A sermon preached on August 14, 2011 by Andrew Hidas
“The old differences separating one system from another now are becoming less and less important, less and less easy to define. And what, on the contrary, is becoming more and more important is that we should learn to see through all the differences to the common themes that have been there all the while, that came into being with the first emergence of ancestral man from the animal levels of existence, and are with us still.” —From Joseph Campbell’s Myths to Live By
“I believe that man must learn to live without those consolations called religious, which his own intelligence must by now have told him belong to the childhood of the race. Philosophy really can give us nothing permanent to believe in either. It is too rich in answers; each canceling out the rest. The quest for meaning is foredoomed. Human life means nothing. But that is not to say that it is not worth living. What does a Debussy arabesque mean, or a rainbow, or a rose? A man delights in all of these knowing himself to be no more. A wisp of music and haze of dreams dissolving against the sun. Man has only his own two feet to stand on, his own human trinity to see him through: reason, courage and grace, and the first plus the second equals the third.” —From Peter De Vries’ The Blood of the Lamb
So: Let’s get back to this belief thing, shall we? We UUs are famously free of dogma, but belief is always there bubbling barely beneath the surface of any religiously inclined person and community. As UUs, our individual beliefs and religious practices can be as varied as the stars, but they do coalesce around a certain elastic and liberal frame of mind and heart. When we encounter those who are inelastic and conservative, many of us are thrown back on painful childhood memories that we’ve spent our adult lives working out in some serious self-therapy, if nothing else. But that just makes one key question all the more relevant: What should self-professed religious liberals do about religious conservatives?
Can we talk to them in anything resembling a common language when key words in that language tend to evoke very different interpretations? Words like God? And “my religion.” And “heaven”… “grace”…“spirit”…“faith”… And that two-word combo that has had such an impact on world history: “We believe…”
We believe…” There’s power in them words— for both good and bad. Even stronger is their variant in the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident…that all men are created equal…endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…”
Endowed by their Creator…” What do you suppose our Founding Fathers meant by a Creator who endows certain rights to us? Did they envision a kindly father figure stroking his long white beard on a throne just north of the Big Dipper, pondering the freedom of assembly?
Well, given the Unitarian and Deist cast of many of the Founders, I think it’s safe to say that many of them didn’t imagine any such thing. But I suspect they signed on to the specifically religious language of a “Creator who endows” because the ideas they were trying to convey required a language of profundity and depth.
Human beings have used different terms, concepts and images throughout history to get at the depth dimension of life. It started when our ancestors hovered about in their caves and huts with lots of time on their hands to stoke a fire while thunder and lightning and winds howled outside. They began to wonder: “What’s with all the uproar? Was it something we did?”
“And what about the sun, the fruit that falls from the trees, the animals we catch for our dinner? Who’s behind it all? Must be something stronger and smarter than us!”
“But hey, given their extreme moods, maybe we should buddy up with them! Maybe they’re hungry! Let’s offer them a sacrifice, a nice little rabbit from our stash…But let’s bow down first to let them know we appreciate them. What do we call them? They need names! Hmmm—the ‘gods.’”
Thus were born concepts, imaginings, rituals…to begin scratching at, to attempt to convey, the essential mystery of the Creation. Our experiences of it. Our place in it. The terror it sometimes brings.
You know what happens from there—the putative alpha male thinks he’s figured it all out. Exactly how the sacrificial rabbit needs to be presented…How many times the assembled need to bow. He finds others nodding in agreement, and pretty soon they decide to meet regularly so they can properly court the gods’ sympathy: “Every seventh sunrise at Joe’s cave down by the creek!” And thus begins the tradition of “religious community.”
A little while later, there’s some heated discussion, a few folks say no, no no, that’s not the way it is at all! We shouldn’t even sacrifice rabbits—the gods would surely prefer lambs! That’s why these storms keep pounding us despite the rabbits we’ve been putting out there!
Thus is born Religious Community No. 2. And so on, resulting in the truly incredible spectrum that keeps religious scholars and universalists like us so busy today. We’ve got God and gods and Goddesses, Christs and Yahwehs and Brahmas, Allahs and Voids, Great Mothers and Holy Fathers, Almightys and Great Spirits, Alphas and Omegas and Higher Powers, Sources of All That Is. On and on they go—a thousand upon thousand names for God and the religions and belief structures by which human beings try to make sense of it all.
When I was in graduate school with my head full of Carl Jung, I was chatting with my beloved mother, a God-fearing Christian.
The subject got around to Adam and Eve. As we talked, I realized, to my amazement, that she thought of them as real people. Our very first parents. When I suggested that most religious scholars consider the Garden of Eden a myth, a fable, Mom looked at me wide-eyed, as if I had suddenly sprouted a large antler from the middle of my forehead.
This was incomprehensible to her—the story is in the Bible, isn’t it? And the Bible is the word of God, right? She simply couldn’t entertain the idea that I didn’t think it was real. She wasn’t offended—just greatly puzzled. Oh no, I realized: my mother is one of those fundamentalists!
