© Hollis Huston 2011
“The Music of Enlightenment”
a sermon preached by Hollis Huston
at South Nassau Unitarian Universalist Congregation
on March 27, 2011
An earlier version of this sermon was spoken at Muttontown Unitarian Universalist Fellowship on January 16, 2011
I Kings 3:5-13, 4:29-34
The Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I should give you.” And Solomon said, . . . . “You have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child: I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you. I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor all your life; no other king shall compare with you.”
God gave Solomon very great wisdom, discernment, and breadth of understanding so vast as the sand on the seashore, so that Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east, and all the wisdom of Egypt. . . . People came from all the nations to hear the wisdom of Solomon; they came from all the kings of the earth who had heard of his wisdom.
“What is Enlightenment?” by Immanuel Kant
Enlightenment is man’s leaving his self-caused immaturity. Immaturity is the incapacity to use one’s intelligence without the guidance of another. . . . Sapere aude! Have the courage to use your own intelligence! Is therefore the motto of the enlightenment. Through laziness and cowardice a large part of mankind, even after nature has freed them from alien guidance, gladly remain immature. . . . It is so comfortable to be a minor!
Annie Moore’s Pub stands just outside the Vanderbilt Ave. exit from Grand Central Station. In the basement room a list of “Murphy’s Laws” is posted. The fifth of these laws, more or less, is a statement that I’ll call Murphy’s paradox: “If you try to please everybody, someone won’t like it.” We’ve all said at some time, “Well, you can’t please everyone,” haven’t we? But Murphy’s paradox is more profound than that. He doesn’t just say that it’s hard to please those last few people; he says that if you try to please everybody you will make an enemy by doing so.
I sometimes think of this paradox because we religious liberals often try to please everybody. We think there is a reasonable way of living that, if everybody sees it, everybody will want to follow, and so we sometimes think we can overcome injustice with niceness. “Liberal” is a word that carries pleasant meanings such as “generous,” “broad-minded,” “bountiful” and “tolerant.” Our name is enough to make us fall in love with ourselves. “Can’t we all just get along?” asked Rodney King, who might, we think, fully understand that we cannot. We’re such nice people: surely all we have to do is state our case, and everyone will want to play with us. Justice seems so reasonable. Wouldn’t it make everybody happy?
But the emergence of reason rather than authority as a regulatory principle of science and ethics was not a universally welcomed event. It was called Enlightenment, and there were many vested interests who tried to suppress it. Enlightenment still has enemies, and not all of them are among the reactionaries. We ourselves, whose principles are deduced from Enlightenment, sometimes turn against it without realizing the contradiction.
The popular historians Will and Ariel Durant called the Enlightenment an “Age of Reason.” That honorific title makes Enlightenment sound very reasonable, and pretty dull. Being “reasonable,” in common parlance, means being compliant, unexceptionable, conformable, never sticking out, never making an inconvenient fuss. The phrase “Age of Reason” makes us think of minuets (slow and boring), of men standing around in powdered wigs, with their calves encased in stockings, and of women dressed in hoop skirts. Well, I’ve got news for us. Enlightenment is not, never was, dull. It’s turbulent, sarcastic, sexy, funny, and dangerous.
“Sapere Aude,” said Kant, quoting the Roman poet Horace. Dare to be wise. Have the courage to use your mind. Seek wisdom. Search for truth and meaning. On a global scale, be reasonable, each of you.
Enlightenment was juicy and boisterous and bawdy and hilarious. The minuet, like all slow court dances, was a ritual of sexual dalliance and display. Those stockinged legs – that was a male sexual display, turned to advantage in the dances of the day. Old men and skinny men would pad those stockings so that their legs wouldn’t look flat and shrunken. Two of the most salacious books ever written come from the eighteenth century “Age of Reason.” They are the twelve volume autobiography of Giacomo Casanova (yes, he was a real person), and the London Journals of James Boswell, the biographer of Samuel Johnson.
