Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Unitarian Universalists Standing on the Side of Love, Charles Darwin, and The Wedding at Cana

This sounds like a total mash-up.  What possible connection can there be among a Unitarian Universalist call to action, the theory of evolution, and a fairy tale about Jesus turning water into wine?

I’ll start with the fairy tale.

The times were changing at the end of the first century and the beginning of the second century.  Jerusalem had been sacked by the Romans; Temple Judaism had become displaced into synagogues; competition between the factions in Judaism that believed Jesus to be the Messiah and those who clung to the old tradition was fierce.  Somebody decided to write a proof that Jesus was the one chosen by God to save the world.  That person managed to get himself identified with one of Jesus’ disciples even though just about all of them were dead by then.  The gospel he created is called “John.”  It is probably the most well-known, and most loved, of all the gospels in the New Testament.

Liberal biblical scholars agree that none of the stories reported by John are true; none of the things John claims Jesus said were ever actually said by Jesus.  The whole thing was an extended argument, a last-ditch effort to keep John and his friends from being thrown out of the local synagogue. 

John’s fairy tale about Jesus turning water into wine acts as a framework around two other stories that John tells about Jesus.  First he tells about Jesus attending a wedding at Cana, in Galilee, where the wine ran out.  Potential disaster was averted when Jesus told the wine steward to use whatever he found in the storage jars that were supposed to contain water.  Instead – abra ca dabra – the jars had the best wine anyone had ever had before.

The next story is about a Jewish scholar – a pharisee – named Nicodemus. Nicodemus seems to be clueless about basic Jewish theology, but eventually comes to believe that Jesus is the Messiah.  After the encounter with Nicodemus – which happens in the dark of night – Jesus travels to Samaria. Now the Samaritans were the enemies of the Jews.  In this story, Jesus breaks several taboos: 1) he visits the enemy Samaritans; 2) he meets a woman at Jacob’s well and talks to her – men were not supposed to talk to women, and vice versa; 3) in the course of his conversation with the woman he says he has living water to offer her in place of regular well water, and he agrees with her – an enemy Samaritan woman – that the Samaritans got it right when they worshipped God on the mountain.  But he says, it doesn’t matter any more where God is worshipped because from now on, God will be worshipped in spirit – which was what Nicodemus had such a hard time understanding.

After that, Jesus goes back to Cana, where he had turned the water into wine.

Now let’s talk about the theory of evolution. According to that famous website Wikipedia, “Evolution is any change across successive generations in the heritable characteristics of biological populations.  Evolutionary processes give rise to diversity at every level of biological organization, including species, individual organisms and molecules such as DNA and proteins.”  But “evolution” has jumped out of the strictly scientific box, and has become a metaphor.  According to my Oxford Dictionary of the American Language, “evolution” means “gradual development, especially from a simple to a more complex form.”  Synonyms include: development, growth, advance, progression, maturation.

Enter a theologian and Biblical scholar from New Zealand, Lloyd Geering.  Lloyd Geering has published a series of essays entitled Coming Back to Earth: From gods to God, to Gaia.  Basically his thesis is that human spirituality has evolved from the most primitive ideas about spirits inhabiting everything from rocks to animals, plants, and people, to multiple gods – such as the Greek and Roman pantheon, or gods that belong to specific tribes  – to the idea of one universal God.  While the progression is demonstrable, it is not linear.  In today’s world, there are still people who claim tribal gods, and who start wars over the definitions of those tribal gods.  Those wars are raging now between progressive and liberal religious traditions and fundamentalists of all varieties.  Similarly, in pre-modern times, there were philosophers and religious dissenters who did not buy into the idea of a separate, personal, god who could be petitioned for relief of grievances.  The discussion, to put it simply, was between theists who believed in one god, and atheists, who believed there was no god.

The Elizabethan playwright, Christopher Marlowe, was accused of being an atheist.  There was a warrant out for his arrest and torture. But before the church police could catch him he was killed in a barroom brawl over a bill.  Later came the revival of the Goddess, and feminist theology, represented by Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the 19th century, and the 20th Century feminist pantheon that includes Mary Daly, Rosemary Radford Reuther, and Starhawk.

