October 18 — Pure Religion

Readings: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” — Matthew 5:7

“Let your acts be seen by Your servants and Your glory by their children. And may the sweetness of the Master our God be upon us and the work of our hands firmly found for us, and the work of our hands firmly found!”  Psalm 90:17

“The God whom Jesus revealed as no longer our rival, no longer threatening and vengeful, but unconditionally loving and forgiving, who needed no satisfaction by blood — this God of infinite mercy was metamorphosed by the church into the image of a wrathful God whose demand for blood atonement leads to God’s requiring of his own Son a death on behalf of us all. The nonviolent God of Jesus comes to be depicted as a God of unequaled violence, since God not only allegedly demands the blood of the victim who is closest and most precious to him, but also holds the whole of humanity accountable for a death that God both anticipated and required. Against such an image of God, the revolt of atheism is an act of pure religion. — Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination

The New Testament historian and popular lecturer, Marcus Borg, once stated surprise that in all his travels he scarcely ever hears preachers preaching about the man Jesus.  He did not mean to say these preachers ignore the New Testament.  He did not mean that he never hears about Jesus.  He does.  But the Jesus he hears preached walks on water.

I’m not sure this should be a surprise. My own  experience in theological conversation with  colleagues around the country,  is that this paucity of preaching on the man Jesus, exists because all we know about what there is to know about who Jesus was, comes from scholars about whom we’ve been told by seminary professors, we should treat as heretics.  Rudolf Bultmann and Adolf von Harnack, to name the two most famous theologians in this camp, attempted to take seriously the record of Jesus as an historical and from there set limits to what can be said theologically about him.  They tried to pare away the doctrine of later centuries as it influenced the development of the gospels and expose the essence of the religion of Jesus.    In that task, they have been labeled heretics.

Preachers, not wanting to be called heretics have not risen to their defense.  One result of the failure to deal adequately with the historical question of the man Jesus,  is that with nothing else to talk about, we strike out at the popular religion of Jesus, the very apt expression of which, Walter Wink captures in our other reading today. This Jesus is the high and mighty king who condescends to come down and make the poor the objects of his mercy and his compassion.  By this popular image, Jesus’ death, because it had nothing to do with the facts of history, nothing to do with Jesus engagement with the powers,  and everything to do instead with God’s plan for salvation, has become the founding of our own violence.  This story, and our liberal critique of it, since it offers nothing else, has become our founding story.  The  story, boiled down to its essence, is that by violence we are saved.  That the work of our own hands for good, counts as nothing.

This is just all so remarkable.  The American Christian story narrates a story in opposition to the one Harnack describes:

No! his message is simpler than the church would like to think it; simpler, but for that very reason, sterner and endowed with a greater claim to universality.  A man cannot evade it by the subterfuge of saying that he can make nothing of this “Christology” the message is not for him.  Jesus directed men’s attention to great questions; he promised them God’s grace and mercy; he required them to decide whether they would have God or Mammon, an eternal or an earthly life, the soul or the body, humility or self-righteousness, love or selfishness, the truth of life or a lie.  The sphere which these questions occupy is all-embracing; the individual is called upon to listen to the glad message of mercy and the Fatherhood of God, and to make up his mind whether he will be on God’s side and the Eternal’s or on the side of the world and of time.  The Gospel, as Jesus proclaimed it, has to do with [God] only and not with the son.  –Harnack, What is Christianity?

No surprise however, it is this very passage which has been most vehemently attacked by the church for removing the supernatural Son from the center and putting in its place the historical Jesus calling us to  listen to the glad message of salvation through mercies.


We’re in a pickle.  To ignore the historical Jesus is problematic.  It opens the religion of Jesus to all sorts of abuses.  But for serious minded folk who see in Jesus more than an interesting revolutionary cynic, the other option —  to make him the pawn of a God who accomplishes salvation through violence fails on the metaphysical level.

There are three ways we can go forward.

A.) The path that won’t work is simply to abandon the religious journey.  For one, it keeps coming back — and this eternal return is suggested by Wink’s assertion that a certain kind of atheism is a true religion.  In other words, because, at its best, religion is about claiming ultimacy for the highest ideals we can think, atheism is simply a confused religious claim, and if religious, then self-refuting.

