Why I’m a Mystic (But Maybe You Shouldn’t Be)

Sermon copyright (c) 2023 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.


From the essay “Nature” by Ralph Waldo Emerson:

Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear. In the woods too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life, is always a child. In the woods, is perpetual youth. Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, — no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, — master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty.

From Louisa May Alcott’s satire on Transcendentalism, “Transcendental Wild Oats”:

“Each member [of the community] is to perform the work for which experience, strength, and taste best fit him,” continued Dictator Lion. “Thus drudgery and disorder will be avoided and harmony prevail. We shall rise at dawn, begin the day by bathing, followed by music, and then a chaste repast of fruit and bread. Each one finds congenial occupation till the meridian meal; when some deep-searching conversation gives rest to the body and development to the mind. Healthful labor again engages us till the last meal, when we assemble in social communion, prolonged till sunset, when we retire to sweet repose, ready for the next day’s activity.”

“What part of the work do you incline to yourself?” asked Sister Hope, with a humorous glimmer in her keen eyes.

“I shall wait till it is made clear to me. Being in preference to doing is the great aim, and this comes to us rather by a resigned willingness than a wilful activity, which is a check to all divine growth,” responded Brother Timon.

“I thought so.” And Mrs. Lamb sighed audibly, for during the year he had spent in her family Brother Timon had so faithfully carried out his idea of “being, not doing,” that she had found his “divine growth” both an expensive and unsatisfactory process.

Sermon: “Why I’m a Mystic (But Maybe You Shouldn’t Be)”

When I was 16, the summer camp I worked for sent me to a weekend workshop led by Steve van Matre, an environmental educator. Steve van Matre was an observant educator. After several years of working with kids, he noticed that conventional environmental education, with its emphasis on teaching identification skills and intellectual concepts, didn’t wind up producing environmentalists. So he, and the other environmental educators with whom he worked, began developing activities that would — to use his words — “turn people on to Nature.”

One group of these new activities was called “solitude enhancing activities.” Van Matre felt that most of the time when we are supposedly in solitude, we are actually listening to a little internal voice that is constantly talking. Van Matre called this voice “the little reprobate in the attic of your mind,” and he said that it was a dangerous voice in some ways, because it keeps us from living in the present. (1)

When he said this, for the first time I became aware of that little voice in my own head. And that little reprobate in the attic of my mind did in fact talk on and on with no respite. Once I noticed it, I couldn’t un-notice it: it was constantly talking, on and on and on, and saying (if I were to be honest with myself) little or nothing of interest.

Van Matre outlined several activities that environmental educators could use to help quiet that “little reprobate in the attic of your mind.” I decided that I wanted to teach those activities to this children I worked with in the summer. Since I was brought up in a family of educators, I knew that if you’re going to teach something, it’s a good idea to try doing it yourself first. So I tried some of van Matre’s solitude enhancing activities.

One of these activities, which called “Seton-Watching,” was to sit outdoors somewhere and do nothing but simply be aware. Van Matre had told us about a time when he did this: He went outdoors, and settled down to stay absolutely still for some lengthy period of time, perhaps half an hour. After sitting absolutely still and in silence for perhaps a quarter of an hour, a hummingbird came along to look at his red hat band. This prompted van Matre to look up, so he could see the hummingbird. The motion of his head startled the bird and it flew away before he could see it, and he concluded he would have been better off remaining motionless, instead of listening to the little voice in his head that told him to look up.

I began trying this “Seton Watching” activity. One afternoon while sitting at the foot of a birch tree, the little reprobate in the attic of my mind finally stopped talking. In that moment, I suddenly became aware of — for want of a better way of describing it — the connectedness of the entire universe. It was quite a sensation. I then discovered that words were not adequate to describe this sensation — it was not in fact a sense of the connectedness of the universe, but something that couldn’t be put into words. Which makes sense, because this sensation only occurred when that little voice in my head stopped talking. Words are very powerful and very useful, but there are other kinds of knowing that have nothing to do with words; and trying to describe those other kinds of knowing with words must obviously be a pointless exercise.

