(The following is the manuscript of the talk given by Rev. David G. Persons at the 1st Presbyterian Church of Jamestown, March 10, 2010.)
Hiding Truth Behind Traditions and Doctrines
Text: “For the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God.” Mt. 15:6 RSV
On December 14, 1799, George Washington died at age 67 after contracting a cold. He had returned the previous day from his daily horse ride around the estate, feeling as if a cold were coming on. He ate supper and wrote in his study that evening, finishing up the duties of the day. When he came late to bed, Martha noticed he was running a fever. In the morning three of the best doctors of the state of Virginia were summoned and by evening, the retired President, the Father of our Country, had been bled to death after several veins were opened to “drain the fever.”
Today, would we want the same, top-rated doctors come to our bed while experiencing a fever? Would we trust any doctors trained in the 18th Century, or the 19th, or perhaps even some from the 20th? I expect not.
Today, would we want to live with the same level of science attained in the 18th Century, built upon the earlier works of Copernicus, Galileo and Newton? I think not, as important as was their work.
Today, would we feel safe driving the same cars driven 60 years ago, without padded dashes, air bags, modern brakes and construction? I doubt it. Naomi and I visited a small auto show near Venice, Florida a few weeks ago, amazed at the autos which were popular in our youth from the mid 50’s. But we wouldn’t want to have one for our primary transportation.
Today, the Christian Churches, and especially including the Presbyterians, seem to be upon death beds. Yet it seems to me we still keep calling back the same “doctors,” the same teachings and doctrines used 500 hundred years ago, or even 1700 years ago?
I think of Jesus as one who thought beyond the box of the teachers of his day, perhaps because he wasn’t even trained in their schools. His teachings were popular, especially about the available presence of the Reign of God, available for all peoples regardless of ethnic origin or class or gender. Yet he was opposed by religious leadership which in time killed him. They criticized him for hanging with the wrong crowds and not obeying all the rules and regulations of a holy person. In answer to some of their criticisms, Jesus is recorded as saying in Matthew’s gospel, chapter 15, “So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God.” (v. 6)
Today, I think of most church leadership as being in a similar place; strong adherence to the fundamentalist teachings of the 4th Century and adamantly opposed to those who either question or reject them. Yes, we have changed the packaging in many places, jazzing up outdated teachings with flashing lights, electronic screens and peppy music. But it’s basically the same message and the fundamentalist teachings of the 4th Century.
After retirement last July, my wife Naomi and I visited a large Roman Catholic Church near Wayside. They had many people attend my retirement party. I had always had a good working relationship with them along with a diocesan priest I had met through an ashram in South India. The Mass flow was excellent, filled with incense, candles and movement accompanied by a large folk band and choir. I thought, “This is an excellent presentation of 4th Century thinking.” As we left the parking lot, Naomi turned and said, “It’s interesting how much it was exactly like Bob Jones University (from where we both graduated) except for the form used!” And right she was.
In 1987, sitting alone with Bede Griffiths in his South India Ashram, he told me, “The church has not allowed creative thinking to flourish since the 4th Century.” Although stunned at the time, I realized later he was so right. In the late 1990’s, I heard Rev. David McKee, then the Presbytery Executive of WNY before he was fired, say that anything we had been taught in seminary for the past several years was no longer applicable to today’s church. Maybe that’s why he got fired.
From 2004 to 2008, I was a mentor in the Dubuque Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa for Native Americans. There I was astounded at the fundamentalism taught to prospective Native American candidates. It was the same message with even the same songs used by previous missionaries to their ancestors from at least 1850. Amazing.
A few days ago, a science friend sent me a link to a free download of a book written by scientist Arthur D’Adamo titled, “Science Without Bounds.” Reared in a Roman Catholic Church, he left as a young man, feeling unable to question doctrines and teachings presented to him for blind acceptance as from God Himself. He chose science as a career, and although impressed much more with science’s honesty and openness, he wanted to apply those same scientific principles to his deepest questions such as, “Who Am I, Where Did I come From?” And “What is my purpose here?” He used methods to explore rarely and historically not allowed in most Christian churches. The book is a beautiful, informative story of how one scientist, as with many of his current colleagues, have found renewed faith with new answers to these ancient questions.
As D’Adamo writes, science, if true to itself, has no “sacred cows.” Each claim to knowledge and experience must be met with repetition and testing, not on hearsay and ancient records which may or may not be true. Scientific knowledge truth, as much as possible, must always be consistent with other disciplines in the field. Conclusions must be universal, working in the USA as well as in China. And scientific truth must always be open to revision and improvement, not frozen and finalized. (pp. 60-61)
Today, I believe we are living in a very unique era with the ability and resources to question and revisit all of those doctrines and traditions of the church which many of us have questioned, but were afraid of losing jobs and favor with authorities. We live in what is called the “post-Christian era.” To me this means we can question any doctrine of the church without worry about being burned at the stake, as many, thousands, and millions did over past centuries. I may lose my privileges to speak and teach in the church, but I am not barred, in most countries, from teaching in another forum. It is a wonderful opportunity for advances in study and truth seeking. And I am so grateful for those, who despite criticism and opposition have pursued such endeavors. My life has been enriched by them.
