Religion, The Church, and Our Mission in the World

Dr. John Wolf

The Berry Street Essay, 1986


Delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly

Rochester, New York

June 23, 1986


I have a theory that religion is the enemy. I have always been fascinated by it, and must freely admit that I have enjoyed studying it and discussing it. But I don’t like it and I don’t trust it. I don’t like what it does to people.


On the other hand, I love churches. I love them so much that it distresses me greatly when they get too involved with religion.


Paul Tillich may have been of a similar mind when he spoke of the yoke of religion. Religion, lie said, is a human invention, the natural result of the human predicament. ("Religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die,”1 says Forrest Church.) We are finite beings. From dust we came and to dust we shall return. In the meantime, we are alive, and our lives imply something more than dust, something higher than our lowly natures, something grand. Else, we ask ourselves, why should we be here at all? Religion, said Tillich, is our great attempt to overcome our "anxiety and restlessness and despair, to close the gap within ourselves, and to reach immortality, spirituality and perfection.”2 Thus, we saddle ourselves with all manner of doctrines and disciplines, mantras and confessions of faith. We labor to justify ourselves, submitting to ecclesiastical authority, to custom, to tradition, to rites and rubrics. Until it all becomes too heavy for us, whence we take refuge in skepticism. Except that, human as we are, all too soon we make a religion of our irreligion, and are caught again in our own toils. Or, (says Tillich) we find "new yokes outside the church, new doctrinal laws under which (we) begin to labor: political ideologies which (we) propagate with religious fanaticism; scientific theories which (we) defend with religious dogmatism; and utopian expectations which (we) pronounce as the condition of salvation for the world, forcing whole nations under the yoke of their creeds which are religions, even while they pretend to destroy religion.”3


Like everyone else, I have spent most of my life struggling with religion, embracing it and wrenching myself loose from it. What I do for a living now‑and I have been doing it for a number of years‑is joining with others in a similar enterprise, all the while helping them (I trust helping them) with their own struggle. I do what I do in a church.


Someone told me once that the usage of the ravaging hordes of northern Europe, the Goths and the Visigoths. It was their word for any place where there are religious objects worth stealing.


I hasten to intrude this piece of questionable intelligence to indicate that I use the word here in its broadest, generic, non-sectarian sense. Granted, what I mean by church has its origin and context in the Jewish-Humanist-Christian traditions.


It is written in the ninth chapter of the Book of Isaiah:


The people that walked in darkness

Have seen a great light:

Then that dwelt in the land of the shadow of death,

Upon them bath the light shined.


Even so, all men and women experience in their lives an awesome darkness, the shadow of death. While we are alive we are in death We pass through a deep valley‑or, we are lost in it. A church is a community of those who have passed through the valley of the shadow of death and have not been lost in it.


What is the valley of the shadow of death through which we pass?


What are the living deaths that cut us off from life and what good there is in it?


They are grief, despair, doubt, disillusionment and guilt.


Every one of us has experienced, or will experience them all. We are not so fortunate as to be one of the few who have lived a lifetime with only the slightest brush with them. We have known, or will know, the full measure of loss that follows in their train, and what great loss does to thrust us back upon ourselves.


How is it possible to lose a child and not die of grief? How does one go on living, much less come back to life again, after such a blow? Or, having fallen into a fault, having offended or abused chose we love most, broken our word, betrayed a trust, how do we lift our heads again, pick up the pieces of our lives and live again? Or, what if all we have believed proves empty, and confidence gives way to disillusionment. What if learning and experience, instead of the thrill of discovery, issue in an agony of self‑doubt. What is there then to lure us on, to give us reason for living?


Oklahoma is in the middle of tornado alley. A monstrous twister set down in a town near us last spring. Concerned about some members of our congregation who lived there, I paid a visit and talked to some of the people in the area which had been most devastated. There was nothing left of most of their homes and businesses. And most of the people I talked to, or overheard talking, were underinsured, if they were insured at all. They had lost everything they owned. Their faces were ashen, their voices flat, I have seldom seen such wholesale despair. Most of them had escaped with literally nothing but their lives, and one could see the questions in their eyes: "What’s the use?” "Why go on?”


