Give Me That Old Time Religion (February 26, 2012)

posted Sep 3, 2009, 12:25 PM by Neal Jones   [ updated Apr 5, 2012, 7:58 PM ]

        In the Baptist church of my childhood, there was one reason to come to Sunday worship services and Sunday School classes and Wednesday night prayer meetings and a week of summer Bible School, and that was to be saved.  What did it mean to be saved?  It meant that you realized, not intellectually, but in your gut, that you were a hopeless sinner and that you deserved to burn in hell for eternity.  It meant that you realized that God was not only just but compassionate, for he had made a way for you to avoid the perpetual lake of fire, and that way was Jesus.  God loved you so much that he tortured and killed his own son instead of torturing and killing you.  As I say this as an adult, this strikes me as a sadistic case of child abuse, but at the time, I didn't see it that way.  Actually, it's a little more complicated than that.  You see, Jesus was God incarnate, so God was really killing himself on my behalf.  I know it gets confusing, but it all seemed to make sense to me back then and to my mother and my grandparents and everyone else in the congregation.  We just didn’t think about it.  Getting saved didn't involve thinking so much as feeling -- feeling guilty and scared and then feeling relief when you realize that you have a way out of your guilt and fear.  Getting saved was making a decision based on emotion … and self-interest.  Getting saved was about saving your own hide.  It was about purchasing fire insurance.

        I made that fateful decision, as did many Baptists back then and now, during a week of revival.  I did not hear anything from the revival preacher I had not heard before.  You have to realize that at a Baptist worship service, even at most Baptist funerals, it doesn't matter what the subject matter is, the conclusion of the service is always the same -- you should accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior.  Each service builds to an emotional crescendo that concludes with an invitation for you to walk down the center aisle and meet the preacher down front and tell him you want to be saved.  Since nearly every adult in the congregation was already saved, these weekly invitations exerted considerable peer pressure on boys and girls hitting puberty to be the next in line. 

        That emotional crescendo and that peer pressure hit the boiling point during the week of revival, which was usually held during the heat of summer, no doubt to provide a fresh reminder of the temperature of hell … as well as to boost the low attendance during the summer months.  The guest revival preacher would be a firebrand who had honed his best guilt-inducing sermons and who could deliver them with more volume than the home preacher.  To use UU parlance, he was not a "settled" minister.  He was unsettled, and he delivered sermons meant to unsettle you. 

        Now you may wonder why a wholesome, clean-cut boy who went to Sunday worship services and Sunday School classes and Wednesday night prayer meetings and a week of Bible School would become unsettled by a loud evangelist.  It was because I might have been able to convince my parents and grandparents and the preacher and the rest of the congregation that I was a good boy, but I couldn't fool God.  He kept his eye on me at all times.  He knew about the times I had lied to my parents.  He knew about the time I had stolen a set of vampire teeth from the Roses dime store.  He knew about the time I took a single cigarette from my father’s pack of cigarettes and smoked it in the woods.  Worst of all, he knew about the time I found the Playboy magazine in my father’s closet and got an eyeful.  That revival preacher was right.  I was a horrible sinner, and I did deserve to go to hell.  So on the concluding night of that week of revival sermons, while the congregation was singing “Just as I Am,” I walked down that center aisle and whispered into the preacher’s ear that I wanted to be saved.   Right there before God and my family and friends and the entire congregation, I made the decision to turn instead of burn. 

        I was 12-years-old when I made that fateful decision, but it didn't take.  The problem is that I couldn't turn off my inquisitive mind.  I read books and asked questions.  Once I remember asking our minister, "If Adam and Eve were the first and only human beings, and if Cain and Abel were their only children, where did Cain and Abel get their wives?"  For a split second, the minister looked like a deer in the headlights, and I could see that he had never asked himself that question.  But then he quickly gathered his composure, as we ministers are quick to do, and he intoned in his mortician voice, "Son, we are not to question the ways of the Lord.  Just have faith." 

        Just have faith.  Mark Twain said that "faith is believing what you know ain't so."  My problem was that I couldn't turn off my mind, and the problem got worse at Wake Forest University, where, like a sponge, I soaked up the varied perspectives of a liberal arts education.  Ironically, the problem got worse still at Southeastern Baptist Seminary, where I studied the Bible in the historical-critical method and came to see that it was a collection of myths written by ancient, pre-scientific people, not by God.  And I studied theology, ethics, church history, and other religions and came to see that there was an incredibly wide world of different conceptions of God and humanity and life that stretched beyond the narrow confines of my Baptist upbringing. 

