Orcas Island Universalist Unitarian Fellowship Service Feb. 5, 2012
Bishop Craig Anderson: “The New Reformation”
I bring greetings from Emmanuel Episcopal Parish. Today is not only the fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, it a special Holy Day, and we need to acknowledge that fact: It’s Super Bowl Sunday! And I bet you more people will be gathered around the altar of the television than will be gathered around all the altars of all the churches today. Without doing a Teebow, it would be interesting to see, as I did at Emmanuel this morning, how many of you are New York fans? Patriots’ fans? (No one raised their hands, except Liz Anderson, a New York fan).
It’s good to be here. Your beginning with the sharing of joys and concerns and the moment of silence we just observed provide an introduction for what I would like to share with you this afternoon; the notion of a “New Reformation.” My talk is really Part 2 of what I shared with you when I was last here a couple of years ago. You may recall that I suggested the need for reform, certainly in the churches I’m familiar with, and I think within the broader religious communities that have been a part of my life. The need for such reform was deeply ingrained in me, when I was the Bishop of the Diocese of South Dakota and learned from my adopted Lakota brothers and sisters Lakota spirituality, which transformed my life and reformed my understanding of who I am and what I am as a clergyperson. One of the things that touched me deeply when I last with you is what the Lakota do when they gather together; they gather as a sacred circle and “check in” to see what’s on each member’s mind and heart. Many times something shared or offered becomes the agenda. I’d like to build on that understanding of our needing to be open to other traditions to help us reform our own.
Where to begin? Well, in our tradition we say, “first we pray, then we believe,” to which I would add and then we act. As such, let me begin with a prayer for unity, slightly abridged, from our Book of Common Prayer.
O God, Father and Mother of us all, give us grace seriously to lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions. Take away all hatred and prejudice, and whatever else may hinder us from godly union and concord. That as there is one God, so we may all be of one heart and one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and charity, and may with one mind and one mouth glorify you. In your name we ask this, and in the many names by which we call upon you. Amen.
So, how to continue? Let me start by complimenting you, because in many ways the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship embodies important aspects of what I think the New Reformation intends and portends – what many Christians are calling an “emerging” or “emergent” church. Your Seven Principles, your covenant, and your Six Sources are descriptive of what I think is happening religiously, not only in our country but in other cultures as well. I see it as renewal or reformation that has continuity with the past but holds out new possibilities and retrieves some older values and virtues that have been neglected or forgotten.
Phyllis Tickle, an Episcopal theologian, has written a book entitled, The Great Emergence. She states that we are in the middle of a significant change in our understanding of the Church. Much of what she has identified, as a change is that which you know and believe as UUs, e.g. when the Unitarian and Universalists merged in 1961. Rather than splitting apart, which seems to be the order today in the Episcopal Church and other mainline churches over issues like homosexuality – you decided to join together to join forces, and I commend you for that. You exemplify aspects of this new reformation – inclusivity and a pronounced social concern for justice and equality.
Tickle cites another Episcopal bishop and friend of mine, Mark Dyer, who suggests that about every 500 years the church has a “rummage sale.” He notes that this idea can be traced historically going back and beyond Christianity to Judaism in its first iterations; moving from a Davidic monarchy that was viewed as the golden years for Judaism to the Babylonian Captivity, and ensuing slavery of the Israelites. The time frame was about 500 years. We were the heirs of this 500-year rummage sale or housecleaning with the advent of Christianity about 2000 years ago. The year 590 marks a significant change in Christianity from its origins as a persecuted group of zealots, to the relligio licita of the Holy Roman Empire. About 500 years later there was a division in the Church between East and West: Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. Moving ahead another 500 years, in 1517 the Protestant Reformation took place on the Continent, with names like Zwingli, Calvin and Luther, and in England as part of the English Reformation, from which the Anglican/Episcopal church arose. We called it the Protestant Reformation, a “protest” of elements that needed to be reformed within Roman Catholicism. Such protesting and reforming brought with it new church denominations – some taking their name from their founder (Lutherans) or their location (Anglicans) or their form of polity (Presbyterians).
