Monday, November 27, 2006

Sermon: "Thanksgiving in Holmes' Prairie" (Delivered 11-26-2006)

With apologies to Garrison Keillor and Dennis Hamilton. Rev. Hamilton, my internship supervisor in Carrollton, Texas, knows of a town in West Texas named "Bodacia" that bears a slight, slight resemblance to Holmes’ Prairie…

It has been about a year since we heard from our friends in Holmes’ Prairie, out there on the Kansas plains. For those of you who don’t know, Holmes’ Prairie is a town in Western Kansas. It is located to the west of Wichita and a little to the east of Liberal geographically, but far to the right of liberal politically. The town is named for Oliver Wendell Holmes, on account of being founded by Massachusetts Unitarians. At the same time that Lawrence, Kansas was founded by Unitarian abolitionists from the Bay State, a group of Unitarian temperance activists settled Holmes’ Prairie. But they soon found the prospects of making a life there a bit too sobering, so they left and continued on to Northern California.

It is possible to tell the story of Holmes’ Prairie in terms of the losses it has endured. There was of course the dust bowl. And there has been the more gradual decline of small town life over the last half-century, which did not spare Holmes’ Prairie. It is easy to cling to our bitter memories, to replay our losses, to rehearse the indignities we’ve been made to suffer – like being made the butt of “Wizard of Oz” jokes, or having to endure the stereotypes of those who don’t really understand rural life. But their story is also a story of survival. They are a surviving people, those Holmes’ Prairians.

Thanksgiving Prayer services were held at two local congregations in Holmes’ Prairie this year. Over at the Saint Thomas of Perpetual Doubt Episcopalian Church, their priest, Father Marcus Crossan, led those assembled in prayer. (Crossan, I might point out, is the young cleric who has yet to realize that most of what he learned in his extensive theological education is of little practical value in Holmes’ Prairie.) Few were surprised when Crossan applied the same approach to the Thanksgiving story that he applies weekly to the Biblical stories, which is to say, going on at great length about the actual historical origins and how those differ from the traditional tellings. Father Crossan then offered a litany of the oppressions inflicted by the pilgrims, and digressed into a comprehensive etymology of the word “thankfulness.” Lacking an NPR signal in Holmes’ Prairie, Father Crossan’s sermons are the next best thing.

Down the road, Solomon Samuels III, the backsliding pastor of the First Free Will Four Square Full Bible Baptist Church of Holmes’ Prairie was offering a Thanksgiving Prayer service as well. Over the years, Samuels’ theology had faded into a kind and gentle heresy that grasps the power of symbol and metaphor, though he leaves much to be desired in terms of historical accuracy or nuance. “Dear Lord,” Samuels invoked, “We do so pray on this day of Thanksgiving that you instruct our pilgrim hearts in the ways of Christian living. In our moments of need, remove our willful pride and humble us. Make us receptive to not only the grace that you do bestow, but also to the generosity of our neighbors. During the hard winters of our living, make us resilient. And, for the abundance we enjoy but do not recognize, help us to be grateful as grateful living is required for graceful living.”

For a town where nothing much ever happens, it has been a busy year. A record number turned out on election-day to vote to return some sanity to the school board by voting the intelligent design candidate out of office. This turnout had less to do with any town-wide consensus on the teaching of evolution and more to do with the fact that after Missing Link bones were discovered in a pot-hole on Main Street, the town had gotten used to having anthropologists and evolutionary biologists hanging around. Aside from Main Street getting all dug up in the excavation – not that there is enough traffic in Holmes’ Prairie to make a difference – the locals had become quite fond of these visitors and enjoyed the chance to extend a bit of local hospitality to them. And if Holmes’ Prairie doesn’t practice hospitality, no place does.

When we spend too much time on Main Street, we miss some of the other things, the subtler episodes of life, not less spectacular or miraculous, just less in the public view. Such was life out on the Spearman farm, on the outskirts of Holmes’ Prairie where this Thanksgiving had been a memorable one, one that Larry and Melba Spearman had looked forward to with a tiny measure of cautious hope and an abundance of anxiety and dread. It was to be a family reunion for the Spearman’s – all four children would be returning. It would be the first time in many decades that all four would be under the same roof – although there was much doubt they could co-exist under the same roof. But all four children were returning for Thanksgiving.

Of their four children, the oldest was LeAnne who had left Holmes’ Prairie and gone to Tulsa, Oklahoma, become a holy-roller, and married Jerry, the captain of the Oral Roberts basketball team. They had five children, all girls – chastity, charity, patience, temperance, and misty. Misty cried a lot. These girls had all managed to grow into young women who resembled in no way the virtues for which they were named. But Misty still cries a lot.

The second Spearman child was Jim. Jim left Holmes’ Prairie and went east, across the ocean, to England where he studied evolutionary biology with Richard Dawkins. Jim’s partner is a professor of sociology. LeAnne thinks he teaches socialism.

The third Spearman child, Ed, did not grow up as much as he grew away. He had been on the wrong side of the law too many times to count. He had chosen delinquency with the older Willoughby boys over the lessons of honest living and hard work that are learned on the farm.

And finally, there was Lizzie, the fourth Spearman child. Susie had been studious. A lover of history she had researched the origins of Holmes’ Prairie, and set off to Northern California to try to locate the Unitarian descendents of the founders of the town. She had joined the Unitarian church. It was a slippery slope. (Who knew you could slip further?) The next thing you know she was living on a vegan commune, growing organic vegetables and other illegal organic things, and had a son named Moon Beam.

