I haven’t done a book review in a while, but I’ve been reading some good ones. Just yesterday, I finished Faith Without Certainty: Liberal Theology in the 21st Century (Skinner House: 2005) by Paul Rasor, a Unitarian Universalist minister and college professor who currently works as director of the Center for the Study of Religious Freedom.
Enemies and allies of liberal theology are similarly inclined to use the term ‘liberal’ as a synonymn for ‘other’. Until the last year or two, I myself was completely unaware of the historical depth contained within the joint traditions of Unitarianism and Universalism. Knowing only what I’d been told from my evangelical upbringing, I had always thought that Unitarian Universalists (UUs) were ‘loosey-goosey’ and ‘airy-fairy’ liberals who had respect for neither tradition nor truth and adopted an ‘anything goes’ policy in regard to morality and ethics. I would tell jokes like:
Q: What do you get when you cross a Jehovah’s Witness with a Unitarian Universalist?
A: Someone who comes knocking on your door for no apparent reason.
OK, I have to admit that I still chuckle at that one, even though I know it’s not true. UUs are deeply committed to their theology and ethics. If one knocks at your door, you can bet that it’s for a very good reason. What I discovered is that UUs (as well as other religious liberals) are committed to process over content. In other words, they’re more interested in how you live than what you believe. This is beautifully reflected in the UUA’s Seven Principles. I would love to go into greater detail about them here, but that will have to wait for another blog post. The UUA, while it represents the largest organized group of religious liberals, is not the only place where they hang out. There continue to be many of us who try to embody a similar flavor of religion within our respective communities. What matters is that we who identify ourselves with this label (‘liberal’) must be able to simultaneously hold and share a conscious awareness of who we are and what we stand for in a positive sense.
Given the myriad ways that the term ‘liberal’ gets thrown around without being defined, I’m grateful for Rasor’s concise and readable primer that actually digs into the real roots and trajectories of the liberal theological tradition.
If you don’t have time to read the entire book, the first two chapters after the introduction will familiarize you with what it is that religious liberals believe and how we came to embrace those values. Whether you’re out to support or criticize us, it’s important that you know what you’re getting into. Love or hate us for what we are, not what we’re not.
The remainder of the book lays out some of the challenges and frontiers that liberal theology is currently facing in its ongoing development. With the arrival of the postmodern era, liberal religion (as a decidedly modern phenomenon) is reevaluating many of its core commitments (in much the same way that evangelical Christians (another modern movement) are also doing via the ‘Emergent Church’ movement). Hard and fast categories, such as rugged individualism and universal human experience, are being questioned in the light of community, culture, and language.
Rasor is highly critical of his own liberal tradition in relation to issues of race and social class. Despite its value of diversity, liberal religion continues to exist as a predominantly white and middle-class movement. While his criticisms are honest and accurate, I wish that he had spent more time with them. He mentions social Darwinism and the rise of manifest destiny in America, but he says nothing of Eugenics or the Holocaust, both of which were fueled in part by liberal theology. These massive moral failures demonstrate that no one group, however utopian their ideals, is above the human tendency toward self-justified violence and oppression. My primary criticism of Rasor’s book is that it seems to minimize and/or ignore these most prominent failures of liberal religion.
On the other hand, I was highly impressed by Rasor’s distinction between liberal and liberation theologies. These two categories are often associated with one another in the common mind, mainly because of shared emphases on social justice. However, as Rasor observes, they arise from different historical sources, make use of different methods, and emerge with very different values and convictions. Liberation theologians tend to hold scripture and tradition much more closely, even as they criticize and reinterpret them. Not all theological liberals are liberation theologians (and vice versa). One need only look at the sermons of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador to see his deep commitment to the historical orthodoxy of Roman Catholicism. If anything, I came away from Rasor’s book with an awareness that the construction of a theology that is simultaneously liberal and liberationist would prove to be a most difficult task. Indeed, evangelicals would probably have an easier time of it, given the place they grant to the Bible in their theological systems.
All in all, I highly enjoyed Rasor’s book during my two weeks of vacation. I expect that I will keep it on my shelf and refer to it often as a concise introduction to what religious liberals actually believe.
I heard this amazing sermon yesterday on the monthly Quest podcast from Church of the Larger Fellowship. It was originally preached on December 12, 2009 at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Arlington, VA. The preacher is Rev. Archene Turner, a Unitarian Universalist minister. Many thanks to Rev. Turner, who has granted me permission to reprint her words here.
