Technological advances bring us new wonders, but also provide us with a capacity for our own destruction, revealing the best and worst humanity has to offer. Saving faith is essential for humanity to flourish. But we are born with saving faith. Here’s just one example, from one of my favorite religious teachers: my younger daughter, Colleen.
Long before I became a minister, I was a construction worker in Salt Lake City. Construction work closely follows the ups and downs of the local economy. When Salt Lake’s economy went into a serious local recession, I was forced to leave town and find a place where the economy was better to find work. Nobody in my family liked that idea—and I didn’t, either.
Colleen was less than two years old, too small to talk much. But she did understand that I was going away. She asked why I was leaving. I told her I had to go away to earn money so we could all eat. Winter was coming and I wanted to give her hope that my time away wouldn’t last forever, so I told her that I would return when the flowers began to bloom. If she saw any flowers blooming, she’d better call me on the telephone and tell me so that I could come home.
I found work in California. I talked to my two daughters on the phone every few days, and each time Colleen would say, “Daddy, the flowers are blooming.” There was a foot of snow on the ground in Salt Lake City, but I’d unwittingly given her magic words she thought would bring me back. “Daddy, the flowers are blooming.” It was so innocent—she had no idea how to lie, she was just saying something she wished were true. I couldn’t be angry with her. I bitterly missed her, my wife, and my elder daughter, Erin, so I understood her attempt to end the heartache of separation.
I was working sixty hours a week, but I still had time to be lonely. By the middle of January, I decided that even unemployment was better than being away from my family. I loaded my tools back into my car, quit that job, and drove 700 miles back home.
I was worn out by the time I arrived. I walked in, hugged my wife and Erin and Colleen, and sat down on the sofa. Colleen climbed up beside me and just stood there, stroking my arm and staring at me with an expression that I can only describe as ecstatic joy. She was so happy, she was actually funny to look at, glowing with the pleasure of seeing her father again. Looking into her eyes, I realized that I was looking at something eternal, something truly holy. There was a cosmic connection in that moment. My two-year-old child was showing me what really mattered in life: the way human beings are meant to look at one another. In stroking my arm, she was touching me the way we were meant to touch one another.
I was 35 years old, and I thought I knew something about life and love. But in that moment, I realized that I didn’t know anything. My two-year-old daughter was teaching me. Without words, my daughter was saying to me, “This is what holiness is. You matter to me, and now I know that I matter to you, as well.”
Two faces of human nature
Our lives matter. That is the core statement of a truly saving faith. The eighteenth-century English poet William Blake showed one tiny corner of this faith—the kind of innocent appreciation my daughter showed me—in a poem titled “The Lamb”:
Little lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Gave thee life and bid thee feed
By the stream and o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, woolly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?
Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Little lamb, I’ll tell thee,
Little lamb, I’ll tell thee:
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb.
He is meek and he is mild;
He became a little child.
I a child, and thou, a lamb,
We are called by his name.
Little Lamb, God bless thee!
Little Lamb, God bless thee!
Blake was a complex and passionately religious man, now recognized as one of the most brilliant literary minds England has produced. It’s tempting to see “The Lamb” as a saccharine statement of Christian theism, which, in a sense, it is. But it’s more than that. Blake was a restless intellect, ever reexamining things. “The Lamb” appeared in a very early collection of his poems titled Songs of Innocence. He later produced an enlarged collection, Songs of Innocence and Experience. This second collection contained another famous poem, “The Tyger”:
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?
And what shoulder, and what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? and what dread feet?
What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?
When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
Both the Lamb and the Tyger are creations of the same God. As a mystic, Blake saw the same divine connection in the Lamb with its innocent delight and its rejoicing tenderness and in the Tyger with its eyes of fire. To Blake, both images reflect divine reality. What’s more, both the Lamb and the Tyger are faces of human nature.
So it was that when I looked into my little daughter’s face so many years ago, I could see the sweet face of the Lamb, with its “tender voice, making all the vales rejoice.” In the joy and trust and vulnerability she showed me, my daughter Colleen was expressing a pure faith—a joyful worship of human connection, which, probably, only a small child can.
As we gain life experience, we gradually give up that simple way of looking at things. When I was very small, I wore the face of the Lamb. I’ve seen the pictures. But I got older, I experienced life, I ran into a world more often harsh than loving. As I grew, I left that childlike joy far behind. I thought I’d gained something in the bargain. But looking back, I realize that in my youth I was often afraid and often in pain. To protect myself, I learned to show the world quite a lot of the Tyger. Remembering this, I can look into a human face now and see the Tyger—and I realize that as powerful and frightening as that Tyger may look, a Tyger without a Lamb is more about fear than about strength.
