I want to begin by relating an experience I suspect many of you have also had. I was sitting in the coffee shop a few days ago, with a few books out on the table. One was The Heart of Christianity and the other was Jesus Comes to Harvard. A woman, unknown to either of us at the table approached to say how nice it was that people loved Christ. Had we ever heard of RBC ministries, she asked. We shook our heads no, realizing that this was likely not to be a conversation either of us wanted to engage. The internal radar said this is a conservative Christian and Marcus Borg and Harvey Cox, the authors of the books I had out, would be like Greek to her for they do not espouse a set of fundamentals in which one has to believe.
It’s always an uncomfortable moment. I don’t like labels. I don’t like to put people into predetermined boxes. And yet, I’ve been in enough of these conversations to know that I don’t have the energy anymore that it takes to remain conversational with someone like this. Nor do I like being condemned for refusing to jump on board with these fundamentals.
In 1910, a highly influential set of essays was published by a conservative Christian business man and clergy man. It was called The Fundamentals. The Fundamentals was a defense of strict Protestant orthodoxy (whatever that is), and adherents to its set of doctrines came to be called fundamentalists. In a nutshell, the fundamentalists condemned basic enlightenment insights, which is interesting because the Protestant Reformation spurred on the intellectual and artistic renaissance that we now call the enlightenment.
I thought of calling this morning’s sermon “Fundamentals of a Liberal.” But again, I am gun-shy of labels. In fact, the last time I preached a sermon like this one person in the congregation could not hear a thing I said, so incensed was she that I was using the word liberal. Please listen to me. I am not talking here about any kind of politics.
What I do want to talk about is a relevant faith, not because we assert it to be relevant, but because it allows us to experience wonder without denying what we know about the situation of our existence in the world. Rudolf Bultmann was the first famous theologian to insist on the “abolition of miracle” for just this reason. One can not remain a modern and hold on to the ancient notion of miracle. But he was never about abolishing faith and the wonder that accompanies a life of faith. He was a Christian liberal.
Bultmann’s thinking about the relation of the Christian to the world has been widely vilified because the answer to the question he poses in the reading today, “Can the concept of wonder be retained if the idea of miracle is abandoned?” seems by many to be a resounding “No.”
But we have been exploring what it means to answer “Yes.” I have no doubt that the “Yes” we offer is shaded differently by of us. Certainly my aim is not to tell you what to think about these things, but to get us to think for ourselves about how we might shade our “Yes.”
Albert Schweitzer was another liberal in Bultmann’s footsteps. I think that Schweitzer took the project in the wrong direction, but his sense that Liberal Christianity was critically important to the successful promulgation of Christianity into the modern era is spot on. He wrote:
Liberal Christianity is as unpopular today as it has ever been, because the dominant spirit of our time attempts to smother free religious thought. On the other hand, it is a timely cause – as timely as ever – because it is a necessity for the spiritual life of our age. Every deep piety is reflective; every really deep thought is reverent. – Pilgrimage to Humanity.
My aim today is to move beyond those who argue that for God talk to remain God talk, it must also remain pre-liberal and to suggest that the fight for liberation and the ever-going battle against oppression can be more effective with some liberal fundamentals. And this is to say nothing of an experience of God that might truly comfort us in our darkest hours without resort to pollyanism.
I am using as my text, Paul’s words: “I am determined to know nothing among you, save Jesus Christ and him crucified.” I remember an occasion several years ago, sitting around a table with several other theologians talking about the central religious drive in Paul’s writing. It was asserted that for Paul, as for most Christians today, “The Resurrection” was the central theme. I questioned that assertion then, as I do today – Paul was very rarely interested in resurrection, except, perhaps to argue that it should not have such a central place. Paul’s main concern was, to paraphrase his letter, put aside the highfalutin and deal with the ordinary, He might have said, “I decided to know nothing among you except that which Jesus considered most fundamental.
For an example of what I call highfalutin, consider the Westminster Catechism, a teaching tool used by most churches in the reform tradition from 1643 when it was written to today:. “God is a Spirit, in and of himself infinite in being, glory, blessedness, and perfection; all-sufficient, eternal, unchangeable, incomprehensible, everywhere present, almighty, knowing all things, most wise, most holy, most just, most merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth.
