“How strange is the lot of us mortals! Each of us is here for a brief sojourn; for what purpose (we) know not, though (we) sometimes thinks (we) sense it…
A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life are based on the labors of other(s), living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving… “My passionate sense of social justice and social responsibility has always contrasted oddly with my pronounced lack of need for direct contact with other human beings and human communities. I am truly a ‘lone traveler’ …I have never lost a …need for solitude…”
“My political ideal is democracy…The really valuable thing in the pageant of human life seems to me not the political state, but the creative, sentient individual, the personality; it alone creates the noble and the sublime, while the herd as such remains dull in thought and dull in feeling.
“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed. It was the experience of mystery — even if mixed with fear — that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate…it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity. In this sense, and only this sense, I am a deeply religious man… I am satisfied with the mystery of life’s eternity and with a knowledge, a sense, of the marvelous structure of existence — as well as the humble attempt to understand even a tiny portion of the Reason that manifests itself in nature.”
I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;
I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):
I shan’t be gone long. — You come too.
I’m going out to fetch the little calf
That’s standing by the mother. It’s so young,
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I shan’t be gone long. — You come too.
Sermon: Deciphering the Da Vinci Code
A sermon is an invitation to go into the pasture, the source of nourishment for the soul. Frost’s poem reminds me of the famous words from the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, he makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside still waters.”
When I started this sermon I intended to decipher, or ‘give a solution’ to the story, both the book and movie versions of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. What I found, instead, is the need for me to decipher my own conflicting responses—to try to figure out why the film made me anxious and why the book didn’t really have much of an impact beyond the entertainment it offered in the reading.
The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown, is a murder mystery. It’s a best seller; over 60 million copies, translated into more than 40 languages, so far.
The story is mostly fiction, but it’s spiced up with enough facts to make it a tasty morsel to some, and sickening to others. It has spawned a virtual debunking industry; there are books about the book and films about the film.
The Jesus story is also a murder mystery that has sold even more copies than Dan Brown’s book, and has been translated into hundreds of languages, with dozens of translations in English alone. That story spawned a debunking industry, too.
That Jesus book, the New Testament, is mostly mythology, but the myths are meant to get beneath the facts and into the Truth about what it means to be human; what it means to be born into this world, to suffer and to die. A lot of human energy has been devoted to trying to decipher the code of human existence – Life.
We identify with the Jesus story. That book is more than palatable to many—it’s a life saver, but for others it’s a puzzle, and perhaps even the source of anti-Semitism, the source of racism, and sexism, and religious persecution.
The premise of Dan Brown’s story is that Jesus was a mortal man who fathered a child with a woman he loved, a woman who was a trusted partner—trusted, in fact, above all the others. He entrusted her, the story suggests, with carrying on his work after he was gone—to continue to build on the foundation of faith in the power of love over hate; the power of forgiveness over revenge; the power of simple acts of kindness over cruelty and injustice — the basic ingredients in what we think of as ‘the religion of Jesus.’
You’d think that a Unitarian minister would have a sense of satisfaction–maybe even a little ‘smug satisfaction’–over a book and film about a fully human Jesus. We’ve been trying to demythologize the story for centuries.
Our basic message is simple: Jesus was a fully developed, actualized person, completely human. Our reading of the history is that the idea of his divinity was an unfortunate ‘fiction’ following his death — it was conceived by theologians who borrowed bits and pieces of other gods, and it was delivered, like a babe in the manger, at the Council of Nicea in 325 a.d.
Thus, Christianity became a religion about Jesus, but heart of the religion of Jesus–loving neighbor as self, the golden rule–still beats in his human breast. Much of the Christianity that emerged in the fourth century focused on the miracles: the virgin birth story, the walking on water story, the water-into-wine story, the resurrection/Easter story of the and the prediction of his imminent return to rule the earth.
