Healing a Broken World


Some church web sites provide the ability to listen to recordings of their sermons. I sometimes peruse web sites from liberal mainline churches, and when I find these recordings, I often listen to them to hear what the churches have to say. One such church, located in Chicago, states on its home page that it "welcomes all who want to thank God, have doubt, or do not believe." This openness to seekers with a variety of beliefs was appealing to me, so I was particularly interested to hear some of the online sermons. However, after listening to one of the sermons online about the subject of the divinity of Jesus, I was disappointed--not because I disagreed with the speaker's Trinitarianism, which I more or less expected, but because it expressed what I felt was an unfair characterization of those such as myself who do not accept the doctrine of the Trinity. I have no problem with Christians who embrace the divinity of Jesus. I have more or less made peace with myself over the fact that I have started attending a Trinitarian church despite the fact that I am not a Trinitarian; I am willing to let that theological difference slide because I find myself able to connect with God in the worship services despite that one difference, and because I am willing to de-literalized and mythologize some of the theological language that doesn't exactly correspond to my perspective.

In the online sermon that I listened to, I do give the pastor credit. He said that he was mostly asking others to consider certain questions that he was posing, and that he was only giving his own opinion in response to those questions. That is fair enough; it is far more admirable than what I would have experienced listening to a fundamentalist preacher who would simply proclaim what he claims to be the final and absolute truth and leave it at that. In any case, my objection is not with what this pastor believes per se, but with what I saw as an somewhat unfair attack on a belief that he rejects.

The sermon title was "What if Jesus wasn't divine?" In answering that question, the pastor asserted that there was essentially only one alternative to believing in Jesus's divinity, at least within Western religious traditions. According to him, this alternative was a belief in the goodness of the human race and an optimistic faith in the ability of humanity to solve the world's problems, perhaps by simply listening to Jesus as a great moral teacher. The pastor then summarily dispensed with this straw man by pointing out that history has shown that the world has indeed proved repeatedly to be a very broken place and humanity has had a poor track record of healing itself from the sins and evils that plague the world through its own efforts.

It is true that in the 19th century, a strain of thought did develop that held an optimistic faith in humanity's future progress, and this no doubt coincided with a characterization of Jesus as no more than a great moral teacher. This optimism about the future evolution of human society was largely shattered by the brutality of World War I. However, the pastor makes the mistake of assuming that there is any inherent connection between denying the divinity of Jesus and having a kind of 19th century optimism in the ever expanding moral progress of human civilization, or that such progress can be achieved by simply and earnestly following the teachings of a great moral teacher.

For one thing, the pastor leaves God completely out of the straw man that he erected. It is possible to deny the divinity of Jesus and still believe in God. Just ask any Jew. The reality is that it is perfectly possible to recognize that the world is broken, that humans benefit from the transformative power of a relationship with God, and that humans have historically shown a less than stellar track record in solving their seemingly intractable social problems, without believing that Jesus is divine. One can believe in a strictly monotheistic God and still believe those other things. Those 19th century optimists who he dismisses were, I suspect, largely secularists, who seemed to have removed God from the picture entirely. But to assume that one must be a secularist if one rejects the divinity of Jesus is obviously not valid. And if you believe that the world is broken and that people as flawed creatures benefit in some way from their relationship with God, then this can be true whether or not you believe in the divinity of Jesus.

Also, consider that there is the flip side of the equation. Does the pastor think that somehow believers in the divinity of Jesus have any better track record at solving the world's problems than those who don't? It is true that humans on their own have been unable to end wars, oppression and injustice; but how, exactly does a belief in the divinity of Jesus provide the solution to those problems that secularism is unable to provide?

How can we heal this broken world? Religion offers no magic solutions. I am not a naive optimist, and lately I've been feeling more pessimistic than optimistic about the future of the world. But, unless one takes a millenarian view that God will magically intervene in history and bring on an apocalyptic resolution to what is wrong with the world--and I certainly don't believe that--are we supposed to just throw our hands up in the face of the problems of the world and not at least try to make it a better place, to the best of our limited ability? The world will not get better unless we try. As a believer in God, I believe that God calls us to co-create with her the world that we live in, to try make it a better place. We don't always succeed. Often we fail. But the one thing we cannot do is give up. And that is true regardless of what we think Jesus's nature was.

The pastor correctly pointed out that the world was full of moral teachers other than Jesus--he names such historical figures as Gandhi and Marx as examples of this. He then asked the question, why is following Jesus any more worthwhile than following any other teacher? What makes Jesus so special if he isn't divine? That is a valid question. My own view is that, firstly, the question of "divine" versus "non-divine" is a simplistic take on what should not be an either-or proposition; it is not a question of anyone being God or not-God, because I believe that God exists within all of creation, and that all of us are a part of God, even if none of us are "Divine" in the sense of being part of a Godhead. Jesus was important not just because of his teachings, but because he lived according to his teachings to the fullest, and thus revealed by example that presence of divinity that exists and can be expressed in all of us. Secondly, I also believe that Jesus is not the only way that one has to follow; one can find the Divine in many ways, with other teachers and traditions. One can follow in the Jesus tradition, as I do, even though I am a non-Trinitarian, because it is a comfortable and meaningful way of mediating the experience of God that I can relate to. It is a tradition that I know and it works for me. But that doesn't mean that it is the end-all and be-all of how to find God. I think that Trinitarians can and do experience God, just as I believe that I experience God in my own way. I also believe that people of other religious traditions experience God, or the Divine, or the Ground of Being, or whatever you choose to call it, through the means that have worked for them.

Can we heal this broken world? I certainly would like to believe so, even if I think it is a depressingly uphill battle. Do we have to believe in the divinity of Jesus in order to try to heal the world, or even to heal ourselves as individuals? I believe strongly that the answer is no.


John Shuck said...

Hi Seeker,

Thank you for this. That either/or language (ie. Jesus is divine or all hell will break loose) is really religious bullying. I am sure that tone did not come from the sermon you heard, but it relates to it. It attempts to keep people fearful of searching and of challenging. No matter how liberal or gracious the presenter, it still has the same effect.

I think of the Trinity as a metaphor and as a part of our historical understanding of God (when we thought we lived in a three-tiered universe).

Thanks for the blog!