Why I am a Christian
Rev. Craig Roshaven
11 September 2005

(transcribed from the Service CD)

It's been quite a journey for me to come to a place where I can say "I am a Christian." As Patrick Gutierrez, who was on the search committee, can attest, when the search committee asked me if I was a Christian back fifteen some years ago, I said " No." I remember when I first went to Starr King School for the Ministry for a visit, and I ran into one of the students, sitting on the front steps -- a place we liked to gather and watch the people on the street go by and visit -- I asked one of them what his theology was and he said "I'm a Christian," and I said "How can you be a Christian and be a Unitarian?" It was hard for me to understand that.

But I've always been attracted to Christianity. It's just that when I looked closer at it, the things I found in it repelled me. The apocalyptic Jesus presented in the Bible, the "God is coming, and boy is he pissed" -- that angry God that even Schweitzer, the great scholar Schweitzer, said "That's the true picture, but Jesus was wrong; we can still have faith" -- that wasn't a very satisfying answer either. So how did I come to this curious place?

It's not a good career move to be a Unitarian Universalist minister and say "I am a Christian." It closes doors to you. I will have a harder time being called by many churches in our movement because they are afraid of a minister who's a Christian. It's an interesting fear; I sometimes think that Christianity is so central to our culture, that even if you're an atheist, it exerts kind of an emotional appeal -- a pull -- and people are afraid that they're kind of going to lose their minds, abandon all judgment, "all hope ye who enter here," sacrifice their intellectual independence, once they go and take that step. It's like they think of themselves as a moth going into a flame: it's very attractive, but don't get too close! You will be consumed.

I know that's how I felt at times as I danced around that flame, as I would come close and then back away and then come close again.

I was bemused to hear a few years ago that someone in the Westside church reported to have said, "Did you hear? Did you hear that Roshaven's a Christian?"

Woops!

It's like -- something's wrong with me. It's really kind of a shame, isn't it, that we've become this way? I like to joke that the Pagans in this church really appreciate the Christians because the Christians are even more of a minority than they are. It's easier to be a Pagan in this church than it is to be a Christian! Isn't that interesting?

To come to this place I had to clear away a lot of false stumbling blocks. The first was that apocalyptic Jesus that even Schweitzer affirmed. And then the Jesus who died for our sins. We were studying in the Bible Workbench this morning Paul's letter to the Romans -- the heart of Paul's gospel. We unpacked some of the stuff that's been falsely attributed to Paul. But I still have this problem with Paul in that he thinks that the purpose of Jesus was to come and die for our sins -- to expiate God's anger at us by his great sacrifice.

But one of the best effects of learning about Unitarian history and theology, as I did when I went to Seminary, was that there are a lot of people – a lot of Christians -- throughout the centuries who've rejected that view of Jesus. Faustus Socinus, widely credited as a precursor to the Unitarians; the Rachovian Catechism he helped create explicitly repudiates substitutionary atonement, which is the fancy theological term for "Jesus died for our sins". Friedrich Schleiermacher, the great theologian, the father of modern Christianity, explicitly -- when he was a young adult, much to his father's dismay -- explicitly rejected substitutionary atonement.

So I had help in clearing away those false stumbling blocks from people who were much more knowledgeable than I.

Another stumbling block is the notion of Jesus as God. Well, that's what the Unitarians were all about! Francis David, the first Unitarian minister, was imprisoned in a dungeon and died there rather than address his prayers to Jesus, because he and the other Unitarians said that the Trinity is not just unscriptural, it's idolatrous! You don't worship Jesus. We worship God, and God is One. A Unitarian minister from Romania was visiting here a few years ago. He serves a congregation that is in a sister relationship with Horizon Unitarian Universalist Church located in Carrolton. I asked him, "Do you still observe that prohibition against addressing Jesus in your prayers?" And he said "Oh, yes!" That history, which is kind of academic to me, is lived to him -- they know that story; they lived that story. It's still important and when I reiterated the reasons why, he said "oh yes" -- that's how he understands it. And they are ALL Christians over there!

