The story: In 1978 TIME magazine did a story on the Pope’s silencing of Hans Kung.
The Vatican had accused Kung of promoting the Unitarian heresy. Kung had suggested that the idea of the Trinity should not be taken literally, that Jesus was fully human, a man, not God.
Kung favorably quoted another Roman Catholic theologian who was silenced by another Pope, Piere Teilhard de Chardin: “Man discovers that he is nothing else than evolution become conscious of itself. The consciousness of each of us is evolution looking at itself and reflecting.”
The letter: In response to the story in TIME I wrote this letter, which they published, including their international edition:
“Congratulations of your excellent coverage of the “New Debate Over Jesus’ Divinity” (Feb. 27, 1978). It is, of course, an old debate. There’s nothing new about it, except the circles it is now traveling in. When it is put to rest we will rediscover the human Jesus who was lost in abstract theological gymnastics. Jesus will then be a model for our living, which the earliest Christians meant him to be. The notion of Jesus as God is a base form of idolatry that makes religion a form of magic, rather than an attempt to address real, human concerns in the here and now.
As long as the church argues about the nature of Jesus, trying to decide whether he was God or man or both, our energies will be drained and our attention to the question of the nature of mankind will take a back seat. Hans Kung is helping the church to grow up. A blessing on his house.”
The response: Since TIME published my name and the name of the church I was serving in Attleboro, people could easily respond to what I’d written.
I got letters from readers from all across the country, and from around the world, as far-reaching as Egypt, India, Japan, Tahiti and South Africa.
I answered every one. There were some with whom I kept up correspondence for many years.
I want to mention one in particular right off. Alvin Solomon is from Helena, Arkansas. We became good friends. I visited Alvin when I was on my sabbatical eight years ago.
Alvin was 82 when we started our correspondence. He was 96 when I visited with him. He had just returned from a week in the hospital with pneumonia. We sat together, talking, in his bedroom, and I noticed a huge six shooter pistol on his night stand, beside his bed. He saw me looking at it. He said, In his Jewish southern accent: “I keep it there just in case. I’m not as strong as I used to be, but no S.O.B. is gonna come in here and rob me… the first chamber is empty… I don’t want to make a mistake. But there are five big bullets…”
I’ll tell you more about Alvin Solomon later.
I’ve never had any hankering to be famous…or rich. Those are burdens I probably didn’t have to worry about anyway, but I’ve always seen them as burdens.
But the letter in TIME provided my little taste, my 15 minutes. It was just right! Enough!
Let me read some lines from Alvin Solomon’s first letter to me, just after the TIME article:
“I am 82 with lots of time to think and I am very much interested in the subject of religion, although I am certainly no fundamentalist. Your remarks about Jesus express my thoughts, but what puzzles me is the way some of my born again Christian friends insist on my thinking like they do, while they have closed minds as to the way I think. If I were not well-adjusted I would envy them in their belief. If I were not a member of Reform Judaism I feel sure I would be a member of the Unitarian church. Lots of us are what we are by accident of birth and early indoctrination. My own religions makes sense for me without a lot of blind faith.”
Imagine: Alvin was born on March 3, 1896. His life has spanned three centuries.
A few years ago, just before his 100th birthday, Alvin was out golfing, alone. It was late afternoon. His golf cart tipped over and he was pinned beneath it until the next morning, when a dog saw him and barked people into coming to his aid.
The acid in the batteries in the golf cart leaked out onto his foot and leg. He sent me a photograph of the shoe that was completely eaten away by the acid. He had skin grafts on his foot and leg, which eventually healed.
He said, “The only real problem I had out there all night under that golf cart was the coyotes. So I managed to splash some of that gasoline on me. I figured those coyotes wouldn’t care for the gasoline, if you know what I mean.”
The last I heard from Alvin was on just after his 100th birthday, when he sent me an invitation to his party, which I would like to have been able to attend. Then he sent a story written by a local newspaper woman, reviewing his remarkable life.
On Friday, as I was writing about him, I called the Town Clerk’s office in Helena, Arkansas and I asked if she knew Alvin Solomon. “Know, him, well I should say I do, he and I have been good friends for all these years.”
She gave me his new telephone number off the top of her head. I called and he and I talked for quite awhile.
He was glad to hear from me, he said. He said he often thought of our conversations, and then he said, “You know, Frank, the world is just getting started—it’s a wonderful new world now. In the olden days the Jews and Philistines would start those wars when they thought they had enough men to beat the other guys, but now the world is working together. Oh, sure, there are still some folks who are thinking in the old ways, but you keep watching and you’ll see… it’s a new world and a wonderful world.”
“I was in WWI you know, over in Germany. So I know about the other side of things, the not-so-good side of humanity. But we’re changing, you bet we are.”
I told him I still have the leather sweater-jacket that he gave to me. He said, “I gave you my best jacket! I wanted you to remember me and it worked! You do remember me.”
He told me he’s getting a lot of attention these days because of his age. “My only problem is I have too many girl friends,” he said. I laughed and he said, “It’s not all that funny, I really mean it’s a problem. My representative in congress is a woman you know, and when she visited me I gave her fair warning that I had every intention of seducing her!” She got a kick out of that. “When you’re my age you can get away with quite a lot, don’t you know.”
Alvin asked if I thought we’d ever meet again. I told him I hope we do. And I do. His letter and the letters that followed over the years was the best response I got to my letter. Alvin is a wonderful representative of TIME!