One such endeavor began in 1985 with the creation by Robert Funk, the Jesus Seminar as sponsored by the Westar Institute. He and other gathered scholars began addressing unanswered questions about the life of Jesus, assisted with all the available scientific evidence and tools to ascertain just who Jesus was, what he said, and what his credible teachings were. I have benefitted by these studies.
We used many of the Seminar’s resources at Wayside in my years as their pastor. We did Lenten Studies with Markus Borg, John Dominic Crossan and others among the “fellows.” We used the study, “Living With the Questions” recommended to me a few years ago by your pastor, Tom Sweet. In fact, this year Wayside is using Marcus Borg’s book, “The Last Week” led by two attorneys who were open and hungry for honest answers while I was their pastor.
Perhaps earlier pioneers weren’t so lucky. Albert Schweitzer, born in 1875, was a brilliant student with hard questions. He was inspired by earlier studies and research by Herman Reimarus of the 18th Century and William Wrede of the 19th Century who sought most historical clarification of the early Christian writings. In 1910, Schweitzer published his well known, “The Quest for the Historical Jesus”. He was criticized by many as dangerous and for destroying the church’s “true Jesus.” The quest was halted in a few years by the writings of Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann until 1985. Meanwhile, Schweitzer, a multi-talented, brilliant person, went on to become the famous doctor who worked with his wife in Africa until his death in 1965.
The response to my teachings of the ideas at Wayside from the Jesus Seminar went from shock at first to a wonderful acceptance and longing for a continuing dialogue. It was broadly accepted at Wayside, those wonderful friends of mine for so many years. In the last few years of my tenure, we took in more young families than we had in many years. One young engineer typified many of these people. He came to me thankful for my honesty. He shared how as a child he finally told, as most of us, there was no Santa Claus or Easter Bunny. He got over such shocks as most of us did. But he also thanked me for sharing ideas to answer some of his questions about the so-called literal Virgin Birth of Jesus and his miraculous raising from the dead.
However, these changes in reason and understanding were just the start. The spiritually of the Jesus Seminar I grew to see as weak and almost non-existent, outside of perhaps standing in wonder among forest trees and blazing sunsets. John Spong’s last book on Eternal Life was a big disappointment to me, but I wasn’t surprised. He said a few years ago he had never read anything from the Eastern religions and was just beginning the Bhagavad-Gita. I used to think John and the Seminar folks would have prospered by a good “retreat” to India Ashrams.
My own thirst for a deeper spirituality began in the early 1980’s. Deeply involved in “Social Actions” with “Church and Society” groups, I longed for a deeper peace. A friend suggested I enroll in San Francisco Theological Seminary and consider pursuing their D.Min. program, such programs becoming quite popular in those years in order to bolster up clergy morale and stop major attendance losses. I enjoyed the free environment in my summers at SFTS and decided to pursue a study on meditation and the use of silence. My dissertation proposal was accepted. In 1987, while preparing for my dissertation, I made a trip to visit India Ashrams through a grant given to me by SFTS. It was a trip which deeply impacted my life.
I was helped in planning the trip by the late Tony de Mello in 1985. A Jesuit priest, de Mello was the first person to open my eyes toward a much deeper spirituality. He was the first to tell me that I was not my body and the church was not its forms and doctrines but ideally, a place of deep openness to that which is formless and eternal. Ashrams in India were defined to me as place of “openness to Spirit.” In India, with people such a Bede Griffiths at Shantivan and introductions to Sri Ramana Maharshi’s teachings at Mt. Arunachala, my new consciousness was slowly awakened. I devoured the ancient Eastern spiritual books such as the Bhagavad-Gita, the Aphorisms of Pantanjali, the Tao Te Ching of Lao Tse with writings from the Vedanta. They were the first writings and teachings which taught me a radical new way of looking at the world, seeing it as not real, but as an illusion, as maya. I was told of seeing reality as non-dualistic, that my identity was not the body of a man with a country, family, job, and accomplishments. My identity was an “idea” of God, the Son or Child of God. Silence and times of solitude were seen as opportunities to return again to my True Self, as they called it. De Mello called such times “soul scrubbers” to clean off the extras we so easily tend to add on as layers.