It turns out that experiences like this are fairly common. These experiences have been classed together under the title “mystical experiences.” When the psychologist William James studied mystical experiences, he argued they had two defining features. First, said James, the person who has a mystical experience “immediately says that it defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words.” James goes on to add: “It follows from this that its quality must be directly experienced; it cannot be imparted or transferred to others.” Second, James said, mystical states are experienced by those who have them as a kind of knowing: “They are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect.” James also pointed out that mystical experiences tend to be short-lived and transient, and they are generally passive. (2)

Mystical experiences are fairly common — William James believed that as many as a quarter of all people have them. And that makes me wonder — what good are these experiences? I’m less interested in whether these experiences are useful, but instead I wonder whether these experiences tend to move you towards or away from truth and goodness. To use the language of the Unitarian minister and mystic Theodore Parker: the moral arc of the universe is long, and the question is whether these experiences help bend it towards justice, or not.

I think mystical experiences can lead to justice, but they can also lead to injustice. In my observation, mystical experiences, when supported by the right kind of community, can strengthen individuals to help bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice. However, I’ve also seen how mystical experiences may twist an individual towards psychopathologies like narcissism and delusion, or embolden an individual to abuse their power and indulge their greed.

Here’s what I think causes someone to follow one or the other of these two possible paths. If someone has a mystical experience and they think it makes them special and somehow better than other people, that can prove to be the path to psychopathology or abusiveness. These people tend to have mystical experiences outside of a supportive and critical community. They are hyper-individualists, and the combination of mysticism and individualism can create a toxic brew. On the other hand, if someone has a mystical experience and is part of a community that holds them accountable for their actions, then a mystical experience can help that person bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice. A mystical experience can provide a vision for a better future where Earth shall be fair and all her people one.

In the second reading this morning, the excerpt from “Transcendental Wild Oats,” Louisa May Alcott tells a story of how mysticism can be destructive. “Transcendental Wild Oats” is based on Alcott’s lived experience. When she was a girl, her father moved his family to Fruitlands, a utopian community in Harvard, Massachusetts. The men who started the Fruitlands community were mystics, and their mystical insights informed them — so they said — of how to run the perfect human community. But the Fruitlands community fell apart in seven short months. The male mystics in charge of the community were unable to grow the crops they were depending on, unable to do anything practical, while the women in the community did their best to keep the children safe and feed everyone. Louisa May Alcott’s story “Transcendental Wild Oats” is a thinly disguised satire of the Fruitlands community. Alcott lays bare the sexism and the ignorance of the men whose abuse of their mystical experiences made the lives of other people miserable.

(I should note in passing that Louisa May Alcott was a Unitarian. But hers was not an individualistic religion; hers was a religion of community, connection, and mutual support.)

In our first reading, another Unitarian, Ralph Waldo Emerson, described one of his own mystical experiences. In a now-famous image, Emerson wrote: “…All mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.” Christopher Cranch, a contemporary of Emerson’s and a fellow Unitarian minister, drew a cartoon making fun of Emerson’s transparent eye-ball: the cartoon shows an eyeball wearing a top hat atop a tiny body with long spindly legs. (3) I think what makes Emerson’s transparent eye-ball image so prone to mockery is the fact that it’s too individualistic. This is my criticism of Emerson’s mysticism: he is too self-centered. Emerson had the opportunity to go out and wander in the fields and become a transparent eye-ball in part because he left all the housework, all the management of their children, to his wife, Lidian. (4) This sounds too much like the mysticism that Louisa May Alcott satirized. If you become a transparent eye-ball while wandering the fields in leisure, that will be quite different from the mystical experiences you might have while caring for children, or mending clothes, or cooking dinner for your family.

And this brings me to another well-known mystic, Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau was raised as a Unitarian, but left in his early twenties because the church in Concord, where he was a member, refused to offer wholehearted support to the abolition of slavery. Thoreau’s most famous descriptions of his own mystical experiences occur in this book Walden. Once again, Thoreau’s mysticism is open to mockery. Critics of Thoreau love to tell the story of how Thoreau didn’t actually lead the life of a mystical hermit at Walden Pond — he went home regularly so his mother could do his laundry and cook him dinner. It’s easy to be a mystic when your mom cooks you dinner.