Bishop Dyer notes that such big changes happen about every 500 years, with a certain period of preparation beforehand; about 100 years before each rummage sale, people get uneasy with a variety of things, as the culture changes and new realities emerge, a search for change ensues resulting in a challenge to authority and the inherited doctrines and dogmas. He notes that there is a good reason for such turmoil because religion changes like culture changes, like reality changes. Dyer, Tickle and others think such turmoil points to the fact that we are on the cusp of a major transformation, a major emergence—I would call it reformation; a new religious reality that will look different, and candidly my friends, will look a lot like the Seven Principles and Six Sources that you embrace. So congratulations, you’re leading the way, and we look to you with great hope.
I have a high regard for your tradition because you transcend narrow religious boundaries and you’re open to all people, you invite seekers—and isn’t that finally what we’re all about? We do it in different ways: different prayers, different hymns, different liturgies, and different creeds—and by the way, I think that even though you say you don’t have a creed, your Seven Principles sound creedal to me. Remember creed comes from credo, which means “I believe,” and I think you believe in these things, so I want to call you up a little short.
What are some of the changes and what does this new reformation look like? What we hear some theologians suggest is that this new transformation first of all is post-denominational. Many young people—and older people—moving into a community look for a church that will satisfy their particular needs, that is close in terms of location, that offers particular services for their children or others, and don’t necessarily look for the Baptist church or the Episcopal Church or the Catholic Church of their family or origin. They want something that’s close, that’s a part of their community. The result is a change and often diminishing of denominational loyalty. Second, it’s post-Protestant, this new emerging, reforming church, that goes beyond a narrow kind of Protestant principle of “sola scriptura,” of “only Bible,” to other ways of seeing and understanding God’s presence in the world with us. Third, it’s post-modern, in that a nice, tidy set of teachings or catechism or doctrine as authoritative can’t encompass or contain the mystery of God. Fourth, it uses virtual reality; it’s Internet-based; it’s ecumenical—I’m here today, part of a Catholic tradition. Here you are, Unitarian Universalists—50 or 60 years ago we wouldn’t be here talking to one another; although we might acknowledge one another’s presence, but be a bit suspect, I suspect… Remember when you were growing up? “You can’t date that Catholic girl, and for God’s sake you certainly can’t go out with that Jewish boy!” Remember those kinds of unhealthy, prejudicial ways that we thought about religion? Those advocating a new emergent religious reality say this is breaking down. Many young people I talk with see religious divisions as the very thing that “turns them off.”
One of the most important challenges to established churches is the fact that this new reformation questions religious authority. One example suffices, the gap between doctrine and practice in the Roman Catholic Church in terms of birth control. Two of my mentors, while doing graduate work at Vanderbilt, were Edward Farley, a brilliant theologian, and Charles Scott who headed the philosophy department. They both talked about the challenges and opportunities of living in a post-authority age. They anticipated this new reformation, this new religious consciousness to include the collapse of the “house of authority.” It started happening well in advance of the Protestant Reformation in 1517. People began to doubt. They started reading after the invention of the printing press, allowing the word to become available to all persons. They started questioning an authority that said the only people that have the truth are the bishops, the Church. Farley in particular talks about this post-authority age by reckoning it to the financial markets. He said the church is like a stockbroker who trades shares on a nonexistent company. Stop and think about that: it’s very appropriate for our time too, given what’s happening on Wall Street. “Occupy Wall Street” is a “protest” and a call for a fiscal “reformation.”
