Monday, December 19, 2005

Quoted by Bill Tammeus

The Kansas City Star's religion writer Bill Tammeus quoted me in his 12/17 article, "Who do you say that I am?" This article compared and contrasted how different religious groups thought about Jesus. The section on Unitarian Universalism said:
In this tradition, Jesus is often honored as a wisdom teacher but is not considered divine and certainly not part of any Trinity, which Unitarians reject.

The Rev. Thom Belote, pastor of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church, says that “if you ask a Unitarian Universalist if they believe Jesus was God, most would probably answer no. And it would be a tremendous mistake to interpret this reply as a negation, a rejection or a denial.

“We say that Jesus was fully human, no different than you or I, except that he made use of that humanity more fully than you or I ever will. … Jesus’ ministry did not so much point to a kingdom in a time to come. It said that the kingdom is already here.”

In my sermon on 12/18 I offered a more complete answer to Tammeus' question:
Dear Bill,

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to contribute to your article. You ask how members of my religious tradition would answer the question, “Who was Jesus?” The question underlying this question is certainly, “Is Jesus God?” So it is probably worthwhile to examine the origins of this question. Long before there was such a thing as Unitarianism, theologians and philosophers debated the issue of Jesus’ identity and divinity. These Christians, like someone straddling a fence, had one foot squarely in the history and scriptures of Judaism and the other foot squarely in Greek philosophy. The creeds formulated in the early Christian churches were written in the language of Platonic and neo-Platonic metaphysics – substances, bodies, forms, and the like. The options available to them were not a simplistic dualism: “Jesus is either God or he isn’t.” There were many options: The Trinity is one substance in three bodies, or one body in three forms. Jesus could be co-equal with God, or a lesser deity, or a divine substance in human form, or a distinct body altogether. But, my point is, unless you happen to be a scholar of Patristic theology, most of us don’t spend a lot of time steeped in Platonic thought anymore. We are more comfortable thinking of this as a simple yes-or-no, take-it-or-leave-it proposition.

If you surveyed the members of a Unitarian Church asking them if they thought Jesus was God, most would probably answer you by saying, “No.” This answer gives the appearance of being an absolute, authoritative, and conclusive declaration. But, I believe this one-syllable, two letter answer says more than it seems to say. At least I hope it does, because the answer “No” doesn’t seem to say much at all. It would be a tremendous mistake to interpret this reply as a negation, a rejection, or a denial. We know that saying what we don’t believe does not a religion make, that a community bound together by what it opposes is not bound well. If you dig deeper, you will find that the “No” effectively – all too effectively – conceals what is actually a radical affirmation. We affirm that Jesus was fully human. And, we radically affirm that to be fully human is a good thing. We don’t so much deny Jesus’ divinity as much as we affirm his full humanity. We would say that Jesus is as fully human as you or I, except that he understood what it is to be human much better than we do most of the time, and made better use of his humanity than you or I probably ever will.

(Actually, if you did survey Unitarians, you’d probably get a number of answers that claim that we hold Jesus to be a “great moral teacher.” This answer may say more about us than it says about Jesus. We Unitarians tend to enjoy learning and promote education. Educational imagery is imagery we are comfortable using.)

But I digress. I’m not sure that the question of whether Jesus was divine or not is really the right question. A better question would be to turn this question on ourselves and ask, what does it mean to say that the spark of divinity resides within each and every one of us? Just as Jesus’ ministry did not point to the arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven in some future time to come, but said, “No, look around, the Kingdom of Heaven is here if only we could open our eyes and see it,” so does Jesus’ life not point inwardly to his own divinity, as much as it points outwardly towards an embrace of the God-within each and every human being. Jesus’ example commands us to challenge those bigotries and prejudices, those hatreds and delusions, those injustices and ignorance, those principalities and powers that conspire to keep us from seeing what has been in front of us all-along: every human beings’ “Likeness to God.”

If you come to a Unitarian church during the Christmas season, you’ll probably hear the words of a woman named Sophia Lyon Fahs. Those words say, “For so the children come and so they have been coming. Always in the same way they come, born of the seed of man and woman. No angels herald their beginnings. No prophets predict their future courses… yet each night a child is born is a holy night.”

What Fahs is saying here is that it is not just the powerful and the privileged, favored and blessed, elect and select who get to be the chosen sons and daughters of God. We all are. We are all holy.


Rev. Thom Belote
Shawnee Mission UU Church