Tag Archive: Unitarian Universalist

Is Liberal Christianity the Answer for Disaffected Evangelicals?

slide into modernism

An increasing number of Evangelicals find themselves emotionally, theologically, and politically at odds with Evangelical Christianity. And it’s not just people in the pews either. Evangelical pastors, evangelists, missionaries, and college professors also find themselves in opposition to Evangelical beliefs and practice. Skewered by keepers of the book of life (discernment ministries and Fundamentalist zealots) as Christ-denying apostates who likely never were Christians, these servants of God find themselves increasingly attacked and discredited over their willingness to verbalize and share their doubts and questions about the “faith once delivered to the saints.” I know firsthand the savagery of those who believe God has called them to seek out disloyal Evangelicals. I know firsthand their attacks on your character and family. I know firsthand the lengths to which they will go to discredit your story — even saying that you were never a pastor and or your story is a complete fabrication. Yet, despite the increasing violence against doubters who dare to go public with their doubts, questioning congregants and clergymen continue to tell their stories.

Many of these doubters eventually turn to atheism or agnosticism. My journey from Evangelicalism to atheism was one of a slow slide down the proverbial slippery slope. (Please see the From Evangelicalism to Atheism series) I knew that Evangelicalism was a charade, a religious house built on a faulty foundation, but I desperately wanted to keep believing in Jesus. It was all I knew. So, for a time I tried to make intellectual peace with liberal Christianity, but in the end, I found its arguments intellectually lacking. From there, I thought, maybe Unitarian-Universalism (UU) is the answer. While I met a number of wonderful UU people, I came to the conclusion that UU was just a religion of sorts for atheists and agnostics; a religion for people who loved liturgy and spirituality, but rejected dogma. I found myself asking, why bother?

I have noticed in recent years that supposedly non-judgmental, loving liberal Christians have taken to attacking atheists, suggesting that atheists are no different from Fundamentalists who say that if you can find one error in the Bible then Christianity is false. Atheists are accused of attacking a straw man Christianity, instead of engaging “real” Christianity. While I certainly agree that some atheists are every bit as Fundamentalist as Christian zealots, most of them are not. In fact, many of the atheists I know, myself included, have given Christianity a fair shake. We have weighed Christianity — including its liberal flavor — in the balance and found it wanting.

Liberal Christians rightly condemn Evangelicals for their rigid literalism and commitment to Bible inerrancy. To liberals, only country hicks and intellectually challenged people believe the Bible is literally true, without error, and infallible in all that it teaches. Who in their right mind thinks the earth was created by the Christian God 6,024 years ago? Who in their right mind believes in Noah’s worldwide flood? Who in their right mind believes all those Old Testament stories are true? Who in their right mind believes Jesus actually worked all the miracles attributed to him in the Gospel? Who in their right mind believes in a literal Hell where non-Christians are tormented day and night forever? Who in their right mind believes that Jesus was the virgin-born son of God who came to earth to die for sinners and resurrected from the dead three days later? Uh, wait a minute Bruce, I agree with you on everything except what you said about Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection, liberal Christians say. Jesus is real! Jesus died for my sins! Jesus resurrected from the dead! Jesus promised me a home in Heaven when I die! (This is best said jumping up and down.) And therein is the fundamental problem I have with liberal Christianity. While the Evangelical holds on to rigid literalism and inerrancy, the liberal Christian jettisons virtually everything except the Jesus of the gospels. Liberal Christians believe most of the stories and teachings in the Bible are allegorical or metaphorical, yet when they read the Bible verses about Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection, all of a sudden they become rigid literalists and can be every bit as Fundamentalist as Evangelicals. All of a sudden, the words of the Bible matter and are to be taken literally, thus proving at some point along the inerrancy spectrum, Evangelicals and liberals alike believe these Bible verses really, really, I mean R-E-A-L-L-Y are true!

Over the past decade, I’ve engaged in heated discussions with countless Evangelical apologists. Years ago, these discussions (and personal attacks) became so emotionally draining that I quit blogging, vowing never to write again. Yet, months later I would arise from the ashes and try again. All told, I went through this process at least three times. Long-time readers sensed a pattern, knowing that, yes, Bruce will crash and burn, but eventually he will rise again from the dead. June 2014 was one of those times. I thought, at the time, I am really done with this! Time to move on! However, in December 2014, I opened up shop again, calling my venture The Life and Times of Bruce Gerencser. Come December, I will have been successfully open and serving up either bullshit or gourmet meals depending on your view of Evangelical Christianity, for five years. What changed? Why have I been able to keep writing week after week, year after year?

Four things stand out, and yes, I am going to bring this post back around to its subject.

First, I began seeing a secular counselor on a regular basis. He literally saved my life. I still see him every few weeks.

Second, I developed close relationships with a handful of readers who knew the warning signs of an impending Bruce crash and burn. They took on the burden of engaging Evangelicals in the comment section, and were willing to warn me when they saw me getting wound up and ready to explode.