But I think Thoreau’s critics miss the point. While it is true that Thoreau didn’t break out of the strict gender roles of his time, at least he did much of his own cooking and cleaning while living at Walden. And Thoreau had to go home regularly to help his father run the family business of manufacturing pencils (an appropriate role for his gender in those times). Equally important for our purposes, Thoreau also went home to attend meetings of the anti-slavery group led by his mother. The Thoreau family was part of the Underground Railroad, and Thoreau wrote that his cabin at Walden Pond served as a place to harbor fugitive slaves. And while he lived at Walden Pond, Thoreau spent that famous night in jail because he refused to pay taxes that went to support an unjust war.

We can rightly criticize Thoreau for his sexism, the unquestioned sexism of his time. And it’s easy to make fun of his mysticism. But unlike the mysticism of the organizers of Fruitlands, Thoreau’s mysticism didn’t keep him from successfully growing his own food, and building his own house. And while Emerson’s mysticism can come across as self-indulgent, Thoreau’s mysticism gave him the strength to take courageous action against slavery, and against unjust war.

When I had my own first mystical experience, I lived in Concord, where Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau had all lived. The Concord public schools gave us a heavy dose of the Concord authors, so at age sixteen I knew their stories. I had even started to read Thoreau’s Walden, and liked him the best of all the Concord authors. So when I had my own mystical experience, I had Thoreau’s example to show that mystical experiences could move one towards making the world a better place.

The justification for a mystical experience is to help bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice. This helps explain Martin Luther King’s fascination with Thoreau. I suspect King had his own mystical experiences, which he no doubt understood from within his progressive Christian worldview. King understood how his deeply-felt religious experiences could give him the strength he needed to confront injustice. Nor is he the only one whose mystical experiences helped them bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice. Hildegard de Bingen drew strength from her mysticism to enlarge the role of women within the confines of her medieval European society. Mahatma Gandhi drew on his mystical experiences to help him confront the evils of colonialism in India. And so on.

Just remember that you don’t need to be a mystic in order to help bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice. Some people have mystical experiences, and some people don’t. Having a mystical experience doesn’t make you a better person; what makes you a better person is furthering the cause of truth and justice. But if you are one of those people who happens to have a mystical experience or two, may you use it to strengthen you to help make the world a better place.


(1) Van Matre’s approach is outlined in his books Acclimatizing, a Personal and Reflective Approach to a Natural Relationship (American Camping Assoc., 1974) and Acclimatization : A Sensory and Conceptual Approach to Ecological Involvement (American Camping Assoc., 1972). The quote comes from my notes of van Matre’s workshop on 6 May 1977.

(2) William James, Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 381.

(3) Here’s Cranch’s cartoon:

A sketch of a transparent eyeball on long spindly legs.
from Wikimedia Commons, public domain image

(4) For an account of busy Lidian’s daily life, see the biography by her daughter, Ellen Tucker Emerson, The Life of Lidian Jackson Emerson, ed. by Delores Bird Carpenter (Boston: Twayne, 1981).

Salvation by Character

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2007 Daniel Harper.


The first reading comes the first chapter of Little Women, by the Unitarian author and abolitionist Louisa May Alcott. Little Women tells the story about three sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, growing up together. In this scene, the four sisters are waiting for their mother to come home:

“…Jo immediately sat up, put her hands in her pockets, and began to whistle. ”  ‘Don’t, Jo — it’s so boyish!’ [said Amy]

”  ‘That’s why I do it,’ [said Jo]

”  ‘I detest rude, unladylike girls!’

”  ‘I hate affected, niminy-piminy chits!

”  ‘   “Birds in their little nests agree,”  ‘ sang Beth, the peacemaker, with such a funny face that both sharp voices softened to a laugh, and the ‘pecking’ ended for that time.

”  ‘Really, girls, you are both to be blamed,’ said Meg, beginning to lecture in her elder-sister fashion. ‘You are old enough to leave off boyish tricks, and to behave better, Josephine. It didn’t matter so much when you were a little girl; but now you are so tall, and turn up your hair, you should remember that you are a young lady.’…

”  ‘As for you, Amy,’ continued Meg, ‘you are altogether too particular and prim. Your airs are funny now, but you’ll grow up an affected little goose if you don’t take care. I like your nice manners and refined ways of speaking when you don’t try to be elegant, but your absurd words are as bad as Jo’s slang.’…

[A few pages later, the girls’ mother, Mrs. March, comes home. She reads them a letter from their father, a chaplain in the Civil War, who tells his daughters to do their duty faithfully.]

