A GOOD MAN
In the Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy’s little dog Todo pulls open the screen behind which the so-called Wizard is pulling the levers to razzle dazzle them, Dorothy says in disgust, “Oh, you’re a very bad man.” To which the Wizard replies, “No, I’m a good man. I’m just a bad Wizard!” We who have watched the razzle dazzle of the religionists who seem to be more interested in razzle dazzle miracles and claims of being God’s chosen people, have been pulling the curtain aside and often blaming the religions themselves for the basic mis-uses to which they’ve been put.
What’s in a name? The name ‘Jesus,’ in and by itself, can stir such responses. What do you think when you hear it?
If you have a background in Judaism you may have had to defend yourself against those who accused you and your ancestors of being ‘Christ killers.’ If you have a background in one of the various sects of Christianity which preached sin and hell and ‘God is spying on you,’ and ‘He’s angry with you’, etc. you may respond to the name of Jesus with some left over anxiety or even anger.
A TRINITY FOR UNITARIANS
The trinity I’d like to talk about today includes Jesus the man–the human Jesus; Jesus the myth–the god who walked on water and brought his friend Lazarus back from the dead and so forth; and Jesus the teacher of morality, ethics and spirituality. To enter this ongoing discussion, let’s take a look back at the work of two well-known Unitarians: Albert Schweitzer and Thomas Jefferson.
Albert Schweitzer, a mail-order Unitarian (he belonged to the church of the larger fellowship) had three doctorate degrees: one in the music, which he loved and which fed his soul; one in theology, which haunted his imagination; and of course a doctor of medicine which allowed him to serve with humility and ‘purpose.’ Schweitzer’s doctorate in theology included a dissertation on The Quest of the Historical Jesus.
At the turn of the last century Schweitzer declared: “the Jesus of Nazareth, who preached the ethic of the Kingdom of God, who founded the Kingdom of Heaven upon earth, and died to give His work its final consecration, never had any existence. He is a figure designed by rationalism, endowed with life by liberalism, and clothed by modern theology in an historical garb.”
“The study of the Life of Jesus has had a curious history. It set out in quest of the historical Jesus, believing that when it had found Him it could bring Him straight into our time as a Teacher and Saviour. It loosed the bands by which He had been riveted for centuries to the stony rocks of ecclesiastical doctrine, and rejoiced to see life and movement coming into the figure once more, and the historical Jesus advancing, as it seemed, to meet it. But He does not stay; He passes by our time and returns to His own.”
“The historical foundation of Christianity as built up by rationalistic, by liberal, and by modern theology no longer exists; but that does not mean that Christianity has lost its historical foundation. Jesus means something to our world because a mighty spiritual force streams forth from Him and flows through our time also. This fact can neither be shaken nor confirmed by any historical discovery. It is the solid foundation of Christianity.”
“The mistake was to suppose that Jesus could come to mean more to our time by entering into it as a man like ourselves. That is not possible. First because such a Jesus never existed. Secondly because, although historical knowledge can no doubt introduce greater clearness into an existing spiritual life, it cannot call spiritual life into existence.”
“The abiding and eternal in Jesus is absolutely independent of historical knowledge and can only be understood by contact with His spirit which is still at work in the world. In proportion as we have the Spirit of Jesus we have the true knowledge of Jesus.”
“Jesus as a concrete historical personality remains a stranger to our time, but His spirit, which lies hidden in His words, is known in simplicity, and its influence is direct. Every saying contains in its own way the whole Jesus.”
Very few persons have lived such fullness or ‘wholeness’ as Albert Schweitzer. He combined intellectual gifts with deeply spiritual urgings to create an inspiring, exemplary life. The Unitarian minister, George Marshall, who served the Church of the Larger Fellowship for many years, wrote a biography of Schweitzer in which he emphasized Schweitzer’s comment in which he summarized his spiritual-theological-ethical idea of life which came to him in Lambarene: “Reverence for life.”
SEPARATING THE MAN FROM THE MYTH
Our 19th century forebears, especially Emerson and even more so Theodore Parker, presented views of Jesus identical with those of Schweitzer. Even before they stated their so-called heretical views, Thomas Jefferson devoted considerable effort in his attempt to summarize the true religion of Jesus. He believed that Christianity had become a religion about Jesus, allowing Christians to replace the moral teachings of Jesus and the life required with a worship of Jesus.
Jefferson suggested that a true Christian wasn’t someone who held a particular set of beliefs or professed certain creeds, but who lived life in a particular way-or attempted to do so. Jefferson pulls the curtain aside. Jefferson’s work is summarized in a book he titled “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.”
During his time in the office of President, Jefferson extracted from the gospels what he considered the essential teachings and the religion of Jesus. A Unitarian minister, Henry Wilder Foote, who wrote an introduction to one of the latest editions of what has become known as The Jefferson Bible speculated: “Perhaps (Jefferson) thought of it less as work than as the way in which, in the late evenings, after tedious attention to public business and lingering visitors, he sought release from the pressing problems of his own time by turning back to the voice of one who long ago set forth the loftiest standards of human conduct.”
FREEDOM OF RELIGION, AND FREEDOM FROM RELIGION
Jefferson was reared in the Episcopal Church in Virginia, which was of course the established, or government sponsored religion. Heresy was a capital offense in the early years, punishable by burning at the stake. A less severe heresy law was written into Virginia’s statutes in 1705. Punishment for denying the truth of Christianity or of denying God or the Trinity was punishable by one’s incapacity to hold public office or employment, disability to sue or to receive an inheritance and by three years’ imprisonment.An enlightened law when contrasted with its predecessor: burning at the stake.