Third, Loki brought a woman by the name of Carolyn into my life. When Carolyn first contacted me, she told that she loved my writing, but my grammar really needed some work. At first, I was offended, but I can tell you today, she was absolutely right. Carolyn not only edits my writing, but she has also become a dear friend. She knows me well enough to sense when I am deep in the valley of depression and despair, and sometimes all I need from her is a text that says, Are you okay? And, after 50 texts back and forth, I start feeling better! Don’t let anyone tell you that online friendships are of little value. I know better.

Fourth, I learned that it was okay to NOT engage Christian zealots in discussions; that my target audience was Christians who had doubts or questions about their faith or people who had already left Christianity. I decided to let Evangelical apologists have their say in the comment section and then send them packing. I wanted this blog to be a haven safe and free from Evangelical bullies and trolls — a la Jim Wright’s recent comments. All in all, I think I have succeeded.

Every year, scores of commenters end up banned from commenting. Banning works this way. Run afoul of the commenting guidelines or act like an asshole, and your commenting privileges are revoked. Come the start of each year, however, I clear the ban list, giving everyone banned a fresh start, an opportunity to show me and the readers of this blog that they can play well with others. Sadly, many un-banned commenters quickly find themselves banned again — thus proving that a leopard can’t change its spots.

What might be surprising to readers is this: only one commenter is permanently banned. Wow, she must have really been a Fundamentalist! Actually, she is a liberal Christian, one of the most irritating commenters I have ever known. Why, you ask, does she irritate me? When pressed on what it is that she actually believes, she always dodges my questions or attempts to muddy the waters. When asked to give me a list of what were her non-negotiable beliefs — silence. When asked to state her cardinal, must-believe theological beliefs — silence. When asked if she believed atheists such as myself go to Hell when they die — silence. I found her obfuscation to be akin to attempting to nail Jell-O to a wall. One time, we got into a discussion about her belief that God is Love. While certainly, the Bible teaches God is love, it also teaches that God is angry with the wicked every day, hates sinners, and can and does act in vindictive, capricious, violent ways. This woman wanted the God of love, but not the God of wrath. She made much of all the places in the Bible that spoke of God’s wonderful grace and love. I replied, “let’s talk about Genesis 6-9; you know Noah’s flood; you know where God killed every man, woman, child, infant, and unborn fetus save eight people. By all means, from this passage of Scripture, show me the God of Love.” Of course, she had no answer for me.

A lot of liberal Christians read this blog. They love my frontal assaults on Evangelical Christianity. They love my liberal politics and progressive social values. And I love them too. I am all for ANY religious belief — including worshipping Bruce Almighty — that moves people away from religious fundamentalism — especially Christian Fundamentalism. That said, I truly don’t understand, from a belief perspective, liberal Christians. What beliefs really matter? How can one dismiss, reinterpret, or spiritualize most of the Bible, yet believe in a literal born of a virgin, crucified, resurrected from the dead Jesus? How does someone determine what’s to be taken literal, and what’s not? Liberals accuse Evangelicals of having wooden literalism only when it suits them or when it validates their theology, but how is this any different from what Liberal Christians do? Isn’t this buffet approach to faith just a matter of degree? Why is it laughable when Evangelicals say they believe every word of the Bible, yet dismiss certain verses when it’s convenient or expedient to do so, but when Liberal Christians do the same, it’s somehow different? Different how? Aren’t both groups picking and choosing what it is they really believe and ignoring the rest?

I also wonder if Liberal Christians are, deep-down in their heart-of-hearts, universalists; people of faith who believe all roads lead to Heaven. If this is so, then why try to rescue disaffected Evangelicals from the jaws of atheism and agnosticism? Shouldn’t freeing people from the Evangelical cult be all that matters? If there’s no Hell, no final judgment, no accounts to be settled between God and man, why bother? Or at the very least, why not just admit that you go to church for social and cultural reasons, and your faith gives you a sense of purpose and meaning? You see, I suspect there are more than a few atheists and agnostics hiding in plain sight in liberal Christian churches. I also suspect that a number of liberal Christians are closer theologically to their Evangelical brethren than they are willing to publicly admit; that in the end Christians are going to win the grand prize of eternal life, and atheists are going to be annihilated by God, snuffed out of existence for all eternity — as if somehow that’s loving.

Liberal Christianity remains a conundrum to me. I have asked before for Liberal Christians to explain to me their view of the Bible and how and why they determine which parts of the Bible to believe and which parts, in Thomas Jefferson-style, to excise. So far, I have yet to hear a cogent explanation and defense of liberal Christianity. I can see its effect on the world through its good works and love for others, but intellectually, at least for me, Liberal Christianity remains Jell-O nailed to a wall.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 62, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 41 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

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Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so.

Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

Wasted Years, Oh How Foolish . . .

all about jesus

Evangelicals would have non-Christians believe that life without Jesus is empty, worthless, and without meaning. A popular song years ago was Wasted Years by Wally Fowler. Below you will find the lyrics and two music videos: one by the Blue Ridge Quartet and another — quite masturbatory — rendition by Jimmy Swaggart.

Chorus:

Wasted years, wasted years
Oh, how foolish
As you walk on in darkness and fear
Turn around, turn around
God is calling
He’s calling you
From a life of wasted years

Have you wandered along
On life’s pathway
Have you lived without love
A life of tears
Have you searched for that
Great hidden meaning
Or is your life
Filled with long wasted years

Search for wisdom and seek
Understanding
There is One who always cares
And understands
Give it up, give it up
The load you’re bearing
You can’t go on
With a life of wasted years

Video Link

Video Link

In the eyes of Evangelicals, non-Christians live lives of wasted years; years that could be spent  worshiping Jesus, praising Jesus, singing songs to Jesus, bowing in fealty and devotion to Jesus, giving money to Jesus, winning souls for Jesus, and doing good works — drum roll please — for the man,  the myth, the legend, the one and only King of Kings, Lord of Lords, giver of life and death, the one true God, Jesus H. Christ. What a life, right? Die to self. Sacrifice your life, ambition, wants, desires, and dreams, giving them all to Jesus. Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. Everything in this life and the life to come is about Jesus. This, according to Evangelicals, is a life of meaning, purpose, and direction. This is a life focused on what matters: meeting Jesus face to face in the sweet by and by. Everything pales — including families, careers, houses, and lands — when compared to Jesus. To Evangelicals, Jesus is their BFF; their lover; their confidante; their therapist; their physician; and their spouse. He is their e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g.

Everything I mentioned in the previous paragraph can be found in the Bible. With their lips, Evangelicals say these things are true, but how they live their day-to-day lives suggests that their lives are every bit as “wasted” as those of the unwashed, uncircumcised Philistines of the world. Evangelicals yearn for Christ-centered lives, but “life” tends to get in the way. They spend a few hours on Sundays (and maybe on Wednesday) having preachers tell them what life is all about, only to spend the rest of that week’s 168 hours living as if they didn’t hear a word their pastors said. And their pastors, by the way, do the same. Oh, they preach a good line, abusing congregants for not measuring up to the Biblical standard for a life of meaning, purpose, and direction. Do better, they tell believers; yet try as they might, those pastors — even with much grace and faith — fail.

It seems, then, at least to me, that a life of “wasted” years is the norm for believers and unbelievers alike; that life is only “wasted” when measured by the words of an ancient Bronze-age religious text. Perhaps what is really going on here is a long con. Most Evangelicals are born into Christianity. It’s the only religion they have ever known. From their days in the nursery forward, Evangelicals are taught that they are worthless, vile, broken sinners in need of saving; that the only place salvation can be found is in the Christian church; that only through the merit and work of a God-man named Jesus — who is the second part of a triune deity — can humans be “saved”; that all other religions but Christianity are false and lead to an eternity of torture in a God-created Lake of Fire; that until you believe this message and put your faith and trust in Jesus Christ, your life is, to put it simply, a waste.

For those who have exited stage left from Christianity, it is not uncommon for them to look back on their past and ruefully say, what a waste. When I deconverted a decade ago, I struggled with the fact that I had wasted five decades of my life chasing after a lie. Just thinking about this would bring waves of self-judgment and depression. How could you have been so stupid, Bruce? How could you have been so blind? How could you inflict such harmful nonsense on your wife and children? How could you lead thousands of other people down a path that goes nowhere; that left them with lives they too wasted serving a mythical God?

There were times when I would dwell on these questions, bringing myself to tears. Finally, I realized that lamenting the past was going to psychologically destroy me. I sought out a professional secular counselor who helped me come to terms with my past. He wisely encouraged me to be honest with and embrace the past. My past, he told me, is very much a part of who I am. At the same time, he encouraged me to look to present and future and use my past to benefit others. Through writing, I am able to embrace my past for what it is and turn it into words that I hope are helpful to others. In many ways, I am still a pastor; a man who wants to help others. What’s changed is my message.

Let me be clear, what I lament about the past is the wasted time, not necessarily the experiences. I met a lot of wonderful people during my Christian days — and a lot of mean, nasty, judgmental, Jesus-loving sons-of-bitches too. I had many delightful experiences, including marrying my beautiful wife of forty years. It is important for me to make clear that my life as a Christian was not one long slog of drudgery. That said, I can’t help but regret the time wasted chasing after a myth. All I know to do now is take my past and use it to help others. If nothing else, let my life be a warning to others: Stop! Turn Around! Go the other way! If you must believe in God, then find a religion that affirms life and values the present and hopes for tomorrow. There are, even in Christianity, kinder, gentler expressions of faith. There are even sects such as the Unitarian Universalist church that embrace the humanist ideal. Once someone dares to see beyond the Evangelical con job, he or she will find endless possibilities. While I wish I had back a few of the years I wasted serving Jesus, I am grateful that I have time left to live a life worth living; a life focused on family, friends, and — dare I say it? — self.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so.

Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

Religious Naturalism by Robert Tucker

Sermon delivered by Robert Tucker at First Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Houston on August 13, 2017

Bob is a regular reader of The Life and Times of Bruce Gerencser. I found his sermon to be quite insightful, so I asked him if I could post it here. Bob graciously said, yes.

INTRODUCTION

Today I will be speaking about a form of theology called Religious Naturalism. Naturalism is understood very expansively—all our perceptions, language, and values, along with all inventions and mental constructions, plus human relationships. That is, naturalism is not only a tree, but also the poet and her poem about a tree, and the desk made from the tree, the quantum theoretical understandings of the subatomic particles of the tree, and the decay, disease and death of the tree. Religion is understood as a magnificent human invention within nature, embracing all our experiences of wonder and miracle, gratitude and compassion, joy and forgiveness, and the human ability to corrupt, pervert and destroy even human’s finest accomplishments. Naturalism believes there are no substantiated reasons to view as real anything independent of the natural order, including deities. However, naturalism understands religion to be a humanly-created mental and physical part of existence that, clustered along with language and music, make up the lavish outpouring of human creativity.

For our reading today, I am using selections from Albert Einstein. Einstein had much to say about religion both in strongly denying he was a believer and also in strongly opposing the dogmatism of the non-believer:

… I am, of course, and have always been an atheist. … It is always misleading to use anthropomorphic concepts in dealing with things outside the human sphere—childish analogies. We have to admire in humility the beautiful harmony of the structure of this world—as far as we can grasp it, and that is all.

I have repeatedly said that in my opinion the idea of a personal God is a childlike one, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth. I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being.

What separates me from most so-called atheists is a feeling of utter humility toward the unattainable secrets of the harmony of the cosmos.

Then there are the fanatical atheists whose intolerance is the same as that of the religious fanatics, and it springs from the same source . . . They are creatures who can’t hear the music of the spheres.

To a friend who asked if the rumor were true that Einstein had converted, Einstein wrote:

It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.

Next is a quote that I will repeat at the end of this sermon since it seems to incorporate the underlying dimension of Religious Naturalism.

The most beautiful and most profound experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the source of all true science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness.

It’s been a long time since I was an active, full-time, settled minister in a church, and I have lost touch with the individual stories of those who join liberal churches these days. Of course, there never was a cookie-cutter experience for all. Still, back when I was so involved, I found three types of experiences dominant:

  • First, there were those who found religion (usually Christianity, since Christianity is the main religion of culture in these parts) ineffective in helping in a time of extremity; for example, no promised easing of unceasing pain through prayer or Bible reading.
  • Another group came out of churches where there had been some financial or sexual misdeeds by a leader in the church. Disgust sent them looking.
  • But, by far, the largest group of new members came from individuals who just found their religious beliefs crashing when they bumped up against rational and scientific understandings of the world.

What is rational about a virgin conceiving by a divine spirit, about a dead person returning to life and, then, rising to heaven? And where is heaven anyway, when, in looking up, one can only see sky—sky almost back to the Big Bang, according to the Ultra Deep Field probing of the Hubble telescope? And if God is in heaven (as Jesus states in the Lord’s Prayer) and there is no heaven, only sky, then it is reasonable to assume that there is no God that can call heaven home. When confronted with the edifice of science and reason, many religious beliefs simply crack, crumble, and come tumbling down.

One thing I did notice though, was that, from whatever unwanted baggage people escaped, they were either uninterested in or unable to assemble a new belief system. They lived with denial, often tinged with regret, disgust or anger. For those who were, or are currently, in that situation, Religious Naturalism has the ability to delightfully bind two aspects of life—science and religion—that often get separated.

You have no doubt heard the comment made by last century’s humorist and actor Robert Benchley: “There are two kinds of people in the world. Those who divide everybody into two kinds of people, and those who don’t.” Religious Naturalism is a ‘non-divider.’ It favors connections among people and ideas, both/ands rather than either/ors. In other words, Religious Naturalism has a very high tolerance for ambiguity.

One sharp religious divide is found in those who believe in God and those who do not believe in God—theists and atheists to use official theological terms. Being a non-divider myself, I have never found the argument between God-believers and God-deniers enticing enough to spend time on the debate. As a consequence, I gladly moved into a theology where my atheism and my theism cohabit, although, to be perfectly honest, when I state my position to both well-dug-in theists and atheists, raised eyebrows along with looks of disapproval-to-incomprehension are the return I get. In fact, I hesitate to use the words theist and atheist because the words immediately classify, catalog and pigeon-hole.

