Monday, April 11, 2011

By Their Fruits

[The person who bought one of the two sermons I offered at November's Holiday Harvest Auction made this request when I asked for a topic to speak on: "What Experiences in My Life Influenced My Decision to not Believe in the Divinity of Christ." In other words, as I have heard you preach over the years, I have come to think that you think of Jesus as a great religious thinker, perhaps a prophet even, like Mohammed, Buddha, or Abraham. But, I don't believe you believe that Jesus is the Son of God, nor is he any more special than those other guys. I'm not interested in the philosophical/intellectual reasons that you arrived at this belief, as much as learning any personal, earlier experiences in your life, as you lived it in this predominately Christian country that brought you to this conclusion."

Now, this is a theme I wouldn't have chosen on my own, in part because, relative to Christianity, I'm not reactive and I don't like to appear anti-Christian in the pulpit. If forced to label myself, I'd say I'm post-Christian.

So, here are personal, very mundane experiences that have contributed to my thorough post-Christian point of view regarding Jesus.]

A Catholic Youth

I was raised Roman Catholic in suburban (then rural) Wilmington, DE, in the 1950s. My mother and father were both Catholic, though of differing intensity. She was the daughter of hard working German speaking immigrants from Austro-Hungary. He was the son of a backsliding Irish American mother and indifferent English American father, both nominally Roman Catholic, essentially non-practicing.

My earliest church memories took place in a nearby river town, blue collar Claymont, surely the same parish where Joe Biden worshipped in his Claymont youth. I remember black granite, traditional Catholic building, solid and modest, cool and dry, and redolent of burning candles. In order to prepare for my first communion, I attended the parish school's 2nd grade class for two weeks. I have three memories from then, of being thrust into an alien environment: 1) a long narrow classroom crowded with twice as many Boomer kids as was my secular classroom, 2) the classroom sale of crackers and candy from a huge glass jug during recess, 3) and a young nun who sat with me at lunch and asked “Do you eat to live, or live to eat?” I wish I could show you the black and white photo of me in my white suit, hands folded in prayer in front of the Claymont church after the ceremony took place. The somber confessional and the wafer that stuck to the roof of my dry mouth are still vivid. We communicants had been warned, under the penalty of a grave sin, not to leave the communion rail without swallowing the host; and, oh yes, not to chew the host, under penalty of an even graver sin. I didn’t feel anything sacred. It was, in a word I might have used then, creepy.

We moved from that parish to a startup parish nearer our home. The suburbs north of Wilmington, as they were across the country, were burgeoning, turning farm fields and forests into tract developments. The new church, named after Mary Magdalene, first met in the building that would become the parish school. (To my meager understanding, St. Mary Magdalene was something of fallen women, perhaps prostitute rescued by Jesus.) The sanctuary would eventually become the school’s cafeteria. It wasn’t in the least awe inspiring, to say the least, though I didn’t know it at the time. Some of the dreariest memories of my youth took place there: a Latin mass that sounded like so much mumbo jumbo, scant majesty and little ceremony, and strange homilies that often sought to explain paradoxical gospel readings. (My father enjoyed skewering the homilies at Sunday dinner. For example, he could never accept that the prodigal son received forgiveness, insisting, in his way, that this just wasn’t fair.)

As a family we didn’t go to confession often (my father never), only at the obligatory times of Easter and Christmas. It usually meant standing in a long line, waiting for a seat in one of the two booths in the center of which sat the priest confessor. Once, as a young adolescent, I stood in line in front of my mother. I rehearsed a half-year of sins, which I made up, trying to find the right proportion of venial sins to impress the priest of honesty/sincerity. When I left the booth and walked past my mother, I had a smirk on my face at the farce of it all—a smirk she interpreted, and remembers to this day, as a beatific smile after having the burden of my sins lifted from my soul. Of course, I let her keep that impression.

