William Ellery Channing
William Ellery Channing's Theology: God, Christ, Humanity, and Self-Culture
Robert Michael Ruehl
William Ellery Channing's theology played a crucial role in his understanding of the world, one's place within the world, and one's interactions with others. Our obligations to others and to ourselves are predicated on a belief in God as a loving father. One can argue that Channing's theology was the primary lens through which he viewed the world, judged what was good and evil, thought about political allegiances and political change, and viewed the necessities of life and culture. As alluded to above, central to his religious view was his belief in a loving, fatherly God.1 Emerging from this was his belief in Jesus as a divinely ordained mediator2 (who was the ultimate miracle3 and the supreme revelation of God's existence and will4) and his ideas about humanity's tendency to sin or to fall short, which coexisted with his belief in humanity's ability to strive endlessly toward a regained intimacy with God.5 From these three realms of Channing's theological perspective a highly formulated view of the world emerged.
His concept of God took center stage within his theological system. God was first and foremost beyond humanity and beyond nature. God is not the natural laws that permeate the natural world. God created the universe and nature, and the laws of nature are subordinate to God. In this way, in Channing's thinking, it is perfectly natural to say that God can suspend the laws of nature without being contradictory. If God and the laws of nature could be equated, then for God to suspend those laws, "He"6 would be contradicting his own being.7 This is not a minor point for Channing and the early Unitarians because of their belief in God's ability to perform miracles.
For Channing, God has disclosed himself to the world in a number of ways.8 First, he revealed himself to all humans through his creation of the universe and the natural world on Earth. This view aligns nicely with the idea of intelligent design.9 Both orthodox Calvinists and Unitarians agreed on this belief. The natural world is too ordered to have happened by chance. The organization of creation on Earth discloses a divine mind behind the material world that set things into motion and constructed the material realm in such a way to allow humans to exist. God created Earth as a well-formed interconnection of plants, animals, water, land, and humans, so all things could coexist. God, in other words, created a world of bounty to sustain life.
This is one part of the theological system of nineteenth-century New England theology known as natural and revealed religion. It was in this realm of natural religion that Channing and others combated the skepticism of David Hume. He directed his arguments against Hume because they had gained weight from his prestige as an author.10 He laid out Hume's argument relating to the questionable nature of miracles because of the likelihood that the witness of those miracles had been deceived or could be deceiving us. Hume's position was that it was much more likely that somebody was deceiving us than that nature had suspended its laws.11 For Channing, Hume's empiricism was questionable because the material order and our sense perceptions were not the only avenues for knowledge of God. Channing believed that humans harbor an intuition of the divine who is beyond the material realm. In this way, the natural laws are discernable through our sense perceptions, but our intuitive understanding of a being greater than ourselves and beyond nature allows one to posit the ability of God to suspend the natural order, which allows for the plausibility of miracles.12
Channing also criticized Hume's denunciation of miracles because he said that Hume's belief in the natural laws depended on the very sense perceptions that he was calling into question. In order to posit that there are natural laws, Hume relied on sensory experience, but it was sensory experience that Hume was saying allowed us to be misled by the apparent experiences of miracles in the world. If sensory experience can be so misleading in relation to miracles, then it is so in relation to our discernment of natural laws. Hume's argument against the trustworthiness of our sense perceptions also raised questions about the veracity of the sense perceptions that allowed him to base his argument on the consistency of natural laws.13 While the Unitarians and the orthodox Calvinists strongly relied on much of John Locke's empiricist presuppositions, they did not follow his empiricism all the way to the skepticism of Hume. Instead, Channing and other New England Christians combated Hume's skepticism energetically because they envisioned it as a threat to the stability of Christianity and, consequently, as a threat to the orderliness of society.14
While God was beyond the world, he was able to be felt within the world through the orderliness of the world, through miracles, and through the sending of Christ into the world. While Hume thought that miracles were nonsense, for Channing and other liberal Christians in nineteenth-century New England, they thought the miracles were a way for God to show his love for the world. First and foremost, God is not an angry God; instead, he is perpetually filled with joy. Channing would urge, "God is the happiest being in the universe, can we not become happy by sympathy?"15 This is why Channing and the other liberal Christians were revolting against the orthodox Calvinist understanding of God. By depicting God as vengeful and angry, it negated his love for humanity; it diminished his concern for suffering humanity. Since we are literally children of God, to depict God as the Calvinists had would turn him into a tyrant. For such a being, Channing would feel no connection.16
It is from this perspective that Channing develops his idea of religion. "The adoration of goodness,--this is religion."17 Sense perceptions are a primary way to encounter God. Through our senses, we can encounter the divine in the world through his creation.18 In this way, all people can encounter God. With any hope, these sensations will turn us toward God, so we can live with the same love he has for us. The problem is, however, that we turn away from God. In our suffering, humans try to get out their pain through an escape that leads to more suffering.19 Suffering and sin are connected in their mutual effects of turning us away from God. Humanity's tendency to sin, turning away from God, left God no choice by to send Jesus into the world as a loving act to restore humanity to a right relationship. In this way, natural religion was not enough, so God turned to revealed religion, which was brought to the world through Jesus and the consequent recording of his message in the Bible.