Was there harm in the views she held? My mom had a heart the size of Chicago, as do many other fine and generous people who hold more or less literal views on matters of religion. She was a gentle soul who found solace in her faith right to her dying day. Her use of language—and what is language but a symbol?— her feeling and living into her reality of “Jesus loves me, this I know,” worked to orient her life around basic principles of goodness and comfort and service, just as many millions of people do today. For her, truly: ’Twas a gift to be simple…
Obviously, literal belief in sacred scripture is not always harmless. True believers can be dangerous and evil. The Crusades, the Twin Towers, Knoxville—history tells a long sad tale of those who think with absolute vehemence and ultimate malice that the world should be a certain way, and when it isn’t, they feel entitled to take that world horribly into their own hands.
But it’s not only madmen and Taliban who leave us shaking our heads in dismay. On an only slightly less malicious note, ministers of prominence such as Pat Robertson can claim in our own supposedly advanced culture that God permitted 9-11 and those 3,000 innocent lives to be snuffed out—why? Because of all those gay people we stubbornly refuse to stone in the town square.
Of course, I keep waiting for all those literalists citing 15 words in Leviticus as the basis of their gay phobia to begin scattering bull’s and goat’s blood over the altar during their next Sunday service, just as the entire chapter of Leviticus 16 instructs them to do. Wouldn’t THAT make for entertaining Sunday morning television! But alas, the wait is in vain. This gets us to what I shall grandly call Hidas Theorem No. 1—Hey, it’s my sermon!—
There is no such thing as true fundamentalism, only selective fundamentalism by those who cherry-pick passages of ancient texts in order to support their biases.
Truly, there has never been a 100% fundamentalist, because carrying out every dictum of most all sacred books requires contradictory actions like absolute compassion and forgiveness in one chapter and unremitting vengeance in the next. Which is it? Only God, in all her fathomless mystery, knows…
Now, we have to ask ourselves: What do we do, as educated, modernist UUs, committed to pluralism, with the almost medieval perspectives sometimes espoused by religious fundamentalism?
One place to start, I think, is by considering Hidas Theorem No. 2. This one concerns How to Build Tolerance and Influence People. It goes like this: Not one person in the entire history of the world has EVER changed their mind about ANYTHING because they were told how stupid they are.
I think of Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela here. They did not change the world, did not change anyone’s mind, by shouting down their adversaries as stupid, racist and ignorant. They relied instead on something far more penetrating, artful and effective: the magisterial moral force of their rhetoric and physical courage. The persuasive power of their large hearts. They not only changed the minds and hearts of neutral bystanders, but they ultimately changed much of the hate and ignorance of those who opposed them.
I think what really tests us UUs is being “open” and welcoming to those we consider close-minded people—literalist, conservative Christians, most pointedly. That’s where we see our values most tested, where our rubber of tolerance meets the road of our most intense resistance. It’s easy for us to be ecumenical and all-accepting of our nontheistic Buddhist friends, or our leftie Christian congregations that emphasize social justice and inclusion. But those pesky and persistent fundamentalist Christians are another thing altogether. How should we deal with them?
I think we have to take principled, powerful stands against wrongs and injustices wherever we find them—just as Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King did. But strong and principled does not mean disparaging, however exasperating the opposing view. Hidas Theorem No. 3 goes like this:We cannot diminish the humanity of even our severest political or theological opponents without it diminishing our own humanity in turn.
This calls to mind a line from the tragi-comic novelist Peter DeVries, whose reading you will hear in the closing words. He said, “We are not primarily put on this earth to see through one another, but to see one another through.”
So if we expand this UU community beyond our walls to the larger community beyond, then “seeing one another through” means not dismissing out of hand even literalist symbol systems that bring meaning and purpose and even “explanation” into others’ lives.
This is where the new atheists such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins have it so wrong. Not in their basic intellectual critique of the absurdities and dangers of literalist religious belief. Their mistake is the conviction that the sooner those beliefs are ridiculed and blasted out from under believers, the better off they and our world will be. The new atheists’ utter disdain for the enduring value and transformative power of religious language and symbol is truly breathtaking. (But that’s another sermon…)
I left the Catholicism of my youth when I was 14. I almost made it back at age 30 with the help of stunning encounters at Jesuit church services and a Jesuit spiritual director when I was at seminary. But I ultimately found that I couldn’t speak the language from “inside” the tradition anymore. Try as I might, Christian symbols had lost their emotional resonance; I could no longer “live” in Jesus language and draw sustenance from its poetic power.
But now, as an outsider to that tradition, I am becoming more comfortable with its language once again. I see my increasing fluidity with the Christian symbol system as right in line with the “universalism” part of our own tradition. It’s a gesture of solidarity with the overarching spiritual “truth” that all religion attempts to explore and express.
