(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
Many of you know that the famous author Charles Dickens was a Unitarian. Like many people, he was conflicted about his faith and even once quit his Unitarian church and returned to Christianity. He eventually came back and led the remainder of his life a strong supporter of Unitarianism.
One of the primary spiritual issues that concerned Dickens was the problem of suffering in the world. Not only did he wrestle with the question of why a loving God – or universal force for good – allows pain, poverty and disease, he was equally interested with the role of religion and society in doing something about them. Ultimately, his concern was whether good triumphs over evil. Will some kind of blessing, or silver lining, or good overcome the effects of suffering? For the purposes of my message title today, will light conquer darkness?
Philosophers, writers and ministers have thought about this question for centuries. Dickens was no different. But he had a particular interest in the subject because of traumas he experienced as a boy. At the age of twelve, Dickens was forced to work for ten hours a day, six days a week, in a shoe polish factory. He was sentenced to that work in order to help pay back family debt. His father owed the equivalent of $4000, he could not pay it back, and so off to debtor’s prison he and his family went – with Charles sentenced to work in a factory.
Not only was this deeply humiliating to a young boy, it was a harrowing experience working in a dangerous factory full of adults. Even worse, his family was sent to the infamous London debtor’s prison Marshalsea – an overcrowded, filthy and violent prison. For his entire life, Dickens had a deep fear of poverty and an equally deep concern for the poor and marginalized. In his mind, poverty and ill treatment of the poor were the worst forms of suffering. Not only were the poor literally locked away – many debtors of his time were imprisoned for twenty years or more – they were also locked into an economic system that perpetuated poverty through lack of opportunity, no access to education, and poor healthcare.
Dickens filled his novels with characters trapped in poverty. Several of his books included characters locked away in debtors prisons. Luckily for him and his family, his father received a small inheritance after a year in prison and they were freed. But Dickens was not freed from his nightmares, nor from a visceral anger at religion and society that were indifferent to the horrors of being poor, particularly those faced by young children.
Implicit in all of his novels was the spiritual question I posed earlier. What is to be done about such suffering? How can any God or religion allow poverty? Is there any hope in a world where literally everyone suffers at some point in life? Is there any hope in a world where millions cruelly suffer in poverty because others simply do not care, or turn a blind eye to it? Will good defeat evil?
Dickens found an answer in Unitarianism. Neither God nor his mythic martyr son – Christ – are the answers. We are.
My message theme this month is “A Very Dickens Holiday”. I want to examine Charles Dickens’ perspective on three themes from many of his novels and, in particular, from his most famous one, A Christmas Carol. Today, I consider the topic, does light conquer darkness? Next Sunday, I’ll look at the power of change. And, at our Candlelight Christmas Eve service, I’ll discuss the timeless wisdom of children.
For Dickens, the teachings of Jesus are one answer to darkness and suffering in the world. Indeed, for Dickens, honoring the ethics of Jesus solved the problem of celebrating Christmas for those who do not believe in Biblical miracles – Jesus’ virgin birth or his return from the dead. Christmas need not be a holiday celebrating his supernatural birth, but rather a joyous time to remember his teachings and the way he led his life.
In a book Dickens wrote for his children entitled The Life of Our Lord, he explained his spirituality. Religion, for him, is about always doing good for others. In this way, Jesus was a model human to emulate. In order to address the darkness of suffering, Dickens said we should, like Jesus, accept and befriend all outcasts – the prostitute, homeless, criminal, immigrants or others. We must care for the poor and love the unloved.
Dickens said that he trusted no church, temple or mosque that does not purposefully serve such people. In his mind, the only true religion is one that inspires its members to improve the world. He called his spiritual beliefs a “Carol Philosophy” – one named after his novel A Christmas Carol.
Interestingly, Dickens wrote that novel only a few months after he became a Unitarian. Whether or not his new church influenced the story, it’s clear that Unitarian ideals are found in the book. God and religious themes are not in A Christmas Carol. It’s a tale of good versus evil, but the battle Dickens describes is one fought on a human level, not a spiritual one. Suffering is solved by by flawed people who wrestle with their attitudes of selfishness, arrogance and anger. Change in the human heart is not prompted by belief in a mythic Savior, but in realizing that darkness and suffering are real – and that the only solution to them is the light of charity.
It might be said that Dickens ironically saw in Unitarianism exactly what Jesus taught and practiced. Ultimately, Dickens chose to be a Unitarian because he saw it as the only form of spirituality that matched his own. He did his best to practice his beliefs – financially supporting a home for prostitutes and homeless women, and later founding a school for street children called Ragged House – named for the rags such kids once wore.
