Toward a Theology of Church for a New Time, Rev. Arthur G. Severance

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 A Master was surprised to hear shouting and altercation going on in   his courtyard.  When he was told that one of his disciples was at the   center of it, he had the man sent for and asked what the cause of the   din was.

�There is a delegation of scholars that has come to visit you.  I told   them you do not waste your time on men whose heads are stuffed with   books and thoughts, but devoid of wisdom.  These are the people who,   in their conceit, create dogmas and divisions among people everywhere.�    The Master smiled.  �How true, how true,� he murmured.  �But tell me,   is not your conceit in claiming to be different from these scholars   the cause of this present conflict and division?�

   Let me be clear, then I don�t really plan to outline here a new   theology, as such;; that is, I don�t have the hubris or conceit to   think that I have thought up or discovered an actual  NEW religion or   theolgy , nor have I received a new divine revelation which has   directed me to tell you all the  new good news that all you have known   before is wrong, and I will now tel you what is right!

    The Seneca Indian Chief, Red Jacket, replied to a missionary   trying to convert the Indians: "You have got our country, but you are   not satisfied; you want to force your religion upon us...Brother, you   say there is but one way to worship and serve the Great Spirit. If   there is but one religion, why do you white people differ so much   about it?"

   That is the interesting thing about religion, isn�t it? It�s so   different. So hard to believe, really. Yet most us do. Most of the   world. Most of the United States say they believe in God, whatever   that means, because of course, that�s the problem. WE DON�T KNOW WHAT   THAT MEANS!  Yet we kill each other at the drop of a yarmulke, head   scarf, or rosary bead over  religions that supposedly believe in the   same God that teaches love!  Ever wonder what a world without religion   might be like� Maybe peaceful and loving�
   Isn�t that what we come to church for� To learn how to be peaceful   and loving� Then why can�t the rest of the world ? Well, of course the   answer is because they don�t come to the same church we do! And   there�s the rub! There�s all these different churches� teaching all   these different messages. So who�s right? How can you tell? The answer   according to some of them, of course, is a trick one, because   evidently, you have to die to find out! So my answer is to look for   another question.

    The question might better be how can THIS church be the beloved   community for transforming the world into a better tomorrow? How can   we help one another in the many ways we need help even as we reach out   to those in need of our help? How can we spread our Gospel of Good   News?  Do we have a different version of theology of church? I think   we do. For one thing, we have a unique history with  people that are   surely unique and that makes us different, but there�s more.    There are also a lot more questions, some of which only you and your   family, if you have one, can answer. Some of you may have to take this   sermon home, unpack it and live with it for a while, but don�t worry,   you; ll hear more about it during this fall as we talk more about what   this church might mean for all of us.

   Words are important to me, so I went to look up the word, church.   Some people ask how we can be a church if we don�t believe in   tradtioanl Chrstiainty? So I thought I�d check in one of those holy   books we DO believe n- the dictionary!  My old American Heritage   Dictionary. 2nd College Edition 1985  defgines church : 1.�The company   of all Christians regarded  as the  mystic spiritual body. 2.  A   building for public, esp. Christian, worship. 3. A congregation. 4.   Public divine worship ina church; a religious service .�  I then   thought I�d get the  dictionary  definition of  Christian:�Professing   belief in Jesus as Christ or following the religion based on his   teachings,� so even if most of us don�t consider Jesus divine, that is   �The Christ� most of us would probably say we believe in his   teachings, we might  or might not say we were a religion  based on his   teachings.?

   The reason I looked up these words is that I think the theology of   church has to do a great deal with definitions and theology. I used   the  readings from the Letters to the editors, for instance, about the   book, The Evolution of God, by Paul Bloom, because I wanted to point   out three things about churches that I thought were related as well to   what I might call the �Evolution of Church.�

   The first letter by  (The Rev.)John B. Giuliani, Redding. Conn. and   we don�t know what kind of Rev- ...�Any evolution of God worthy of   discussion is one in which we acknowledge the indwelling of divinity   inseparable from nature. In discovering the God-within we discover at   the same time the depth of our own divinity from which arises a moral   order free from despotic imposition while remaining subject to social   consensus. For Wright, �it is not God who evolves. It is us.? I   suggest we do away with this kind of dualism and celebrate the   evolution of the sacred union of nature with its inseparable divine   source of being.?

