April 19, 2009
The Rev. Gail Seavey
Modern Criticism is fast breaking to pieces this idol which men have made out of the Scriptures.
– Theodore Parker, “A Discourse on the Transient and Permanent in Christianity,” 1841
Have you ever heard people say that Unitarian Universalists can believe anything they want? I have. It is true that we don’t have a creed. It is true that the members and friends here hold a wide range of beliefs. But it does matter what we believe. Let me give you an example.
This Tuesday is the Jewish holiday of Yom HaShoah, a day of memory for the six million Jews who died as victims of Nazi atrocities during World War II. It mattered what the Nazis believed. As you know, although the Nazis had an intense and focused desire to exterminate the Jewish people, they systematically arrested and killed other groups as well. Each group of people was marked in the Nazi concentration camps with a different color triangle on their clothes. Jewish people were marked with a yellow triangle, vagrants with a black triangle, and men who loved men – homosexuals – with a pink triangle. During the war, it is estimated that 50,000 – 63,000 men wore the pink triangle in the concentration camps. Most of them were killed. Many of those who lived to be released were re-arrested and jailed again after the Nazis were defeated. The war was over, but Germans still believed that men loving men was a crime. Like many other symbols of shame, the Nazi pink triangle eventually became associated with different beliefs. By the 1970s, it had become a symbol of the gay rights movement.
It matters what we believe. But how do we know what to believe. . . who to believe. . . what is true. . . what is not? These are questions that concern authority. What claims of authoritative truth do we trust – parents or teachers, religious or political leaders, scriptures or science – to build our beliefs upon?
This year, Bob Day bought my sermon at the auction. He asked me to preach about the ways the religious right uses scripture to defend continuing discrimination against people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender. I have experience debating scripture with our neighbors of the religious right about this issue and I will share some of those debates. Those debates reminded me that there are two very different approaches to scripture.
The Jewish and Christian scriptures can be seen as:
The tension between these two approaches is nothing new. Unitarians faced that tension head on in the 1840s and 1850s. It was not an easy process for them then.They had to work through some of the same anxiety that we see in orthodox denominations today. The approach was decided upon by a critical mass of Unitarians coming to terms with where they placed their authority when forming their beliefs.
Theodore Parker, born in 1810, led the change. One of the young ministers inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson to become a Transcendentalist, Parker became one of the great political preachers of the century. Words of his became part of the national canon – familiar phrases such as “a nation of the people, by the people, and for the people” and “the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice.” But before he grew into a national prophet preaching for a reformed democracy in the years leading up to the Civil War, he was a religious prophet, preaching for a reformed church.
Parker was a brilliant scholar. He was one of the first people in this country to understand modern German biblical criticism. These German scholars started to look at the Bible as they would any literature. Studying the languages and cultures that produced it, they discovered that it was really a library of books written in different cultures over two thousand years. The books were originally written in several languages by different individuals or “traditions” (e.g., the tradition of Moses, or the tradition of Paul). These 60+ books were written in different genres, including poetry and hymns, mythology and legend, theology and letters, folk tales and histories, and selected to form one large book for various institutional reasons. As Parker studied, integrated, and preached about this scholarship, he realized that the implications were profound.
The Unitarians of his father’s generation did not believe that the Bible was the literal word of God. Influenced by the philosopher John Locke, they believed that the Bible was authoritative because it was written by eyewitnesses who saw, for instance, the miracles of Jesus, and reported what they saw like good newspaper reporters. As Parker studied the Bible as literature, he learned that it was unlikely that its writers were objective reporters or that the stories of miracles were true. Indeed, he realized, it didn’t matter. Here he underwent a great paradigm shift from one approach to a previously unimaginable new approach. It didn’t matter if one word of the Bible was fact, history, or God’s word. It didn’t even matter if a man named Jesus had ever taught or lived or died. Parker realized that the authority of the Bible had shifted from the letter of the law to the human spirit. As long as people felt in their hearts the core essence of Christian teachings: to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself, then the teachings were true, even if they never had heard of Jesus. As long as those teachings inspired people to live more loving lives, then they were true, even if those people had never read the Bible.
Parker had preached these ideas in his church in the Boston suburb of West Roxbury. They loved their pastor and supported him even when they did not understand him. But the sermon that Bob Day read from [earlier in this service] was preached at an ordination that was attended by many of the ministers in town. Three orthodox ministers were scandalized and started a public argument about Parker’s ideas that raised the tension between these two approaches to scripture into a frenzied media war of ideas. Parker was able to live with that. He simply published his sermon and stayed out of the fray. He was personally hurt, however, by the tensions that his point of view caused among his fellow Unitarians.
Unitarians in the nineteenth century, as we do now, liked to believe that they were tolerant and accepted each and every individual’s personal conscience in matters of the spirit. But Parker’s elders were very upset by his paradigm shift. They wished he would have the good graces to leave the church like Emerson did. But Parker would not. He intended to reform the church – including his own. And his peers – those younger ministers who said they agreed with him – were scared. They did not want to upset their congregations. They stopped inviting Parker to preach in their pulpits. Parker felt betrayed by his friends.
