Thursday, July 26, 2012
My Thursday talk from the South West UU Summer Institute: Bread, Not Stones
Bread Not Stones
I want to start this morning by talking about Unitarian Universalist history.
Not Unitarian history Not Universalist History, but Unitarian Universalist history. Our history in the period leading up and through the 1961 merger to the present day.
This analysis was inspired by the work of James Luther Adams, the Unitarian historian and theologian, whose career started in the 1930's and ended more recently.
The most important thing I think that you can say about Adams was that he urged all of us to maintain a lively sense of history.
There are three eras of Unitarian Universalist history present here. One is the era of James Luther Adams, a man who was a young man in the 1930’s and at the heights of his analytical and theological powers in the 50’s and 60’s. Much of this era was before merger and some of it immediately after merger. It was an era in which Unitarianism went from being a religion whose political views, on the whole at the level of the rank and file and most congregations was good-government Moderate Republicanism. For most of the twentieth century, especially before merger, Unitarianism was a New England centered religion and quite moderate Republican in its politics. There were pro-labor, pacifist and radical ministers around the country, but they were the minority. However, in the 1950's Unitarian ministers started making a commitment to the burgeoning Civil Rights movement -- but remember that Yankee New England Republicans had had a long standing sort of alliance with African Americans in the South since before the Civil War.
Merger came in 1961. There was a great deal of optimism in the newly formed Association. We were going to be new world religion. But more importantly, we were a part of an ascendent progressive movement that was emerging out of the Cold War period.
During that period of time, especially during the early 60’s, political and cultural liberalism was growing and held the moral high ground in the culture. The election of John Kennedy marked a generational shift. And while Kennedy was assassinated, he was succeeded by Lyndon Johnson, who proceeded to enact a series of stunningly progressive pieces of legislation demanded by popular movements. The Civil Rights Bill, Medicare, the Voting Rights Bill, etc.
Unitarian Universalist churches were part of the general movement toward the integregation of society. More African American people belonged to UU churches than ever before or since. There was a sense of optimism and hope that liberalism would triumph, along with folk music and folk dancing. We assumed that conservative religion would be fading away soon -- superstition would be overcome by science and secularism. The right boundary of the religious landscape was Billy Graham's crusades.
And during the period of the 1960's, liberalism became more and more aggressive and radical -- on every front, musically, culturally, politically, socially, religiously. The old left gave way to the new left. The beats gave way to the hippies. The civil rights movement turned to black power -- antiwar movement split both the Democratic and the Republican party.
But 1968 and 1969 were a turning point. Richard Nixon won by naming and mobilizing a broad cultural resentment against progressivism and liberalism. It was everything about people like us and what we stood for that identified as the people’s enemy: our permissiveness, our skepticism; our internationalism; our nascent break with patriarchy; our sexual liberalism; our flirtations with mind-altering drugs; our cultural radicalism. Was Unitarian Universalism part of everything that was wrong with American culture, over the line? One could argue that it was, although there were many UU churches that struggled mightily to maintain themselves as respectable, moderate institutions.
After Nixon won in 1968, there followed 12 years of intense political, cultural and religious struggle between a defensive liberalism and an aggressive conservatism. In 1980, the election of Reagan confirmed what was already clear everywhere; liberalism in all of its forms had been culturally defeated.
Understand this please: in 1961, the merger of the Unitarians and the Universalist took place in an atmosphere in which great hopes were attached to a new religion for a new time. But there was only 7 or 8 years in which the cultural zeitgeist matched our mood and ambitions. Just seven or eight years.
Then came 1968, and for the 40 years since, religious liberalism and liberal religion have been wandering in the desert. We have been operating in a culture in which cultural, political and religious conservatism have been aggressive and dominant.
Liberalism became culturally toxic and ridiculous.
Liberals were jokes.
We were latte-sipping, chardonney drinking, cheese-eating, volvo-driving, politically correct, humorless, faddish, overly-privileged, romantic, radical chic, tree-hugging, dirt-worshipping, birkenstock-footed, unattractive, bra-burning, hairy-legged lesbian and limp-wristed faggy, tax and spending, draft-dodging, dope-smoking, LIBERALS. And UU churches were full of them.
Can I say that to some extent or another, every Unitarian Universalist I know has absorbed this toxic message and internalized it. We have allowed a self-hatred to grow up in our hearts. Please notice how much contempt we shower upon our UU churches and on other UU's.
Notice how easily we accuse each other of the grossest hypocrisy, how we don't walk the walk, although we talk the talk. How we just engage in checkbook activism.
Yesterday, we have a conflict in this room over what was an easier cop-out -- putting up a pro-peace message in a public place or feeding the poor. Listen to yourselves. Like I said, we think everybody should be a UU, except the ones who are.
I want you to understand that the reason we talk like this, and act like that, is not because we are morally deficient people. It is because for our entire lives, we have been part of a cultural population which has been ridiculed, vilified, demonized, but mostly ridiculed, mocked, minimized, and made a joke of.
And so we know we alternate between an insane grandiosity: we are the greatest people in the world and our institutions are getting close to being heaven on earth, a foretest of the beloved community, except for that fact that we are pathetic, ridiculous, hypocritical fools, pimples on the ass of American protestantism.
For most of us in this room, this has been our experience –to be religious leaders in a religious movement that feels like it is in exile, that feels like a saving remnant rather than a vanguard, where our churches feel like refuges rather than like launching pads.
