Tag Archives: Theodore Parker

Happy 200th to Theodore Parker

Today is the two hundredth anniversary of Theodore Parker’s birth. I’ll leave it to others to talk about his contributions to Transcendentalism; his scholarship, and the way he brought the insights of German philosophy and theology to New England; how he drew some two thousand people to his sermons at his church in Boston. Others can tell you about his intellectual and professional accomplishments; I’d rather think about his home life. Here, then, is a sketch of Theodore Parker’s Boston house, from Theodore Parker: a biography, Octavius Brooks Frothingham (1880, pp. 241-242, 244):

“In January, 1847, Mr. Parker removed from West Roxbury, where he had been living till now, to Boston. A house in Exeter Place — a little court, so near to Essex Street that his yard was adjacent to that of his friend Wendell Phillips — was provided for him. The upper floor was thrown into one room for a library. In this house he lived till his last sickness took him away: there his widow resides still, though the quiet of the spot is invaded by business. The household consisted of himself and his wife, whose domestic name is Bear, or Bearsie, and who, as usual, is nearly the opposite of her husband, except in the matter of philanthropy; a young man by the name of Cabot, one and twenty years old, an orphan, brought up by Mr. and Mrs. Parker from childhood, and treated by them as a sort of nephew; and Miss Stevenson, “a woman of fine talents and culture, interested in all the literatures and humanities.” The entire house was given to hospitality. The table always looked as if it expected guests. The parlors had the air of talking-places, well arranged and habitually used for the purpose. The spare bed was always ready for an occupant, and often had a friendless wanderer from a foreign shore. The library was a confessional as well as a study: this room, airy, light, and pleasant, was lined with books in plain cases, unprotected by obtrusive glass. Books occupied capacious stands in the centre of the apartment; books were piled on the desk and floor. There was but one table, — a writing-table, with drawers and extension-leaves, of the common office pattern. A Parian head of the Christ, and a bronze statue of Spartacus, ornamented the ledge: sundry emblematical bears, in fanciful shapes of wood or metal, assisted in its decoration. The writer sat in a cane chair: a sofa close by was for visitors. A vase of flowers usually stood near the bust of Jesus. Flowers were in the southern windows, placed there by gentle hands, and faithfully tended by himself. Two ivy-plants, representative of two sisters, intwined their arms and mingled their leaves at the window-frames. Every morning he watered them, and trained their growing tendrils. … In the winters of heavy snow he kept a little corn-crib in his library, and regularly fed at the window-sill the city pigeons deprived of their street-food. They soon found where breakfast was to be had, and flocked daily to the window; while he, with delight, watched them as they cooed and quarrelled, and hustled each other, and sidewise nodded through the pane at him.”

Art and the chant workshop

We hosted our third chant workshop tonight; Chandra Alexander of Sharanya led us in Hindu Goddess chants. She gave us a handout with the words of the chants (in Sanskrit, with transliterations), and asked us which chants we’d like to try.

I asked for a chant titled “God Is Mother and Father”; the title alone reminded me of the mid-19th C. prayers of Theodore Parker, in which he often referred to his God as both Mother and Father. (The 1862 edition of Parker’s prayers, edited by Rufus Leighton and Matilda Goddard, is now online at Google Books.) Not that there is a precise congruence between the two. The Hindu chant can be translated as: “You are Mother and Father, you alone are friend and relation. you are wisdom and prosperity, O God of Gods you are everything.” Parker does not tend this far towards pantheism; his God is personal, God as persona: “O Lord, our Father and our Mother too, we know that we need not ask any good thing from thee, nor in our prayer beseech thee to remember us, for thou lovest us more than we can love ourselves…” (July 25, 1858, p. 185).

Either way, while I can appreciate the beauty of both chant and prayer, I can’t say that I a parental god-image does much for me. But that’s the way art works, isn’t it? I don’t have to believe in the reality of a thunder-god to feel awe and reverence in the presence of a Greek sculpture of Zeus.

We play “Zip, Zap, Zoop,” and we talk about conscience and the voice of God

Series of entries in my teaching diary about an experimental Sunday school class. First entry.

The children went to the first fifteen minutes of the worship service with the adults as usual. It took a long time for the worship service to get going this week. We started three minutes late, the announcements went on for four minutes, and we wound up taking about five minutes to greet the people around us and introduce newcomers, so it was 11:12 before the worship service really started. Fortunately, this week’s worship associate, Kay Brown, told a wonderfully effective children’s story. She started by saying that the story took place “far, far away, ten thousand miles away, in the land of India, where I was born.”