Above all, Enlightenment was dangerous, both to those who professed it and to those it was professed against. Its creators were reviled as atheists and traitors, outcasts and villains, sometimes imprisoned, sometimes persecuted, sometimes exiled. Enlightenment dethroned kings, and defrocked priests, and it’s no wonder that kings, tyrants and prelates revile Enlightenment to this day. Enlightenment says that all people are created equal – there is no special right of a king, or pope, or a Communist Party chairman to tell us what to do. All human beings must (figuratively speaking) put their pants on one leg at a time.
Enlightenment is the mother tongue of American institutions. Our Unitarian ancestor Thomas Jefferson distilled Enlightenment politics and morality when he wrote (with a little help from a committee) “We hold these truths to be self-evident – that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” We forget how utterly scandalous and revolutionary these words are. Medieval political and moral theory, articulated most famously by John of Salisbury, said quite the opposite -- that we were each born to serve in our place. Society was a body, and the head – guess who that was – got to direct the whole. There were a few who composed the strong right arm – the warrior nobility. The rest of us, the vast majority, were stomach, legs and feet, and we were each of us born to perform the duties of our place rather than aspire to a place above our natures. Before the philosophers established the idea of universal individual rights, the general human belief was that most people were born to serve those placed above them in society.
To say these shocking words of Thomas Jefferson is to sum up the work of Immanuel Kant, the last and greatest of the Enlightenment philosophers. Kant liberated reason for the use of humankind by criticizing it – by establishing, in a way that has never been shaken, the limits of reason – what reason can and cannot do. The power of Enlightenment rationality, and its scandal, is that it allows of no special cases. In physical science this means no miracles. In moral inquiry it means no divine rights.
Kant assumed that the good must be reasonable, and asked what the rational basis of moral action is. He came to the conclusion that a good and therefore rational action must be consistently true. Not true just for you or for me, but for all human beings. A moral action is therefore a generalizable action. A moral person asks himself: what if everybody behaved as I do?
“Act so that the maxim of your will can be valid at the same time as a principle of universal legislation.” This Categorical Imperative, as he called it, was not a set of commandments, but was rather the underlying test for a commandment’s acceptability. Civilized societies don’t allow us to kill each other because murder is self-contradictory – if I kill you, I’m planning not to be killed by anyone else. Civilized societies don’t let us steal from each other because once I’ve taken your car or your jacket I’m expecting my property rights to be protected. My violent action would speak a world in which people simply take what they want; and I don’t want to live in such a world, not really.
So Kant’s test of moral actions leads to the following consequence: that every person’s life, is an end in itself. “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.” You are not here for my use, and I am not here for yours. White people don’t get to use black people to do their work. Men don’t get to use women for their pleasure. Kings or Communist party chairmen don’t a divine or a historical right to use the rest of us as instruments of their glory. All of us have a right to exist and, as Jefferson so memorably said, to pursue happiness.
The seven principles of Unitarian Universalism are closely related both to Kant’s Imperative and to Jefferson’s axiom. We believe that all human beings are created equal, which is to say that they are born with worth and dignity. We believe that no one is created to serve others, and that creation implies for each of us a pursuit of happiness. The pursuit of happiness not only allows but requires a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. The right of conscience and the democratic process are ways of protecting the rights, worth and dignity of the largest possible number of individuals. We are therefore devoted to and invested in Enlightenment.
And our devotion to Enlightenment is risky. Make no mistake about it: the pursuit of wisdom will offend somebody, and if we dare to be wise we shall have enemies. If we try to please everybody, some one won’t like it. There are, and have always been, people invested in the proposition that some of us don’t have worth and dignity. There are people who hate it when others pursue truth and meaning. There are people who openly or covertly detest the democratic process. There are people who don’t want to respect a world community. Though we love discussion circles, there are people who feel threatened by the idea of a discussion circle, and their notion of participation is to throw a bomb at it.
