Rev. Cheryl Jack is minister emerita of the UUCD. She enjoys her participation in the community as an officiant at rites of passage. She is also involved in the Big Sisters of North Durham and can often be seen with her ‘little sister’. She lives in Beaverton, on Lake Simcoe with her husband Andris Piebalgs.
The complete sermon can be read below:
I have it on pretty good authority that once upon a time, at a Sunday service at First Unitarian in Toronto, a man was making a ruckus in the back row.
After every sentence the minister spoke, the man shouted, “Amen! Halleluia!”
One of the greeters approached him and spoke discreetly.
“Sir, uh, we don’t do things like that here.”
“But I got religion!”
The greeter quickly responded,
“You certainly didn’t get it here.”
Now why would the greeter assume that you couldn’t get religion at a Unitarian church? No doubt he, like others who don’t believe in a personal transcendent God probably consider Unitarianism something other than a religion – simply a community of open-minded people who have agreed to affirm and promote 7 principles.
I must say that the concept of a separate and perfect God who created an imperfect world out of nothing and then condemns us all for acting imperfectly has never made sense to me.
This morning, I take a look at the role of God in religion and whether we might be better off without this concept of a transcendent source of meaning.
My ruminations on this topic were kick started at a seminar I attended this past winter at the UU Church of Sarasota. It was offered by Westar Institute, the home of the Jesus Seminar.
What’s God got to do with it?
After all, liberal theologian and author of “Why Christianity Must Change or Die” John Shelby Spong, claims the following: “Christianity is not about closed minds, supernatural interventions, a fallen creation, guilt, original sin or divine rescue. I believe it's about expanded life, heightened consciousness and achieving a new humanity.” No mention of God here.
Most of you will know that I recently moved from Beaverton to Whitby. As I unpacked the myriad boxes of books, I came across one written by another bishop of the Anglican tradition Bishop John Robinson. His book “Honest to God” was published in 1963. His open confession of his doubts concerning Christian doctrines - God, the supernatural, religion itself - had a profound influence on my own thinking. It was a controversial book. His premise back in 1963 was that theology was not about a particular being called God but the ultimate questions posed by our experience.
This is all well and good – the two bishops – and others voicing similar views - but there was a time when God was actually necessary. After all, God was the answer to everything. In the ancient and medieval world if God didn’t exist then nothing existed.
While it was obvious to everyone that material things change – like a dress worn out over time – what caused things to last – to endure, wasn’t so obvious. There had to be some kind of a primary being.
Some cause was needed for things that couldn’t be attributed to humans...and that cause was a primary being called God. As Stephen Hawking wrote: “Before we understand science it is natural to believe that God created the universe. But now science offers a more convincing explanation.”
And over the course of the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries, when the bible was no longer seen as a source of scientific faith God more or less stopped working as a source which explains the origins of things and the nature of the Cosmos.
One might conclude that God’s job was effectively over as early as Descartes (1596-1650) who raised the possibility of God being replaced by human reason. It was becoming increasingly clear with breakthroughs in human knowledge that God is created in the human image, rather than humans in God’s image.
And then there were people like Freidrich Schleiermacher, a Reformed Calvinist Chaplain in Berlin. In his first major work, “On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers” he writes that belief in God, and in personal immortality, are not necessarily a part of religion; one can conceive of a religion without God and it would be pure contemplation of the Universe.
Like John Robinson 160 years earlier he believed that religion answers a deep need in humans. It is above all a feeling. He suggested that dogmas are not, properly speaking, part of religion but rather that they are derived from religion. The emergence of ”On Religion” in 1799 marked the beginning of the era of Protestant liberal theology.
By the 20’th century it became clear that God no longer made logical sense. German American existentialist philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich, who coined the term “ground of being” became the 20’th century equivalent to Schleirmacher.
Religion without God.
It just might offer the best option for the future of humanity. Religion which embraces the virtues of people who have lived and are living lives of integrity…fuelled by compassion and love…people including the well-known Jesus of Nazareth
According to a group of liberal scholars who call themselves the “Jesus Seminar” who took it upon themselves to identify what Jesus really did and did not say - in the earliest Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke and the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus does not claim divinity, nor did he organize a church or suggest that he would return to sit in judgment on the world.
A large part of Jesus’ teaching is found in his parables which scholars refer to as the Kingdom of God stories - a term that was uniquely used by Jesus. He referred to the Kingdom in many ways. In one well-known parable, he says, “The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed which a man took and tossed into his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds of the sky roosted in in its branches.”