        I got into trouble at my first two churches because I was eager to share what I had learned.  Neither congregation was Baptist, but both were Christian, and they wanted to hear the same Christian clichés and platitudes they had always heard.  It made me wonder then and now:  Why do churches send their clergy to seminary if they don't want to benefit from their ministers' education?  After striking out twice in two congregations in two different denominations, I decided I didn't want to risk three strikes.  I came to realize that most people go to church seeking comfort and security, not growth and transformation.  So I left the church and the ministry and went back to grad school, and my study of psychology transformed my theology.  I came to see that we create God in our image and that when we talk about God, we are really talking about ourselves.  Not coincidentally, I think, at the same time I enrolled in a doctoral program in psychology, I started attending a Unitarian Universalist congregation, which felt like a spiritual homecoming.  In that group of like-minded seekers, I was encouraged to keep my mind turned on, to keep asking questions, and to cherish my doubts, for questions and doubts are the engines that drive us to grow. 

        From the beginning, Unitarians have rejected the emotionalism and sentimentality of evangelical religion.  While the rest of the country was catching fire during the so-called Great Awakening of the early 18th century, Unitarians were dousing the revivalistic fires with the cool water of reason.  Said the Rev. Charles Chauncy, the influential minister of the First Church of Boston:  “The revivalist is one who mistakes the workings of his own passions for divine communications, and fancies himself immediately inspired by the spirit of God, when all the while, he is under no other influence than that of an overheated imagination.”  Unitarians then and now share those sentiments, which is why many of us left our evangelical traditions for Unitarian Universalism.  Our Unitarian ancestors rejected the Calvinist belief in original sin and the  depravity of human nature.  Human beings, they asserted, possess the faculty of reason, which gives us the dignity of children of God and the capacity for goodness, and with this faculty, we can eliminate the unworthy doctrines and superstitions of traditional Christianity and we can bring about the salvation of human character. 

        UUs have always championed reason, intelligence, skepticism, and education.  If Presbyterians are “God’s frozen chosen,” we are the godless frozen chosen.  We have always led with our heads.  Ours is a thinking religion.  The joke contains more than a grain of truth.  A Unitarian Universalist died, and in the afterlife he came to a crossroad with one sign pointing to heaven and one sign pointing to hell and another sign pointing to a discussion group about heaven and hell, and of course he chose that direction.  (In this life, I'm sure he attended the Forum in our round library each Sunday morning.)

        But I must tell you this morning, brothers and sisters, that after reveling in this most reasonable religion for the past 16 years, I have come to the conclusion that we UUs place too much faith in reason.  The older I get … and the longer I live in South Cackalacky … the more I am realizing that people are not all that reasonable.  From the Unitarian perspective, you would think that people are purely logical machines, who first think of some rational, worthwhile end and then calculate the means by which that end may be attained.  But the fact is that you and I are much more complicated than machines.  In addition to possessing the capacity for logic, we are also a mass of impulses, passions, desires, and emotions, most of which are not logical at all.  We educated types would know that if we listened to our education.  If we would listen to Darwin, who taught us that we carry within the marrow of our bones the genetic, animalistic inheritance of our evolutionary ancestors.  If we would listen to Freud, who taught us that our early childhood experiences continue to frame our reasons throughout our lives.  If we would listen to Nietzsche, who taught us that our morality is often merely a justification for self-interest.  If we would listen to Marx, who taught us that our socio-economic class interests frequently turn our reasons into rationalizations.  If we would listen to feminists and Black liberation theologians, who taught us that our gender and our race can also turn our reasons into rationalizations. 

        If we would read history, we would see that we religious and political liberals have placed too much faith in the power of reason.  The old Calvinists may have made too much of sin, but we liberals have made too little of it.  Because of our over-optimism in the power of reason, we have been overly optimistic about the perfectibility of human nature and about the inevitable progress of history.  The overly optimistic theology of Unitarianism, enunciated in the 19th century by James Freeman Clarke's “Five Points of the New Theology," sound downright naïve:  "We believe in the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the leadership of Jesus, salvation by character, and the progress of mankind onward and upward forever.”  If we would read history, we would see that Martin Luther King was closer to the truth when he observed, "Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable.  Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle."

        We religious and political liberals have failed to appreciate the tragedy and irony of history.  History is tragic because humanity's progress has always been trailed by shadows of destruction.  History is ironic because humanity's greatest achievements have sown the seeds of our greatest failures.  We have consistently put our faith in the reason of the "best and brightest," and they have consistently shown us that the brightest are not always the best stewards of reason.  I want to thank David Crockett for reminding me of that phrase this week.  The "best and brightest" was the moniker used to describe that well educated, intelligent, capable, and competent Kennedy administration.  There was George Bundy, the national security adviser, who, according to historian David Halberstam, was "a legend in his time at Groton, the brightest boy at Yale, and dean of Harvard College at a precocious age."  There was his deputy, Walt Rostow, who had "always been a prodigy, always the youngest to do something," whether at Yale, M.I.T., or as a Rhodes scholar.  There was Robert McNamara, the defense secretary, who was the youngest and highest paid Harvard Business School assistant professor of his era before making his mark as a World War II Army analyst, and, at age 44, became the first non-Ford to lead the Ford Motor Company.  Yet, despite their unquestionable talents and abilities, the best and brightest led this country into the unnecessary and immoral morass of Vietnam. 

