In the early centuries of the Common Era, the Jews who accepted Jesus as the Messiah separated from the Jews who didn’t. With the help of Emperor Constantine, the “Nazarene” wing of Judaism became the Christians, and for better and worse, Christendom was created.
In the famous parable that Stephen related, the scribes and the Pharisees intended to trap Jesus with a no-win question. The Law says this: the punishment for adultery is stoning. What do you say? If Jesus follows the Law, he might have to join the others in stoning the woman, which would contradict everything he had been preaching, and his persona would be destroyed. On the other hand, if he told them not to stone her, he is breaking the Law, which would also put him in a disgraced position with everyone.
Jesus was clever, and a good teacher, and a good religious leader, by not choosing either fork presented by the scribes and the Pharisees, but came up with a third way, by having everyone reflect and consult their conscience.
There are other parables that illustrate Jesus’ unusual reflective feeling, as in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, choosing to approve the father’s joy at the return of his not-very-successful son, over—you might say—the justice of rewarding the son that stayed and did his duty. That was deep and expansive approach, which Jesus did often enough that we can say he was gifted in that way.
Other ways to get at Jesus’ teachings are recalling the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes:
In almost every case, the wording used in the Beatitudes are familiar from an Old Testament context, “but in this Sermon Jesus gives them new meaning. Together, the Beatitudes present a new set of ideals that focus on love and humility rather than force and mastery; they echo the highest ideals of Jesus’ teachings on spirituality and compassion.” We can imagine Socrates and the Buddha nodding in general approval.
- Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
- Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
- Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the Earth.
- Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
- Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
- Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
- Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
- Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
- Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
The Sermon on the Mount also includes the Lord’s Prayer. This is the raw version in the gospel of Luke, which is much less familiar, but refreshing:
Hallowed by your name
Your Kingdom come,
Your holy spirit come upon us and cleanse us
Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven
Give us each day our bread for tomorrow
and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.
If you miss “for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever,” you have to go to the gospel of Matthew. It turns out there has been a lot of cutting and copying and pasting, and adding things and deleting things.
I want to reclaim all the splendid Christian words that have been the monopoly of less liberal faiths: heaven, hell, miracles, purgatory, baptism, sin, redemption, atonement, repentance, salvation, Messiah, resurrection, and finally, Christ, and the anti-Christ.
Powerful words, and those less liberal churches don’t own them. And we should not concede them, should not leave them in possession, but employ them with new meaning.
It is a radical act to use these words in conversation with your own meaning attached, and have the opportunity to explain what you mean, rather than accept the meaning that has become common, and is often literalist.
One very useful and powerful line we can use with uncharitable people who claim to be Christians, is to quote Jesus when he said “whatsoever you do unto the least of these, you do unto me.”
One of my teachers of theology said “Christendom is not the same as Christianity,” to which we can quickly add the rather obvious, “and Christianity is not the same as the teachings of Jesus.”
Most UU churches of today retain part or all of the Protestant Order of Service, also known as the ‘hymn sandwich.’ A near-500 years of Protestant heritage habit is hard to break, but, I think, we should do it; break the habit, change the Order of Service. These virtual Services have done part of that work already. Necessity is the mother of invention, and of change.
From 1937 to 1964, Unitarians used the red hymnal titled “Hymns of the Spirit,” which is so Christian it seems to have come from the 19th century. It was created under the long-lasting influence of Reverend James Freeman Clarke, whose five points came to encapsulate Unitarianism, which he said believed in:
- The fatherhood of God
- The brotherhood of Man
- The leadership of Jesus
- Salvation by character, and
- The progress of mankind, onward and upward forever
We got a new blue hymnal in 1964, “Hymns for the Celebration of Life.” It was significantly more modern, less Christian, but still employed male images and pronouns. The movement to have inclusive language began in the mid-1960s, which triumphed, but which didn’t reach the hymnal until the current version, “Singing the Living Tradition,” published in 1993.
Evolving hymnals means evolving religious liberals, but there are U, U, and UU Christians. There is a Christian interest group formerly allied with the UUA, as there is an associated Buddhist group, and associated pagan groups, and many others.
But the Unitarians, and to a lesser extent, the Universalists, have – in the space of two generations – moved from liberal Christianity to religious Humanism and beyond, some might say, to secular Humanism.
Many UUs are interested in Agnosticism. Agnosticism is the position taken by those who feel they can’t be sure about any of the proposed answers to the big religious questions such as “why do the good suffer, and the evil prosper?” Atheists are certain, and the available evidence is that there is slim, very slim, evidence of a divine consciousness that is separate from us, although it seems to reside in us. We are not omniscient, and we are not omnipotent, but we seem to be endowed with potential divinity. The Atheists’ conclude that next to no evidence is enough evidence to flatly deny a divine existence.
I believe there are many more agnostics among us than atheists. I believe there are more UU religious Humanists than UU secular Humanists, because most UUs have a religious sensibility of some kind – which is why they are affiliated with a church – and we find that the proclaimed atheists are missing something spiritually important, the sense of wonder, and the feeling that the sacred is within our reach.
The Liberal Christians among us, if they can’t find like-minded people in UU-land, go elsewhere, where God is recognized and Jesus is so special that if he is not seen as God, he is a demi-god, or a prophet inspired by a special bond with the Almighty. Our cousins the Congregationalists are a likely destination for lonely UU Christians, or the Episcopalians, or the more liberal Methodists.
In 1927, philosopher Bertrand Russel read a short essay to the National Secular Society near London titled “Why I am Not a Christian.” It was an important pamphlet, and has been reprinted several times. It contributed to Russell’s writings that won him the Nobel prize for literature. In this essay he defines the requirements for being a Christian, which are belief in God, belief in immortality, and belief that Christ was divine, or “at the very least, that he was the best and wisest of men.” If you can’t do that, writes Russel, you don’t have a right to call yourself a Christian. Is that right?
I don’t think so. Being a free people, we don’t bow down to anyone, no matter how brilliant. You have the right to think whatever you think about God, and Jesus. Bertrand Russell faults Jesus for believing in hell and eternal torment as a fitting punishment for sinning too much. But Russell doesn’t consider that the gospel writers borrowed and discarded, cut and pasted, rearranged, made some things up and conveniently forgot others. Does the brilliant Bertrand Russell believe that if something is in the Bible it is true? So we don’t know for certain what Jesus believed about hell, and we don’t need to know. We believe what we want to, and discard what doesn’t make sense or otherwise doesn’t fit. We are not suited to dogma. We don’t accept being told what to think, and we are eclectic: we take the best of whatever good ideas and good practices are out there.
Other people we admire, the Buddha, Socrates, William Blake, Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Walt Whitman, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Tich Nhat Hahn, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, have said and done good and wonderful things, but none of them can be completely trusted, and we reserve the right to examine and question. We distrust what seem like extravagant claims, or claims based mostly on faith or someone’s reputation or fame. We rely on our experience, our wisdom, and our reason, to decode all mysteries, including all things religious.
We are free of dogma, and heresy, and catechisms, and confessions of faith. Our religion differs from most other religions in that we believe in helping people find their own spiritual path rather than defining it for them.