For Jesus, the Kingdom of God or Kingdom of Heaven refers to the knowledge that is within a person, knowledge that is “hidden”, or the seed of knowledge that might grow. It is not a place in another world or afterlife. It is the world that we create with our love and compassion and
social justice efforts.
It could be as simple and straightforward as this - Jesus was trying to guide us to an understanding of our connection to the spirit within and to the profound intelligence of the world to which he was clearly connected. He urged his followers to look within.
Looking within is a message contained within a modern day parable that I heard this past winter. It involves hard-working and humble James Robertson of Detroit and his marathon commute to work.
James had been taking the bus from Detroit, then walking more than seven miles to work and a little more than 13 miles back home in the dark — for 10 years. His older model Honda had died on him, and at $10.55 an hour he couldn't afford to replace it.
A banker had been passing James day after day, mile after mile, for a couple of years, when finally he pulled over and offered him a lift. Gradually, he came to know his schedule, then his name and was eventually able to play an important role in changing James life. As has 19 year old Evan Leedy who started an online fund-raising effort which has generated more than $312,000. As well as a car dealership which presented him with a brand new car.
And what does James Robertson, a factory worker for the past 12 years with perfect attendance have to say?
"All the years I've been walking, I've been thinking I had to make a way, get some transportation. But the best part of the story is that it got everybody talking about the bus system."
"Right here in Detroit, there's just so many people in my situation (and), hey, we've got a problem with the buses. We gotta fix it."
People looking within to that seed of knowledge that grew and grew and continues to grow.
There’s a man I greatly admired who died this past January - Marcus J. Borg, American New Testament scholar, theologian and author. He wrote the following: “We and everything that is are in God. God is not something else. God is right here and all around us. We are within God. He explains: “The best way to refer to God is You, the You is right here.”
Thinking about religion without a transcendent source of meaning might be the very best option for the future of humanity. It makes better sense of morality, it faces the question of meaning in life more directly and doesn’t have to divorce itself from evolutionary science.
There was a major car accident and both drivers were seriously hurt. The first man, a Catholic asked for a priest. The police summoned a priest who arrived quickly.
The second driver said he was Unitarian. The officer knowing of a nearby UU church called the minister who was on the spot a few minutes later. He rushed to the injured man. Before he could introduce himself, he heard the priest taking the Catholic man’s confession, intoning the words “Do you believe in God the Father, Jesus Christ his Son, and the Holy Ghost?”
The minister, not wanting to appear less professional, bent over the injured Unitarian and said, “Do you believe in open inquiry, social justice and world community?”
God the father, Jesus Christ his son and the Holy Ghost.
Many of you, I'm sure, remember the Apostles Creed. It’s what eventually propelled me from the church of my youth.
"I believe in God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth and in Jesus Christ, his only son our lord who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell, the third day he rose again from the dead, he ascended into heaven, sits at the right hand of God the Father almighty from thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead. “
The problem for humanity could be that there isn’t anything in there about love or peace or kindness.
Personally, I think that a belief in a transcendent being has the potential to diminish our own responsibility, our own accountability as citizens of this planet.
The things that people do in the name of God…the questionable decisions based on a perception of God’s will. Instead of a belief that in time God will bring about a peaceful society, an end to bigotry, hate, violence - is it possible that it is really up to us to embrace humane responses to the word’s suffering – an outpouring from our hearts, a compelling response to our own conscience and understanding of what is just and what is not.
Emerson wrote: “Within each man is the sum of the whole, the wise silence, the universal beauty to which part and parcel is equally related, the eternal One.”
Remember the rabbi’s gift in our story? The messiah is one of you.
As I come to the close of my ruminations I’ll share a little something I read recently in the Toronto Star by Michel Coren. He wrote about leaving the Roman Catholic Church for the more liberal Anglican Church. “While Canada may be less explicitly Christian than ever before, it has arguably become in its sense of equality, fairness and downright decency more Christian than ever.” Something to think about.
There are certainly sources other than religion that serve as the object of faith for humans. People can have faith in science and in their family. But there are few other sources for moral truth. Within religion we learn to appreciate the value of people in circumstances very different from our own. Religion provides a framework for looking for answers to the ultimate questions of our existence like How do I live in the world? How do I have a fulfilling life? What am I committed to? And religion is also a form in which what we value is expressed and transmitted from one generation to the next.
And so, while I feel that religion – aptly described by John Shelby Spong as being about “expanded life, heightened consciousness and achieving a new humanity” is important I am not convinced that a transcendent God is necessary to it or even, for that matter desireable.
What do you think?
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