B.) Another option is to take the path of  Marcus Borg and Bishop John Shelby Spong and a great deal of other modern “liberal” preachers — and that is to try to force institutional Christianity to see and follow Jesus as a revolutionary man who happened to talk about God.  Borg suggests Jesus was a healer and man of great wisdom and courage who taught a message of inclusiveness, tolerance, and liberation. This path is attractive to me, but only so far.  For as long as religion has been identified as a force in human societies, that force has had to do with God — and these liberal thinkers do nothing to address the fundamental issue at stake — the God whom this radical, revolutionary Jesus attests, remains the God of power and might.  Their metaphysics have remains medieval.

C.) The third route, which seems to me to hold the only real promise for pure religion, is to reclaim our highest ideals from institutional language about God.  It is precisely because of this attempt to reclaim the language of God from the “institutional” language of God, that a dinner table conversation at our home recently  concluded with my daughter remarking sadly,  “You don’t believe in God, and you’re a pastor. . . ”  How correct she is.  I do not believe in the God she does.  And I hope for her sake that she will not long either.

Let me spend the last few minutes talking about this third route — and about why I think it is a viable, promising way forward for a mature faith.


It was about 200 years ago that Friedrich Schleirmacher, considered by many to be the founder of liberal Christianity, wrote that religion was a purely human invention, designed to help us become more full human.  It was not insignificant though for being a human invention — it was the most important of human inventions when it worked.

If Schleiermacher is correct, it means that we have work to do.  His ideas imply, by the principle of contraries, that the troubles of our world are ours because we have not made it work.  He implies that to reflect upon and refine our high ideals is to redress our troubles.  To put this in the language I’ve been pursuing this morning, the transformation of our expressions of our highest ideals from the language of the institutional church (which, it turns out, has betrayed some of our highest ideals)  to ordinary language, constitutes the most important task that I believe any of us can participate in.  We must reclaim our high ideals from the institutions that have proven unworthy to handle them and too cowardly to speak up for them in any effective way.

I believe that we know by reflection on our own experience that Schliermacher is right about this:  it is our work, our ideals, that can lead us from our current mess.  Is it anything other than our hearts wehich are torn open again for people we do not even know when we heard about the latest earthquake in Indonesia?  Do we have to be told that the people who remain homeless in the Gulf Coast are our brothers and sisters?  Mercies spring from our hearts toward people we do not even know.  They are our mercies and they embody our highest aspirations.  Mercy is blessed with mercy because mercy is an expression of our highest ideal — by its standard we measure the gods — and their  qualities are sacred only as we judge the emotion they inspire as worthy of these highest ideals and as generative of other mercies.

The Scottich preacher and theologian John Oman tells the story of walking to a public meeting with General William Booth, the founder of the Salvation army.  As they walked they talked like everyday friends about everyday things.  Suddenly the evangelical Booth was surrounded by a band of the faithful, and, in a moment his speech, his bearing and even his appearance were changed; not so much by the admiration, but by a surging of the creative spirit.  Oman writes that he realized then that at a different age, there would have been nothing his followers might not have believed about him.  The meeting, given the glow of General Booth was electric, but beyond that,  nothing new in ideas or insight revealed themselves that night.

I tell the story because I want us to grow into a different kind of holiness: a holiness that we judge to be sacred not because of the intensity of its fervor, not because of its quantity in our lives or in persons, but by its quality and by the way it comes to us as relating an action on it as an absolute obligation.   The soul of pure religion is the human soul seeking after its own finest form, and seeking to refine that form in an ever-deepening sense of mercy.

I have no doubt that much of this sounds foreign and even heretical.  But let us keep in mind that the word heresy comes from the word to see differently — and what I’ve been talking about I see in the Bible.  I am seeing it differently than the way we’ve been trained by the popular image to see it.  But I see it in the Beatitudes we’ve been studing and I see it in today’s Psalter:  After praising God, the psalm ends with a plea — the most profound plea we can make  — “found the work of our hands, upon us, O God, yes the work of our hands.”  This cannot of course mean, just any work.  It is not the work of violence.  It cannot be the work of our destructive natures, but of our better natures, of our mercies.  Our deepest convictions are expressed in them, and the work of our hands based upon them.  And we pray to God, they be founded upon all that is good and true and beautiful.


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