One cannot live in this society and not be aware of the dogmatism inherent in the ‘Jesus is the only way’ crowd. It fills churches, publications and the airways. What is less obvious, but just as real, is the dogmatism in atheists, a reality to which Einstein, more than once, points. Dogmatism is dogmatism, under whatever label, and dogmatism is persona non grata in Religious Naturalism. Religious Naturalism acts as a prophylactic against the dogmatisms of doubt as well as the dogmatisms of credulity.

Now, people can be dogmatic if they want to be, that is their choice. However, it is when they clothe their certainties, either in the piety of belief or in the reductive certainty of science, that I find myself ready to move on. So, Religious Naturalism is welcome space to avoid the dogmatisms.

When I mention this aspect of my Religious Naturalism, my credibility with scientific atheists plummets, and theists, although at first pleased, are appalled when I explain myself. Still I persist.

I find another drawback in both believers and unbelievers’ positions in the way they flatten life. They suck out the wonder in the rich tapestry of beauty, love and delight, often reducing truth to that which is dogmatically correct or scientifically verifiable. They can’t, as Einstein put it, “hear the music of the spheres.” Again, Religious Naturalism allows one’s senses, mind and imagination to be immersed in delight.

Let me now piece together Religious Naturalism, a religion containing both no God and God. I will briefly develop this thought in two areas.

  • First, in our natural world, our observation of the wonders/miracles all around encourages us to see the extraordinary in the ordinary.
  • Second, coming to terms with the religious language we humans inherited, and now so-easily reject, can offer new ways of understanding and talking about our world.

PART ONE: Our Awesome Natural World

Religious Naturalism, viewing total reality in the natural world of which we are a part, encourages a particular way of looking at the world—finding the wonder and the miracles all around. In other words, if what we have is only this world, let’s delightfully make the most of it.

  • Today when you get into your car to return home, you will turn the key in the ignition and 180 horses will leap up ready to carry you swiftly, safely and comfortably to your destination, and the tires are so good you will not be carrying a tire repair kit, as we all once did. Wondrous!
  • Or, when home, you will turn on the light-switch and marvelous technology will wire you all the way back to extraction from the earth of coal and gas. Awesome!
  • Or, you will look up in the sky at sunset and find yourself transported by the beauty of the sun’s rays reflected on the clouds. Stunning!
  • Or, on reflection, you may find astonishment by the realization that family and friends put up with you and love you year after year, even at times when you know you were not all that lovable. Incredible!
  • Or, you may go to the symphony this afternoon and be stunned by the miraculous array of sixty professional musicians, each of whom is highly trained and each of whom has a different conviction about how the music of a particular piece ought to be played. Yet, each submits her-or-himself to the directions of a conductor—and you hear beautiful music rather than cacophony. Magnificent!

Religious Naturalism is religious in that, in one’s experiences, all the feelings associated with religion are generated this world—wonder and miracle, gratitude and compassion, joy and forgiveness. A way of labeling this is to use the humanly-created word ‘God,’ or better, C∞D. No person has written more pointedly of this aspect of Religious Naturalism than the English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning in her poem Aurora Leigh:

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries

Now, attentiveness can be found in each one of the world’s religions. In the Buddhist tradition, as you may know, it is called mindfulness—although I am reluctant to simply borrow that word from that tradition, knowing that mindfulness is differently understood from the way we use it in our culture. Still, being attentive to the world around and within is a key to living rather than a kind of sleepwalking through what is mistakenly perceived as ordinary days.

There is the story of a strung-out mid-careerist who futilely tried all the advertised offerings available for healing and decides as a final effort to visit the fabled guru in the mountains. After an arduous week-long journey the supplicant arrives, sits before the guru, and locks in eye-to-eye silence, for an irritatingly long time before the guru says, “Attention.” Again there is total silence. In that silence, increasing irritation scurries around the supplicant’s mind. About to give up and leave, the guru then says: “Attention, Attention,” and again goes silent. Now anger bubbles up that the person has been played for such a fool, and the suppliant rises to leave, but the raised hand of the guru stops him: “Attention. Attention. Attention.” The man stops in his rising, pauses, slowly sits, and in silence begins his return to the humanity he had lost.

Religious Naturalism does offer us a way to be aware of, as the writer D.H. Lawrence put it, ‘the wonder that bubbles into our souls,’ or, as Einstein stated, it allows us to listen to “the music of the spheres.” Religious Naturalism pushes us to see the wonder, the miraculous, the extraordinary in the ordinary world of our living.

PART TWO: Inherited Religious Language—Virgin Birth

A second area in which Religious Naturalism brings a gift is our ability to join scientific understandings and religious convictions by shedding our dismissive response to the twisted language we have from the past, anchoring some in teeth-clenching disgust.

Now, we have all learned that a lot of bad health habits and anti-social behavior stem from past childhood trauma — verbal, emotional, sexual, physical or a combination of these. Paralleling those is the vinegary religion many learned in their childhood churches. Dealing with the religious language that rolls around in our minds is important for our current religious health, and Religious Naturalism can provide help. Two such expressions that hang around in minds and in our society and continue to cause problems are ‘Virgin Birth’ and ‘Resurrection.’