“Mrs. March broke the silence that followed… by saying in her cheery voice, ‘Do you remember how you used to play Pilgrim’s Progress when you were little things? Nothing delighted you more than to have me tie by piece bags on your backs for burdens, give you hats and sticks and rolls of paper, and let you travel up through the house from the cellar, which was the City of Destruction, up, up, to the housetop, where you had all the lovely things you could collect to make a Celestial City.’

”  ‘What fun it was, especially going by the lions, fighting Apollyon, and passing through the valley where the hobgoblins were!’ said Jo.

”  ‘I liked the place where the bundles fell off and tumbled downstairs,’ said Meg.

”  ‘My favorite part was when we came out on the flat roof where our flowers and pretty things were, and all stood and sang for joy up there in the sunshine,’ said Beth.

”  ‘I don’t remember much about it, except that I was afraid of the cellar and the dark entry, and always liked the cake and milk we had up at the top. If I wasn’t too old for such things, I’d rather like to play it over again,’ said Amy, who began to talk of renouncing childish things at the mature age of twelve.”…

The second reading by Dana McLean Greeley, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association from 1961 to 1969. Greeley wrote this piece in 1980.

“There are two categories of people — at least two — that I worry about in our American society today. The first is made up of those people who are concerned primarily that they shall be saved in the next world, who don’t believe in the open encounter, who think that faith is just for the other world, who have no interest in charity, or politics, or social reform.

“And the second category of people that I worry about are those who have no faith to begin with — no conviction, no commitment, no hope. They don’t believe in anything better than what they have known in the past. They are faithless and uninspired; and I look for no good works, no change in their lives, no change in society from them.

“Faith is supposed to produce good works. We must improve our community and our world, all the time, in every way possible. No city in this country, or anywhere else, is yet good enough or hopeless or beyond improvement. No church, no business, is good enough or beyond improvement. Even character is part of our good works. We are not saved by faith, and our civilization is not saved by faith, without character. Character is not achieved in a vacuum. It means human relationships, and daily duties, and honesty, and generosity, and sympathy and mercy. It means accepting our responsibility and doing our best, wherever we can. Faith without character… is dead.”

[Greeley, Forward through the Ages, p. 95.]


Back in 1886, a Unitarian minister by the name of James Freeman Clarke came up with what he called “Five Points of a New Theology,” and in these five points he captured state-of-the-art Unitarian theology for the late 19th C. His five points were: the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the leadership of Jesus, salvation by character, and progress onwards and upwards forever. At some point in my years in a Unitarian Universalist Sunday school in the 1960’s, I must have learned these five points of theology, without meaning to do so — because when I ran into them twenty-some years later in theological school, I realized that I knew them more or less by heart.

Indeed, though we are now critical of Clarke’s gender-specific language, and though now some of us no longer need the idea of God, his five points have remained of interest up to the present day, a hundred and twenty-one years after he wrote them. We are unlikely to talk of the “fatherhood” of God these days, but we most certainly talk about that which nurtures and guides us, which some call God and some might call the highest and best in humankind. We certainly don’t talk about “the brotherhood of man,” but we most certainly do talk about the goal of world community with peace and justice and equal rights for all. We still talk about the spiritual leadership of Jesus, although we are likely to add other spiritual leaders who are also important to us, such as Gotama Buddha and Moses and others. The horrors of the mid-20th C. made us less certain about “progress onwards and upwards forever,” but we are still willing to talk about — and strive towards — making this world a better place, step by step, bit by bit, to the best of our abilities.

Yet, curiously enough, of all the five points that James Freeman Clarke outlines, the one to which we seem to pay the least attention is “salvation by character.” That sounds so old-fashioned, doesn’t it? Since 1886, we seem to be less and less sure of personal salvation. These days, we rarely, if ever, talk about personal salvation in our Unitarian Universalist churches, so concerned are we with saving the world. Personal salvation is something we do on our own time, and we surely don’t call it “salvation” — we talk about personal growth, we say that we are improving our psychological well-being; we go see a psychologist, or we sign up for self-help workshops. We only seem to talk about how our church is going to save the world, and we seemingly have neglected or forgotten the possibility that our church might just possibly help us to save our own selves.