The letters I got were, by and large, from the two extremes of the religious spectrum: those who said I was bound for the hot place, and those who wished I could replace the Pope to usher in a new day for religion.
I’ll give you a little taste, then I want to reflect on what’s happened along my theological path in the twenty two years since the letter in TIME.
A woman in Phoenix, AZ wrote:
“I was at once both amused and saddened as I read your letter in TIME. Jesus considered who men believed him to be of fundamental importance. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic, on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg, or else he would be the devil of hell. You must make your choice. Either Jesus was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.
“You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon; or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. But please don’t come up with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
“My prayer is that you will accept him as your personal Lord and Savior. Eternity is such a long, long time.
An Ohio clergyman wrote and told me to ‘sit down and take another long look at the Bible.’
“If Jesus was only a man, here is the state of things:
1. Jesus’ death on the cross means nothing to us.
2. Our sins remain upon us and cannot be removed.
3. God has lied.
4. The church of Christ is doomed to fall.
5. The Bible is totally rubbish.
6. We have no hope.
“Fortunately none of this is true. I rejoice daily that God loved me enough to come down to earth in the form of his son, and suffer death on the cross because of my sins. Do not cringe. You would call me an idolator because I worship a man, but you are wrong. And I call you the idolator. You have rejected God and now worship something called theology. You think it to be wisdom, yet it is utter foolishness.” Long Biblical quotes follow…
“I fear you are being fooled by Satan. (You do believe that Satan exists don’t you? If not he has already defeated you.”)
signed: A Humble Servant of Jesus Christ
A brief letter came from Binghampton, NY “Screwball.” (I found it strange that someone would simply sign their name to a letter without including a message of some kind.)
A woman in Maine said, “You expressed my feelings exactly, although I hadn’t really thought about it that much.”
A teacher from California said: “I applaud the sanity of your letter. One likes to think we won’t be so vastly outnumbered forever, but I’m afraid the nonsense will outlast you and me.”
A woman in Texas: “You expressed clearly exactly what I’ve believed for years. Would you please direct me to some literature regarding the Unitarian church.” She joined the Unitarian church in Lubbock, TX where she’s been an active member ever since.
A woman from Indiana who described herself as ‘old and gray,’ and she said, “Daring to write to you puts spice in a day’s living.” She quoted Voltaire saying, “If God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him.” Then she quoted Billy Graham: “The world crisis is not going to end until Jesus Christ returns to this earth. You cannot build a future on the cracked foundation of human nature.” Then she said, “I have a million questions. Do you think there’s some sort of spirit or supreme being that urged me to write to you?”
She enclosed two napkins and said, “When you are having coffee or tea, pretend you are having it with me.”
A physician from the Republic of Malta: “Congratulations on your letter in TIME. I can only hope it will find a response from those who seek the truth but are baffled by the Christian mythology. A study of some aspects of the Jewish faith, such as Hasidism, would help people to accept your teaching that Jesus was man not a mythological pagan but a Jew who will be a model for our living. I am not a Jew, I’m a highland Scot, who has wandered a good deal; inner Mongolia to Guyana and seen the influence of the various religious beliefs on people’s lives. I fear not until the Unitarian church can find many others like yourself to fight the idolatry that, as you write, makes religion a form of magic…”
From Egypt: “I was greatly interested in your practical stand in matters of religion and an illuminated understanding of life. With regard to the question of the nature of mankind, it may be stated that he has taken a back seat for a long time…(but) the cure (to our ills) lies in human kind…”
I was talking with my clergy support group about Alvin, and the article in TIME, and the letters, and I asked them, “How have you changed in the last twenty two years?”
What followed was an interesting, somewhat sobering conversation. Each of us has mellowed, somewhat. Each of us has become more open, more accepting of religious differences, less threatened by diversity.
So I put the question to you: How have you changed in 20 years? Or the past five or three or two years? Change is inevitable, the direction isn’t.
I certainly feel less threatened by the so-called religious right than I did in those days.
In some ways I’m afraid of losing something the ‘edge’ that is necessary in a religious leader. “Truly speaking it is not instruction but provocation that I receive from another soul,” is the way Emerson put it. To provoke. To stir up. To get people to think.
My love of poetry has helped me to change, too.
Poetry is like mythology. Neither poems nor myths are meant to be taken literally.
Poems are real, in that they often touch the soul, or the deeper core at a feeling level.
Myths are real, in that they help us to see ourselves, and express the ‘mystery and wonder’ of it all. Myth say in story what we’re not able to say in other ways.
This increased love of poetry and myth makes me more sympathetic to those who enter the religious myths and live in them. If I can embrace the poets’ saying: ‘i thank You God for most this amazing day…i who have died am alive again today and this is the sun’s birthday…’ why shouldn’t I accept someone else’s love of the poetry of born-again Christianity?
I can affirm divergent beliefs, as long as the so-called ‘religious right’ does not try to deprive me of my freedom of religion, or freedom ‘from’ religion; as long as they don’t take away a woman’s right to choose whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term, based on a quasi-religious arguments that mix politics and religion/theology.
I can affirm divergent beliefs as long as they do not offend by claiming that God is on their side, as long as they do not offend the God I embrace by setting God against man…or suggesting God chooses favorites.
So, what about you? How have you changed over the years?
“Once upon a TIME…I spoke up and spoke out…I wrote a letter…made connections…developed relationships…and that, as the poet said in The Road Less Travelled, has made all the difference!”