March 6, 2016
Rev. Mark Ward
What is or ought to be the concern of religion? A century and a half ago the Unitarian preacher Theodore Parker ignited a fierce controversy over his answer to that question, and it remains with us still. We’ll spend some time with it this week, and even draw in some of what I learned on my recent trip to Cuba.
From “The Transient and Permanent in Christianity” by Theodore Parker
Religion “is a simple thing; very simple. The only creed it lays down is truth which springs up spontaneous in the holy heart. . . . The only form it demands is a divine life; doing the best thing, in the best way, from the highest motives. . . . Try it by reason, conscience, and faith – things highest to human nature – we see no redundance, we feel no deficiency. . . . It allows perfect freedom. It does not demand all people to think alike, but to think uprightly, and get as near as possible at truth.”
From Fidel and Religion by Fidel Castro & Frei Betto
“If instead of being born and elaborating his ideas when he did, Christ had been born in these times, you can be sure -= or at least I am – that his preaching would not have differed much from the ideas or the preaching that we revolutionaries of today try to being into the world.”
Theodore Parker used to tell a story from his childhood to illustrate what he considered the birth of his own religious awareness. Parker grew up on a farm outside Lexington, Massachusetts, in the early years of the 19th century, the last of 11 children to a struggling farmer and his sweet-natured wife.
He recounts that one day at around the age of 4 his father took him to a distant field to help with some chores. After a time, though, he told Theodore to walk home. On the way back, Parker says, he was passing a pond when he saw a turtle basking in the sun. He was carrying a stick, and lifted the stick to strike the turtle.
But before he could act, he says, he felt something stay his hand and a voice inside him say, loud and clear, “It is wrong.” Returning home, he asked his mother: What was that voice? He quotes her as saying, “Some people call it conscience. “I like to call it the Voice of God in the soul of people. If you listen and obey it, it will always guide you right. But if you turn a deaf ear, or disobey it, it will leave you without a guide. Your life depends on heeding this little voice.”
Parker went on to become one of the most brilliant ministers of the Unitarian church, a keen scholar who preached to a congregation of 3,000 and became a leading voice for the abolition of slavery. But for most of his career he was also a figure of controversy, since from early on he allied himself with Ralph Waldo Emerson and others of the emerging the transcendentalist movement.
The Unitarians had distinguished themselves in New England for their argument that religious understanding came from a reasoned examination of the Christian scriptures. Carefully crafted sermons plotted how, step by step, those gathered for worship might find their way to belief.
Emerson was the son of generations of Unitarian preachers, but he disrupted the church by arguing that religious belief has its origins in a kind of intuitive grasp of spiritual truth, in experience that awakened a sense of awe and grandeur. If that was so, it meant that, while the teachings of Jesus, say, might inform or reinforce that intuitive sense of faith, they were not the source of it, or a unique revelation of truth.
Emerson’s Unitarian colleagues couldn’t abide such a notion, but rather than do battle, Emerson left the pulpit for the lecture circuit. Parker was sympathetic to Emerson, but determined to remain in the ministry, though he soon entered the controversy, too.
It came in an ordination sermon he delivered in 1841 intended to address what he called “the Transient and Permanent in Christianity.”
His candidate for the “permanent” ruffled no feathers: essentially, he said, the content of Jesus’ teachings summed up the great truths of morality and religion. What, then, to count as transient, sure to pass away? Well, to begin with: centuries of church doctrine, once passionately argued and now proven irrelevant, even doctrines on such topics as the authority of the Bible and the person and nature of Jesus. All transient.
The truths in Jesus’ teachings stood firm, he said, like “the truths of geometry,” while all else washed away. Even the person of Jesus himself, Parker said, was not essential. He was, as it were, a vehicle by which moral truths entered the world. Even, he said, could it be proved “that the gospels were a sheer fabrication, that Jesus never lived” the truths that Jesus taught would stand firm.
As he saw it, as you heard in our reading, religion is simple, “the only form it demands is a divine life, doing the best thing in the best way, from the highest motives. Its sanction: the voice of God in your heart.”
You can imagine the outrage this talk ignited: the person of Jesus and the doctrine of the Bible transient? In time Parker found himself shunned by his colleagues, though his argument echoed across the 19th century.
His quandary remains central to us today: Where do we find the center of our religious life? What, if anything, do we name as enduring?
So, let me invite you to hold onto those questions – Where do we find the center of our religious life? What, if anything, do we name as enduring? – as we shift gears here pretty radically and turn our attention to . . . Cuba!
There are so many ways in which the trip that Debbie and I just took to Cuba was a revelation, and perhaps none more than with religion. Let me caution that I make no claim of authority here. My understanding comes only from a couple of lectures and my own limited reading and observations. Still, my interest was piqued by how the contrast of transient and permanent plays out there and how that might inform our thinking on this question. So, won’t you join me on a brief exploration?
Part of what makes religion in Cuba such a puzzle is that its role, its status is like nothing I’ve ever seen. And that is due to the rich cultural mix of its people as well as its tortuous political history. Its people originated largely from the Spanish who colonized the island and used it as a waystation for empire building and Africans brought as slaves to work sugar plantations. But the intermixing of people over the last two centuries has created a culture unique to the island.
