Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Religion as challenging -- or not

DairyStateMom and I are fans of a syndicated religion column called The God Squad, by Rabbi Marc Gellman. In a recent column, he answers a letter writer whose Christianity is that of Marcus Borg and John Shelby Spong -- viewing traditional Christian doctrine about the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, Transubstantiation of the communion elements, and the Trinity as mythic and symbolic rather than literal. The letter writer worships at a mainline Lutheran church and is comfortable there, but raises the question of whether he or she* really counts as Christian:
Theologically, I'd probably be better off at a Unity Church, or perhaps Unitarian, but I find the approaches of both more of a philosophy than religion.
The letter writer is responding in part to an earlier Gellman column in which the rabbi asserts:
If you believe Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, who came to earth to die and be resurrected for your sins, then you're a Christian. If you don't, you aren't. Period.
As an aside, I vaguely recall the earlier item in which that remark -- which of course is standard Christian doctrine -- appeared, and I was moved at the time to respond to him, but didn't. Like the letter writer I would take issue with his cut-and-dried definition of being a Christian, however widely accepted it might be. There's a lot to unpack in those words, and I know many Christians for whom that definition falls short or misses the mark.

Back to the letter in question. Gellman's response is basically reassuring:
Frankly, what you are is less important to me than what you're trying to become. Let's leave to God the final judgment about whether or not you are, in fact, a Christian.

What is clear is that you're a Christian in your spiritual journey. You're honest enough, however, to realize that what you believe is different from the teaching of Christianity. Such honesty is refreshing. Many people are so wrapped up in their own egos that they insist the teaching of their faith is ever and always just exactly what they believe.

I encourage you to live with that difference and pray about that difference. God is not through with you yet, and you're not through with God or Christianity. The great Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig was once asked if he observed one of the ritual commandments of Judaism and he answered, "Not yet."

You haven't yet entered the mystery of Transubstantiation and Incarnation. Maybe you never will, and maybe the reason is that you're right and these are just symbolic truths. But maybe there is truth in these teachings that you can and will discover. The point is, you are comfortable in a traditional faith community, even if you're not yet comfortable with its full theology.
He concludes:
The best course is not to join a church that never challenges you, but to humbly affirm both your conscience and your inherited faith.
And that's the theme I want to pick up here.

The implication that liberal religion is inherently inferior because it doesn't challenge us is a pretty common theme in critiques of Unitarian Universalism. Yet embedded in that critique are two assumptions.

The first is that religion by its nature should challenge us. That certainly fits the prejudices of many of us -- me included -- yet I find that it's a bit more slippery conceptually. Fundamentalist Christianity's belief in the literal accuracy of Genesis or in the necessity and sufficiency of belief in Jesus to save myself from an afterlife of eternal torture in hell challenge my beliefs in reason, science, and Divine Love. But for me, that's just a clue that those Fundamentalist beliefs are really off the mark.

On the other hand, "Love your enemy" is a profound challenge to which I'm much more willing to pay attention. In one form or another I encounter that in my own church as well as DairyStateMom's mainline Presbyterian church. Moreover, as challenging as her church and its pastors are (in the best of ways), I also find they emphasize just as much the deep comfort Jesus offers as the embodiment of God's love.

The second assumption is that there is in fact something unchallenging about liberal religion.

On this one I'm really torn, finding the claim at once to carry a grain of truth and yet be ultimately facile. I don't yet have a clear-cut answer to my conflicted response. Indeed, anytime I try to answer it in my head, what comes out is either tiresome, "tough-minded" UU bashing or else simpering, smug UU defensiveness.

I guess, to paraphrase the rabbi, I am not finished with this post yet.

*Curiously, while drafting this post I assumed the letter writer to be female and used the pronoun "she." Reading through it, however, I find that there's no clear declaration of gender.


  1. I was heartily amused to read the rabbi's unequivocal, reductive definition of what a Christian is:

    "If you believe Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, who came to earth to die and be resurrected for your sins, then you're a Christian. If you don't, you aren't. Period."

    Yes, you may find some branches of Christianity that will say that, but far from all. Many will insist on the present tense with the Christ, rather than the past. Many will insist on the whole creed, not just that portion of it. And many will say that believing all the right things is not nearly enough, you have to accept the salvation that is offered.

    The fundamentalist Christian denomination I was raised in believed that you have to believe the right thing(s), then you have determine to accept the salvation offered, and then you have to be immersed in water, according to the right formula and with the right intent. Then and only then are you a Christian.

    In churches that practice infant baptism, are not the baptized infants considered Christian before they are capable of believing anything? And then aren't those children considered Christians once they follow the right procedures and are confirmed, regardless what they hold in their heart of hearts to be true?

    Some forms of Christianity consider belief per se to be highly important; others hold that adherence to the creed that SAYS you believe X is far more important than what goes on inside your head.

    And then there are Christian atheists, who are Christian by virtue of the specifics of what they reject rather on account of what they affirm...

    So, all in all, it is pretty damn funny, when Christians can't now and haven't ever really agreed about what makes one a Christian (even orthodoxy at its heyday was codified because the reality was or included a great deal of disagreement and heterodoxy concerning even the basics), that the good rabbi knows Christianity well enough to put what makes one Christian into a single emphatic sentence.

    I'm willing to forgive the presumption. But I don't know that my parents will. :)

    Thanks, DairyStateDad, for your looking at the underlying negativity towards liberal religion where I would be naturally inclined only laugh at the ridiculously narrow definition offered and read no further, unless it was a "hot" day.

    Wrestling with God is a frequently recurring theme in Judaism and certain strands of Christianity. Myself, I prefer an image of the divine that is already ethical (or at least not unethical) and doesn't need to be corrected by me. Ecclesiastical institutions, yeah, you have to ride herd on them or they'll slip into all manner of unethical stuff. But the divine should either be above that or it is useless.

    And who's to say that UU churches don't challenge their people as much as other churches do theirs?

    I frequently hear from members of my congregation how a particular sermon or ceremony or reading or event was much more thought provoking and challenging than anything they received in years and years in the Catholic/ Lutheran/ Methodist/ Younameit church. That is not to say that those churches cannot provide "meat" to their people, just that some find it with us, having NOT found it with them.

  2. There certainly is a grain of truth to the notion that liberal religion can be un-challenging. The defining feature, as far as I can tell, is that it accommodates whatever theology or viewpoint you care to bring so long as it isn't antagonistic to some core principles.

    So, yeah... it is "soft" in some ways. But that's a challenge in itself. To make it meaningful and useful, some serious effort is required on the part of the adherents. And in cases where this is poorly done or not at all... well the residue is kind of sugary and insubstantial.

  3. My conviction is that Unitarian Universalism, like all liberal religion, is easy to do, but difficult to do well. It is easy to 'accept one another' it is another thing to 'encourage spiritual growth.' It is easy to believe what you wish, it is another to deepen those beliefs and put them into action. It is easy to want peace, it is difficult to be a peacemaker even allying with fundamentalists and religious conservatives.

    In fact Judiasm and Christianity are like that too. There are many Christians who don't find their religion challenging at all. They have no trouble with the doctrines and are not encouraged to struggle. There are others who struggle their whole lives to truly follow Jesus.

    If a UU Congregation does not openly encourage its members, friends and visitors, in the service and outside, to "seek the sea," "revere the past but trust the dawning future more," "adventure boldly" and be prophetic(hymn #145)then that church needs a better sense of its vision and purpose.


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