And all four children and six grandchildren were returning to Holmes’ Prairie, for Thanksgiving to be under the same roof again. What would happen? Moon Beam was used to clothing optional community gatherings. Would Jerry request that everyone pray and then proceed to proselytize? Would LeAnne’s girls try to get into the liquor cabinet, again? How do you tell family that they may want to watch their wallets?

Larry and Melba often wondered how it could be that all four children took such different paths. Sometimes they wondered if these were really their children at all. And as a sum, they were a combustible mixture, to be sure. Around each other, they seemed to bring out each other’s worst. LeAnne would grow zealous and intolerant and falsely pious. Jim would become snobbish and condescending. Ed would grow wild and rambunctious. Lizzie would affect conceit and neediness. And it would surely all degenerate.

But Larry and Melba devised a plan.

LeAnne, along with Jerry and the virtue girls, was the first of the four children to arrive. To their surprise, the driveway was full of cars. Walking through the door, they found the farmhouse bustling with life and activity. It was as if the entire town of Holmes’ Prairie was there. The ladies from the sewing circle, the regulars from the coffee shop. Bursting forward Melba greeted her daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughters. “It is a day of great joy to have the family joined together. For such a day as this we are most thankful. We could not contain our excitement. We had to tell everybody you were coming and invite them to come welcome you, to share in this day.”

This scene repeated itself three more times. For Jim and his partner. For Ed. For Lizzie and Moon Beam.

It was the most disorienting of days for the four Spearman children. The commotion was dizzying. There were constant comings and goings, arrivals and departures. It wasn’t as if the throngs of locals that now infested the Spearman farmhouse made Larry or Melba inaccessible. To the contrary, things seemed to springing up organically around them. The kitchen transitions were especially seamless.

But the four Spearman children were most certainly distracted. Seeking each other out they conspired to sneak away behind the old barn, a frequent rendezvous point of distant childhood. Huddling once again, they looked at one another. Each recognized on the face of the other confusion, a feeling like something was missing. There was a calming security found in being together again.

“What should we do?” LeAnne asked.
“What can we do? They all appear to have been invited.” Jim responded.
“The energy in the house is very magenta.” Lizzie offered.
After a long pause, Ed added, “We’ve got each other.”

That each of the four’s impressions confirmed the others’ was reassuring. Shock and confusion slowly became introspection. Introspection in turn became self-consciousness, and self-consciousness turned into awareness.*

“Um, so do we go back?” Ed asked.
“I think we need to play along.” LeAnne suggested.
“Yes,” added Jim, “Natural selection through adaptation.”
“I think what he means is ‘go with the flow.’” Lizzie added quickly.

And so they did…

The Sunday after Thanksgiving, Pastor Solomon Samuels chose as his text the story of the prodigal son. Allow me to read a portion of his homily:

“As we enjoyed the feast of this past Thursday, my heart was moved to ponder the story of a feast found in the Good Book. Jesus tells the story of a feast which is the celebration of reconciliation from estrangement, a conversion of the heart. It is a moving story.

“From time to time, I do not doubt, some of us have felt like that prodigal son… but more often than not, we are given to think not of ourselves as lost, but to see others that way. Our days are spent making lists of who deserves to repent, who is in need of conversion, who is lost, who is squandering their inheritance. (A few of you have even felt from time to time, I am sure, like I had become prodigal in my theology and maybe I have.) But in our thinking that other person often becomes those people. Those people are in need of conversion. They need to repent.

“This is called sheep and goats thinking. The Bible says that the Lord will separate the sheep from the goats, with the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left. To the sheep will be eternally rewarded and the goats eternally punished. But most people stop reading right there. If you keep reading you find that Jesus says that then goats are the ones who divide people up and label them, whereas the sheep treat everyone the same. Which is a just a tricky way, round-about way of saying that it is wrong to judge folks.

“No matter who we are, we are inclined to accuse somebody else of missing out on the feast that is laid before us, just as others surely perceive us as missing out and being hopelessly lost. So may we take some comfort in the humbling realization that we are all surely a part of each other. May we know that not one among us is fully righteous; nor are we fully lost. Neither entirely sheeplike, nor entirely goatlike, we are, in our essence, dappled creatures. And the Lord so loves dappled creatures.”

Well, that’s the news from Holmes’ Prairie, out there on the Kansas plains, west of Wichita and to the right of liberal… where, for a town where nothing much ever happens, some miracle is always taking place if we would just stop for a moment to be still and take notice.

* Perhaps you are wondering how this story fits in with my “Future of the Liberal Church” series. Rather than answer that question, I’ll leave it to you to ponder that connection…

Monday, November 20, 2006

Sermon: "A Letter to Dawkins & Harris" (Delivered 11-19-06)

Earlier this Fall I sat with the worship committee in the back row of the top balcony of the Lied Center in Lawrence, Kansas. It was a standing room only crowd, there to hear the evolutionary biologist and atheist celebrity Richard Dawkins speak about his most recent book, The God Delusion. As Dawkins neared the end of his talk, he prepared for his big finish. On the screen behind him he projected images of ancient gods – Thor, Odin, Baal, Ra, Zeus. Dawkins explained that nobody believes in these Gods anymore, implying that it was foolish for people to have believed in them. Then, substituting an image of Jesus for the images of the ancient Gods, Dawkins uttered his famous line, “Some of us just go one god further.”