Also, the series of revolutions in the 20th century made Cubans the ultimate pragmatists for whom religion is less an identity than a tool to navigate life. It’s a place where, as one of our lecturers put it, “People believe everything and nothing at the same time.”
The Catholic Church, for example, has a strong influence: It boasts several stunning cathedrals and some 70% of the people are reported baptized. Yet, only 2 to 3% of the population identify as Catholic. More influential are religious symbols, like the Virgin of Charity, born of an image that sailors found on a plank of wood in 1614 that is now mounted in a church that receives pilgrims seeking healing and wholeness that have include baseball players, military heroes, three popes, and Ernest Hemingway, who donated his Nobel Prize in literature to the virgin.
There are also dozens of Protestant denominations present, many with a Pentecostal flavor, plus outposts ranging from the Masons to the Russian Orthodox church. But arguably more important than all these established faiths is an uncountable variety of spiritualist traditions that ebb and flow and wash over into one another.
They include Santeria, with roots in the African Yoruba culture that also integrates some Catholic practices, as well as Espiritismo de Cordon, a more rural tradition whose group ceremonies feature ecstatic singing and dancing that seek contact with the spirit world.
I quickly exceed my knowledge base here, but I offer this litany to give you some sense of the astonishing diversity of religious practice that we encountered. In the end, as one of our lecturers put it, what is important to Cubans in religion is not so much the question of belief. “Whether it exists or not, is not the question,” he said. “The question is whether it works.”
The photo on your order of service that I took there illustrates that to me. Here you you see a woman who is a follower of Santeria, with the characteristic white clothes and headdress, seeking a blessing from “La Milagrosa,” a popular grave marker at Havana’s Colon Cemetery.
The story goes that the woman depicted here died in childbirth with her son and was buried with him, with the child placed at the mother’s feet. It is said, though, that they needed to move the grave. On reentering the grave they found the child’s body no longer at the mother’s feet, but in her arms.
So, it, too, has been a site of pilgrimage available to anyone. You approach, knock three times with a brass ring on the monument, then place your hand on the baby’s bottom, speak your wish silently to yourself, then leave the site to other side, walking backwards, rapping another brass ring. So, what do you think: did our group do it? In the spirit of Cuban spirituality, why not?
In fact, even Fidel Castro has adjusted his views on religion. The revolution that he led in 1959 declared itself atheist, but in the late 1980s as the Soviet Union was withdrawing from Cuba Castro began shifting his thinking. He accepted an invitation for an interview from Frei Betto, a Brazilian priest who had written on liberation theology. Their conversations were compiled in the book I quoted from – “Fidel and Religion.”
The book was a sensation in Cuba at the time: Castro described his education by Jesuit priests and his experience with the church and much else.
Hearing Frei Betto express his liberal views, Castro allowed as how maybe there was room for religion. Shortly afterward he announced the state’s policy had changed: No longer, he said, would anyone be hindered from following the faith of their choosing.
To sum up, then, what I find in Cuba is one fascinating response to the question of the transient and permanent in religion. What endures, what matters in the eyes of the people, is not the majestic forms and structures to which we anglos give so much attention. It is, instead, how religion serves their lives. Religion that works, that softens the hard degrees of their lives, that opens their hearts is worth attending to. The rest they can put aside.
So, with that let’s return to the questions that preceded this little excursion to Cuba: Where do we find the center of our religious life? What, if anything, do we name as enduring?
I’m struck by how the transcendentalist notions of Parker and Emerson echo in my experience of Cuba. With Theodore Parker, I believe we find the center of our religious life in our hearts. How we name that spiritual center and what expressions we use to be in touch with it shift and change as we grow, but our hearts tell us if we are on track.
And this, it seems to me, rings true of our work together. We exist here as a congregation to encourage each other to search our hearts and know that center and to support each other in the search.
And, what endures? Parker named it as the teachings of Jesus, but I would frame it more broadly. I would say it is how our hearts make wider connections, and how we serve each other. Over the centuries this work has been framed in many ways, some of which are unrecognizable to us now, as undoubtedly in centuries to come our ways will be unrecognizable to those that follow us.
But the need, the drive, the call for it, to find in our heart’s center a way forward in life that will connect us with each other, with all life, I have every reason to believe, will endure.
Cuando el Pobre
We closed our service singing a hymn, “Cuando el Pobre” (When the Poor) from our hymnal, “Singing the Journey,” that was written in Spanish and carries forward the theme of Liberation. It is a Roman Catholic hymn, inspired by the mid-20th century Liberation theology that sustained both people and clergy in Latin America but alarmed popes and religious conservatives in Rome. This hymn comes from a culture that has blended Christian liturgy with indigenous spirituality. In the Andean region of South America, the supreme creator is Viracocha. The legend of the Indians is that Viracocha disguised himself as a beggar and wandered the earth, weeping at the plight of his creatures. It is believed that he would return in time of trouble as stated in the song, “We see God, here by our side, walking our way.”