Over the last couple of decades, I have given several dozen lectures, led even more workshops, and shared literally hundreds of sermons that all focus on one broad subject -the changes that are occurring in our understanding of the Christian faith. Sometimes I focus on the impact of changes in our world view, sometimes on modern science and religion, and other times on the newest research in biblical scholarship. I usually bring the dialogue back to the impact of these changes on the local church. I know I am frequently asking people to stretch their theological boundaries; and I know that I am almost always asking people to change their thinking. This all makes for some interesting commentaries and behavior from my audiences – sometimes angry outbursts, sometimes slamming doors, but most often, tearful hugs and quiet “thank you(s).”
Therefore, I suppose I should not have been surprised by an incident with a woman who was obviously agitated by something that I had said during one of my talks. I was leading a workshop at the time on the subject of “spirituality” in the progressive Christian movement. This was one of several break-out workshops that followed speakers at a four day conference a few months ago. The night before, I had presented the keynote address on the progressive Christianity movement and spoke about its potential impact on the local church. The excellent turn out for the workshop was a good indication that my lecture had been well received, so maybe that is why I was caught a little “off guard.”
With her anger barely contained, she told me in no uncertain terms that she thought I was trying to “rip the heart out” of Christianity. I defensively responded that, quite to the contrary, I was trying to put the heart back into Christianity by building a faith based on experiences of the heart that were not dependent upon Christian myth, dogma, and creeds. But she would not hear any of it.
“How could you?” she asked. “How could I what?” I asked. “How could you suggest that Jesus was not born of the pure virgin?” she almost shouted. I suddenly realized that she was talking about comments that I had made the night before regarding the role of myth in the Christian story. In a general comment about how our understanding of mythology and its role in scripture had changed over the last several decades, I referred to the “virgin birth” or birth without human conception as an example. I had suggested that the concept of the virgin birth was probably the result of a mistranslation of Isaiah and the sexist era in which the Christian scriptures were written. Frankly, I was surprised by her outburst, not so much that she was upset, but because it was the first time after any of my talks that someone had been upset about my suggesting that this particular Christian myth was the result of a mistake.
Later, the same woman stopped me in the hallway and wanted to explain her outburst. It was a long story about her Catholic background, her spiritual practices, and a whole lot of things that really did not make sense to me, but seemed to make sense to her. However, she did say something that was helpful. She started by telling me that she “really appreciated my talk overall,” and was in complete agreement with my general thesis. And then as she walked away she said, “If only you hadn’t gone there.”
Suddenly, I was reminded of another similar incident. This time a man, who had attended one of my speaking engagements, caught up with me as I was getting ready to leave. We stood outside by our cars in the cold and talked for twenty minutes. He was completely engaged and amicable until I questioned the need for Jesus to be the one and only unique God in our world. This man got red in the face and said, “Don’t go there!” and I didn’t. Interestingly, we had talked comfortably about other parts of the Christian story, how they might have come to be and why it was okay to let them go, or simply let them be myth. But for him it was unthinkable to let Jesus only be an enlightened man, a teacher and a prophet. For him, Jesus was God and that was a “don’t go there.”
Recently, I was on a conference call with a highly respected seminary president and three other people. As we were discussing the future direction of TCPC, he suggested that one of the things I might want to consider is moving past being an exclusively Christian organization and shift more towards a Unitarian Universal perspective. It was as if the wind had been knocked out of me. At first, I could not respond. Although I didn’t say it out loud, my first thought was “don’t go there!” When I finally was able to respond, I mumbled, “But I love Jesus.” And no one was more surprised by my response than me.
As I thought of these three incidents, I realized that if we dig deep enough, most of us seem to have a “don’t go there” spot in our beliefs and traditions – that place where we lose a little of our otherwise rational thinking. And I suspect that it is often our inability to get past those “don’t go there(s)” that holds back our personal growth and change.
Certainly education helps and right now there is an abundance of educational opportunities available for anyone who wants to learn. In the last three decades there has literally been an explosion of information about religion in general, and about Christianity in particular, that offers us both the opportunity and the freedom to examine our traditional views about our religion and the things we may not have wanted to look at very closely. But if we cannot fully engage a spiritual path, it will never engage us. And we will really never find out where it is going to take us.
At some point, we may have to take a hard look at those things that we are holding on to and ask ourselves: “Do I really believe this and why? Do my beliefs make my life and my relationships more healthy and whole? Do my beliefs lead me to an opportunity to experience joy and to share joy? Do they help me feel more connected to the rest of creation? Do they lead to me loving myself a little more at the end of each day?”
Ultimately, all religions were and still are intended to bring us closer to God, Krishna, Allah, Primordial Consciousness, Pure Consciousness, Sacred Unity or … All religions started as a path for transformation and transformation means change. Change is seldom easy, but it is a necessary component for life. And sometimes the only thing that is keeping us from experiencing that potential, profound transformation is letting go of our “don’t go there.”