Parker was supported by many Unitarians in the pews, however. Some joined together, formed a new church, and called Parker to be their minister. The public debate turned out to be the best advertising, attracting a thousand people to listen to him preach every Sunday. There he preached on the justice issues of the day, such as slavery and women’s subordination, by arguing that the Bible was sometimes wrong, and that love, conscience, and reason called people to work for abolition and women’s rights. By his death in 1860, most Unitarians had switched their understanding of religious authority from the Bible to personal experience. Our religious ancestors came to believe that religious beliefs are true if they helped a person live a more loving, more just life.
Unitarians and some liberal Christians and Jews now take this approach to the Bible. But the tension continues. Several years ago, my parents’ church was splitting over their minister’s support of marriage for gay and lesbian couples. My parents went to a Bible study exploring the passages cited to forbid gay marriage. At the end of the class, I asked my conservative father what he had learned. “Well,” he said, “I learned that you can justify anything you want using the Bible.” He could no longer use the Bible as the ultimate authority, realizing that he had to test its words with his own very reasonable heart. My dad had just made the great paradigm shift before my very eyes.
It wasn’t long after that when the state of Tennessee was debating the same matter. A proposition was up for vote that would change the state constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman. This congregation, as a Welcoming Congregation and a church that supported civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s, stood up for the human rights of the GLBT community. We worked hard against the proposition and we lost big. For six months. I had the opportunity to live in the tension between two completely different approaches to religious scripture.
People for the proposition quoted, for instance, Leviticus 20:13: “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death.” I argued, “‘abomination is a translation of a word referring to ritual, so this probably refers to Canaanite ritual sexual behavior.” They were not even interested. I learned, instead, to make points that caught their attention, like, “Well, yes, but Leviticus also forbids touching pigskin, so I guess we should put to death the whole Titians football team.”
People for the proposition would quote the story of Sodom in Genesis. Now, I have real trouble with that story. You see, it’s about a male mob trying to rape two male visitors. The problem is solved by throwing out two women to the mob to rape. Then the city is destroyed, not because of any of the rapes, attempted or actual. Sodom is destroyed for betraying the ancient value of hospitality. I had no clever sound bites when people bring up Sodom. They didn’t care that I know how the story was used in context, or what other passages say about it, or that ancient Jews had no concept of homosexuality as a sexual orientation. They were coming from a different paradigm – that the story and their interpretation is authoritative because it is the word of God. I was coming from a literary, historical critical paradigm that gives no authority to the story except how it informs my personal experience. My personal experience has taught me that all rape is morally bad – no matter which gender attacks which gender, and that people who are raped are rarely offered hospitality by anyone. This story inspired me to offer rape crisis support to all genders and sexual orientations, which was not a conclusion that helped bridge the gap between me and my debaters.
My final attempt to bridge the gap occurred when a TV reporter asked me for an interview. I brushed up on the seven or eight most frequently cited scriptures. but was unprepared for his question: “Did God create homosexuals?” In a flash, I thought, “’God’? What exactly do we mean by that? And ‘create’? Buddhists don’t believe in a creation. And ‘homosexuals’? I’ve been saying GLBT fora long time, instead. But I had learned better to voice these thoughts. I opened my mouth and said, “Yes, God created homosexuals.” It was the news sound bite of the week.
Another approach to attempt to bridge the gap between these two different approaches to scripture is to consider the Bible as a whole and look for its larger message. Many biblical scholars today would say that they are orthodox in their faith but see a record of people learning to be more just and more loving over time. They would ask us to measure our moral decisions against the Biblical authority of its overall themes. But, as Parker learned 150 years ago, this is no bridge. Justice and love do not need any authoritative texts to convince us. They are constant themes in human literature because they are part of the wider human experience of trying to figure out how to live well with others. We may learn from the struggles of the Biblical writers to grow in their understanding of justice and love; indeed, those stories have influenced our culture so completely that we should know them, or we can’t know the cultural base of our most basic institutions, but we will find that knowing those stories will not be enough for our debaters. Only obedience to the force of their authority will do so.
So I have come to understand that, like Parker, we more effectively stay out of the argument with people who are framing their points from vastly different approaches, or paradigms. Like Parker, we organize for justice as human experiences call us to do. Many will join us. We will use religious scriptures that inspire us to do that work but will find authority not in the words but in the ways those words open our hearts and move us towards building for the common good. And if we are clear about why we do this work of justice, we will be writing scripture for a living, changing, evolving religion – a religion that will be there to offer support to each person who discovers that placing their authority in scripture can kill the spirit.
Bob Day is a generous supporter of this church because he knows that it matters what we believe. This is the last day of our annual stewardship drive. He thanks those of you who have given generously and reminds those of you who have been putting it off to pledge today because he knows that it matters to the people of Nashville, whether they are Unitarian Universalist or not, that there is a church here testing religious authority with personal experiences of compassion, conscience and reason. By doing so, we are building a more loving, more just community for everyone.
Reference: American Heretic: Theodore Parker and Transcendentalism, by Dean Grodzins (University of North Carolina Press, 2002)