The crowd cheered and I grimaced. [I apologize for insinuating in the oral delivery of this sermon that the members of our worship committee cheered Dawkins approvingly.] It is true that almost nobody believes in Poseidon or Zeus anymore. But was it foolish for the ancients to have worshipped these Gods? Some of them were foolish. But, what about Homer? What about Aeschylus or Sophocles? Were Plato and Aristotle fools?

It occurs to me that, in a mirror-universe, a cleric could stand up and display an image of Isaac Newton or Galen, the father of modern medicine, and say, “Today, nobody thinks these scientists were correct.” And then, displaying a picture of Einstein or Darwin or Richard Dawkins, the cleric might say, “I just go one scientist further.” Clearly Dawkins would not say that Galen or Newton were fools just because their science was later surpassed. Dawkins would revere these scientists for providing the building blocks for his life’s work. I see this as somewhat of a double-standard.

Richard Dawkins’ most recent book, The God Delusion, is near the top of the New York Times Best-seller list. Sam Harris’ two most recent books, The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, have been similarly popular. Both men are atheists and their books are accusations against religion. They accuse religion of doing all sorts of bad things in the world and advocate for a world made better by getting rid of religion. This morning I want to offer you my thoughts on these books. I will say from the beginning that I’m not impressed by these books. I find them to be at times arrogant and ignorant, and, at other times, misguided and mean. I can understand how the thinking in these books is seductive, but ultimately I am of the opinion that the thinking they contain isn’t helpful.

A couple of wisdom sayings will help to frame my comments this morning. The first one is, “The enemy of your enemy is not necessarily your friend.” The second one is, “Choose your enemies wisely, for you will become them.”

To Dawkins and Harris, the enemy is religion. They are most concerned with the fundamentalist expressions of religion. They talk about suicide bombers, holy wars, and religious conflict. They also talk about forms of religion that lead to discrimination and hate; religious views that hurt people by attacking science and reason. In this way, when we Unitarian Universalists read their books we feel like the choir that is being preached to. Our moral sense also leads us to condemn terrorists, crusaders, and suicide bombers. Our moral sense also leads to feel outrage against those on the religious right who believe contraception should be illegal, who have said that they would not cure AIDS if they could, or who literally torture gays calling it “ex-gay” therapy. Writing after September 11, Salman Rushdie wrote, “The fundamentalist seeks to bring down a great deal more than buildings. Such people are against, to offer just a brief list, freedom of speech, a multiparty political system, universal adult suffrage, accountable government, Jews, homosexuals, women’s rights, pluralism, secularism, short skirts, dancing, beardlessness, evolutionary theory, and sex.” [Goldberg, 210] Rushdie was wrong though. The religious right in America doesn’t have any problem with beards. What is worse, these extremist religious views have become more mainstream and more powerful in recent years, and this is very dangerous. So, let me be clear on this: When I criticize Dawkins and Harris, I am not denying that all sorts of evil, violent, hateful, bigoted and ignorant things are done in the name of religion.

It would seem that Dawkins and Harris and we Unitarian Universalists share a common enemy, and this is indeed true. But Dawkins’ and Harris’ enemy isn’t just fundamentalist religion, it is all religion! To quote Harris, “I have little doubt that liberals and moderates find the eerie certainties of the Christian Right to be as troubling as I do. It is my hope, however, that they will also begin to see that the respect they demand for their own religious beliefs gives shelter to extremists of all faiths… Even the most progressive faiths lend tacit support to the religious divisions in our world.” [Harris, LtaCN, ix] This comment is so wrong, I have a difficult time knowing where to begin to criticize it.

But, I want to do something more than just argue against these author’s treatment of moderate and progressive religion. Allow me to play Devil’s Advocate to Harris and Dawkins for just a little while. For example, they accuse religious televangelists of deceiving people and ripping them off. And yet, science has had its own version of televangelists. Consider the Korean scientists who faked cloning experiments or the British scientists who fabricated Piltdown Man. [Robinson, p. 86] Or consider the researcher who claimed to have succeeded in achieving cold fusion. Many are of the opinion that he was not intentionally attempting to deceive anybody as much as he wanted so very badly to believe that he deceived himself. (One need not be religious to have lapses in reason.) Or, what about drug companies who suppress research in order to bring their drugs to the market more quickly? Both religion and science have had their snake oil salesmen.

And, both have colluded with evil. Harris and Dawkins delight in pointing out that the Bible was used to justify slavery and racial discrimination. Indeed, passages from the Bible, especially the story of Noah and Ham, have been used to justify slavery. But so has science. Consider Louis Agassiz, one of America’s greatest 19th century biologists and president of Harvard University. Agassiz’s science led him to the theory of polygenesis, which said that the races had arisen separately, thus multiple geneses. From this theory, Agassiz concluded that slavery was justified and that racial mixing would be harmful. Intellectual honesty would require Harris and Dawkins to admit that some religion led to the abolition of slavery just as some science opposed it.

