©The Rev. Sarah C. Stewart
Nineteenth century Universalism and Unitarianism were home, for a while, to a minister with the wonderful name of Orestes Brownson. When Orestes was twenty-one years old and teaching school in Stillwater, New York, he left the strict Calvinist Presbyterian church of his childhood and converted to Universalism. Two years later he was ordained as a Universalist minister in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, and became a circuit riding preacher, periodical editor and political organizer in the northeast. Despite his conversion, Brownson continued to explore and wonder about religious truth. In 1830, having read the sermon “Likeness to God” by the founder of Unitarianism, William Ellery Channing, Brownson converted to Unitarianism. He continued his work for social change, especially working with the Workingman’s Party for justice for the working classes. He was caught up in the Transcendentalist movement which was a main thrust of Boston Unitarianism at the time. Brownson founded the Society for Christian Union and Progress in Boston in 1836, hoping that it would be a vehicle to “bring progressive religion to the working class (Robinson 224).”
Brownson served the Society and Unitarianism until 1844, when he entered another period of spiritual crisis. He could not understand how the conservative Whig party won the presidential election in 1840. Brownson needed his spirituality, and his beliefs, to serve the working class. He could see that his country, caught in a terrible economic depression, was doing nothing for working people. In 1844, Brownson converted to Catholicism. He remained an active political writer and organizer, and lived out his life as a Catholic layman.
For some of us, religion is something we got when we were children, by virtue of the practices in the family and the home we grew up in. We inhaled our religion as we inhaled our family’s culture. It became part of us, part of our essence as a person. We could no more be something other than Unitarian, Universalist, or Unitarian Universalist than we could have a different ethnic identity or love different comfort foods.
But for others of us, religion and faith are a journey we have been on for our entire lives. We started out somewhere, and we have journeyed to get where we are now. We may have journeyed from a strictly religious Christian home, and now find ourselves in a mystical, wondering place. Or we may have been on a journey from no religious identity at all, to finding our search for human meaning within this fellowship community. Religion is often discussed in the public sphere as if it is a final answer. Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism all make truth-claims about God and the proper way to worship that hedge out the others. We are right, each camp says; all other ways are wrong! You would think that if there were a supernatural force communicating to us the correct way to be in relationship with that which is beyond ourselves, that it would be able to get the message right the first time. You would think we would not have such diversity.
But if we look at religion not as something handed to us from on high, but as our attempts to understand those moments when human understanding transcends our everyday experiences, than it is only surprising that there are not more examples of religion than we already know. And, given what we know of human nature, it’s not surprising that when a group of people comes to share a new understanding of the nature of the divine, they tend to think that they have arrived at the one and only true answer. Moses meets the great I AM on top of Mt. Sinai; Jesus speaks in parables and acts through healing in Galilee; Mohammed receives a new revelation from the angel; Joseph Smith finds sacred tablets in his back yard. The communities that each of these men spoke to came to believe, over time, that their leaders had finally led them to The Truth.
Of course, spiritual truth does not stand still. Other people have mystical experiences, other leaders come forward with charisma and a path for their people. Both Islam and the Church of Latter Day Saints have become major religious forces in the world since the advent of Christianity. Faithful Christians might wish that their revelation was the last word on the subject of religion, but clearly it is not. And Islam and Mormonism will not remain, either. Revelation continues to capture the imaginations and devotions of human communities.
Unitarian Universalism comes out of the Protestant tradition, which places a high value on the individual’s experience of the divine. In mainline Protestant churches, it is expected that this experience will be informed by, and be in line with, Christian scripture and Christian tradition. In Unitarian Universalism, for a long while, it has been understood that understanding of the Spirit of Life and Love may take many forms. The first person to claim the name “Unitarian” for the new liberal movement in Congregational churches in the early 19th century, William Ellery Channing, was definitely Christian. But by the time of the Transcendental movement, Unitarian ministers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Parker were reading not only Christian and Jewish scripture, but also Hindu and Islamic holy books. They were exploring meaning found in the human spirit, and in the natural world.