For my entire adult life, Unitarian Universalism has been struggling with itself to maintain hope, to understand its mission, to generate real fervor, and to not get stuck in endless circular debates about what we are doing wrong.
For my entire adult life, Unitarian Universalists have been obsessed with the question: “What’s wrong with us? There must be something wrong with us that we are not as successful as our rivals. What’s wrong with us?”
We have survived; but we changed and been changed.
What do movements do when they are being defeated?
A movement in defeat goes through a stage where it gets more extreme, and engages in internal conflict. Look at 1968 and 1969. On the one hand, Richard Nixon is putting together a political coalition that will ultimately bring the African American liberation movement in the United States to a dead stop, while in the UUA, integrationists and black separatists are engaged in a life and death struggle over money we did not have that did embitter us for generations.
As liberalism's political power was slipping away, culturally, it became more and more extreme. Free love, open marriage, wife-swapping and ministerial sexual misconduct become rampant in our churches. Our Youth program becomes a boundaryless negative influence on our kids and is finally shut down.
And defeated and ridiculed people hunker down. Before this period of cultural conservatism, Unitarian Universalist churches did not describe themselves a being primarily religious communities where like-minded people could gather and be with each other. I think that in the 50's and 60's, liberal churches saw themselves as "beacons of liberal religions", not "havens of liberal religion." The fortress mentality
Unitarian Universalism became brittle and sectarian. Our kids came home from school and told us that they did not feel safe anymore, faced with the pressure from their more conservative playmates -- we became obsessed with building up our UU identity -- the chalice, the seven principles, the coffee cups with the famous UU's on them, the tee-shirts and the jewelry. We do have the highest ratio of tchokes to members of any cult in the world.
We developed high anxiety about our survival, which shows up as theological anxiety in our churches -- an older generation that is afraid that certain practices and styles will be lost -- and behind that fear is the fear that if my UU church changes, there will be no place where I can go -- for the world outside these walls has no place for me.
And I think that one of the changes that occured for UU's in this period of conservative ascendency has been the the retreat of larger UU churches from the political arena. Now this is a controversial statement that I am unsure of.
My sense is that as liberalism in all forms has become more ridiculed in the larger culture, UU churches which sought to preserve their respectability in the community, began to avoid political controversy. And my experience is that while the overall numbers of Republicans in our churches declined (I will show some survey numbers in a few minutes that suggest that the number of self-identified Republicans among UU's fell from 18% to 6% during the Clinton and Bush administrations) -- while the overall number of Republicans among the UU's fell, they became more insistent that the UUism avoid overt statements of political liberalism, as being partisan. The conservative theme has always been that they are the victims of an overweening liberalism -- and what better place to perform that dance than in a Unitarian Church.
Additionally, as more and more issues become polarized along partisan lines, more and more issues can become seen as partisan. For example, is a statement calling for concerted action to try to limit global climate change a partisan statement? Some think it so. Not only partisan, but evidence of the fact that the church is composed of 'tree-hugging, latte-sipping, volvo-driving, birkenstock wearing, meddlesome LIBERALS' in all their ridiculousness.
Would it be a partisan statement to condemn all the new restrictions on voting?
Would it be a partisan statement to discuss the ways that race has affected the perception of the first black President?
It would be a great historical project to catalogue the changes in Unitarian Universalism from 1968 to 2008: how did Liberal Religion adapt and development during a long period of cultural conservatism and hostility to liberalism?
A recent study of out of Trinity College based on American Religious Identification Surveys shows some of the changes that occured for Unitarian Universalism in the period of 1990 to 2008 -- the last 18 years of this period of conservative hegemony in the American culture.
Now, this study looked at people who identified themselves as Unitarian Universalist, whether or not they belonged to a congregation.
First of all, the numbers of self-identified UU's had grown, pretty much at pace with the US population. Now, we know that our congregational growth is almost non-existent in that period of time. Less than half of self-identified UU's belong to a congregation.
75% of self-identified UU's are non-hispanic whites in 2008, down from 90% in 1990. Again, this does not appear true among UU's in congregations.
UU's in and out of congregations got older between 1990 and 2008. The median age went up, from 44 in 1990 to 52 in 2008, which is also 8 years old than the median age of the US adult population.
72% of self-identified UU's agree with the statement that "God Exists." -- a statement that could not be said without equivocation from what I suspect is a majority of our pulpits by the settled minister.
And between 1990 and 2008, the number of self-identified UU Republicans fell from 18% to 6%, the number of Democrats rose from 42% to 64% and the number of independents fell from 37 to 30%.
Looking at these numbers of all self-identified UU's and comparing them to what I suspect about the UU's in our congregations, I have to come to the conclusion that the UU's who are not participating in our congregations are less white and more theistic than the people in our congregations. I also have to conclude that fewer young people are identifying as UU's.
These numbers reinforce to me that despite the cultural hegemony of conservativism we are still holding our own, but probably not through our congregations, except as temporary places.
I wonder if the growing number of self-identified UU's are people who had some experience in one of our congregations, but has moved on -- still considering themselves UU but not interested in belonging to that particular congregation. And I wonder if the persistent sense of anxiety, struggle for survival, and even failure that pervades many of our congregations is not very attractive to people. (war, movement, store)
So I have been describing t the second period of our modern UU history and almost all of us are of that era: we are the Desert people: UU’s of the exile.