I’d like to suggest this simple idea: a language-and-culture based understanding of religious differences. We humans have our everyday languages that require translation when we travel to other countries:
A coffee, please becomes . Un café, por favor. Café, sil vous plais. Kave, kérem szépen (That’s my Hungarian!)…
Then there is our religious language, which, like our everyday language, we come to out of a nearly infinite variety of cultures, traditions, linguistic development and even our individual experiences. Such a tapestry it all is, rich with diverse expression, concepts and rituals, differing cadences of poetry, differing metaphors:
Christ is risen! (A UU Translation: “Every day, I can make life anew.”)
Allahu akbar! (English translation: God is Great! UU Translation: “The Creation is glorious!”)
Thy will be done. (UU Translation: “What will be, will be.”) (Which is itself a fine Buddhist phrase.)
And then there’s the lovely Hindu greeting Namaste:I salute the God within you, the goodness that shines thru, whatever name you give to that God, which may be different than mine, but Namaste anyway!…
As UUs, we get to delight in Hinduism’s pantheon, in Judaism, Christianity & Islam’s earthly prophets, in Buddhism’s void and emptiness. These are all languages, generally translatable into other languages.
At base, all of them are pointers to the depth dimension of life, to intensely subjective experiences of sanctity and meaning and love.
Respecting even the literal languages used by our neighbors means that when we are “traveling” in their “religious country,” whether it’s with Baptists or Jews or Muslims, we can bow our heads to God and Allah, reflect on the wisdom and gifts of Jesus and Moses and Muhammad, and consider how those gibe with our own conceptions and language of spiritual life.
Let me posit this: As interwoven as religion is with everyday life, ongoing and good-faith translation is absolutely critical to human progress and the cross-cultural understanding that is fundamental to that progress.
We talk a lot in UU congregations—particularly during Canvass season!—about nurturing a culture of generosity. We emphasize the idea that generosity, much as we love and need big checks during the Canvass, really is about more than money. There’s also a generosity of spirit that is almost synonymous with or a prerequisite for the spiritual life.
So it seems to me that a certain generosity and large-heartedness is essential in our interactions with those of more literalistic persuasions than our own.
Generosity serves as a brake on a kind of spiritual elitism that can creep in when we use our intellects and critical skills to deconstruct the basis of all religious expression.
This generosity helps us place the limitations of literalism in a larger perspective—one that sees human religious sensibility as a developmental process. We mostly stopped doing human sacrifices to the sky gods centuries ago. Science and rationalism have helped most educated people understand that the earth is more than 6,000 years old.
Yes, in times of great change as we seem to be in now, many humans scurry to the sure answers of fundamentalism. But when we look over the broad sweep of history, the arc has moved inexorably toward less superstition—toward more rationalism, more open-ended and inquiring conceptions of religion. Less about God as The Great Cosmic Movie Director with his hand all over every scene.
But then again, I know highly educated, liberally minded modernists—personal friends of mine and polar opposites of Pat Robertson—who believe in the physical reality of Jesus’s resurrection. They are liberal literalists! What’s that about?
It’s certainly not that they’re dumb!…I’m convinced it’s because they choose to believe, rational science be damned, and in that choosing to immerse completely into the symbol, a kind of transformation occurs that makes love and service and self-sacrifice come alive for them in a powerful way. And then they go tend the sick and fight for justice and pursue all manner of other activities to help build a better world.
The true “fundamental” question is this: Are we going to deepen our compassion as the Buddha implores us to do? And as, indeed, Jesus does in his consorting with thieves, prostitutes and other downtrodden souls?
Or are we going to…bristle…and seeeeeethe…at those idiotic (you can fill in the blank here—fundamentalists, conservatives, reactionaries……….).
I think I spent too many years on Bristle Road, despairing at the narrow-mindedness, the shallowness and callowness of literalism. I seem to have often fallen short of Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela in this regard. Darn it!
But what I have come to understand is that Bristle Road has an end—a dead end. You become either a permanent resident of Bristleville, or you look for a way to back your vehicle up, turn it around, and find a thoroughfare. I consider myself still in recovery from the harshness of Bristleville. I finally had to ask myself, “So exactly where is this getting me?”
Slowly, I have come to see literalism in a broader light of differing sensibilities, backgrounds, and relationship to symbol—even as I make as forceful a case as I can when literalists try to impinge on the rights of others.
How we fight the good fight and stay true to our own deepest values is the key. Yes, there are moments and days when I backslide and start fulminating against the fundamentalists, I assure you.
But that’s when I try to pause, take a deep breath, and remember, again, that we’re here to help get each other through. That our own language of reverence and respect and a heart full of love and compassion are the most powerful tools we’ve been given to assist us.
Human consciousness evolves slowly, at a far less rapid pace, unfortunately, than does the iPod. So not only a great resolve, but also a great patience is called for as we contend with the limitations of our fallible humanity, even as we use the beautiful, transcendent tools of language to help light the way to the more just and loving world that calls to us evermore.