Such readings and teachings helped me also to begin to see the Bible in other ways. It was not the only sacred book of writings and appeared very weak in the idea of all people being connected together as one. I began to see the Bible as a dualistic, even bi-polar book rather than a reading of unity and oneness. I could also see the similarities in some of Jesus’ recorded words to many of the ancient and present teachers in countries of the East, but words which had become covered over with centuries of form, traditions, and rigid boundaries of exploration. My mind felt overwhelmed at times, and I felt it would be years to assimilate it. I wondered how on earth I would ever be able to relate any of it to Christianity as I had been taught and had been teaching.
A few days after returning from India that spring, I thought I was having a heart attack as I prepared to attend a Presbytery Meeting. I was taken to the hospital for observation and testing. There a friend brought me a large blue book called A Course in Miracles. I thought it had something to do with the healing of my body, but it was all about the healing of my mind! The Course book appeared to me as a modern expression of Eastern Mysticism in Western form, and composed in a Shakespearean iambic pentameter which seemed close in style to the King James Bible I had first read. Since then, it continues to be one of my major sources of reminder and inspiration.
So how has my thinking evolved moving past the 4th Century doctrines and traditions? I cannot accept the Bible as the literal word of God or a divine revelation not open for scientific examination. I cannot accept the stories of Jesus in the gospels as taught in the 4th Century. As the Seminar points out, probably only about 20% of the words in them can actually be ascribed to Jesus. I understand the gospels now as written by unknown authors, 40 to 70 years after Jesus walked on earth, and thus the writings are based heavily on hearsay rather than eye witness accounts. I cannot accept the 4th Century Creeds as the basis for my faith, or as the Fundamentals the church has enforced for so many centuries, barring people from further investigation. I have become open to the idea of reincarnation, a teaching which was accepted by the church until the 6th Century when it was banned by the Emperor Justinian. I can read openly books by people like Doctor Brian Weiss, “Many Lives, Many Masters” describing his work as a medical psychiatrist with people who often slip into former lives. I can discuss the many questions about such issues which my former parishioners and community friends never dared to ask. I can appreciate people who become channels for Voices beyond, such as Helen Schucman, who responded to the Voice and wrote the Course in Miracles. I can appreciate parishioners and community members who have had special manifestations of a spiritual presence, those who stayed away from the church until they realized I would not mock or ridicule their experiences, but rather listen carefully to learn. I realize understand working primarily to make social changes in the world is backwards, that my primary task is to accept the Oneness with God for myself and all others, and the rest will follow as the effect.
Of course, I’ve had a few road blocks and challenges along the way, but nothing much. In 1989 I was also called in to meet the Presbytery Executive who had been warned about my Eastern, New Age influences! I shared with her my trip to India and the work I was doing for San Francisco Seminary. She wasn’t impressed. “The longest Presbyterians can endure silence,” she exclaimed, “is eight seconds! We are a people who work for the Kingdom!” I felt shock and sadness. My dissertation was titled, “Solitude and Silence: Doors to Self-Disclosure and Empowerment.”
However, it has been a wonderful life for me, this road of discovery and openness to truth and scientific investigation. I can now look at previously banned heresies of the pre-Constantine Era, such as Gnosticism and all those other “isms” that people couldn’t even consider without fear of death or ostracization. There is much more, but I must stop due to our time. How do I put a100 talks together in 15 minutes?
I close with some words from the late James Kavanaugh, who died a few weeks ago. He was a priest in the Roman Catholic Church when in 1967 he left to marry a lover and publish the book, “A Modern Priest Looks at his Outdated Church.” I read it around the time I was at Pittsburgh Seminary. I never forgot it. I didn’t realize, however, that in 1970, he wrote another book, his last, titled, “There Are Men Too Gentle To Live Among Wolves.” I found the book and now have a copy. The book is a poem from his heart, and these are some excerpts from a section titled, “My Easy God is Gone.”
I have lost my easy God—the one whose name I knew since childhood.
I knew his temper, his sullen outrage, his ritual forgiveness.
I never told him how he frightened me, How he followed me as a child
….He was a predictable God, I was the unpredictable one.
Now he haunts me seldom; some fierce umbilical is broken,
I live with my own fragile hopes and sudden rising despair.
Now I do not weep for my sins; I have learned to love them
And to know that they are the wounds that make love real.
I do not splash in the blood of his son
nor hear the crunch of nails or thorns piercing protesting flesh.
I am a boy again—I whose boyhood was turned to manhood in a brutal myth.
Now wine is only wine with drops that do not taste of blood.
The bread I eat has too much pride for transubstantiation,
I, too—and together the bread and I embrace
Each grateful to be what we are, each loving from our own reality
Now the bread is warm in my mouth and I am warm in its mouth as well.
…Now I can know my own gentleness as well, my wonder, my nobility.
I sense the call of creation, I feel its swelling in my hands.
I can lust and love, eat and drink, sleep and rise,
But my easy God is gone—and in his stead the mystery of loneliness and love!