This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 and 11:00 worship services. As usual, the sermon and story below are reading texts. The actual sermon as preached, and story as told, contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon and story copyright (c) 2009 Daniel Harper.
Story — “The Golden Calf”
This is an old, old story about the ancient prophet Moses. Moses was the man who led the Israelites out of slavery, and helped them escape into the desert. They wandered in the desert, looking for a land to call their own. At last they camped at the base of Mount Sinai.
Moses climbed up Mount Sinai, up to the very top. At the top of the mountain, the god known as Yahweh spoke to him. Yahweh said, “All of you Israelites are going to be my special, chosen people. I will take care of you, and you must promise to obey me over all the other gods and goddesses.”
Moses went back down Mount Sinai to tell the Israelites. It’s always good to have a god looking out for you, so the Israelites agreed to obey Yahweh. Moses went back up Mount Sinai. “They all promised to obey you,” Moses said to Yahweh.
“Well, just to make sure,” said Yahweh, “I’m going to appear at the top of this mountain as a dense dark cloud, filled with thunder and lightning. You come back up the mountain, and all the Israelites will know that I talk to you directly.”
Moses went back down Mount Sinai. Yahweh appeared at the top of the mountain as a dense cloud. Moses went back up the mountain to talk with Yahweh. The Israelites watched.
Moses entered the dense cloud at the top of the mountain. Yahweh told Moses about all the rules and laws the Israelites would have to obey. Yahweh started with ten basic laws, the Ten Commandments: no stealing, no murdering people, no lying; and a law saying the Israelites weren’t allowed to worship any other god or goddess besides Yahweh.
Moses brought the Ten Commandments down to the Israelites. But there were still more laws. Moses had to climb up and down that mountain quite a few times to bring back all the laws.
Once Moses stayed on top of the mountain for a really long time. The Israelites thought Moses and Yahweh had abandoned them. The Israelites decided to make a new god. They took gold and made it into the shape of a calf — a golden calf. They invented a new religion to worship the golden calf, and had a big party to celebrate. Just as the party was really getting going, Moses came back down the mountain.
“What’s going on here?” Moses said. “Don’t you remember that you promised not to worship any other gods?”
The Israelites looked a little shamefaced, but no one apologized.
“Who’s on my side?” said Moses angrily. “If you still like Yahweh best, come with me!” A few people joined him. Moses made sure they all had swords, and then told them to go and kill anyone who was still worshipping that golden calf.
And they did.
This is a strange story. Moses had already told everyone that killing was against Yahweh’s laws, so when he killed people didn’t he break Yahweh’s law? On the other hand, wasn’t it stupid for the Israelites to make a golden calf, and then worship the thing they had just made?
I think this story is supposed to make us stop and think about religion. I think this story is telling us: don’t do something because someone tells you to, or because everyone else is doing it. Seek out the truth, hang out with other people who think for themselves, and remember how easy it is to make mistakes.
[Exodus 31.18-32.25, with reference to the events of Exodus 19-31. I used the New International Version when writing this story.]
Sermon — “Option D”
Get out your number 2 pencils. Do not let your mark stray outside the oval, and check off at least one, but no more than one choice. Are you ready? Here’s the question:
Do you believe in God? Choose one of the following: (A) Yes. (B) No. (C) Don’t care or don’t know.
Many, maybe most, people in our contemporary Western society believe those are the only three possible answers to that question. Do you believe in God? Yes. No. Don’t know or don’t care.
Christian fundamentalists like Pat Robertson, and humanist fundamentalists like Richard Dawkins, would deny that that third option exists — they believe you have to answer yes or no — they live in theological world that operates solely under Boolean logic.
Unitarian Universalists, on the other hand, want option D: All of the above. Since Western society does not give us option D, we take our number 2 pencils and fill in all three ovals, which does tend to mess up the scoring of this particular multiple choice test. This morning, I would like to tell you a little bit about how we came to be this way — why it is that we refuse to restrict ourselves to simplistic answers to the question, Do you believe in God?
