UU Minute #116

How John Dietrich and Curtis Reese Met

The great collaborative friendships in Unitarian history include:
Ferenc David and Giorgio Biandrata,
Theophilus Lindsey and Joseph Priestly,
Eleanor Gordon and Mary Safford.

To that list must be added John Dietrich and Curtis Reese. It began like this.

In 1911, John Dietrich, a Reformed Church minister facing defrocking, resigned from that denomination, became a Unitarian, and began serving the First Unitarian Society of Spokane, Washington. Through long and meticulous sermons, he developed an approach to religion without Jesus, God, hell, heaven, or even souls. By 1915, he was calling this approach, “humanism.”

In 1916, after 5 years in Spokane, Dietrich accepted a call to serve the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis where he continued to develop and build his case for humanism.

Meanwhile, Curtis Williford Reese had encountered biblical criticism in seminary, and it planted seeds of doubt. His first pastorate had been at a relatively liberal Baptist church in Ohio where he could and did say what he believed – but couldn't and didn't say what he didn't believe. He didn't believe the infallibility of the Bible, nor the virgin birth, nor redemption through Christ, nor eternal damnation. Eventually, Curtis Reese switched over to the Unitarians, because they accepted his nonbeliefs as well as his beliefs and because they embraced the social gospel movement, which saw social justice as an imperative. Reese accepted a call to serve the Des Moines, Iowa, Unitarian Church.

In 1917, the annual meeting of the Western Unitarian Conference was held in Des Moines, with the Des Moines minister, Rev. Curtis Reese, serving as host and Rev. John Dietrich, down from Minneapolis, attending. So that is where John Dietrich and Curtis Reese met.

And that meeting was the beginning of a friendship, and the beginning of the movement called American Religious Humanism.

NEXT: Reese Shocks the East


UU MInute #115

Origins of Unitarian Humanism

Humanism. The word was used for a Renaissance revival of interest in ancient Greek and Roman works. The humanist movement in the early 20th century also emphasized authorities other than scripture or priests. The latter movement, however, put its faith not in antiquity, but in science, and progress, and human reason to work out all problems, technological and social.

At the 1908 American Philosophical Association meeting at Cornell University one of the talks was by Rev. Frank Doan – a Unitarian minister on the faculty of Meadville Theological School. Rev. Doan introduced his philosophy, which he called “cosmic humanism.”

It was essentially a liberal Christianity, but Doan insisted upon starting with the human in his search for the divine. That 1908 talk was the first time – as far as anybody's been able to tell – that a Unitarian minister used the term "humanism."

John Hassler Dietrich, 30 years old in 1908 was a minister in the Reformed Church and not present for Doan’s talk, but Dietrich on his own was beginning to inch in the same direction. By 1911, the Reformed Church accused Dietrich of heresies including denying the infallibility of the Bible, denying the virgin birth of Jesus, denying the deity of Jesus, and denying the efficacy of the atonement.

Compelled to resign his ministry, Dietrich became Unitarian, and accepted a call to serve the First Unitarian Society of Spokane Washington. From the Spokane pulpit, Dietrich continued to evolve and develop his theology, leaving traditional theism farther and farther behind. In his fifth year at Spokane, he announced he was adopting the term “humanism” as a good name for his interpretation of religion, in contrast to theism.

Meanwhile, at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, an earnest young man named Curtis Williford Reese, was preparing for Baptist ministry.

NEXT: How John Dietrich and Curtis Reese Met


What Evil Is

Why is there evil?

The question has provoked religious and theological speculation and debate for time out of mind. The question, “Why is there evil?” seems to conjure dark and mysterious forces at work in human affairs – so dark and mysterious that the question is unanswerable.

Evil has for so long been a religious issue, though not so much because religion gives an intelligible answer to why there is evil. More because religion affords some ways of coping with, of making our peace as best we can with this dark mystery at the source of our pain and loss.

If we ask instead, “Why is there cruelty?” the question has a different feel – the feel of something that is not an impenetrable mystery, but a matter on which researchers have shed some light, and are at work devising ways to shed more.

