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[Chalice] The Restorative Influence of the Night [Chalice]

Presented September 12, 2010, by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

The ancient Chinese philosopher Mencius is famous for arguing that human nature is essentially good, and that is exactly why I why was reading him the other day. My students in my intro to world philosophy class had to read Mencius and understand his optimistic view of human nature before going on to St. Augustine's rather darker view of human nature. So I was reading Mencius especially for his sunny view that human nature is essentially good, the argument Mencius is justly famous for. Of course when one reads one always finds more than what one is looking for.

In the brief passage we just read, Mencius is doing more than arguing that human nature is essentially good. He's talking about how our good human qualities get worn down and ground away, like a mountain that has stripped bare of its trees and vegetation. But even as this happens, Mencius says, there are still calm periods of restoration, when we come back to our best selves, our best qualities, our best lives. Mencius talks about this process of restoring who we are and should be as human beings that can happen through"the calm air of the morning" and "the restorative influence of the night."

This passage from Mencius and especially his notion of the "restorative influence of the night" helps me I hope express some thoughts about our church community that might be appropriate as we officially begin our church year together. Those words especially, "the restorative influence of the night," seemed to nicely express what I have been thinking about in terms of our church community and what it means to me and to my life personally, and probably to many of you as well. We come back together and begin our church year and reconvene together as this Unitarian congregation not just out of habit, not just because that is just what we do the weekend after Labor Day. We reconvene as a church community for many different reasons, by surely one of them is that we know that this church community brings to us that restorative influence Mencius writes about. I know for myself in my own life I need the restorative influence of this church community as I try to settle back into our American life after the summer in Europe.

I think that phrase "the restorative influence of the night" jumped out at me when I read it especially because I am away all summer and in the weeks before our church year starts I am reentering life not just here in Quincy but reentering American life. I cannot even imagine doing that without the restorative influence of this church community. Let me explain what I mean by that. For the last 2 summers when I have gone to Romania I have sort of let America go when I am away and have not really paid very much attention to what is happening over here. I haven't really kept in very close touch with developments on the American political scene, with what is talked about within the constant media echo chamber of our culture. For the last 2 summers I haven't even watched Meet the Press over the internet. My summer long avoidance of American public discourse over the summer I find refreshing and helps me focus on our life together in Romania, but it can also make the reentry experience back into American culture rather disquieting. Last summer, for example, I really wasn't aware of how controversial Obama's health care proposals had become and how much mocking criticisms of Obama care and this terrible government take over of our health care system had come to dominate public discourse. And coming back this summer I really didn't know much about this how huge this controversy had become about the proposed Mosque near the Twin Towers site in Manhattan. This was the main topic in America's political discourse when we reentered America a few weeks ago. Very soon I learned about how now 20% of the American public believes President Obama is a Muslim and I heard a lot of media speculation about just why it is that so many Americans think Obama is Muslim. And of course I soon learned of the big Glen Beck rally in Washington, DC, and now of course the constant media chatter is about some crazy minister in Florida who wants his congregation to burn the Koran together.

Because I have been out of touch and just not paying much attention the last 2 summers while I have been away, this is what reentry into American society has felt like and looked like. Reentering America is coming back in and immersing myself in a public discourse that seems to exist well beyond the borders of reason. This is exactly what Al Gore was trying to call our attention to about our culture in his 2007 book that didn't get the media attention it deserves, his book called The Assault on Reason. Gore argues not only that America's public discourse has become "less focused and clear, less reasoned," but he also writes: "It is simply no longer possible to ignore the strangeness of our public discourse" (p. 3). So strange indeed that reentering America and our public discourse after a summer away can feel a bit like coming back into a mad house, especially when I am trying to explain to my European wife why having the government provide health care to the citizens is such a terrible thing to many Americans or who Glen Beck is and why millions of Americans listen to him everyday. When you hear about how mad many Americans are that there might be a mosque near the 9/11 site or that President Obama and other major public figures are spending their time trying to talk a crazy minister out of burning the Koran then you really do feel as though the American society we are reentering is just crazy and lacks public discourse that is at least something close to be reasoned and intelligent.