   So for me the kind of God I am talking about, as I talked about with   Chet Raymo�s Scientific Naturalism and Emerson�s Transcendentalism the   God within, a mystical humanism, naturalistic theism, a god of   metaphor of a sense of the holy is the way I interpret the God of the   Bible, but understand that there are other ways of interpreting my   metaphor. Perhaps the most important idea here is not that we all   believe the same creed about the existence of a supreme being named   God the Father, but that we all agree that we may  explore what this   sacred idea might mean to each one of us and how it might impact our   lives as a beloved community. What does the word, God, mean to us? Is   it a loaded gun or a comforting hug? That makes a difference to a   theology of church. There is ina sense the idea that we ARE God.

   The second letter is by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salk, Atlanta and I think it   because he is a Rabbi that I included it and he has a sense of what of   �Church or what I would substitute here �beloved community;? I like   his tongue in cheek introduction--: �As Robert Wright points out   (according to Paul Bloom's review), �Love your neighbor,� probably   refers only to relationships with fellow Israelites. Or maybe not,   depending on which classical biblical commentator you read. But here�s   a curious statistic regarding another commandment in the Bible. The   admonition to care for the stranger, I.e. the non-Israelite, appears   no less than 36 times- making it the most frequently cited moral   injunction of ancient Judaism.    Which commandment is truer to the essence of biblical religion� If   I�m going by the numbers (including the book of Numbers), I�d opt for   caring for the stranger. It certainly goes a long way toward redeeming   God�s reputation- not to mention providing religious people with a   much needed perspective on contemporary social issues.�

   So if church is going to worship or �serve� God, then serving the   stranger is going to be important, and maybe the stranger is somehow   related to God as well. Hmmm. It is interesting that in Islam serving   the stranger is also strong commandment. perhaps because of the desert   culture, but perhaps also more than that. Perhaps more of a   humanitarian, more of a universalizing religious element that the   early great psycholgizers, prophets wise sages included in the   writings of the early religions, but they have come down throughout he   ages to us today and their wisdom stands and urges us to still serve   the the stranger because we are all strangers sometime. And we know   that there are people who are don�t know about Unitarian Universalism   who are strangers to UUism who desperately need what we have to offer   here, no not because we have the only answer, but because we may have   the answer that makes sense to them, just as it makes sense to us!

   And the third is by a lay person who sounds like one of the so called   �New Atheists or even a UU: Clement H. Kreider, Jr. Wall, NJ :    �...Wright�s insight that God was created in man�s image, and that the   perception of the deity thus evolves with the psychology of the   worshipers. Bloom himself  doesn�t  �doubt that the explanation for   consciousness, will arise from the mercilessly scientific account of   psychology and neuroscience.� This �consciousness� certainly includes   the universal innate sense of morality that starts in infancy and is   further molded by family, tribe, community.

   ...The most important consequence and hope for enlightenment is the   rise of secular humanism, which with growing acceptance is stepping   into the breech.

   �Yes, I, too believe that it is we who evolve and �the perception of   the deity thus evolves with the psychology of the worshipers� is hard   to dispute if we concentrate on the word perception. Whatever you   believe about God, the perception  surely has changed over the   centuries, and even the Old TEstament God seems different than he New   Testament God, just as their seems to be a different God of different   religions and even denominations of the supposedly same religion!  I   don�t agree that secular humanism �hope for enlightenment,� but I   think what he�s trying to say is that we need to get beyond   traditional religion for any  �hope for enlightenment,� that he�s   sounding very much like Emerson�s Divinity schooled Address of 1838!    I think the �consciousness� might be that sense of the divine, what I   call the religious dimension that we encounter, or at least seek here   in religious community in church in worship when we somehow are in   religious relationship, when we encounter religion in some form or   another, sometimes even when we just read about it and are inspired!