I might also point out that science gave us eugenics, the “science” that was used to justify the Holocaust. I might also point out, borrowing an idea from Marilynne Robinson, that if my religion inspired me to kill for the glory of God, I’d be hard-pressed to have much success. If I really wanted to have success – detonating a dirty-bomb, for instance – I’d have to turn to the fruits of scientific discovery. As Marilynne Robinson points out, those bomb-making scientists are mostly atheists, meaning “we may then exclude religion from among the factors that recruit them to this somber work. We are left with nationalism, steady employment, good pay, the chance to do research that is lavishly funded and, by definition, cutting edge – familiar motives of a kind [as] fully capable of disarming moral doubt [as religion is.]” [Robinson, 84]

But, aren’t polygenesis, eugenics, and phrenology bad science? Yes, but they are still science… just as bad religion is still religion. Marilynne Robinson quotes Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s instruction that in comparing religions, you should take care not to compare the sublime acts of one against the scandalous acts of another. Similarly, if you want to compare religion and science, you must compare the good of one against the good of another, and bad against bad. Otherwise, what you are doing is cherry-picking.

Choose your enemies wisely, because you are likely to become them. In Doug Muder’s review of Harris’ book in the UU World, Muder points out how Harris threatens to become like those he despises. Muder quotes Harris as arguing that, “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may be ethical to kill people for believing them.” Harris accepts that torture is sometimes justified and that collateral damage – the maiming and killing of innocent people – is unavoidable. We have seen the enemy and he is us.

If Harris is the Ann Coulter of atheism, Dawkins is the George Will. (Interstingly, Dawkins bibliography contains a telling typo. He cites Coulter’s book, Godless: The Church of Liberalism, but lists it as the “Godless: The Church of Liberation.”) Dawkins is not nearly as hysterical or shrill as Harris, and his ideas are disguised by fancy verbiage and reference to high culture. It is telling how South Park, that great exploder of pretense, chose to lampoon Dawkins recently. Imagining a dystopian future where everyone is atheist, and destructive wars are fought over whose science is most scientific and whose logic most logical, Dawkins’ teachings are remembered as, quote, “The use of reason and logic is not enough, you must be a [expletive] to anyone who doesn’t think the same as you.”

Marilynne Robinson quotes Dawkins as writing condescendingly of the Amish. You can chalk this up to poor timing. Consider this passage from Dawkins discussing the Amish, “The rest of us are happy with our cars and computers, our vaccines and antibiotics. But you quaint little people with your bonnets and breeches, your horse buggies, your archaic dialect and your earth-closet privies, you enrich our lives.” Arguing that we should not tolerate the Amish, Dawkins continues, dripping with sarcastic condescension, “Of course you must be allowed to trap your children with you in your seventeenth-century time warp, otherwise something irretrievable would be lost to us: a part of the wonderful diversity of human culture.” [Robinson, 88]

Responding, Robinson points out that the Amish are “pacifists whose way of life burdens this beleaguered planet as little as any found in Western civilization.”

Indeed, Harris and Dawkins take positions that are as hostile to tolerance as any put forward by the religious fundamentalists they condemn. In truth, anyone who advocates for tolerance – religious or otherwise – will have accept that they will have to accommodate some who choose to live life very differently. Those who elect for tolerance will have to decide on limits and also decide what methods of engagement with difference are acceptable. But, I would sooner struggle with the moral demands of tolerance than elect for a world cleansed of the types of thought or belief I deem unacceptable. I can’t get excited about religious cleansing. And, by the way, when Dawkins says that we shouldn’t tolerate the Amish or Harris says we shouldn’t tolerate Muslims, what are they talking about? Maybe make their religion illegal? Maybe take away their right to vote” Maybe make them wear armbands? Maybe deport them, or round them up in concentration camps? Maybe forced sterilization? Maybe kill them all? What, precisely, does it mean to say, we should not tolerate them?

Marilynne Robinson makes this point with great rhetorical flourish. She writes, “Dawkins himself has posited not only memes but, since these mind viruses are highly analogous to genes, a meme pool as well. This would imply that there are more than sentimental reasons for valuing the diversity that he derides. Would not attempting to narrow it only repeat the worst errors of eugenics at the cultural and intellectual level?... The impulse toward cultural and biological eugenics have proved to be one and the same. It is diversity that makes any natural system robust, and [it is] diversity that stabilizes culture against the eccentricity and arrogance that have so often called themselves reason and science.” [Robinson, 88]

But it is not just the meanness and arrogance, the dangerous thinking, that makes me critical of Dawkins and Harris. They also come across as wholly ignorant of religion. In The God Delusion, Dawkins spends the better part of one hundred pages blowing up arguments for the existence of God. His logic is seamless. Except, thanks to Paul Tillich, it has been fifty years since any serious theologian has worried about whether God exists. Tillich, to simplify his argument and probably do a little injury to it, simply said that God cannot possibly be a being because that would make existence a higher category than God. Rather, Tillich said, God is the ground of all being… God does not so much exist as existence gods.”

If Dawkins had bothered to walk from the biology department to the theology department at Oxford, someone might have explained this to him. Then he wouldn’t be saying the things about religion that he says. Contrary to Dawkins’ caricature, serious theology is not concerned with the quantities of angels dancing on the heads of pins, or the taxonomy of fairies. Yes, there is such a thing as serious theology. And thus I’m torn. I can easily get behind and cheer his criticisms of fundamentalism and his tearing down of bad theology. (However, an intellectual of the caliber of Dawkins doing this is somewhat akin to using an AK-47 to shoot fish in a barrel.) But he models no kind of positive engagement with any religion whatsoever. If he can’t bother to take religion seriously, how can he advocate that religious people should take science seriously?