A friend suggested that I read Invisible Cities, a short novel by Italo Calvino that consists of dialogues between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan because she found the stories meaningful. I certainly found Polo’s thoughts about inferno provocative:
“The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”
I think we are living in an inferno. People acknowledge we are living in an economic crisis but family, we are in a moral crisis too.
A recent survey found that one in four families had been hit by a job loss during the past year and nearly half had suffered a reduction in wages or hours worked. For the working poor, already struggling, the current recession is knocking them down another notch – from low wage employment and inadequate housing toward erratic employment and no housing at all. Barbara Ehrenreich recently went back and interviewed some of the people in her 2001 best seller, Nickeled and Dimed, about the working poor, the quarter of the population that struggle even in the best of times. She called her article “Too Poor to Make the News”, because the media is looking for what has been called “recession porn” – stories about the incremental descent of the well off from excess to frugality, from ease to austerity.
A Typical story reads “Sarah and Tyrone Mangold … she was selling health insurance, and he was working on a heating and air conditioning crew. She got laid off in the spring, and he a few months later. Now, they had one unemployment check and a blended family of three children.
They ate at his mother’s house twice a week. They pawned jewelry. She scoured the food pantry. He scrounged for side jobs. Their frustration peaked one night over a can of pinto beans. Each blamed the other when that was all they had to eat. “People get irritable when they’re hungry,” Ms. Mangold said.
Mr. Mangold, no longer objects to using food stamps. “I always thought people on public assistance were lazy,” he said, “but it helps me know I can feed my kids. “
Stories like this often includes phrases like “Those we serve are now our neighbors, our former colleagues and hard working individuals struggling to make ends meet.
I wanted to SCREAM. Were not the people they served before our neighbors, our former colleagues and hard working individuals struggling to make ends meet? And “we’re hearing from more and more middle class people who have never in their life gone to a food pantry..they are very, very frustrated and angry.”
Who goes to food pantries for kicks ?
I thought about the hundreds of people I had seen at some of the ALIVE’s programs. On Halloween Day, that pretty unseasonably warm, Saturday morning, UUCA members Diana Day and Ann Marie Hay took the time to show me ALIVE’s child development center, food distribution and shelter as others prepared for monsters, ghouls & goblins.
The people I saw in the food distribution center did not appear angry. They were unusually quiet and respectful. Many of them looked like members on my own family tree – white, Native, Asian and Pacific Islander, African, Arab and Latino/a descent.
Perhaps the frustration and anger had passed out of them. Maybe there is a difference in people’s minds of climbing up a ladder than going down one. To me a rung on a ladder is a rung.
I thought of Polo’s two ways to escape suffering the inferno. The first is to accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it.
Many people do not know about the people ALIVE serves in Northern Virginia. We think need, struggle and hunger are in a distant land. Africa, New Orleans, the District of Columbia – but oh no, not here, not in our neighborhoods or in our religious communities or at UUCA.
We can live our lives so we no longer see what is happening in our world. We pretend that things are not happening all around us and we become a part of the inferno.
Most people when they think of an inferno think of Dante.
UU minister John Nichols noted that when Dante wrote:
“The Inferno” he was actually at the mid-point of his own life, struggling with disillusionment. He imagines that he was chased down into a vast h*** by wild beasts that threatened to tear him limb from limb. He passes beyond a sign reading, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,” and then he knows that he has reached the outer suburbs of Hell.
Descending into the Hellish pit he finds the trail winds downward like a canyon in the shape of a corkscrew. The farther one descends, the greater the sins of those one passes.
The fiery temperature in Dante’s Hell drops dramatically where it houses people with a diminished capacity for caring. At the lowest level are those who have killed in themselves all love for others. Their souls are encased in ice.”
Okay confession time – I’ve never read Dante’s Inferno. I was raised on another story about Hell, about a rich man going to Hell and a poor man to Heaven. The rich man is surprised to see the poor man in heaven by the side of Abraham. In his suffering, the rich man pleads to Abraham to send the poor man to give him water to quench his thirst. Abraham says that the chasm is too wide to be crossed.
Martin Luther King Jr and other preachers have interpreted this story to mean that the rich man did not go to hell because he was rich;, but because he allowed the poor man to become invisible to him. He passed this poor man every day and failed to help. The rich man was blind to the need of others. Even in Hell, he held on to his notion that he was better than the poor man and could ask that he serve him. It is interesting that the rich man wanted the people in heaven to care and help him, but he had failed to do this in his own life on earth for others.