   What is that power that moves us? That sometimes changes us into   better people�  The letter writer says ; �This �consciousness�   certainly includes the universal innate sense of morality that starts   in infancy and is further molded by family, tribe, community.� I think   it is partly because we have lost that sense of family, tribe and   community because so many of us are moving around and so many of our   families and communities are on different cultural and educational   levels that it�s almost impossible to return to those simpler times of   consensus  if they ever really existed. So often those good old days   weren't;t very good unless you were white, male, and middle class. So   the need the beloved community, for church. The need to find what is   right has never been simple. and religion has given us guidelines, but   times change and situations change quicker than culture can keep up.   Witness the perversion of fundamentalism of the Taliban interpretation   of Islam and the nightmare of those suffering under its harsh   repercussions. What God could write the rules which some interpret   there? None that I could understand. Yet,we must remember that there   have always been cultures in other times and places which we could not   understand and perhaps never will. It is difficult to know what to do,    except to offer our own understanding.

   So we find what is right through our own heart, not just what is   written in ancient texts, because times change, and  so religious laws   much change as well. Woman's rights change, for instance, as perhaps   the greatest and most obvious of unfair religious laws that probably    were not for religious reasons, but cultural. For some, following the   religious law is spiritual and I don�t mean to be disrespectful to   that; indeed it requires a kind of religious humility  and devotion   that I sometimes envy, but am just not made for!  But when does   religious law  and/or ritual become cultural oppression?  When times   change, churches must change, and some do and some don�t. Indeed, it   is why the framers of the Declaration of the Independence, most of   then Unitarians, by the way, most of them had been turned off by   traditional religion, by the way, wanted separation of church and   state for this country, because of that reason, perhaps  they wanted to   avoid the  religious fundamentalism of the 21st century!

   Perhaps they knew if they based our Constitution and Declaration of   Independence on the Bible, we might have the same problem as the   Middle East is having today, and we�re already having problems with   religious conservatives claiming this country is a Christian Country,   and by that they mean, conservative Trinitarian Christian country,   when what we need to do is find a beloved community that comes   together to decided on what is right by what is based on love and   fairness, not on ancient doctrine.

   Divorce is good non controversial example of a church problem, and I   say church, because it�s not a Jewish problem, theirs managed to   figure it out. Now interestingly, as I�ve said before, Jesus is very   clear that divorce is bad and condemns it, but since divorce is so   common, most mainline churches have  literally had to find a way to   interpret divorce as being somehow OK, especially since there�s a very   high rate of divorce among clergy! Indeed, there are now divorce   ceremonies and pastoral counseling training as well as countless   programs offered n most churches for people going through the trauma   of divorce. Many churches have responded in what I would call a loving   Christian manner in dealing with an issue that is difficult to deal   with theologically if we take the Bible literally. Obviously   conservative churches have more difficulty and the Catholic church, of   course has even more difficulty and has that  other thing called  an   annulment which most non Catholics don�t really understand and often   make jokes about, but I certainly won�t. Though, yes I am tempted to.

   While the Catholic Church has the right to not to change its ancient   culture, people are leaving the church when they find divorce is the   only option and they want to remarry in a church. for instance. Birth   control, Celibacy for the religious professionals and many other   religious laws are driving people from the Catholic church because the   church, the theology of the church is not serving the needs of those   people any more. Sometimes those people find their needs in Protestant   churches, but often they are turned off by ALL church, indeed,   sometimes by ALL religion, because they have equated the Catholic   church with God, Himself.

   Now, it should also be said that there are  billions of Catholics   around the world  who still find much comfort and meaning within the   church and they are blessed, but for those who find they must leave,    there is a vacuum, an emptiness, often.

   The other more controversial issue of the church today, of course, is   the issue of homosexuality and perhaps the best example of  a changing   culture and an issue that Jesus never addressed. Oh, we know in his   Jewish culture homosexuality was condemned, though it was accepted in   many other cultures of the time, so remember that this was not   necessarily a religious doctrine as much as cultural, like some   dietary laws which historians think may have had more to do with   separating Jews from other ethnic groups than any health issues like   trichinosis from pork, for instance.

   Some of the more liberal churches have begun to accept homosexuality   and most of we UUs have. We certainly have as a denomination. We are a   welcoming congregation which means we actually went through a learning   process a vote as a congregation and a commitment to welcome people of   all sexual orientations and races and isms. We still have a way to go   of course. The recent controversy over the Racial Profiling issue of   The Black Harvard Professor arrest in  his Cambridge  house And   President Obama�s Press Conference has brought that home again, and it   reminds us that 11:00  Sunday morning is still probably the most   segregated hour in America, and maybe we can do something about that   as well as part of anew theology of church.

