Why are you here? Going to church is so 20th century

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with Rev. Clay Nelson

Why are you here? Going to church is so 20th century
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Clay Nelson © 26 September 2021

Before Mohammed, before Jesus, before Buddha, there was Zoroaster. Some 3,500 years ago, in Bronze Age Iran, he had a vision of the one supreme God. A thousand years later, Zoroastrianism, the world’s first great monotheistic religion, was the official faith of the mighty Persian Empire, its fire temples attended by millions of adherents. A thousand years after that, the empire collapsed, and the followers of Zoroaster were persecuted and converted to the new faith of their conquerors, Islam.

Another 1,500 years later — today — Zoroastrianism is a dying faith, its sacred flames tended by ever fewer worshippers.

If pressed we know that religions are born, grow and die — but we are also oddly blind to that reality. When someone tries to start a new religion, it is often dismissed as a cult. When we recognise a faith, we treat its teachings and traditions as timeless and sacrosanct. And when a religion dies, it becomes a myth, and its claim to sacred truth expires. Tales of the Egyptian, Greek and Norse pantheons are now considered legends or Marvel comic book characters, not holy writ.

Even today’s dominant religions have continuously evolved throughout history. Early Christianity, for example, was a truly broad church: ancient documents include yarns about Jesus’ family life and testaments to the nobility of Judas. It took three centuries for the Christian church to consolidate around a canon of scriptures — and then in 1054 it split into the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic churches. Since then, Christianity has continued both to grow and to splinter into ever more disparate groups, from heretical Unitarians to snake-handling Pentecostalists. In New Zealand nearly one percent of kiwis told census takers they were followers of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. That’s more than those claiming to be Lutherans, Jewish or Greek Orthodox.

Those who believe their faith has arrived at ultimate truth reject the idea that it will change at all. But if history is any guide, no matter how deeply held our beliefs may be today, they are likely in time to be transformed or transferred as they pass to our descendants — or simply to fade away. I know my own faith journey has evolved significantly.

For 45 years, ever since I first began thinking about going to seminary, I have been holding the hand of a dear friend dying from a lack of popularity. After untold years of trying to answer questions no one is asking anymore, my religion is dying, more or less alone. I am there for what it once was to me, not what it is. In New Zealand, where once nearly everyone was Christian, the 2018 census revealed that only 24% of the population still belong to a major Christian denomination. Now 48% of the population claims to have no religion at all. So why are you here for the wake?

I’m sure you no longer believe, as the authoritarian church required our forebears to believe, impossible things that are contrary to our reason and scientific knowledge. Certainly, you know of the church’s many crimes against humanity, the many lives lost to preserve its power. You certainly agree with Robert Heinlein and John Adams: Robert Heinlein wrote, “Almost any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creed into law if it acquires the political power to do so.”  John Adams in 1817 observed, “What a mercy it is that these people cannot whip and crop, and pillory and roast, as yet in the US! If they could they would.”

I know I agree with Jack Spong who wrote in his book, Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World:

Religion at its core is based on the arrogance of believing that human beings not only can discern the ways of God, but can also act in such a way as to control the actions of God. The human sense of fairness is read into the understanding of God. The human desire to control other people’s behaviour reinforces the usual theological wisdom that expresses itself in a reward and punishment mentality. Heaven and hell are nothing more than the assertion that the mind of God, as we human beings have created it, is still operating to reward or punish us after our death. Religion almost inevitably creates God in the image of the human being and then tries to force all of reality into that frame of reference, lest it otherwise prove to be inadequate. That is why there is no religious system that is eternal. That is why when human experience can no longer be interpreted adequately inside the traditional religious framework, the framework itself begins to die.

So why weep? In part, it is because religion in spite of its failings has also nurtured our better angels in the past. Much of the good in the world can be put at the door of religion. Its death does not discount that. At its funeral we celebrate its life as it decomposes to enrich the soil from which a new paradigm will sprout. As Spong noted, The God of yesterday dies as we struggle to view the birth of the God of tomorrow.

One notorious answer comes from Voltaire, the 18th century French polymath, who wrote: If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him. Because Voltaire was an acerbic critic of organised religion, this quip is often quoted cynically. But in fact, he was being perfectly sincere. He was arguing that belief in God is necessary for society to function, even if he didn’t approve of the monopoly the church held over that belief.

Many modern students of religion agree. The broad idea that a shared faith serves the needs of a society is known as the functionalist view of religion. There are many functionalist hypotheses, from the idea that religion is, in Karl Marx’s famous words, the “opium of the masses”, used by the powerful to control the poor, to the proposal that faith supports the abstract intellectualism required for science and law. One recurring theme is social cohesion: religion brings together a community to meet its needs and purposes.

Given this, we might expect the form that religion takes to follow the function it plays in a particular society — or as Voltaire might have put it, that different societies will invent the particular gods they need.

Hunter-gatherers, for example, tend to believe that all objects — whether animal, vegetable or mineral — have supernatural aspects (animism) and that the world is imbued with supernatural forces (animatism). These forces must be understood and respected; human morality generally doesn’t figure significantly. This worldview makes sense for groups too small to need abstract codes of conduct, but who must know their environment intimately.

At the other end of the spectrum, the teeming societies of the West are at least nominally faithful to religions in which a single watchful, all-powerful god lays down, and sometimes enforces, moral instructions: Yahweh, Christ and Allah. The psychologist Ara Norenzayan argues it was belief in these “Big Gods” that allowed the formation of societies made up of large numbers of strangers. The upshot is that sharing a faith allows people to co-exist (relatively) peacefully. The knowledge that Big God is watching makes sure we behave ourselves.

Or at least, it did. Today, many of our societies are huge and multicultural. We obey laws made and enforced by governments, not by God. Given all that, there’s a growing consensus that the future of religion is that it has no future.

So why are you here?
In 1954, Fredric Brown wrote a (very) short story called “Answer”, in which a galaxy-spanning supercomputer is turned on and asked: is there a God? Now there is, comes the reply.

Even in 1954 the God of yesterday was on life-support, waiting for the plug to be pulled.

I’m here because I trust our common humanity requires a god for tomorrow who is waiting in the wings to come on stage, offering a community that makes sense to me for today and will meet our society’s complicated needs in the future. I’m a Unitarian because it is an adventuresome faith prepared to go where no religion has gone before. I am in the front row not wanting to miss a single word as the curtain comes up.

So, again I ask, why are you here?

I suspect you can guess the conversation starter:


Welcome includes:- Forged in the Fire of Our Coming Together” By Gretchen Haley

Chalice Lighting is:- Drawn Together” By Jennifer Gracen

Opening Song:- “Spirit of Life” STLT#123 by Carolyn McDade,
Sung by Amelia Wisniewski-Barker and Brittany Ann Tranbaug of
First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia, Philadelphia, PA, USA.

First Reading is from:- Losing My Religion” by Robin Bartlett.

Song:- “Let This Be a House of Peace” (Singing the Journey #1054)
Performed by Michael Tacy

Reading 2: Eight Epitaphs” By Joshua Leach

Song:- “Return Again” by Shlomo Carlbach,
Mantra sung by lotusgroup, video by anja.. of TheAmbamata.

Closing Words:- May our faith sustain us” By Jim Wickman