This crucial point explains much about our postmodern world. The one who is actually frightened is not the Lamb. It’s the Tyger. The Tyger knows all about pain and danger and fear. The Lamb knows delight—and tears—as a regular part of a day’s intercourse. By itself, the Tyger doesn’t have time for delight. And it sees tears as a sign of weakness. By itself, the Tyger is afraid of weakness.
Love, joy, fierceness, and fear are all part of what we are. The interplay between them is wonderful and horrible, sacred and profane—and holy in complex ways. Destruction and despair lie in our all-too-human practice of sending our Tygers out to vex the world, even while we proclaim images of the Lamb to soothe our consciences.
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed
Which brings me to a third poem, which anticipates the religious realities of our present-day world: William Butler Yeats’s “The Second Coming”:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Yeats’s imagery in “The Second Coming,” is brutal, enigmatic, and frightening—no less now than when it was first written, in 1919. Yeats’s country, Ireland, was being torn apart by political violence. The First World War had just come to a grisly end. The war descended directly from the writings of an early nineteenth-century Prussian military genius named Carl von Clausewitz, who thought of war as “a continuation of policy by other means.” Clausewitz was instrumental in developing the awesome Prussian military-industrial machine and, over the next hundred years, other European nations bolstered their military strength to keep up. When the First World War came, their mighty machines began to grind Europe to cinders. Titanic battles went on for months, killed millions, and turned forest and field into moonlike wasteland. Such horrors helped inspire Yeats’s poetic imagery.
Yeats describes a world that has gone terribly out of balance. The Lamb has fallen into evil purpose: “the ceremony of innocence is drowned.” Yeats sums up our own world’s chaos in one statement: “The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
Today, as well, the “blood-dimmed tide” has been loosed in the name of religion. In the deserts of our own time, “indignant desert birds” reel and swoop: American warplanes shoot rockets and drop bombs on innocent civilians, cheered on by American fundamentalists who see conflict in the Middle East as the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Other religious fanatics destroy themselves along with their targets, often innocent civilians. In too many places, the Tyger—a sphinx of reckless religious authority—slouches towards Bethlehem and towards Baghdad, towards the Gaza Strip and towards Europe. It “vexes to nightmare” a suffering world, with a gaze all too often “blank and pitiless as the sun.” And yet this sphinx is far removed from the ideals of the founders of those religious traditions.
My own nation lives in justified fear of terrorist attacks on our soil, as do other economically developed nations. Yet when the Tyger is fearful, the Tyger is itself most dangerous, most capable of evil. America’s fear has caused us to export the same kind of violence that racked Europe during Yeats’s time. We have invaded and bombed foreign lands and killed untold thousands of the innocent. We have preached freedom, democracy, and justice while practicing violence, horror, and torture. We have defied international law, tortured and abused prisoners of war, and even begun to spy on our own people. And in so doing, we have made ourselves even more vulnerable to terrorism than we were before.
But who is this we? The Clausewitzian machine that crushes weaker nations like insects and the pursuit of aggressive war are not products of just one person or even just one political party. Particularly in a democracy like the United States, every person who participates in—or even tolerates—our increasingly military-industrial culture bears some responsibility for its deeds. Few Americans can claim to be totally unsoiled by this machine; I cannot honestly make such a claim.
Terrorism is only one nightmare in our postmodern world. My dictionary defines terrorism as “organized violence and intimidation, usually for political ends.” Terrorism, rooted in political and religious fundamentalism, is indeed a terrible thing. But what are we to say of nations who irresponsibly use war for political purposes and unleash the horrors of war without regard for its impact upon the innocent? If a bombed, gutted building is terrorism, then is not a ruthlessly bombed, gutted city and a displaced, shattered population—done for political purposes at home and policy purposes abroad—horrorism? To me, “horrorism” is a fitting term for what we have done.
A war recklessly entered into and heedlessly pursued for the sake of political goals only, without serious defensive need, is horrorism. Encouraged by religious fundamentalism at home, our government has loosed the horrors of war and new atrocity against innocent civilians far more than against terrorists, because we fear religious terrorism from abroad. In response to terror, America’s voters have licensed a government of horrorists, vexing to nightmare the lives of men, women, and children who had nothing to do with attacks against us. We have discarded our best traditions, our potential to be a light among nations, and become a stone-blind Tyger, slouching toward Bethlehem.
