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A liberal religious voice in the Central Valley since 1953.
From Rebecca Parker:
Evil is not mysterious, not insignificant, and not rare. It is ordinary, life-destroying, and pervasive. It cannot be confined to evildoers and enemies whose destruction will please God and free us. Calmness in the face of evil comes to those who, rather than being frantic to purge it, concentrate their attention on recognizing and resisting its habits. ... Salvation manifests in wisdom, persistence, in not allowing evil to operate in its habitual patterns.
From Alice Walker's The Color Purple:
Celie writes to Nettie, "The God I been praying and writing to is a man. And act just like all the other mens I know. Trifling, forgetful and lowdown."
Her friend Shug responds, "Ain't no way to read the bible and not think God white ... When I found out I thought God was white, and a man, I lost interest ... You have to git man off your eyeball, before you can see anything a'tall."
From John Buerhens:
God changes. There, I've said it. It's the central affirmation, I believe, of progressive theology.
The history of theology is all about changing human conceptions of the divine ... Because ever since Jerusalem met Athens, and the followers of philosophy met the Bible, theology in the West has tried to pay God abstract, static, philosophical, and metaphysical compliments. ...
(Yet through science, we know that) everything is in process ... Any metaphysics or theology for today must reflect that reality. All creation is an event. Religiously, it is a "theophany" - manifesting the divine. Relational creativity is pervasive ... But a changing God can be hard to recognize. We go looking for something godlike but ultimately idolatrous, and we do so in all the wrong places ... (And) changes in culture and circumstance change even the most seemingly solid ground of our understanding and search.
This morning, we get to the hard parts of theology: Evil, Salvation and God. Fasten your seatbelts. Unitarian Universalists tread cautiously in this territory. We have often avoided the topics as much as possible, cloaking our reluctance with claims to freedom of belief. Here emotions run high. Past experience with traditional religion and awareness of the way traditional theologies have been used to oppress and abuse the dissenter leave us raw. Everyone seems to have a stake in the rightness of their ideas - and sometimes the righteousness as well. I know that some of you have very strong opinions and beliefs. I am mindful of the old warning that "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread."
Yet, if we, as liberal religionists, don't take up these topics and begin to clarify what we understand, we leave the field to the religious conservatives. We fail to oppose their advocacy of interpretations and behaviors we find repellent. We allow the public conversation to offer no alternatives to their voices, no ideas but the ones they present. We also leave ourselves vulnerable. Unless we grapple with ideas about divinity, the nature of the universe and the flaws and failings of the world, we have little to say other than "I don't believe you." We leave our own concepts hazy and amorphous. We find ourselves without the deeply rooted religious understandings and tough hope that can sustain us though times of pain, oppression and injustice. So, difficult as it may be, we need to do this work.
Before we forge ahead, let me remind you that I've been giving a series of sermons on theology during this church year. I've talked about reasons for becoming more familiar with progressive theology and the ways that it may help to ground us. Liberal religion is hope-based, rather than being founded in fear. We choose hope and love as better forces for guiding our lives and helping our children and communities flourish. I've talked about being committed to the idea that Earth is our rightful home, that we are not in exile here and that we'd better recognize our responsibilities as part of the connected and interdependent web of existence. I've talked about the church as a covenanted community: what that means and how it can enrich and deepen our lives if we are both committed and self-critical.
Not bad, I'd say, but also, not topics that are deeply troubling to many of us. Continuing the metaphor of A House for Hope, we now come to the roof and the foundations. We're ready to approach soteriology - the theology of salvation and evil - and to look at concepts of God, the root concern of theology. Prepare to be a little uncomfortable at times.
So let's start with the familiar story of the Garden of Eden. Here, the story goes, all was provided for Adam and Eve, the first humans. Artists show the garden as a place with verdant growth, an abundance of fruit and flowing water; a paradise. God asked only one thing of the two residents - don't eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Not such a big deal, right? But here enters the serpent, symbol of Satan, who tempts Eve, who in turn tempts Adam. They eat the forbidden fruit. Their disobedience makes God angry and he drives them out of the garden. Now they will have to work to sustain themselves and their children will be brought forth in pain.
Traditional church teachings say that all of us humans are born with the stain of their disobedience, their original sin. In other words, we share their guilt, right from birth. And things just get worse throughout our lives - unless we become saved by Jesus' sacrificial death.
Now I am guessing that this is not really your favorite story, but stay with me a while longer. Some features of this story aren't stated, but they are important. First of all, this account portrays evil as an outside force. It's not really Eve or Adam's fault that they brought sin into the world, it's just that they weren't strong enough to resist. The devil made 'em do it! What's more, the remedy is also outside us. It depends on God and his forgiveness. There's nothing in the story that implies that we should be responsible for fixing the situation. After all, you can't really un-eat the apple. And surely, there are plenty of misdeeds that cannot be undone. But when repair is possible, shouldn't we be responsible for doing that? That's the idea of restorative rather than punitive justice, but it finds no grounding in Eden.