I preached here about evil before – nine and half years ago, in October 2013. I said then that the word “evil” functions as a thought-stopper. We say something’s evil, and we’re off the hook to look into the matter any more deeply. "It’s evil – End of story." End of thinking. If we call someone “evil," we’ve given ourselves something that feels like an explanation but actually explains nothing at all. A person calling something evil probably doesn’t want an explanation, doesn’t want to understand, but just wants the thing destroyed – because what follows from, “it’s evil,” is “it must be destroyed.”

In that sermon, I went on to talk about sociopaths – what sociopathy is and some ways society might best deal with having people like that among us. Today, we’ll explore cruelty that comes from normal people. By “normal,” I mean people who have normal levels of empathy. Empathy is how we avoid cruelty, and psychological conditions such as borderline personality disorder, psychopathy, and narcissism are characterized by empathy deficits. But people who have average levels of empathy, may also sometimes be induced to behave cruelly. We’ll look at the sociology instead of the psychology of cruelty – how empathy can get misdirected rather than how empathy may be absent.

I need to clarify what sort of empathy I’ll be talking about. Sometimes people may speak of empathy as a “feeling with” in an enmeshed, unboundaried way. That’s not the form of empathy I’m talking about. I’m talking about empathy as
“our ability to identify what someone else is thinking or feeling and to respond to their thoughts and feelings with an appropriate emotion.” (Simon Baron-Cohen, The Science of Evil, p. 17)
It means suspending single-minded focus on oneself and adopting a double-minded focus of being also concerned with other people’s interests. It need not mean that we can’t keep our interests and others’ interests separate, or that we don’t have appropriate boundaries.

The double-minded focus of empathy allows us to keep an eye on self while also attending to another – identifying what someone else is thinking or feeling, responding with an appropriate emotion. For most of us, empathy is what steers us away from cruelty, and without it we much more easily slide into cruelty – more oblivious to unintentional cruelty, and more prone to intentional cruel.

The thesis that empathy is the solution to cruelty is generally true. If we cultivate the skills of picking up what others are thinking and feeling, which goes hand in hand with knowing what we ourselves are thinking and feeling, and the desire to connect with, care about, and be helpful to others – then we are doing our part to make the world less cruel.

There are two caveats or challenges to this thesis: (1) What about people who lack empathy yet aren’t cruel? And, (2) what about people who have normal levels of empathy, yet still commit acts of cruel harm?

To the first point: It’s true that not all low-empathy people are susceptible to cruelty. People on the autism spectrum are low on empathy, but they are not evil, and are not cruel, notwithstanding the hurt feelings their social faux pas might provoke. People with Asperger’s Syndrome – which is not an official diagnosis, but more an informal name for a certain range on the autism spectrum where the symptoms are less severe than other kinds of autism spectrum disorders – can’t read people. They can’t tell if you’re upset, but if they are told you’re upset, it matters to them, and if there’s something they can do to help you feel better, they are ready to do it, if they know what it is.

Without empathy, which draws us into a shared world, people with Asperger’s may seem to be in a world of their own. So, they talk about themselves mostly and tend to zero in on a single subject. They dislike change. Clinical psychologist and Cambridge professor Simon Baron-Cohen says that this type of person has
“a mind constantly striving to step out of time, to set aside the temporal dimension in order to see – in stark relief – the eternal repeating patterns in nature. Change represents the temporal dimension seeping into an otherwise perfectly predictable, systemizable world.... They may become aware of the dimension of time only during events that contain novelty and that therefore violate expectations.” (Baron-Cohen, p. 156)
For them, change is very frightening, and they are drawn to predictable patterns. For that very reason, people with Asperger’s may make huge contributions to society. They are great systemizers, and can suss out patterns that the rest of us never recognize because we’re too busy attending to our own and each other’s feelings and moods, and going with the flow of time and change rather than trying to step out of it.

So, as we reflect, it’s important to bear in mind that there are ways to be a good person, and make very valuable contributions to society, without empathy.

