William Ellery Channing's sermonic prose poem defining, and honoring, the free mind is a prophetic call to all people to reach for freedom. Possess yourself as the first step toward living a life of virtue, compassion and spiritual growth.
It is an overlooked classic, its wisdom hidden behind 19th century prose. Yet, in its way, it speaks to all the internal and external forces that bend us toward passive acceptance of the status quo.
It was first in a sermon. I have included the sermon text in italics. The red letters are the portions that have been edited into a Responsive Reading in Singing the Living Tradition. My commentary is indented.
William Ellery Channing, from “Spiritual Freedom” (1830)
It has pleased the All-wise Disposer to encompass us from our birth by difficulty and allurement, to place us in a world where wrong-doing is often gainful, and duty rough and perilous, where many vices oppose the dictates of the inward monitor, where the body presses as a weight upon the mind, and matter, by its perpetual agency on the senses, becomes a barrier between us and the spiritual world. We are in the midst of influences, which menace the intellect and heart; and to be free, is to withstand and conquer these.
Channing starts from a dualist and idealist framework, opposing the life of the spirit to the life of the body. We now no longer make that opposition explicit. But Channing was typical of the times; his Transcendentalist colleagues were there too.
Remember that Channing wrote long before Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. Those later 19th century authors revealed that what we think is not the result of our conscious thinking processes.
Marx revealed that our thinking, especially our thinking about society, is the product of our material experience in the relations of production. Much of our thinking is, therefore, self-interested ideology. We, today, accept this whole-heartedly. After all, we automatically check the opinions of others against the material interests that come from their social position.
Similarly, Freud revealed that what we think and feel is not conscious, but from unconscious and subconscious processes that we barely perceive. Psychological interpretation of thought is assumed today.
So, when we read that “we are in the midst of influences which menace the intellect and heart”, we should bring our contemporary understandings of the forces does “menace the intellect and the heart.” Freedom is then, according to Channing, to “withstand and conquer” these.
I ask you if this is not true It is for me often. My first impulse in many situations, or when confronted with unfamiliar people, is to respond according to my conditioning.
I don’t understand poor people, because it has been so long since my temporary poverty.
I’ve got all sorts of issues that come from family history and my own particular experience in my family. I experience those impulses as those default choice, indeed sometimes, the only choice, and hence not a choice at all.
Acting in freedom, acting the way I really wish to act, means ‘withstanding’ and ‘conquering’ my first impulses, my default.
What does Channing mean by ‘the mind’? ‘The mind’ is one of those phrases that you know what it seems to mean, although when you look at it closely, there is no obvious clarity to it. It is not the ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ since they seem to be permanent and unchanging within us. On the other hand, I think that is more than the ‘intellect’ since it has a moral aspiration. As Channing says here, ‘the mind’ ‘hungers and thirsts for righteousness.’ The way that I understand it is that is perhaps ‘the conscious personhood’ or ‘our most conscious self’.
It would be a mistake to read Channing as talking only about the intellect as the mind, and freedom as being a lack of restriction, as though this were a exposition on freedom of the pulpit or academic freedom at a school. The whole piece is entitled “spiritual freedom,’ after all. Another phrase in this first sentence that is curious is that ‘it [the mind] recognises its own reality and greatness.‘ A thoroughly Emersonian understanding of the particular uniqueness of each individual’s perception and understanding.
So much of the spiritual life of today is exactly this: noticing the radiant signatures which everywhere bears of the Infinite Spirit and seeking in them enlightenment. The lyric poetry which is our canon is all about bringing to our consciousness the radiant signature of the infinite spirit.
Channing called this “having a free mind,” In the 20th century, Edwin H. Friedman named it as “Self-differentiation”. I have heard it defined as being able to be different, knowing one’s own thoughts, yet remaining in relationship. Channing bounces back and forth between being true to oneself, and yet open to new and different thoughts and influences. “Not content with passive, or hereditary faith” and “open to light whencesoever it may come.”