Dan Brown’s story confirms what many people think, intuitively–that theology at its best is poetry. It’s not history; it wasn’t intended to be taken a literal fact, which isn’t to deny the deeper Truth (capital T) of Christianity-at-its-best.
The Da Vinci Code, with its riddles and puzzles and search for the Holy Grail, is about our life-long search for the Truth, meaning, purpose and direction. The deeper truths are not about the facts—they are what makes the heart beat. The deeper truths are at the core of our being, where the sacred sits silently, out of reach of all the words, underneath all the mythologies, nourished by the beauty of Nature, the sound of music, the symbolism of poetry and the sacredness of human compassion that connects us to others and to our higher self…we call it love.
After seeing the film I asked myself “Why did I feel uneasy, what made me uncomfortable, what prevented me from feeling any sense of satisfaction with the story’s assertion that Jesus was not God, but a fully normal human being?”
I read the book when it first came out and found it, entertaining; but when I saw the movie I was aware of all the controversy around it, and the Catholic Church’s anger about the way it was being portrayed, and that made me feel uneasy. I realized that the film would throw some salt into the wound, and the Church is wounded, as we all know. It was wounded by priests who betrayed the trust of some of its youngest, most vulnerable members; it was wounded by revelation of the attempt to cover those things up, moving accused priests from parish to parish; it was wounded by its denial and ultimate admission. It’s been wounded by it’s refusal to include women as clergy, in a world that has made this an issue for decades.
I thought about that wounded-ness as I watched the film.
On the other hand, I was glad that the story and film made reference to the Emperor, Constantine, and to the Council of Nicea, the birthplace of Unitarianism. I was glad that the story raises, again, what one means by ‘the divinity of Jesus.’ People were offended by the portrayal of Jesus and Mary Magdalene as husband and wife, and Mary as the ‘Holy Grail.’ As I watched the film I was reminded of the controversy and violent response to portraying Mohammed in cartoons.
I continue to be intrigued at the story’s popularity. There’s something about the story that touches whatever it is that’s at the heart of all the religions—the thing in us that makes us religious creatures, and the reason we’ve invented so many of them, and will continue to do so.
Einstein chimes in on it when he says, “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science…it was the experience of the mystery…that engendered religion.”
It’s interesting that this statement came from the man who is, perhaps, the most well-known scientist, a man most associated with the rational, intellectual mind. He affirms the need to embrace the mystery as ‘the most beautiful experience.’
The mystery begins where the rational mind ends. We keep pushing that boundary, and must be willing to engage in a free and open search for truth in order to expand our knowledge. The scientist who devotes his or her life to learning more are the ones who are most aware of the limits of our knowing. They can see to the furthest reaches of our knowledge; they know the limits of our capacity ‘to know.’ So a man like Albert Einstein inspires us with a humble acknowledgement of what we call ‘the mystery.’
James Carroll, a practicing Roman Catholic, showed that kind of courage when he published his important, non-fiction account of the development of Christianity in his book, Constantine’s Sword. Reading that book reminded me why I couldn’t continue, in good conscience, to recite the Apostle’s Creed, and why I became a Unitarian, leaving the church of my youth—a church, by the way, which I loved and still respect and appreciate.
The Unitarian church gave me the freedom I needed – a freedom that carries with it significant responsibility.
So I appreciated that part of Dan Brown’s story that gives a brief account of the role that the Roman Emperor Constantine played in the history of Christianity, especially with regard to the Council of Nicea, where Jesus was elevated from mortal man to an immortal god. That bit of historical fact gave Dan Brown’s story the touch of authenticity or historical accuracy that contributed both to its popularity and to the confusion and controversy around it.
The fiction about Jesus fathering a child with Mary Magdalene gave the story the spice it needed to popularize it. The story says that the church covered that up, which heightened our awareness of things being covered up by the Church or by the White House, and so forth.