Unitarians proudly proclaim they celebrate no creeds, only deeds. And that’s a theme in A Christmas Carol. It’s not religion that heals the world, it’s kindness and love. It’s people who embrace the light of compassion. As Dickens once said, “No one is useless in this world who lightens the burden of it to anyone else.” It may sound trite, but human kindness is the light that illuminates the world.
Dickens used the character Scrooge to highlight this value. Scrooge wallows not only in his own misery, he points it out in the lives of others – telling Bob Cratchit, his abused employee, that he and his family are poor, have no prospect of success and are raising a physically challenged son who will soon die. Why, Scrooge asks, should the Cratchits be merry during the holidays?
Dark imagery in A Christmas Carol illustrates Dickens’ view of suffering. Scrooge’s offices are gloomy and cold. “Darkness is cheap”, Dickens wrote, “and Scrooge liked it”. During Christmas Eve night, Scrooge is visited by three ghosts – symbols of death. They force him to confront the suffering of his past, present and future. Scrooge must relive his lonely and unloved youth by revisiting the dark hallways of his boarding school. He must visit the present day, dimly lit home in which Bob Cratchilt’s family dwells in poverty. He witnesses their meagre holiday dinner and hears the dire prognosis for young Tiny Tim – that he will not live to see another Christmas.
Later, a ghost takes Scrooge to a dark and crude shack, inhabited by a poor coal mining family. He later confronts a dim vision of the future – one where Tiny Tim has died, Bob Cratchit cries out with grief, and where thieves scavenge in darkness through a dead Scrooge’ s belongings. The final image Scrooge must face, in the dead of night, is his own long forgotten grave.
For Dickens, this is not a world ruined by supernatural evil. Nor is it one forsaken by some god. Instead, it’s a world of pain caused by neglect, indifference, and ignorance. It’s a world created by us.
Despite describing this very dark world, Dickens intended to write an uplifting story – one that acknowledges suffering but which contrasts it, and conquers it, with hope and light.
Indeed, the light images in A Christmas Carol are uplifting ones that influence not only Scrooge, but readers as well. The light of caring is found in the Cratchit home – one warmed not by a small fireplace, but by family love. It’s found at a bright holiday party where Scrooge’s nephew Fred counsels his family not to despise his uncle, but to have sympathy for him and his lonely, bitter life.
A light of goodness, in an otherwise dark world, is seen when Scrooge visits the home of the woman Belle, whom he loved as a young man, but who chose to marry another. While Scrooge remarks on her choice of an obviously less successful man than he, the reader nevertheless sees her contented life in a small but bright home. Who is richer – Belle and her husband living simply, happily and in love, or Scrooge with his stingy hoard of lonely wealth?
Holiday light is found in the coal miner’s shack Scrooge visits. Despite the family’s obvious poverty, their shack is lit by a single candle while they celebrate the holidays. The ghost of Christmas present is not a foreboding presence, but rather one who models the right holiday spirit. Full of mirth, he wears a crown of holly and carries a flaming torch from which drips kindness and love on all who fall within its light. Even the physically disabled Tiny Tim is a source of light. After wishing a blessing on his family as they sit around their fireplace, he remembers to ask a blessing for Scrooge.
On Christmas morning when Scrooge awakens in his dark apartment after a night spent seeing so much misery, he flings open the window shutters and exults as streams of sunlight pour through. Somehow, some way, Scrooge transformed himself not just by confronting suffering, but by heeding the call to find joy through loving and serving others. Light wins its victory!
For us, as we ponder the suffering we see in the world – or in our lives- we must resolve to be a solution. For Unitarians, Humanists, Pagans and others who do not believe in a supernatural god or goddess, the holidays and Christmas can be celebrated because of their implicit values. Instead of thinking the holidays have no real meaning, Dickens would encourage us to joyfully embrace them. This is a season of light and joy precisely because it initiates in people a desire to give, serve and love. That’s a feeling to hold and cherish now – and throughout the new year.
The unique perspective Dickens had about the holidays, and that Unitarians have as well, is that the ONLY thing to spiritually honor is the prompt of human conscience to do good and to be a loving light in the lives of others. In the season ahead, I want to soften my heart, speak with kindness, reject darkness in myself, love my family, cherish life, and serve the poor. That’s a holiday true to eternal values, and one Dickens would approve. Let us strive to make a difference for good in the world. Let us refuse to give in to the darkness we see and hear. Let us continually shine as beacons of charity. Ultimately, it is only by giving away our light that we will find it.
In the holiday season ahead, I wish you abundant peace, joy…..and light.