Responsive reading by Theodore Parker

This week for worship, I wanted a reading that allowed congregational participation, taken from “The Transient and Permanent in Christianity.” If you’re a Unitarian Universalist, you probably know that “The Transient and Permanent in Christianity” was one of two greatest Unitarian sermons of the 19th C. and that it was written by the great Unitarian minister Theodore Parker (the other great 19th C. Unitarian sermon was “Unitarian Christianity” by William Ellery Channing).

“The Transient and Permanent in Christianity” remains, in its way, a radical statement of what’s important in religion. Everyone who’s a Unitarian Universalist should have at least passing familiarity with it. Sad to say, it does not appear in any form in the current Unitarian Universalist hymnal.

So I adapted a couple of key passages into a responsive reading. I changed gender-specific language to gender-inclusive language because I think if Parker were alive today he would have done so. In one instance, I changed the word “Christian” to the word “religious,” which will offend the more doctrinaire Unitarian Universalists, but will also make this reading more relevant to post-Christian congregations like the one I serve.

The Transient and Permanent in Religion

It must be confessed, though with sorrow, that transient things form a great part of what is commonly taught as Religion.

An undue place has often been assigned to forms and doctrines, while too little stress has been laid on the divine life of the soul, and love to men and women.

Religious forms may be useful and beautiful.

They are so, whenever they speak to the soul, and answer a want thereof. Some forms are perhaps necessary. But such forms are only the accident of religion; not its substance.

Another age may continue or forsake the religious forms we use today; may revive old forms, or invent new ones to suit the altered circumstances of the times; yet they will be quite as religious as we.

It is only gradually that we approach to the true system of Nature by observation and reasoning, and work out our philosophy and theology by the toil of the brain.

Who shall tell us that another age will not smile at our doctrines, disputes, and quarrels? Who shall tell us they will not weep at the folly of all such as fancied Truth shone only in the contracted nook of their school, or sect, or coterie?

No doubt, an age will come, in which ours shall be reckoned a period of darkness — like the sixth century — when humanity groped for the wall but stumbled and fell, because they trusted a transient notion, not an eternal truth.