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Absurdities–of the Religious Kind

Rolland Carlson
June 1st, 2014

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It was once said, “Man is the only animal who spends his entire life trying to convince himself he is not absurd.”  I believe this came from Camus, it sounds like Camus, but I have not been able to verify it.  But, we do often take ourselves so seriously, which, of course, is part of what makes us absurd.  We need to laugh more.  The very fact that I, given my background, am here doing a service may be proof that God has a sense of humor.  However, Unitarian Universalists do not seem to find anything unusual about this, which I find refreshing, and not at all absurd.  Exploring absurdities has also helped me better understand why I never wanted to return to the First Methodist Church in Modesto I attended as a child and found a better place as a UU.

Absurdity is not hard to find in religion, even easier in politics, but I’ll stick to religion.  For example, many who claim Jesus as their Lord and Savior, preach that drinking alcohol is a religious sin.  I do not wish to advocate drinking, but read the scriptures. According to the Gospel of John, 2:1-11, a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee.  Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had been invited to the wedding. When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said, “They have no more wine.”   Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by Jews for ceremonial washing, each able to hold many gallons.  Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim.  He then said, “Now, draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”

They did so, and the master tasted the water, that had now been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from… Then he called the bridegroom aside and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best for now.” What Jesus did in Cana was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”  Now, there may be many good reasons not to imbibe, but it does seem a bit absurd to not drink in the name of a man who made wine 100 gallons at a time.  And, it was good wine.

And then, there is burnt toast.  Every once in a while you hear a claim that the face of Jesus has been burned on someone’s morning toast.  The toast owner gets all excited; “God has blessed me!  I am saved!  Jesus loves me!  I wonder what I can get for this thing on EBay?”  This is not so far fetched, as in 2004, the Golden Palace Casino in Las Vegas bought a partially eaten grilled cheese sandwich with an image of the Virgin Mary burned on it, for $28,000.  On-line, you can now buy a toaster that will burn an image of Jesus on your toast, and make your own miracles.  What’s really silly is that no one knows what Jesus actually looked like.  The revered images we see so often are based upon paintings made by medieval European artists, who never saw him.  Their bias is obvious; they all show a very pale kind of ethereal skinny white guy.  Given that Jesus was a Jew, living in the Middle East, who seemed to love wine, parties, and bread, its just as likely he was a dark-skinned, short, jolly fellow who enjoyed imbibing.

I mean no disrespect for Jesus.  I worship his wisdom and teachings; but I’m not so sure about some of his followers.  An example centers on an interesting statement made by Pope Frances last fall,  “Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacra­lized workings of the prevailing economic system.”  “Meanwhile,” he added, “the excluded are still waiting.”

This did not please some. Rush Limbaugh called the Pope’s comments “pure Marxism.”  Sarah Palin said Francis,  “sounds kinda liberal.”  Sean Hannity declared that he agreed with Rush.  But, Sean claims to be Catholic.  Does he have any idea what his savior preached?  I am thinking of the Biblical story of the young wealthy man (Matthew 19:21) who approached Jesus and asked what he needed to do to enter the kingdom of heaven.  Jesus answered,  “Go, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come follow me.” When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Jesus dedicated his life to the plight of the poor so, Sean, he may have been the first advocate of income redistribution.

It is not unusual of course for many to not understand the very beliefs they claim they believe in.  Many conservative Christians have long argued that public prayer should be part of classroom rituals every day, thus restoring old time virtues.  Of course, as someone once pointed out, “As long as there are tests you can’t get rid of prayer in the classroom. “ Yet, Jesus said about public prayer in Matthew 6:6,  “When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners, so that they may be seen by men… But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door, and pray to your Father who is in secret.”

Quoting scripture can be tricky and literally believing the Bible can be a conundrum, as illustrated by the creation stories in Genesis.  Many of you know there are two quite different tales; the first tells the story of the seven days of creation and the second is the adventures of Adam and Eve in Edenland.  The Hebrew word for God, (Yahweh) used in the Garden of Eden story, is different and older than Elohim, the name used in the seven days story.  Thus, the Eden story is much older.  Many Jewish scholars believe the author included this story in Genesis, not because he literally believed it, but because it had long been a part of Jewish lore and culture.  This makes sense. Philo, a prominent first century Jewish writer, thought “the literal interpretation was for those unable to see deeper underlying meanings.”  Saadia Gaon (882-942), a very influential Jewish philosopher, said a biblical passage should not be interpreted literally if it meant something contrary to reason. My understanding is that most Jews do not literally believe the creation stories, just some Christians.  Since these two tales conflict significantly with each other, you would think they would pose a problem for Biblical literalists, but apparently not.  The contradictions are often ignored, which is, of course, absurd.  Confusion is also spread when the seven days account and the Eden story are falsely combined into one tale.

A more serious problem is what the Apostle Paul read into the creation story around 57 AD.  In Romans 5:18-19 Paul wrote, “Through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners.”  Bad Adam!  Augustine of Hippo (354-430), basing his ideas on the teachings of Paul, took this idea further, arguing that, because of Adam all, including newborn infants, are born sinners.  Saint Augustine also taught that God foreordained for all time who would be saved and who would not.