Covenant: The faith of ethical relationship
Theologian Hans Küng wrote, “There will be no peace among the nations without peace among the religions.” The terrors and horrors of our own time confirm the truth of this statement. Violence is quietly accepted and sometimes openly encouraged by the three great Western religious traditions, even as they proclaim the virtues of faith, justice, compassion, and mercy. We praise the best of the Lamb while turning our world into a wilderness of Tygers.
It is a sad comment on human nature that we are so able to pray for peace while condoning war, to preach tolerance and enlightenment while condemning as evil those who believe differently from us. The religions of the world are not at peace because they have put their faith in the wrong place: in religious authority itself. But faith in religious authority is not working. If we may know a faith by its fruits, faith in the absolute authority of religious belief has ever been a poisonous tree.
William Blake suggested that the Lamb and the Tyger are equally holy. But if that is the case, does it not also follow that the Lamb and the Tyger are also equally unholy, equally evil?
Fierceness without foresight and passion without compassion are evil. But beyond early childhood, joyful and pious spirituality without concern for those who suffer or for the fate of future generations is no better. The Lamb that lacks conviction feeds evil just as easily as the Tyger with its passionate intensity.
The religions of the world are not at peace—but why not? Given the uncertainty of the human experience and human perception, it strikes me as neither wise nor ethical for any tradition to urge that its adherents abandon their inter-human obligations in support of any singular religious authority. When we turn against one another in service of some “higher power,” we split and bypass our own humanity. It becomes too easy to celebrate the Lamb while feeding the Tyger. We need a faith of ethical relationship: Lamb and Tyger harnessed together in a faith that serves, rather than separated into mutually opposed faiths that destroy.
That religious harness already exists. It is a faith of covenant: a committed faith that people’s lives matter, that what happens between human beings here and now matters more than the authority of any particular belief, and that we have it in our power to make the future better than the past.
A covenant is a solemn promise. The concept has ancient roots that predate even the Jewish and Christian sources of the Unitarian Universalist tradition. The writers of the Hebrew Bible described their allegiance to their God, YHWH, using language they understood: They made a covenant—a solemn promise—with YHWH in the form of the standard diplomatic treaties of their day. They were worshippers and YHWH was their Lord, so a parity treaty—a promise between peers—would not have been appropriate. Instead, they framed their relationship as a vassal treaty, with YHWH as the superior party.
Political covenants became the model for religious covenants in the Hebrew Bible. The Encyclopedia of Religion tells us that “the religious covenant . . . called for [two different things:] allegiance to a single God and observance of important mutual obligations in the society (respect for life, property, justice, and so on). . . . This was a powerful force for national union, an operative principle, rather than a theological abstraction.”
Covenantal faith is not a “theological abstraction.” It’s a way of living in the world. A vassal covenant with God calls people into a parity covenant with one another, into a way of living that sees each human being as created in the image of the Divine. Hebrew religion made a solemn promise not just to worship faithfully, but also to act justly and ethically, especially toward those who were weakest.
Jesus of Nazareth’s interpretation of Mosaic Law and, most importantly, his Beatitudes intensified the ethical mandate of covenantal religion. Unfortunately, Christianity changed when it became the religious arm of the Roman Empire. The Romans ignored much of Jesus’s ethical teaching. Faith in ethical conduct and right relationship was replaced by authority—by belief in the godhood of Jesus himself. In practice, medieval Europeans too often neglected the importance of conscience and of individual human beings, and overemphasized the authority of the institutional Church as their sole connection with God. The religious life was lived through Church authority. Unless a person took part in the Church’s sacraments with Church approval, they were cut off from God no matter how ethical they were in other ways. Authority became crucial while the ethical and relational aspects of Christianity were sacrificed.
This difference, between ethical relationship on the one hand and authority on the other, marks the dividing line between liberal and fundamentalist religion to this day. To a religious fundamentalist, my good works toward my fellow human beings will not save me from eternal punishment. I am lost unless I accept the proper religious authority. On the other hand, a religious liberal’s faith centers on the human condition, ethics, relationship, and faith in the importance of each person.
The Protestant Reformation challenged the medieval Church’s authority. Martin Luther and John Calvin both believed religion was between the individual and God, no matter what the Church did. In theory at least, the Reformation moved toward a more democratic spirituality. But in practice, the tensions between Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Calvinism touched off religious warfare that killed millions. Religious authority is a compelling master and does not relinquish its place easily.
The minority churches of the Radical Reformation, including Polish and Transylvanian Unitarians, moved more directly toward a religion that served humanity, rather than the other way around—just as Christian progressives in many traditions have worked hard to reclaim the covenantal faith Jesus actually preached.
