Secularism is the Fulfillment

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. 
Great Stuff. 
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.)
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


  1. When he was doing interviews for the movie "Malcolm X", Denzel Washington said that it felt as if Malcolm took over his body.

    Did you feel like Theodore Parker took over yours while you were giving this talk?

  2. Please send out the benediction you left us with!

  3. Chuck -- it's at the end of the What Time Is It post.


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