The tide started turning in 2008, as marked by the election of President Obama. (Of course, I don’t believe that Presidents have the actual power to set the cultural tone, but their campaign themes and election show what is going on below the surface.) Beneath the surface, the rise of a new generations into adulthood, the changing demographics of the country, the collapsing economy which has hit younger people especially hard, brought forward a new electorate which made Obama's election possible. These are changes that are not just transformations of the voting population, but much broader cultural changes. But this man, who went to two different UU Sunday schools in his childhood, was elected as the result of a tremendous surge of rank and file activity and financial commitment.
And we are now in another period of intense political struggle, like 1968 to 1980, but now the forces of liberalism are resurgent and the conservatism is on the defensive. Now it is conservative forces in the culture who are in the period in which they struggle and contend over purity and extremism like liberals did in the first years of our decline.
And this year, The Occupy movement has put issues of economic class on the agenda for the first time since before World War 2. And even more importantly, the Occupy movement has lifted up the banner of the 99%. We are used to thinking of ourselves as being a tiny, tiny sliver of the American population, a speck. True, but almost all of us are part of the 99% who share a common interest in this highly unequal world. We are not alone, but a part of a vast population struggling for economic security, safety, survival.
We are in a third period of UU history now, and no one is of this period. No adult has ever grown up in a period in which we could assume that very large numbers of our fellow citizens share our basic worldview.
We face a different world and a different cultural environment than we have ever seen before.
Now is the time to set aside our brittle sectarianism -- our preoccupation with our own institutions and our own circles -- and be ready to join a much broader social, religious, cultural and yes, political, movement. There are millions upon millions of people who share our values of self-determination, honesty, humility, gratitude, reverence, openness and compassionate justice-making love. They are of all religions and of no religion. We do not need to convert them to offer them a yellow teeshirt and invited them to stand on the side of love.
And there are millions upon millions of people who simply need allies to secure the necessities of life for themselves and their children.
And I believe that there are millions upon millions of people who would find it of great benefit to join us in our spiritual practice of congregational worship, Millions who would want to join with others for a time of peace and prayer and song and stirring words. We should never set aside, or diminish, or downplay, or apologize, our spiritual practice; it is a life-giving, empowering, transforming, inspiring, living gift that we offer to all who can make use of it. It is a sign of the oppression that has laid upon us, and the self-hatred we have developed in response, that we think it dumb, or boring, or unimportant. For us to be embarrassed by our worship services, is like a zen master apologizing for sitting still, or a muslim ashamed of the prayer rug.
I want to thank you all for the very kind reception you have given me this week. I hope that what I have offered you has been helpful to you in your spiritual life, and in your work in the communities where you live and in the congregations where you worship with your closest community. I hope that I have brought bread for you, and not stones. I know that I have been fed good bread, good nutritious bread by your company and collaboration this week.
I make up my benediction every week; it is a chance to finally, in the midst of the dust and heat of my preaching, say what I had been trying to say for 20 minutes and often I come to these words, some of which are mine and some of which I have taken from my mentors and models: Frank Schulman, Ruppert Lovely, Carl Scovel, Kim Beach and James Luther Adams. And often I end up saying something like this:
“There is a power at work in the Universe, a great good intention at the heart of Creation, a creative, sustaining and transforming power, that will carry you in every action you take for justice, for community, and for love. You have a right to be here, for you are a creature of that power. You can depend on that power; you can rely on that power; you can trust that power with your heart and hopes, for all your life and with all your love. Be not afraid; and Go now in peace.”
Wednesday's talk at the South West UU Summer Institute -- Bread Not Stones.
Unitarian Universalists are so often seen as coming from that New English Puritan tradition – the First Parish church on the town green, with long standing congregations, supported by the somewhat more non-conformist branches of the old families, at once both smug, snobby and also, with a chip on their shoulder about their. Outsider status. Kind of like that guy in the Sprint commercial – a corporate executive behind a big desk bragging about how is “sticking it to the Man” until some underling suggests that “He IS the Man.”
There are other ways that people have become Unitarian Universalists, and my family’s story is one of them.
I never thought much about my family’s religious journey very much when I was a child – no child does, because most children assume that their family is the norm. As I got older and started studying religion and American history more formally, it was then that I finally started to take an interest in my families background and learned that it was not typical. I also started to see my own particular and personal journey of faith to be, in fact, not the evidence of my unique individuality and creative personality, but a continuation of certain themes of my particular past into a new present. .
My family, on both my father’s and mother’s side were Germans, and they were Baptists. Germans tend to be either Lutherans or Catholics, but there have been remnants of the Radical Reformation since the 1600’s there. Protestants, they differed from the Lutherans because they were separatists, not believing in the universal church, but in what we would now call, voluntary religious communities. Accordingly, they did not believe in infant baptism, but in adult baptism because only an adult of the age of reason could make a decision of faith. Their skepticism about the sacraments extended to the Eucharist, which they considered a Memorial Service.
My ancestors came to this country as part of small German colonies, settling in rural areas, farming communities in Pennsylvania and in the Midwest, Kansas, Iowa. My father’s mother’s family settled in Blooming Grove PA, in a Dunkard community -- the small church of which still stands, and where many generations of my relatives are buried in the graveyard out back. They were called Dunkards as an insult, but they claimed the name as their own. It referred to their emphasis on baptism – the adult baptism of the freely chosen faith – as the central act of Christianity.
