Beyond Used Theology
Years ago one of my mentors told me a story. Peter Gomes had just released his best selling book on the Bible, The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Heart and Mind. The success of the book sent him traveling around the country and world. One of those trips took him to Oxford, England. Peter was a consummate anglo-phile. He loved visiting the intellectual center of Britain. During his stay he shopped the famous, humungous bookstore - Blackwells - just off the campus grounds. New books were sold on the first and second floors; the basement was reserved for used books. The basement, or Norrington Room as it’s called, spans 10,000 square feet (the same size as one floor of our church) with 3 miles of bookshelves. Peter said he descended the steps into that cavernous basement, looked across the stacks and stacks of old books, to see a sign on the far wall, “used theology.” It made him ask, “Who wants used theology?” And then he added, to my group of aspiring pastors and writers, “and yet that’s what we all become.”
I thought of Peter’s story this week when reading a book for our Wednesday night Introduction to Theology class. A distinction William James made in his seminal work at the beginning of the 1900’s came up. James spoke of the difference between “first-hand religious experience and second-hand religion.”
The distinction resonated with me: first-hand religious experience vs. second-hand religion. For a number of years many people have contrasted spirituality to religion. Increasing numbers of people say they are “spiritual but not religious.” More and more people identify with no religious tradition.
People associate spirituality with words like connection, transcendence, searching, doubt, energy, wisdom, and openness. In contrast people think of more rigid associations with religion: rules, order, authority, buildings, boundaries, hierarchy, certainty.
This split between spirituality and religion underlies the distinction William James made 100 years ago. We want first-hand religious experiences instead of second-hand religion. We want to feel it ourselves instead of picking up someone else’s used theology.
This Sunday we reflect on the practice of baptism. I know many take to heart the lines we use in baptism, particularly the promise we make as a congregation. To each person baptized we promise our “love, support, and care.”
The people we make these promises to need our love, support, and care. Yet they don’t need our second-hand religion. It’s like a used kleenex; no one wants it second-hand. But how can we be about first-hand religious experiences?
Our gospel reading told the story of a profound first-hand religious experience. John the Baptist led a movement of people out on the fringes, in a desolate area by the Jordan River. John and his followers left Jerusalem convinced the politicians and the religious leaders were all corrupt. The corruption they witnessed made them feel dirty, polluted. Out in the wilderness, out beyond the watchful eyes of soldiers and priests, John and his followers sought to purify themselves.
John didn’t invent baptism. He was practicing an old Jewish bathing ritual, the Mikva. It’s still practiced today as a way to restore a sense of wholeness and purity. We sometimes forget this aspect of baptism; John was observing an ordinary faith practice.
One day Jesus came to the river. Jesus asked John to baptize him. And that day the ordinary practice took a bizarre turn. The Gospel of Mark reported, “And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.”
In the midst of an ordinary ritual, Jesus had an extraordinary experience. And often that’s how first-hand religious experiences come - in an ordinary moment one gets a glimpse of something extraordinary. Isaiah went into the Temple to offer incense; he saw angels dancing in the rising smoke. Paul’s horse stumbled on the road to Damascus; as he hit the ground he realized hatred had brought him low.
Such experiences are not just part of “Biblical times.” A choir member, mourning the death of a loved one, looked up one day to our angel window. The sun lit the glass. And, in an instant yet spacious moment, she felt connected to everything and as if everyone were connected to her. Grief could not separate her from love; she could let go of her grief and yet hold on to her love. The rest of the choir saw a beautiful window, but she perceived God’s grace.
First-hand religious experiences can come to us in ordinary moments. It’s the perception of the mystical in the midst of the mundane.
Yet first-hand religious experiences can be hard to name and describe. The Gospel tells us what happened, but one can sense the inadequacy of the words. This amazing experience comes in just a verse or two. A life-altering moment reduced to a few metaphors - like a dove, heaven torn open.
