The Reverend Kathleen Damewood Korb
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples
THE CHALICE AND THE CROSS
I hoped to preach this sermon early enough so that it would deal with the subject before the yearly tensions begin to rise between those who cherish the traditional holidays and those who don’t understand why we celebrate them at all, but already I have heard some rumblings. It happens in the springtime, too, as Easter approaches. It is already past time, I fear, to look again at the relationship between our Unitarian Universalist faith and traditional Christianity. We’re not even allowed into the National or World Councils of churches because we’re not Christian enough, and yet here we are celebrating the two main Christian holidays. It is an issue that raises our emotions in many ways — emotions of anger, sadness, hostility and, for some, bewilderment. One that seems particularly difficult to deal with, because it has so much emotional content, is the perception that we tend to sneer at Christianity, to characterize it as irrational, primitive, mean-spirited, and unworthy of the loyalty of any thinking person. Indeed, it has been said that we show more respect to any other of the world religions than we do to our own tradition.
Did I say “our own tradition”? Yes, I did. Not only is it the religion from which many of us came, but it is the one from which our religion of Unitarian Universalism came, and the one that, whether we adhere to it or not, shapes the very society within which we live. It is also the religion that many of our fellow Unitarian Universalists still claim as their own. You could say, “If you can’t sneer at your own tradition, what tradition can you sneer at?” There is that, of course, and there is no question that our history and heritage began in the attempt to purify Christianity, to make it more rational, less magical, more internally consistent, more acceptable to a consciousness that is informed by scientific thought. It started, as all new movements do, as a criticism. It has become something much more than that, but the very fact that the criticism lingers is evidence that we are not that far from our roots — that we remain, however uncomfortable it may make us and also make traditional Christians, at least to some degree, in the tradition of Christianity.
Let me say right up front that I do not consider myself a Christian in any sense of the word that I can accept, and my definition is more broad than most. I consider a person a Christian if the story of Jesus, called the Christ and the Messiah, or simply teacher or prophet is the centerpiece of his or her religion. The person may or may not believe that Jesus was divine, was born of a virgin, was resurrected, or even actually lived, much less was crucified and rose on the third day. It is not necessary to believe in any of the established doctrines, any of the myths, any of the stories in any literal sense, to be a Christian. It is only necessary for some aspect of the story of Jesus to be the jumping off place for personal religious belief and practice.
This is not the case for me. I was not taught it as a child nor have I adopted it as an adult. When I was told the story of Jesus, it was not as being different in kind from other stories of gods and heroes. I did not go to church, nor did we practice any overtly religious rituals as a family. Nevertheless, we celebrated Christmas and Easter. It was our tradition, and they were not, for us, totally secular holidays. At Christmas we not only waited for Santa Claus, but talked about light in the midst of darkness, of the birth of hope and about peace and goodwill to all humankind, as well as the story of the Christ-child, and the love that is brought into the world in human incarnation. At Easter we got eggs and stuffed bunnies, but we also heard about rebirth and renewal and the possibility of joy coming in spite of despair — and the story, as well, of the crucifixion and the resurrection. We heard the stories of other world religions, too, but the Christian stories were the ones that shaped our year. It was our tradition.
So is it the tradition of Unitarian Universalism. We go to church (a Christian term) on Sunday, the Christian holy day, we have a typically Protestant church service, singing hymns to many of the same tunes and with many of the same words as are found in the Methodist hymnal, listening to a sermon and readings. We even use the same theological categories to discuss religious questions. But despite the significant percentage of our members worldwide who are Christian, I think that the Council of Churches is correct in the distinction that they make. Christianity is our tradition, but it is no longer our faith as a religious body.
When Christianity began it was a Jewish sect. The major conflict in the beginning, reflected over and over again in the writings of the New Testament, was whether it should remain that or whether it should become a new and separate religion. Probably its strength, and what enabled it to spread quickly throughout the western world, was that Paul recognized early on that it would have to separate itself and define itself as being something separate from Judaism, if it wished to grow and reach more people, to his mind, of course, enabling more people to be saved. Jesus clearly had no intention of leaving the faith into which he was born, and it was a difficult decision for the early church. Even after it was made and the religion was infused with influences from the various cultures to which it was spread, (including the notion of the trinity which Unitarian founders rejected) its Judaic roots remained clear. The Christian Bible includes the Old Testament as well as the new.
