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Wednesday, July 10, 2002

Physical or spiritual resurrection.

Alexander S. wrote:

As the "empty tomb," initial disbelieve [sic] on the part of Jesus' followers, and Jesus subsequent showing himself to them were described as facts in the four Gospels, how can we assert that "resurrection has nothing to do with bodily resuscitation"?

Oh, such tricky business! There are many ways to approach this question. Here's where I'd start:

"Resurrection" and "bodily resuscitation" are not the same thing in the New Testament, although it is possible that they aren't strictly dissimilar. The story of Lazarus describes "bodily resuscitation," but one can argue that Paul, whose account of the resurrection is the earliest historical document about it, makes an important distinction between the physical revival of a dead body and the resurrection of Jesus.

1 Corinthians 15 is the place to look, and to look again. It's challenging stuff — but the key to the long tradition of interpreting the resurrection in non-physical (or at least more-than-physical) terms is here.

The chapter opens with a very short early confession "that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared . . . [to a long list of apostles concluding with Paul]." This is probably one of the earliest "accounts" of the resurrection, much earlier than any of the gospels.

Later in the chapter Paul addresses the question you raised, starting in verse 35: "But some one will ask, 'How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?'" and Paul replies with an agricultural metaphor:

What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body which is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body.

For not all flesh is alike, but there is one kind for men, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish . . .

So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.

It goes on from there, and gets even better — leading to the great passage Handel set to music, "The trumpet shall sound!" — but the key thing to notice is that Paul is emphasizing how the resurrected body is different from the physical body. It's not just "alive again"; something much more than resuscitation has occurred. It may be that Paul assumed that when the resurrected Christ appeared to him that he was encountering the transformed but nevertheless "resuscitated body" of Jesus of Nazareth. But he is clearly more interested in the meaning of the difference between the "physical man" and the "spiritual man" than in their continuities.

The first man [Adam] was from the earth, a man of dust," he writes; "the second man [Christ] is from heaven. . . . Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. I tell you this, brethren: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.

There's a lot of scholarship on this crucial chapter. Any reference library will have the Anchor Bible commentaries, and if you get really ambitious, there is no shortage of material to read.

I took an entire course on the resurrection from N.T. Wright, which led me to conclude that there is no possible way to say with certainty, "This happened, but that didn't." Those of us whose faith affirms the resurrection, but whose minds doubt that dead bodies get back up and walk away, have ample evidence which the New Testament doesn't really refute — but we have no proof. Those of us whose faith affirms the resurrection, and who believe that after our physical death "we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye," we stand in faith. But Paul is challenging us not to assume that resurrection describes something easy to understand. Try painting or depicting what Paul is describing. If it comes easily, read 1 Corinthians 15 again.

(Originally posted to UUCF-L)

Posted by Philocrites, July 10, 2002, at 10:45 AM | 0 comments

Monday, July 8, 2002

Revelation and relation.

I had written:

But my key point in bringing up the question of "revelation" is simply to point out that a religion needs a way of orienting or rooting its claims on people's loyalties, something on the order of "that's how it really is."

And Deborah Kate H. replied:

Now, I'm a relative newbie so I may find some serious disillusionment along the way here but I think we can and are thriving as we are, without a central agreed upon belief of "how it really is."

What unites us, it seems to me, is a fascination with dialogue and an attraction to the particular communities in the congregations we join. We like being with people who disagree, sometimes radically, about "how it really is." We like a liberal, critical, open-ended approach to religion, and I agree that this creates a lot of vitality in our movement. But that's also why we UUs each have our own personal "religions" — our own deep senses of what's real — rather than sharing a religion that can be described in rich general terms.

Deborah Kate added:

I know they think we're a club. I don't feel that way. I also don't have the energy, or tools, to try to convince them or make them see us as other than that.

When I lived in Utah in the early 1990s, a Unitarian friend of mine told me one day that she was perplexed by her Mormon co-workers who sometimes described "feeling the spirit." She couldn't begin to imagine what that feeling was. Since I had grown up in a Mormon family, I could remember similar experiences — so I told my friend that I thought they had learned from their religious tradition to see particular experiences in specifically religious ways. In my friend's case, these experiences might be a feeling of resolve after a period of uncertainty, or a sense of relief at being reunited with loved ones, or a feeling of wonder at seeing a herd of deer on a hillside.

In one way, these experiences could be described in essentially mundane or everday terms — but Mormons had also developed a way of sensing God through these experiences, and learned to talk about them and value them.

Unitarian Universalists, though, don't always recognize what other religious people are describing when they talk about their faith — and so we may know how to translate our experiences into secular terms, but not into terms that other church-goers would recognize. I think this is one reason why many Christians in the United States think of us as a club or a pseudo-religion: We don't know how to describe ourselves to them, and the secular vocabulary we're often more comfortable with doesn't translate back into traditional religious language very easily.

