The Transient and Permanent in Religion
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, October 8, 2006
The preacher for the evening was the Rev. Theodore Parker, 31 years old, minister for only a short time himself at the Unitarian Church in nearby West Roxbury. The title of Parker’s sermon was “The Transient and Permanent in Christianity”; his text: verse 33 from the twenty-first chapter of the Gospel according to Luke: “Heaven and earth shall pass away,” Jesus says there, “but my word shall not pass away.”
Parker spoke—and ignited one of the great American theological controversies of the 19th century.
Several of the more conservative members of the clergy taking part in the service soon expressed themselves “appalled” that views as “radical” and unorthodox as those of Parker could be uttered in a church calling itself Christian. They were just as horrified that such views as Parker’s might even be deemed “acceptable” among other members of the Unitarian clergy. Many Unitarian ministers responded that-- no!—of course, Parker wasn’t speaking for them—they hardly agreed with what he had said at Shackford’s ordination, either. Indeed, in the months that followed, many of Parker’s colleagues in the Unitarian ministry would attempt to excommunicate him from the Unitarian fold, and force him out of the ministry altogether. They would almost succeed.
But then, time passed. Within a generation, Parker had emerged as a spokesman for the mainstream of American Unitarianism; his ideas widely held among members of the liberal clergy. Within another generation, many of Parker’s words would already seem antiquated to some; they would read to more modern ears as mere remnants of the past.
Members of any religious group, it seems to me—Catholic or Protestant or Jew or Muslim or UU or what have you—are called upon to enter into constant conversation with our heritage. In order for our tradition to be a living presence, alive within our beings today, there has to be a steady stream of dialogue between where we are, and where our tradition is. We are called upon, it seems to me, to take up the religious beliefs and forms and rituals of those who came before us, and bend them, and mould them, and see how they fit our own needs, in our own times.
For us as Unitarian Universalists, where our rate of change does seem so much more accelerated than it does in most (if not all) other religious faiths, it can seem as though the conversation we have with our heritage, and the traditions of the past, can be an extremely loud and even contentious conversation at times (often more an argument than a conversation, perhaps).
A couple of years ago, the president of our denomination William Sinkford, set off something of a firestorm within our Unitarian Universalist movement when he suggested that, maybe, the time had come for us as a religious body to develop what he called “a language of reverence”—“a language that can acknowledge the presence of the holy in our lives,” Sinkford said. Many of the more humanist members of our fold felt threatened; they thought Sinkford was calling for a retreat back into the dark and fearsome caverns of superstition and traditionalism. Others of us wondered what the big deal was; within UU churches, such discussions had been taking place for years; to some of us, these conversations simply illustrate the creative ambiguity that exists between Unitarian Universalism and its Judeo-Christian roots.
For better or worse, we Unitarian Universalists have always seemed to have a problem with the religious language we employ. Maybe, for better or worse, we always will. At times, it can seem as though the gap between the ways we do and say things, and the ways our religious forbears did, is especially wide, perhaps unbridgeable.
The religious language we employ sounds so very, very different from that which Channing and Emerson and Murray and Ballou and our other Unitarian and Universalist forbears used. Even Theodore Parker—derided by the orthodox of his own day as “too radical”—even as a heathen and a heretic— might sound “quaint” and “old-fashioned” to some of us today, when he speaks of things like the “eternal Word of God” and the “Christ that is born within us.”
In the way we do religion today, the images we utilize and the symbols we choose to employ seem to differ so much from one century to the next—so much so that we may well ask whether we do, in fact, share a heritage, a tradition, with those who have come before. Or do we share nothing more than two long names both of which start with “U”? Are we partners in the same faith of our forbears, or do most Unitarian Universalists today, in reality, practice an entirely different religion than our forefathers and foremothers did, with only the most casual relationship, at most, to the Unitarianism and Universalism that has come before?
We may well ask: If Theodore Parker were alive today, what church would he belong to? Would he even be a Unitarian Universalist? Or would he belong to one of the more traditional Protestant denominations—the Congregationalists, perhaps; or maybe the Quakers?
A good question, perhaps. Though, of course, you can never know the answers to questions like these with 100% certainty.
But I still think Parker would be one of us.
Even a century and a half ago, Parker was exploring areas of religious thought that would still be labeled “radical” by many beyond the walls of this church. Parker’s fundamental religious attitude stood in start contrast to the prevailing attitudes of his day—and no less, our own.
Parker envisioned a religious system which refused to put a fence around the intellect or the spirit. And so do we.
Parker declared that religious faith and reason need not stand in opposition to one another. And so do we. He didn’t think you needed to check your brain at the door when you came to church. And neither do we.
Parker viewed religious revelation as ongoing, ever-deepening, and expanding. And so do we.
Parker declared that the important factor in any religious faith was the fundamental, permanent truth which that faith represented—and not the transient, temporary, fluctuating creeds and rituals of a particular period of history. He saw religious forms as the metaphors which particular faiths used to apprehend a deeper, universal, divinely-inspired truth. It is too easy to get stuck in the metaphor, and ignore the truth it represents, Parker believed—and so do creative and open-minded men and women everywhere, whatever the particular religion they happen to belong to.
