Stand Up Stand Up for [the Humanist] Jesus
First Presbyterian Church
January 27, 2013
Don’t react violently against the one who is evil.
Give to the one who begs from you.
Love your enemies.
Don’t fret about your life.
Matthew 5:39-44, 6:25
One of my favorite stories is the story of the Sufi mystic, Rabi’a. She lived in Basra, Iraq in the 8th century. This following piece of wisdom is attributed to her:
I carry a torch in one handAnd a bucket of water in the other:With these things I am going to set fire to HeavenAnd put out the flames of HellSo that voyagers to God can rip the veilsAnd see the real goal.
Rabi’a understood a depth of truth that has often eluded religion: spiritual maturity is beyond reward and punishment. Spiritual depth and peace move outside of karma and outside of heaven and hell.
Rabi’a was saying you don’t get to God through that means of desire for reward or fear of punishment. There is no God at the end of that path. It is a useless striving. The God who dishes out punishments and rewards doesn’t exist.
Here is the scariest Christmas song ever.
You better watch out,You better not cry,You better not pout,I’m telling you why.Santa Claus is coming to town.He’s making a listHe’s checking it twiceHe’s going to find outWho’s naughty and nice,Santa Claus is coming to town.
I do know that Santa has been a tool in the disciplinary toolbox for exasperated parents. Threatening children with no presents from Santa unless they do your bidding is likely a less than admirable way to parent. We know that even if we have done it. It is shallow and demeaning and it teaches a twisted sense of ethics.
Yet apparently, we have no problem continuing that charade when it comes to religion. We see this in obvious examples of church signboards that threaten hell with every heat wave.
Think it is hot now? Hell’s hotter.
Ha. Ha. Yet there is a seriousness about that. As Pentecostal preacher, Carlton Pearson, discovered when he stopped preaching on hell and told people so, he lost his big church. If there is no hell, there is no motivation to show up on Sunday. Why sit through the hell of listening to sermons unless you are going to avoid some real hell later on?
Preachers may try to downplay hell and judgment, even heaven and reward, but when the chips are down, most of religious motivation is about reward and punishment. Carlton Pearson is doing fine by the way. He found another niche.
The point is that we think there must be some justice somewhere. Someone must be keeping a list. There must be a Divine Arbiter who can weigh every soul on the scale. If that is the case then we better do what we can whether it is faith or works so the scales will tip in our favor come judgment day.
Much of Christian theology, perhaps its main thrust has been about this. It is primarily about sin, judgment, and forgiveness. Islam and Judaism worry over the same things as do Hinduism and Buddhism. Different language and concepts between these philosophies but really they are all about doing whatever it takes either to secure favor with God in order to make heaven or to build good karma in order to get a better deal next time around.
Some might argue that I am not being fair. I am making a caricature. I am describing a simplistic notion of religion. Yes, religion is deeper than that. Even Presbyterians know that the story is bigger than reward and punishment. According to the first question of the Shorter Catechism:
Q. What is the chief end of man?A. Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.
The chief end, the key point, is relationship with God, not reward or punishment. That is true enough. Except the devil is in the details. How do you get to that state of enjoyment? There is a lot of paperwork in those theological confessions. There are commandments, theories of judgment, and beliefs and sacraments or means of grace. Why would you need grace unless there is judgment in the first place?
There is a lot of heaven and hell in the confessions.
The key here is that we cannot trust ourselves and we certainly cannot trust others to do good and to avoid the bad if there isn’t a firm structure of reward and punishment in place. Whether it is stated on a signboard or more discreetly implied, the system of reward and punishment is firmly entrenched in all forms of religion.
What do you do then with Sufi mystics like Rabi’a who want to destroy heaven and hell? What do you do with Kurt Vonnegut who writes:
“Being a Humanist means trying to behave decently without expectation of rewards or punishment after you are dead.”
Well, you regard these folks as eccentric and hope that God won’t judge them too severely. In the meantime, don’t give them pulpits or elect them to public office. Because as we hear often, “What we need in this country are more God fearers. We need people who fear God.”
I personally think we need more people like Rabi’a and Kurt Vonnegut. I think we need more courage and honesty in the face of fear and superstition. Rather than fear God or feel the need to please God, what if we focused on living life? What if we passed up the middleman and went for in the words of Rabi’a the eighth century Sufi mystic from Iraq, “the real goal.”
Her goal might be love. Love God for God’s own sake, not out of fear. The Shorter Catechism gets this too, “glorify God, and enjoy God.”
What might that mean?
