Many religions have one thing in common: each believes it has the best truth.
It is bold or predictable for me to preach on why our religion has the best truth? I suspect many UUs would resist such an attempt. Everyone has the right to their own way, we believe. What works for some wouldn’t work for us, yet we’re glad that others have their ways. We’re not evangelical. We don’t proselytize. We’re a “live and let live” religion.
Meanwhile other religions insist they have the right way and others better follow. Perhaps shored up by the anxieties of modernity, fundamentalist faiths from Texas to Tehran insist they have the one true way. Though divided from each other they unite in objecting to modernity, humanism, and secularism. Those in power plan to make their version of God’s Law legally binding. The Taliban in Afghanistan have their counterparts in the Christian Right in our country. Perhaps ours aren’t so murderous, but they’re just as adamant; they want a Bible-based legal code for their Christian America.
What most people in our country, much less the Islamic countries, don’t understand is that such theocratic rule need not be endured and that religious pluralism is the only sane and civil way to co-exist in society. Further, in America, most don’t know of the historical and current alternatives to orthodox Christianity.
Our own Unitarian and Universalist religions were both based in scripture, each being called heretical for interpreting the Bible differently than the official and dominate Christians did.
The Unitarians saw no trinity in the Bible and openly expressed resentment that the Catholic tradition had generated one that they imposed as dogma. Further, the Socinian branch of Unitarianism saw Jesus as a wise and brave holy man, but not the one and only son of God. Later Unitarians such as the American Channing, Emerson, and Parker saw the Bible as being an inspirational book that should be read with reason. Miracles didn’t make Christianity valid. They were more likely exaggerated stories than reasons to believe. Emerson’s miracles existed in common snowflakes and our resplendent natures. Parker saw the truth of Jesus’ teaching as its own authority.
The Universalists saw no hell in scripture. The references used to support a belief in hell were really references to the burning garbage dump at the landfill, or the grave, not God’s eternal torture chamber. Especially in Jesus, they saw a divinity of inclusiveness. As he loved the unlovable, as he rescued the prostitute or befriended the tax collector, so does God include and welcome all. As God does this, so should we.
Most Americans don’t realize the theological diversity in the early Christian church. Early on though, variation was handled by exclusion and worse. Picking up on earlier example in the Jewish scriptures, or perhaps simply by temperament, bossy priests and bishops imposed their thinking in leading their flock and declaring those who differed anathema.
The tendency for angry zealots to insist on their way is ancient; too bad the tendency for many to put up with them is also ancient. Our western tradition is riddled with examples of stern hotheads holding forth and making others obey. The same sort of angry, bossy zealots who wrote parts of the Bible back when are replicated in the angry, bossy zealots who attempt to impose it today. So what, what the Bible says? Just because someone didn’t like women or thinking or gays or whatever then doesn’t mean they should have been believed and obeyed then or that we have to do it now.
They wield God like a weapon. But the God they promote is really just a bigger, meaner version of their selves – ego writ big and authoritative. There are types of people who love discipline and obedience, who like a stern, punitive God, full of wrath. In all pretend humility, they claim to know and impose the mind of God on each other, us, and entire societies. It is happening in much of the Islamic world, where we easily see its silliness and danger. And it is happening here, where it gets praised and protected even as they deliberately and systematically overwhelm and rule our media, government, and culture. They only complain about “culture wars” when they aren’t winning enough ground in them. A pluralistic democracy of rights is part of the secular devil they hate.
The same vulnerability in our inclusive, liberal society that hosts those fanatics from afar who hate it and want to terrorize it exists in our own fanatics within, seeking to take over. We think Win/Win; they assume Win/Lose. It won’t be us and them in the Universalist inclusive heaven, it will be them over us in a stuffy theocratic cage. They will answer modernity’s anxiety with the same old spiritual and political prescriptions that never worked before and won’t now. Yet it will be seen as good for us because it’s Christian.
Christianity exists in a spectrum from peace-promoting Quakers to war-monger Dominionists, from stomp your feet gospel to stuffy services, from meek worshippers to brazen reconstructionists. Most, I like as decent enough within their tired and difficult formula. Some I fear. I don’t fear an imaginary devil, but I’m wary of people who do fear him and project him on to various groups.
The irony is that Christ, the name of Christianity itself, was not Jesus’ last name. He wasn’t Jesus Christ; he was Jesus the Christ. It is a title that he didn’t apply to himself. It’s a title that others applied long after he was crucified. Paul and John wrote the texts that became Christianity. Even the apostles wrote long after Jesus left, Mark telling a plain and realistic story, Matthew embellishing it to make it more miraculous. Some texts became part of the approved canon. Others were discarded and banned, even burned. Early bishops Irenasus and Tertullian declared the Gnostic Gospels heretical. They took Paul’s anti-sexual stance and further imposed it, leading up to Augustine’s equating sex (from persistent fantasies to the birth of babies) as proof of our Original Sin.