I think I would like to revive an emphasis on salvation by character. Partly, I want to do this because I know that my Unitarian Universalist faith saved me. When I was in my twenties and struggling with what I wanted to do with my life, my Unitarian Universalist church provided me with an ethical compass, and it gave me a community of people with whom I could talk about the big issues in life (and heaven knows that I didn’t have those kinds of conversations at my job). My membership in Unitarian Universalist churches has made me a better person, has improved my character; thus I am more than willing to talk about salvation by character, because I have experienced it. That’s my personal reason for wanting to talk about salvation by character.

But I have a larger reason for wanting to talk about salvation by character. My friend Greg Stewart, now the minister of the Unitarian Universalist church in downtown San Francisco, has said, “Our philosophy [as Unitarian Universalists] is: Be out in the world six days a week, and then come in here and tell us how that informs your faith.” Greg was talking about how we integrate our social justice work with our religious faith. A great majority of Unitarian Universalists seem to be heavily involved in good works — we work in social service jobs or in human services or in public service or in the non-profit world, and/or we are involved in volunteer activities in the community, and/or we are the kind of people to whom friends turn in times of need, and/or we are artists who make the world a more beautiful place, or whatever it is that we do to improve the world around us. This is what Greg Stewart is telling us: we are already doing all this good work six days a week out there in the world, and then we can come to church one day a week to try to make sense of what we are doing. And I’ll add this to what he said: when we come to church one day a week, we often find that we are tired, and hurting, and even overwhelmed by all that we do to save the world. The problems of the world are huge; it is easy for us to get worn down by the thought of all the work that needs to be done; it is easy for us to lose our way, to become discouraged, to lose our sense of direction. It is even possible to become bitter and disillusioned. So it is that at times we find that we need a little salvation for our own selves.

One of the ways that we find salvation here at church is that we tell stories to one another. Stories contain power that we should not dismiss lightly. The old story of salvation, that grand old story that is still told in many orthodox Christian churches, has great power. The old story of salvation has helped many people through hard times, by telling them that even if life is miserable and horrible here and now, some day you’ll go to heaven and all will be well, and God will wipe the tears from your eyes, and so on. Now we Unitarian Universalists discovered that that old story of salvation may have been comforting, but it has some horribly big problems. There’s the little problem that not everyone gets to go to heaven because some people burn in hell which makes many of us Unitarian Universalists not want to go to heaven in solidarity with the oppressed souls in hell (even if we were eligible to go to heaven, but we’re not because we’re heretics). There’s also the little problem that if people put all their efforts into making themselves good now so that you’ll get into heaven in the future, they have a tendency to ignore the fact that if we all worked at making the world a better place now, we could create a heaven here on earth. In the face of these pretty serious problems, we have rejected the old story of salvation.

I’d like to suggest that instead of the old story of salvation, we tell two new stories of salvation. One story we tell ourselves is that, if we work hard enough, we can create a kind of heaven here on earth, that we can save the world. That’s a story we tell ourselves over and over again. But there’s another story of salvation that we need to tell ourselves more often, and that is the story of personal salvation, the story of salvation by character.

The story of salvation by character lies at the core of our Unitarian identity. And as it happens, here in our church, we have a huge image that represents the story of salvation by character. Behind me is a gorgeous Tiffany glass mosaic, installed in this church in 1911. It is spectacular in its own right, for its artistry and for its sheer size. But the real interest for me is what the mosaic portrays.

Look up, and you can see a pilgrim ascending a rough and narrow path that has been cut into the side of a precipitously steep mountain path. No, he’s not Jesus, a common misconception — he’s simply an ordinary pilgrim, dressed in a sort of medieval hooded cloak, with a sturdy walking which he keeps in his right hand, presumably to help keep him from tumbling headlong into the deep ravine close beside him. You will notice that there is no handrail on this steep path. You will notice that our pilgrim is not attached to a climbing rope, and neither carrabiners nor pitons are hidden beneath his cloak. There aren’t even any convenient roots for him to cling to. He’s on his own. No wonder he steadfastly looks upwards — he’d surely get dizzy or ill if he looked down into the deep ravine at his right-hand side.