I was also helped by the wonderful contributions of John Dominic Crossan and other Biblical scholars, who, blessed with academic freedom and independence, were able to fearlessly separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, in the gospel tradition. Crossan wrote about the pre-Easter Jesus and asked us imagine what it was like for those people that Jesus had trained as his disciples. Before Easter his followers were going out and practicing the radical hospitality that Jesus had, going into strange places, towns and villages, without a staff, which was a dangerous thing in a country with wild dogs, trusting that they would be fed and clothed and housed by the people to whom they were bringing their good news. These disciples must have experienced some of this magic -- some of this "juice" – some sense of the realm of God that Jesus talked about. They were inspired enough to follow him, to risk, in order to spread the Good News that he brought. With this in mind Crossan invites his readers to consider this question: They were out there in these towns and villages on Good Friday, they were there when Jesus was crucified. Did what they had been doing all of a sudden become invalidated by that? Did the significance of it go away? Did it stop? Wouldn't the same program they had been doing before Easter continue to be valid after the crucifixion?

I think the answer is yes. Clearly, Crossan thinks so, too.

As I studied more, a different picture of Jesus emerged. One of my favorite authors for this is Marcus Borg. Another member of the Jesus seminar, professor of religion at a university in Oregon, he wrote a wonderful book called Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, and painted a different picture of Jesus than the one I'd been taught. He said that Jesus, first of all, was a person of the spirit. Now a good way for us to approach this is to use the term we use to talk about people of the spirit in native cultures -- indigenous cultures -- whether it's American Indians or people in Borneo, New Guinea, or some other exotic place to us -- we call them shamans -- people who have a sense of the wonder and awe of existence, who have a sense of connection with what we would call the "spiritual."

Well, Jesus, first and foremost, was like that. He was affected and touched, transformed to the deepest levels of his being by his experience of the holy. It affected him; it touched him; it moved him; it informed him. Jesus also, Borg says, was a healer, one who healed everyone without regard to their religion or class or status. Even the son of a Roman centurion, an imperial oppressor. Jesus was also a reformer of his own religious tradition, Judaism.

One of the most important guides to me in this journey is Friedrich Schleiermacher. I studied Schleiermacher briefly in seminary, as everyone does but it would be many years after seminary before I revisited and studied his work in depth. Schleiermacher is so interesting. As I said, he rejected substitutionary atonement, much to the horror of his father. He had to go live with his uncle. The Enlightenment was going on at this time. His father was afraid he'd be affected by the Enlightenment, but something even worse happened -- he was affected by the reaction to the Enlightenment, the Romantic movement! Schleiermacher started hanging out with all these unbelievers in high society, the movers and shakers, the hip people, the Bohemia of Berlin at the time, and he was having conversations with them about all kinds of neat avant-garde things. But they were confused. How could this minister, this Christian -- how, what's he doing here? This isn't supposed to happen. But as he talked to them, and they got to know him, they realized that he really got it -- he understood -- he was really operating on the same wave length, and they challenged him at his birthday to write a book. So he wrote a book and addressed it to them. He titled it, On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers.

Its Cultured Despisers were his friends. (You know, I think we could do a book, I could do a sermon and talk to you Cultured Despisers of Christianity. Well, maybe that's not true.) The book, which was published in 1799, was a best seller. He begins by saying that if you're going to despise something, he says, at least know what it is that you're despising! He then writes that religion isn't about knowing, which according to the orthodox is having the right belief about Jesus. Religion also isn't about morality, which is what Enlightenment figures such as Voltaire were trying to do in stripping religion of all of its artifacts, all of its accidental attributions, accretions of culture, all the superstitions from the past when we didn't know better. They wanted to reduce religion to Kant's Categorical Imperative, to a religion of morality. But Schleiermacher says religion isn't about morality; religion is about experience. It's about a sense of the infinite.

Think of this -- it's something that resonates with me, because when I think about the vastness of the universe, not only in terms of space, but in terms of time, it always inspires awe and wonder in me. And sometimes when I'm out in the world, in nature, I just get a sense of the ineffable, incredible strangeness, the uniqueness and wonder of being alive, of being self-aware. Is not that an experience of the holy?
But I find that the biggest obstacle that I have when I'm trying to explain why I'm a Christian is not all those false stumbling blocks about Jesus, but the stumbling block of God. Because first and foremost, I am a Theist, or to put it more accurately, a Panentheist, which is just a fancy term for saying that God is not separate and Other, but that we are in God and God is in us -- it's seamless -- it's all one. Once again Marcus Borg was an invaluable guide in his book The God We Never Knew that he wrote after Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time.