Now consider the reverse: people who have normal empathy, yet behave cruelly. Where does their empathy go? It’s not gone. It can get hijacked – misdirected. Hannah Arendt coined the phrase “banality of evil” in writing about the trial of the Nazi Adolph Eichmann. Per Arendt, Eichmann wasn’t evil in the sense of intending to do harm. Rather, he was evil in the sense failing to think about the crime he was committing. Evil, in Arendt’s account,
“is perpetuated when immoral principles become normalized over time by unthinking people. Evil becomes commonplace; it becomes the everyday. Ordinary people — going about their everyday lives — become complicit actors in systems that perpetuate evil.” (Jack Maden, “Hannah Arendt On Standing Up to the Banality of Evil,” philosophybreak.com, 2020 May)
Along these lines is the famous Stanley Milgram study. Milgram, a professor at Yale, recruited nearly a thousand volunteer subjects.
“Arriving in pairs, they would draw lots assigning one [subject] to the role of ‘teacher,’ and the other to that of ‘learner.’ The teachers were seated in front of a large device which they were told was a shock machine. They were then instructed to perform a memory test with the learner, who was strapped to a chair in the next room. For every wrong answer, the teacher had to press a switch to administer an electric shock. In reality, the learner was always a member of Milgram’s team, and the machine didn’t deliver shocks at all. But the teachers didn’t know that. They thought this was a study on the effect of punishment on memory and didn’t realize the study was really about them. The shocks started small, a mere 15 volts. But each time the learner gave a wrong answer, a man in a grey lab coat directed the teacher to raise the voltage. From 15 volts to 30. From 30 vots to 45. An so on, no matter how loudly the learner in the next room screamed, and even after reaching the zone labelled DANGER: SEVERE SHOCK. At 350 volts the learner pounded on the wall. After that, he went silent.” (Rutger Bregman, Humankind, p. 161)
Milgram found that
“65 percent of the study participants continued right up to the furthest extreme and administered the full 450 volts. Apparently, two-thirds of those ordinary dads, pals, and husbands were willing to electrocute a random stranger. Why? Because someone told them to.” (Bregman)
Published in 1963, as the world was processing the recent fact of Nazi atrocities, Milgram's study appeared to have answered the question, “What kind of person was capable of sending millions to the gas chambers?” And the answer Milgram’s study suggested was: all of us. It turns out there’s more to it than what has usually been mentioned in accounts of Milgram's experiment.

Arendt’s book on Eichmann came out the same year, 1963, further explicating evil as ordinary – indeed, banal. But I want to say to you today that we humans are better than Milgram and Arendt made us out to be.
“David Cesarini argues that Hannah Arendt stayed only for the beginning of the trial, when Eichmann wanted to appear as ordinary as possible. In fact, had she stayed longer, she would have seen how he had exercised creativity in the murders. He was not just blindly following orders.” (Baron-Cohen)
The story isn’t that Eichmann was a normally empathic person whose empathy was over-ruled by his also normal proclivity for blind obedience to authority. Rather, the full story indicates Eichmann had well-below normal levels of empathy. His failure to think about the crime he was committing was actually an inability to think from someone else’s perspective. It was a failure of empathy.

Eichmann had declared back in 1945,
“I will leap into my grave laughing because the feeling that I have five million human beings on my conscience is for me a source of extraordinary satisfaction.”
Rutger Bregman writes:
“Reading through the thirteen hundred pages of interviews, teeming with warped ideas and fantasies, it’s patently obvious that Eichmann was no brainless bureaucrat. He was a fanatic. He acted not out of indifference but out of conviction.” (p. 171)
The subjects in Milgram’s experiment did have normal levels of empathy – and they actually did a better job of resisting evil than Milgram’s reporting of his results let on.

When, about 12 years ago, Gina Perry learned that archives of Milgram’s audio recordings in his study were available, she was keen to hear them. She learned that that
“man in the grey lab coat – a biology teacher Milgram had hired named John Williams – would make as many as eight or nine attempts to get people to continue pressing higher switches. He even came to blows with one forty-six-year-old woman who turned the shock machine off. Williams turned it back on and demanded she continue. ‘The slavish obedience to authority,’ writes Gina Perry, ‘comes to sound much more like bullying and coercion when you listen to these recordings.’” (Bregman, p. 165)
Additionally, although Milgram had written that “with few exceptions subjects were convinced of the reality of the experimental situation” – that wasn’t true. Think about it.
“Were people seriously expected to believe that someone was being tortured under the watchful eye of scientists from a prestigious institution like Yale?” (Bregman, p. 166)
Eleven years after his 1963 article which had such impact, Milgram’s 1974 book, Obedience to Authority, in the last chapter, includes the information that a questionnaire participants were sent when the study was over showed “that only 56 percent of his subjects said they believed they were actually inflicting pain on the learner.” So that means 44 percent of subjects had doubts about whether the shocks were real. That would account for most of the 65 percent of subjects who pushed the buttons for the maximum shock.