Thus, Adam was at fault. Of course, many like to blame Eve, because she was a woman, and let herself be beguiled by a talking serpent into eating the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, forbidden by God.  Eve then convinced Adam to also partake.  So, for the first time in history, which of course was very young then, the two experienced shame and realized they were necked.  God was angry, and banished them forever from the Garden of Eden.  Now, all humans are born sinners and must eternally bear the Original Sin of Adam. Thirty to forty percent of Americans literally believe this story.  For example, recently South Carolina legislators balked at adopting the Columbian mammoth as the state fossil, because that implied that the earth was older than 6000 years.  A bit of trivia:  In Western Christian art, the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is commonly depicted as an apple. This depiction may have originated as a Latin pun:  malum (apple), in Latin, also means evil. The idea of Original Sin saddens me deeply, because it put the Christian Church in a difficult and unwinnable position; simultaneously preaching the love and kindness of Jesus while threatening its adherents with hell and damnation if they don’t obey.

By the 1500’s, the Protestant reformer, John Calvin, elaborating on Augustine’s ideas, preached that humanity’s unbelief and disobedience had so fundamentally changed the human race that little, if anything, of God was left in it.  He believed we were lost, there was no means of help; and whether we are great or small, fathers or children, we are all, without exception, in a state of damnation… What a dour man! And it all started with a sneaky snake!  Calvin also burned his old classmate, Michael Servetus, at the stake, as Michael did not believe in the Trinity, because the Trinity is not Biblical.  So much for freedom!  It’s not hard to see why so many find these teachings absurd and do not want to come to church. It can be a downer!

Today, of course, many Christian denominations have evolved and modified these views, but some of these old beliefs are often still embedded in their DNA.  For example, the belief that one must be baptized to remove one’s sins, including the original sin of Adam, is still a fundamental part of much Christian theology.  But why, if 87% of the U.S. population claims to believe in God and 75% believe in hell, do a little less than 18% regularly attend church?  Some surely do not attend because they see the views of the church as outmoded and absurd. They have likely lost their fear of hell.  Can you imagine a UU minister threatening you with hell if you didn’t attend services?

I am sympathetic to the Christian Church, but I am also being true to our Unitarian heritage.  Thank God, pun intended, Faustus Socinus and the Socinians, our forbearers in Poland, freed us from many long held absurdities.  Around 1579 Socinus professed a belief in the ethical teachings of Jesus, but not the words of Paul, thus rejecting the ideas of Original Sin and eternal damnation.  Jesus death was not atonement for our sins.  The Socinians discarded Calvin and Augustine’s ideas of predestination of the elect, where God, in the beginning, appointed some to eternal salvation and grace, while everybody else was screwed.  The ideas of the Socinians were remarkable and liberal and modern and are still the basis of Unitarian Universalist beliefs.

Socinian thinking was also in conflict with one of the church’s most cherished ideas; the virgin birth of Jesus.  Although this one doesn’t bother me like Original Sin, it is interesting to speculate about its origins.  Virgin birth is not an idea unique to Christianity.  In Egypt, long before the Christian era, Horus, was believed to have been born of the virgin Isis.  In Greece, Adonis came from a virgin birth and was resurrected after being killed by a wild boar.   These are just two of the many virgin myths from long ago.  But in the Old Testament, only in Isaiah 7:14, is there a possible comment about virgin birth; where it says, “a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel, which means “God is with us!”  But, many claim this passage in Hebrew means young woman, not virgin.  Other than this possible debatable reference virgins just don’t give birth in the Old Testament.

The Gospel of Mark is the oldest of the four Gospels and yet Mark said nothing about the birth of Jesus. Maybe he didn’t think it was remarkable. In Mark, we meet Jesus as a young man being baptized by John the Baptist, a common Jewish custom.  It’s not until Matthew, which was written later, that the idea of the Virgin Birth is introduced.  So, why did Matthew include this idea in his Gospel?  He was aware of the passage in Isaiah, but he was also a Syrian, and would have been familiar with Roman myths, where many great heroes were born of virgins. For Matthew, it may have simply been unthinkable that the Messiah would not have had a virgin mom.

The Socinians believed the ethical ideas of Jesus were best explained in the Sermon on the Mount.  They worshipped his teachings but did not believe he was divine.  If Jesus was not divine the story of the virgin birth is irrelevant.  They also believed that religious authority depends upon applying reason to scripture. So, you don’t need priests or preachers to interpret the Bible for you. You have the right to think! The Socinian tradition freed Unitarians from much dogma and myth and allowed us to be free to accept that knowledge has evolved.

We can respectfully disagree with the Christian Church, but neither they nor we have all the answers and we all seek understanding.  I believe we should look at these old Biblical stories gently and respectfully.  They made sense 2000 years ago and are a part of us.  I still love the hope of the Christmas Story and singing “Silent Night,” even if I don’t literally believe it. I also recognize that the Church is an imperfect institution, built by people, complete with their dreams, hopes, insecurities, jealousies, anger, and egos.  Many churches are doing wonderful work; some still cling to authoritarian ways, resist change, and rely on threats and fear. But, it’s not as bad as it was back in Virginia during Colonial days.  Then, if you missed church more than three times in a year, you could be legally executed.  Sadly though, even now, all around the world people are still killing each other in the name of God, which is a very tragic absurdity.

The beliefs established by early Unitarians are who we are.  Skepticism is part of our heritage and gives us the freedom to think, question, doubt, and maybe sometimes even laugh at ourselves.  We try not to fear new ideas, including the findings of science.  I believe we try to be good people, not out of fear, but because we feel this is the best way to live.  I do believe the Unitarian Universalist church is a kinder, gentler place than the church I attended long ago.  Because of who you are and all you do, you actually come closer to living the teachings of Jesus Christ, than many who loudly and publicly trumpet their faith around this land.