Our very humanity places us at the fulcrum between transience and permanence. The little life of each of us, Shakespeare said, is but a glimmer of light between two eternities. We know that compared to the millions of years human life has existed on this planet, the individual span of years of any one of us can seem utterly insignificant. But deep within us, we also have a fundamental urge to experience that which is permanent, and share in that which is eternal. Maybe this is the reason we human ones have religions in the first place: to give us just an inkling, just a glimpse, a foretaste, of those ideals and truths which last forever, which were and are and evermore shall be.
In order for the forms of our faith even to approach, in the vaguest way, the dynamic, permanent aspects of religious reality, they have to be multi-dimensional and alive. They must engage our past, our present, and our future. They must grow out of something which has come before; they can’t be narrowly tied to the present day alone. Yet, they also have to be relevant to where we are, right now; they must engage our present lives in real and significant ways. Finally, a truly dynamic faith must face toward the future; it must give us hope and courage; it must present a challenge, a vision, a glimpse of that which can lie beyond the “wide horizon’s grander view.”
Now, the most mystical and saintly among us may be able to commune directly with God, and may be able to experience, within this life, a complete and total harmony with the divine.
But most of us are tied too closely to the earth to exist within the heady atmosphere of the spiritual realm for too long, In our religious lives, most of us need stuff and substance: material touchstones like symbols and ceremonies and rituals and statements of belief. We need to be reminded and instructed through these of what we’re aiming at—who it is we are trying to be as religious people. The religious forms we choose give us a focus; they add a vertical dimension of “something more/ something deeper” to the linear, horizontal life we lead in this world, most of our time. “Religious forms may be useful and beautiful,” Theodore Parker himself reminds us, “whenever they speak to the soul, and answer a want thereof.”
What kinds of religious forms, then, do, indeed, “speak to the soul”? What kinds of religious forms provide that vertical dimension for us—and transcend the transient here and now, here today/ gone tomorrow world in which we spend so many of our waking hours?
Another great prophet of 19th Century Unitarianism, Ralph Waldo Emerson, reminds us that “Faith makes us, and not we it, and faith makes its own forms.” Emerson also tells us that we must “breathe new life into the forms of old.”
There are particular religious forms, Emerson believed, which are timeless; which transcend the particular age in which they arose. If he were alive in our own time, Emerson might say that these forms were “hardwired’ into our very makeup as human beings; they are just part of who we are.
But Emerson, perhaps more than any other major religious figure of his day, opposed clinging to the ways of the past for the sake of history or tradition alone. He didn’t think we should do things one way, simply because they had “always” been done that way. Indeed, he eventually left the Unitarian ministry when his congregation demanded that he serve communion, for no deeper reason than that it had “always been done” in the church he served.
Emerson exhorts us to “breathe new life into forms of old”. But how do we give old forms new life without clinging too rigidly to them?
In the fifth chapter of the gospel according to Luke, Jesus speaks of the relationship between new ways of doing things and old ones, and how much his followers owed to the traditions that have come before. “And no one puts new wine into old wineskins,” he says, “otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed.” New wine has to be put into new wineskins, Jesus says. “New occasions teach new duties”; new ideas require new forms; a new age requires new ways of doing things.
But then, Jesus goes on: “And no one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, ‘The old is good.’”
If we’re always busy pouring new wine into new bottles, then how will the wine we drink ever have a chance to age and mellow? It will always be too new, immature, lacking in that bouquet and body which only age can bring.
Likewise, if we always live our religious lives with the button stuck on fast forward, then don’t be surprised if the religious forms we employ soon seem as inspirational and spiritual as reading from the editorial page of yesterday’s Boston Globe or the I.R.S. tax code.
In all fields of human endeavor, it seems only natural for one generation to take up where the generation before has left off. We don’t expect chemists or biologists or physicists to ignore the work of those who have come before. We don’t demand that they toss out all the insights gained by previous generations of scientists, and always start the search back at step one.
Yet, that is just what can happen in our religious lives if we let a compulsive need for “newness” take over. We don’t have to reinvent the religious wheel every time we come to church. The past may have some pain for some of us, I understand. But the past also has valuable religious lessons to teach us. Constantly purging our religious lives of all remnants of the past, and exchanging it for a superficial religious exoticism which constantly demands something new and different, is not a sign of spiritual growth. It’s a sign of religious shortsightedness and immaturity. It takes away any chance for focus in our religious orientation; it destroys any opportunity we might have of restoring that vertical dimension to our living.
So, very simply put, I’m imploring us, in our “free and responsible search for truth and meaning”—in our struggle to discern what is permanent and what is transient in religion-- not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Now, I’m not saying that the religious bathwater doesn’t need to be changed on a regular basis. If we cling to religious language that has lost its power to move us and inspire and stir our souls, then the religious experience can become awfully sludgy and drear, if we keep on swimming around in that same old water, over and over.
And I’m also not saying that there aren’t a lot of religious groups that seem to have kept the old dirty bathwater, and tossed out the baby instead. In what sometimes goes by the name of Christianity—or Islam—or Judaism—or what-faith-have-you these days—there seems to be an awful lot of the murk and mire of human years, and too little of the inspiration and new life and deep love of genuine faith.
My friends, I think we have as good a chance as any household of finding that proper balance between the transient and the permanent in how we practice our faith. Let us remember the words of another of our elder Unitarian brothers, Walt Whitman, who wrote:
Let us seek neither to bind ourselves to the timeworn ways of the past, nor to blind ourselves in the garish and gaudy light of the present. Rather, let us continue to cherish, and to create, living vital symbols, signs, and language which speak to our time—and which speak to the timeless which is within each and every one of us.