With no supernatural, only the natural, we realize that all religious language, like virgin birth or resurrection, did not drop out of the sky. They, like all words, were created by humans, and are attached to human, non-supernatural experiences. And, they are words that were already in use in the culture prior to Jesus’ life, prior to the rise of Christianity. That does not mean the words are unimportant—after all, they contain human wisdom refined over the centuries, and they continue to provide inspiration and motivation for hundreds of millions. However, the literature shows that the ancients did not have the problem with virgin birth and resurrection that we seem to have, and it is not because they were more prone to superstition than we are today.

Of course, people in ancient days knew how babies came about, but still virgin birth posed no problem—because, in ancient days, virgin birth, primarily, was related to genius, not to conception.

In the ancient world there were two other very prominent humans who were held to be miraculously born besides Jesus: Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. What do those three humans—Alexander, Caesar and Jesus—have in common? They were individuals of such inner strength and outer power that people could not come up with a human explanation for such greatness. (We seem to have the same problem of explanation today; we don’t know how to explain the origin of genius.) The Virgin Birth of Jesus was a way of talking about the baffling, the perplexing, the mystifying, the unexplainable, the inexplicable genius of a rare individual, Jesus of Nazareth—a peasant from the backwaters of the Roman Empire who, unlike Alexander or Caesar, never led an army or ruled an empire, but who roamed the countryside for one-to-three years and was brutally killed as a criminal. Yet, he was a person whose after-death presence in people’s minds and lives continued to motivate people to reach out in compassion to the stranger and even to one’s enemy. The power of Empire could not shake off the growing influence of this individual.

If the words ‘Virgin Birth’ were used today, in the same way as they were in ancient days, we could say that Mozart was virgin born (what was the source of that incredible musical talent?), Einstein was virgin born (how could his mind roam over the entire universe in such counter-intuitive ways), and Martin Luther King, Jr., was virgin born (how could a young, newly-minted preacher in, of all places, Montgomery, Alabama, shift the focus of a whole nation?). Now, we don’t say virgin birth about these individuals, because that is not the way we use that metaphor today; however, like the ancients, we continue to stand in awe and incomprehension of the source of genius—but lack a descriptive word.

If today I said that I know a very important person who has an ego as big as an elephant, everyone would know of whom I am speaking; however, no one here would rise and run over to the nearby zoo to measure the size of an elephant. In the first century world, virgin birth was used the same way as the use of the image of an elephant. ‘Virgin Birth’ is a metaphor that was rooted in divinity because the reference to divinity was the only way to explain human genius.

Personally, I do not verbally use ‘Virgin Birth,’ but I sometimes keep the concept behind the words in mind, to remind myself of the unique and miraculous quality of each human life.

PART TWO: Inherited Religious Language—Resurrection

A second problematic religious expression is the word ‘resurrection,’ pointing to the physical coming to life of Jesus’ dead body. Once again, humans created this word; it did not drop out of the sky, and, it referred to a this-worldly human experience. Once again, it was in use in the ancient world before Christians came along.

 Justin Martyr, c. 100-165, a Christian theologian who lived a hundred years after Jesus and Paul, argued: “when we say … Jesus Christ, our teacher, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven, we propose nothing different from what you believe regarding those whom you consider sons of Zeus.” (1 Apology. 21)

My understanding of resurrection has been greatly influenced by the German New Testament scholar Rudolph Bultmann, 1884-1976. He placed the resurrection in a context of a ‘natural’ non-supernatural understanding. Jesus lived, Jesus died, and Jesus rose again in the hearts and minds of his followers.

This insight leads me down two paths of understanding. First, there is the frequency of resurrections in our corporate life.

Today and the rest of this week, just down the road from Houston, in Memphis, Tennessee, there is a resurrection celebration taking place. It is called ‘Elvis Week’ at Graceland. Annually, some 40,000 people from all over the world drop in for a remembrance on the death of Elvis Presley. This week an additional 20,000 or so are expected because this year is the 40th anniversary of Elvis’ death. The planned activities are reminiscent of an Easter celebration in a Christian church:

  • Lots and lots of Elvis’ music will be played and performed (as is the music of J.S. Bach in churches).
  • Stories of Elvis will be told and retold, most of which have been told repeatedly before (akin to the retelling of scripture).
  • On Tuesday night, a Candlelight Vigil will take place at the front gate of Graceland. With candles lit, the gates will open and the faithful will walk the path to Elvis’ burial site for veneration and then walk out (he lives).

Since the word ‘resurrection’ was formulated and used within our natural world, the word can also be used for a number of events of significant remembrance: our national holidays remembering those who died in this country’s wars, and the extraordinary life and too early death of Martin Luther King, Jr., remembered in February, being just two.

