Monday, December 6, 2010

Sermon - God In Not One - Part One

God Is Not One (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam)

For the next two Sunday’s we will talk about what might be a controversial statement. That is, the belief that not all religions are suggesting the same thing. For many years now interfaith dialog and new-age thought have moved in the direction of saying that all religions are suggesting the same theme. The popular metaphor is that there are many paths to reach the top of the mountain, which presumably is God, or the divine. Each religion is simply a different path to the same God.

Well, the atheists amongst us, that’s about 30-40% of you, will certainly say your interested in UUFLB has little to do with following a path to God. That’s just one very small and quick window into how profoundly different religious traditions are.

In his recent book, “God is Not One,” Stephen Prothero pushes this controversial stance that in fact at their core, religious traditions point to profoundly different realities. It is true that some focus on God, but other are completely devoid of that sort of conscious supremely powerful deity. He argues that to fully respect religious traditions of different people, we must accept that they are not all trying to say the same thing. In fact they are saying radically different things. And rather than mashing them up into a Christian mold, and calling them different pathways up the mountain, it behooves us to take the time to understand the real differences between these traditions, if not out of respect, then to understand the world view through which societies and countries function.

In a way, comparing different religions, is a bit like comparing apples and oranges. They are fundamentally different things, because they each respond to a different challenge. True, they respond to core challenges of human experience. But each religion is essentially asking a different question, solving a different problem. So to compare them, as if they all have the same goal is profoundly misleading.

Today I’m going to talk about a few of those questions and answers that the Abrahamic faiths address. That’s Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Although they are all monotheistic, often referred to as “people of the book,” as Muslims would say, they each come out of a different society, and answer a profoundly different question about human existence.

Lets start with the most familiar, the religion that vastly predominates in the United States, Christianity. Christianity essentially answers the challenge of sin. Sin refers generally to the human propensity toward wrong-doing. The key is that everyone sins, and if we deny our sinful nature, we are only fooling ourselves. From the very beginnings of time in the Garden of Eden, when Eve chose to defy God and eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge, humans have perpetuated a sinful nature. It’s in our theological DNA.

But there is hope. Christianity could be called a rescue religion in this way. Rescue is made possible by the one and only savior Jesus Christ. Sin and salvation, that is the core problem and answer in the Christian tradition. Salvation classically means attaining eternal life in heaven after death. There are a variety of mechanisms and time frames for that coming to pass, but salvation, is about eternal life with God.

And Jesus Christ is the key to this rescue from sin. The person of Jesus has meant different things to different people throughout history. Perhaps the most hotly disputed question has been how divine he was. Is he God incarnate, or was he a really good guy, very holy, but less than God. He also has been understood as a social radical, a freedom fighter, a friend, a healer, a compassionate figure. You can find just about anything if you look hard enough at the person of Jesus. You will most likely find there who you want yourself to be, a reflection of your own highest values.

Jesus means a whole bunch of different things to different people. But his real raise d’etre is salvation. Jesus offers salvation from sin through two different means. Mostly through atonement, his suffering on the cross is understood to atone, or be a sort of payment for the sins of all humanity. Thus, Jesus has paid for our sins. The other way that Jesus offers salvation is through instruction on better living. He is an exemplar of how we might live better lives and to help each other out of the mess of our sinful ways.

So there you have it, Christianity in a nutshell. From sinful human nature to salvation, through the person of Jesus Christ. I’m glad to give this quick summary of Christian theology right now. With Christmas right around the corner we should know what the Christian understanding of it is. Because for Christians, this holiday is very different from what we celebrate as Unitarian Universalists. In a couple of weeks we will talk about how we celebrate the holiday. But for Christians, Christmas is the birthday of THE one and only savior, it is the moment that God came down from the heavens in the form of Jesus Christ to offer salvation to sinful humanity. It is a hugely important religious holiday. It’s like a day at the crux of the Christian question and answer. Chirstmas is a very big deal, and it’s not because of Santa.

In the Muslim world, the problem is a little bit different. The central problem isn’t sin, but hubris. We silly humans think that we are independent, we think that we can do it all on our own. And the answer to that hubris is submission to Allah. Islam is not so much about sin and salvation, as it is about recognizing our limitations and submitting the power of Allah. In fact, Islam means submission. Muslims are submitters who seek peace in this life and the next by surrendering themselves to the one true God.

This sense of hubris being overcome by submission became very apparent to me in Africa. Having spent time in two predominantly Muslims countries, I became accustomed to hearing the phrase ‘Insha Allah,” or “God willing.” Obviously it’s not a unique phrase. I hear Christians use it on occasion. But in the time that I have spent with Muslim communities, it was used constantly. Any time you suggested something that was going to happen in the future, something you were planning on doing, it was followed up but “Insha Allah.” It could have been the simple statement, “I will go buy some bananas at the market today. “Insha Allah!” At the time it drove me a little batty, but now I get it a little better. Their whole religious being is about expressing submission to the will of Allah. Insisting anything will be is almost an affront to that sense of submission.

First and foremost, Muslims practice that submission through the exercise of prayer. Five times a day, they are supposed to stop what they are doing, clean themselves up a bit, and participate in a prayer. But it’s not just any prayer. This is a very specific kind of prayer involving the whole body.

Their hands move from behind their ears to their torsos. They bow forward at the waist, hands on the knees, back flat. They stand up straight again. They prostrate themselves into a posture of total and absolute submission to Allah, planting their knees, hands, foreheads and noses on the ground. Then rise to a sitting position. These prayers begin with Alahu Akbar, “God is Great.” Worshipers themn bless and exalt Allah above all pretenders. They call Muhammad His prophet and messenger.

Of course as in any religion, Muslims practice in differing ways. Some devout people do not participate in prayer five times a day. But around the world many, many do. It’s also worth noting that since prayers are said in Arabic, the majority of the people who say them, don’t know exactly what they mean. They probably have a rough translation of the prayers, but they certainly cannot read the Koran in Arabic as intended. But much like Hebrew is for the Jews, Arabic is a sacred language. The sounds produced through praying in Arabic are inherently powerful and pleasing to God, even without a full grasp of their meaning.

But as I said before, each of these religions answers a particular challenge of the human experience. For Judaism, the central problem that religion deals with is exile, the problem of distance from God and from where we ought to be. In Jewish tradition that problem arises from the very beginning. The experience of the Garden of Eden for the Jews was not so much about the sin of eating the fruit. It was about exile. From the very beginning the result of breaking the rules was exile as Adam and Eve were sent out, sent away from paradise. Over and over in the Bible and modern history the Jews struggle with exile, all the way up into today’s struggle over the right to maintain Israel as a Jewish state.

One of those stories, rooted in the heart of Jewish culture actually informs a much broader community. The story of being slaves in Egypt and the eventual escape with the help of God has had immeasurable impact on American civil rights movements. God, through Moses, enabled the Israelites to flee from the Pharaoh’s oppressive rule. Following that escape of course was a journey of wondering in the desert, in exile for forty years. But they eventually found home again. The quintessential story of exile comes from the history of the Jews, and it has shaped that community to the core.

The problem posed in Judaism is exile, and the answer is return to relationship with God, and return to a true home. The path to that return is an interweave of narrative law. That’s right, for Judaism the answer is not so much about something that we should believe, but about something that we should do. In religious terms, Jews are more concerned with orthopraxy (right practice) than it is in orthodoxy (right belief).

For a long time, especially in early Christian world, Jews were stereotyped and demeaned as a community that was obsessed with the rules. That stereotype is still brought out today as some people discuss the Jewish community. It is true that following rules is important. But those rules are being followed because they are a big part of the answer to coming back into relationship with God. Also the rule following that is most apparent to us as outsiders is that of orthodox Jews. But we should keep in mind that a vastly larger portion of the Jewish community follow rules that we don’t see. They are good Jews by doing good deeds for others and supporting their wider community. They do mitzvah, good deeds, holy work by helping rebuild the world. And it’s not about dietary restrictions or dress-codes, it is about treating people ethically, and obeying God’s commandments to do so.

As for the telling of stories, this is the central piece of Jewish ritual. Over and over again the Jewish community tells the story of their heritage. As we saw earlier, the celebration of Hanukkah is about the rededication of the Second Temple. A moment of return from exile. The biggest Jewish holiday is Passover. The central event of which is a Seder Supper, where families and friends gather to retell the story of escape from Egypt.

One more holiday that I just learned about is Simchat Torah. You see, In Jewish worship services, a portion of Torah is read every week, until the whole thing is read in one year. When they get to the end, there is a holiday of Simchat Torah. It’s a huge celebration of the Torah, the sacred writing, most of which is a collection of stories of the people. What fascinates me is just at the moment when the Torah ends with Deuteronomy, a new cycle is begun with Genesis. If there are multiple Torahs to read from, they simply switch. If there is only one though, the person reading or singing holds the note from the passage at the end, while the Torah scroll is wound backward, all the way back to the beginning of Genesis and a portion is read as the story begins again. For the Jewish people the story never ends. The story that tells them who they are, and the laws that they follow to create community are sacred, they are an answer to the problem of exile that has plagued humanity from the beginning.

As we wrap up this very, very quick tour of Abrahamic faiths, I want to take a moment to mention what we might learn or borrow from them as Unitarian Universalists. Each religion answers a different challenge of human existence. And those challenges are things that we share. My hunch is that the answers have something to offer us as well.

Christianity offers us a sense of humility and the power of forgiveness. In our culture of achievement and appearances, sometimes it is difficult to admit our failures. None of us is perfect, but there is always hope. In Christianity the sense of salvation from through forgiveness from God. But forgiveness can be an incredibly powerful thing when we offer it to one another. Perhaps we can learn something from Christianity, learn that we all make mistakes sometimes, and that we all need to be to forgiven and to forgive one another.

Islam I think offers us an invitation to lose ourselves to something greater. For Muslims recognizing our own limits and submitting to the power of Allah is what religious life is about. But we to can lose ourselves in the healing power of love and a sense of awe and respect of the web of life. This is what sat with me the most from last weeks worship service about Walden. I spoke with the kids about Thoreau losing himself in something greater. He just sat in nature and was able to loose himself, rapt in reverence. So often our individualism and need for control trumps our ability to loose ourselves in a wider love. Perhaps we can take this invitation from our Muslim sisters and brothers and move beyond our independence.

Finally, Judaism, I think is our most kindred spirit in the realm of religious traditions. That’s because much like us, they are more concerned with treating one another rightly, than they are with what you believe about God. Over a very long time, spread across the globe, Jews have found a way to keep their tradition alive. They tell their story over and over, and they do their best to live well. What might it look like for us to do the same, to share our story, until it resonates with the heartbeat of this community. Even more importantly, what might it look like for us to offer to our children a religious heritage, a sense of belonging to a people with a past and a future in this world.


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