Perhaps this American craziness and the strangeness and irrationality of our public discourse is why in these last few years I have felt that coming back into this church community and beginning the church year together is a great restorative influence in my own life and something I absolutely could not reenter American society without, probably in yours as well. Here in this church community we participate in and share a public discourse that is educated, calm, sane, and reasoned. Here I feel inside myself restored by this place and by this community. Restored within me and around me is the confidence that even here, in America, we can still live with and participate together in a public discourse about important issues that is reasoned. Here we discuss political and social issues without ignorance, superstition or fear, and we try to think them as citizens of the world rather than simply as Americans. We try to get beyond that narrow America perspective that does know nothing and will know nothing about countries other than our own. Here we pursue truth by exploring the depths of all religious and philosophical traditions of the world rather than insist on the superiority or exclusivity of one particular tradition. Here we can discuss God as a possibility rather than as a Being we know and are sure about. Here we respect religious traditions without feeling or pretending that they have always been right about everything that have ever taught. All this might seem strange to a lot of people but it all really is very sane and reasonable considering it is 2010 and not, say, 1710. All of this restores a calm reasonableness to our sometimes crazy American culture and our strange public discourse.

All this talk I have heard since reentering American society about the possible mosque near the 9/11 site reminds me of what is the perhaps the perfect example of our church's restorative influence, restoring calm reason to our American lives. It's hard to believe that September 11th was now nine years ago. We will never forget the events of the day nor the widespread patriotism and God Bless America signs everywhere. In that crazy post-9/11 atmosphere, our church responded to anti-Muslim sentiments by writing the Muslim community in Quincy, who were then without a building in which to worship, to use our building for their services. That was an act entirely consistent with Unitarian principles. It was also a very calm and reasonable thing to do. The Muslims in our community were not terrorists but were our friends and neighbors. Our invitation restored calm reason to a time that wasn't calm and certainly wasn't reasonable.

I welcome the start of this church year as I do every year because in my own life I need and greatly appreciate this community of sane, calm reason. I need it as a counterbalance to the often crazy media chamber in which we also always live as Americans. I need it because it restores my faith that I can have the kind of meaningful, interesting, intelligent, rewarding and fun life with other people that I need to have right here in Quincy, right here in crazy America. And I think many of you probably feel the same way, which is one reason why we are glad to be back here, in this very special place, to begin a new church year, confident that our church community does work in us and restore in us that calm and peaceful reason we often feel lacking in our culture.

This year especially I invite you to get even more involved in our community of calm, sane reason. This is a special year because this year for the first time in a long time we have the opportunity to look for a new minister for the congregation. So we should all be thinking about what this church community means to us, what we what it to be, what we want it to always be able to restore in all of us. This time of searching for a new minister is an important time for our church, but note that everything I have said about the church and what it means to me personally and what it restores to my life and probably to yours too has nothing to do with me being the minister. Whoever is the next minister, this church community will still have a restorative power in our lives. That restorative power comes from our church community, this extraordinary community of caring, intelligent, reason, and not from one person.

Still, this year of looking finally for a new minister is an exciting one for our church. It would be great for our congregation to be led by someone who does not have another full-time job and has more time and talent to serve this congregation and this community as the Unitarian minister in this community. This person would have so much more freedom and ability to make progressive things happen in this community than I have had so I am genuinely excited for the long term future of our church as we begin another church year. I know our sane and reasoned community will go about the process of thinking about and choosing a new minister in a very sane and reasoned way. And it sure will be interesting!

©2010 Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Manning, Rev. Dr. Rob. 2010. The Restorative Influence of the Night, /talks/20100912.shtml (accessed July 16, 2020).

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