There is a second path to which Bultmann’s understanding of resurrection leads me. It becomes a way of talking about renewed human life—the lives that we lead following one or more of the multiple deaths we experience in this world. Let me note some of them:

  • individuals who have been physically and sexually abused—in childhood or as adults—men as well as women
  • those to whom the word cancer has been spoken
  • the reality for one whose child has died
  • the end of a marriage, the termination of a job, or the end of a dream
  • when self­-loathing follows our disloyalty to a friend
  • the times we betray our own values, shortcut our own ethics or cut corners with our own consciences

I truly believe that each of us, deep down, is wounded by other people, by organizations, or by ourselves, and, I believe, we carry with us those wounds and the subsequent deaths we endure throughout our lives. The truth of this is in how quickly we can be ‘rubber­-banded’ back into the emotions of earlier experiences when those remembered moments wash over us.

Yet, here we are today. We have risen from bed and placed one foot in front of the other in an affirmation of life. We are resurrected people. Resurrection is not about dead bodies coming to life or a future hope. ‘Resurrection’ is the word the ancients gave to life-affirmation in the face of our multiple deaths. Following such deaths, we move on and become centers of energy for the human future. How do we talk about such affirmation of life in the midst of death? We have the word ‘resurrection.’

As a minister I am the repository of people’s stories—stories of joy, but also stories of pain and grief, hurt and betrayal, dashed dreams and violated ideals. These stories leave me, at times, with great anger over the hurt done to people. Yet, that has never led me to become despondent or cynical. In asking why, I think it is because I stand in awe, in absolute amazement, at the way people pick up the pieces of their lives and move on, at the way they rebuild their shattered selves and, more often than I would believe possible, at the way they then reach out and become healers of others who have similar suffering. How can I feel depressed when I experience the amazing tenacity of the human spirit to embrace pain and death and to affirm life?

PART THREE: Unexplained, Non-rational and Exotic Experiences

A third area in which Religious Naturalism brings a gift is our ability to encompass the many things that happen in our world that defy easy explanation or any explanation at all. Experiences that are not common for everyone, or are differently nuanced for different people can make normal scientific or rational understanding tenuous-to-impossible. Thus, it is easy to dismiss them.

On the other hand, for believers such events can be an automatic sign of divine action at work. Religious literature and private testimonials are replete with events attributed to God’s will.

For the Religious Naturalist neither interpretation is satisfactory. Attributing an event to the supernatural is untenable, leading to automatic dismissal by scientists and rationalists. Yet, for individuals so impacted, such experiences are objectively real and often life-changing. If Religious Naturalism accepts nature (as broadly described early in this sermon) as reality, then the unexplained, the non-rational, the exotic, and the ecstatic of experiences need to find a place. There are enough unusual experiences had by rational people that they need consideration. I now mention three examples.

The first experience I want to cite is the religious conversion story of  Louis Zamperini, found in both the book and the movie titled Unbroken and that of John Newton and William Wilberforce. Unbroken was one of the longest-running New York Times bestsellers of all time, spending more than four years on the Times list.

In boyhood, Louis Zamperini had been a cunning and incorrigible delinquent, breaking into houses, brawling, and fleeing his home to ride the rails. As a teenager, he channeled his defiance into running, discovering a prodigious talent that carried him to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. In 1943, as a plane’s bombardier, he crashed in the Pacific Ocean and pulled himself aboard a lifeboat. Zamperini spent almost seven weeks (47 days) in 1943 adrift on a raft, a speck of suffering in the vast sun-drenched Pacific. He was finally captured by the Japanese and placed in a series of POW camps. There he was savagely tormented and beaten by one Japanese officer. He endured. After the war, he married and lived a dissolute life of alcoholism and adultery, using both to stave off nightmares and flashbacks. At the behest of his wife he went to a Billy Graham revival in Los Angeles. There he was converted, gave up the dissolute life and, then, incredibly, following the words of Jesus, he went to Japan to forgive the soldier(s) that had so tormented him.

It is an incredible story, although my preference would have been for his conversion not to have taken place at a Billy Graham revival. That revival, that conversion radically changed his life. I cannot simply explain away or dismiss his conversion though psychological analysis, as I would have at an earlier point in my life, nor can I attribute a divine action to his conversion, as I never would have at an earlier time of my life. I am faced with the question of how to incorporate his human experience into my Religious Naturalist theology, his real conversion and his desire to meet and forgive his captors. If one is a Religious Naturalist, then one has to take seriously human experience, even when it does not fit into the neat boxes of believability that our rational minds create for ourselves.

I again reach into history for the story of John Newton, the son of the captain of an English slave ship who followed his father into that occupation. By his own accounting, he was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Africans on the passage to the Americas. However, in the middle of life, Newton experienced a religious conversion (and wrote the hymn, Amazing Grace). He devoted the balance of his life to the abolition movement. His life intersected with that of William Wilberforce, whom he, at several critical junctures, provided with the encouragement and inspiration to continue the fight for abolition in Parliament. Wilberforce, himself, experienced a religious conversion in his mid-20’s. During his nearly three decades in Parliament, he is best remembered as the person most responsible for the slave trade being outlawed in the British Empire in 1807 (which proved to be the beginning of the end for legalized slavery throughout the world).