If you are looking for a good book that does what Harris and Dawkins hope to do – that is, to expose the dangers of fundamentalism – I would suggest you pick up a copy of Kingdom Coming by Michelle Goldberg. Goldberg exposes the harmful and dangerous effects of Christian Nationalism, otherwise known as Dominionism. And she does it without calling for the abolition of progressive, liberal, or moderate religion. She concludes her book with these words, “It makes no sense to fight religious authoritarianism abroad while letting it take over at home. The grinding, brutal war between modern and medieval values has spread chaos, fear, and misery across our poor planet. Far worse than the conflicts we’re experiencing today, however, would be a world torn between competing fundamentalisms. Our side… must be the side of freedom and Enlightenment, of liberation from stale constricting dogmas. It must be the side that elevates reason above the commands of holy books and human solidarity above religious supremacism.” [210] Goldberg enlists religious progressives and non-religious people alike in this battle. For that I commend her.

I want to conclude with just a couple thoughts. One is a quote from Jim Wallis, the founder of Sojourners, an organization that uses religion to work for justice. Wallis offers a quote I find wonderful: “The answer to bad religion is not ‘no religion,’ but ‘better religion.’” The other thought I want to share comes from a man here in Kansas City who serves with me on the steering committee of the MAINstream Voices of Faith. At a recent meeting, he expressed the importance of progressive religious people working for justice. Justice, peace, equality, he opined, won’t be achieved without the commitment and dedication of religious people.

If progressive religious people aren’t engaged, then we don’t have much hope. I believe this. One need only look to South Dakota. South Dakota has two Unitarian Universalist churches, with a total of 160 UUs, children included. And yet, those two modest congregations were leaders in the battle to defeat a proposed abortion ban that would have made no exception for incest, rape, or the woman’s health. Progressive religion gave us Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, and Susan B. Anthony. [I was asked how this sermon fits in my “Future of the Liberal Church” series. This last point, I think, speaks to that question.]

Dawkins and Harris are quite right to criticize fundamentalism for all the ways it fails the causes of human thought, human freedom, and diversity. And yet, I do not find that the extreme application of their ideas would lead to a world where thought, freedom, or diversity is furthered.

Choose your enemies carefully, for you will become them. The enemy of your enemy is not necessarily your friend. The world’s diverse pool of ideas is richer for the existence of religion; and the world is far, far richer for the existence and the work of progressive religion. Remember the words of Proverbs 8:12, “I, wisdom, dwell together with prudence. I possess knowledge and discretion.” Dawkins and Harris are clearly deeply intelligent. But are they wise?

Despite my criticisms of these authors, I don’t recommend that you avoid reading them. I think these books are best read as a challenge to liberal religion, a challenge to remain the type of religion that defies their criticisms of religion. Let’s prove them wrong.

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion
Sam Harris, The End of Faith
Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation
Michelle Goldberg, Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism
Marilynne Robinson, "Hysterical Scientism: The Ecstacy of Richard Dawkins" (Harpers 11/2006)
Doug Muder, "Secularism and Tolerance After 9/11" UU World, Fall 2006

Monday, November 13, 2006

Sermon: "After the Seeking, What Next?" (Delivered 11-12-06)

Brian McClaren tells a story about his daughter’s dog. The dog is incapable of returning when being called and is prone to attempting to escape. When it does escape, the only hope is to chase after it with a hunk of cheese. Faced with these competing claims on its spirit – the choice between cheese or freedom – the dog eventually elects the cheese. At which time the dog can be leashed successfully. [McClaren tells this story with much greater flair.]

This is a story about evangelism, by the way. Churches do this sort of thing all the time, running after people waving and yelling, “Cheese. Cheese.” Here are these neat and wonderful and attractive things. Then churches do a similar bait and switch. “Now, fill out a pledge card and join a committee.”

McClaren goes on to say that this image speaks to a consumption-based mentality that is dominant in our current culture. This consumption-based mentality values all of the institutions of society according to their ability to “meet my needs” or purvey goods and services that I desire. In this consumption-based worldview, all things – arts, education, government, ethics, religion – are worthy to the extent that they provide me with the goods and services I desire. Such a way of thinking excludes the idea that any of these institutions might have some other calling or purpose other than to instantly gratify me. Similarly, according to a consumption-based worldview, people “church-shop”, looking for a church that “serves my needs” and keeping an eye out for a better deal. And the secret is that this worldview will always lead to disappointment. [A member of the congregation wrote to me after the service and commented that churches that offer theological certainty are designed to appeal to consumers who want quick answers.]

When I was an intern minister at a UU church down outside of Dallas we had a couple visit the church on a Sunday when I was preaching. They smiled quite a bit, and made eye-contact with me during the service and were giving me all kinds of positive vibes. So, after the service I marched up to them and welcomed them. They beamed as they told me how wonderful they thought the service was. And the theology was just perfect for them. But they had a question. Did our church have a volleyball team? When informed of the lack of a volleyball team, they became crestfallen and sullen, “Oh, we were looking for a liberal church with a volleyball team.” We never saw them again. I fear they may be still church-shopping, looking for the perfect liberal, volleyball playing church.

This consumer-driven idea is depicted in the first of the two diagrams inside your order of service. [Sorry, web-readers.] In this diagram, the self is very, very large and views church as an object, an institution whose purpose is to meet the needs of the self. In this self-centered worldview, the self and the church occasionally can be convinced to reach out into the world, but when they do, they view the world as an object. They find it easiest to reach out when doing so will bring more people into the church thus allowing the church to do more to better serve the self.