“A never-published analysis by one of Milgram’s assistants reveals that the majority of people called it quits if they did believe the shocks were real.” (Bregman, p. 166)
Still, that leaves at least 21 percent of participants who believed the shocks were real and still continued to the maximum. That’s a lot. And it’s also true that “psychologists the world over have replicated [Milgram’s] shock experiment in various iterations with minor modifications.” They get similar results.

But look. People volunteer for the study because they want to help. They arrive feeling helpful. They want to be of service to science. The man in the gray lab coat had a script of prompts to encourage people to keep going, and the most successful prompt was, “The experiment requires that you continue.” It’s for the sake of science, and learning, and human advancement, and better lives for us all.

This motivation to be helpful also played a role in the famous Zimbardo prison experiment in which students role-played at being guards and prisoners, and the perfectly normal students randomly assigned to play guards turned into raging sadistic abusers of the prisoners. Turns out they did so because they’d been explicitly instructed to do so, and were just trying to be helpful for contributing to scientific understanding. The story isn’t one of a failure of empathy, of an inability to see what someone else is thinking or feeling and coordinate ourselves with it. The story is that the participants were empathetic to the researchers and they sought to coordinate themselves to what appeared to be the noble project of research.

As Rutger Bregman concludes from all this:
“In other words, if you push people hard enough, if you poke and prod, bait and manipulate, many of us are indeed capable of doing evil. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. But evil doesn’t live just beneath the surface; it takes immense effort to draw it out. And most importantly, evil has to be disguised as doing good.” (p. 170)
We are most tempted to evil when it masquerades as good. It’s because we are so very pro-social that we can be sometimes be manipulated into doing harm.

We aren’t monsters, and we aren’t mindless robots. What we are is joiners. And that can sometimes get misdirected. Once we know that, we can resist attempts at misdirection. The empathy that steers us away from cruelty can be trained to not be tricked into instead steering us the wrong direction.
“In 2015, Matthew Hollander reviewed the taped recordings of 117 sessions at Milgram’s shock machine. After extensive analysis, he discovered a pattern. The subjects who managed to halt the experiment used three tactics. (1) Talk to the victim. (2) Remind the man the grey lab coat of his responsibility. (3) Repeatedly refuse to continue.”
These can be generalized into our guidelines:
  • Talk to the injured.
  • Remind the authorities of their responsibility.
  • And repeatedly refuse to comply with systems that are doing harm.
“Communication and confrontation, compassion and resistance. Hollander discovered that virtually all participants used these tactics – virtually all wanted to stop, after all – but that those who succeeded used them much more. The good news is: these are trainable skills. Resistance just takes practice. ‘What distinguishes Milgram’s heroes,’ Hollander observes, ‘is largely a teachable competency at resisting questionable authority.’” (Bregman, pp. 174-75)
That’s what I am urging today. Cultivate empathy. Pay attention to what other people are feeling. This includes having empathy for yourself. Coordinate with other people’s feelings – while being self-defined and boundaried.

Overall, we become more joyous people, and our world becomes brighter when we can do that. And keep an eye out for the possibility that coordinating with other people’s feelings might take you toward rather than away from cruelty. Where that’s a possibility: talk to the injured, encourage authorities to be responsible, and repeatedly refuse to continue.

So may it be.



UU Minute #114

Noncreedalism Victorious

Unitarianism started out as noncreedal – and for many of us in the early 1800s, being noncreedal was fine as long being Christian could safely be assumed. Sixty or so years later, around the end of the Civil War, when a few Unitarians began to identify as nonChristian, that assumption was no longer safe. The Conservatives among us then felt that an official declaration positioning Unitarianism within Christianity was necessary after all.