I said that he’s on his own, but that’s not quite true. There’s an angel hovering behind him, on his outboard side. Now the authorities debate endlessly about angels. There is, for example, a debate about their physical existence: Do angels have an actual physical existence, or are they insubstantial, incorporeal? In the Western tradition, the theologians tell us that angels are invisible and that they have no gender, although they can take on human form. Artists in the West have traditionally portrayed the otherwise invisible angels as beings that look like humans, except with the addition of wings; and quite often, the artists have not given definite gender to angels. We can see all this here in our Tiffany mosaic. Frederick Wilson, the artist who created this image, portrays the angel in the classic Western manner, as a human-like being with wings, a being who is ambiguously gendered. I’ve climbed up on a tall stepladder to look at that angel; I’ve stood up in the balcony and stared at it through binoculars; and say what you will, that angel is ambiguously gendered, or maybe a transgender angel. And of course Frederick Wilson shows us the angel; he has to show us the angel; if he didn’t show us the angel, it would be easy to miss the point of the mosaic. But while we can see the angel, the pilgrim doesn’t seem to be able to see the angel at all; at least, he gives no evidence of seeing it.

Supposedly, the mosaic depicts a scene from an old hymn by the Unitarian hymnodist Eliza Scudder, although the connection seems somewhat tenuous to me. But to me, our mosaic fits right in with our Unitarian worldview. In the late 19th C., more than one Unitarian church had a picture of the “straight and narrow way” behind the pulpit. Many Unitarians of my grandparents’ generation saw life as a dangerous path, and what kept you out of danger was your good character. Remember that, in our Western culture, angels are messengers from God, and I suspect that back in 1911, when this mosaic first went up, the Unitarians in this congregation understood it that way. They did not believe that the angel was a physical being that could reach out and keep the pilgrim from bodily falling into the ravine. Rather, they would have understood this mosaic as a metaphor: the angel represents a whisper from God, or a whisper from your conscience — for after all, what is your conscience but the voice of that which is highest and best in you? — and it is that whisper of conscience that keeps us walking safely up the steep and dangerous path of life. We might say that our mosaic is an elaborate metaphor for the Unitarian concept of salvation by character.

We find this same old Unitarian idea in the popular children’s book Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Alcott, who was an active Unitarian her whole life, believed strongly in the cultivation of one’s moral character. In the first reading this morning, we heard how the four girls who are the heroines of Little Women struggled with the burden of their personal imperfections; and how they understood their struggles to be like progress of a pilgrim struggling from the lowest depths up, up, up to the raptures of cake and milk in the Celestial City at the top, at the end of the journey. Little Women tells the story of how life is in some sense a struggle to overcome one’s personal imperfections, to achieve slavation through the force of good character. Louisa May Alcott also tells us that there is always a guiding hand to help us, which we may understand literally as the guiding hand of parents, or more figuratively, the guiding hand of God.

We still tell ourselves this story of salvation by character. Some would not talk about God, but would talk about the guidance of that which is highest and best inside us, or the moral compass of natural law and human community. Some of us would in fact talk about spirits or angels which guide us, and others would refer to the guidance of the Goddess. The details have changed, the story may no longer be as important as it once was, but we still tell ourselves this story of salvation by character.

In the early part of the 20th C., we Unitarians became more and more interested in saving the world, and less and less interested in saving ourselves. We are still concerned with personal improvement, but we are more concerned with world improvement. Now we are more likely to tell ourselves about salvation through social justice. We see ourselves as pilgrims down in the valley — the valley of racism, the valley of ecological crisis, the valley where there are too many homeless people, the valley where too many people can’t get the basics of life. We struggle upwards along a dangerous path, striving to make this world a better place. I know that’s how I look at the pilgrim, as someone who strives for justice in the world.

But I am mindful of what Dana McLean Greeley taught: that “We are not saved by faith, and our civilization is not saved by faith, without character.” In other words, it is not enough to serve soup at the soup kitchen; social justice work alone is not enough; we must also improve our human relationships with friends and loved ones and with those whom we would help. It is not enough to send a generous check to a good cause once in a while; we must also attend to our daily duties, we must attend to our good character. Good character and social justice work go hand in hand. Good character alone is not enough; and social justice work without character is dead.

So it is that we go out in the world six days a week, and we do what we can to make this old world a better place. Then once a week, we come in here, and we reflect on what it is that we are doing; we take the time to pause reflect on our own personal progress; we take time to reach out and seek the guidance of a helping hand, whether that helping hand comes in the form of God, and angel, or simply a supportive church community. So we come here each week, to find new strength, so that we may venture back out into the world, and make that world a better place for all.