Said differently, do these religious realities that we talk about, this religious language that we use all the time, does it refer to anything real? In response, enter persons like Marcus Borg and the Jesus Seminar scholars who note that we need to make a distinction between the historical Jesus, whom we know very little about, and the Christ of faith. What’s the difference? And what do these words like salvation and redemption really mean? Do they connect with us, or are they some vestiges of an old philosophy, an old theology, that we grasp but that needs to be re-translated for our times so that we can reconnect with the truth embodied in them. When you think about religions, they’re word based, aren’t they? In Christianity we say the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. In Christianity and Judaism we say that God created by Word. Yet the words that we use so blithely in our worship and our prayers, what do they really mean to us? And how have we misinterpreted them? Another example: one of our own bishops, Jack Shelby Spong, says the old symbols, the old words, are bankrupt, that we’re in the midst of a paradigm shift. Titles of Jesus as “savior” and “redeemer” and “rescuer” no longer compute. We need to rethink God not as someone who’s up there punishing us individually, or rewarding one athletic team a victory over another. Although not naming it, he hints at the notion of “theosis” – that we are called to be more fully human, and that being more fully human we will reflect God as our creator, we’ll become more Godlike. Not to say we’ll become gods and goddesses. But by virtue of what we do, how we act, how we treat one another—your Seven Principles and Six Sources— we can aspire to be more fully human, Jesus saving us as the primary example, the “Son of Man” and “Son of God.” Not espousing a punitive God who’s out to do us in. What kind of terrible God would that be, who visits us with sickness, who takes young babies and destroys them—is that the kind of God we want to worship and obey? No.
There are many factors that inform this reformation—to include the recognition that culture “carries” or “informs” religious realities. Think of what’s happened in the last 100 years or so, where the seeds of discontent have been sewn that form this new reformation. Advances in biology, the whole notion of evolution; advances in physics, where we used to have certainty now we have the principle of uncertainty, and quantum mechanics; names like Freud, Jung and other psychologists who state that it’s just not all consciousness in terms of reason born of the Age of Enlightenment, there’s a lot of stuff beneath the surface, the preconscious, subconscious and collective unconscious that moves and shapes us, and we need to be aware of that as well.
Challenges to a neat and tidy world of exclusivity and a recognition that, and as one of my favorite philosophers and theologians, Feuerbach, once said, theology is finally anthropology. Theology is what we as humans say about God, but we have to recognize that while the Word creates, there’s a limit to what we can express in words. Ever had that recognition? – “I had this feeling, this experience, this wonderful sense of the presence of God in my life, but I just can’t find the words to express it!” Language creates but it also limits.
It’s not so much that we are created in the image and likeness of God, but we create God in our image and likeness, don’t we? A big Daddy sitting up on a throne and inviting us to sit in His (not Her) lap. This new reformation calls us beyond that in recognizing that when we personify and anthropomorphize God, we do so finally in order to control God and one another. But God transcends gender; God transcends sexual identity or preference. In fact, one of the things about the post-authority age is that the Bible doesn’t really have a lot to say about sexuality. Jesus never uttered one word about homosexuality. He talked about loving relationships, he talked about faithfulness, he talked about steadfastness, he talked about being caring in our relationships, about trusting one another, working for the common good; he talked about justice, he talked about peace, but he didn’t give theological lectures on human sexuality. He said be true to the person you make a commitment to—we call that Holy Matrimony in our tradition—a sacrament of relationship.
Sometimes we use the Bible to beat up on one another, don’t we? And that’s something that the new reformation is going beyond. Biblical literalism is finally idolatry because God cannot be contained or adequately named by our words. That’s why the Jews were afraid to utter God’s name. The new reformation points to the fact that there are other books besides the canonical books of the Bible that can help us.
To paraphrase Elaine Pagels, in her book, The Gnostic Gospels,—we sometimes think of the early Christian Church as representing a unified body of beliefs, e.g. the Nicene Creed in the 4th century. But with these new discoveries of the Gnostic Gospels in 1945, what we realize now is the early church was very diverse in its understanding of who Jesus was and what he said. When I was President of the National Council of Churches, we had 39 different denominations sitting at the table – from Baptists to Orthodox. Such religious diversity and pluralism was also in evidence in the early church, which was probably even more diverse. Pagels was asked if all the gospels that were found in 1945 had also been part of our Christian heritage, what would have changed? She responded, “It would have been harder to maintain the idea of a single, authoritative doctrinal teaching. You could say these are the basic teachings of the church, and beyond that you can explore this or this or that…but what the church has often said is, these are the authoritative teachings and that’s it.” So these Gnostic Gospels open up different understandings of Jesus, what he said, what he taught, and make of him a much more human savior. Actually there are gaps that these various gospels cover: we see Jesus in his teenage years as being mischievous. Well, good Christians would never allow for that! But if Jesus was fully human and fully divine—this paradox, this mystery—then perhaps we need to rethink his divinity and humanity and explore these gospels, and take a look at the many traditions that were a part of the early church. To that end, let me quote one more piece from her that is very telling about the notion of Jesus and the centrality of Jesus in Christianity. She was asked, “Do you think that belief in Jesus as God has been overemphasized in Christianity?”
