It’s been a long time since I waxed philosophical. I guess Spring brings it out of me.
First, before I get to the discussion, I want to repost the UU Principles, because I’m going to come back to them in a bit. If you don’t read them now, you might want to go back and read them after you read the rest.
There are seven principles which Unitarian Universalist congregations affirm and promote:
- The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
- Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
- Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
- A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
- The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
- 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.
Unitarian Universalism (UU) draws from many sources:
- Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
- Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
- Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
- Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
- Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.
- Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.
These principles and sources of faith are the backbone of our religious community.
Honestly, I don’t know why it took me so long to just say I was UU and get on with it.
Now, here’s what I experienced on Sunday:
I attended two services last Sunday. The first (to which we arrived late because it’s hard to drag small children out of warm beds at 8am) was held outdoors at the home of two of our members. It was cold (near freezing) but there was a bonfire and the sun was gloriously up in a clear, blue sky.
The service was led by both our current minister and our minister emeritus. There was an altar with a chalice which may or may not have stayed lit. The first part had to do with the darkness and light, with the spring and its relationship to our various religious sources. The second had to do with the renewal and rebirth that comes in Spring. An interesting parallel was drawn in the death of Jesus, the symbolic shutting out of the light into darkness (winter) and the subsequent ressurection (spring). This becomes important in the second service, but I’ll get there shortly.
There were additional rituals involved: In the first part, we each took a pen and paper and wrote down the things that weighted us down, and then tossed the paper in the fire to lift the weight of our own stones. You can probably guess what my paper said.
The second part involved taking a small bit of dirt and planting seeds in it, as a sign of renewal. (With my brown thumb these days, I have little hope that the plants will actually thrive, but it was a good thought at least.)
Many of the ancient gods and goddesses were thanked for bringing back the light and then we all went in, got warm and had breakfast.
In an hour and a half we were in the sanctuary, going through the usual rituals of service. Some of the traditions we keep each year (Easter bonnets, new clothes…) come from rites going back millenia.
Then there was the sermon. And in it I put together another piece of the puzzle that, for me, helps to explain what was being taught in 1BC and how it’s transmogrified over time to today’s view.
Rev. S. started the discussion by reading several passages from the bible: The passage about Peter and the denial, and about Judas and his suicide. And then, she moved on to Simon Paul and she shared that some believe he created Easter. That caught my attention.
I know that early Christian leaders often took existing “pagan” rituals and incorporated them as Christian holidays so that those who were not already Christian could relate in some way to the new faith. But somehow I had thought that Easter was somehow different. I don’t know why. The equinoxes certainly have their places in historic religions, though not as high on the list as the solstices. Still, with eggs and rabbits and chicks as universal symbols of Easter, it’s pretty obvious that the whole ancient fertility ritual was incorporated to make a connection to the ressurection of Jesus. I get that.
But what I hadn’t gotten until Sunday was that there was a question about the actual corporeal “rising of Christ” that makes Easter Sunday such a big deal. I didn’t realize how many Christians didn’t believe in the literalness of that event.
Ok, so for me (agnostic that I am), egg dyeing and chocolate are far more synonomous with Easter than anything to do with celebrating the rising of Jesus, but that’s because it’s another pagan ritual and, frankly, it’s fun. But I really hadn’t given it so much thought until this year.
Why is it the belief of so many that Jesus walked on earth again and why do people cling to this as a sign of hope in this sometimes bleak world? I just didn’t get it. Sure, there are ghosts. I do believe in that. But ghosts don’t come back in that traditional sense.
So… Here’s what I heard last Sunday.
What Jesus was teaching was mainly the same seven principles UUs believe. These concepts, presented at a time when Jews were kept under the thumbs of the Romans, were detrimental to the Roman priests because without the attention of the populace, their temples would fall and they would lose their hold on the people as a result (and all that nifty income in the form of tribute to the gods). No priest could safely preach that god could be found inside each person – there would be no reason to go to the temple and pay to be saved.
As I understand it, his basic teaching was that you could find the kingdom of heaven within yourself and to mistreat others was to mistreat yourself. People have misinterpreted what Jesus was saying: “If you believe what I believe, you’ll get there, too.” Instead they heard “Only through me.” Believe in Jesus and you’d be saved. It should have been “Believe in what Jesus is saying and you’ll save yourself.”
So, here we are, with the Romans seeing the following Jesus brought with him to Jerusalem for the Passover Seder, and they saw a threat to their cozy existence living off of believers of the gods.
Interestingly, earlier that week I watched a history channel program on “Machines of the Gods” which made the priest’s role that much clearer to me, so when I was listening to the sermon, I had these images of how the priests ensured people would come (and pay) to be protected.
The 13 desciples (including Judas, at least for a while) believed what Jesus did. Whether Judas did what he did because he stopped believing or believed so strongly that he was willing to martyr himself to forward the cause is really irrelevant. Peter stopped believing and was repentant after Jesus was gone, but only after denying he knew the man as predicted. Paul still believed but couldn’t figure out how Jesus’ death could be reconciled with the concepts Jesus taught.
And then, it struck Paul: He didn’t need the physical Jesus there in order to keep believing what he’d been taught. He still had faith in the teaching, though the teacher was gone.
How often do we hear that even though someone has died, that person is still with you?
Got me, hook, line and sinker. I got it.
And I find it terribly interesting that in the face of what Jesus was trying to teach, the medieval Christian priests took a page from the book the Romans wrote hundreds of years earlier, and suddenly people were paying them to be saved, only through miracles and by coming to the church to pray (and by renouncing everything else in the bargain).
So that leaves me with something else: I am donating money to my church because we do things and because upkeep is expensive. What I pay for in exchange is given in part to maintain the building, in part to pay my minister’s salary, in part for charity to other members (as needed), in part to build for activities we partake in as a group. I don’t pay because I fear that if I don’t, I won’t get to heaven.
For us it’s all about community and not about being saved. Perhaps that’s why we’re so much more interested in making sure our planet is protected. We aren’t all convinced that the place we’re going to is better than this one and that we need to be better about caring for ourselves and our future here, rather than treading water until we go to paradise.
Now I know not every Christian feels that way. I know plenty of people who listen to the message and don’t necessarily idolize or even deify the man. But I can’t help wondering what kind of people would pay so much to belong to a church and call themselves Christian, then turn around and throw in the trash bags full of perfectly good clothing and toys because, after all, they have no further use for the objects. (Collected the bags in my car, from a Curb Alert on Freecycle, because I couldn’t stand the thought that these things could go to a dump.)
Maybe if we spent a little less time thinking about where we’re going in the end, and spent a little more time thinking about where we are right now and what it’s going to be like in the coming years, we wouldn’t be pouring our money into a useless war that only benefits the very few with their money invested in oil.
After all, who would Jesus bomb?