The story was about a man who made his living by selling caps (Kay put a baseball cap on her head to show the kind of cap she meant). He carried around some 50 caps in a big basket calling, Who wants to buy a nice cap? Red ones, green ones, all kinds of caps! Then the man walked under a tree in which some 50 monkeys lived. The monkeys saw the caps and wanted them. They climbed down out of the tree, and each took a cap. They liked the red caps best, said Kay, “because the red caps matched their red rear ends.” The man called to the monkeys to return his caps, for if he could not sell the caps, he would earn no money and his children would starve. He pleaded with the monkeys, but the monkeys just laughed. The man grew sad, and then angry, and when he realized the monkeys would not give his caps back no matter what he said, he grew disgusted and threw his own cap on the ground (Kay demonstrated this with the cap she was wearing. Lo and behold, all the monkeys imitated the man and threw their caps on the ground where he could pick them up. “The moral of the story, parents and children,” Kay said in conclusion, “is this: children will do what adults do, not what you say.” (I can’t remember the exact wording of Kay’s moral, but it was something like this.) I found it to be a very satisfying story — it was a familiar story told in a personal way, it was fun for children, and the moral was not simplistic. I liked that the moral was really two morals in one: it told adults that words are not enough; and it alerted children that they should pay more attention to what the adults in their lives actually do, as opposed to what those adults say. I thought to myself that I might want to take some time to talk about this story with the children in class.

We went off to our regular room. I was surprised to find that several of the things I had set up had been put away — the candle we were going to light was gone, the markers and crayons I had ready for the project were gone, the snack was gone. We found the candle and the markers had been put away in the closet in our room. I went off in search of matches and snack while Melissa said the opening words with the children. I grumbled a little bit, but there wasn’t much we could do. This is always one of the challenges of teaching Sunday school: things move around when you’re in shared space.

I got back to our room in time for check-in. There were just four children today: Dorit, Andrew, Perry, and Monty (attendance was light in most age groups at the first worship service as well). There were five adults today: Lee, Melissa, Lucy, Amy (our parish minister) and me. Lucy is Dorit’s and Andrew’s mom, and she said, “Is it OK if I come to class? I like it in here.” Of course we said it was OK for her to come to class. Amy has been wanting to visit the Sunday school for a while, and since we had a guest speaker today she was able to come.

After we had each checked in, Dorit asked if we could play “Zip, Zap, Zoop.” Continue reading

Religious literacy: What do kids need to know about religion?

We’ve tentatively identified four big educational goals for the religious education programs in our church, and one of those goals is to make sure children have basic religious literacy compatible with the society they’re living in. More specifically, we want children who have gone through our program to know: (a) the main Bible stories they’re likely to encounter in Western culture (in literature, film, painting, etc.); (b) stories and facts about the main world religions they will encounter both in their immediate environment and in current events; (c) a basic knowledge of the history of Western religion (primarily Western Christianity), and in particular the history that led to the formation of Unitarianism and Universalism; and (d) the main characters and stories of Unitarianism and Universalism in North America.

Yesterday I had lunch with three of the lay leaders in the children’s religious education program to talk about assessment strategies for our religious education program. I suggested that part of our assessment strategy for this educational goal of religious literacy should be a list of the specific things we want to teach our kids; i.e., which Bible stories should kids know? which famous Unitarians and Universalists should they know? etc.

Below is my first attempt at generating such a list, with material to be covered from ages 3 to 18. I would love to have your comments on, suggestions for, corrections to, and additions to this list.

Continue reading

(a) poet, (b) philosopher; pick one

This judgment of Ralph Waldo Emerson is reported by Julia Ward Howe in her Reminiscences: 1819-1899:

“Theodore Parker once said to me, ‘I do not consider Emerson a philosopher, but a poet lacking the accomplishment of rhyme.’ ”

Coming from Parker, who could at least pretend to be a philosopher/theologian, that’s a fairly harsh thing to say. After she reports Parker’s bon mot, Howe, who considered herself a poet, goes on to add her own judgment:

“This may not be altogether true, but it is worth remembering…. The deep intuitions, the original and startling combinations, the sometimes whimsical beauty of his illustrations,– all these belong rather to the domain of poetry than to that of philosophy…. Despite his rather defective sense of rhythm, his poems are divine snatches of melody….”

I think Howe and Parker are right: Emerson is more of a poet than a philosopher. Since Emerson remains the most important philosopher/theologian of North American Unitarianism, that has some interesting implications for who we are today.

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.

Theodore Parker online

On my reading list for today is Mary Daly’s Beyond God the Father (Boston: Beacon Press, 1973/1985). I know, I know, I should have read it years ago. But that’s not the point.

While reading Daly, I remembered that Theodore Parker wrote some prayers that referred to God as both Mother and Father. Now where did I see those prayers? — I couldn’t remember, so I tried searching the Web. And I found a complete edition of the 1862 printing of Parker’s prayers online at this University of Michigan site.

This is a University of Michigan Web project of publishing American literature online. Pages are viewable as graphic images of the actual pages from a book, or as html text. Many of Parker’s other books are also available through this same Web site, along with many other 19th C. books that might be of interest to religious liberals today.

Alas, Parker’s prayers were not nearly as progressive as I had remembered. He made a good start, but he didn’t completely break away from patriarchal imagery (see e.g. pp. 59-60). Nonetheless, I thought you might want to know about this incredible online resource.