Perhaps our souls are encased in ice or destined to hell because we are blind to the needs of others. We might be that way because we ourselves are barely holding on. In “The Working Poor: Invisible in America, David Shipler writes that ‘in the house of the poor the walls are thin and fragile and troubles seep into one another’. Perhaps those troubles seep into our own lives, too, because our lives are just as fragile.
That is why I say we are living in an inferno and even Hell some days. Each of us walks that tight rope of hanging on to make sense of our own world . Something in us says “just do for you and yours.” I want to tell you to resist this urge. The act of doing the exact opposite – reaching out to help others– is the balm that heals us and is the very essence of who we are as religious people and what will lead us into a moral recovery.
Polo says the other way to escape the suffering in the inferno is to “seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”
Polo does not say do things to make YOU endure and give YOU space – he says THEM. The act of caring for someone else is the message I would like to share with you this holiday season and do it to have faith in life like the old man in the reading.
Let us move from our past into our future building a better tomorrow for everyone.
Let us work together to create a world where we value people instead of things and we give the gift of ourselves to our one human family.
The song we just learned says “all of us are all united, we are family united and the other song asks what can I give..the answer is simple…give your heart.
So in this December season, make a list and check it twice of let’s say, three acts of kindness that you would not typically do for others. It can be our Unitarian Universalist holy trinity.. Do these acts with no expectation of a thank you or a need for acknowledgement from the other person or people because these are things you are giving YOURSELF to pull you out of the inferno of the living.
Did you know that there’s a civil war going on in our country right now? I’m serious. There is. It’s been happening for over thirty years. Unlike the last Civil War, this one isn’t between the North and South. You might be thinking, “He means the war between the political Right and the political Left.” Nope. Black and White? Nope. Haves and Have-nots? Not even close. Right now, I’m talking about the bitter divide that exists between Star Trek fans and Star Wars fans. The geeks and nerds community is a house divided against itself. My fellow Americans, this cannot be!
I feel so torn in this conflict. The fight between Star Trek and Star Wars runs right through the center of my own heart. I dream of one day being beamed aboard the starship Enterprise so that I too can “boldly go where no one has gone before.” At the same time, I also fantasize about trained as a Jedi by Obi Wan Kenobi. How can they ask me to choose sides between these two epic artifacts of science fiction lore?
Fortunately, there is one person out there who has issued a call for “Star Peace” and it’s none other than George Takei, the original Mr. Sulu on Star Trek. He’s calling for a “Star Alliance” of fans from Star Trek and Star Wars who are willing to put aside their differences and fight the real threat to good science fiction: Twilight. You may have seen the Twilight books and films being advertised in recent years. For those who haven’t experienced it, Twilight, in George Takei’s own words, is all about “Vampires who sparkle and mope and go to high school.” In Twilight, according to Takei, there is no “sense of heroism, camaraderie, and epic battle… There are no great stories, characters, or profound life lessons to be had… In Twilight, the only message that rings through loud and clear is: ‘Does my boyfriend like me?’”
Now, I don’t actually care if people like Twilight. So why am I telling you this? Why am I taking time out of my sermon to drag you down this wormhole into the darkest depths of the nerd kingdom? Because I’m very intrigued by the way in which Mr. Takei has criticized Twilight. Let me give it to you again in his words:
Gone is any sense of heroism, camaraderie, or epic battle. In its place we have vampires that sparkle and mope and go to high school… there are no great stories, characters, or profound life lessons to be had in Twilight. No. In Twilight, the only message that rings through loud and clear is: ‘Does my boyfriend like me?’
What Mr. Takei is saying, in so many words, is that good stories are always bigger than the people in them.
As it is in science fiction, so it is in real life. Imagine those who live entirely selfish lives with no connection to anyone or anything other than that which maximizes their own personal profit. The thrill of financial stability lasts for a little while, but wears thin eventually. Who can’t think of tabloid headlines depicting any number of celebrity scandals brought on by conspicuous consumption and wanton indulgence? Despite its material benefits, I think most of us can agree that such a life does not sound ultimately appealing. Something deep within us longs to be part of a bigger story than that of our own little lives.
We’ve been talking about the Elements of Worship these past few weeks at our church. On the first week, we talked about the Word of God as an Element of Worship. Last week we talked about Prayer. If you missed either of those sermons, you can listen to them on our website at www.fpcboonville.org. In coming weeks, we will discuss Sacrament and Relationship as Elements of Worship. This week, we’re talking about Service as an Element of Worship.
