It’s a common armchair philosophy question. Perhaps you’ve heard it at some party or gathering. “Is the world getting better?” someone will ask. There are countless variations of this question. What about women’s rights? Are women really better off? Do you think racial equality is better than twenty years ago?
Countless statistics may be offered (many of which will be fabricated) and then often the conversation, if you are in my family, will end with a shoulder shrug.
Our Unitarian ancestors were made famous and infamous for their insistence on the progress of the world. In the 19th Century, urged on by the industrial age, rapid progress in scientific advancement and popular debate on evolution, Unitarians even enshrined progress into one of their central documents. An early precursor to the Principles and Purposes found in Unitarian Universalism today, the Unitarians developed a document entitled the “Five Points of Unitarian Belief.” Authored largely by James Freeman Clarke the 5th point was “the continuity of human development in all worlds or the progress of mankind onward and upward forever.”
In seminary, my colleagues and I would often jokingly say “onward and upward” in response to some seemingly stupid behavior or decision. We had, as the children of the 20th century, realized that human development was anything but continuous. The chorus of “onward and upward” was viewed as a silly relic of our Unitarian past.
You can imagine the crushing blow that the events of the 20th century had to the Unitarian sense of hope. Believing progress had a direct relationship with time, they welcomed the inventions of the late 19th century and the new discoveries of science. Yet soon after the onward and upward motto became pervasive belief in Unitarianism, the United States had been drawn into two world wars. Scientific advancement had been used to create the atomic bomb. The holocaust became the most devastating and incomprehensible evil in the history of the world. And from the relative tranquility and prosperity of the 1940s and 1950s, came the culture-changing, world transforming 1960s.
To say the least, onward and upward became a joke. Behind the raucous humor was a deep theological void. The emphasis on rationalism and empiricism added to a sort of depressed Unitarian body in the late 20th century- one that had no theological understanding of hope. I once preached to a historically Unitarian congregation in 2003 about hope in the new century. After I was done delivering a hopeful and somewhat overly optimistic sermon, a lifelong Unitarian approached me and simply said, “Hope is not rational. Unitarianism does not rely on hope. I can hope all day long, but it won’t change anything.”
Reticence to rely upon a sort of immobilizing hope is understandable- say one that says suffering in this life is to be endured and embraced for the hope of a reward in heaven. An inability to hold to the “onward and upward” style of hope in the 21st century is rational and reasonable. And yet, if we do not have some trust in the world, in other words some reason or cause to believe that things will yet be better, what would ever motivate us to progress when we do?
Put plainly, religion- particularly a religion with a strong social conscience must have hope within its theology.
2014 was a year chock full of evidence that things are not getting better. And it was full of beauty and promise.
As we take our first few breaths in the air of 2015, the decision to hope may be more important than any resolution we could make. Not a hope for a next life, not a hope that is head-in-the-sand, but a gritty, real hope that takes the to streets. This is a hope that of the long arc. It is a hope kindled in community by the people who push us beyond ourselves and pull us out of isolation and despair.
Come walk with us into this new year with the absurdity, the wonder and the beauty of the hope that can be. Yes onward and upward, well most definitely onward!