We can see the crucial difference between traditional Protestantism and Unitarianism by comparing the five pillars of Calvinism to the “five points of the new theology.” John Calvin was a Reformation leader in 16th century Switzerland. He promoted a strict theology of preordained salvation and damnation. The five points of his theology are: total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints.
Total depravity means that Calvin and his followers believe that human beings are born into and live in a world of sin, utterly disconnected from God’s world of grace. Unconditional election and limited atonement are connected. Calvin believed that God decided at the beginning of time who among humans would be saved and who would be damned. Only a limited number would be saved, and nothing humans did could change who those people were. So some people will be “elected” to be saved regardless of what they do, and the rest of us only participate partially in Christ’s atonement of humankind. The knowledge of being saved comes upon people, and (Calvinists believe) transforms them utterly, so that even if they lived a sinful life before, they become holy afterward. Finally, the perseverance of the saints means that whoever is so called by saving grace shall remain one of the elect forever.
This theology was predominant in New England congregational churches in the 17th and 18th centuries. But by the beginning of the 19th century, some of the faithful began to have other ideas. The Universalists founded their churches in protest to the beliefs that people were utterly sinful and that some would go to heaven some to hell. They believed that everyone would go to heaven. Unitarians believed, too, that people were a mix of good and bad impulses, rather than being basically evil. They also believed that people had to use their reason and understanding to know what was good in the world. In 1886, when the American Unitarian Association had been in existence for about sixty years, James Freeman Clarke published his own answers to Calvin’s five pillars of theology. He called them the “Five Points of the New Theology,” and if you grew up in a Unitarian church, you may have learned them in Sunday school. They were: the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of Man, the leadership of Jesus, salvation by character, and the progress of humankind onward and upward forever (Robinson 235).
The fatherhood of God means that God relates to humans with both the love and chastisement of a parent. The brotherhood of Man means we’re all in this together. The leadership of Jesus builds on earlier Unitarian theology, affirming that Jesus’ value to humans comes through his teachings and example, not anything mystical that happened when he died. Salvation by character is the exact opposite of unconditional election. It means human beings become better in their spirits by becoming better people. Finally, the progress of humankind onward and upward forever meant that we could see the results of Jesus’ leadership and the improvement of our characters in human history. The basic categories are the same as in Calvinism. There are people, there is God, and Jesus, and we acknowledge that things on earth aren’t as great as they could be, and that humans turn to religious understanding to try to make things better.
The categories continued to change. By the time of the merger of the Unitarian and the Universalist churches in 1961, it was accepted that different people experienced the divine differently. Today, the “Who We Are” statement of this congregation says we are a community where “different beliefs come together in common covenant.” To me, this means that although we may believe different things, we all claim this shared community as our own. “We need not think alike to love alike.” We no longer all agree on God, or Jesus, or the need for salvation, or eternal progress. Our progress continues. We can’t, after the terrible wars of the twentieth century, think that humankind progresses onward and upward forever, even if we can see the huge strides forward we have taken. Our understanding of the sacred changes as human existence continues.
When I was in search for my first ministry position, the year before Starr King Fellowship called me as a minister, I had a telephone interview with a Christian Unitarian Universalist church. I was interested in the work because my family lives in that region of the country, and I thought I could serve a Christian congregation that was also Unitarian Universalist. They asked me about my theology. They said, “In your description of yourself, you say you currently identify as a Christian Unitarian Universalist. What does that mean? Why do you say ‘currently’?”
I told them: yes, my spirituality had brought me to a realization that I was going to find meaning and wrestle with questions of life in reference to the teachings of Jesus. But I said “currently,” I told them, because if it had been a journey to bring me where I was then, I had to be open to the possibility that the journey would continue. Just because I had come to the place where they were, did not mean I would stay there theologically. Just because they were one kind of Christian Unitarian Universalist church right then, did not mean they would always be that kind of a church. Change is always happening. It was not the right answer. I did not get another interview.