        The best and brightest led us into the unnecessary and immoral morass of Iraq and Afghanistan, as well, convincing us that our very freedom and security were at stake, when now we can see clearly through the fog of war that our invasion and occupation are an empire's establishment of a foothold in distant oil fields.  The best and brightest convinced us that our very freedom and security required the internment of thousands of Japanese-American citizens.  The best and brightest convinced us to make the use of atomic weapons a first resort to end a war instead of a last resort after exhausting all attempts to offer a feasible surrender.              

        The best and brightest convinced us to remove the regulations which held the greed of Wall Street in check.  They used their intellect and education to invent derivatives and subprime mortgages, and they bundled mortgages and other loans and debts together as a clever method to make still more profits.  And in a stroke of immoral genius, they bet against the very financial products they were selling, so that no matter how much investors and home owners would lose, they would win.  The best and brightest brought about the collapse of our largest financial institutions and the most severe recession since the Great Depression, and after being bailed out by tax-payers, they walked away from it all with billions in bonuses. 

        Beware of the best and brightest!  They have led us astray time and time again with assurances of their intelligence and the reasonableness of their actions. 

        If we would read history, we would see that we religious and political liberals have placed too much faith in the power of reason.  If we would honestly examine our own lives, we would see that we have placed too much faith in our own reason.  How many times have you and I deluded ourselves into thinking that we were acting on behalf of others and not ourselves?  That we were being perfectly fair and objective and not being influenced at all by our own self-interests or the interests of our family or business or religion or nation or whatever group we identify with?  The old Calvinists called this all-too-human tendency original sin.  We sophisticates of today would call it "ego," but it’s the same all-too-human tendency to put ourselves first and foremost. 

        We liberals have made the mistake of thinking that reason is primary, but it is not.  The self is primary, and our reason is merely one part of ourselves which follows the aims of the self.  As long as the self is captured by the ego, our reason will create rationalizations to disguise our egotism with talk about religion and morality and concern for others and anything else that makes us sound better than we are.  Reading and discussion and education can change our minds without necessarily changing ourselves.  The evangelicals are right.  What is needed is a change of heart.  "Where your treasure is," said Jesus, "there will your heart be also."  And where your heart is, there will be your reason and your reasons, as well.  Our minds follow the aims and principles around which our personality is organized.  What is needed is a conversion, a turning away from egotistical goals toward priorities that are larger than ego.  What is needed is repentance, a regret that you have wasted your life pursuing the ego's agenda instead of living a life of mutuality and community. 

        What is needed is not the distance of reason to analyze things from afar, but what is needed is the decision of commitment to embrace fully and intimately ego-transcendent principles that give your life a new direction.  Because we UUs would rather have a discussion instead making a commitment, we tend to be dabblers and dilettantes.  We can appreciate the wisdom of all religions without committing ourselves to live by the truth of any of them.  We dabble in a little Buddhism here, a little humanism there, add a pinch of Judaism, a dash of Islam, and pour in swig of paganism.  It's a recipe for a sophisticated liberalism that understands everything but commits to nothing.

         What is needed is faith.  You may be surprised to hear me use that word because it has received such a bad reputation from evangelicals.  Faith doesn't have to be “believing something you know ain’t true.”  In fact, it's too bad that not only evangelical Christianity but Christianity in general have turned “faith” into a synonym for “belief.”  To have faith typically means to hold certain theological beliefs, propositions, and assertions, most of which are no longer intellectually tenable or morally acceptable.  Faith has become a head game, the object of one’s thoughts, a noun.  But the Biblical use of the word we have translated as “faith” is really more a verb.  Verbs show action and are in process.  The writer of the Biblical book of Hebrews defines faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  Faith involves not only one’s mind but one’s body, emotions, instincts, attitudes, imagination, and will – one’s total person – in commitment to something larger than oneself.  Faith is more belief in something or someone than belief about, and belief in something or someone moves us in a new direction. 

         Evangelicals talk about having faith in Jesus, by which they mean believing that he died for your sins so you don't have go to hell for your sins.  I prefer to understand faith in Jesus as living life as he lived -- with courage, compassion, integrity, and acceptance.  One of the reasons I chose to become a Unitarian is because I want to live my life according to our seven principles, which are listed on the back of our order of service.  I want to live a life that affirms…

·      The inherent worth and dignity of every person;

·      Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;

·      Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth;

·      A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;

·      The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process;

·      The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;

·      Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

If I would dare to put my faith in these values and commit myself to living these principles, I would be saved from my ego and live a life that is livable.

        Your intellect and your academic degrees cannot save you, brothers and sisters!  You and I don't need to be saved from the fires of hell after this life; we need to be saved from the hellish existence of an ego-centered life in the here and now.  We are saved by faith in something greater than ourselves.

                                                                                                                                              Rev. Dr. Neal R. Jones