On the other side of the bound[ary] of our love is indifference. Elie Wiesel says that the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. For Channing, the free mind is one that acts according to the virtue of a universal solidarity and compassion.
To me, this is about our struggle to not be limited in our thinking by the outward circumstances of our life: our social location. All of the privileges that we enjoy are “outward circumstance”, it is an outward circumstance that I am white, male, straight, prosperous. Do I accept these passively? Channing offers a different perspective on this question: not one of moral judgement, but of freedom. My thinking is not free if I do not see the limitations that my social position makes on my consciousness.
Those that know themselves, those who are self-possessed, can be fearless and calm. Where does this strength come from? There is so much revealed in Channing’s choice of the phrase, “confidence in God.” If he had said “faith in God”, he would have implied that God strengthens those who believe properly, as “faith” so often implies “belief”. If he had said “by the grace of God”, that also formulaic phrase would have implied a passive dependency on God’s choice, not on ours. Too Calvinist for Channing. No, the word “confidence” implies that we can be calm because we are trust in the ultimate goodness of God’s creation. I read the next phrase “the power of virtue” as classical humanist re-statement of the same thought. We have strength because we trust that doing the right thing will be more likely to end well than not.
I read this as Channing’s attempt to describe what we know today as the demands of our personal psychology. We make unconscious and habitual responses to events based on how we have processed our experiences. It looks mechanical repitition; it can surface as rigidity. Channing says that we are not free, or self-differentiated, until we are able to transcend these compulsions and respond to the new. “New occasions teach new duties”.
The editors of the hymnbook re-arranged Channing’s ending, concluding with the calmness that comes from self-possession, though all else be lost. We all agree with that. But I like some of what Channing says in this ending: specifically, that spiritual freedom could be the “great end of society and government.”
These days, we criticize Channing and the classic Unitarians of the 19th Century Boston for their individualism. It’s part of our renewed focus on community. But, in order for communities to be non-oppressive, they must be based on covenants: people’s conscious commitment to be together. Yes, we are in community first, and without our choice, but covenant making is the mark of our conscious commitment, an act of our agency.
Channing lived in the age of the early Republic, a time when a whole new understanding of individuals and community was no longer in birth, but were broadening into popular consciousness. The equality of all human beings, the end of deference to aristocracies, imaginings of a popular democracy, the faith in human agency: these were ideas in their adolescence. As with many things adolescent, they are not wrong, but will tempered by time and complication.
William Ellery Channing was not a political activist. He was hardly an institutional leader. He was on the intellectual front lines of a struggle for a particular form of freedom: the freedom to claim one's own thought religiously. The goal of his struggle and the content of it turned out to be the same. He fought against the Calvinist orthodoxy of Puritan New England for a belief in human agency as expressed as the right to believe as one freely chose. And religious liberals have, for decades, been the most clear about one principle: each person must be free to confront the big questions of life as they will. So much so, that leaving one's old church to pursue religious freedom was the signature gesture of religious liberalism for decades.
But now, most people are not fighting for freedom from their churches. But they struggle for the freedom of their minds against "the usurpations of society" in so many other ways. We can now add to Freud and Marx, the revelations of second wave feminism: That what we think to be our selves is a socially constructed identity. We are not either male or female (exclusively), but with gender determination comes a complete definition of who we are, how we are to think, what we can expect, what are our appropriate emotions and behaviors.
And not only gender, but ethnicity, body shape, generation and more are identifiers. The identifying machine of culture determines what is important about who we are, and puts into a predefined box.
The struggle to assert one's self, to say "I am not who the machine says I am" is defining struggle of our time. It is a struggle for self-determination (I say who I am; not all of you!). It is the struggle for the free mind. Channing is still prophetic.
And if Unitarian Universalism ever loses its connection to the fire of individual self-determination, it will lose its animating spirit.