One of the theories about popular natural history and science that I was really affected by -- I watched it several times -- was Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man. How many of you are familiar with that? Jacob Bronowski and The Ascent of Man? It's a wonderful series. They showed it on public television, and there was a companion book. In it Bronowski talked about the improbability of life. He talked about Entropy and Synergy and Synergy was a new term to me. I know about Entropy -- it's the Second Law of Thermodynamics, a fundamental law of nature -- it's that over time, things tend to become less ordered, which is something we see every day in our homes, right? I mean, that's the natural state of things. Things run down!

Now Buckminster Fuller, the guy who came up with the geodesic dome, he said Synergy is the term for the opposite of Entropy. Synergy is what happens when things become more ordered. And it's kind of like they pull themselves together. Crystals do that, there's a Synergy that makes a crystal form and grow. I remember in Kindergarten being impressed when someone brought in a crystal and made it grow. Bronowski says, imagine that the universe is like a river. And the river's main current is like Entropy -- less order over time. But then if you ever canoe on a river, you'll see little eddies where the flotsam -- the debris on top of a river -- will be captured and go in a circle and kind of go against the current, move contrary to the current. Bronowski says life is like that. Life is improbable -- little eddies of order in a vast river of ever increasing disorder. And it's very unlikely that anything as ordered as life will emerge but given the vast sweep of space and time, it's inevitable that it's going to pop out somewhere. It's an example of Synergy.

It's all one big system. A system we emerged from and are dependent upon. Most of the fruits of life -- the things we call good -- came from that system, not from human hands, not from human agency, not from human invention. I think that God is just a word that we use in Western culture to point to that sense we have of this overarching system of which we are just a part. Now in times when people thought the Earth was flat and that it was the center of the Universe, and other pre-scientific ideas, it was natural to think of God intervening and God as Other -- God as a separate being. But it's only natural, as Schleiermacher said, that different people, in different places and times, are going to conceptualize that sense they have of that larger system, the experience of the holy, in different ways.

People used to ascribe miraculous qualities to God, but isn't every tomato a miracle? Isn't every Paramecium a miracle? There's no way we can create either one. Our immune systems are amazing. I mean we discovered with AIDS and other immune diseases that it doesn't matter how much technology and modern medicine we have, if your immune system fails, you're going to die! These are all gifts that come to us from beyond ourselves -- gifts of the system, gifts you could say -- as I say -- of God. And what's important is realizing that we are part of something larger than ourselves. What's important is realizing that even though there are resources within the system upon which we can depend, like our immune system, we don't have to understand it. We don't have to be able to control it. But nonetheless we can reliably depend on it, just like I believe I can depend on God.

From that comes a sense which I think is consistent with the Jewish and Christian tradition of praising God from whom all blessings flow -- the acknowledgement that what we call good comes from sources other than ourselves. That's the proper kind of humility -- acknowledging what is. It isn't putting ourselves down, it’s just putting things in perspective.

The second important point, which I also think is consistent with Jewish and Christian theology, is the system as a whole affects us in this way. It's not any one part, because that would be idolatry. It's not education or technology or this thing or that thing or person or book or institution, because to isolate and say that any one part is the source of goodness is wrong. It's the system as a whole from which we derive our being, that all this goodness comes from. That's why it's important not to isolate -- make a fetish, so to speak -- of any one part, of any person, place, or thing.

Wonder, awe, gratefulness -- in my mind, that equals worship, valuing what is of true worth. That's what I think I'm trying to lead us to -- worship and acknowledging that which is holy, an emotion that I think we feel when we just are knocked over by gratefulness, knocked over by wonder, knocked over by awe. I think I have more trouble explaining the God part than I do the Jesus part, because so many people are stuck with the God of Deuteronomy.

Some years ago, Duke Gray, a colleague of mine, said the only difference between an atheist, who rejects God, and a fundamentalist, who accepts God, the God of Deuteronomy, this literal God who intervenes in your life, who counts the hairs on your head, is that though one accepts God and the other rejects God, their God is the same! I want to jump and shout, "Oops, 'scuse me, there's more than one way to look at this!" Maybe the God -- as Forrest Church says, tell me how you don't believe in God, tell me about this God you don't believe in, because I probably don't believe in that God either.

