New Smyrna Beach, Florida
Must I accept all the creeds to claim the name Christian? Must I accept the inerrancy of the Biblical text in order to be a follower of Jesus? Must I believe as the most conservative Christians to claim the title of Christian? How dare I claim to be Christian, when I come from a church that allow me freedom in my beliefs! Is there no room for differences of understanding and belief? Is it an all or nothing situation?
Many of you have grown up in a Christian Church. A few have been Roman Catholic. A variety of Protestant denominations are represented among us. Any of us who have been thoughtful about our faith have struggled with our religious upbringing. We’ve grown and lived through life experiences that have raised doubts and questions for us. We have resolved some of those issues by rejecting Christianity completely or we have continued to search as our religious faith has taken on a new shape.
This morning I want to share my story of changing and evolving faith, in the hope that my sharing might strike a familiar chord in you as you continue to search for an authentic religious expression in your life.
I grew up in a Methodist family with a rather simple faith and belief system. Those were very uncritical years for me. I accepted what my church and my parents taught me. We really didn’t get into much doctrine, at least it didn’t seem that way at the time. Frankly I didn’t realize how subtle it can all be! The Methodists have no catechism. We had three creeds in our hymnal and I preferred one for its simplicity and didn’t pay much attention to the others. Actually I didn’t pay enough attention even to the one I liked. Some fundamental ideas slipped in to the words I often repeated and didn’t understand.
During these early years, as a teenager, I learned to admire Jesus for the things he taught and the way he lived. My red letter Bible was important to me because it was easy to find the words of Jesus. Little did I know that the annual pageantry around Christmas and Easter was having a profound impact on me that would later give rise to much confusion and many questions.
As I grew older I began to hear that Jesus had some special power that I knew I didn’t have. That didn’t make sense to me. If he was to be an example for me then it had to be possible for me to become like him. He was my ideal! Harry Emerson Fosdick, writing 90 years ago, had an answer for that. He said that God was in the man Jesus and seeks to be in each of us the same way. Now that began to make some sense to me.
By this time my thinking was being shaped by my studies of the sciences. My life and my thinking were of one piece. Religious belief and science of the real world had to fit together. If they didn’t then I had questions.
In my college years in Bible classes I heard nothing to contradict my simple belief, though I would guess that the questions were already forming in the dark recesses of my mind,. Even my first year in seminary, studying under Nels Ferre’ my faith was reinforced; simple, idealistic, uncomplicated. Dr. Ferre’ had a way of making Jesus very human, yet special. He had a problem with the embellishments added to the Biblical story by many who claimed to be scholars and theologians. Like a good Unitarian Universalist he believed strongly in the place of reason as a partner of faith.
As time went way I noticed that many people around me were making a lot of the Christmas story and the miraculous birth. It wasn’t long before I was made more aware of the Easter story and the stories of the empty tomb and the resurrection. Some how I had escaped the problems presented by these stories in my earlier years. These things were troubling to me even as I continued to stand in awe of the man Jesus.
My great awakening took a giant step forward in 1960, when it came to my examination for ordination when I was serving in the Reformed Church in America, (commonly known as the Dutch Reformed Church). One member of the examining committee asked me point blank, “Do you believe in the virgin birth of Jesus?” Suddenly my scientific learning collided with the theology of that Protestant denomination. I replied with a line of reasoning which I hoped he would accept. He came right back, asking, “Do you or don’t you believe in the virgin birth of Jesus?” I don’t know how I got out of that situation but he didn’t get from the answer he want – and, as a result, he was the only hold-out against me.
It wasn’t long after my ordination when I started to ask questions about the trinity I got all sorts of convoluted answers that didn’t make any sense to me and the answers made my Jesus a lot less human. Unitarianism was beginning to look good to me. I heard the hair-splitting arguments in support of these beliefs as other candidates tried to “jump through the hoops” to be ordained. Now I wonder how many in their heart of hearts really believed what they said. At this point I knew I wanted to leave the Dutch Church for those and other reasons. During those years (1962) oldest daughter (then a newborn) was to be baptized. Fortunately my senior minister did not use the required liturgy that would have said that our darling little Meg was a hopeless sinner until baptized. With that we took our first step toward Unitarianism. We moved to the much more liberal United Church of Christ.
Other Christian groups certainly are free to require creeds and catechism. I believe that most of the creeds and traditions of Christian churches are based in myth and oral traditions and have little basis in historical events. It seems to me that the best way for Christians is to learn from the parables, the Beatitudes and other teachings without being bound by the Apostle’s Creed! I don’t need to claim Jesus as my “personal Lord and Saviour.” I’ve been to the revivals. I was not moved by them then and I am not now.
I like what was said by UU minister, the Rev. Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley. She is no longer living but when she was living she led the way for UU Christians and former Christians when she said, Today, Jesus remains a central figure of my religious identity. And I don’t often call myself a Christian because there is no agreement on what the term Christian means, either within Unitarian Universalism or without…. There are conservative and liberal understandings of the Jesus story… and none of these has any exclusive claim on Jesus or those who seek to follow him.
The Rev. Bowens-Wheatley goes on to say, It’s most accurate to say that I am a nominal Christian who has also found truth and wisdom in pre-Christian and mystical religions, earth-centered spiritualities, religious humanism,…. and other theologies of liberation. I have embraced the spiritual practice of Tai Chi and the wisdom of Buddhist philosophy. I am a Unitarian Universalist because I do not exclude any particular theology. As the spiritual says, “there is ‘plenty of good room’ at the banquet table”.
I am embarrassed, even angered, by much that claims the name Christian – and yet I refuse to let those voices have the final word about the man of Nazareth. There are times when I feel pushed, like some of you, to reject Christianity all together. Yet there is power in the Jesus story, power that through the Hindu saint Mahatma Gandhi brought independence to India, power through Martin Luther King, Jr. that brought a revolution to the way Caucasians treat African-Americans and other minorities. The power of that One Solitary Life has brought liberation to those among us who are Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender or Queer. It is too easy to sweep the life and teachings of Jesus aside in a charge of heresy when his life has changed our world. We even try to number the years from his birth!
Who has the right to define what it means to be Christian? I am put off by what many insist is Christian – And I refuse to allow them to steal the name “Christian”.
As the Rev. Bowens-Wheatley has said, one can be enriched by being open to spiritual truth from whatever source while freely following Jesus. That is what it means to me to be a UU Christian. All or Nothing? No way! The Jesus of history. not of creed, is my ideal!