Re-imagining Unitarian Universalism, Part 4: Secularity

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Part 3

Part 4:  Re-Imagining Unitarian Universalism, Part 4: Thinking about Secularity

I became uncomfortable with the way that UU Christians had dichotomized the situation within the UU movement: a dominant humanist hegemony that placed all its eggs in the basket of "religious community" and a suppressed theistic and Christian past and future that called UUism into a more purposeful religious life.

Rene Girard's vision of the gospel floating free of the religion that tries to contain it rocked this understanding. I started to think about secularism, from biblical perspective. I was inspired by Lloyd Geering's and Don Cupitt's presentation at a Jesus Seminar conference in New York.

We now live in
A Global Economy and
In a Globalized Capitalist Civilization
A Pluralistic Culture
A Secular Society and under a Secular State
with Voluntary Religious Associations
Personal Spirituality

There are counter trends -- each of these are resisted in some way.

Indigenous peoples and local cultures resist globalization. Reactionaries resist pluralism in favor of monoculture. Religious fundamentalists want state favor

I got from a Robert Coles book (the Secular Mind),  the idea that secularism is a concept that has no meaning except in a religious context. Secularism is a religious word, just as atheism is a religious word.

The secular realm is that realm of life out of the reach of the religious: not governed by religious teaching, religious rules, religious authorities.

Did the secular realm always exist? 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 was she doing the 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. The Temples 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. You then 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 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 
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. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harp. 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 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.

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.

Our duty becomes to live by the inner light of God in the world as it is.


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