I think it has. Christianity as we know it is almost defined by belief in Jesus as God. What we lose when we see it that way are many other perspectives. The Gospel of Mark doesn’t picture Jesus as God; the Gospel of Matthew doesn’t picture Jesus as God. Matthew pictures Jesus as a rabbi, as a new Moses, who teaches the divine Torah. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and your neighbor as yourself.” In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says to people, “Do not call me good. There is only one who is good, and that is God. The Gospel of Matthew does not suggest that Jesus is in any way God. It is much more traditionally Jewish in speaking about the love of God and the love of neighbor as the essential devotion of any person.
Jesus never said, worship me. You will not find that in scripture. In fact, today we had a Gospel reading where Jesus was teaching and healing on the shores of Lake Galilee. He received this recognition as a healer. And they wanted him to stick around. Why not? This rabbi, this healer is great! And whenever this happened, he would say, “No, we have to move on.” Because he was pointing to something different. The miracles, the feeding of the hungry, the curing of the sick were examples, illustrations of the message he was bringing, not ends in themselves. And whenever people tried to reduce him to a faith healer, or someone who would provide a free lunch, he’d say no, these are examples that point to this God that I’m talking about, a kingdom of justice, a kingdom of peace, a kingdom of reconciliation. Because what we need to do is address the structures of oppression and evil that result in people being hungry, enslaved, sick and treated as objects. What can we do to address the human condition and be faithful to a God who loves us, not a God who punishes us?
If you search scripture carefully, both the Synoptic Gospels and the Gnostic Gospels, you find a much more complete picture of Jesus as a rabbi, a prophet, a healer, a teacher, to be sure and one who pointed the way beyond himself, as we say in Christianity, to the One who sent him. A different understanding of Jesus? Jesus never said, “Worship me, I want to become a founder of a new religion.” He was a devout Jew and wanted to reform the religion he loved and the God it pointed to; he was a reformer who inaugurated a new, better a renewed understanding of God. Jesus announced the vision for a just and peaceful community. He didn’t say worship me; he said, “follow me”- I am the Way, the Truth, the Life”- not the end.
So we have these different cultural and religious influences. It’s not all neatly packaged together, as we would sometimes like, to satisfy our needs and our need to control. Fundamentalists and literalists, in essence, want a simple creed to believe that will take care of all their worries and anxieties. Friends, that’s not the way it works! Unless you want to check your mind at the door, we are called to grapple with and talk about the things that separate us from one another—the very opposite of the name that you bear as UUs. We are called to try to find common agreement and not kill one another in the name of religion. Remember “Kill a Commie for Christ”? We’re called upon to articulate and wrestle with the problems of our time. We sit here this afternoon and look out at that beautiful sea, but we’re not aware that beneath those calm waters, there’s an increasing amount of garbage, mercury and pollution. We need to clean up our earth. We need to clean up our institutions. We need to clean up our politics. And if you doubt that, take a look at what’s happening right now in terms of Florida, the PACs, the amount of money that is being spent to be negative. Now, that’s not confined to the Republican church—Freudian slip (laughter)—it would probably surprise you no end to know that I’m a yellow dog Democrat—but I can’t didn’t preach that, I don’t want to jeopardize your tax-exempt status! I guess that was a question for you at one time anyway, wasn’t it? Are you a church, a fellowship, or what? But I think you get my point—that it’s beyond a narrow sectarianism, beyond a narrow fundamentalism in politics or religion or anything else that finally brings separation, and brings hatred, misunderstanding, and distrust. The “new reformation” points to the need to move beyond, to move toward not only toleration but respect. To regain the original meaning of the word religion (religio)- to weave together.