So, starting in 1865 at the first Unitarian national conference, the conservatives, who wanted Unitarianism to declare itself Christian, and the radicals, who didn’t, were at odds. Finally, after almost 30 years, at the 1894 General Conference in Saratoga, New York, a compromise was reached that was acceptable both to Henry Bellows’ “Broad Church” conservatives and to the Free Religious Association radicals. The new statement made reference to the religion of Jesus, but asserted that this religion reduced to “love of God and love to man.” It emphasized our congregational polity, and cordially invited to “our fellowship any who, while differing from us in belief, are in general sympathy with our spirit and practical aims.”

Two years later, in 1896, the conservative Western Unitarian Association folded – just ten years after it had begun and despite having initially had all the backing of the national body. The radical Western Unitarian Conference had prevailed.

We had come back to the noncreedal principles from which we began, and the Free Religious Association had played a key role in bringing about the shift. The F.R.A. included some nonUnitarians, but its main function was to keep the Unitarians true to noncreedalism. That function now fulfilled, the F.R.A. began to fade – though it continued 20 more years before dissolving in 1914.

The ground was laid for the emergence of Unitarian Humanism.

NEXT: Origins of Unitarian Humanism


The Absent Presences: Passover and Easter

Now the green blade riseth, from the buried grain,
Wheat that in dark earth many days has lain;
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.

When our hearts are wintry, grieving, or in pain,
Your touch can call us back to life again,
Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been:
Love is come again like wheat arising green.
--John McLeod Campbell Crum
When we are all despairing:
when the world is full of grief;
when we see no way ahead,
and hope has gone away;
      Roll back the stone.

Although we fear change;
although we are not ready;
although we’d rather weep
and run away:
      Roll back the stone.

Because we’re coming with the women;
because we hope where hope is vain;
because you call us from the grave
and show us the way:
      Roll back the stone.
--Janet Morley

Passover, Ramadan, and Easter – here we are in this confluence of holiest days of the three Abrahamic traditions. Passover: bring out the festal bread and sing songs of freedom. We celebrate the Hebrew escape from the bondage in Egypt – and reflect on our own path to freedom. To what, in your life, have you been in bondage, and have, at least somewhat, freed yourself? That’s worth celebrating. Bring out the festal bread and sing songs of freedom. And to what are you now in bondage, that you may yet break free of? For freedom is ever the half-won blessing, the ongoing project. Its unfinished work lies before us.
What modern pharaohs live in arrogance crowned?...
Chains still there are to break, metal or subtle made....
Still does resentment bind each brother and sister.....
Long be our journeying, yet justice is worth it.

It is rare indeed for a human to attain complete freedom. New chains appear. Old chains return. And their constraints are often so comfortable, for a while. It’s no easy thing to commit to a path of freedom, of liberation.

Here, then, are the questions for your Passover reflection: What decisive break with a big part of your past is called for? What sacrifices will that mean? What effects this will have on others? And, importantly, who can help you? Who is there who go with you on this journey, who can walk with you on your path to liberation? Remember: not one of the Israelites walked out of Egypt alone. We need each other to become free. That’s the Passover story for us.

Ramadan celebrates the revelation of the Koran to Muhammad. Whether you’ve ever looked at a Koran or not, there is some source for what we understand of what is true and how to live in this world – and there’s something wonderful, mysterious, and miraculous about how that came to be – something worth celebrating.

For the rest of our time this holiday, let’s look at this Easter story. For us Unitarian Universalists, emerging as we do out of Christianity, Easter is the more central, and there are certain themes that are basic to our Unitarian Universalist tradition. They are perhaps not as well established as the Passover themes are in a Jewish congregation, or the Ramadan themes in a Muslim congregation -- after all, we are a newer tradition. Still, the basic UU themes are well enough established that even the AI program, ChatGPT, can competently identify them.

When I asked ChatGPT to write an Easter sermon for a Unitarian Universalist congregation, this is what it said:
Dear friends,

Happy Easter to all of you!

As Unitarian Universalists, we gather today to celebrate the renewal of spring and the resurrection of hope. This is a time of year when we witness the beauty of nature and the rebirth of life all around us. And as we gather on this special day, we also take time to reflect on the meaning of Easter and what it means for us as a community.

Now, I know that Easter is traditionally celebrated in the Christian faith as a day to commemorate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. However, as Unitarian Universalists, we come from a wide range of spiritual backgrounds and beliefs. So, today, I invite us all to explore the meaning of Easter in a way that is personal and meaningful to each of us.