In the story we heard this morning, the young monk knows the teachings of his community inside and out. He knows that it is paramount to follow the rules. The older monk, on the other hand, has come to know that the ethic of compassion is more important than the letter of the law. Even within the same spiritual community, he has grown and changed and moved in his thinking. Spirituality is like an ocean we swim in without knowing it. It is all around us, waiting to show us moments of beauty, of right, of horror, of a world waiting to be made better. Our experiences shape us. Unexpected moments of grace touch our hearts. We are called to be open to change with a spirit of humility. We are called to stand by our beliefs with a spirit of strength. Balancing the two, we are called to be open to the beliefs of others, even when we disagree. We must always be ready to be touched by the wonder in the world, to have it break through our habits and expectations and truly amaze us.
Please join me in a time of reflection.
Here, in this space, I invite you to find your center and your inner spirit. Become aware of yourself, from the crown of your head to your feet on the floor. Feel your breath enter your body, enliven you, and flow out again. Become yourself, in this place, at this time.
Now let us reach out our spirits to all the human spirits around us. We connect to the spirits in this room, to all the people in this sanctuary, who sit and share a time of peace with us. We reach further, and connect to all the people in this fellowship community who cannot be with us this morning; and further still, to all in our communities of love and friendship. We reach out further yet, to all those in our communities whom we do not know, to the people of our country, to the people of our world, to living beings across the earth.
We ask one another for acceptance and grace. We ask for the room to change and grow, and for the stability to remain the same. We promise to hold our love wide to all who will enter into community with us. Our thoughts may differ, but our hearts are alike.
Clarke, James Freeman. “The Five Points of Calvinism and the Five Points of the New Theology.” Ed. Mercy Aiken. Tentmaker Ministries. Accessed 15 Oct. 2011.
Conover, Sarah, ed. Kindness: A Treasury of Buddhist Wisdom for Children and Parents. Boston: Skinner House Books, 2010.
Dabney, R. L. “The Five Points of Calvinism.” Ed. Phillip R. Johnson. The Hall of Church History. Ed. Phillip R. Johnson. 1-5. Accessed 7 Nov. 2011.
Robinson, David. The Unitarians and the Universalists. Denominations in America. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1985.
©The Rev. Sarah C. Stewart
At our house, we have an advent calendar with a felt scene of a barn, and characters from the nativity story of Jesus tucked into pockets above the days of December. The boys love taking the stuffed characters out of each day’s pocket and sticking them onto the scene of a barn set against green grass and a starry sky. My four-year-old likes to put the cows in the sky and laugh hysterically; my one-year-old likes to take the figures his brother has placed off the tableau and then hand them back to us for replacement.
Sadly, the cows in the sky are not the only unbelievable element. First, all the characters except one wise man are white. I’m glad there’s that one dark-skinned king in the picture, but I wish all the characters looked more like Middle Eastern and North African people.
Then there’s the event that is supposed to have brought Joseph and his very pregnant wife from their home in Nazareth, in the northern kingdom of Galilee, to Bethlehem, just south of Jerusalem in Judaea. This unlikely journey is some 90 miles, and is attributed to a universal census declared by Emperor Augustus of Rome (Lk. 2: 1-3). History records no such empire-wide census.
Angels are supposed to have appeared to shepherds in the hills outside Bethlehem and told them of the birth of the new baby who “is good news of great joy for all the people (v. 10).” We cannot call into question other people’s mystical experiences, but we can wonder how this appearance came to have the weight of history. These stories are recorded in Luke’s gospel. From the gospel of Matthew, we get the story of three astrologers from “the East,” probably Persia, who saw a special star which foretold the birth of a great king, and travel to Judaea to pay him homage.