I have been in the ministry too long to venture sophistries to anyone upon whom the shadow of death has fallen. When life goes out of a person, it is an offense to hear the living talk about it. One communicates one’s concern in subtler ways. One does not speak of religion, about how God, or chance, or providence works. One does not haul out the doctrine, much less the lack of it, to attempt an explanation or labor a justification. One says, as quietly and unobtrusively as possible, "I’m from the church.”


The church, you see, is not a body of doctrine, or of reasons; or of explanations. It is a community of those who have known the deepest valley and who have passed through it to the other side. By nothing less than grace (if you lave the language like you love the church you would say, the grace of God), they have not been lost, or embittered in the passage. Instead, in spite of it, or, rather, because of it, they have learned compassion, joy, peace, long suffering, gentleness, goodness, and self-control—the "fruit of the spirit,” aid St. Paul.


As a young father, I suffered a terrible anxiety. I remember the first night after we had brought our first-born home from the hospital. I stayed up all night watching him breathe. I was afraid he might roll over and smother himself, or get something caught in his throat and choke to death, or just die. All through their w childhood I worried about our children, for fear something would happen to them; admittedly, not as obsessively as that first night, but I worried! And I thought many times, if anything ever does happen to them I will never get through it, I will never survive. I still don’t know how I would survive if anything happened to one of them. I can’t imagine such a thing. I can’t think about it. It is impossible to think it through.


The only way I know that I would survive is that I know others have. I have been there with them. I have seen them live through it, all of it, the valley of the shadow of death, and come back to life again. That is the only may that I know I would‑that I might—survive such a horror. They have taught me‑rather, they have shown me‑that there is life after death. But I don’t know how it can be. For the life of me, I don’t know how it can be. I just know that they have survived


Oh, indeed, I know that some are lost in the passage. That I can understand. The miracle is that there are others who survived and in surviving were transformed. I talk about the things of the spirit. I talk about compassion, and I try to be compassionate, but I do not know what those who ha know. Nor can I minister to others, nor can I touch others with the same hands in the moment of their deepest grief, as can those who have been where they have been.


The church is not a place of right convictions, a fortress of truth, a bastion of theology where love is spoken of in long sentences. The church is the community of those who, having suffered the most grievous loss, and lived through it, by word and deed, reveal, sometimes in the subtlest of ways, what true compassion is.  And joy. And peace. And long-suffering. And gentleness. And goodness. And self-control.


Of course I have some personal knowledge of the shadow of death. We all do. Many of us‑perhaps all of us, else why would we be in this church?‑have questioned the truth that was given us. Our dark night of the soul has found us languishing in doubt. Some of us languish in it still, lost there, attempting to work way out, or justifying our staying where we are by making a religion of our questioning. It is why the unhappy wise-crack has it about Unitarian Universalists, that instead of a cross the Klan would burn a question mark in our front yards. Most of us though, passing through this valley, have come out on the other side to a place makes no sense to religion, to a place like that Richard Fox speaks of in his biography of Reinhold Niebuhr where he relates how Felix Frankfurter, a professed agnostic, "heard Niebuhr preach at a small church near his summer home in Heath, Massachusetts… As they filed out the door justice Frankfurter shook Niebuhr’s hand and said, `May a believing unbeliever thank you for your sermon?’ Niebuhr (replied), `May an unbelieving believer thank you for appreciating it.’"