For me, Easter is a time to celebrate the human spirit and the power of hope. It is a time to acknowledge the struggles and hardships that we face in our lives, and to remember that we have the strength and resilience to overcome them. It is a time to embrace the beauty and wonder of the world around us, and to find joy in the small things that make life worth living.

As we look around us today, we see the signs of spring all around us – the flowers blooming, the birds singing, the sun shining. These are the signs of hope and renewal that we celebrate at Easter. And as we celebrate them, we also remember that hope is not just a fleeting feeling, but a powerful force that can inspire us to create positive change in our lives and in the world around us.

So, let us all take a moment to reflect on the hope and renewal that Easter brings. Let us celebrate the beauty and wonder of the world around us, and let us find strength and inspiration in the knowledge that we are capable of overcoming even the greatest challenges. And let us go forth from this place with renewed hope and a commitment to making the world a better place for all.

Happy Easter, my friends. May this day be filled with joy, hope, and renewal for each and every one of us.
ChatGPT AI has never experienced hope, or renewal – beauty or rebirth or celebration or joy. It has simply been fed billions of words of text and extracted the ones that statistically go with Easter and Unitarian Universalist and arranged them according to principles of grammar – and the sermon form – and produced this bland but essentially accurate summary of how our tradition regards Easter. You and I, unlike ChatGPT, have flesh and bone bodies that have felt the cold of winter. We have eyeballs that have seen the barren trees for months. We have skin that lately has at last been again feeling the warmth of the springtime sun. We have the viscera to viscerally feel the wonder and delight at the daffodils and bloodroot blossoms breaking forth from Earth that not so long ago was frozen hard.

We have bodies that respond to beauty, experience its joy, and feel inside the stirrings of celebration. We find these bodily experiences enhanced and deepened by articulating them in words. The disembodied AI can do OK at pulling those words together, but it is to our embodied lives that those words can mean something – and it is to our collective embodiment as a community that we help each other realize our prayer for days “filled with joy, hope, and renewal for each and every one of us.”

Across the various different interpretations of Christian faith, our UU tradition is to seek an underlying universal truth. We look for a meaning of resurrection that we, too, can affirm – a universal truth of resurrection. And it’s not hard to find: it’s right there in the perennial cycles of nature: fall, to winter, to the spring in which the world, which had seemed to lie cold and dead, is resurrected to life again.

We can also look more carefully into the story – what we can tell of it. You heard earlier from William Channing Gannet who laid out in 1887 some “Things Commonly Believed Among Us.” He said, “We honor the Bible and all inspiring scripture, revere Jesus and all holy souls that have taught truth, righteousness, and love.” And there is an interesting story and instructive story there. There is the wonderful new life of springtime to pause and breathe deeply in and allow to delight us, and there’s also this story about a beloved teacher and healer who died – who was executed in the prime of his life – and how his followers carried on in the face of this.

To understand what Jesus was really all about, argues scholar John Dominic Crossan, look at the way he took meals – the theology of food that he exemplified – the meaning of eating together.

Anthropologists Peter Farb and George Armelagos write:
“In all societies, both simple and complex, eating is the primary way of initiating and maintaining human relationships…. Once the anthropologist finds out where, when, and with whom the food is eaten, just about everything else can be inferred about the relations among the society’s members…. To know what, where, how, when, and with whom the people eat is to know the character of their society.”
To bring home to our own experience the way that eating reflects social position, Crossan suggests:
“Think, for a moment, if beggars came to your door, of the difference between giving them some food to go, of inviting them into your kitchen for a meal, of brining them into the dining room to eat in the evening with your family, or of having them back on Saturday night for supper with a group of your friends. Think, again, if you were a large company’s CEO, of the difference between a cocktail party in the office for all the employees, a restaurant lunch for all the middle managers, or a private dinner party for your vice presidents in your own home.”
The structure of our meals recapitulates the structure of power.

And when Crossan examines the gospels, he finds Jesus teaching and exemplifying open commensality. "Commensality" – from “mensa,” Latin for table.
“The rules of tabling and eating [are] miniature models for the rules of association and socialization. Table fellowship [is] a map of economic discrimination, social hierarchy, and political differentiation.” (Crossan)
And for Jesus, the table was open. While John the Baptist had fasted, feasting is more Jesus’ style – and the table was open. While John the Baptist had emphasized a coming future kingdom, Jesus departs from this.
“It is not enough to await a future kingdom; one must enter a present one here and now.”
And that kingdom – that kin-dom – is one of abundance and equal sharing.