The Bible is full of stories like this, stories which resonate with our emotions but are unlikely from an historical point of view. As religious liberals, many of whom celebrate Christmas, we may feel caught between enjoying traditions we have known since we were children and the demand from conservative corners of our culture that we take the stories literally. I certainly feel this way. I also feel a nagging suspicion that the true meaning of Jesus’ life and ministry is getting lost in the commercialism and culture wars of our modern Christmas. Decades after Jesus shared his ministry of healing and radical preaching, followers of his followers imagined he must have been born as befits a holy man and king of the time. The story we celebrate as Christmas today was added to the gospel stories some fifty years after Jesus’ death.
The gospel of Mark, the earliest of the four gospels telling the story of Jesus’ life, has a mystery at its center. Mark tends to be overshadowed by his flashier younger brothers, Matthew, Luke and John. Mark was written first, probably around the year 70 CE, either just before or just after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem that year. It does not include a nativity story or any appearance of the resurrected Jesus—Jesus’ disciples Mary and Salome, and his mother Mary, simply find the tomb empty, and a young man dressed in white tells them that “Jesus of Nazareth…has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples…that he is going ahead of you to Galilee (16: 6-7).” Despite the young man’s instructions, the women tell no one, because they were afraid.
Throughout Mark’s gospel, Jesus tries to keep the people he helps quiet about what he has done for them. In this gospel, Jesus’ miracles are mostly healing, casting out demons, and making sure people have enough food. One of the most fascinating things about Jesus’ ministry is that the demons—the forces that cause what we might today term mental illness—recognize Jesus for his true nature. Jesus goes to some lengths to silence these demons so they won’t tell what they know. Jesus attributes his good works to a merciful God, and tries not to take any of the credit himself.
The gospels of Matthew and Luke were probably written using Mark as a source, as well as a now-lost source of sayings called “Q,” after the German word for source, quelle. Mark does not contain the nativity or resurrection appearances, as I said, and also does not contain some of the later gospel’s narrative elements such as the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew and Luke were probably written around 80 CE.
Finally, the gospel of John was likely written between 90 and 100 CE. It is strikingly different from the other gospels and probably represents a completely different strand of the oral tradition that had grown up around Jesus’ life and ministry. It also does not have a nativity story, although it begins with a mystical hymn which connects Jesus to all thought, understanding and creation. The Jesus of John’s gospel gives long, mystical sermons in which he offers deliberately opaque descriptions of the kingdom of God.
Taken together, these four gospels paint a picture of a strange and powerful leader, learned in the Jewish scriptures, who believed that the world was about to change and that people needed to prepare themselves, morally or spiritually, for that change. He healed people, taught about what God desired from the faithful, and seems to have been by turns caring, angry, humble and confounding. He was charismatic enough that people left their paying jobs to follow him, despite the regular abuse he rained down on his disciples for not understanding what he was talking about. Even in the gospels, written by the followers of Jesus’ disciples, those disciples come off as dim-witted foils for Jesus’ teachings.
The healer Jesus who did not want the public to get the wrong idea about him is the Jesus presented in the story we heard from Mark this morning. Jesus has just helped a man to become free of the demons which tormented him, demons which caused him to howl and hit himself with stones, demons which made him unfit to socialize with other people. Although Jesus told the man to attribute his healing to God, the man goes on his way and tells everyone about Jesus of Nazareth. The result is that when Jesus arrives on the opposite shore of the Sea of Galilee, a crowd is already there waiting for him. They push in around him on all sides; he can barely move.
A leader of the local Jewish synagogue, Jairus, appeals to Jesus to heal his daughter, and Jesus struggles to make his way toward their house. He can’t get there in time; Jairus’s servants come running from his house to say Jesus is too late, and the little girl is already dead. Jesus tells Jairus not to worry. He finally manages to leave the crowd behind, and takes only a few of his disciples with him to Jairus’s house. Once there, he asks all the mourners to leave and goes into the child’s room with only her parents and his disciples. He determines that the girl is not dead but sleeping, and heals her so she rises from her sickbed and walks. Jesus orders those present to tell no one, and to give the girl some food.