But English and Scottish Calvinist churches turned back to the Bible to find guidance on how faithful people ought to live together. This led to a return—in theory at least—to the covenant as a mainstream Christian idea. Covenantal English Puritans and Scottish Presbyterians certainly retained their faith in authority. But they also believed a church’s members were not in correct relationship with God unless they were living together the right way.
When the Puritans came to New England, they continued to refine covenantal faith as a voluntary agreement between free and equal human beings. One of the first legal documents in America was an agreement called the Mayflower Compact, in 1620. In part it states,
We, . . . do by these presents, solemnly and mutually in the Presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves. . . into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation. . . . And by Virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions, and Offices. . . as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general Good of the Colony.
The Rev. Peter Raible, a Unitarian Universalist minister, writes that despite its religious language the Mayflower Compact is a civil—not religious—agreement. In this way, the practice of covenant turned full circle. It began as a secular practice, then was adapted for religious use, but ultimately helped shape secular democracy.
A covenant is a willing agreement between free partners. In his essay, “From Cage to Covenant,” Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams contrasted between what he called the “cage,” the coercive medieval church and the equally coercive medieval state, and the “covenant,” government by the consent and will of those governed.
Adams emphasized five important points about covenants. First, human beings are at our best when we make solemn promises to one another and try hard to keep them. We are the only animal that makes promises: we are “promise-making, promise-keeping, promise-breaking, promise-renewing” creatures. Our very humanity lies in the way we carry out our promises to our families, our coworkers, our neighbors, and our fellow members of the human family.
His second point is that to be genuine, a covenant must be a “covenant of being.” It’s not just about good words, but about actions.
Third, the covenant exists for the sake of each individual as well as for the whole group. It is both a gift and a responsibility. The individual is brought into just relationship with the rest of the group, but each individual is also responsible for what the whole group does. If what my church—or my nation—does is wrong, I share in that responsibility. Again, it’s not just about blaming one person, one faction, or one political party. It’s not enough just to say, “I didn’t know what was going on,” or “there’s nothing I can do about it.” My covenantal duty is to be informed on what is happening, and to act on that information.
Fourth, Adams says, “the covenantal responsibility is especially directed toward the deprived.” Covenantal living demands that we pay attention to those who suffer from society’s neglect or injustice, from war and horrorism, from the predation of Tygers and the disengagement of Lambs, and that we do something about it.
He also reminds us of the difference that can exist between our covenant—our expressed ideals of how we want to live together—and our actions. One task of the covenantal church is to call attention to the gap between our high-sounding words and our low actions.
Finally, Adams makes the point that “the covenant . . . is not fundamentally a legal covenant. It depends on faithfulness, and faithfulness is nerved by loyalty, by love.” In other words, covenantal living is not about obeying the letter of the law while we take advantage of someone. Violation of a covenant is serious not because it breaks a law, but because it’s a violation of trust. It is a breach of faith.
We make promises to one another, we do the best we can. Even to make a serious promise is a real expression of faith, not only in the person we promise to, but also that the future is worth saving—that, at its best, the future can and will be better than the past. To make promises calls forth the best that is in us. But we are human and we make mistakes. Promises get broken. So we try again. Covenantal faith does not ask us to be perfect. It asks us to look at our own mistakes and shortcomings, and try earnestly to correct them.
Covenantal faith joins the best aspects of the Lamb and the Tyger while honoring both. It is a simple and human faith. It was the faith my daughter, Colleen, showed when she gazed into my eyes as a tiny tot. Simply getting out of bed each morning makes a statement about life and ultimate reality, based solely on faith: namely, that life is worth living. In being lived and spoken, rather than merely assumed, this becomes a statement of saving faith which can “hold the center” in this postmodern world. Your life matters, my life matters, and the future can be better than the past. The lives of our grandchildren depend on a covenantal commitment to life, to one another, and to the future.
Abridged from “Of Terrorism, Horrorism, Covenant, and Rebellion,” a paper presented at the Theological Symposium of the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists in Kolozsvár, Romania, in 2006 and published in The Home We Share: Globalization, Post-Modernism, and Unitarian/Universalist Theology, edited by Clifford M. Reed and Jill K. McAllister (ICUU: 2007; $23 from uuabookstore.org).
- The Home We Share: Globalization, Post-Modernism, and Unitarian/Universalist Theology. Ed. by Clifford M. Reed and Jill K. McAllister. International Council of Unitarians and Universalists, 2007. (UUA Bookstore)