McClaren says that an alternate way of thinking about this is to understand the self as quite small and to understand that the church plays the role of serving as a conduit for interacting with the world. This is the second diagram.

Before I explain this second diagram, I want to talk a bit about Brian McClaren. McClaren is a progressive evangelical Christian. He was named by Time magazine as one of the 25 most influential evangelicals – a list that was dominated by the likes of James Dobson and Ted Haggard. But McClaren is different than most of the other 24 names on the list because he is an evangelical Christian who is not strongly disliked by religious or secular liberals. Most have never heard of him. But, many conservative evangelicals consider him a false teacher and not even a real Christian. For example, McClaren is frequently accused of being a universalist. About this he writes that accusations “like this make me want to be an exclusivist who believes that only the universalists go to heaven – after all, they have the highest opinion possible about the efficacy and scope of the saving work of Jesus!”

[McClaren actually imagines something broader than universalism. “The old universalism pronounces that the Good News was efficacious for all individual souls after death, in heaven, beyond history. Inclusivism says the gospel is efficacious for many, and exclusivists say for a comparative few. But I’m more interested in a gospel that is universally efficacious for the whole earth before death in history.” I find McClaren to be a remarkable person. When I had the chance to talk with him about two weeks ago, I introduced myself as a Unitarian Universalist minister and he grinned and said that he had met many UU ministers who had read his books, and that we were the group with the kindest responses to his writing.]

McClaren would apply theological language that we might not be comfortable with, but I think is totally translatable for us. About the second diagram [sorry, again], we should first know that the world is full of awesome stuff. McClaren would say that the world is full of stuff that God loves. On that list, he would include mountains, rivers, plants, animals… but he also puts on that list, sports, music, movies, humor, and sex. So, whether we say that “God loves redwood trees” or “redwood trees are awesome” is just semantics. He then goes on to say that we are a part of the world, but for some reason our lives are often not lived in ways that are an adequate response to how awesome the world is. He would use the word “sin.” Some of us would be uncomfortable with this language. I would say that we get in our own way and we get in each other’s way from being in right relationship with how awesome the world is. And then, McClaren goes on to say that the proper role of the church is to be both a corrective lens for understanding our place in the world and a community of meaning for bringing the world into better relationship with itself.

Now, I am going to switch topics abruptly. This morning, I want to talk about seeking. I want to talk about religious journeys and spiritual journeys. In this church, in this Unitarian Universalist faith, we often talk about our spiritual journeys. We talk about an ongoing search for truth and meaning and talk about ourselves as perpetual seekers. This morning I want to ask if there is such a thing as finding. I want to ask whether being a perpetual seeker necessarily means subscribing to that consumption-based view of the world I just described. And I also want to ask what comes after the seeking? J.R.R. Tolkien once quipped that not all who wander are lost. The corollary to this is that some who wander really are lost.

Last week I took issue with the theology of uncertainty and incessant doubt, saying that the deconstructing of faith claims eventually needs to give way to the constructive building of faith. This week I am addressing not so much the content but the community. In fact, I would insist that the community is an enormous part of the content. I want to take issue with that consumption-based approach to religious life that is so widespread in this day and age.

There are a couple of reasons why that consumer-driven approach to spiritual life is problematic. For one thing, the approach to spiritual life that is focused on getting “my needs met” struggles in the face of the reality that disappointment plays an important role as a part of spiritual growth.

Membership in a church resembles on some level the covenant of marriage. If that seems a little over-stated, it is not. If it seems intense, it is. The tradition from which we (at least) come has always lifted up a demanding and sacred idea of membership. The comparison between the covenant of marriage and the covenant of membership seems apt.

It has been said that a marriage is not really a marriage until after the first quarrel or spat. Similarly, it has been said that one does not really understand religious community until after the first time it has disappointed you. One of my mentors likes to say that ministers are in the business of creative disappointment. Maybe joining a church is like entering into the covenant of marriage; there are grounds for divorce – abuse or irreconcilable differences. But, even when it is great, it isn’t all honeymoon.

Another way of imagining this is to think that joining a religious community is like joining a family. In fact, there is a whole field of studies, pioneered by the like Murray Bowen and Ed Friedman that tells us that congregations can best be understood according to the psychology of family systems. And like a family, going in with the attitude that it exists to satisfy my needs is not that helpful.

The nicest way I’ve ever heard this put is by the recently-deceased UU minister Rev. Clark Dewey Wells. He said, “If you find the church not meeting your needs, say hallelujah. For that means that one of your neighbors is being spoken to in the depths. And it may mean there is more in store for you as your needs change in the unfolding years ahead.”

There is a second reason why the consumption-based approach to religious community is not helpful. The reason for this is that the real depth of spirit is reached not by being the one who is served, but in being on the other end. There is a depth that can be reached only through leading, teaching, mentoring, and “elder-ing.”

Some of the opportunities that are provided here at SMUUCh for those types of experiences include serving as a Coming of Age mentor, teaching children or youth or adult religious education classes, serving on the membership committee, taking part in social action, leading a connection circle, or being a part of the caring team – being a person who visits others.