For Channing, the Bible is the record of God's successive revelations. Some texts are more important than others.20 The New Testament is more important than the Old Testament, and the Gospels are more important than the other New Testament writings. Each of these should be searched through carefully, a process that is guided by reason. A rational examination of the biblical texts--especially the New Testament--will reveal God's successive (progressive) revelations to the world, and they will reveal Jesus' mission on earth as a mediator who was trying to bring humanity back to God. His message was not new; he was communicating the truth of God, which had been around from the beginning of creation. Jesus had another mission in this world besides the articulation of God's divine truth; his mission was to model a godly life. He was a role model for the entire world who was disclosing how people should live their life with love and compassion.21 In this way, Christ's example passed on to the rest of the world the need to take seriously our predicament and the need to alter our lives. Christ, for Channing, was a role model who revealed a morally flawless life that urged people to morally perfect their own life through their free choice.22
Christ, therefore, became the bridge between God and humanity. This is where the shift from God to Christ occurs. This shift is not the goal or the end of the religious life. Connecting with Jesus is not the destination or goal of religion. Instead, the shift in emphasis onto Jesus exists and is important only in so far as Jesus' exemplary life leads us back to God. Jesus, then, is a means to an end. People need to give their allegiance to Jesus in order to follow his example. By following this example, we paradoxically will go beyond Jesus by becoming more Christ like. In other words, the more people strive to follow the example of Jesus, the more they will cultivate the divine likeness within themselves. This will bring them closer to God. By perpetually becoming closer to God, the centrality of Christ diminishes.
Since he is a role model,23 people give their allegiance to Jesus because of his actions and his ability to subordinate his will to God. The centrality of Jesus as an aid to a more religious life rests not in his ability to communicate creeds, but in his ability to teach humanity how to live. The words of Jesus, while they presented truths about God, were not meant to be creedal statements that people had to adhere to in order to be part of an orthodox community. The emphasis, then, is not on right beliefs at this early phase in Unitarian history and in Channing's thought.24 The emphasis is on right conduct. To put this another way, Jesus communicated truths to the world, and he lived a certain way. This means that Jesus taught the world through his words and his actions. The problem, however, is that humans have taken his verbal teachings and set them up as standards for what it means to be part of the Christian community.
Often, these texts are taken out of context and irrationally established as meaning one thing, when a careful rational, examination reveals that the actual meaning contradicts the established orthodox interpretation of the text. In this way, for Channing, the Bible becomes a source of error and a way to fragment communities. The emphasis on orthodox and heterodox beliefs for membership as a Christian leads to exclusion instead of inclusion in a loving community. The turn to Christ as a role model and the elevation of his actions, for Channing, helped to obviate the conflicts generated by too strong of an emphasis on belief. Instead of emphasizing beliefs, the emphasis on Christ's actions would help to teach us the proper way to live, and this would lead to freedom.