The story says that since there was a conscious cover up, there had to be a conspiracy. That is to say, there had to be people who knew that Jesus was the father of Mary Magdalene’s child. If the word got out, the story says, it would destroy the church.
Mary Magdalene’s reputation was the fictional creation of a Pope almost a thousand years ago; but there’s at least known Gospel of Mary among the Gnostic Gospels that paints a very different portrait. That Pope’s portrayal says more about him, and his Church’s anti-feminine history.
Dan Brown wrote a preface in which he said: “Fact: ‘the Priory of Sion—a European secret society founded in 1099—is a real organization. In 1975 Paris’s Biblioteque Nationale discovered parchments known as Les Dossiers Secrets, identifying numerous members of the Priory of Sion, including Sir Isaac Newton, Botticelli, Victor Hugo, and Leonardo da Vinci.
“The Vatican prelature (high ranking members of the clergy) known as Opus Dei is a deeply devout Catholic sect that has been the topic of recent controversy due to reports of brainwashing, coercion, and a dangerous practice known as ‘corporal mortification.’ Opus Dei has just completed construction of a $47 million World Headquarters at 243 Lexington Avenue in New York City.”
Finally he asserts: “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.”
Describing Leonardo’s Last Supper; he asserts that the person in the painting at the right hand of Jesus is none other than his pregnant wife, Mary Magdalene.
While Dan Brown believes that the Priory of Sion was formed in 1099 it appears that’s a hoax—that it was invented in the 1950’s by Pierre Plantard and others.
Leonardo’s membership in the Priory of Sion is almost certainly fictional, but the use of Leonardo as a central historical character adds to the book’s feeling of authenticity and its popularity. The Renaissance was characterized as humanistic; a rebirth, as the word itself suggests—an opportunity for humanity to elevate human existence the way some of us believe Jesus and others intended.
Leonardo’s biography is the perfect definition of a Renaissance man. He is best remembered as the painter of the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. He’s also famous for an amazing variety of talents, including architecture, sculpture, engineering, geology, and the military arts. It’s fascinating that 500 years ago he drew pictures of parachutes and flying machines that resembled inventions that were realized in the 19th and 20th centuries. He made detailed drawings of human anatomy, which are still highly regarded today. Leonardo also did some strange things, like writing entries in a notebook backwards, using a mirror, which kept many of his observations from being widely known until decades after his death. Dan Brown used all of this for the ingenious intrigue he created in his book.
In the story, the Priory of Sion has female members as well as males, going against the tradition of keeping women out of any leadership positions. The story portrays the Priory of Sion as the good guys.
Opus Dei, on the other hand, allows only male members, determined to keep women out. So they’re portrayed as the bad guys.
Again, Opus Dei is an actual group, but their involvement in the cover-up of the marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene is fiction, or a version of fiction, since there’s no real evidence of a bloodline coming from Jesus of Nazareth.
Opus Dei is portrayed as ‘the rabid attack dog of the Church.’ They are out to destroy the Priory of Sion in order to keep the secret of Jesus’ marriage and progeny.
The story opens with the murder of Jacques Sauniere, a key member of the Priory of Sion, the curator of the Louvre who knows the secret about Jesus’ marriage to Mary Magdalene, and knows that that Leonardo painted her into the portrait of the Last Supper, as the person at the right hand of Jesus at the table, who is believed to be the apostle John. Mary Magdalene is pregnant.
To succeed as a murder mystery, the story has to be made complicated by conspiracy, intrigue and cover up. The Jesus story is made complicated by conspiracy, intrigue and cover up, too.
The early church came under the influence and control of the Roman Emperor Constantine, who convened the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. where the creeds were carved, most especially the central assertion that Jesus was God who had decided to take human flesh to ‘save the people from their sins.’
A good story, by definition, has to be believable. Religions require believability, but they don’t require facts—the way Sgt. Joe Friday did; they require stories that appeal to that part of us which has more to do with feelings, with the wonder, mystery and majesty of this amazing universe. Religion appeals to the intuitive, instinctive, creative and emotional part of us.