After the seeking comes mentoring. After the seeking comes leading. After the seeking comes “elder-ing.” After the seeking comes ministry, in the broadest sense of the term. And thus the paradox that rests at the center of my sermon this morning. You can seek for truth. You can seek for enlightenment. You can seek for community. But there is something you can only find when you cease to wander, cease to journey, cease to meander. There are things you can only find when you stop searching.

This morning I’ve introduced you to Brian McClaren’s idea of church (and world) not as objects to be valued for how they meet the needs and satisfy the desires of a self-interested self. But, the church as a lens and authentic community through which the self can act for bringing the world into better relationship with itself. I’ve talked about how a consumption-based worldview and lifestyle – the perpetual seeking for a better deal – actually denies the chance for the spiritual growth that comes from serving rather than from being served.

I want to conclude by offering a word of encouragement. I do believe that our community (as well as our nation) is full of souls hungry for the type of community that we try and aspire to be. Our opportunity – the opportunity for all of us here today – is to grow in immeasurable ways by putting on – or keeping on – the mantle of mentorship, the mantle of elder-hood, the mantle of leadership. The gifts of which are greater than anything we could ever stumble over on the path.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Sermon: "A Word for Certainty" (Delivered 11-5-06)

This sermon is part one in the series "The Future of the Liberal Church: Its Crisis and Its Opportunities."

The reading this morning comes from the book Faith Without Certainty by liberal theologian Paul Rasor:

“Religious liberalism often involves a willingness to affirm faith without certainty. This is not the same thing as faith without conviction. It does mean that religious liberals tend to hold faith claims with a certain tentativeness. This is partly a result of a liberal mindset that is always testing and second-guessing itself. It also reflects the liberal commitment to open-ended inquiry and the realization that truth is not given once for all time. This same tendency can produce personal belief systems or theologies articulated in generalized ideals, perhaps sincerely felt, but often without a deep grounding or much specific content.…

“In the post-modern world, there is no such thing as certain knowledge or absolute truth. Things we once thought gave us firm foundations, such as universal human reason or common experience, turn out to be bounded by language and culture and gender. Everything is relativized. What we used to think of as truth is now seen as interpretation. Because of our cultural limitations, all our interpretations are only partial. And it’s not just that each of us has only a partial view of some larger truth. The metaphors we commonly use, such as looking at the same light through different windows or going up the same mountain on different paths, are challenged in postmodernity. In the postmodern way of thinking, there is no larger truth. We are all wandering around on different paths (or lost in the brush) on different mountains. We each have our own truths and our own knowledge, according to our circumstances.”

The centuries old project of liberal theology has succeeded in tearing down, in deconstructing (to use its own language), all the old certainties. Paul Rasor describes this as leading us to a place of aimless wandering. There is a joke that goes that you can tell you are driving by a Unitarian Universalist church because the title of the sermon on roadside billboard ends with a question mark.

I want to begin this sermon by cataloging several of the many instances of what I call the Unitarian Universalist “cult of uncertainty.”

For Exhibit A, I direct you to hymn #1003 in the new Singing the Journey hymnal. The lyrics: “Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going? / Mystery, mystery, life is a riddle and mystery.”

For Exhibit B, I bring up Forrest Church’s concept of “sixty percent convictions”, a term he introduced after September 11th. “Sixty percent convictions” empower us to take moral stands on complex issues even if we can’t claim absolute certainty about the infallible rightness of those positions. Forrest Church explains that 100% convictions are arrogant and dangerous.

And for exhibit C, I direct your attention to a sermon given by current UUA President, Rev. Bill Sinkford, in which he offered these words on articulating your faith, “I urge each of you to work on your elevator speech. Put a name to what calls you, and ask yourself what it is to which you find yourself called. Do it often; you won’t always necessarily come up with the same answer.” He then goes on to admit that his own elevator speech is “a work in progress… where I am right now.”

Finally, I give you exhibit D. Unitarian Universalist thinker Doug Muder writes about what he sees as the difference between conservative and liberal religion. Religious conservatives, he writes, believe that religion is created by God and therefore is perfect and eternal. Religious liberals, however, believe that religion is created by human beings and therefore reflects their imperfect, changing, and evolving intuitions of the Divine.

These contemporary articulations of uncertainty are the products of the project of liberal theology which, over the course of several centuries, has challenged the authority of the church, the authority of scripture, the authority of the government, the authority of the foundations of Western thought, and, indeed, the authority of foundationalism itself.

So, what are we to make from all these articulations of uncertainty – Church’s sixty percent convictions and Rasor’s postmodern uncertainty and Muder’s idea of religion as evolving human interpretation?

I want to suggest that we can think of certainty as having two opposites. We might think that one of the opposites of certainty is a kind of doubt that is oppositional, even antagonistic. The other opposite of certainty is humility. The practice of declared agnosticism, of declared uncertainty, can produce some good fruits. The most notable of these is the humility that results when agnosticism is done well. On the other hand, uncertainty has its limitations. It can stifle inquiry. If we deny that any conclusion can be reached, then why bother to search at all?

Last week I went to go hear theologian and Emergent Christianity leader Brian McClaren deliver an address. Allow me to paraphrase what he had to say about certainty: The terrorists who flew planes into the towers had a lot of certainty. They were certain what they were doing was not only morally defensible, but righteous. They were certain that they go to heaven and God would give them a big high-five and say, “Great job,” and reward them with a multitude of virgins. McClaren then went on to say that there is also such a thing as too much doubt. There are people who wake up, in the middle of the night, and think, “Do I exist? Am I real? How do I know I am not the dream of the person sleeping in the house next door to me?”