In this way, Channing was searching for a more direct link with Jesus. The standard emphasis on belief in a creed separated the Christian from Christ.25 The people who made the creeds elevated their position by standing between Jesus and the rest of humanity.26 In other words, making creeds is an act of hubris. Each creed, then, originated from a prideful position; in this way, it was neither rational nor spiritual. To sidestep this product of hubris, each Christian needed to use reason to interpret the Bible with care in order to reconnect with Christ as he was depicted in the Bible. The creed, being irrational and unspiritual, cannot be Christian because both natural and revealed religion are rational. Reason will bring us back to Christ since his actions and his teachings were completely rational.
This emphasis on reason and the educational nature or the exemplary role of Jesus was consonant with the beliefs of his fellow Unitarians. They did not believe in a servile following of Jesus because he was the lord and savior who would bring humanity back to God. They advocated following Christ because reason had led them to that conclusion. They emphasized following Jesus based on their belief in the harmonious coexistence of reason, revelation, and religion. They did not elevate Jesus, therefore, because they thought he was infinitely superior or because they thought he was God. Instead, they elevated Jesus because by exalting him, they were emphasizing a way of life that would help humanity to improve. In this way, Christ was only important in a subordinate way. So long as Jesus aided the betterment of humanity, the Unitarians would lionize him, but they never advocated worshipping him, nor did they believe that he partook in divinity to the extent that Jesus was actually God. To follow Jesus' actions is rational because his actions coincided with rationality, and they helped humans to improve their inherent divine likeness.27
Channing's theology, then, placed a strict demarcation between God and Jesus.28 The two were not equal. Jesus was completely subordinate to God, but he occupied a position above humanity. He knew God intimately, but was not God. His knowledge of God and his sinless life allowed Jesus to be a teacher of humanity, and this allowed him to be humanity's role model. God was one; God was not three persons in one. Channing and the Unitarians believed in God's unified existence.29 Similarly, Jesus was not a fragmented person.30 He was not God and man. Instead, he partook of divinity to the extent that he was immersed in the will of God and communicated that will to the rest of humanity. Channing took the Bible literally when it described God as the father and Jesus as the son. God sent Jesus into the world. God, therefore, was the originator of the savior and the highest good. Christ was secondary or inferior to God and had a separate existence from his creator. Their Unitarian position on God also led to a Unitarian Christology. The nature of God and Jesus were not fragmented, but unified.
To advocate anything else raises aporia. The most problematic concept emerging from a Trinitarian perspective is Christ's death on the cross.31 To posit that God and Christ are the same, to assert that they are three aspects of the Godhead, is to diminish the significance of Christ's life and his suffering. If Jesus were God and if he went to the cross for our sins, then his suffering and death would be diminished because he (God/Jesus) knew all along that his death was not really going to be a final death. In this sense, Jesus would have been sacrificing nothing for humanity.
If people change their perception, however, and turn Jesus into the teacher of humanity who will literally die on the cross and suffer because of his love for others, then this communicates a message that will bind people to Christ throughout life.32 When one looks at Jesus not as God, but as a person suffering and struggling for the benefit of others, then his example as a martyr becomes more inspiring, more influential, and more educational. By encountering Christ in a secondary position to God, Jesus' suffering becomes more important to humanity and a sign of Jesus' love for all, which people can then try to practice in their lives. Furthermore, it not only discloses Christ's complete love for humanity, but it reveals his total submission before God, which is also educational and can help to transform humanity.
In the end, Jesus was separate from God, and God sent Jesus into the world on a divine mission. This allowed Jesus to speak with a godly authority because he had immersed himself in God and knew God's will. He listened to his heavenly father and brought that message to a suffering humanity. Jesus performed miracles in the world as God had performed miracles. From this total submission to God and Jesus' divine mission in the world, the Unitarians could call him "divine."33 For the Unitarians, however, Jesus was not divine in the Trinitarian sense. This use of divinity in a non-Trinitarian way allowed Channing to assert the divinity of humanity. Jesus' sinless nature disclosed what humanity could become or work toward. Natural religion had failed to bring the world to God, but the religion revealed in Jesus' teachings and actions would bring people to God. People could become more divine like Jesus in their full submission to God. Through Jesus, God became disclosed in a way that natural religion could not disclose him. Through Christ's example, people could cultivate their divine likeness and perpetually become more like God through the religious process of self-culture.