You're right to focus on the fact that you feel what happens in your congregation is more than a club. I believe that. One liberal theologian described "creativity" as the fundamental characteristic of nature, and identified "creative interchange" as the activity that characterizes God — and healthy human relationships. The richest truth that liberals experience in healthy communities is creative interchange in a pluralistic environment. We call it many things. Christians quote Jesus' statement that "where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them." I think they are pointing to something quite similar.

I don't think that the biggest problem among UUs is that we don't have religion; I think it's that we don't have adequate ways to notice what happens among us, or to distinguish differences between the ultimate commitments that characterize personal faith and the forms of allegiance that genuinely bind people together in a common cause.

Each of us, in our personal quest for truth and meaning, seeks to know the truth and to live with integrity. We are convinced that it is easier to seek these things in a community that supports individuality. We simply have a hard time identifying why our forms of liberal community are more religious than other communities that also support individual integrity — like educational institutions, self-help groups, literary clubs, etc.

I think we should continue doing what we do best — support the integrity of multiple individual paths — while also finding ways to speak coherently and theologically about what enables us to do what we do best. That's what I'm trying to find a way to do.

(Originally posted to UUBooks)

Posted by Philocrites, July 8, 2002, at 08:24 PM | 0 comments

Saturday, July 6, 2002

'Retrograde' theology?

Roger M. wrote:

Back to the idea of an evolutionary theology, UU-ism should take as its orthopraxis the idea of consensual creation of meaning and value over time, rather than on retrospective and retrograde references to Christianity, or humanism, for that matter.

There's no "either-or" here.

Any "consensual creation of meaning and value over time" that excludes history will fail in the long run. Evolution doesn't start from scratch. A consensus of contemporaries who choose to ignore their own historical traditions is not a creative evolution over time but a rejection of time. (As one branch of postmodernists would observe, it privileges "synchronic meaning" over "diachronic meaning.")

To notice that we are reshaping a tradition to meet the needs of our time is, in my view, a more sustainable approach than to try to create a new consensus without regard to the work done by our predecessors. People in the past are part of the human consensus, just as people in other cultures are; their experiences have something to offer; we are in dialogue with them as well as with our contemporaries.

It is deeply antihistorical to think that our work can ignore or dismiss Christianity or humanism. (As a student of literature, I can't begin to imagine reading without engaging these two potent traditions.) Evolutionary theology wants to know where we come from as well as where we are going. We need what the past has to offer, or we will have to invent for ourselves from scratch the entire human heritage in each generation. That's one of the key insights in Through the Rose Window. But arbitrarily excluding "retrograde references" sounds more like repression than evolution.

(Originally posted to UUBooks)

Posted by Philocrites, July 6, 2002, at 05:18 PM | 0 comments

Wednesday, July 3, 2002


Marcia L. wrote:

I remember our recent minister, Craig Moro, teaching a class at our church in which we made a chart listing many religions and their attributes. Being revealed or having had a direct message from God is part of some religions but not all. Confucianism and Taoism come to mind, but there are others buried too deeply in my muddy mind to bring forth.

I was thinking about this last night, too, trying to figure out how my idea might apply to religious humanism, which also doesn't appeal to revelation — and which has some similarities to Confucianism. (I'll come back to Confucianism and Taoism in a moment.) Here are a few additional thoughts:

Religious humanists tend to point to "experience" and "science" as their sources of knowledge, and to "nature" as their ultimate reality. In a way, they treat nature the way that "revealed" religions treat revelation. Scholars studying religious humanism would be interested in the ways that nature has an authoritative or granted place the way it "just is," in the worldview of religious humanists. For most religious humanists, nature trumps all other authorities. (The first Humanist Manifesto, for example, explicitly affirmed that the universe had always existed and was not "made." This was a way of eliminating appeals to anything prior to nature to explain the existence of the world.)

Revelation in most religions is the ultimate source of authority. It answers the ultimate "why" question. For religions that don't claim revealed status, one still must identify the ultimate source of authority. (I am thinking of revelation not so much as what comes out of God's mouth, but as what arrives in people's ears, so to speak, with sufficient power to make them wonder where it came from. Today's cosmologists are trying to ask this question from within the perspective of modern science.)

Confucianism presents an interesting case. First, like unitarianism, Confucianism didn't present itself as a religion. In fact, it explicitly defends the "rites" and traditions that already existed in Chinese civilization; Confucius showed the merits of the traditional way of life. The source of authority here — the "revelation" — is tradition, and tradition for Confucianists is rooted in the divine will, the "mandate of heaven."

Taoism is different in a few respects. Although in the West we look almost exclusively to the written Taoteching and sometimes to the stories of Chuang Tzu, Taoism as a lived religion actually developed ritual practices and, like Buddhism, a pantheon of divine beings. And, in the Taoteching, the Tao is presented as what we might call the ultimate reality to which wise people conform themselves. The Tao strikes me as qualifying for the status of "revelation." Again, the question isn't "Did God say so?" but rather "What's ultimate?" The fact that Westerners digest the Taoteching (and the Hindu Upanishads) as quasi-secular wisdom literature doesn't diminish the fact that these texts serve religious purposes.

