Preservation or Evolution?

The quixotic nature of my cause became clear to me in the instant a very intelligent man of the Jewish persuasion married to a member of my parish told me that he did not see religious communities as centers for intellectual pursuits. “That’s not what people think they’re for,” he said. “They come here to be comforted and reassured, not to learn.”??

The venue in which he made his pronouncement was a session of my years-long Monday night seminar series in which I guided participants through rigorous, academically oriented considerations of religious ideas, texts and history. The man’s wife, thoroughly enjoying the challenges she was encountering in the class, had just wondered aloud why in a congregation of the size of ours only 10 or 15 people ever turned out for what she called “these brilliant sessions.” Her husband provided the correct if discouraging answer.

It was too late, not to mention impossible, for me to retreat into the world of soothing pietism. I had long since staked out my position as a journeyman scholar of religious texts and their histories and had based my teaching ministry on that work.??

I had characterized the initiative I was pursuing during the last two decades of my congregational work as a project of “critical thinking and evolving belief.” To have made such a proposal within the bounds of an ecclesiastical tradition that requires the recitation of a 1,600-year-old creed as part of the Sunday service was — as I now see — ludicrous. ??

One can either maintain a healthy agnosticism about what is to be believed on the basis of objective data, or one can adopt the beliefs of a council of bishops reached by majority vote and the anathematizing of dissenters — all well accomplished before the observations of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin and Einstein. As Jesus was said to have remarked on another subject, “No one can serve two masters.”??

The majority of my congregation had chosen to serve the master known as “preservation,” I the one named “evolution.” There was never to be d├ętente, much less entente. ??

In the decade beginning in 1997 to the present, I published seven books. The first, which caused the biggest smash-up, was Christianity Beyond Creeds, in which I made the case that the ancient creeds are priceless documents of history and ought to be treated as such rather than as statements of faith by people living in the age of the cell phone, the Internet and space exploration.??

I took each term of the so-called Apostles’ Creed and restated it in language and concept that a person of intellectual integrity could abide, and in so doing had to debunk the virgin birth of Jesus, his “miracles,” resurrection and ascension. A few people in the congregation read the book, or parts of it, but those most zealous in the witch hunt that ensued had only heard about the book. Even that was enough to bring out the pitchforks and set the torches afire.

A couple of years ago, I came close to being indicted on charges of heresy by the authorities of the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan. My publishers, undoubtedly thinking of an uptick in book sales, surely would have relished such a development.??

As it turned out, the charges were dropped, not because anybody in officialdom loves me very much but because it was realized that such a spectacle would only have lifted a few more shovels full of dirt out of the hole the church in general has been digging for itself of late. ??

One of my graduate school professors, the late George Arthur Buttrick — eminent scholar and preacher, editor of The Interpreter’s Bible and the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible — said that his better students would publish at least one book in their particular fields of interest within the first 10 years of their professional life. ??

It took me 35 years to get going, but after Christianity Beyond Creeds in 1997, I turned out Sermons of a Devoted Heretic in 1999; Seven Sayings of Jesus; Findings: Lectionary Research and Analysis and Life of Courage: Sherwin Wine & Humanistic Judaism all in 2003 — the latter with Dan Cohn-Sherbok and Marilyn Rowens. Then in 2006 came Belief in the 21st Century: An Appeal to Reason and Experience. In 2010 Wipf & Stock issued my Asking: Inquirers in Conversation. Later this year, Polebridge Press will bring out my Resonance: Biblical Texts Speaking to 21st Century Inquirers.??

In the years between my ordination and retirement — 45 in all — I preached and taught directly out of my research of biblical texts and the history of religions and their ideas, never with an agendum of trying persuade people to believe the unbelievable. I came to appreciate an engagement I achieved with those who had become weary with and suspicious of rote orthodoxy and would say, “You really make me think.” Alas, they were in the minority.??

Last week, the congregation from which I retired almost two years ago after more than two decades as its pastor called it quits. My scholarship, my books and the direction of my teaching ministry had served to prove the point that many — maybe most — people come to church to hear the old, old story, unbothered by information or questioning.??

A brave core of folk, some of whom had come because I was there doing what I was doing and stayed because they relished being part of “a center for critical thinking and evolving belief,” tried to hold out against economic drought and discouraging demographics, but could not do it.??

It is discouraging to realize that more people are into preservation than evolution where religious belief is concerned. The ancient Egyptians tried to preserve their dead by mummification. Ever seen a mummy??????

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