The gospels so closely associate Jesus with meal time that the Eucharist became Christianity’s sacrament. In the miracle story of the loaves and fishes, there are hundreds gathered – and all end up eating. Jesus takes the bread, blesses, breaks and gives. Those are the four basic moves of the life he represents: take, bless, break, and give.
Take – receive. Open to take what experience and the world bring.
Bless – or, that is, be grateful. Pause for a moment of gratitude.
And then break into parts for giving back.

And consider this parable, from Luke 14:
He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers and sisters or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

One of the dinner guests, on hearing this, said to him, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!”

Then Jesus said to him, “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is ready now.’ But they all alike began to make excuses.

The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my regrets.’

Another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my regrets.’

Another said, ‘I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.’ So the slave returned and reported this to his master.

Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, ‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’

And the slave said, ‘Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.’

Then the master said to the slave, ‘Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled.’"
Now that’s an open table. And consider what a horrific mess that would be to the standard hierarchical values of the time.
“If one actually brought in anyone off the street, one could, in such a situation, have classes, sexes, and ranks all mixed up together. Anyone could be reclining next to anyone else, female next to male, free next to slave, socially high next to socially low, and ritually pure next to ritually impure." (Crossan)
What a social nightmare that would be! Crossan comments that:
“The social challenge of such equal or egalitarian commensality is the parable’s most fundamental danger and most radical threat. It is only a story, of course, but it is one that focuses its egalitarian challenge on society’s miniature mirror, the table, as the place where bodies meet to eat.”
And Jesus lived out his own parable. Open commensality is the model of the Kin-dom of God. The nondiscriminating table represents the nondiscriminating society.

This was a great annoyance to those who regarded open and free association as a thing to be avoided. First century Mediterranean culture emphasized honor and shame – and Jesus’ open table was profoundly subversive.

Two messages are clear. One is the radical egalitarianism of the open table. The other is that it happens right here and now – among the people around us today. When the table is open, that is the kingdom, the kin-dom, of God -- and the kin-dom of God is, as Jesus says, within you. The Greek preposition here means both within and among. The kin-dom of God is within and among you. “It is not enough to await a future kingdom; one must enter a present one here and now.”

But that was all just too radical for Paul – the erstwhile Pharisee and persecutor of Christians who had a conversion experience. But Paul never broke bread with Jesus – didn’t really grasp the open commensality. And here we come back to the Easter story, for the emphasis on Jesus’ bodily resurrection community is an invention of Paul. For Paul, the end of the world was not merely imminent, but had already begun – and Jesus’ resurrection was but prelude to a general resurrection. Thus, for Paul, the Sunday of which we are today celebrating the anniversary was the beginning of a religion of the end-times.

But Paul’s form of Christianity was not, for some time, the only form of Christianity being practiced. As Crossan explains:
"What happened historically is that those who believed in Jesus before his execution continued to do so afterward. Easter is not about the start of a new faith, but about the continuation of an old one. That is the only miracle and the only mystery, and it is more than enough of both…. It is a terrible trivialization to imagine that all Jesus’ followers lost their faith on Good Friday and had it restored by apparitions on Easter Sunday. It is another trivialization to presume that even those who lost their nerve, fled, and hid also lost their faith, hope, and love.”
At the center of this story of new life is a story of a beloved person’s death. For those who, unlike Paul, were followers of Jesus while Jesus was still alive, Good Friday represents the transition to Jesus as an absent presence in their lives.

If Easter is fundamentally about continuing, about carrying forward the absent presences in our lives, then, for our Easter exercise today let me invite you now to call to mind an absent presence in your life – a person who was beloved of you who has died. Close your eyes, if you like, and call an image to your mind’s eye – of a person whose being is interwoven into yours. They live on not merely in your memory, but in the very cast of your mind, and the habits of your heart. Writes Wendell Berry:
“The dead remain in thought as much alive as they ever were, and yet increased in stature and grown remarkably near. The older I have got and the better acquainted among the dead, the plainer it has become to me that I live in the company of immortals. We live in their love, and we know something of the cost. Sometimes in the darkness of my own shadow I know that I could not see at all were it not for this old injury of love and grief.”
The very absence of those who have died somehow puts them with you in a way they never were before. You even somehow know them better than you did before – or imagine you did. And imagination is all we have ever had of another person. Even when they were alive, we imagined what and who they were. We did not understand them – for we do not understand even ourselves, let alone another person. So beyond understanding, we have imagining. And beyond even imagining, we have love.

