Middle-class American religion sometimes goes out of its way to provide very comforting interpretations of the Bible. And yes, I include Unitarian Universalists in this sweeping generalization, for reasons I will outline below. However, comforting American middle-class interpretations of the Bible sound forced and it is pretty hard to take them seriously, as Diana Butler Bass suggests in this passage from her 2009 book A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story:
At the height of the Liberation Theology movement in the 1980s, my friend Brad lived in Latin America, where he participated in a base community, a kind of radical Biblical study group in an impoverished village. Lay members rotated leadership, each week reading a text, offering an interpretation drawn from their own experience, and trying to relate scriptural stories to their own lives in order to inspire justice and social change.
One week the story was from Matthew 19, in which Jesus commands the rich young ruler to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor to find eternal life…. Brad, an American evangelical, had grown up in a middle-class family and attended a good college. “It was fascinating to hear my new friends interpret this passage in such a different context,” Brad said. “They were very poor and they understood it very literally. They were comfortable with Jesus’s rejection of wealth.”
Brad admitted that he felt uncomfortable, however, especially when one person turned to him and asked how “our brothers and sisters in America” interpreted the story. Brad explained that Americans do not read the story literally. Rather, evangelicals take the direction spiritually. “Jesus insists that we give up whatever means the most to us in order to follow him, not necessarily our possessions. The story isn’t about money.”
The group fell silent, and Brad was unsure of what he had said. Finally, one of the leaders asked how they could trust that Brad was really a Christian since it was obvious that he did not “take the Bible seriously.”
As for Unitarian Universalists, we are more likely to spend our time arguing about the validity of standard middle-class American Christianity, which means we don’t have to face up to the really challenging implications of Jesus’s social message, implications that might challenge our comfortable middle-class existences. It is more convenient for our generation of Unitarian Universalists to dismiss Christianity with the argument that the Christianity we see around us, or in which we were raised, is puerile and shallow.
Similarly, what Unitarian Universalists think of as Buddhism too often is an American interpretation that reduces Buddhism to little more than a self-improvement program, one which doesn’t seem to me to have much in common with the challenging philosophy of Siddhartha Gotama.