Concluding thoughts: I don’t know that I agree with the every 500 years reformation theory. I’m more of the mind that religion is in a process of constant change. It’s like a spiral notebook: we go in cycles, but there’s a motion going forward. Religion is constantly changing, forming, and reforming itself in light of cultural advances as well as religious and philosophical understandings. We need to recognize that. In Christianity we call it revelation—God revealing God’s self in new ways to us. The new awareness of what many feel to be a convergence of science and religion is an example.
For me, I think reformation is better understood and based in the word, formation, literally to “form again.” I think there are four movements and moments in formation. The first is conformation, conforming to that which is inherited. At birth and the first few years of our lives we conform to what our parents and the culture of which we are a part teach us, what the church teaches us (Catechism), i.e. the Ten Commandments and the “Our Father.” And yet to simply stay in a mode of conformity violates human nature because we are all seekers. So we move from being conformed to going to school, where we are informed by way of education, and we learn to question, and we learn to ask what does this mean? Not only intellectually or theoretically, but what does it mean in terms of my life? And if we are informed and become aware and conscious, we normally move to a re-forming or a reformation of that which we were conformed to and informed by, We begin to think on our own; we individuate. With a vengeance in the teenage years—nothing that I was taught by my parents was true and I am suspicious of what I’m being taught in school. And I’m going to reform the world and change things. Remember those heady years? Something we all have to go through, as painful as it was and as painful as it is for us as parents when we have to endure it. And yet necessary.
The fourth moment following reformation is transformation—transforming our understanding of ourselves and one another. Transforming our understanding of God and God’s creation and of how all of it is related. Transforming our understanding of God as a God that creates, nurtures and sanctifies all of life. Reformation is a moment on the way to transformation in the way we articulate the ineffable experience of God, profess it, confess it, live it and finally recognize that it lives us. But I’m not going to let you off the hook. I want you to think about this: if you embrace everything and don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything. It’s not simply embracing the universal—there needs to be discernment, there needs to be reflection, there needs to be judgment. I’m not saying you don’t take that seriously; obviously you do. But we need to constantly ask, what is it that we seek? And if you’ll allow me, I think that it is the mind of God. And how do we seek it? The Golden Rule? To love God with all your heart, your soul, your mind, and your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself? This is the great commandment in Christianity. To love God BY loving your neighbor; they are inseparable. You can’t love God without loving your neighbor. And when you love your neighbor, you recognize a transcendent quality in that relationship for such love is agape. Such love moves beyond reforming us to transforming us in God’s image and likeness, the telos of formation.
A final note: one of the things that has gotten us in trouble in terms of reformations is the fact that we think that we’ve arrived and that we have reformed the errors and that we are now transformed, e.g.- the Protestant Reformation, all you need is scripture, you don’t need all this other stuff—we make of it a doctrine, a teaching, which becomes a dogma, a fixed belief, which we say is changeless, it’s eternal, it’s tradition. But tradition comes from a Latin word that has two meanings, “tradita,” that which is constant, fixed, that which we inherit as the eternal verities. But a more ancient understanding of tradition is “traditio,”an ever-evolving, changing tradition that holds onto the thread of the spiral but also welcomes and recognizes new insights that we call revelations and how God speaks to us through different faith traditions, different religions, different languages and in that provides a comprehensiveness that can transform our lives. The problem is that we want to reify, better deify the reformation rather than seeing that transformation is not static but dynamic, not simply an extrapolation from the past but God drawing us into the future; from Alpha to Omega.
I salute you. I feel a kinship of spirit. One of the great joys in my life has been getting to know other religious groups and faiths, and not only Christian churches. I served as a chaplain in the military as a reservist, and I discovered the depth and richness of other world religions, by having to minister to persons of different faiths. Such discovery enriched and deepened my own faith. I recognized that finally there is a unity that transcends diversity. You can’t appreciate the unity in its beauty without exploring the diversity. God bless you in your journey, and I hope you will continue to be part of this new reformation as well.