I am not a believer in a supernatural power causing conversions. Yet, I marvel at the power of such conversions to shape individual lives and, then, at how some of those lives have a profound effect on society. And, I find the quick dismissals of the testimonies of those who have such experiences by the rationalists and scientists too dogmatic. There is a difference between one’s experience and one’s interpretation of the experience.

Let me raise one final human experience that tests both easy rational dismissal and easy supernatural explanation—Near Death Experiences (NDE). An early report of a NDE came from Plato, in the “Republic.” Plato recounts the story of Er, a soldier who awoke after being dead for 12 days, sharing his account of the journey to the afterlife. Based on a real event or not, today such experiences are the object of numerous studies, including The Immortality Project, a $5.1 million research project funded by the John Templeton Foundation. What follows is the report of a woman who had a NDE this summer.

I was asked, ‘Do you want to continue this life, or die?’ I thought, ‘What’s death?’ The Light began to show me. I knew without a doubt that death was not an ending, but a wonderful opening to my real life. I would be more knowledgeable and live in unconditional completeness and love. I remember feeling almost unworthy of such an indescribable, unconditional love. I was in awe of how much love was enveloping me.

Now, I don’t believe Near Death Experiences are proof of anything supernatural. I am an ‘atheist’ in accepting people’s divine explanations of their experiences, yet I cannot totally dismiss NDEs out of hand, since they are real experiences of real people, and a great number of people. If I had to guess, I would say the NDE’s are the product of evolution, being the way our bodies face extinction. Yet … and yet, over the years I have had conversations with too many intelligent and rational individuals who have spoken of Near Death Experiences, not kooks creating something out of whole cloth. Some have quite significantly changed their lives because of the experience. How can I not take that seriously, even if I don’t always take people’s interpretations literally?

I also refuse to do a slight of hand and sneak divinity in by making the world God (pantheism), or proposing that God is in everything (panentheism), or by stating a derivation that God is in each human being.

One scholar, sociologist Peter Burger, came up with the intriguing phrase “signals of transcendence.” He says there are human experiences that point to, but do not prove, a transcendent element in our universe. He writes about what he calls ‘signals of transcendence” in modern society – little flashes in our lives which seem to point to a transcendent reality but which does not assure one that such a reality exists.

He takes one such signal to be a mother’s love for her child, and the words ‘everything is alright’ – he thinks this is a signal to a cosmic order where everything really is alright. ‘The parental role is not based on a loving lie. On the contrary, it is a witness to the ultimate truth of man’s situation in reality. In that case, it is perfectly possible to analyze religion as a cosmic projection of the child’s experience of the protective order of parental love. What is projected is, however, itself a reflection, an imitation, of ultimate reality.’

Living in the in-between, both-and world of seeing wonder but not automatically attributing that wonder to the supernatural is a place for the Religious Naturalist.

Such experiences are not a proof of other-worldly claims, but they are a reminder that we live in a universe that is far more puzzling and unpredictable than our rational and scientific approach can comprehend. Such unpredictability can easily be found by standing on the shifting sands of reality while reading quantum physics.

As a Religious Naturalist, I take all human experience seriously, including the unexplained, the non-rational, and the exotic. Not everything, of course, but I listen carefully to the experiences that people relate and invest with conviction and transformation. Still, some line needs to be drawn between the bizarre, outlandish and wacky and the unusual—a line that defies definition. There is not time enough to list all the frauds surrounding us like a field of poison ivy.

Living in the world of the ordinary, we can find Miracles of the non-supernatural kind are all around us.

A FINAL WORD

Religious Naturalism combines naturalism—a worldview in which all our perceptions, language, and values are this-worldly, not other-worldly—and religion, our this-world experiences of wonder and miracle, gratitude and compassion, joy and, I would add, resurrection.

We have been oblivious to the freshness of each day, the wonder of everyday miracles, surprises in the wrappings of the ordinary. The conventional understanding of miracle is something that runs contrary to the rules of ordinary life. Religious Naturalism calls for a refocusing on the ordinary, day-to-day aspects and events of the world as the nurturance for life.

Virgin Birth and Resurrection are a part of our ordinary lives and are seen in the people who populate our lives. To to ordinary I would add the non-supernatural, but tantalizing, ‘Unexplained, Non-rational and Exotic Experiences’ that so many rational folk in this world claim to have.

I began with readings from Einstein. I do not know whether or not he would be comfortable with the field of Religious Naturalism. I do know that his words contain an embracing of both theism and atheism. Einstein in his words wraps science and religion together in the experience of wonder.

The most beautiful and most profound experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the source of all true science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness.