Roots and wings. That is a common way of describing what our religious community offers. Roots, hold me close, one of our most beloved contemporary hymns asks, wings, set me free.
At the root, at the heart of both the Unitarian and Universalist faith traditions was a kind of Christianity. Not a hellfire and damnation Christianity and not what we typically view as a theology of the Cross.
Most simply put, not an Easter Christianity. Or, at least, the Easter Christianity whose central message is that the Son of God came down to earth to die a hellish death by crucifixion to save us all from Satan. Who rose from the dead and showed himself first to the women disciples, and then others. Whose resurrection was a literal sign and a promise of eternal life to come.
This is a Christianity, and one that is embraced by literally billions of people around the world.
But it is not now, nor was it ever, the only Christian story, the only way to speak of, remember, or be, a follower of Jesus.
Marcus Borg, one of the major Christian scholars and writers of our time, dislikes both the labels conservative and liberal in describing his view of Jesus, his teachings, his life, and the religion that sprung up after his death. Borg prefers to use the words “earlier” and “emerging” Christianity, while recognizing that some of what he describes as just now emerging Christian thought and belief can be found in its roots.
This root Christianity was overpowered in time by a more dogmatic, literal-factual tradition in which, as Borg writes, the afterlife is central, and the Christian life is less about transformation in this life, in which the central task is becoming more loving, than about requirements and rewards or punishments after we die.
Very simply, probably too simply, put, Borg distinguishes between a Christianity whose roots are in a pre-Easter Jesus or a Christianity whose roots are in the Jesus who died on the cross, was resurrected, and will return someday in judgment. Unitarian Universalist Christianity, through much of its past and emphatically in its present, shares with Marcus Borg and other “emergent” scholars, primarily an interest in, a “belief” in, a pre-Easter Jesus:
- who was a Jewish mystic, a person who had a vivid and frequent experience of God, or the One, or the Sacred. Who was, as Borg writes, radically centered in the holy.
- who was a healer.
- who was a wisdom teacher, who spoke about abandoning a clutter of rituals and micro laws for a narrower way of loving God and neighbor.
- who was a social prophet, who spoke out against the existing social and economic injustices of the domination systems of his day, of finding Messiah — righteousness and peace — in the here and now of an astoundingly hardscrabble life in an oppressed society.
- and who was a movement initiator, working with others to break down the social barriers of his day, eating and traveling with the poor and the outcast.
Jesus: the mystic, the healer, the wisdom teacher, social prophet, and movement initiator is the Jesus that Borg and others are taking back. Is the living Jesus that Unitarian and Universalist Christians have welcomed into their lives.
And then, as Borg writes, this Jesus was killed. And his disciples and other followers of his own time tried to make some sense, find some meaning and purpose, in his death on the cross, as do Christians of today.
Why did he die?
According to Marcus Borg, for of the majority of mainline scholars, what has become known as atonement theology — that the purpose of Jesus’ life, his vocation, was his death, does not go back to Jesus himself. His death, we are told, was a consequence of what he did, not the purpose. Like others who were martyred, like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., he did not stop doing what he felt called to do because of the threat of death, nor did he welcome it. In the garden in the hours before his arrest, he expressed abandonment, even fear.
Jesus died for our sins, as the familiar hymns remind us, means so many different things to different Christians: Christians outside our own religious tradition, those Christians who started this faith, and those Christians in our own community.
For Marcus Borg, the cross has meaning; the death of Jesus on that cross has meaning, as a reminder of the systems of oppression and injustice that he sought to overcome — even as he knew the risk of death. The death of Jesus on that cross has meaning to him as a sign that despite his death, his “way” has survived, a way that has, despite its misuses, spoken to so many people about a radical and direct way of knowing and loving.
And what of resurrection? Of rebirth?
In the emerging Christianity that Marcus Borg proposes, this is the central metaphor, and metaphor it is. Not a literal resurrection of flesh in a someday Kingdom, but the spiritual transformation of individuals. Dying to a new identity and being born into a new identity — beyond what Borg tells us is the self-conscious, separated self, a self that can be lived out in self-centeredness and exile.
Re-born into a self that experiences the world from a place of deep reflection on the inside and deep connection on the outside.
Centered and grateful for each new day and the chance for life and love to be renewed once more.