I think that it makes sense to consider the religion that we preach and practice to hold much the same relationship to Christianity that Christianity held to Judaism. It is not Christian, but is rather the child of Christianity. Just as in early Christianity nearly all of its believers were Jewish, so were nearly all of our founders Christian. The early Christians were, they felt, bringing good news to Jews about a development of their faith, but staying within Judaism. Unitarians and Universalists, with the influence of the Enlightenment, felt that they were doing much the same thing for Christianity. However, just as Christianity became a separate religion, so has Unitarian Universalism. It has developed beyond its beginnings in the effort to purify and rationalize its Christian faith into a new faith with a new basis of authority. Instead of the teachings of the Bible and the authority of the church, they look to the authority of experience, reason and critical thinking and dialogue, to a never-ending quest for truth, rather than to an acceptance of a truth that has been said to have been revealed for all time.
Given that position and that heritage, it is not at all to be wondered at that there are continuing tensions about our relationship both with Christianity in general and its specific manifestations in particular. Adding to that, except for those born in our tradition, of whom we have far too few, losing most of them as soon as they reach college age, we have the individual tensions which led our members to choose to become Unitarian Universalists rather than the traditional Christians that either their parents or our nearly exclusively Christian society influenced them toward. Even though many people now have had little formal religious training in their youth, the choice of Unitarian Universalism is not something you just drift into. It must be a choice over against even the most liberal mainline Christian denominations. This is true even for those who consider themselves Christian within our movement. Any choice implies the rejection of that which is not chosen, however friendly that rejection may be. Sometimes — often, since the choice of our faith is not one supported by society as a whole — the rejection is not friendly, and the articulation of the reasons for that rejection can seem bitter and judgmental. Sometimes they really are.
And some criticisms are wholly justified. We get so emotionally tied up in the ideas of being tolerant and accepting that we sometimes forget that there are valid criticisms to be made, and valid pain felt by those who are making them. No religion is good in all of its manifestations. We never criticize other world religions much, partly because we don’t know enough about them, and partly because we, in our sometimes negative experience, may imagine that anything must be better than Christianity, and also partly because of the romance of the foreign. Taoism, for instance, is deeply admired by many westerners, but its manifestations in China, which is the only place it ever existed even in partial practice until recent western sects were formed, are essentially a primitive animism and witchcraft. The philosophy of the Tao-te-ching is not a part of any religion that was practiced there, and its remnants of ritual are not admirable. Buddhism, too, has many unattractive branches. The Pure Land Buddhism of the Diamond Sutra, for example, is simply the eastern manifestation of salvation by belief — in their case belief in the Buddha rather than in Jesus — and the Tantric Buddhism of Tibet, once it is really investigated rather than merely admired for its art and elaborate ritual (and its very admirable leader, the Dalai Lama), has little to appeal to the thinking mind and much to alienate it. Consider, too, the example of the worship of the goddess Kali in Hinduism which produced a sect whose primary ritual included murder and theft, and show me then how much less attractive Christianity is.
There are, then, many factors that make this a continuing problem. This is neither the first church where I have heard feelings of concern about the disrespect accorded Christianity, nor the first time I have heard it here. At the same time, there is no question that in a culture in which one religion has shaped almost all of its moral and social discourse, that others must define themselves by describing not only what they are but what they are not, and why they have made the choices that they have made to become what they are. That will, by implication if not overtly, include criticism of the majority religion. Adding warmth to that criticism will be the negative experiences many people have had in the religion in which they were reared and the ideas they have rejected.
There is also the reality that we become most emotional and negative about the things that touch us most nearly. There is no fight more bitter than a family fight. Although I try to keep as balanced a perspective as possible, if you want to hear me get negative to the point of downright nastiness, just get me going on some of the aspects of Unitarian Universalism itself which I find embarrassing and demeaning. I can be much nicer about snake-handlers in Tennessee or people who want to teach creationism in the schools than I can about the people in our movement who insist that we teach that we can believe anything we want to, or that our religion is defined by the Association bylaws. All institutions have manifestations that can be criticized, and religious institutions, dealing with the matters of true importance to us, bring more emotional criticism than any other. Christianity, being our own tradition, is much more likely to engender a negative response than any alien faith. This is necessarily increased by the numbers of people of Jewish background who have found a home in our faith and whose relationship with traditional Christianity has been understandably more bitter than any other.