New Year’s Day is a day for resolutions, often taking the form of freeing ourselves from slavery to addictions, obsessions, and other bad habits. This renewal through promises to be stronger, healthier, and wiser celebrates one of the cornerstones of American Unitarian Reform: commitment of character.
AUR strives not to promote false salvation, moral justification, and consolation on the cheap, whether its the sort of “bow to dogma and your soul will be spared” comfort of many conservative churches or the “I’m okay, you’re okay, nothing we believe really matters” comfort of many liberal churches.
Spiritual peace and strength are not won by reciting a confession or catechism as if they were magic spells, or by impulsively tossing your life over to God like a hot potato for which you can abdicate all responsibility.
Nor is spiritual peace achieved through conflict-averse relativism or laissez-faire creedlessness, what Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams described unflatteringly as religion you can’t flunk.
Peace, strength, and freedom are achieved only through a resolute struggle, by committing of one’s character to moral growth and accepting a higher Good beyond one’s desires and instincts. New Year’s Day, what AUR calls Resolution Day, provides a unique opportunity to stamp these commitments into our memory at the turning of the calendar.
Unitarian Reform New Year’s
AUR observes January 1st as Resolution Day in honor of the general tradition of making resolutions for the New Year, and in commemoration of the importance of commitment of one’s character to freeing your psyche (Greek ψυχή, for “soul”) from the bonds of unhealthy fixations.
Several events that took place on this day in history are reminders of this moral commitment. For example, tradition attributes the end of gladiatorial bloodshed in ancient Rome to the January 1st decision by a Christian monk, Telemachus, to stand before the crowd of spectators, denouncing the slave combat until they stoned him to death in rage. The emperor, legend tells us, was so impressed by the monk’s courage and moral dedication that he banned the games.
January 1st was also the effective date of two critical decisions in the brutal struggle against slavery in America: the banning of the importation of slaves in 1808, to put an end to the grisly Middle Passage; and the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, a wartime freeing of slaves enacted by Abraham Lincoln but first suggested by John Quincy Adams decades earlier when most abolitionists were still clinging to the hope of a clean and peaceful emancipation.
Peace, justice, freedom, and salvation are not won easily, but through sacrifice and struggle. Explicit resolutions, made as part of a New Year’s ritual, can go far in cementing our dedication to this struggle if taken seriously.
The Christian Side of Resolution
Some Christians, particularly in the East, celebrate the the Transfiguration as the central event in the Gospel, while others in the West take the Crucifixion/Resurrection as the central event, promoting a soteriology of “vicarious sacrifice.”
For AUR, the climactic scene in the story of Jesus is the acceptance of the metaphorical Cup of suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane: the moment Jesus accepted his contingent nature and all of the suffering of life that necessarily comes from this. His prayer to God, “If it is Your will, take this cup from me; nevertheless, Thy will be done,” was the moment of moral decision which informs the Unitarian soteriology of salvation by character.
Salvation by character is not (as some would dishonestly characterize it) “salvation by works” but rather salvation by the internal state of one’s soul and its relationship to the Eternal, that essence of our attitude which Jesus emphasized during the Sermon on the Mount while expounding on anger, adultery, oaths, and retaliation.
What is actually best described as “salvation by works” is that easy salvation offered by some church leaders through confession and catechism, oaths of allegiance to organizations and books in hopes of finding comfort on the cheap. It’s a vision of salvation as a vending machine: drop in the appropriate phrase and out pops spiritual peace. This is a false peace, however, the temporary emotional release of abdicating the responsibility for one’s sins.
AUR offers no easy outs. True spiritual peace, based on a genuine understanding and acceptance of our contingent relationship with the Divine, is won through struggle, testing, and “Thy will be done.” It is won through a commitment of character, achieved through resolutions to be better people.
When you make your New Year’s resolutions this year, remember that there is a long tradition and deeper meaning to these promises to self-betterment.
HAPPY NEW YEAR
AND STRENGTH IN YOUR RESOLUTIONS
[A version of this post was originally published on 31 December 2007]