All of my relatives came from similar little communities, and the connections between them go back into time. Some of these groups were pacifist; my mother’s clan dodged the draft in several states in Germany, and then the Ukraine, before settling in Iowa and the migrating into Milwaukee. Some of the groups were called “plain”, meaning that they didn’t use modern technology. Others were called “fancy” or “gay”, meaning that they used zippers instead of buttons etc. The little town of Blooming Grove, Pennsylvania, which is the historic homeland of one of my clans used to be called a gay Dutch commune, a misnomer, in that at all three words are inaccurate by today’s meanings.
About four generations ago, the men in my family started moving into ministry. My great grandfather, Thomas, for whom I was named, went to a German language Bible college, and shared there a room for a while with Walter Rauschenbusch, the Social Gospel theologian, and his son-in-law, my grandfather served as one of Rauschenbusch’s teaching associates later in life. Of my grandparent’s generation, on both sides, there were many ministers, and in my father’s generation, a majority of the men became ministers and a majority of the women married them.
The story of American Baptism dividing into fundamentalist and progressive wings was played out in my father’s family. My great-uncle Ewald, who ran a hardware store in Kansas, told us that he quit going to family events because all that ever happened was that his clergy brothers would argue over the inerrancy of the Bible vs. the Social Gospel.
My mother grew up in Milwaukee, the last child of a prominent German Baptist minister, and my father was the son of a minister who had become a teacher at the German seminary attached to the Rochester University. My mother and father met at a Baptist Youth Organization conference while in high school and courted each other across the distance between Milwaukee and Rochester for seven years, marrying after my dad was ordained in 1944.
My father told me once that his decision to enter the ministry was heavily influenced by the fact that there was college scholarship money available for the sons of German Baptist ministers who intended to go into the ministry themselves. He also expressed the opinion that he would have preferred to study geology instead.
Summing it up, the principle theological and philosophical influences on Bob and Henrietta Schade as they started their life in ministry together in Rock Village Massachusetts in 1944 were: my father’s interest in the natural science, his family’s long standing connection with the Social Gospel, his seminary study which centered on the historical criticism of the Bible, my mother’s family long standing connection with pacifism and non-violence and both their family’s submersion in a small and insular subculture with the larger German immigrant communities. I would suspect that German was the language of faith in their childhood – my grandfather’s preached in German – and German was a language that my parent’s generation was losing.
World War 2 and the Holocaust, of course, accelerated their dissociation with the German language and culture. And I believe that here in New England in the late 1940’s, my parents reinvented themselves – moving from being Germans to being New Englanders. Being a New Englander allowed them to express in a new cultural and ethnic milieu many of the cultural and personal traits of their childhood: a free skepticism about religious faith, a firm faith in God’s benevolence, political progressivism, a stoic disdain for emotionalism, a self-denying moderation and a barely disguised judgmentalism that has given the world a sympathetic hearing, but still finds it somewhat morally deficient.
My father got a Baptist church in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and then a short time before I was born applied to be fellowshipped by the American Unitarian Association and hence became a Unitarian minister. He was called to Lexington, MA to serve the Follen Church, ironically named after the German transcendentalist Charles Follen, his first Unitarian church. Shortly thereafter I was born.
My father’s letter to the AUA said that he wanted to become a Unitarian because he wanted to preach God’s love, instead of judgment, that men will do good out of attraction to God, not fear of God. He said that he wanted more theological freedom. I believe that he and my mother wished to be German no longer. My aunts tell me that the real story is that my parents wanted to smoke and drink. All of these explanations may be true.
I grew up in a home that was oddly both very religious and not religious at all. We didn’t pray; we didn’t talk about God much; we liked Jesus, but saw him as misused by most Christians, we went to church every week, even after my father left the ministry to work in a steel mill, we were politically correct in 1958, my mother would not let us watch Howdy Doody because of the stereotypical images of Native Americans it featured, we never had toy guns, we were morally engaged in a constant struggle to tell right from wrong, the picture book “The Family of Man” was on our coffee table for years and years, and at Christmas my parents would show us a picture book of paintings of the Madonna and Child from every culture around the world – African Marys, and Japanese Jesuses, and shepherds from the middle east and the three Kings as Native American chiefs.
I need to tell you that my father's career in the Unitarian ministry (it was all conducted in the AUA, and was over before merger in 1961) was not successful. He served churches in Lexington, and Providence and then finally in Youngstown, Ohio. He was not treated well by congregations. Both he and my mother were embittered by it, but not so much that our family ever quit going to church. My father voluntarily left the ministry in 1958 and went to work in a steel mill. No one from the mill ever called him at home.
In three generations my family went from being simple pietistic German farmers who saw themselves as God’s elect, gathered into a separate flock, and filled of a sweet and generous faith to being essentially, if you will, Christians without Christ, without doctrine, without ritual, without sacraments, retaining only the institution of the church and the ethical teachings of the Christian tradition, and oh yes, Christmas and Easter. But I believe that my parents never gave up the faith that there was some great benevolence at the heart of creation, some great love somewhere, that gives meaning to life, and pulls us in the direction of something you could call the Kingdom of God, or what one author has renamed "the Republic of Heaven."
You can ask what was the difference between my family and another family who were unapologetically secular, but morally engaged liberals, or even radicals.
I am not sure if there was, aside from that going to church part every week.
I grew up more interested in politics than in religion, an interest that my parents encouraged. As the Civil Rights Movement swept the country in the late 50’s and early 60’s, religion was generally submerged into the struggle for justice. We assumed that the purpose of the church was to mobilize people to support the struggle. A minister was a good minister if he did so; sermons about other issues, including faith, or personal reflection were so much navel gazing in my mother’s frequently expressed opinion.