What Jesus would have thought of all this we don’t know. I sometimes think poor Jesus is kept up on the cross by those using him for their version of religion. They get to feel both guilty and saved, free from any remorse or need of ethics. They can obsess about sexual morality and assume it satisfies all morality even as they mount the weaponry and taunts for WW III and let our globe swelter with a warming that could trigger a sudden ice age, but feel sanctified. Piety protects power, no matter how pernicious.
They need Jesus to die again and again so they can indulge in a glut of guilt and glory.
They say Jesus rose from the dead and we will too. There’s no evidence that anyone ever lives after they die. There is no more guarantee of heaven for us than 70 virgins for them. Maybe Jesus revived after the crucifixion, showed himself to his people, and left town with Mary Magdalene, leaving others to generate a miracle story. Who wouldn’t leave? There were two thousand crucifixions in Galilee shortly before Jesus’. Christianity doesn’t grieve or condemn the widespread atrocity for the many, just the one on him.
But even this attempted execution they don’t condemn. Oddly, they take it as the will of an inscrutable Father, sending his own son to cruelly die for the sins they say He says we can’t escape. Misreading the obvious point of how Genesis Three concludes Genesis One, they magnify the mistakes and wrongs we do to make it the sum and substance of our character. See people as only bad, then treat them that way, and wink at one’s own wickedness as if proof of this philosophy, and guess how society will turn out. The visions of a divided heaven and hell will manifest in our world, winners and losers, the chosen and the damned. Think of everyone as bad, treat them that way, and create a government based on the philosophy that government is bad for us – and see what you’ll get. When people seek a moment of pleasure, or strike out from all the scarcity and strife, we can put the spikes to them in our modern system of “justice,” a justice modeled on an inscrutable and cruel, remote but commanding Father. We are all fallen indeed when our religions knock us down and keep us there.
It need not be so. We needn’t be ruled by puritan zealots, especially in America. In America, in the nineteenth century, three profits helped show the way out of the poor religion Christianity had become.
William Ellery Channing ministered to the Liberal Christian churches (as they were called before adopting the old European label of Unitarian) reminding them to read their Bibles with an active mind. Reason is not the enemy of the divine, but the divine coming to fruition. This was cause enough for him to be labeled a heretic. Accusations of heresy are part of any authoritative orthodoxy. That the president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, took his scissors to the Bible, cutting out all the miracle stories to leave the good words of Jesus to stand clear, was his own business, not cause enough to unseat him. The Bible isn’t the inerrant Word of God from which any preacher can assemble any group of phrases to prove his whacko point. It is the writings of men and women telling their history and various views of God. Channing said to use the Bible and not to let it be used on you.
His congregant, Emerson, went on to become one of America’s best philosophers. In 1838 he told the graduating seminary students of Harvard to be alive with natural miracles, not the conveyers of fantasy miracles propping up dead doctrines. “Miracle, as pronounced by Christian Churches… is Monster. It is not one with the blowing clover and the falling rain.” He complained about the “noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus,” and bid the young leaders to “Obey thyself.” “The man who aims to speak as books enable, as synods, use, as the fashion guides, and as interest commands, babbles. Let him hush.” “Historical Christianity,” he went on, “destroys the power of preaching, bu withdrawing it from the exploration of the moral nature of man; where the sublime is, where are the resources of astonishment and power.” “Now man is ashamed of himself,” he laments,
and what greater calamity can fall upon a nation that the loss of worship? Then all things go to decay. Genius leaves the temple to haunt the senate or the market. Literature becomes frivolous. Science is cold… Society lives to trifles…
“God is, not was,” he concluded. “Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost, cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men at first hand with Diety… let their trampled instincts be genially tempted out in your atmosphere…[and] you shall be followed with their love as by an angel.”
Emerson’s congregant, Theodore Parker, in 1841 declared Christianity to rest on the truth it offers to our souls, not the miracle stories used to prop up the Christian version of that truth. “Authority is taken for truth and not truth for authority,” he complained. Yet that insisting on a dogmatic truth led Christianity to participate in ongoing crucifixions of sorts. What irony: “Men are burned for professing what men are burned for denying.” He compares the doctrines of Christianity to the clouds in the sky. Temporarily present, they obscure the reliable sun, moon, planets and stars of the truth within Christianity.
All three profits help rescue us from Christianity’s strange twists and presumptuous dogmas. They put Jesus in a human frame, full of bravery and love, a model of what we might be. They help bring him down from the cross and revive him in the cave. Jesus’ resurrection wasn’t so much after death because of faith, it was more before death, in spite of death. In this he helps rescue God’s goods as told in Genesis One from the zealots who totally twist the meaning of Genesis Two and Three. They are subtle serpents indeed, confusing us as to what God created good and substituting their so-called knowledge of good and evil.
Would that Unitarian Universalism revive its helpful theology of the past and help God and humanity come to the fruition of those original goods.
Reverend Brad Carrier
For the UUs of Grants Pass
February 5, 2006