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© Doug Slagle, Pastor, The Gathering UCC, all rights reserved
In our series this month entitled “America the Beautiful”, I am reminded of the words from that song which states “America, America. God shed his grace on thee.” In another popular anthem made famous by the late singer Kate Smith, the Divine One is actually asked to bless our nation. The song “God Bless America” is both a statement and a plea. These songs assert that the United States is special. Please bestow favor upon this land and this nation of people.
My appeal this month, however, is in direct contrast to those sentiments. I hope that these July messages will cause us to think about how we honor our nation, engage in political discourse and assert a spiritual viewpoint. The overarching ideal throughout each of the three messages is one of humility – how we apply it for our nation as a culture and how we might apply it individually. Two weeks ago, we considered the fourth of July holiday in the light of national humility – celebrating our heritage and the great ideals upon which we were founded while also acknowledging how far we have to go before we fully practice what we say we believe. And last week, I urged us to consider humility in our political discussions with others. We are entitled to our political beliefs but we are not entitled to abuse or disparage others. In all of our conduct, we are to live the Golden Rule treating others the same way we too wish to be treated.
And today, I ask us to consider another form of humility which applies not only to our nation but to each of us as well. Religious humility is a rare commodity these days and, as much as we say we support it, we often do not practice it – at least in this nation. Too many people speak as if god truly is American. He or she is one of us. Americans are special and we are the ones who truly understand the Divine. Unfortunately, this phenomenon is not unique to the United States. The Bible says that the Jewish people used to consider themselves the chosen people. Other nations and cultures today claim unique status with the Divine One. The implication is that if you do not belong to a particular belief system or religion, you are not in god’s favor.
An Baptist old joke, speaking of religious arrogance, goes something like this: A Pastor was walking across a bridge one day, and he saw someone standing on the edge, about to jump off. So he ran over and said “Stop! Don’t do it!” “Why shouldn’t I?” the suicidal person asked. “Well, there’s so much to live for!” “Like what?” “Well… are you religious?” The person said” yes”. “Me too!” the Pastor said. “Are you Christian or Buddhist?” “Christian.” “Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant ?” “Protestant.” “Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?” “Baptist” “Wow! I’m a Baptist Pastor! Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?” “Baptist Church of God!” “Me too! Are you original Baptist Church of God, or are you reformed Baptist Church of God?” “Reformed Baptist Church of God!” “Me too! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915?” The suicidal person replied, “Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915!” The pastor said “Die, heretic scum!”, and pushed him off.
My humor is not intended to make fun of Baptists. But it IS intended to make a subtle point and perhaps make fun of all of us who profess to fully understand what is true in religion. People often assume only their way of belief is correct and all others are not just wrong but, as the Pastor in our story says, heretical.
And while the title of this message asks if god is American, my intent is to provide more than a simple answer of “no she or he is not”. Most of here us would agree that the Mother and Father of all creation, is not a mere American. The moral force at work all around us is universal and is not defined or owned by anyone. Ironically, this understanding of god first found explicit expression by a nation in our own U.S. constitution.
Indeed, far from endorsing any particular religion or belief, the founding fathers pointedly allowed the freedom of belief – or even no belief. It further forbade government from ever supporting any specific religion. The First Amendment states very simply, and I believe very humbly about religion, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” It was Thomas Jefferson who later coined the term “wall of separation between church and state” to describe the intent of the writers. This came after James Madison wrote, a man closely involved in the framing of the constitution and who co-authored the Federalist Papers – a book about the constitutional convention – “Strongly guarded. . . is the separation between religion and government in the Constitution of the United States.”
Our constitution nowhere mentions any deity much less the Judeo-Christian god. Our government, it plainly asserts, derives its powers from the consent of the governed. This contrasts with the apostle Paul’s claim in the Bible that rulers of nations derive their right to rule solely from God. Our constitution explicitly refutes that premise.
While Jefferson and Madison spoke to the ideal of a nation and government independent from religious endorsement, the idea that we are a Christian nation founded on Christian principles was also rejected by numerous founding fathers. In one of our first agreements with another nation, in the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli, which was ratified by the US Senate, we assert – “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” Even further, John Adams, our second President and one of the more personally religious of the founders, said in 1788, “Although the detail of the formation of the American governments is at present little known in Europe or in America, it may hereafter become an object of curiosity. It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the influence of Heaven…it will forever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses.”
As much as some contemporary commentators seek to portray our founders as pious Christians in the modern evangelical mode, this was not the case. Most of the founders were men of faith but a majority believed in a religious expression that was often Unitarian in approach. Such was the faith of Adams and Jefferson. George Washington attended an Episcopal church but refused to take Holy Communion there and is also generally considered to have been Unitarian in his outlook. Such a belief system acknowledges the existence of god and the Divine work of providence. Most historians agree our founders believed in a more generic god, the god of creation and the god of nature. For most of the founders, this was not the god of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Alone among the founders, only John Jay, the first chief justice of the Supreme Court, is acknowledged as someone who would fit our modern version of an evangelical, conservative Christian.