Why did the church want to teach about an implacable, impassible God when the whole reason people continued to talk and write about Jesus was that he showed them an experience of love as most responsive? The short answer is that the Greek philosophical system with its immutable forms, and its talk of pure being was irresistible. To have the gloss of the Greeks on your religion was to show that it was real, a force to be reckoned with. Later these things became part of the system of the church, what one was required to believe about the scriptures, at the expense of one’s experience of wonder.
In the light of this introduction and from this particular point of view, I want to present a bare outline of four fundamentals.
The first fundamental of a liberal is that God is all goodness and total love. God never punishes or rewards. God loves us just as much when we are bad, as when we are good. Therefore, any good behavior that comes out of fear of punishment or from hope of divine reward, springs from wrong motives and wrong motives, like wrong behavior, hurt. They hurt not just you and me – they hurt God. This is the most important fundamental: God is affected by us. God changes too.
Again, I need not use complex thoughts to express this. I can base this fundamental easily on experience. I have two daughters, as you know. And there is no way for either of them to lose me, or my good will, or my continuing effort on their behalf, no matter what they might do. And when they hurt themselves, I suffer with them. This what it means to parent. We also know that the intensity and purity of response varies, from time to time and from person to person. The reason we use the word God in reference to our religious experience is that this experience of love is constant. God’s response is perfect, which means, contrary to the catechism, that God’s changes. The alternative, expressed in the catechism uses strange concepts, foreign philosophical ideas that must be forced upon the gospel if it is to be there at all.
The second fundamental of liberal Christianity is like unto the first. Liberalism is a conviction in relation to the imperative of freedom: freedom of thought, of pursuing truth on every path, the freedom from interference by those who have been given authority in human institutions, freedom from human declarations and rules so that conscience may develop as fully as possible. This freedom is inseparable from responsibility: the responsibility towards the object and the subject of our conversations aiming at truth, responsibility towards the rigors of human discourse and inquiry.
This means that the bible is a book of “truth inspiring conversation.” It cannot be read without responsibility to it as both a book of sacred writing and as the human encounter various experiences of God. Marcus Borg said it nicely – “The Bible is true, and some of it happened.”
A corollary to this fundamental is that things I say today, the things you hear anywhere from the pulpit or from a religious authority may not, cannot, be anything other than the grist for your own mill of conscience and conversation.
The third fundamental of a liberal Christian is that Jesus re-presents, for those who have ears to hear, what it is that we are all meant to be. This means, first and foremost, that Jesus is God, only to the extent that the God Jesus seemed to experience is discovered for ourselves, by trying to live in the manner of Jesus.
This fundamental follows the last one because it too builds on it. One of the great successes of biblical scholarship has been to help us see just what the early Christian communities thought and said about Jesus. We know for example that the writings of the Jerusalem Christians differed from the writings of the Judean Christians. They did not tell the same story. They did not use the same symbols and events.
From the early days just after Jesus was crucified, to well into the end of that century, as the stories about Jesus were being collected and shared, they were also modified with injections of greek philosophy, with rhetoric turns so as to make the stories have more credibility. By the end of that process, Jesus was worshipped.
And yet, in the earliest writings Jesus was recorded to have said, “Why do you call me good? There is no one who is good but God.” Or simply “In vain do they worship me.” Jesus did not ask us to worship him. He asked us to follow him.
A final fundamental is that the kingdom of God comes in the hearts of people, and not on “clouds of glory.” The easiest way to understand what Jesus’ “Kingdom of God” was all about is to remember that in Greek, the phrase actually referred to the Roman Empire. And to remember that the Roman empire was run with an iron fist. And while that was good for some, it was horrible for many others. To the extent we clamor for a vision of power as that presented in the “second-coming” preaching, we clamor for the empire of Rome – for that very entity that served as a foil to Jesus’ empire of God. He seemed to say, “You know the empire the Romans have set up. It is full of injustice and misery. I tell you there is another way – let’s call it the empire of God.”
These four fundamentals are not a logically necessary list. We could make it 5 or 7. But the text from Paul is aptly summarized by them.
Paul chose the cross as his central symbol. For it stands to remind us that to follow the way of Jesus was precisely to risk it for oneself. To take up these stories as true, is precisely to see in them a modern way.
And so we come to the point of this: How will you respond to the call to follow?
May the experience of the wonder of God cast out all fear and lead you on in the struggle against oppression, in the fight for justice. Amen.