When I went off to college, and became active in the student movement, I saw how pitiful and ineffective an instrument of social change the church was, and ended my connection with religion in all forms for twenty years.
I have all sorts of adventure stories from my twenty years between 1969 (when I was twenty) and 1989 (when I was forty). Some of them are funny and some are shocking, some shocking enough that you wouldn’t hear another thing if I told you, so I will just say that I took the idea that one ought to dedicate the whole of one’s life, without regard to one’s personal future and comfort, to the struggle for a world wide transformation to justice, by any means necessary to an extreme. I passed over several boundaries which ought not be transcended. I took Satan up on his third temptation of Christ, believing that if authority over the powers and principalities of this world was up for grabs, than those of us who loved justice should be ruthless enough to try to scoop it up. I had seriously lost my way.
******Not to be coy about this. I grew up in Youngstown, Ohio once I hit school age and graduated from a small rural high school. I went to George Washington University in DC from 1966 to 1971. It was radical politics all the time.
After college, I moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota and became involved in radical community organizing. I met Sue; she was an actress in a radical community theatre troupe.
We were recruited into a secret marxist-leninist organization, which sounds much more exciting and thrilling than it actually was. The attraction we had for it was not intellectual or theoretical, but organizational. We were mostly frustrated with the radical movements we were in. There were so many meetings where people talked and talked and never did anything, in endless discussions that wandered off-topic in many directions. You could endure a three hour meeting to argue about the wording of a leaflet to give out a factory gate where they made controllers for anti-personnel weapons, but Sue and I would be the only ones up at 6 AM at the gate. It was frustrating in that the radical movement had no self-discipline. In many ways, that loose radical movement reminded me too much of the Unitarian Church of Youngstown, Ohio.
So when the chance came to be in a group with some internal discipline -- you got your orders and you did them -- we went for it.
We didn't know anything about the group. Much of it was secret even to ourselves.
It was not exciting. Mostly we worked in small businesses that the group had set up, to understand first hand how the capitalist economy worked. We got involved in the computerization process which was changing what we called "the forces of production."
And we were introduced to "ideology" -- the understanding that one's position in the world shaped how you think about the world, in all ways, down to the most intimate parts of one's personality.
All of the concepts about oppression, privilege, and class that UU's are now discussing, we studied 30 to 40 years ago.
It was a weird alienating subculture -- it put you at a remove from the world -- as though there was a glass wall between you and others -- it was airless and joyless, cramped yet desolate.
Eventually we left, and no, there was no movie-like defection or escape. No one ever came after us.
We left that in the mid-80's. I spent some time studying for a master's in American history. I took a leave of absence from my job to work on the Jesse Jackson 1988 campaign as a press aide.
After twenty years in the wilderness, I limped back into another Unitarian Church, with my wife and my two daughters. We were more recruited by Sue’s sister, both of them were raised Roman Catholic, than by my memories of the Unitarian Church of my youth. It was not some sudden spiritual awakening that moved me; we were lonely and a bit beat up, and were settling into a private despair of meaninglessness.
But I did experience a spiritual awakening once I was active in the church again. I remembered why I loved the church – the people, the sense of shared purpose, the willingness to be witnesses and good examples to each other’s efforts. But mostly I was moved by the rediscovery of the harmony of means and ends – that the way to reach the goal of a just community or a loving community was to start acting justly and lovingly now.
Bringing ends and means into harmony has the effect of ending the dichotomy of doing and being, as the current catch phrase, “be the change you want” sums up. Reflection on that brings me back to the unexpressed faith of my parents: that there is a benevolence somewhere at the heart of creation (a phrase I attribute to Carl Scovel) faith in which makes it possible to “be” without knowing, without trying to control how all this human suffering and struggle will turn out in the end.
Life in the church led eventually to life in the ministry. I had the good fortune to go to Perkins School of Theology, a Methodist school, where I was introduced to serious Christian systematic theology for the first time. I loved it, but I have learned that I love any sort of systematic thought. I am a sucker for any school of thought that promises me the ability to explain the entire world. It’s why I loved being a leftist; I take a joy in being able to explain the world. Being introduced to mature Christian thought was like seeing a map of a city that I had been living in for a long time – seeing the interconnections and its order. It made a believer out of me, at least on the cognitive level.
Worcester was my first church after graduation and it will be my last.
I have spent more of my time in ministry trying to develop the church community than anything else, encouraging people to feel a part of the congregation, that they can be leaders. I am the host, the welcoming presence. I delight in the people who come to church and I try to clear my mind of all preconceptions about who they are, or their potential value to the organization that is the congregation. I try to recognize what an enormous thing it is to come to church on Sunday – it is an act of great self-discipline and personal weirdness in our culture now. We religious leaders have a tendency to focus too much of our attention on who is NOT there – the members we have lost or who drifted away on the one hand, and on the other hand, all those who we think should come to church, the fish that would overfill our nets if we could just figure out the right side of the boat to fish from. The people we need and the people who need us are coming in the doors right now.
At the same time, I know that the way that we do church is vanishing. So a big part of my ministry has been to try to coax the church into new forms of presence, but it is hard. I’m talking about online communities and social networks. Did you know that there are as high a proportion of technophobes among the baby boomer generation as there are among the senior citizen population? And I think that they are all in churches. Churches are like tourists in the foreign lands of the young. We don’t speak the language and we think that we just shout a little louder and a little slower, somebody might understand us.
