Religion and Change

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March 17, 2019

You have heard me mention Karl Barth from time to time, the Babe Ruth of modern theologians. Today I’m going to tell you his theory of religion, which is comforting to me in times of controversy about change. I have our friends the Methodists in mind.

Karl Marx thought religion was a tool the rich invented to keep their workers docile. Freud explained it as a psychological illusion. Auguste Comte saw at as stage in history we had now outgrown. Emile Durkheim explained it as a way societies have of enforcing moral standards that they need to prosper. Show me a beret and I’ll show you a theory of religion.

Barth saw it as arising from a human thirst for answers to two questions: Why are we here? What are we supposed to do? As Barth put it, we are thirsty for the “truth above” and for moral “certainty within.” Like babies, those questions may sleep in a person or a people for a time, but they eventually wake up and cry for attention. Sometimes, someone tells the world that he or she
has found answers and attracts a following. Marx was an example, as were Buddha, Muhammad, and Joseph Smith. Moses belongs  on that list. Does Jesus? I will come back to that.

Religions aren’t created in a vacuum. When a new one takes form, the form it takes depends on local factors including: economics, weather, politics, family structures, vulnerability to enemies, and so forth. Vikings and corn farmers would dress their religion out with different needs in mind. Then people move or local factors change. For example, in 1775, priests in our church took oaths to be loyal to King George III. That oath made them part of the political establishment. As of July 4, 1776 the same oath branded them as traitors. What were they supposed to do? Goodbye to moral certainty within. Such moments give religion heartburn.

Barth wrote:

“Religions are continually faced with the choice: either to go with the times, to change as the times change, and in that way relentlessly to deny themselves any claim to truth and certainty; or else to be behind the times, to stick to their once-won forms of doctrine, rite and community and therefore relentlessly to grow old and obsolete and fossilized; or finally to try to do both together, to be a little liberal and a little conservative, and therefore with the advantages of both options, to have to take over their two-fold disadvantages as well. That is why religions are always fighting for their lives. That is why they are always acutely, or chronically sick.” 1

Barth made no exception for his own religion. Christianity, he knew, is always pushed and pulled by history. Methodists are, and so are Baptists, Catholics, and Episcopalians. Catholics and Methodists are governed by world wide bodies, so the pushes and pulls are different for them than they are for us. The Methodists are in the spotlight for the moment but their internal disagreement is not the exception –– it is the rule. As we know from experience, intramural religious disagreement is painful for everyone involved.

Barth is reassuring. This problem is a round peg for a round hole –– it fits the pattern at the center of the gospel. “Blessed are those who mourn,” said Jesus. “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong,” said Paul. That is the pattern: in Christ, opposites are joined. In our faith we share in the weakness of religion, joined to Christ’s surpassing strength. “We are afflicted,” Paul wrote, “but not crushed, perplexed, but not driven to despair.”

In my lifetime we have seen big changes in our church: re-marriage after divorce, a new prayer book, women’s ordination, and same-sex marriage. Fifteen years ago we consecrated Gene Robinson, a gay man, as bishop. On each of those issues we replayed the conflict Barth describes. We resolved those issues democratically, because as Episcopalians we’re Americans and that’s how Americans consider change. “Government of the people, by the people, for the people”—we’re as loyal to that as our ancestors were to kings and queens.

Theologically, our English forbears equipped us well for facing these uncomfortable dynamics. I spoke to that in my first homily for a same-sex marriage—which was here, in 2016, shortly after changes in the law of church had state had made that possible. This was the marriage of Leigh Cole and Linda Brown, whose faithfulness to God and to each other other was obvious to everyone who knew them. My homily was mostly about that—their faithfulness—but I began by speaking to the way our Anglican tradition has navigated change:

“The Church, standing firm in her old truths, enters into the apprehension of the new social and intellectual movements of each age: and because ‘the truth makes her free,” is able to assimilate all new material, to welcome and give its place to all new knowledge, to throw herself into the sanctification of each new social order, bringing forth out of her treasures things new and old, showing again and again her power of witnessing under changed conditions to the catholic capacity of her faith and life.”

That was the English Bishop Charles Gore, writing in 1890. Lux Mundi, “Light of the World,” is the title. For me, Gore’s words have been a touchstone through years of ministry in a church that honors both stability and change. From generation to generation, applying ancient truth to changed conditions is our call.

Before Charles Gore there was Richard Hooker, who set the tone for our tradition under Queen Elizabeth I. According to him, there are laws both mutable and immutable in Christian faith: things that change and things that don’t. On the one hand, change in faithful practice is inevitable because social circumstances are in flux. As Hooker pointed out, even God’s laws, in some instances, are mutable. We see that in the Bible where, for example, circumcision comes and goes from Abraham to Paul. New occasions teach new duties, as we sometimes say. 

But moral truth is stable, as Hooker explains, because it points to God, whose truth and goodness are immutable. In Christ, these qualities of God are visible. Christ is the star, therefore, by which we navigate through change. Hooker compares life to a journey down a road. Path surfaces are variable—the same road may change from grass to dirt to yellow bricks to stone. But because the road itself exists to take us to a certain destination, the underlying route won’t change.

There is always new construction on the surface of I-40, but the road from here to Memphis eternally runs east. So does the road to God. That’s the road we are on this morning. Christ, Lux Mundi, is our goal.

End quote. That was a happy day for Trinity Cathedral.

Why are we here? What are we supposed to do? To both questions, the answer here is love. Love is a belief, a desire, and a commitment: belief in, desire for the good of someone else (for example, Leigh and Linda)—and a commitment to it.

We are in Lent, but for a moment let’s remember Christmas 2:

Love came down at Christmas, love all lovely, love divine
Love was born at Christmas, star and angels gave the sign.
Love shall be our token, love be yours and love be mine
Love to God and neighbor, love for plea and gift and sign.

For love, God made the world. That is why we’re here. In love, as Christ, God visited the world to show us what to do. This two-fold truth is far from obvious in human life, but loud and clear on the pages of the Bible. Again and again this truth has shown its power to renew itself through changing climates, economies, philosophical milieus and political environments.

Now let’s come back to our religion’s founder. 

In Jesus Christ Superstar, Judas’s parting song to Jesus put the provocative question of where Christ thinks he fits religiously.

Tell me what you think about your friends at the top.
Who’d you think besides yourself’s the pick of the crop?
Buddha was he where it's at? Is he where you are?
Could Muhammad move a mountain, or was that just PR?

Barth’s answer to Judas fits that pattern at the center of the gospel. To understand Christ we must join perspectives from two standpoints: the “view from above” and the “view from below.” From below, we recognize the human child of Mary; from above we know Christ, in faith, as God. From below, Jesus was the founder of a great religion, alongside Buddha and Muhammad; from above, we proclaim him alpha and omega, the beginning of religion and its final goal. Both standpoints are essential. Each truth is fully present in the other. If we affirm the one and disregard the other we obscure the gospel.

Look above our altar. We are looking east, right at Memphis! There is Christ as seen from two perspectives: from below, in wood; from above, in glass. In wood, we see a man, a teacher, healer, prophet—a religious founder—barefoot, with dirt between his wooden toes. In glass, resplendent, we see the alpha and omega, King of all creation.

Each truth is present in the other. The king from beyond the stars has dirt between his toes. The barefoot teacher wears a crown.

1 Karl Barth, CD 1.2, 316
2 Hymn 84

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