Wednesday, March 16, 2005

"Like a thief in the night"

"For you yourselves know well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night." I Thessalonians 5:2

Peacebang in her blog delivers a moving personal testimony to her heterodox Christian faith, as well as a tart indictment of the shallowness of a certain commonly encountered type of UU aversion to the use of religious words and symbols. It’s a must-read. This excerpt particularly resonated with me:

I now began to wonder: since Jesus’ radical inclusivity, love of humanity, and passion for justice was so harmonious with all the “good news” I was hearing in our congregations, why did our ministers and congregants so assiduously avoid the gospels? I found it comical on some Sundays, depressing other Sundays, and consistently baffling. I could not understand why UUs would allow the perversions of the religious right to define the word “Christian” (or “religious,” for that matter), why they would concede religious language to the conservatives, and why they would go out of their way to construct a religion intentionally bereft of theology, rendering themselves a quasi-religion and many of their churches temples of denial and hypocrisy, where every spiritual path but the Christian path was considered valid, and where all evidence of a Christian past was removed, revised, and painted over.

It took me over ten more years of committed Unitarian Universalist life to consider that perhaps my dear UUs were the most strangely faithful Christians of all: having either intuitively or consciously embraced Jesus’ gospel of love, service and justice, they could not stand to affiliate with any so-called faithful who claimed to have received their inspiration for discrimination, exclusion, superstition, and damnation from the same source. The well, for too many UUs, had been irrevocably poisoned, and they would thereafter drink of the living waters from another source. Any other source, it seemed, but the Christian well.

Preach it, sister! I can’t count the times I’ve found myself thinking many of the same things. They preach the Gospel truly, but without attribution to the source, and the Lord moves among them like a thief in the night.

She continues:

I call myself a Christian because I am a disciple of Jesus Christ; not just Jesus-that-great-guy-and-teacher-with-the-long-hair-and-sandals, but Jesus the living avatar of the great God, and Jesus the Christ of Easter morning.

Now, here I don’t think I can go as far as she does; I really am an eighteenth-century Socinian, a nineteenth-century Emersonian. I like the “archetypal man” Christology of the archetypal Hungarian Unitarian Catechism; it makes sense to me in a way that the mystery and paradox of the dying-rising God-Man does not.

In further response to her and her invocation of the Christ of the Easter morning soon to be upon us once again, here’s a little essay I came up with a few years ago when trying to figure out where I stood on Easter:

One undeniable meaning of Easter is simply the sentimental, non-challenging, general sense of the holiday: being with family; bunnies and egg hunts for the kiddies; the closing of the dead winter season and the opening of a season of new life and new possibilities; and even the personal representation in a hoary old legend about a long-ago religious figure of the same broad idea of death and renewal. Non-Christians and nominal Christians often say this is a meaning that Easter still holds for them in our postmodern age.

However, within the historic Church the festival of Easter is, very specifically, the festival of the Resurrection of Christ. Thus, to ask in a religious sense “what does Easter mean?” is really to ask “what does the Resurrection mean?” That’s the question I’ve been grappling with, and it’s a much more challenging one.

If I took an orthodox (small “o”) view of the nature of Christ, the Resurrection wouldn’t be a problem for me. However, my Christology, such as it is, is very low; I see Jesus in primarily human terms. Although lately I’ve begun to appreciate some of his divine attributes, I’m not yet ready to call him a deity or God, and I may never be. It follows that I’ve always had trouble not only with the idea of the physical Resurrection of Jesus’ dead body, but even with the idea of a Resurrection of Jesus as a divine spirit. If I had been around at the time I’d have been Thomas: “Show me the holes.” This is not to say that I have ever entirely denied the Resurrection, though: if they ever they do prove the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin, my problems with much of orthodoxy might well vanish.

The best I have been able to make of it is this: the Resurrection stories contained in the later Gospels (Mark, the earliest, stops at the empty tomb) present not literal, contemporaneous eyewitness testimony, but rather a metaphorical representation of the growing understanding among succeeding generations of the Church that the spirit of the dead Jesus paradoxically remained alive and present in and through them. (The later Gospels were not written until two generations or more after the Crucifixion; in the case of John, it was almost 100 years later, and there would have been no actual eyewitnesses left alive.) At the time of Jesus’ death, so soon following that of John the Baptist, his loss must have seemed an insurmountable blow. Yet little by little they found it within themselves to pick up his torch, lead their lives as he taught them, find the radically transformed relationship with God that he had preached, and teach others to do the same. They came to realize that the spirit of Jesus was not dead, but alive as ever now within themselves, bringing them radically new life and forging them into the living “body of Christ”.

In that non-literal but still deeply meaningful sense, the Resurrection absolutely did occur. And continues to occur, to this day; despite its many divisions and discords, the overall body of Christ has never been larger or stronger. Indeed, I would say that it even includes among its strongest members many non-confessors who may deny the doctrines that have grown up around him, yet live out the Way that he taught. And so it is appropriate each spring at the start of the season of regeneration to pause, and remember, and read again the improbable Gospel stories, and say, “He is risen indeed!”

Here in Boston, late in the Lenten season, here in the orbit of 25 Beacon Street, the snow is melting, and I sowed the first of my little tomato and pepper seeds indoors in their little peat pots yesterday, and they should be ready to transplant into the good earth in May, and regeneration is subtly in the air. You can almost smell it.


At March 16, 2005 at 10:19:00 PM EST, Blogger PeaceBang said...

I'm heading off to bed after a long day but just wanted to say "Thanks for the dialogue between Peacebang and Fausto" and I look forward to reading your posts on Easter and on Universalism more carefully later.

All this theology just makes a girl swoon with happiness!

At March 26, 2005 at 9:37:00 PM EST, Blogger fausto said...

This conversation has since wandered, both around the Web and around various issues concerning UU heritage and purpose, finding traction at both The ChaliceBlog and Transient and Permanent.


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