Reason, freedom and tolerance are by no means the exclusive hallmarks of Unitarian Universalists. Indeed, as often as not, quite the contrary. In any case, they do poorly as articles of faith, or as philosophical constructs, for they too are fruit of the spirit, the products of a tortuous journey. Those believing unbelievers, those unbelieving believers among us, are much more likely to speak to one another of the experience that has brought them out of one place and to another than they are concerned with too much argument. Perhaps Unitarian Universalists have so few theologians for that reason: we are pilgrims, not apologists. We understand what it truly means to have lost our faith, to have experienced that exile when there seems to be no meaning, no purpose for our lives, when all those things that we are taught to believe no longer sustain us. Thence, we also know what it means to find another way, and when freedom means when we are no longer tied to those things we were told we had to believe, and how excellent it is to find others who would encourage and accompany us, and, finally, with their help, to discover how rewarding it is to learn to think for ourselves, to trust and to discover anew.


My first parish was in Racine, Wisconsin. It was a small church that once had prospered but had fallen on meager times. A year before I went there the congregation had voted to dissolve. As a matter of fact, at the congregation’s meeting held for that purpose the vote had been thirty-three to one to close the church. The one  was Gwendolen B. Willis. She said, "I do not intend that we should close my mother’s church!” Miss Willis’ mother was Olympia Brown!  Miss Willis prevailed. (So much for the rule of the majority!) The tiny congregation appealed to the Wisconsin Universalist Convention for a loan, enough to hire a minister for one more try, and I was called.


I was there two months before a new face, and potentially a new member, graced the door. His name was Russell Wilhelmson. There were only twenty-six of us there that Sunday morning, but I remember what he said to me as we shook hands after the Service. "Since I first began to think for myself,” he said, "and to draw my own conclusions about religion, people have been telling me I am crazy because of what I believed. And, here, this morning, I found a whole church full of crazy people!” Russell became a good and . faithful member of the Universalist Church of the Good Shepherd in Racine, Wisconsin. And he reconfirmed me in my conviction, and that tiny congregation in its commission, wherein we ministered together. As I said, the church was the Church of the Good Shepherd. There was a stained glass window that dominated the: sanctuary picturing Jesus holding a lamb in his arms. I did not believe in Jesus any more. Certainly not in the way I once had. But, I did not hesitate to read often that passage from Matthew:


Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.


In the journey from the Jesus I had known to the Jesus I came:;’ to understand with a new understanding because of that journey. I now preached that message, and preach it still with everything that is in me. What is more, I believe that is what we all should be doing. I believe, with Paul Tillich, that the yoke of bondage which Jesus talked about, is the yoke of religion. But, whether the conk mission comes from that source or from some other, I believe it is what we are for and what we should be about.


What is more, I believe it is what we are doing and what we are about, whether we admit it or not!


As most of you know, some of us have been doing television these past number of years, until, three years ago, we succeeded in developing a format for Cable and Broadcast Television that is currently being used across the country. Many of you have appeared

on the programs, which include a discussion of theological issues of all sorts. We have interviewed over eighty Unitarian Universalist ministers and laypeople, and incorporated most of those interviews in the programs now available through Univision.


But, as important as anything else to me has been what I have learned about us in the process. For years we have talked al our diversity. Unity in diversity, we say. It has become almost as article of faith. However, I have discovered in viewing our conversations on television that it is much more precise to talk about diversity in unity. Because what comes across in these inter is the tremendous agreement among us. One has not only toy but to see Frank Schulman and Paul Beattie talking about the Bible to realize that though we do not always use the same language, we nonetheless speak the same language! What is borne out most clearly in these interviews is a common experiencing, albeit an experiencing interpreted from various perspectives. All have, out of their life’s experiences, been led to test the truths they have inherited; and then risked; and have known the ravages of doubt which followed upon that risking. Watching the programs, I am amazed how much our answers are alike, though, when I think about it, it occurs to me that our responses are clearly those of men and women who bear the mark of serious study, and, I might add, the cast of men ` and women who honor the tradition of the liberal ministry. To that ‘extent, it is only to be expected that we have reached similar conclusions. But, even taking that into account, we are still much more alike than we apparently believe. What communicates so clearly is our empathetic understanding of what it means to doubt, to risk, to reach out, to have foregone the easy models, to have tested our own truth against what truth there is.


Even so, the responses to these programs I have heard have been quite similar in this wise: people have expressed great appreciation for the openness, the sharing, the depth of insight exhibited. But, most of all, they have expressed their appreciation for the sharing itself. People are not used to others, especially clergy, being so forthright about their own private spiritual wanderings in public. Oh, there is an abundance of abusive response, too: those who call, loaded for bear with proof-texts to refute some statement we made, or, to proclaim against the mere existence of such a public display of disbelief. Nevertheless, the overwhelming reaction is to the visual fact that here at last is evidence of others experiencing, doubting, questioning, proposing answers however tentative to issues which have bothered and tormented us all.


Nor, have these responses come only from those who share the purely theological questions we raise. Others respond to the moral dilemmas we discuss, and with which we struggle persistently.


Mark Morrison-Reed observes that a fundamental difference between the black and the white communities in North America is the way they interpret freedom. Freedom for whites is freedom from of the mind: freedom from abject dependence upon cramping dogmas and the tyranny of outworn beliefs. Freedom for blacks is freedom from the bondage of the mind and the body, rally from slavery.4 One of the reasons we have had no better success in attracting large numbers of people of color to our of faith, he says, is that, for the most part, we are speaking to different conditions, to different primary experiences. For example, when we use the allegory of Moses leading the children of Israel out of Egypt, out of the land of bondage, into the wilderness, and, thence, to the Promised Land, most of us are speaking metaphorically about the journey away from our early life’s experiences to a more mature existence. The Black community gets a very different message. The Black community still remembers and celebrates its escape from a more literal, a more austere, bondage.


And, yet, a recent telephone conversation I had with a man who had just viewed one of our programs prompts me to wonder whether eve are not in fact speaking at some level to that same condition. He said he had been raised in a Black church. The message he received there had been, indeed, one which spoke to the experience of his people, but the lesson he had received had been one of resignation: as God had delivered the people out of oppression once before, so God would do so again, in, literally, "His” own good time. Meanwhile, it was more important to be a good Christian, give money to the church and accept the evils of this world expecting the reward that is to come, than to cause any real trouble. Then he said a blasphemous thing. He said, "I think Martin Luther King, Jr. was a lot more like you Unitarian Universalists than like most Baptists!” (Wouldn’t we like to think so!)


I discovered later that this man’s resentment arose, not in the least part, out of the attempt he had made to rouse the Black community to acknowledge its part in what he considers to be the failure of the desegregation effort in our public school system. All the progress that was made years ago, he believes, was undermined by apathy in the Black community, nurtured, he said, "by the resignation preached in Black churches.” His disillusionment threatened to lead him to despair of any further progress.


We obviously do not preach or teach resignation. Standing clearly in the prophetic tradition, we can be heard to say with Abraham Heschel: "There is no justice. There is only injustice. And the proper response to injustice is outrage.”5 Granted, few of us come to this knowledge as directly as have those whose parents and whose grandparents literally wore the chains of slavery, but neither are we without our own witness to oppression. And our witness communicates. Most of us have experienced the ravages of frustration and defeat following upon our efforts to reconcile the evil in the world and in ourselves with the ideals which are the cherished hope of humanity. We have passed through the deep valley of despair more than once, when, disappointed again and again, having fallen short again and again, we have gone from disillusionment to despair to new commitment. Who better can speak to others in their disquietude? Who better can testify to the new hope which rises out of hopelessness?


But, here, precisely is illustrated the difference between the church and religion‑even among ourselves! And, believe it or not, the source of not a little of the disillusionment we sometimes experience.


Religion is the enemy. For example, religion tells us there is such a thing as justice, all we have to do to realize it is get everyone to line up and agree to what it is, and how best to establish it. Religion insists. It brooks no disobedience. It is not patient. It is not kind. It is zealous. It vaunteth itself. It is puffed up. It behaves itself unseemly. It insists upon its own way. It is irritable and resentful. It is easily provoked. It delights in keeping its lists of wrongs, and does not want to hear any truth but its own. There is much it cannot face. Its faith is limited. So, also, as it turns out, is its hope and its endurance. It passes quickly from definition to definition, from issue to issue, from cause to cause.


Sometimes I wonder that the church survives it. I wonder often how our churches and fellowships survive it! For, like the little girl who wore a little curl right in the middle of her forehead: when we are good we are very, very good, but when we are bad we are horrid.


I ask you, has there ever been a group of people quite so hard on one another as we are? Over the years, one after another of our calling has fallen from grace. Once staunch and respected leaders of our "Moral Majority” have been stricken from the list when, suddenly, upon some issue, they have found themselves voted into the minority. Or, they were passed over when it was discovered they had failed to revise their language as promptly and enthusiastically as they should have, when the language changed again‑and again and again.


I said earlier, I thought we Unitarian Universalists have so few theologians among us because we are not so much apologists as pilgrims. Bernard Meland says, on the other hand, that theology is "the drama of the human predicament.” The best dramatists, it follows, make the best theologians. Pilgrims ought to make good dramatists, hence, good theologians. Sad to say, it could be we have so few theologians because too many of us have bitten off too much religion and have not become pilgrims at all but purists. Parable and paradox are about as welcome and as well understood by some of us, especially when we are on the march, as they are by Mr. Falwell. It is not when we are at our best. It is not as We Righteous Few that we answer the greatest need, and do the greatest service. It is not in our beloved litany of right causes, past and present, that we best define our mission. Much less say who we really are.


To the contrary. Given our tradition, and our lives’ experiencings, at our best, we have the power to overcome religion and raw righteousness. For ours is the power of those who have in their lives suffered great loss, who have known doubt, who have fought despair, who have faced disillusionment, who have tasted the torment of great guilt, and who have been transformed into new beings in the process, persons capable now of doing for others what those others could not possibly do for themselves.


I wonder how many of us have received people in our studies who have told us that we were their last resort. I said, ‘Given our tradition, and our lives’ experiencings!”—our tradition comes of many generations of men and women, a mighty cloud of witnesses, who have passed on to us the power of their spirits, so that again and again, because of who we are, people come to us when they have nowhere else to turn, seeking comfort, seeking assurance, seeking a renewal of hope, seeking forgiveness. I shall never forget‑it was early in my ministry and I was a very young man‑a much older woman came to see me, several months after her divorce from a very religious husband. The minister of their church had insisted, even though her husband had physically abused her, threatened and intimidated her, and their children, that it was her duty to stay with him and to "search her soul for the fault within her.” After the divorce she was literally shunned by that minister and that congregation. Frantically, she consulted the clergy and counseling services of several other churches for some relief from the guilt she felt. Every place she went she heard the same things: "It was her duty. She should try harder. She had an obligation to her children. She should remember her solemn vows.” Nor was it her church alone that sought to condemn her. The people in her neighborhood turned their backs on her. She was made to feel that it was all her fault. Finally, someone suggested that she talk to a Unitarian Universalist minister. And, at last, she came to see me. We talked for a long ;,. time. She told me her story, and about the guilt she was feeling. She knew she could not go back to her marriage, but everyone demanded that she must. It was the beginning of several long conversations that we had, and a referral to a good family counselor I knew. But, she said to me at the end of that first session, "I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but I had made up my mind that you said the same things to me that all the other ministers I have talked to have said, I was going to go home, put my car in the garage, leave the engine running, and finish it all.” And I know she meant it.


Someone asked me once, "By what authority do you presume to release people from the burdens of the guilt they bear?” The implication was that I had no business "pardoning sins.” I said, first of all, who would I be to pass judgment? But, more importantly, I said, "I belong to a tradition of forgiveness and understanding.” I should have said: I belong to a hard won tradition of forgiveness and understanding, come out of centuries of struggle for liberation from tyranny of every kind. Especially the tyranny of religion!


All of us are aware of the threat of religion in the world today. In Ireland. In the Middle East. In India and Pakistan. (Capitalism and Marxism are religions.) In America.