I believe most contemporary claims that our nation was founded on Christian values are motivated by religious arrogance. We as a nation, as a congregation and as individuals must never assume that one specific brand of thinking is absolutely correct and all others are invalid. Our constitution refused to enter that debate and it forbids any future Congress or President from doing the same.
Just as I advocated last week, however, – that we hold onto our sincere political beliefs – I encourage the same for our religious views. We have a right to our personal beliefs about the great questions of the universe – what is the meaning of life, what purpose do we serve and how can we better love and serve others? More importantly, we must respect the beliefs of people with whom we disagree. Even further, I believe our work here at the Gathering is not to accept or reject any particular faith but to search among them, to learn from the many great prophets of history and to explore the realms of where we can find universal truths.
In my message back in April when I posed the question “What is Truth?”, we concluded that a conclusive answer is difficult to find. What force, what god or what spiritual being holds within itself the source of all wisdom, perfection and power? As much as we might seek to find truth solely through reason, when we do so, we neglect the mysterious and transcendent. And, as much as we might try to find universal applications in how we should morally act, the call to us by all world religions is to love others as we too wish to be loved. This is one truth we agreed is universal. Even so, the point of that message was that we must remain on a journey of continually seeking who and what is Truth.
And, religious humility, I believe, encourages us to search many pathways to truth. While the Bible quotes Jesus Christ as saying that he is the way, the truth and the life and the only way to god, the historic Jesus would not have made such a statement. The historic Jesus taught, I believe, about an accommodating god, open and loving to everyone. She or he was not and is not an exclusive god. The ethic of this god, as Jesus taught, is to love our neighbors AND to love our enemies. God has a concern for the weak and is infinitely loving to all creation. Jesus taught that god is the unconditionally loving parent in the parable of the Prodigal Son, the woman who anoints others with her oil soaked hair, the host at a banquet to which everyone is invited and the Samaritan – a religious and political outcast – who offers mercy and respect to enemies. Jesus taught about a god of grace and mercy to all. This god, as ironic as it seems, is a humble god.
And, if this is so, then we must also check our religious and spiritual egos at the door. We must abandon them. This does not mean to let go of an honest claim to who we are and what we believe. It implies, instead, that our spiritual beliefs are formed in the intimate connection between whatever we perceive god to be and our innermost conscience. When we lie awake at night and ponder the great mysteries of existence, we are invited into a uniquely personal relationship with the Divine. And what we personally come to believe about universal Truth is ours alone. It is not American or Christian or Islamic or Atheist or even the uniquely open variant we practice here at the Gathering. It is your spirituality. It is of you and by you. And, if it is genuine in its humility, this personal spirituality will continue to search and remain open to new insights and new ways to understand our universe. It will be open to the ways of Jesus and the teachings of Mohammad. It will understand letting go of self through Buddhism and it will respect the ways of Hinduism and our continuing quest for perfect rebirth.
The mystic rabbi named Maimonides – the father of Kabalah Judaism, argued that humans cannot and should not try and define the Divine. She or he or whatever force we call it must remain mysterious, ineffable and without definition. To describe the Divine is to reduce it to our terms and our finite understanding. This negative theology of Maimonides says that we must remain silent when it comes to defining who or what god is. As much as I have tried to speak in my messages about a Divine moral force at work in the universe, my words fall short. This power that lies in the common heart and soul of every creature compels them to seek cooperation, love and justice. To repeat once again the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. – another great prophet – the arc of history is very long but it bends toward equality, justice and universal cooperation. And, as I have said, this is the moral imagination I choose to call the Divine. Maimonides taught that this mystical force has no boundaries and defies understanding, logic or description. A god force like this cannot help but be open and humble.
Is god American? Of course not. Is god Jewish? Is god Islamic? Is god Christian? Is god dead? Is god black or white, male or female? Dear friends, my message to you is to join me in a search for those answers. And it is in the process of exploration that I believe we truly honor and respect the Divine. This is a humble religion just like I appealed for a humble nationalism and a humble approach to political discourse in my last two messages. It is not falsely modest, denying its beauties and strengths. Instead, it is free and open – as our American constitution promotes. It does not claim absolute answers but instead asserts its mystery and Divine transcendence. We see glimpses of it in our fellow creatures, in the beauty of a sunset, in the love we share, in compassion, in sacrifice and in forgiveness. We see and feel this moral imagination we might call god but she is elusive and infinite and calling us to never give up our quest for her…