The announcement in history of radical equality was one of the triumphs of human history, and it has been our mission, our burden sometimes reluctantly taken up, to carry this idea forward in a religious form. It has led us, at some times in our history, to solidarity with the liberation of people of color. It has led us to assert the dignity of women and of sexual minorities. It leads us today to defend the rights of those who wish to better their condition by coming to our country for work and a future.
The creation of this idea was a turbulent, juicy, dangerous time in history. And the Age of Enlightenment created its own brand of music – the symphony, a long form with many turns in the road, in which the listener goes on a journey of transformation and change. The greatest of these symphonies, the one that still intimidates the composers who followed, is the mighty Ninth of Beethoven, the Chorale Symphony. And there’s something amazing about this music of Enlightenment: it keeps showing up in at great moments in human liberation, and in parts of the world where it was not created. When the Berlin Wall came down, there was a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth. And on the day when the racist Union of South Africa came to an end, and they raised the flag of the multi-racial Republic, to be led by Nelson Mandela – on that day, in a part of the world where Europeans were only a minority and their legacy had been far from enlightened, there was another performance of Beethoven’s Ninth. Now why, one might ask, in the midst of many other musics, was this music also performed? One might suppose that it was performed because it does something that no other music can do.
At the climax of this symphony a rare thing happens – the entrance of vocal music. Four soloists and a chorus sing the words of Friedrich Schiller’s “An die Freude,” known in English as the “Ode to Joy.” And what is the Joy about? Schiller’s Joy is about the coming of justice into the world. I’m asking you to sing this music and Schiller’s words, in English translation, as your final hymn today. But right now I’ll repeat, in German, the most thrilling lines of this poem. “Deine Zauber binden wieder/Was die Mode streng geteilt” – Joy, your magic binds together what custom had held strongly apart. “Alle Menschen werden Brüder, Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt” – all human beings are becoming brothers, under the protection of your soft wings. All human beings are becoming brothers. An earlier version of the poem said “Bettler werden Fürstenbrüder” -- beggars will become the brothers of princes. “Congratulations to the poor,: said Yeshua ben Miriam, “for they shall inherit the kingdom.”
So here are the three texts that all religious liberals should hold sacred. Our Unitarian Universalist Principles are a digest of them. First, the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Second, the Categorical Imperative: act only in ways whose principle could be a universal law. And Third, the Jeffersonian axiom: all persons are created equal, with the unalienable right to pursue happiness. And all these statements look forward to what Yeshua ben Miriam called the Divine Domain, when Justice and Power will be united.
We have been told, by some of our ministers, that we Unitarian Universalists have a specific religious culture, that it is alienating to some, and we must change it in order to survive and prosper in America. I say it is true that we have a specific religious culture, requiring the pursuit of wisdom through reason. I say that our specific culture is indeed alienating to some – because liberal culture has always been offensive to those opposed to reason and always will be. I say that if we are to change our culture, we must do so by learning to live it again, live up to it, and proclaim it with pride. I pray that I will never give up on Schiller’s dream – that Alle Menschen werden Brüder. There’s nothing to apologize for in the idea of universal human kinship. World community is our sixth principle, and universal interdependence is our seventh. Some followers of Enlightenment have behaved in unenlightened ways. But that is a criticism of the dreamer and not of the dream.
Enlightenment is a way of naming, undermining and assaulting the powers of organized irrationality and special privilege. The pursuit of Wisdom is something to be proud of, even if not all of us have easy access to its hard- and software. Reason is not the problem – Reason is the solution. And Unitarians were not put on this earth, or here in this place in America, to make irrationality comfortable. We are not here to get along with everybody. We are here to pursue wisdom with love, and let the chips fall where they may, in faith that wisdom and reason will ultimately prevail if we do not abandon them. If we live our principles, we will sure as shootin’ alienate some people, and make some enemies. If we do the work of peace and justice, not everyone will feel welcome among us. But we will shine with what some would call the light of God, helping our true friends to find us, and then we won’t have to worry about our growth and health as a liberal religious movement. The world doesn’t need one more minute of liberal guilt; but it groans for liberal responsibility. We must dare to be wise; and if we do so we shall deserve to be good.