Jefferson’s goal, from the time of his writing the Declaration of Independence, to his public service, including his presidency, was to promote religious freedom. First he worked for the separation of church and state, and to remove all heresy laws. Then he worked to promote the deepest kind of religious freedom, which is in the mind and heart of the individual, which neither the state nor the church could do, but each must do for him or her self. That’s what led him to paste together his little book which summarizes ‘the life and morals of Jesus of Nazareth.’
CARE OF THE SOUL
He believed, with John Locke, “The care of every man’s soul belongs to himself.” Jefferson said, “I inquire after no man’s religious opinions and trouble none with mine. He was, of course, denounced by his pious political opponents as an anti-Christian, an infidel and an atheist.
Jefferson insisted that he was a ‘true Christian.’ After compiling what he considered the essential teachings of Jesus he wrote to a friend: “I have made a wee little bookwhich I call the Philosophy of Jesus: it is a paradigma of his doctrines, made by cutting the texts out of the book, and arranging them on the pages of a blank booka more beautiful and precious morsel of ethics I have never seen: it is a document in proof that I am a real Christian, that is to say a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus, very different from the Platonists who call me infidel and themselves Christians and preachers of the gospel, while they draw all their characteristic dogmas from what its author never said or saw. They have compounded from the heathen mysteries a system beyond the comprehension of man, of which the great reformerwere he to return to earth, would not recognize one feature.” (emphasis added)
PUBLIC AND PRIVATE
It’s interesting that this was a private letter, but Jefferson consistently refused to reply publicly to the accusations made by those who called him infidel. It’s ironic that the accusations that Jefferson was infidel and atheist were made by so-called Christians against a man whose knowledge of and appreciation of the teachings of Jesus, as one writer said, “have never been equaled by any other president.” In a letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush, a well-known, admired physician in Philadelphia, and an ardent Universalist, Jefferson wrote: “To the corruptions of Christianity I am, indeed, opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian in the only sense in which he wished anyone to be.”
He said of the Unitarian minister Joseph Priestly, “I have read his books over and over again, and I rest on themas the basis of my own faith.” Jefferson wrote to Priestly and asked him to give “a digest of Jesus’ moral doctrines extracted in his own words from the Evengelists, and leaving out everything relative to his personal history and character. It would be short and precious.” He went on to say, “With a view to do this for my own satisfaction I had sent to Philadelphia to get two testaments (Greek) of the same edition, and two English, with a design to cut out the morsels of morality and paste them on the leaves of a book” Priestly never read Jefferson’s letter-he was in the final stages of his own death when it arrived.
Schweitzer searched for the historical Jesus and claimed that there never was such a man-at least not the one presented by historical Christianity. Jefferson searched for the Master teacher of morality and ethics and culled him out of the gospels, preferring to leave out the mythology they made of the rest of Jesus. So we continue to look at the man, the myth and the master, cutting and culling what we find.
MOVIES AND MYTHS
I recently found a nice little morsel in award winning Italian film, ‘La Vita e Bella,’ Life is Beautiful.’ It’s a wonderful Chaplinesque fable about the power of a person to overcome the darkest realities of life as it unfolds around him.
The film is set in 1939, in the middle of the awful realities of WWII, and tells the story of Guido, who has a childlike innocence which for me reveals the essential lessons of the Christianity Jefferson gathered in his little book. (“Unless you become as a child you cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”)
Guido comes into a little town in Italy with a friend, seeking his fortune, hoping one day to own his own book store. He is full of humor and joy, and seems to ignore the growing anti-Semitism and frightening Fascism all around him.
Guido falls in love with Dora, a beautiful young school teacher with whom he has a kind of fairy tale romance and they have a son and the film jumps forward a few years to Dora and Guido raising their son and opening the book store
Guido is Jewish, Dora is not, Guido is determined to shield his son from the brutalities which surround them. Anti-Semitism combined with Fascism leads to his being taken off to a concentration camp with his son, leaving his wife Dora behind. When Dora sees what’s happening she begs to be put on the train, preferring the camp to the completely unacceptable thought of being separated from her family.
In the concentration camp Guido uses his ingenuity and his indefatigable spirit to save the lives of those he lovesand, in the end, he succeeds, though he gives his own life in the process.
Somehow this simple, sweet fable of a film captures the deepest essence of the Christianity about which Jefferson wrote, and which Schweitzer lived as he served the people in Africa.
THE TIMES THEY ARE A CHANGIN’
As we count the final days of this the final century in this amazing millenium, we would do well to review the years leading up to it. I believe we are on the verge of a new era which will be characterized by a sense of world community made possible by the technologies in which we’re fast becoming immersedespecially the communication technologies developed in the closing decades of this most amazing century.
We would do well to take another look at those aspects of our Jewish and Christian heritageto deepen our understanding and appreciation of the contribution they’ve made to our civilization. We do not need to deny the ways in which these and most every religion has been mis-used and corruptedthe bloody trail they have left during the past millenium.
PULL THE CURTAIN ASIDE
When Todo pulled the curtain aside Dorothy was naturally shocked to see a normal, everyday human being pulling the levers and pushing the buttons to make the razzle dazzle He had the sense to respond to her anger by saying, “I’m a good man, I’m just a bad wizard.” We, too, have to be willing to pull the curtain aside to see for ourselves what’s thereas Schwieitzer and Jefferson did, and all thoughtful persons have done.
We, too, have to find the good man or woman ‘in there.’ We have to find the moral, the ethical, the compassionatewithin ourselves and one another. We, too, have a responsibility for the care of our own souls. It is, ultimately, our most important and precious responsibility in this life.