The idea of self-culture presupposes a specific type of person. Humanity, for Channing, had certain characteristics.34 First, God did not create humans so they could experience joy. Life is made up of more than joy. Furthermore, joy does not always signal something positive; in fact, joy can arise from situations that degrade the human being. Within each person, however, is a soul that is "great."35 This means that no soul is depraved. Its inherent condition is not one of Calvinist depravity; instead, each person can act in ways to debase their soul. Or to put this in another way, people act in depraved ways, but their soul remains great, and the likeness to God cannot be effaced fully. Sinful acts can lead to a depraved existence, but each person "possesses a nature meant for greatness."36 This means that each person is capable of overcoming outward obstacles. Life presents people with crises and difficult decisions, but each person has a choice in how to respond. One can view a situation in a negative way and choose to respond in a degrading fashion, or one can view the challenge as an opportunity for spiritual growth. God has provided each person with a rational faculty and the freedom to make decisions. Channing's optimism is clearest when he discloses that no matter how bad our decisions are and how overwhelming our situation may be, the idea of God will remain steadfastly implanted in each person's soul. It is this idea of God, no matter how faint it may have become, that self-culture nurtures in order to bring about an increasing proximity to God.
Self-culture is first and foremost a religious task.37 While it incorporates intellectual and moral components, the religious life is the goal of self-culture. This could not be otherwise. Nineteenth-century Unitarians believed in perpetual progress. Each person's goal was to endlessly perfect themselves.38 People, for Channing and the early Unitarians, were naturally religious. They naturally desired self-transcendence and a connection with something beyond themselves, namely, God. This emphasis on the desire and the pursuit for self-transcendence cannot be overlooked; the early Unitarians were working from an anti-Calvinist belief in agential autonomous acts instead of only the grace of God to bring about self-transcendence.39 Each person, however, has the ability to turn away from this desire. Each person, for Channing, remains free. In this way, human nature often is "intoxicated" by the presence or the idea of God, but humans are imperfect creatures existing on Earth and tend to move away from a closeness to God.40 Life, then, is a mixture of necessity and freedom that allows for the progression or the retrogression of a person's state in this world. The religious sensibility in each person is that ability to comprehend and long for that which is good and beautiful, to long for God.41 Every aspect of self-culture helps to develop the moral and intellectual aspects of a person's life to nurture this sentiment in order to allow each person to live a more religious life in closer proximity to God.
Channing's idea of self-culture is composed of various elements. As alluded to above, there are moral and intellectual aspects to self-culture. The moral and the religious aspects of self-culture are very similar; Channing says that it is often difficult to distinguish the two.42 In the end, these three components allow Channing to outline the needed activities to systematically take part in the activity of self-culture. What this means is that Channing believes that self-culture nurtures the mind's ability to discern universal truths, and this helps to connect the person with God.43 The intellectual component, therefore, is necessary, but not sufficient. To strengthen this intellectual component, reading is crucial. This ability to read critically is fostered by education, and this means self-culture is a social task. As the teacher helps the child to read and to examine critically the arguments for a specific position, the student must then be able to articulate this position. Part of self-culture, therefore, is a critical act and a creative act. Self-culture builds up the mental faculties of each person and helps them to create new texts, new arguments, and new positions in an articulate way.44
Great literature that has been handed down for generations will provide the student with the best opportunities to test their skills. Each student's mental skills need to be challenged, and the best way to do this is to turn to the literature that has withstood the challenges of time. The minds of the authors that created the great texts were able to comprehend universal truths and to put those truths into texts. In this way, self-culture depends not only on one's immediate social surroundings, but self-cultures draws heavily upon the aid of past authors to assist the process of self-cultivation.45
Eventually, this will help to free the student from public opinion and will allow each person to think for themselves. In other words, it will help them to be freer in their actions. They will be able to discern better the faults of society and the choices made by impulse and animal tendencies.46 Self-culture makes people more rational, and rationality overcomes baser motives. This allows people to live more harmoniously together because they can see better the conditions that would debase others and themselves.