   Here�s an interesting fact about worship I found yesterday on a   website about worship-�Gallup International reports that 57 percent of   American citizens regularly attend religious services, while only 15   percent of French citizens, 10 percent of UK citizens, and 25 percent   of Israeli citizens do..�   (

   The new theology for the new time is NOT a new religion; it is not   even a new approach to religion. I think the new theology is US ina   new time and it is the potential that we bring to growth- both our own    spiritual growth  as well as the growth of the church while reaching   out to help the community around the church in social connection nd   social justice. What good does this church do?  The new theology for a   new time is that we must all become a part of the process of growth,   change, and transformation if we are to truly live out our idea of   religion, but we can choose what part of the process we choose to   become.

   I have found my religious home here with you, my beloved community   here as your minister to explore the religious dimension of life and   love with you and to try to become a better person and to try to help   one another and to reach out to help work toward social justice in the   community. May it be enough. May love find a way.

Amen, Peace, Shalom, (Peace in Hebrew), Assalaamu Alaikum(may Peace be   upon you in Arabic), Abrazos a todos (Hugs all around) Namaste, (A   Hindu greeting the divinity within you) Blessed Be, and let me add one   more blessing that I adapted from the Spanish long before I went in to   ministry. �Vaya con Dios� is Spanish for Good-bye, but literally is   �Go with God,� SO I adapted it to say �Vaya Con Su Dios, �Go with your   idea or interpretation of God.�

Peace,Love, Shalom,Salaam, Blessed Be,Namaste, Abrazo a Todos,Vaya con   su Dios,

3 Letters to the Editor regarding a review by Paul Bloom on June 28   of  The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright; from Sunday July 19 NY   TIMES Book Review

1. �How tiring to keep hearing (as in Paul Bloom�s review of �The   Evolution of God,� by Robert Wright,) discussions of a God who exists   apart from a primal and continuing existence in nature. Sufficient   philosophical, psychological and even theological testimony shows the   arrogance and infantilism of positioning one�s God against another- my   God is bigger than yours!

   Any evolution of God worthy of discussion is one in which we   acknowledge the indwelling of divinity inseparable from nature. In   discovering the God-within we discover at the same time the depth of   our own divinity from which arises a moral order free from despotic   imposition while remaining subject to social consensus. For Wright,   �it is not God who evolves. It is us.� I suggest we do away with this   kind of dualism and celebrate the evolution of the sacred union of   nature with its inseparable divine source of being. (The Rev.)John B. Giuliani, Redding. Conn.

2. �As Robert Wright points out (according to Paul Bllom�s review),   �Love your neighbor,� probably refers only to relationships with   fellow Israelites. Or maybe not, depending on which classical biblical   commentator you read. But here�s a curious statistic regarding another   commandment in the Bible. The admonition to care for the stranger,   I.e. the non-Israelite, appears no less than 36 times- making it the   most frequently cited moral injunction of ancient Judaism.

   Which commandment is truer to the essence of biblical religion� If   I�m going by the numbers (including the book of Numbers), I�d opt for   caring for the stranger. It certainly goes a long way toward redeeming   God�s reputation- not to mention providing religious people with a   much needed perspective on contemporary social issues.� Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salk, Atlanta

3 �In his review of �The �The Evolution of God,� Paul Bloom notes   Robert Wright�s insight that God was created in man�s image, and that   the perception of the deity thus evolves with the psychology of the   worshipers. The most important such change, Wright says, is that   �history naturally pushes people toward moral improvement, toward   moral truth.�

   Bloom himself  doesn�t  �doubt that the explanation for   consciousness, will arise from the mercilessly scientific account of   psychology and neuroscience.� This �consciousness� certainly includes   the universal innate sense of morality that starts in infancy and is   further molded by family, tribe, community.

   The yearning to understand moral truth coincides with progressive   dissatisfaction with what relevant light emanates from the   anthropomorphic God. Witness �post-Christina Europe,� the flight from   the mainstream churches, the polls showing declining belief.

   The most important consequence and hope for enlightenment is the rise   of secular humanism, which with growing acceptance is stepping into   the breech. Clement H. Kreider, Jr. Wall, NJ 

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