That exercise may give you a sense of the absent presence that Jesus became for his followers when he died. Moreover, some dim echo of that absent presence continues in us when we, too, are inspired by the vision of the open table, of radical hospitality and radical equality, of the kin-dom of God that is among us.

Recall the Passover point with which we began: that the project of freedom is ongoing. We may now add that the absent presences are with us on that journey – and that somehow our quest for freedom is also, finally, their liberation.

May it be so. Blessed be. Amen.


UU Minute #113

Things Most Commonly Believed Among Us

The 1886 Western Unitarian Conference rejected pleas of conservatives, led by Jabez Sunderland, and moved, instead, toward greater inclusion of theological diversity. The Conference revised its statement about who it welcomed into fellowship, replacing the phrase, “all who wish to work with it in advancing the kingdom of God,” with the phrase, “all who wish to join it to help establish Truth, Righteousness, and Love in the world.”

The conservatives were stunned. Within weeks, they withdrew from the Western Unitarian Conference to form the Western Unitarian Association. The national association, still tending conservative, threw all its support to the new Western Unitarian Association, and declined to recognize in any way the Western Conference, which nevertheless continued to meet.

The next year, at the Western Conference 1887 meeting, Rev. William Channing Gannett presented "Things Commonly Believed Among Us" – which was adopted by a vote of 59-3. Gannett’s statement affirmed:
“To love the Good and live the Good is the supreme thing in religion. Reason and conscience are final authorities of religion. We honor the Bible and all inspiring scripture, revere Jesus and all holy souls that have taught truth, righteousness, and love. Human nobility is growing, and the unfolding Universe is beautiful and beneficent. Good and evil invariably carry their own recompense; no good thing is failure and no evil thing success; heaven and hell are states of being; and all things work together for the victory of the Good. We ought to work together to advance the good, counting nothing good for self that is not good for all. The self-forgetting, loyal life awakes in us a union with things eternal. We worship that Light which lights every one, giving us power to become children of God — and that Love with which our souls commune.”

NEXT: Noncreedalism Victorious


UU Minute #112

Those Radical Westerners!

As European settler-colonists moved westward, Unitarian churches sprung up west of the Appalachians. In 1852, theses churches formed the Western Unitarian Conference. In 1875, the Western Unitarian Conference hired a missionary secretary: the liberal Jenkin Lloyd Jones.

With Jones’ support, the Western Unitarian Conference adopted a statement that it “conditions its fellowship on no dogmatic tests but welcomes all thereto who wish to work with it in advancing the Kingdom of God.” And Jones set out to encourage the spread of all varieties of liberalism and a scientifically respectable faith they called scientific theism.

It was just what the Free Religious Association was advocating for – but failing to advance – among our Eastern congregations. At the national level, the 1882 National Conference took a small liberalizing step, adopting a new article saying, again, that the statements of belief did reflect the majority view – however, those statements "are no authoritarian test of Unitarianism and are not intended to exclude from our fellowship any in general sympathy with our purposes and practical aims." All the radicals were admitted back into the year-book.

The liberal movement of the Western Conference was not without conservative backlash. By the 1886 Western Unitarian Conference Annual Meeting, Jenkin Lloyd Jones had been succeeded by conservative Jabez Sunderland. Sunderland addressed that 1886 conference:
“Is Western Unitarianism ready to give up its Christian theistic character? A united, purposive, determined group of men want to remove Unitarianism off its historic base to Free or Ethical Religion. This Western Unitarian Conference has been dangerously slipping from Unitarianism's age-old commitment to 'God and worship, to the idea of divine humanity that shines in Christ Jesus.”
But in the West, the liberals had the votes. Instead of following Sunderland, the Western Conference moved toward even greater inclusion of diverse beliefs.

NEXT: Things Most Commonly Believed Among Us