As time goes on, and as I get further and further from seminary, my ministry resembles a somewhat more conscious version of the religious life my parents had: strong on church life, including the discipline of our collective worship practice, strong on ethics and morals, weak on doctrine, scripture and traditions. As much as I love the elegance of the doctrines of the church, the grandeur of that intellectual accomplishment does not confer authority on us. As much as I personally find the Bible to be fascinating, I cannot imagine that my ministry consists of trying to persuade people it has some unique authority in their lives.
Recently, my sister and brother and I traveled to Blooming Grove Pennsylvania to visit the graves of our parents. They are buried on a hill side above the Blooming Grove Dunkard Baptist church, the last of seven generations of my direct line who are buried there, traced through my father’s mother. The grave of my great grandfather Thomas Jefferson Schaeffer is there; he was the first minister. The story was that he was converted while plowing a field, became a minister and left Pennsylvania to go to preach to the Sioux near Yankton, S.D., where he tied of Typhoid Fever in 1885. Sometimes I wonder what might have happened behind that plow. Thank you for listening to my story.
This is my Tuesday text from the South West UU Summer Institute.
Something that I have always wondered about was whether the secular realm has always existed. Did the ancient Hebrew woman see her daily domestic activity as something outside of the religion -- oh, those men, always thinking about Yahwah, and arguing about Him, while I am just grinding the grain and making the bread. Or am I doing all this work in a manner prescribed or shaped by religious teaching.
Did she compartmentalize her consciousness in the way that we do?
There is a great deal of evidence that in the ancient world religion was a separate sphere.
In the stories and myths that the ancients told, the Gods, including Yahwah, once walked upon the Earth and related directly with human beings. Recall that story from the second chapter of Genesis, which describes how God was walking in the Garden in the evening, "in the cool of the day" and he encounters Adam and Eve, all dressed up in their fig leafed finery. It's a lovely image, but we can tell that the authors of that story did not believe it to be literally true.
And through the stories of the Genesis, stories which for the most part were collected and recorded by the writers in the court of King David, God withdraws from the world, making fewer and fewer personal appearances, and even then, appearing mysteriously and in disguise. Three strangers appear at the door of Abraham's tent -- were they God? A mysterious stranger wrestles with Jacob throughout the night -- some say that was God, but perhaps not. God appears in the visions and in dreams.
It is said that Moses is the last to see God face to face and still live -- up on Mount Sinai. God calls Samuel in the night, three times before he realizes that it is God calling him.
And then, there is that scene in which Elijah, on the run from the false prophets of the court of Queen Jezebel, hides in the mountains, and pissed off and harassed as he is, asks to see God. And God tells him to hide in a cleft of a rock, because God will pass by -- and there is wind and earthquake and storm, but God appears as a still small voice in the quiet after the storm.
By the time we reach the era of King David (which is the beginning of the Bible describing real and historic events, past the age of stories and legends and myths, God is enclosed in the ark of the covenant and then in the Temple. God is far away, God is remote and the Temples and containers for God on this earth, in this space and time are only occasional residences of the divine.
People reach God through the Temple, through the Priests of the Temple who have access to God that the ordinary person does not. Over time, all the Temples were consolidated into the Temple on Mount Zion, Solomon's Temple.
God was remote, inaccessible. God was present in one special place. God was approachable only by special religous people. And one interacted with God through rituals performed by the intermediary priests. God demanded one's obedience and loyalty and one demonstrated one's obedience and loyalty through the rituals of sacrifice.
Bad fortune in your life showed that you had somehow displeased God and one made an appropriate sacrifice to show one's obedience and loyalty to retain to God's favor.
Whatever the earlier stories written in the scroll in the Temple, when we first see the practice of the organized religion that shaped our civilization and culture here in the West, it is this temple based religion of sacrifice to remote and invisible God, with a professional priesthood.
The story of King David in the two books of Samuel tells of how this royal family of David and the priests of the Temple and individual prophets split and divided over where access to God was located. Who spoke for God? And in that we see the beginning of a split between the royals (the state) and the religious authorities (the priests). Was this the beginning of a division of the culture into religious and non-religious spheres.
And during this period of time (roughly between 1000 BCE forward about 400 years) we have writings some of which are clearly Temple writings and some of which are on religious subjects but do not refer to Temple religious practice at all.
Well what happened next? The Kingdom of Judah is defeated by Babylon and leadership of the Hebrew people are taken into exile. The Temple is destroyed.
God begins his journey. God is delocalized. God no longer lives in the Temple on Mount Zion, but God is everywhere and nowhere at the same time. God is able to be with the Hebrews in the Babylon. God is also back in Jerusalem, waiting for them to return. God is in the wilderness making a path for them through the desert.
God is "out there" and whereever we go, we are still in relationship with God.
The deuternomic historian rewrites the previous histories of the Hebrew people to emphasize a different nuance in the relationship to God. The point is no longer that God brought these people to the promised land -- but that God and the Jewish people are in a permanent, unbreakable covenant with one another. The point about the promised land is not the land but the promise. The promise and the covenant go with the people whereever they are.
At the same time, in another development, prophetic writers downplay the role of the Temple and Temple rituals during the same period.
These are writings that we religious liberals love and quote and hopefully, live by: what does God require of thee, asks the prophet, Micah: but to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.
Another prophet, Isaiah writes how the ministry is to to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;.