Then there is the way our problem can be seen as all Eve's fault. If she had only ignored the serpent, or shooed it away! The story provides excuse for all sorts of blame placed on women. Not the only excuse, of course, but a convenient one. What if, rather than focusing on Eve as disobedient or weak, we see her as curious, adventurous and exploring? What if Eve is the first theologian, asking questions about God and seeking learning? Maybe we should be taught about original courage rather than original sin!
We must also note Christianity's traditional extension of the story to be mystically concluded in Jesus' death on the cross. The notion that suffering is redemptive has significant consequences. The example of severe and painful punishment leads too easily to imitation by very human rulers, leaders and "strongmen." Both religious and secular leaders encourage their followers to "sacrificial acts'-sometimes toward questionable ends. And combined with attitudes about the supposed lesser nature of women, these ideas excuse wife-beating and other forms of domestic abuse.
Unitarians and Universalists have tended to steer clear of traditional explanations about sin, and especially the Calvinist idea of total depravity. We have preferred to focus on humankind's potential for good. We think we can be better and want to encourage that. But sometimes it has led us to be rather naíve - as the popular Unitarian affirmation in the late 1800s that ended by citing human progress "onward and upward forever." We have been accused of having nothing to say in the face of evil, genocide and oppression, all of them too characteristic of the 20th century.
Ninety years ago, Lewis Fisher, dean of a Universalist seminary, was asked where Universalists stood on questions like these, where they stood in the American religious landscape. "We don't stand at all," he replied, "We move." Now I admit that I have taken Fisher's words out of context and that the passage of time makes interpretation suspect. But I think his words describe liberal theology well - both before and since he spoke those words. And knowing some things about changing ideas can give us helpful tools and a deeper understanding.
For there are alternate understandings of sin and salvation, some of them dating back to early Christianity. Rebecca Parker identifies two important features in liberal theology's constructs. Human beings need to be saved, not from God's anger, but "from the consequences of human sin." Secondly, "salvation comes through the powers of life and goodness, present within and around us." She lifts up the teachings of Jesus, rather than his death as a source of salvation. " ... both sin and salvation," she writes, "involve the exercise of human powers. ... Resources of healing, resistance, and survival permeate life." She goes on to offer beauty, compassion and love as examples.
Sin is understood, not as disobedience to God's commands, but as actions that damage or "destroy life-giving relationships of love and justice in human affairs ... " Parker points out that this is not new. She lists three sins as the primary concern of early Christians: fraud, pomp and greed - all relational acts. If you were ever taught a list of deadly sins, you know that the only one to appear on both lists is greed. Interesting changes. John Buerhens looks to an entirely different part of the world when he cites the sins listed by Gandhi:
Wealth without work,
Nothing on these lists mentions disobedience. Traditional theology, however, says that we break God's law when we commit the acts, thus bringing disobedience into the picture and linking to the Eden story. It's not clear to me that any of them can't be listed on their own. It seems to be pretty much common sense that they are destructive. And all of them point to our interactions with others or with the world around us. They can be individual choices or systemic conditions - so embedded in a culture that they become invisible to those within it. Either way, they damage or destroy relationships that encourage and enrich Life.
Evil, Parker continues, is "that which exploits the lives of some to benefit the lives of others ... .Evil springs from ignorance and denial of the beauty and goodness of life. It chooses ways of living that destroy rather than sustain the delicate web of relationships that make life possible. Evil's accomplice is anesthetization." Her concerns remind me of Buddhist teachings about right relationship. When we are in right relationship, we avoid harm and encourage the flourishing of life. We are sensitive to the worth and dignity of another. We begin to be saved from the consequences of damaging life by avoiding the destructive and choosing to heal and encourage.
The ideas I've been exploring have moved obedience to God's will or law away from being the definition of sin or evil, and changed traditional teachings about suffering and salvation. These are important, even radical changes. Now, let's turn to different understandings of God.
Most Western religions claim to be founded on belief in and understanding of God. The lessons of my childhood taught that God was omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, eternal and unchanging. In other words, all- powerful, present everywhere, all-knowing, everlasting and always the same. Generations of artists have shown God as an old man, grey-bearded but strong, seated in the clouds of heaven and radiating streams of light. Knowing and loving this God was both the purpose of human life and the responsibility of the church. This understanding formed the supposedly eternal foundation of religious life, indeed, of human living altogether.
And John Buerhens starts his chapter on God with the words I read earlier: God changes. Uh-oh.