“Service” is a word that we use a lot. If you go out to a restaurant where the staff is friendly and the refills keep coming, you’re probably going to say, “Wow! This place has really good service!” And what will you do next? You’ll probably leave a bigger tip. Isn’t that interesting? A waiter brings his whole self to work, welcomes customers with genuine personal warmth, and people just naturally respond with generosity. Remember that point because it will become important later. Here’s another example: When a person is a soldier or sailor in some branch of our country’s armed forces, we say that she is “in the service.” In other words, she dedicates her whole self to the cause of national defense by risking her life in a combat zone. We tend to respect that, don’t we? A lot of people wear yellow ribbons that say, “Support the Troops.”
In the same way, when we talk about service as an Element of Worship, we’re talking about more than this one-hour-per-week ritual that we do on Sunday mornings in this building. We’re talking about more than the cash we fork over in the collection plate. We’re even talking about more than the time and energy that so many of you tirelessly volunteer for our various church projects during the year. Just like that waiter or soldier, real service happens when you offer your whole self to something bigger than you. Service, as an Element of Worship, is a self-offering.
As Christians, we see our self-offering as connected to and growing out of the self-offering of Jesus. His life, death, and resurrection provide us with a lens through which we can come to understand what it means to give ourselves as an offering.
First, his life. Jesus gave himself as an offering in two ways. He offered himself to God and he offered himself to others. These two ideas cannot be separated. Jesus believed that God is Love, therefore you can’t love God with your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength without loving your neighbor as yourself. If you try to do one without the other, you’re going to end up very confused about what love is.
Jesus’ commitment to love (in this dual sense) got him into trouble on more than one occasion. He exposed the hypocrisy of the powers that be. He threatened the security of religious and political authorities in ways that no terrorist ever could. Leaders in the public and private sectors alike were so frightened by what Jesus stood for that they even temporarily put aside their mutual hatred for each other in a grand conspiracy to have him killed.
Under these circumstances, no one would have blamed Jesus for mounting a defensive strategy in order to ensure his own survival, but that’s not what he does. It says in today’s reading from the gospel according to Matthew: “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Jesus walks straight into the belly of the beast, knowing full-well what the beast is about to do to him.
Jesus was not so caught up in his own ego that he wasn’t willing to offer himself. He knew that his personal story was part of the universe’s bigger story. Sure, he could pick up a sword and fight for his own survival, but he knew that survival isn’t everything. His fellow Jews were fighting for their survival every day and, ironically, it was killing them. “Those who live by the sword die by the sword,” he said.
So, instead of the path of survival, Jesus opted for the path of self-offering. He lived his life of love as an offering to God and others. When that love brought him into conflict with powerful forces that wanted to kill him, he walked the way of the cross and let them do their worst. But that’s not the end of the story.
What happens next is the best part. We celebrate it every year at Easter time. The offering turned into a miracle. Early in the morning, on the first day of the week, three women found an empty tomb. And an angel asked them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here. He is risen!” This is where the big story really gets going. Death itself starts to unravel like an ugly old sweater. The powers that be were vanquished by the power of love. Christians remember this event annually as our most sacred holiday. We celebrate it weekly in order to remind ourselves of what we really believe in. As Christians, we don’t believe in survival; we believe in resurrection. That is the true meaning of service (self-offering) as an Element of Worship. Jesus taught us that.
What does this look like for us? That’s a great story about Jesus, but how can we live lives of self-offering and resurrection today? Jesus said to his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” The way of the cross is a path, not just for Jesus, but for all of us as well. We who claim to follow him must decide whether we will choose survival (like the world) or resurrection (like Jesus).
When we choose to follow the way of the cross, we become part of a story that’s bigger than us. We say that we are willing to jeopardize our survival for something more important. It’s a dangerous move to make, but if we move in faith, we see miracles. I once heard someone say that, until you find something worth dying for, you’re not really living. Are we really living? Are you? What are you willing to die for? What is this church willing to die for? When we find an answer to that question, we’ll learn what resurrection is really all about. Like George Takei was saying: there we will find heroism, camaraderie, and epic battles. There there are great stories, characters, and profound life lessons to be had.