Amos says: Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well- being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever- flowing stream.
You see what is happening here. Religious duty is shifting from ritual to ethics and morality.
The exile ends and the people return to Jerusalem. There is a counter-tendency to anti-Temple, anti-sacrifice and pro-justice strand of the some of the exile prophets.
The Temple is rebuilt in Jerusalem and a sacrificial religion is re-established at it. There are a couple of developments that are important to note at this point.
God is made cosmic. In this post-exile period, the first chapter of Genesis is written and added to the bible. In it, the transformation of the God from the warrior God of the Jewish People to the cosmic creator of all of heaven and earth from the beginning of time is complete. God can get no bigger, nor more powerful from this point on.
Secondly, during this period Jewish law is fully fleshed out and detailed. What God wants of us is made quite explicit. And our duties as a religous person is simple -- to obey all of God's laws and commandments. And those laws cover great expanses of life -- how food is prepared, financial and legal matters, family life, sexual conduct, diet etc.
Religion at this point is quite totalistic -- an ominipotent, omnipresent God concerned about all aspects of life.
One could say that at this point in time, the secular realm of life is minimized and the religious realm is maximized.
Well, what happens next?
In a stunning development, God comes to Earth again.
This far-off distant God, who deals with people through accepting their sacrifices offered up by priests, and who regulates all aspect of life through rules and regulation shows up on earth again. Well, his son does.
And his son, first name Jesus, Last Name Christ, is resurrecting understandings of God that had not been heard since the time of exile, hundreds of years before.
The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath.
The kingdom of God is at hand, and within you.
Our father, who art in heaven…. you can directly address a prayer to God.
He points again to the temporary, transience of the Temple. He drives the merchants from the Temple, attacking the sacrifice practice of Temple ritual.
He says all the rules and laws come down to standing on the side of love -- loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself -- and that if you cannot love the neighbor whom you can see, how can you love God whom you cannot see.
Someday all who worship God will worship him not at Temples, but in spirit and truth.
Jesus is the return of a suppressed theology in religious history that is a counter gesture to the totalization of the religious realm.
Instead of God Omnipotent: God Incarnate. Human sized.
Instead of Ritual: standing on the side of love, morals and ethics. Reverence and Gratitude.
Too bad he got killed.
Then, the story goes, something quite unexpected happens.
He is resurrected, appears several times -- to 500 people, Paul says. And then ascends into heaven.
And then, God returns to Earth as the Holy Spirit, tongues of fire, at the Pentecost, inspires the faithful and establishes God's presence on Earth -- not in a land, not in a temple, but in a group of people who become the (hear to this phrase with new ears) Risen Body of Christ -- the church. God is dispersed into humanity, as an internal spirit carried within. An inner light.
And so in our church in Worcester, every week, when we start our period of silent prayer, the preacher calls upon the faithful present to listen for the still, small voice of God which dwells within each and every one of us. Recalling Elijah on the mountain top.
So let's review.
God starts out in story as a present as God's self on Earth -- walking in the Garden in the cool of the day -- over time becomes the cosmic, omnipotent, remote, unapproachable God of everything and all, to whom we owe sacrifice.
And then in an opposite motion, God comes to earth as a man, and dies and is resurrected as a people who are filled with his spirit.
God goes from way out there to in here.
God goes from demanding our loyalty, obedience and sacrifice to wanting our love, and for us to love each other, and treat each other with compassion, justice, ethics and morality.
God's truth has gone from divine commandment to human wisdom.
And in the meantime, the physical world has become ordinary stuff, marvelous stuff, beautiful stuff, stuff that makes you want to bite your hand, but not miraculous stuff.
O, there are more rounds in the see-sawing of the religious and secular. By the middle ages, western religion is back to being totalistic again -- with the religious realm encompassing all social life and all human knowledge.
I want to go back to Jesus, and trace another story from then until now:
If Jesus was the Son of God, and had performed countless miracles, why did he not save Himself from arrest, torture and crucifixion? Surely, He had the power to do so. He chose not to.
Paul offers this description:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross. (Letter to the Philippians 2-5-8a.)
6who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross. (Letter to the Philippians 2-5-8a.)
The ancient fathers of the church referred to this process by which Jesus emptied himself of his divinity as kenosis – a greek word meaning emptying.
Jesus did not hold his divinity (equality with God) as something to be used, but “[he] emptied himself.” Paul suggests that we ought to think the same way about ourselves.
What if Paul is not only speaking to us as individuals, but as the body of Christ, the church universal? How do we, as participants in organized Christianity take on the same mind that was in Christ Jesus?
For centuries, the Christian church has declared itself to be God’s sole and exclusive agent on Earth. It claimed that it alone held the keys to eternal life and has used the human fear of death to hold earthly power. For centuries the Church had hegemony over the thoughts of men and women; it amassed great wealth and allied herself with every system of oppression and exploitation under which the world has suffered.
The Church moved through the world as though Christ had saved himself from the cross with divine violence, an army of angels called down from heaven to defeat Rome.
But those days are over. For the last few centuries, men and women have carved out a secular sphere with some independence from the hegemony of the church. Many in North America and Europe have thought of themselves as no longer under the influence of Christianity at all. A wall has been built to keep the church away from the levers of state power; the sword of the Prince is no longer wielded by the Church. What was Ceasar’s was rendered unto him; and only the free human spirit was left.