Something else I find I need to explain is that Christianity isn't about fear. We watched The Education of Shelby Knox last night in the church; it is a wonderful documentary. While discussing it the movie afterwards, one of our youth said, "She shouldn't be a Christian; she should be a Unitarian." I said, "Wait a minute, wait a minute. They're not mutually exclusive." Nonetheless, I think might be happy in a Unitarian church. I heard that someone approached her at the General Assembly held here last June, where she appeared with her film, and tried to encourage her to attend one of our churches, and she said something to the effect of, "I don't know. I've been pretty burned by religion." Where have we heard that before, huh? Shelby Knox is a documentary about a high school student who, along with other members of the Youth Commission, tries to bring comprehensive sexuality education to the Lubbock public school system. Not surprisingly, they failed. In Lubbock, by policy, a teacher, when asked by a student about any aspect of sexuality, has to answer, "Abstinence." If you talk about condoms or anything else, you're likely to get fired. So it's a travesty; it's a shame. But it's not unique. What was interesting to me, as she criticized her pastor, or youth pastor, who had spearheaded this nationwide movement -- I'm not going to get the name right -- but basically it's pledging to remain a virgin until you're married. Which I think is all well and good -- that's great; that was positive. But she says the way he teaches sex education, the way he teaches about STDs, is all about fear. She criticized him for teaching fear.

Well, that's my criticism of much of what passes for conservative Christianity, for orthodox Christianity. It's about teaching fear. It's saying "If you don't believe this, you'll go to hell. If you don't believe this, you'll be lost. If you don't believe this, when the Rapture comes, you'll be Left Behind." It's teaching fear. I don't think that Jesus was in the business of selling an insurance policy against the threat of hell! He was doing something much more important. He was in the business of spreading Good News.

Very Good News. News so good that he talked about people breaking what we would consider morality to obtain it – like the man who leased someone else's field to plow and cultivate for their own, and who, while plowing in the field, discovered a hidden treasure in it, and they don't tell the owner -- no, no, no, that would be the right thing to do, tell the owner-- but they don't tell him. No, no, they go back home and borrow everything they can so that they can buy the field for themselves! That's what the Kingdom of Heaven is like, he said. It is the Pearl of Great Price, it is something wondrous. He wasn't telling people about a program or a theory or a set of beliefs. He was telling them how his sense of the presence of God, of what was holy, was wonderful, how it transformed his life, how it brought him joy.

It makes me angry that what he did was and is so misrepresented.

Every once in a while I catch a hint of what I think Jesus was talking about. Occasionally, not often, not reliably, not predictably, but just occasionally, I've been blessed with more than a hint. And when that's happened, it's bowled me over. It's hit me like a ton of bricks. It's knocked me out of my socks. At moments like that, I understand why Jesus was willing to risk his life in order to tell others about that experience.
To be a Christian means to follow Jesus. He invited the disciples to follow him, not to worship him, not to believe that he was this or that, or that he was going to died for our sins, but just to follow him into having a relationship with God, into coming into the Kingdom of God, which was available to everyone, regardless of whether one was Jew or Gentile, male of female, poor or rich, Pharisee or publican. To know God, to experience God, the holy, as he did -- that's what he was inviting people to do -- in a word, to love God.
Jesus, the Rabbi, the Teacher, also taught that what God requires of us is to love one another. This is the central message of the Jewish scripture. It's why most of the Ten Commandments are about how we're supposed to treat one another. Don't bear false witness, honor your parents, don't murder, don't steal. Remember the Clinton campaign: it's about the economy, stupid? The Jewish scriptures are about treating one another with love and care, stupid. That's what it's about. It's not about hating someone because they're homosexual.

It makes me angry that this message has been so distorted.

The sense that Jesus had of the presence of God, the holiness of life, changed his life. It transformed him, and I believe that the little hints I've received of that have transformed me. Schleiermacher said that Jesus saved, not by dying for our sins, not by getting us into heaven when we die. Jesus saved because the experience of God, the awareness of God, was so dominant in his consciousness, so present to his sense of being, so central, that it transformed him to such an extent that when he met people, they sensed that about him. They wanted what he had. They were transformed, too. That's how Schleiermacher, according to many, the father of modern Christianity, believed Jesus saves. It was a radical message then; it's a radical message yet today, and it needs to be preached and taught.

It helped Jesus to be free. It liberated him from fear -- the fear of the disapproval of others, the fear of disappointing his family, the fear of being a social outcast, even the fear of death.

I want to be free like Jesus was free. I want to be full of joy. I want to be able to love. I want to accept his invitation to follow him, because I think that's what it will gain me. That's why I am a Christian.