A few years later, before Christmas, a few buddies and I rushed to confession after playing an afternoon of basketball. The three confessionals had exceedingly long lines. But the head priest, an older fellow, was sitting at the communion rail, hearing confession. There was no line. What sinner wanted to confess transgressions out in the open? So we agreed among ourselves to get out of there as quick as possible to get back to our game; we used the priest at the altar. We shared a common experience. When we got outside we exploded as one, “He was drunk!” We smelled the alcohol and heard him slur his words. That was the last time I went to confession.

So, by the time I entered college, I’d finished with my Catholic upbringing, though I didn’t recognize it as such. About religion I was green. I knew little and didn’t care much.

Early in my marriage to Ellie we talked about religion, what we might practice, if we were to practice. She’d been raised Federated, growing up in a small Upstate New York village where the Methodists and Northern Baptists became one congregation to survive. Her family’s roots leaned toward the Methodists. In our conversation I said one of the dumbest, most illogical things I’ve ever said, reckoning that Catholic was the way for us to go, since the Catholics came first in the scheme of Christianity. She firmly dissuaded me of this line of reasoning.

The first 20 years of my life as a Catholic gave little impression of God and Jesus, though I blessed myself with holy water “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, amen.”

A Unitarian in Training

I skip ahead, circa 1971-73, my years as an unformed theolog at the Department of Religious Studies at McGill, where I prepared for the Unitarian ministry. When I first thought of going to a theological school, still a graduate student at the University of Vermont in 1970, I’d bought a Bible, which Catholics of my era had little acquaintance with. I have vague memories of trying to read the Old Testament tales on my own, finding them incomprehensible.

A few years later, at McGill, I took both an Old and New Testament class, in the company of fellow students preparing for various traditional ministries: Anglican, Presbyterian, and United Church of Canada primarily. They were all Christian and the Bible was their primary source, as it is for all Protestants, who are truly people of the book. At the time I found them as a group to be intellectually dull, uninformed, and curiously disinterested in our studies in the scholarly tradition of the texts. I had no religious investment in these so-called inspired works, but took to biblical exegesis, a scholarly process of critical interpretation in the quest for meaning. When the grades were posted, I was amused and horrified to rank first in Old and second in New Testament—I who had scant prior knowledge and no commitment to scriptural authority compared to my Christian peers who would soon be preaching the gospel.

In 1976, in order to meet UUA requirements toward becoming a UU minister, before leaving Canada and doing an internship at First Universalist Society of Syracuse, in the company of a half a dozen other clergy-types, I engaged in an 11-week session of Clinical Pastoral Education at the Montreal General Hospital. (It was 1976, the year of the Olympics in Montreal.) We were all intern chaplains, under the supervision of a seasoned veteran chaplain. We had patient assignments, wrote detailed reports of encounters, and had daily encounter sessions along the lines of the old school of Transactional Analysis. (Remember, I’m Okay, You’re Okay?) My fellow participants seemed to me the strangest lot of clergy. I remember in particular a youngish, handsome Italian immigrant priest, a midlife Quebecois bother who looked like a woodcarving, and a paunchy Missouri Synod Lutheran midlife pastor. The priest had all sorts of sexual fantasies, the brother couldn’t talk about death, and the pastor was going through a nasty divorce and had one of the darkest personalities I’d ever encountered. I learned counseling skills and something about myself in such situations, but even more indelible was a sense of the clergy being a troubled profession. None of my colleagues seemed to embody the Christ they professed, in fact, they were tortured souls.

A final anecdote comes from my first church in Youngstown Ohio, First Unitarian on the edge of the old downtown. When I arrived, the congregation had a renter, a start-up Southern Baptist group that met before our 11 a.m. service on Sunday morning. I had nodding acquaintance with the minister. Toward the end of my 5.5 years there, they held a week long revival. In the midst of that time a small delegation of these Baptists appeared in my office one afternoon and proceeded to try and convert me. I was offended. I was their host and they had crossed a line. They told me I was bound for hell as were all in the world who hadn’t accept Jesus as Christ. All in the world, I asked? Yes, they argued, because modern technology had reached everyone. I didn’t begrudge their enthusiasm; but I thought them uncharitable and missing the mark that Jesus represented to my, by now, well-formed understanding of him. Later that week, in the middle of the night, I was awakened by a phone call from an hysterical woman who'd attended the Baptist revival. I agreed to meet her at my office. The Baptist service had left her with the impression she was a sinner doomed to hell and she needed to lay herself at the feet of Jesus. When I opened the door she rushed into the sanctuary and threw herself sobbing inconsolably on the steps leading up to the chancel.

