life with a bottle or two of champagne inscribed to their credit.” At one level this is an appealing metaphor, sug 14 MAY 20, 1994