I’m reminded of a poem by E. E. Cummings that has intrigued me for years—the poem makes a distinction between death and dying; it makes a distinction between thinking and feeling: ‘for when instead of stopping to think, you begin to feel of it…’ You can read it for yourself, just as he wrote it:
Death if Death
when(instead of stopping to think)you
begin to feel of it,dying
cause dying is
it mildly lively(but
& artificial &
evil & legal)
we thank thee
almighty for dying
(forgive us.o life!the sin of Death
Dan Brown’s story has it all—it is imaginative, intriguing and believable. It requires the use of the intuitive mind, stimulated by the intricate clues about the location of the Holy Grail, and the surprise, not only about the location but the nature of the Grail.
(An excellent Jungian examination of the search of the Holy Grail as an ‘interior journey’ can be found in Robert Johnson’s excellent essay he titled He.)
Recently I offered a sermon titled, When Christians Were Jewish, in which I talked about a fascinating book, The Reluctant Parting, by a former Baptist minister who converted to Judaism after researching the Scriptures while working on her doctorate.
Rabbi Orkand and I are in conversation with Julie Galumbush and we’ve set a date for her to be in this pulpit, on April 1, 2007, and for her to be at Temple Israel that Sunday afternoon for a lecture that will be open to the public. So we’ll keep the discussion going.
Dan Brown’s story is a murder mystery–so is the story of Jesus. Blaming the death of Jesus on the Jews has been the source of virulent anti-Semitism passed from generation to generation. We have to do what we can to eliminate anti-Semitism, just as we need to continue to work to eliminate racism, homophobia, sexism and all the other prejudices that prevent us from becoming civilized.
As Unitarian Universalists we affirm the basic story of the life and teaching of Jesus, as summarized in the Parables of the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, and so forth.
Our Unitarian faith was conceived at the Council of Nicea by Bishop Arius, who was labeled a heretic for arguing against the idea of the Trinity—he spoke out against making Jesus into a god and depriving him of his humanity.
Our Unitarian faith came of age in America following the war of Independence and then there was a bridging ceremony in 1961 in Boston with the merger of Unitarians and Univeralists.
We’ve never grown into the thriving religious movement predicted by Thomas Jefferson, who said, “I think every young man born in America today will become a Unitarian.”
We need to mature—to grow up, if you will. We need to learn to appreciate the mythology that informs religion and not throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. Mythology at it’s best is intended to reveal truths about what it means to be human, truths too deep for facts. We de-mythologized our religion, now, perhaps, we need to re-mythologize it, to embrace the mystery and to see the meanings that emerge in the mythologies. That’s one of the clues to deciphering the Da Vinci Code, and to understanding ourselves, which is the function of any good story—to see yourself more clearly.
We Unitarian Universalists believe the story of the miraculous conception, the virgin birth, the new star in the heavens shining over a stable in Bethlehem followed by three kings who brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh is mythological.
But we need to continue to search for the larger truth wrapped in the swaddling clothes of a rich mythology, and we can easily see that every birth is a miracle; every conception is a part of the amazing mystery in which we find ourselves.
We are participants in the mystery. We catch little glimpses of the it in Nature; we’re reminded of it when we feel a sense of compassion for the suffering we see in the world; we’re nourished by it when we stand in awe under the stars, or in the presence of a child or grandchild; we’re humbled by it when we have to face the death of a loved one. All of this points us in the direction of the mystery—what theologians have called the mysterium tremendum et fascinorum: the tremendous, fascinating mystery.
Einstein said it: “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. It was the experience of mystery — even if mixed with fear — that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate…it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity.”
May we learn to love the mystery even while we continue to search for deeper truth in the here and now.
Closing Words: Now say to thyself, ‘If there’s any good think I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any person, let me do it now, let me not defer or neglect it, for I may not pass this way again.’