I heard a story this week from Rev. Marlin Lavanhar, the senior minister at All Souls’ Unitarian Church in Tulsa, OK. He said their church made a rather controversial decision several years ago. They decided to take all the money that came into the church through their collection plate (about $20,000 per year) and give it away. People were scared because that’s a lot of money. The church depended on that money for their operating costs. But they decided it was the right thing to do, so they amended their budget and went for it. In that first year, rather than the $20,000 that usually came in through the collection plate, they raised $150,000 and gave it all away. Now, you might say, “That’s great, but it’s too bad that they couldn’t meet their budget.” Actually, according to Marlin, they did meet their budget that year. They even took in about 10% more than they needed. “Generosity begets generosity,” Marlin said. Remember what I said about the waiter? When somebody serves from the heart and offers him/herself, aren’t you just naturally inclined to leave a bigger tip? Generosity begets generosity.
Let’s find another example, maybe one that’s a little closer to home. I’ve mentioned this already, but I can’t help bragging on you folks again. You remember this past Christmas Eve, right? We heard about a crisis in our community where the county government was cutting funding to daycare programs. Hundreds of kids were being affected and some of the most reputable and affordable daycare agencies were in danger of closing. And the elders of our church voted unanimously to take the collection from Christmas Eve, our single biggest worship service of the year, and send the whole thing to one of those struggling daycare agencies. Did you know that, with what came in that night, our little country church was able to cut a check for $1,000 to Thea Bowman House? We’ve never taken up a Christmas Eve collection that big! Generosity begets generosity. Did you know that there are people in the community who noticed what we did and decided to join our church because of it? That’s resurrection in action.
One more story about you folks. Last summer, controversy was in the air as New York state was making a decision about legalizing same-sex marriage. I drove down to Albany that week and stood in the halls of the state capitol building. I saw the crowds of people shouting and holding signs with Bible verses about hellfire and damnation. During that time, our little church took a stand. We stood up and said, “All God’s children are created equal: black or white, male or female, gay or straight.” At a church supper only two weeks before that happened, one of our own long-time church members came out of the closet to us at a church supper. He shared his story with us. And I remember the first thing that anybody said, after a long silence, was, “Well, God don’t make no junk!” Our church took a stand. We made a statement that this is a welcoming church. We told the world that this church is a place where the law of love trumps the letter of the law.
Sure, it was a controversial thing to do. It still is. Our survival instinct might tell us to keep quiet and not rock the boat, because we don’t want to lose church members to controversy. But you all chose resurrection instead of survival. Did you know that people in the community noticed what we did? On the very next Sunday after the legislation passed in Albany, a news crew surprised us during our morning worship. They had TV news cameras set up right here in the sanctuary. People heard about our little country church and said, “What? A church that accepts and welcomes gay and lesbian people? A church that believes that God loves everybody? We’ve got to check this out!” In the past few months, families have driven in from as far away as Utica to visit our church. We didn’t lose people by being controversial, we gained them! That’s resurrection in action!
And let me tell you what: we’re going to keep doing it. We’re going to open the doors of this church so wide that the whole world will know it’s welcome here. There are a lot of churches in Boonville, but there’s not very many where people can go and know they’ll be loved and accepted no matter who they are. But people know they’re welcome here. This sermon is being played on the radio, so even more people will know after this week. I know it’s controversial but I don’t care (and neither should you). Just like Jesus, we are offering ourselves to God and our neighbors. We are choosing resurrection over survival.
When we go downstairs after worship today, we’ll be hearing our annual reports from all our different church committees. We’ll be voting on this year’s budget and deciding our thoughts together for 2012. As you look at the paperwork and hear the reports, I want you to remember what service and self-offering are really all about. I want to invite you to look past your ego-driven instinct for survival and look to your God-given faith in resurrection. That, more than anything else, will make a difference for the future of our church. Like George Takei was saying: here we will find heroism, camaraderie, and epic battles. Here there are great stories, characters, and profound life lessons to be had.
Here is a video of George Takei’s call for Star Peace:
It’s called Spirit of Life and was written by Carolyn McDade.
Our music director, Annie Wadsworth-Grove, first heard it at All Souls’ Unitarian Church in Washington, DC. It can be found as #123 in Singing the Living Tradition, the official hymnal of the Unitarian Universalist Association.
Spirit of Life, come unto me
Sing in my heart, all the stirrings of compassion
Blow in the wind, rise in the sea
Move in the hand, giving life the shape of justice
Roots hold me close, wings set me free
Spirit of Life come to me, come to me