John serves our church in Needham, Massachusetts. It was founded in 1711 - 300 years ago. He talks about its foundations and connects them to ideas about God. You see, First Church, Needham has had several foundations. And they have changed. The first building, constructed in 1720, had a foundation of fieldstones, fit together by hand. New foundations were placed in 1774, 1836, 1879, 1922, 1948 and 2008. Each one was different, as befits changing techniques and improved materials and standards. And when each was laid, the current understanding of the nature of God had also changed.
The most common way to look at this is to say that humans have always tried to understand the divine, which stays the same, and that increasing knowledge and changing culture changes our perspective. Alternately, we may believe that God actually does change. Buehrens argues that this is the case, and that we can even see it in the Bible. He quotes Jack Miles, author of God: A Biography, who responds to those who say that the God of the early books is "a textbook case of a bad parent" by saying, "Hang on; God gets better! In the course of interaction with God's people, the God of the Hebrew Bible shows important character development." I'd say that you could look at the Biblical accounts either way. It could be God changing. Or it could be the sensibilities of the writers that change.
Through the centuries, people have understood the accounts in the Bible differently. The Bible has so much contradictory material that it sounds like more than one book (which, of course, it is.) But even taken as a whole, its character seems to change in the hands of different preachers, different interpreters, different theologians. The God of the Bible has been seen as Creator, Father, King, and Judge; as white, straight, male, able- bodied and so on. And biblical criticism has revealed the flaws in each of those images. Parker reflects that, "Thoughtful people of many faiths hold that if there is a God, God must be worthy of our devotion - not an enemy of what is good in us and not the divine authorizer for acts of injustice, terror and oppression."
Both Parker and Buehrens describe some of the different images prevalent at different times in Western history. To me, only the most recent, the formulations of process theology by Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne reveal a fundamentally changing nature of God. Process theology claims that post-Newtonian science requires a radically different perspective. Fundamental understandings - like what it means that this pulpit is solid - have to be reformulated. In Whitehead's conception everything, God included, is constantly changing - not just shifting, but coming in and out of existence in relation to everything else that is and doing it in the tiniest fraction of time. Now that is a God that changes!
But even this may not be entirely new. Jewish tradition claims that God is un-nameable and beyond our understanding. When we turn to the Book of Job, we find a story that parallels progressive attempts to grasp what the nature of God might be. At the beginning of the book, Job, a faithful Jew, is prosperous, even wealthy. His cattle multiply and his fields yield abundantly. He has a wonderful family. Then all that changes. He loses everything and is afflicted with painful lesions and boils. His friends come to see him. They advise him to search his soul and repent. Surely God is punishing him for some misdeed. Job doesn't buy it. He denies any wrongdoing and argues his case to them and eventually directly to God. But when he does so, the cosmos is opened and a whirlwind of chaos and creativity is revealed. Job's concept of God is transformed.
Maybe even the God of the Hebrew Bible is ever-changing, chaotic and creative. Maybe theologians have been trying to "language the whirlwind." Maybe our more traditional ideas really are a case of making God in our image - rather than the reverse. And maybe we are completely off the mark with all these ideas. Near the end of her chapter, Rebecca Parker quotes Whitehead as saying, "The final appeal is to intuition." He means, she writes, "that, finally, whether or not one has faith in God requires an intuition about the nature of things ... . The full body of our experience, like a deep ocean, sometimes casts up onto the shore of consciousness a conclusion that arrives like a translucent agate resting in the glistening sand ... This is how the intuition that God exists comes for some." And I would add that for others, nothing points persuasively to the existence of God. Such intuitions seem to be wishful thinking.
Whatever our personal intuition about the Divine, I hope that we will make concerted efforts to hold our truth lightly. I hope we will remember that there are many different ways to imagine God. I hope we will be open to change as new discoveries are made and as our experience widens and deepens. I want us to consider the insights of others seriously. I hope we will stretch our spirits around the contradictions and complexities of a world ever revealed to be more intricate and involved and surprising than we imagined. When we talk about God, we push against the limits of what we can know. We reach toward, maybe into, the Mystery. We'd best be sure that humility and reverence are our companions, and that the ideas we embrace prompt us to be kinder, gentler and more determined: determined to resist the forces of destruction. Determined to heal and encourage, to embody the changes we want to see in the world.
January 23, 2011
This is the fourth in the "House for Hope" series.
The series, latest first:
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Rev. Grace Simons left us a
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We are a liberal church and the only UU congregation in Stanislaus county. We serve Ceres, Denair, Escalon, Hickman, Hughson, Keyes, Manteca, Modesto, Oakdale, Patterson, Ripon, Riverbank, Salida, Turlock and Waterford. We welcome Agnostics, Atheists, Buddhists, Christians, Deists, Free-thinkers, Humanists, Jews, Pagans, Theists, Wiccans, and those who seek their own spiritual path. We welcome people without regard to race, physical ability, ethnicity or sexual orientation.