Within these attempts to cultivate the divine likeness within, people can cultivate themselves wherever they are. Even the worst conditions can provide opportunities to nurture the divinity within. The grueling work of manual labor for little pay does not have to demean. In fact, one can reverse the hierarchy and see how such conditions can actually accelerate self-culture as people strive even harder to overcome obstacles in their life in order to come closer to God. Once out of that environment, the progress one had made will be firmer than those who did not face such adversities.47
Through this emphasis on self-cultivation, Channing and the other Unitarians replaced the Calvinist emphasis on a conversion experience through the grace of God and replaced it with agential autonomous acts.48 The idea of original sin vanished. Human abilities needed further cultivation to help us avoid further sinful acts, but God had given us the skills to overcome our tendencies to sin and to correct our lives. This idea had a significant impact on American thought, and the idea of self-culture and the importance of education became central themes in Transcendentalism.49
His publication "Self-Culture" elaborated this position that others would later incorporate into their philosophical and religious perspectives. This tract contributed to his reputation in America and Europe.50 He outlined the privileged place America had for people because it provided a place for self-improvement that no other country provided.51 He was urging the mass of people to cultivate their grand natures. They need to use role models and education as part of their means to improve themselves to overcome their inward struggles to resist sin and self-indulgence.52 His metaphoric language addressed the commonplace agricultural tropes that still permeated New England's culture using it to emphasize the need to nurture the self as one would nurture a seed.53 This development was moral, intellectual, and religious, yet Channing subordinated the intellectual to the religious and the moral aspects.54 Through this process the ability to act benevolently toward others and one's country develops, and the person is predisposed to love others and to develop intimate friendships.55 In the end, self-culture had very practical ends; it led to a firmness of character, which would help to make right decisions, and people could see better the beauty of the world and put their thoughts into coherent, persuasive language; all of this would lead to the ability to influence others and help to make political decision for the benefit of one's community and country.56
Channing's theological ideas about God, Christ, and humanity intertwined to create his concept of religion. In Channing's estimation, living a religious life was the most important aim of each life. His ideas about God shaped his views of Christ and humanity. The unity of God and God's fatherly love are important to understanding Christ's united nature and his divine mission to reform the world and help people understand how to cultivate their divine likeness to their heavenly father. Channing's theological ideas were too heterodox for most Calvinists in New England, especially those who believed in Calvin's elaboration of the Trinity, the nature of God, and humanity's depraved nature. These theological ideas helped to prepare the way for other liberal religious ideas, such as Transcendentalism, as orthodox Christians had warned. It was in this opposition to Calvinism that Channing elaborated a theological position that celebrated Enlightenment ideas of agential autonomy and Western beliefs in progress. In other words, Channing was helping to shape a new theological discourse for modernity in America.
1. See "Unitarian Christianity" and "Christian Worship" in William Ellery Channing, The Works of William E. Channing, D. D, New and complete ed. (Boston: American Unitarian Association, 1898), 377 and 415, respectively. William Ellery Channing and William Henry Channing, The Life of William Ellery Channing: The Centenary Memorial Edition, ed. William Henry Channing, Reprint ed. (Hicksville: The Regina Press, 1975), 143-44. Sydney E. Ahlstrom and Jonathan S. Carey, eds., An American Reformation: A Documentary History of Unitarian Christianity (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1985), 35-38. Charles T. Brooks, William Ellery Channing: A Centenial Memory (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1880), 80, 209. Also see Andrews Norton, "A Statement of Reasons for Not Believing the Doctrines of Trinitarians," in An American Reformation: A Documentary History of Unitarian Christianity, ed. Sydney E. Ahlstrom and Jonathan S. Carey (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1985), 67-75.