Now, these are a few memorable impressions that came to my consciousness when I searched for life experiences that further persuaded me that Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity, who offered his life as a blood atonement to redeem humankind, who the culture has long called God IS NOT SO. This Christ is a matter of dogma, not reputable history.

After studying theology at McGill in the early 70’s I had my own abiding sense of Jesus as portrayed in the New Testament Gospels and other books, studied in the academy as an historical figure, often called the Historical Jesus and as redacted by a host of Unitarian forebears who, for two centuries have explored Jesus’s reflective question “Who do men say that I am?” (The latter was the title of a famous Unitarian book and church school curriculum written by our great religious educator Sophia Fahs in the 1950s.)

The New Quest for the Historical Jesus

I found a renewed interest in the historical Jesus in the 1990s, when under the influence of the Jesus Seminar, particularly its co-founder John Dominic Crossan of Chicago's DePaul University, a new Historical Jesus emerged, grounded in progressive studies of the texts of the era and a swelling of archeological discoveries. Here’s an apt summary of Crossan's work from a Wikipedia entry:

Crossan suggests Jesus was an illiterate "Jewish Cynic" from a landless peasant background, initially a follower of John the Baptist. Jesus was a healer and man of great wisdom and courage who taught a message of inclusiveness, tolerance, and liberation. "His strategy . . . was the combination of free healing and common eating . . . that negated the hierarchical and patronal normalcies of Jewish religion and Roman power . . . He was neither broker nor mediator but . . . the announcer that neither should exist between humanity and divinity or humanity and itself.

I largely subscribe to Crossan’s portrait of Jesus and recommend his thin monograph of the Jesus who lived, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. It's an essential text for anyone interested in an historically reconstructed Jesus.

Some years ago, during Holy Week, I heard Crossan being interviewed by Terry Gross regarding this book that had just been published. (I was traveling through the Sangre de Cristo--Blood of Christ--mountains in Northern New Mexico.) Toward the end of the interview, she asked him where he would be attending services that Easter. He gently responded that he doesn’t go to church anymore, because he doesn’t want to be offended by what’s said from the pulpit. It’s often so unchristlike.

I’ve long given up, too, on finding Jesus Christ in churches—or in Christianity generally.

Where I Expect to Find Jesus the Christ

Where I continue to expect to discover Jesus Christ is in individual believers transformed by their belief and His Presence. The historical Jesus I subscribe to has had considerable influence on me: early on as a young adult drawn to his Sermon on the Mount teachings on nonviolent resistance and more recently as a preacher of egalitarianism (particularly regarding women). But I often speculate that if I believed Jesus were indeed God, whose sacrificial Atonement gave me eternal life, how passionate I would be to embody the difficult but clear example he set. No matter what demands it made on me, I would have one choice to be, in imitation of Christ, as radical—even unto death—as Crossan has drawn Jesus to be.

In the final analysis, I say that through the generations professed Christians have failed through the millennia to embody what Jesus prayed for, and even more sought to establish in his brief three year ministry: the Kingdom of God, on Earth as it is in Heaven, what 2 Peter calls a “new world where righteousness dwells.”

Like Diogenes the Cynic, --remember the Wikipedia characterization of Jesus as a Jewish Cynic--, like Diogenes the Cynic, who traveled by daylight with a lantern in hand in search of an honest person, I keep a vigilant eye, ever open for a Christian who has been transformed by the Spirit of Christ to be radically Christ-like, too, unequivocally committed to inclusiveness, toleration, and liberation, who lets nothing stand in the way or mediate a direct relationship with the Divine for self and for others, and who follows the ways of Jesus as though her or his life depended on it.

I close with a simple and, for me, compelling text: Mt 7:16 " By their fruits ye shall know them."

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