Sunday, March 27, 2005

Gentle Arms of Eden

To celebrate Eostre, and the immanence of life-giving divinity in this season of regeneration and renewal, here's an ingenuous Darwinian creation hymn by Tracy Grammer and the late Dave Carter, from their album Drum Hat Buddha:

Gentle Arms of Eden

Saturday, March 26, 2005

What I've Been Reading Lately

Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief. A comparison of the Gospels of John and Thomas, which Pagels perceives to be in conflict and probably competition with one another; and an assessment of the yeasty diversity of thought in early Christianity (prior to the imposition of catholic orthodoxy) that, in its wide latitude of speculative Christologies and its emphasis on the authority of personal understanding, sounds remarkably like the later thought of Channing and Emerson.

Prescott Wintersteen (Minister Emeritus of my church, and still an occasional presence there), Christology in American Unitarianism. Some of the same ideas, though originating much closer to home and more recently in time, and presented by the author in a more formal and less easily approachable style.

Joseph Finder, Paranoia. A paperback potboiler, written by the dad of one of my daughter's classmates, about a Gen-X slacker who finds himself caught up in the cynical intrigues of high-stakes, high-tech corporate espionage. (Hey, if I tried to be an egghead all the time I'd end up like Humpty Dumpty!)

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.

So Pagan, a UU could have designed it

(Another one courtesy of

Cool Thing Found Surfing the Web

Friday, March 11, 2005

Universalist Misconceptions

Over on her blog, in a thread about the BTK killer, Peacebang is expressing doubts about Universalist theology:

I'm not sure if I am theologically a Universalist. But really, although I *probably* believe that BTK will be brought back "into harmony with the divine" at his death, I'm sure that while he lives and breathes and walks among us, he is one scary Mo-Fo.

I'll respond here because Peacebang's blog, like Tom Schade's, seems to be having problems accepting comments lately.

I suspect Peacebang's remark reflects a misperception about Universalism. My understanding is that the Universalists spent a good part of the 19th century debating and refining the doctrine of "the certainty of just retribution for sin". The phrase appears in several of their professions of faith. I think it's a popular misunderstanding that Universalists believed you could live a sinful life with impunity, and that everybody gets issued the same "get into Heaven free" ticket upon death's door.

Critics of Universalism loved to level this charge against it (and still do), arguing that such a doctrine can carry no moral force. But the Universalist Church did not actually teach "get into Heaven free", or what Dietrich Bonhoeffer would later call "cheap grace". Rather, they taught a variation on the ancient doctrine of apocatastasis, in which salvation is an ongoing process within which death is only an unremarkable stone in the road, and according to which the final reconciliation of the last rebellious soul, Satan, will not be achieved until some distant time in the far-off future. In the meantime, if you die with sins on your account and without repentance, there must be some kind of purgative and restorative process that would have to occur after your death before St. Peter would be allowed to fling wide the Pearly Gates for you, and it may not be especially pleasant to endure.

At least that's my understanding, although I may not have it quite right since I come from the Unitarian side of the house myself. This could be another question for... The Boy in the Bands!

More on liberal prophecy

From Reuters, via

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Is the Bible antithetical to "prophecy"?

The Rev. Mr. Schade has a probing discussion going on over on Prophet Motive, his blog, exploring the differences between quietist, politically idolatrous, and truly "prophetic" churches.

Well, actually it's more like a monologue, because his "post a comment" feature seems to be disabled. But other bloggers are responding to his ideas on their own pages, so it's becoming a lively discussion anyway.

And I thought I'd respond here to one of his points. He notes that “Amy Sullivan, … an editor of Washington Monthly, … has been on a tear lately about the need for the Religious Left to get its act together,” and cites a recent incident where liberal clergy protested some of Bush’s tax initiatives by invoking the story of the rich man and Lazarus. He then advances the notion that religious liberals who want to forge a new “Religious Left” prophetic movement, and who would use Biblical language in this manner to lend emphasis to their liberal political witness, are falling into a trap.

I think he’s wrong about that.

The very idea of “prophecy” is Biblical. It has no real meaning except in a Biblical context, as a continuation of the Biblical call for justice. Without the Biblical context, you may still have advocacy, or agitation, or instigation, or protest, but you do not legitimately have “prophecy”; you cannot be prophetic without using the Bible as your basic frame of reference. To invoke Biblical language and cite Bible verses properly is not to indulge in false book-idolatry; it is to draw validly on one of the greatest moral witnesses of our cultural heritage.

More concretely, if a newly invigorated “Religious Left” is going to coalesce into a new prophetic movement, and if UUs want to participate in it, it is going to have to draw from a far broader religious base than just our tiny denomination. Most of the participants, in fact, will not be UUs but Christians and Jews, for whom Holy Scripture forms the foundation of their religious understanding and expression. Most of the members of any effective liberal prophetic coalition may not require the prophetic voice to be justified with prooftexts, but if it can’t be shown to be broadly consistent with the great moral voice of Scripture, its religious validity will be suspect, and its prophetic effectiveness will be hobbled.

The same holds for most of the audience such a movement would hope to reach and sway. To whom do we imagine we will prophesy, and what moral authority will they expect us to invoke?

(By the way, I have it on eyewitness authority that Charles Peters, founder of Washington Monthly, tried a few months ago at one of those inside-the-Beltway cocktail parties to recruit Bill Moyers, who is not only a journalist but also an ordained Southern Baptist minister, to lead a new "Religious Left" movement. It would appear that Amy Sullivan has picked up the torch.)

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Morning Paper Rants

1. This bankruptcy "reform" bill is an antidemocratic (small "d") shame and abomination. And those are strong words coming from me: in my day job, I'm a professional moneylender.

2. The New York Times this morning notes that the evidentiary noose is slowly tightening around the demonic Tom DeLay and his criminal scheme to corrupt the 2002 Texas state legislature election, which in turn resulted in the redrawing of Federal congressional districts and expanded DeLay's hold over his evil Congressional minions.

There. I feel better now.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Degrees of Separation

Fun quiz time! Who are these guys, and what coincidences link them all together? (PeaceBang already knows, or should.)

(Extra credit for correctly picking out the only Unitarian in the bunch.)