But the other question I was trying to resolve after posting last night had to do with how post-Christian Unitarian Universalism has tried to reorder itself as a religion. There is a tradition of UUs referring to "liberal religion," "free religion," or "universal religion" as the religion that Unitarian Universalists embrace. There's something helpful here.

Unitarian Universalism is sometimes seen as one tradition of "liberal religion." The Ethical Culture movement, religious humanism, some organized expressions of atheism, and perhaps even the reformist Brahmo Samaj movement in India could be classed as other manifestations of liberal religion. I'm not sure that one gets very far this way, but there are a variety of religious and quasi-religious traditions that share a tendency toward abstract ultimacies (like the "interdependent web"), ethical universals, and indifference toward or rejection of concepts like revelation or supernatural reality. At least one major reference work on religion classes Unitarian Universalism as the "most conservative" of the liberal traditions because it is the only such tradition in the United States that acknowledges a root in Christianity. It is also significant that the UUA is the largest organized body of these U.S. "liberal religious" groups.

But my key point in bringing up the question of "revelation" is simply to point out that a religion needs a way of orienting or rooting its claims on people's loyalties, something on the order of "that's how it really is." Not certainty, but at least something like confidence. If personal choice — which tends to be the UU preference — isn't more than personal whim, we don't have much to go on.

(Originally posted to UUBooks)

Posted by Philocrites, July 3, 2002, at 06:04 PM | 0 comments

Tuesday, July 2, 2002

Making it up.

Matthew Gatheringwater wrote:

From what I know so far, I'd say that if Unitarianism hasn't always been a religion it eventually became one.

Maybe I can clarify my basic point. Very few Unitarians (or Universalists) treated "unitarianism" or "universalism" as their religion. Early on, they took it for granted that Christianity was their religion, and that unitarianism (or universalism) was the most rational, or most scriptural, or most ethical version of the faith. Unitarianism was a denomination, not a religion.

But maybe I'm making an academic point. Most of the time, when we say "my religion is . . .," we're just describing the community in which we experience and think about matters of faith. "My religion is Unitarian Universalism" most often means that we have found a community in which we can celebrate our ideals whole-heartedly, in which we find support and sympathy and encouragement, and in which our values and commitments are deepened through reflection, study, and shared events. It's a lot more than a club, but in a way, it's also just a club that really matters.

I know that I'm a UU because I have found such a community — several such communities — and because I want to see these communities flourish.

But this takes me back to the point I was making earlier. UUs love to believe that we are reinventing the wheel, indeed that we must reinvent the wheel. We not only aspire to make up our own religion, we believe we're actually doing it. I think we fail to understand not only what other religions are actually up to, but also fail to understand what actually makes our own communities tick. There's a clubby aspect to church, which other Christians recognize as the "church particular" — but there's also a transcendent aspect to church, which is known in Christian theology as the "church universal" or, in its ultimate form, the kingdom of God. We have a hard time pointing to this aspect in our religion, under whatever name.

When I hear UUs trying to define "Unitarian Universalism," I often hear them trying to identify doctrines, beliefs, and practices that are distinctively ours. (Daniel O Connell's essay in the Journal of Liberal Religion is one example.) This attempt at definition is what Charles Ellis, in responding to O Connell, calls "denominationalism" — it's a second-order process of differentiation from the other varieties of the dominant religious tradition. (We're the Protestants who don't do baptism, communion, scripture study, tithing, or episcopal ordination, and we prefer unitarianism to trinitarianism, universal to elective salvation, and naturalism to supernaturalism, but we do sing hymns, ordain ministers, gather on Sunday, listen to and preach sermons, organize relief efforts, etc.)

What I don't hear UUs doing, when they try to define the new religion of Unitarian Universalism, is to speak revelationally, or to offer the sort of charismatic insight that has in the past launched what we now recognize as religions. We don't have a Gautama Siddhartha, or a Jesus of Nazareth, or a Mohammed, or a Joseph Smith. We don't even pretend to. We evolve and modify, but we don't reveal. We have precious little to build a new religion on.

That's what I mean when I avoid calling Unitarian Universalism "a religion." But I do believe — and feel deeply — that religion happens in our churches, that people find and feel and share transforming and transformative things in our churches. I also think that much of that energy is still the interest on a loan we borrowed from our parent tradition, rather than something we've "made up" ourselves. In our tradition, the door to transcendence is still open, but we don't really pay a lot of sustained attention to that corner of the room.

So, in a nutshell, Unitarian Universalism is a religion if Presbyterianism is a religion, and in my view we have a number of profound strengths as a tradition. But if we as a federation of a thousand-plus churches are trying to put Unitarian Universalism alongside Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity — perhaps even alongside Mormonism — we're in way over our heads.

(Originally posted to UUBooks)

Posted by Philocrites, July 2, 2002, at 06:05 PM | 0 comments

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