Philip Pullman drew out this mystery in his recent novella The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. In this re-imagining of Jesus’ life, Mary gave birth to twins. One she and Joseph named Jesus, and the other they named Christ. Jesus grows up to be a preacher and community leader. He heals people and teaches radical communitarianism. He preaches that people should pay more attention to the needs of their neighbors and enemies than to their own. He preaches utter disregard for planning, and prudence, and social norms. When he tells his disciples, “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it,” you feel that Pullman’s Jesus really means it (Mk. 10:15). He doesn’t mean innocent or cute–he means completely unconcerned about the practicalities of life. He is a radical.
Christ, on the other hand, is consumed with planning for the future. He knows that he and Jesus are something special–Jesus heals people, and as children they could perform miracles. Yet Jesus refuses to use his power to awe the crowds. Christ begins to write down Jesus’ sermons and teachings, changing them occasionally to be better suited for the institution which is sure to follow in Jesus’ wake. Christ ends up playing the role of Judas, betraying his brother for what he sees as the greater good.
The story is an allegory, not too different from many other tongue-in-cheek retellings of Jesus’ story. (Although Pullman’s tone is not satirical; it is rather sad, as though he mourns the good Jesus’ message could have done in the world if it had not been corrupted.) Pullman imagines that there was something that accompanied Jesus from the very beginning, something within himself or within his close followers, which could not abide the message he preached. It was something that feared the kingdom of God which Jesus proclaimed, a kingdom where people treated even their enemies like brothers and sisters, and where people preferred simple togetherness and equality over stature and prominence in society.
Christmas gives us an opportunity beyond the historical truth of the story of Jesus’ birth. Pullman’s Jesus, alone in the Garden of Gethsemane, talks to a God who does not answer and imagines the kind of church which could carry on his message:
Lord, if I thought you were listening, I’d pray for this above all: that any church set up in your name should remain poor, and powerless, and modest. That it should wield no authority except that of love. That it should never cast anyone out. That it should own no property and make no laws. That it should not condemn, but only forgive. That it should not be like a palace with marble walls and polished floors, and guards standing at the door, but like a tree with its roots deep in the soil, that shelters every kind of bird and beast and gives blossom in the spring and shade in the hot sun and fruit in the season, and in time gives up its good sound wood for the carpenter; but that sheds many thousands of seeds so that new trees can grow in its place (237).
Beyond the flurry of buying presents and making sure all the cards get in the mail with the perfect family photo, Christmas is an opportunity to remember the core of Jesus’ message. Visit the imprisoned. Feed the hungry. Bring comfort to the sick. House the homeless. It is a reminder to bring our human institutions back to the work of increasing love and freedom in human lives.
Here at Starr King, we will celebrate the story of Christmas our own way this Friday–with a pageant that combines the story of Jesus’ birth with the births of all humanity’s Children of Wonder. With our pageant, we are creating our own traditions which our fellowship’s children will remember for years to come. We are reoriented back toward Jesus’ reminder to become like little children. On the holy night of light out of darkness, of freedom out of oppression, of the miracle of birth and hope even in times of empire and fear, let us not worry about the likelihood of angels and sudden stars. Help us let the spirit of Christmas into our hearts: a spirit of community, and love for all, and hope for the future.
Please join me in prayer.
Spirit of the waiting dark—the dark that cradles the unborn child, the spark of winter’s chill, the dark against which our candles burn—hold us in your comforting embrace. Remind us of the joys of your season: the giving of gifts to show our love, the lighting of candles in our windows and on our tables, the meal, however modest, which can always be shared with one more.
Help us cease our endless worry about our own future. Help us let go of our anxiety to do the right thing and help us act out of love for one another. Help us understand our own needs and the needs of others. Help us not cling to our possessions but give freely to others.
Spirit of birth and wonder, give us your blessings for the new year which is to come. At this moment of solstice, let us pause before we turn back towards the light, and revel in the mysteries of winter. Amen.
All Biblical quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version.
Pullman, Philip. The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 2010. iBooks. 17 Dec. 2010.