Less than a week ago the Huffington Post published an article called “Spiritual Classics: 25 Books Every Christian Should Read.” The article was basically an excerpt from 25 Books Every Christian Should Read: A Guide to the Essential Spiritual Classics, from Renovare, “a nonprofit organization that models, resources, and advocates intentional living through Christian spiritual formation and discipleship.” The subject matter caught my attention because this was exactly the kind of book I would have loved once upon a time, when I identified as a Christian. In fact, looking over the list I found that I had read a good number of these books already:
Augustine’s Confessions, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, The Cloud of Unknowing, Revelations of Divine Love, by Julian of Norwich, The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence, The Way of a Pilgrim (and The Pilgrim Continues His Way), the Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (now known simply as Discipleship, I hear), The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton, and Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. I was a fairly serious student of Christian spirituality in those days, and I have to confess that I miss being so intentionally engaged with a faith tradition.
So that got me wondering. What would a similar list of Unitarian Univeralist spiritual classics look like? I figure there are a couple of ways to approach this. One would be to look for books that were written by Unitarians and Universalists. That would immediately narrow things down since certain writers would pretty much be automatically put on the list: Emerson, Thoreau, Channing, Parker, Fuller, etc. A list like that could certainly keep someone busy for quite awhile. But the more I thought about it, for such a list to truly represent the breadth and depth of the spirituality that has influenced Unitarian and Universalist thought, it might be helpful to include works that weren’t necessarily written by Unitarians, Universalists, or Unitarian Universalists.
I’m thinking that a well-rounded list of Spiritual Classics: 25 Books Every Unitarian Universalist Should Read would need to be based on the Six Sources of our faith. This would serve two purposes: one, the sources make excellent categories into which one can begin sorting books; and two, it would keep the list from favoring one flavor of Unitarian Universalism over another. Finally, in addition to those Six Sources, I would add one more category. Basically, I’d leave a little room for the first option: books by Unitarians, Universalists, and Unitarian Universalists. Of course there’d be some overlap. Walden, for example, would qualify as both a Six Source book and as a book by a Unitarian. You get the picture.
Here, then, is the first book I’d like to nominate for a spiritual classic every Unitarian Universalist should read: American Sermons: The Pilgrims to Martin Luther King Jr., from the Library of America. Why? Well, for starters it contains William Ellery Channing’s sermon “Likeness to God,” which may be the one sermon of Channing’s that every Unitarian Universalist should read, even more than “Unitarian Christianity.” (And thanks to the Rev. Kate Rhode for suggesting this to me). In addition to the Channing sermon, there are sermons by early America liberal Christians, like Charles Chauncy, sermons by other Unitarians like Emerson, Parker, and Octavius Brooks Frothingham, fellow travelers, like Quaker Lucretia Mott, and some 20th century sermons by theologians like Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Martin Luther King Jr.
I’ve already ordered the book and am really looking forward to reading all of the sermons (including those early 20th century Fundamentalists…I’m talking about at you, Aimee Semple McPherson). In the meantime, I’d welcome suggestions about some other books that should go on the list. So take another look at our Six Sources and think about which books might nurture the spirits of every Unitarian Univeralists. And let me know in the comments section what you’ve come up with.