I argue that the emergence of secular society can be seen as a fulfillment or the completion of the Western religious traditions, an age when, for ordinary people, their spiritual lives are conducted without regard to duties to religious institutions, rituals, formalized creeds or ordained religious leaders. A person’s spiritual life is manifested in ethical living, gratitude, compassion and reverence. Everyone who cares to be is a free-lance seeker of the truth or a plain-clothes monk.
Now the church stands chastened and humbled, rapidly becoming powerless in the larger society. Its sacred book, the Bible, is either unread, or plundered for political gain; its mainline Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic churches are empty, its doctrines are metaphors and archaic phrases. Its preachers use stories of daily life to prove the relevance of the Bible, in a reverse flow of meaning.
The church is being emptied and being humbled, often against its will. The church is losing its social power because no one outside of itself trusts its sources of authority.
The fundamentalists and evangelicals fight back against the tide of secularism and modernism, reasserting the authority of the Bible, even if they have to claim that dinosaurs walked with humans, and the gays and lesbians we all know are abominations unto the Lord. There is a desperate and visible will to believe at work there. More often that not, the authority of Christianity is being asserted to justify other long-standing oppressions and injustices. There will be an institution known as the Christian church in the future, of course, but in North America and Europe, it will survive as a backward looking instrument of survival for embattled ethnicities.
The mainline Protestants don’t know what hit them. They covet the enthusiasm and fire of the evangelicals, but cannot generate it themselves.
This generation of baby boomers are the last generation to grow up in the old world of the institutional churches.
I remember the church of my childhood. Frank Schulman was my minister. In memory, it seemed so vital and part of the community. Most people, it seemed went to church. In my neighborhood, most people were Catholic. It seemed that there was power there, and stability, and community.
Can Christianity exist in the world without its claim to power and authority, without claiming some unique status of a special relationship to God?
Nineteenth century Unitarians, and to a lesser extent, the Universalists, started to move in this direction. The Unitarians developed an approach to doctrine that favored individual freedom of belief; the Universalists a doctrine of salvation that extended to all. Their points of departure were different, but the effect was the same. Both were imagining a Christianity that had renounced its claim of av God-given authority to coerce.
Unitarian Universalism, if you squint a little, can be seen as an unplanned experiment in kenotic Christianity, or self-emptied Christianity. It jettisons all claims to being anything other than a human institution, it places Christian doctrine and teaching on an equal level with all other forms of human attempts at understanding, it promises neither reward nor punishment. It retains the ethical and moral teachings of the church, the organizational structure of the free church. In the beginning, it operated within the cultural melieu of Christianity, but that has broadened in recent decades.
But it may be that Unitarian Universalism is Christianity self-emptied, renouncing and putting aside what is essential to its identity as a special separate thing, and retaining what is necessary to a good and faithful and ethical life.
It is like a death to empty oneself of that which makes you special.
But, death is not the end, but a part of renewal and resurrection. “Let the same mind that was in Christ Jesus be in you.”
“The hour is coming and is now here when the true worshippers will worship in spirit and truth. God is spirit and those who worship God must worship in spirit and truth.” Jesus, John 4:
To be clear, I believe that what we call secular society is the fulfillment of the western religious tradition. It is the culmination of a long progression of religious thinking that insists our religious duties consist of claiming one's self as a child of God, living with reverence and gratitude, standing on the side of love, living with compassion, and openness and justice. To love mercy, to do justly and walk with humbly with thy God. It is a long tradition that insists that religion is an inner heart thing, and not a matter of form or ceremony or institution, or ritual or belief.
We, as religious liberals, enter into this era holding onto two distillations of the western religious tradition. One is the ethical and moral teachings of the tradition. They are a powerful and transforming set of teachings, which are not separable from their sources.
Walter Rauschenbusch wrote that if it were not for the Christian scripture (i.e. the ethical and moral teachings of the church tradition), no one would know that God loves the poor. After all, one would never draw that conclusion from reading the daily newspaper.
The other distillation of the western religious tradition that we carry is the structure of the church. And now, even that seems shaky and suspect. It can seem, as Tony so energetically and eloquently said last night, that our commitment to institutional maintenance of the church and the congregation gets in the way of fulfilling our ethical and moral duties.
This is hard for us. Remember when John Wolfe used to say that he was not sure that he believed in God, but he sure believed in the church.
Now, we come to where faith comes in….
We are religious liberals, living in a secular age. We don't know if this thing called religion is going to survive in the new age where we are going. We don't know what it is going to look like. We don't know how the relentless drives of globalization and science and revolution and climate change and everything else that looms in the future are going to change it, or kill it. We don't know if the institutions that carry religion now are going to survive, or how they will be changed. We really only know one thing: that everything out of that tradition which carries the best of humanity comes down to us as a moral and ethical imperative -- that we must love, that we must embody love, that we must empower love, that we must incarnate love, that we must, as the tee-shirt says, stand resolutely on the side of love.
Everything else we know about religion may die in this secular age. Certainly, all of us will die before this story is over.
But faith says that love is stronger than death. So, we need not fear, nor cling, nor resist. We need no fear of this present age -- it was made for us -- who have already lightened our loads, jettisoned so much dead weight that will only burden us -- it was made for us and us for it. Let us worry less about what kind of church we will be, and focus instead on what kind of people we will be.
““Be ours a religion which, like sunshine goes everywhere; its temple, all space; its shrine, the good heart; its creed, all truth; its ritual, works of love; its profession of faith, divine living.” Theodore Parker