And yet isn’t that true of religious experience. Words fail. An old Jewish story captures this. A group of the wisest rabbis sat around talking about Moses’ experience on Mt. Sinai, where Moses heard God speak the ten commandments and all the rest of sacred law. One rabbi said Moses only heard the first commandment; “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” Everything else came as pure silence. The next rabbi said Moses only heard the first phrase, “I am the Lord your God.” The third rabbi said it was just one message, “I am.” Not even that, said the fourth. God only said, “I.” In Hebrew the word for “I” is spelled with three letters. The last rabbi said Moses only heard the first letter of the Hebrew word for I. One of the other rabbis said, “but the first letter is silent.” And the last rabbi said, “Just so.”
The story describes one of the most influential revelations coming silently, a first-hand religious experience - indescribable; one silent letter only imperfectly expressed in the thousands of words in the Bible.
And, of course, that’s what happens with our first-hand experiences, too. Something about it remains ineffable. Several years ago, my family went on a church mission trip to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. As you may remember, the place where we stayed turned out to have a bed-bug infestation. It felt like a Biblical plague. Sleeping outside became our only recourse. It mostly worked well, except for one stormy night. David, younger then, wanted desperately to be inside; but there was no way I would go into the bed bug haven. And so he burrowed his sleeping bag against me, close and angry, while I watched the heavens. A fierce prairie wind blew; a line of storm clouds hung south of us, lightning flashing in the far distance, but a clear-windswept night sky rose above us, thousands of stars not visible in Milwaukee lighting the dome. It was awesome; mystical; a moment of the beauty and the terror of God’s creation.
Have you had first-hand religious experiences whose power and meaning words can’t quite capture? Moments when you’ve felt the blessing, wonder, transcendence and presence of God?
Our experiences would differ greatly if we all shared them; some have profound moments when it felt like the hand of God reached down to grab them, and others the quiet confidence that all shall be well. Even within one person’s experience, the sense of God can vary tremendously.
Clearly Jesus’ baptism was an intense moment of awe. But it was also rare. Even Jesus had only one other experience of a voice from heaven saying, “This is my son, my beloved.” There were lots of times when he might have wanted to hear the heavenly voice but didn’t; moments like the time he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane just before his death. Peter saw Jesus pray so hard that he seemed to weep blood; and yet no voice from heaven came.
As intense as first-hand religious experience can be, it’s also fleeting and rare. William James observed, “There are moments of … mystical experience … that carry an enormous sense of inner authority and illumination with them when they come. But they come seldom, and they do not come to everyone; and the rest of life makes either no connection with them, or tends to contradict them more than it confirms them.” James noted that we face a choice: we can live by the light of our rare peak experience or we can average out our experiences, nullifying a mystical experience with the weight of the ordinary.
Jesus based a profoundly meaningful life on a few deeply mystical moments. And our first-hand religious experiences can do the same for us. The other day a person asked me about scriptural stories and passages that relate to the acceptance of gay and lesbian people. I offered a few. But honestly, through prayer it’s become something I know in my bones more than I know in my Bible.
Whether as dramatic as Jesus at the Jordan or as quiet as a sunrise over Lake Michigan, we can cultivate first-hand religious experiences: a deep awareness of beauty, an inner sense of peaceful conviction, an ability to perceive the grandeur of life in otherwise ordinary moments.
This morning, we celebrate the baptism of Jesus long ago. It was for him a profound first-hand religious experience which defined his life. And it can be for us as well. This morning you can come forward during the offertory to this font of ordinary water. You can dip your hand in, anoint yourself with it, even make the sign of the cross on your forehead. But most of all, you can listen for the voice of God saying in the falling water, “You are loved.” Let the dampness of it feel like the morning dew renewing the earth, the grace of God renewing you. See in that moment your connection to generations of people past and those yet to come, united in the water that flows as eternally as God’s devotion.
For baptism, celebrated once, renewed today, is not a ritual of used theology; it can be a first-hand experience of God. Baptism isn’t about doctrine and dogma. Instead, baptism sets us on a journey of seeking out first-hand religious experiences, open to the gift of other people’s experiences, and trying together to live lives of integrity, compassion, and justice. From Jesus at the Jordan to us gathered here this morning, our faith thrives when we share our experiences of God.
Alleluia and Amen.