For some of us, the word “God” is a barrier. I am not speaking for everyone and I am not suggesting that the word “God” should be a barrier. I am saying that for me, and I would guess that some others might resonate with this, that “God” is a barrier. For some of us, the word “God” and all of its associations is a barrier to “the real goal.” I am most certainly not insisting. Since this is the season of via creativa, I thought I would share ideas. I find that a term that works better for me than God is Life. Think of the way we use the word Life.
Life is what you make it.
Live your life.
Love your life.
It’s your life.
A marvelous book by Don Cupitt is called Life, Life. In this book he catalogues and comments on the phrases we use that contain the word “life.” Life, he suggests, is in common language replacing the word God. I play a game. Whenever I see the word God, I replace it with Life and see what happens. It isn’t always a fit, but many times it makes what is being said more grounded and real.
Hold onto that for a second. Life and God.
I want to talk about another phrase. Many people were not happy with the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible that came out in the early 1990s. Many of their favorite biblical passages were changed. The changes did not come, I don’t think, because the translators wanted to poke people in the eye with a poker. They were committed to accuracy as best as they could get to it. They were a committee.
The Twenty-third Psalm was changed. This was a tough one. It is especially a challenge for ministers at funerals. Should ministers stick with the good old version we know, or should they read from the New Revised Standard Version?
Here is the last line from the version with which most of us are familiar:
I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
When the translators looked at that psalm, they realized that “forever” was a mistranslation. It was Christian theologizing of a Jewish psalm. “Forever” sounds like heaven. But the actual words in Hebrew translate into the English as follows:
I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.
Literally it is my “length of days.”
That is a different meaning isn’t it? Rather than as a funeral psalm to live in the house of the Lord, or heaven for forever, it is about living this life in the house of the Lord. Living in the present with God. It is about living this life with God. Living life with a sense of the sacred. Living life aware that it is life!
I learned quickly that those who wanted the 23rd Psalm at a funeral for a loved one wanted the “forever” version. I complied of course. I am a minister, a priest. I am on your team.
But that phrase change, or actually, that phrase correction, gave me hope. Religion wasn’t essentially pie in the sky, (“your reward is in heaven”), it was really about, for those who were open to it, about living this life as if this life mattered.
Let’s go back to the first question in the Shorter Catechism, what is the chief end of man?
First, let us welcome the other half of the population.
Question: What is the chief end of man?
Answer: Why to be more inclusive, of course.
So, second question: What is the chief end of humankind?
Let’s answer it by substituting “Life” for “God” and “my whole life long” for “forever” and see what we get.
What is the chief end of humankind?The chief end of humankind is to glorify life and to enjoy life my whole life long.
That is a religion I can get into. Now help me, fellow travelers, to glorify and enjoy life as long as I have life. Help me glorify your life, and their life and the planet’s life. Let us put our love into this life and into the life and lives of all things.
How can we go about glorifying and enjoying life? One way is to explore the wisdom of our traditions. Jesus as a wisdom teacher, for example, can be an interesting guide. Rather than see Jesus as commanding us to do stuff in order to avoid punishment and receive reward, he offers his witticisms about life. He is reported to have said things like this:
Love your enemies.
That sounds pretty curious. Did he mean that? How would you go about it? Is loving enemies really wise? Could you love them all? Can you make policy on that? How would loving enemies help me glorify and enjoy life?
Give to everyone who begs from you.
Really? What would that look like? Does that not encourage idleness? Is he just talking about personal interactions? Could we take that and consider it in light of how we treat the poorest in society or in the world?
Don’t react violently to the one who is evil.
What if they start it? Isn’t the only way to stop evil people with guns is to give guns to good people? Is there a sharp division between good and evil? At what point do the good cross it? Is it possible to stop the spiral of violence or is that just wishful thinking? Isn’t life in the end, kill or be eaten?
Don’t fret about your life.
But I have many frets. There is a lot to fret about. How do I fret less?
The point of wisdom about life is not to obey this wisdom. There is no divine arbiter keeping track of how well we keep the commandments. They aren’t commandments. They are prods and pokes about the meaning of life.
The wisdom of life tradition is not about reward or punishment. It isn’t about justifying ourselves and judging others as to how well we think we obeyed. The point is to consider wisdom and to argue with it and to struggle with it.
When I call Jesus a humanist, I realize you can’t quite squeeze him into that modern tradition without leftover. That said, I think I can get a lot of mileage out of Jesus the humanist sage, when I approach him that way.
When the Jesus tradition or Christianity becomes less about rewards and punishments and in beliefs about God and more about living this life, it takes on a vibrancy for me. It becomes more challenging, more real, and more relevant.
For today, I cast my lot with Rabi’a the Iraqi Sufi mystic, who with her bucket of water quenches hell and with her torch burns heaven and invites us to live life for life’s sake.