Lloyd Geering proposes that humanity is now in the midst of a transition not from theism to atheism, but from theism to secularism.  Fundamentalists of all varieties of Abrahamic faiths – Jews, Christians, Muslims – have declared holy war on that transition. 

Now I’m going to begin to put two of the three threads of this essay together.

There is a place for the stories in the Gospel of John about the wedding at Cana and the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, but only if they are seen as metaphors, and are reclaimed for an evolving 21st century understanding of spirit and cosmos.  John’s metaphor of water into wine that frames the vignettes with Nicodemus who had no clue  and the Samaritan woman at the well, represents not just “transformation,” but “transmutation.”  The fairy tale means that if we follow the teachings of Jesus, life becomes something fundamentally different from what it was before.

John was not satisfied with cleaning and polishing.  John says, whoever believes Jesus is the Anointed One is changed : Ala ka Zam! from water – even living water – into wine.  But this does not mean that your life is saved for heaven in the next life if you believe in a resuscitated corpse.  That’s not what John meant either, but that argument is for another day.

No.  When John says whoever believes Jesus is the Anointed One is changed, he means you no longer live your life in the conventional way.  You no longer are concerned only with your own well-being – with your own health, wealth, and access to power.  Instead, you are concerned with the health and well-being of not just yourself, but your community, and even the planet.  That’s the meaning of justice.  And more than that, it’s the meaning of distributive justice-compassion.  Because it’s beyond the simple idea of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth; it’s beyond the idea that what goes around comes around; it’s beyond the idea of reward and punishment; it’s way beyond the idea of justice as payback.  And it’s for NOW, not after you die. 

It’s a paradigm shift from injustice and death to justice and life.  In other words, when you live in a condition where you are only concerned with your own health, wealth, and access to power, you are spiritually dead.  That’s called “injustice.”  For 21st century non-theists, changing water into wine means a fundamental shift in mind and paradigm from fear to love; from greed to sharing; from unjust systems that are the normal consequence of civilization’s laws to distributive justice-compassion.

And you don’t have to follow or believe in Jesus for this paradigm shift to occur.

Back to Lloyd Geering.  He suggests further that as human spiritual experience evolves from a universal “god” to secularism, as our cosmology changes because of our understanding of the nature of the universe itself, we see ourselves more and more in relationship to our own Planet Earth.  If “God” is “Gaia,” we can apply the list of injustices carried out against people to the earth itself.  With that understanding, the wrath of God that the Old Testament prophet invokes can be seen as the consequences of misplaced dominion over earth’s resources.  Until we stop mountaintop removal, deep-sea oil extraction, “fracking” for natural gas, unchecked pollutants pouring into the earth, the air, and the water; until women are educated and treated as equal in all ways with men, thereby stopping the explosion of population, until those things happen, we can expect continuing climate change, disruptions to growing seasons, famines, floods – the mythic four horsemen of the apocalypse wreaking havoc on life as we know it.

When we experience a sustainable earth as the one that provides all life-forms with “living water,” and join the work of distributive justice-compassion. . . then we will have turned water into wine.  And here is the final strand in the braid:  One way that Unitarian Universalists participate in the work to change water into wine, to change the paradigm, to evolve into a beacon of light for ourselves and others, is to stand on the side of love.  The Unitaian Universalist Association has designated February as THIRTY DAYS OF LOVE – a collective visioning process about making sense of the present moment, and what we are called to do. Followng is the reflection for Day 14 as the last word:

        There is a lot of healing left to do in this country and in the world. There is a lot of injustice and we are called as a people to do what we can to counter it. We can fight for justice as individuals, but I would rather do it as a community guided by a vision. So when someone asks us “Why are you here?” We can answer, “Because there is evil in the world. It comes in many forms ranging from brutal and immediate to the complex and bureaucratic. But evil is not the highest power. We are here because love and goodness are the highest power. We are here because love asked us to come, to sit before you and say this cannot happen any longer.”

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