Too little certainty doesn’t crash planes into buildings. Too little certainty doesn’t kill directly. But too much doubt can paralyze.

What I found most intriguing about McClaren’s talk was his assertion that the truly transformative and creative and meaningful religious life will be characterized by extraordinarily high levels of humility and extraordinarily high levels of commitment.

World-class political philosopher Isaiah Berlin said same thing in much more complex language in the concluding paragraph of his essay on “Two Concepts of Liberty”:
“It may be that the ideal of freedom to choose ends without claiming eternal validity for them, and the pluralism of values connected with this, is only the late fruit of our declining capitalist civilisation: an ideal which remote ages and primitive societies have not recognised, and one which posterity will regard with curiosity, even sympathy, but little comprehension. This may be so; but no sceptical conclusions seem to me to follow. Principles are not less sacred because their duration cannot be guaranteed. Indeed, the very desire for guarantees that our values are eternal and secure in some objective heaven is perhaps only a craving for the certainties of childhood or the absolute values of our primitive past. ‘To realize the relative validity of one’s convictions’, said an admirable writer of our time, ‘and yet stand for them unflinchingly is what distinguishes a civilised man from a barbarian.’ To demand more than this is perhaps a deep and incurable metaphysical need; but to allow it to determine one’s practice is a symptom of an equally deep, and more dangerous, moral and political immaturity.”

To realize the relative validity of one’s convictions, and yet stand for them unflinchingly. The religion that is worth having will be known by the demonstration of abundant humility and abundant commitment.

When the opposite of certainty is humility, we can’t have too much of that. But, when the opposite of certainty is doubt, doubt can be overdone. I want you to imagine organized religion as a large, complex structure – and that doubt is a project of deconstruction (if not demolition) of that structure. This piece of the structure is supported by, let’s say, scriptural authority, so when we call scriptural authority into doubt, that section collapses. This practice is held up by ecclesiastical law, so when we call ecclesiastical law into doubt, we’ve torn that down. And so on, you get the point. But at a certain point in the disassembling there is nothing left to call into doubt. And then it is possible to self-reflexively turn the doubt back onto itself, to doubt the very project of doubt, which, if you are intellectually honest, you will have to do at some point. And when doubt itself becomes doubted, that gives permission to build again.

Let me come around to what I am trying to get at here. My colleague in St. Paul, Reverend Rob Eller-Isaacs believes and has written that, in our country, a consciousness pendulum is beginning to swing – a shift is already taking place – that will lead, not thousands, but millions of people to the types of progressive religious communities that we could be. He writes that if we are prepared, we could transform our presence from an elite vanguard of religious thought to a widespread movement, from the yeast to the bread. He writes, however, that we will miss the revolution if we do not prepare ourselves in important ways. The progressive church is in crisis, but there are opportunities for us. I’ll be saying more about this next week.

But, let me say today, that one of the opportunities we have is that the project of doubt, of deconstruction, of leveling the edifices of theology that we have found unfit for human habitation – one of the opportunities we have is that project of doubt has left us with the room to build.

We have the opportunity to build, to build into and become something worthy of all the longing, thirsty souls who will scour the religious landscape looking for a faith that is a habitable home for the human spirit. For a faith that isn’t preoccupied with some other life, but is worthy of this life. For a faith whose hallmarks are excessively high levels of both humility and commitment, a faith willing to realize the relative validity of convictions, but stand unflinchingly for them nonetheless.

So, I want to sketch out a little bit of this building. When I talk about building from scratch, I do not mean to say that we will do away with our history and our roots, with religious language, with our sources of inspiration. I do mean that we will piece things together in different ways. Traditionally, the glue, the infrastructure, the stuff holding together the structure of religion has been authority. The new glue will be commitment.

This new future expression of progressive religion will be girded by commitments. For its foundations, it will not worry whether religion was created by God or created by human beings, because its purposes will take priority over its authors. The purposes of such a religion will be to sow unity and understanding, to act as a creative and transformative influence on culture, and to engender social transformation.

There is, in fact, too much for me to say this morning. The next three sermons is this series will explore these ideas in greater depth and variation.

But, let me conclude by saying that most that many in our pews left their prior religious community because of their doubts. Well, because of their doubts and because their previous religious tradition did not provide a context for the exploration of those doubts. But doubt is not an end. Doubt and uncertainty eventually give over into the chance to build. Things can be disassembled only so far. Continuing to perform autopsies on dead gods has diminishing returns. Let us post a sign which says, “Under Construction.”

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Plotting Hope

Last night I drove up to William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri to hear Brian McClaren deliver a lecture on "Faith, Culture, and Higher Education." McClaren is a progressive evangelical, founder of the Emergent Church movement, and author of a number of books including the New Kind of Christian trilogy and "A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I am a missional, evangelical, post/protestant, liberal/conservative, mystical/poetic, biblical, charismatic/contemplative, fundamentalist/calvinist, anabaptist/anglican, methodist, catholic, green, incarnational, depressed-yet-hopeful, emergent, unfinished Christian." (How's that for a subtitle?)

You'll likely encounter references to the talk in future sermons. But, let me say that I was deeply impressed with his abundant generosity of spirit. I asked him to sign a copy of his book and he wrote, "Plotting Hope, Brian McClaren." How cool is that?