For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive Millard
“… and so we light the Candle of Hope. May its flame remind us of the eternal hope of the human spirit: that each person may grow for themselves a life of meaning; that this congregation may be a beloved community for all who seek it; and that our world may both celebrate our common humanity and embrace our human differences.”
If you’re familiar with our tradition of the Advent Wreath, you’ll know that we lit the first candle, the Candle of Hope, on Sunday morning. This Sunday we’ll relight it and also light the Candle of Faith. The Sunday after that, along with the first two, we’ll light the third candle, the rose-colored Candle of Joy. And the Sunday after that, once all of the others have been relit, we’ll light the Candle of Love. So by Christmas all of the candles have been burning, but the Candle of Hope has been burning the longest. Of course, an Advent wreath needs new candles once the old ones have burned down, but it’s the Candle of Hope that needs to be replaced the most often. As one person put it my first Christmas Eve here, looking at the wreath and seeing the stub of what was left of the candle, “Looks like we need more hope.” Well, yes. We always need more hope. It’s something that often needs to be restored, to be renewed, particularly when we learn of yet another African-American individual who died at the hands of the police, when we hear of yet another mass shooting.
“Hope” is one the “five smooth stones” of liberal religion attributed to Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams. The human and cosmic resources for personal resilience and social transformation justify ultimate optimism, he explained. Now that’s actually the fifth smooth stone that Adams identified, and as we might guess, he had them in a particular order, because they build upon each other. So it’s not surprising that Adams speaks of hope using words such as “cosmic”, “transformation” and “ultimate”. It’s a grand, sweeping vision, as befits something as important as hope. Waxing lyrical, Adams wrote that “With all the realism and tough-mindedness that can be mustered, the religious liberal finally can hear and join the Hallelujah Chorus — intellectual integrity, social relevance, amplitude of perspective, and the spirit of true liberation offer no less.”
Now this is far from naïve, reality-denying Pollyannaism. Focusing only on the good in life while ignoring the bad with a claim that everything will magically turn out okay isn’t hope but foolishness. Rather, hope is at its brightest when things seem most dismal. In one of the readings in our hymnal, for example, Thandeka arrives at hope by transforming her despair. For as she explains, “Despair is my private pain, born from what I have failed to say, failed to do, failed to overcome.” We can certainly fall into that, when bad things are happening in the world, when we feel powerless as individuals to do much about those bad things, when we feel unable to make a difference. It is in such situations that we need hope most of all.
That’s the point at which I find it helps to think of what Adams identified as the fourth smooth stone, which is sometimes named “agency”, namely the idea that people can oppose bad things and make good things happen instead. But here’s the caveat: as Adams wrote, “we deny the immaculate conception of virtue and affirm the necessity of social incarnation. There is no such thing as goodness as such; except in a limited sense, there is no such thing as a good person as such.”
In other words, goodness comes through relationship and action, but good things don’t happen thanks to individual virtue alone: they happen when people work together to develop societal virtue, as expressed in “education, in economic and social organization, in political organization.” Without the social incarnation of virtue, Adams explains, “freedom and justice in community are impossible.”
Let that sink in for a moment, because it goes against just about everything we’ve been taught to believe about ourselves as individuals. There’s no such thing as a good individual in isolation; rather there is a good individual in relationship: the decisive forms of virtue are socially incarnated.
So here’s what this has to do with hope. If good things happen because people work together to develop virtue as a social rather than individual characteristic, then it’s not up to us as individuals to solve the world’s problems all by ourselves. Yes, we have a role to play as individuals, to make sure that our society actually does the work necessary to incarnate virtue, but it’s not up to any one of us to figure it all out and make it all happen as an individual. And yet how many times do we give up before we’ve even started, having already convinced ourselves that there’s nothing that any one individual can do against big problems like climate change or racism or gun violence? And of course it’s true that no one of us can solve those problems all by ourselves. How big an ego would you need to have to believe that you could? But the good news is that no one of us needs to solve those problems all by ourselves. The good news is that we have one another, and we can do it together. I find that incredibly liberating, an incredible source of hope.
Now there’s a flip side to this, of course, which is just as important. If the decisive forms of virtue are socially incarnated, then that’s also true for the opposite of virtue, and the traditional word for the opposite of virtue is “vice”. And that’s certainly the case for global vices such as environmental degradation or the mistreatment of women. Yes, there’s such a thing as individual prejudice, on a spectrum of thoughtless insensitivity to outright hatred of difference, but that’s not the same thing as oppression, which requires that institutional power be applied in prejudiced ways. That’s why there’s no such thing as reverse racism, because it’s who holds the institutional power that matters. It also means that the knee-jerk reactions that white people tend to experience when racism is discussed are absurd. It’s natural to feel uncomfortable, of course, to realize that institutional power has, through no action of one’s own, been aligned to favor one’s group while disadvantaging another’s group, but getting defensive about it doesn’t help. How big an ego do you need to have to believe that you, as an individual, are single-handedly responsible for the social structures of privilege and oppression that came into existence before you were even born?
Getting clear about what we as individuals are and are not responsible for, understanding what virtues and vices are incarnated in our society, and recognizing that we, as individuals, can work to increase virtue and decrease vice without believing that any one of us is single-handedly responsible for doing it all ourselves: that is an incredible resource for resilience and hope. Of course, it’s something that we need to remind ourselves about from time to time. One of our culture’s vices is convincing us that we’re each responsible as individuals for everything that happens in our lives and that nothing can get better unless we do all of the work ourselves. The irony of course, is that our culture is telling each and every one of us the same thing. But life offers us countless opportunities to realize the truth, to love the common world anew, whether that’s awakening to the possibilities of new life, lighting a Candle of Hope, or affirming the words of another reading in our hymn book, this one from Edward Everett Hale:
I am only one, but still I am one.
I cannot do everything, but still I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.
Speak these words aloud to yourself, and hear yourself saying them. May they be our reminder that what we do, we do as individuals and — at the same time — we do together.