The United States is currently on a religious binge. We are seeing it incarnated in numerous forms, from Hare Krishna to the P.T.L. Club. And none of it is patient—


It is not patient. It is not kind.

It vaunteth itself. It is puffed up.

It behaves itself unseemly.

It seeketh its own…


To say nothing of its claims to be able to speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and to have the gift of prophecy, and to understand all mysteries, and all knowledge, and to have all faith so as to be able to remove mountains. Some of it is even into complete asceticism and self‑immolation.


But, in this trying age, people are hungry for solutions. They are desperate to overcome their very human "anxiety and restlessness and despair, to close the gap within themselves” and that which they perceive in the world as it is and the world as it needs to be. It is understandable that they are turning to religion‑or, as some say, "turning back to religion”‑enslaving themselves, and, potentially, enslaving us all. They eagerly embrace the commands they hear‑in Paul Tillich’s description‑"for moral obedience, inhuman self‑control and asceticism, devotion to persons and things beyond (their) power, unlimited self‑negation, and unlimited self‑perfection. And their conscience agrees with (these commands).”6 But what is the result? What is the result of their new religion? It is not justice. It is not kindness. It is not goodness. It is not forgiveness. It is not true righteousness. It is further alienation, a broadening of the gap in and between themselves and others, and, at last, it is tyranny in the making.


And so the question: What, then, is our mission in the world if it is not to reach out, to witness to a better way, not to a new religion, not to irreligion, not to a new language of religion, not to liberal religion, but to that hidden saving power in us, and in our community of faith, which is above religion?


The people that walked in darkness

Have seen a great light:

They that dwelt in the land of the shadow of death

Upon them hath the light shined.


Ours is the living tradition, confirmed by the living experience of those who have passed through grief to compassion, through despair to confidence, through disillusionment to hope, through guilt to gentleness, carried by a power of transforming life we cannot name but which is made visible in and through us by our empathy for one another and for all men and women everywhere. Our witness is to empathy, and to that power that creates, nurtures and sustains it in the world. Here is the unity in which our diversity is planted, and in which it flowers, and in its flowering deserves to be celebrated. Here is the genius and the purpose of the liberal church.


People long to hear from us. They need to hear from us. Nor is it enough merely for us quietly to reach out to them. We need to be making a joyful noise or two‑as the Psalmist would say, to the God of our salvation! Others may talk about the Gospel, and I would not be so presumptuous as to say that there are no others who preach it and who live by it, but here IS the Gospel!


Granted, we have our fascination with religion, we struggle with it, embrace it, and wrench ourselves free of it, but we know there is no salvation in it. To the contrary. Religion is but our human attempt to come to terms with our finiteness, in which purpose we invariably entangle ourselves to a point where we are hopelessly bound. It is the church that saves!


Just as I was completing this paper, the morning mail arrived. Along with it was the current issue of The First Days Record. In it Alice Wesley included the homily delivered at the Communion Service of the Annual Meeting of the UUCF last May by James Luther Adams, and in the homily was this further passage from the prophet Isaiah—the words Jesus spoke in the synagogue‑and some brief eloquence from the pen of James Luther Adams in response:


The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed [sic]me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and the recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed.


"Here,” writes James Luther Adams, "appears again this thrust of a divine, judging and transforming power reordering and healing a broken world. We who are broken affirm community with the broken, the oppressed. We are bonded together, recognizing common basic needs. The bond is not only of our flock. `I have other sheep that are not of this fold,’ says the Johannine Christ. The bonding is for everyone that thirsteth for covenant under whatever name.


"Ultimately,” concluded Dr. Adams, "This is a summons from the covenant of being itself. It is a summons from the host from whom we came and from whom we have separated.”7


The anxiety, the frustration, the despair, the gap between ourselves and others, the separation we feel with the ground of our own being, cannot be overcome by religion. It is overcome in the community of the broken, the communion of saints, it is in the church wherein we are reconciled, bringing to it as we do the pieces of our lives—if not our lives in pieces—to share with one another.