Let me go tell you a little bit of the historical story behind our Unitarian Universalist attitudes towards God.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, Unitarian ministers like Francis Ellingwood Abbott and Octavius Brooks Frothingham caused a ruckus within Unitarianism by preaching “Free Religion” — what we today would call religious humanism [Dorrien 2001], although they still used words like “Christ” and “God.” By the end of the 19th century, free religionists were everywhere: Eliza Tupper Wilkes, the Unitarian preacher who first spread Unitarianism here in Palo Alto in the 1890s, was one of those who allied themselves with the Free Religion position in the Western Unitarian Conference. [Tucker 1990]
By the 1930s, John Dietrich and other Unitarian and Universalist ministers were preaching what they had come to call humanism — religion with humanity at its center, not God. The humanists found themselves engaged in active debate with the theists, people like William Wallace Fenn, Unitarians and Universalists who felt no need to dismiss the concept of God. In the first half of the 20th century, the debate between the theists and the humanists was vigorous, sometimes stupidly acrimonious, but often quite fruitful.
But not all Unitarians and Universalists could be characterized as either humanist or theist. There was E. Stanton Hodgin, who had been minister at the radical Los Angeles Unitarian church, and then minister at the fairly stodgy New Bedford, Massachusetts, Unitarian church. When Stanton Hodgin was asked to sign the Humanist Manifesto in 1933, he refused — he didn’t want religion reduced to anything that remotely resembled a creed. And when Hodgin wrote his autobiography in 1948, he gave it the title Confessions of an Agnostic Clergyman — he refused to let himself be put into a theological box.
I give you some of this history so that you realize that the conversations between the humanists and the theists have been going on in Unitarianism and Universalism for one and a half centuries. Plenty of smart people have participated on both sides of these conversations. If one side could prove the existence or non-existence of God, they would have done so by now.
Let me move ahead in time to 1973, when William R. Jones published his controversial book titled Is God a White Racist? In that book he made a crucial advance in the debate between humanists and theists, which he further clarified in his 1975 article “Humanism and Theism: The Chasm Narrows.” [Note 1] Jones said that the battles for liberation — liberation of African Americans, liberation of women, liberation of third world peoples — would force theists to a position that he called “humanocentric theism.” Getting rid of the theological jargon, what Jones meant was simple: There are two basic types of theism. First, there’s the theism that says that everything is God’s will, and humanity has little or no freedom of decision. Second, there’s the theism that says God exists yet we human beings have freedom to make decisions — and that being the case, this second type of theism, humano-centric theism, functionally looks very much like humanism. Jones is African American, and he was active in the Civil Rights struggle; speaking as a humanist, he almost seems to be saying: Instead of arguing about whether God exists, let’s just acknowledge that humanists and theists are different, move beyond that, and work together to end racism.
Let me jump ahead to 2002. In that year, Carole Fontaine, a Unitarian Universalist who is professor of Biblical studies at Andover Newton Theological School, posed an interesting question: What will it take to form a global conscience for planet Earth? Part of her answer was that theists and humanists need to work together. And she contended that we Unitarian Universalists are uniquely placed to build bridges between traditional theists and secular humanists so that, for example, we can do human rights work together. Thus, Fontaine believes we Unitarian Universalists need to “reconstitute Jesus as a human rights guy…. I like Jesus. He’s my guy. The fact that he’s executed on trumped-up political charges — I mean, he’s the Stephen Biko of the first century. We can work with this!” [Note 2. Fontaine 2003.] So Carole Fontaine goes a step further than William R. Jones — not only should humanists and theists be working together on social justice — but those theists and humanists in Unitarian Universalist congregations, already so experienced in humanist-theist dialogue, have a special role in the wider world, because we are the ones who can get the traditional theists and the secular humanists to work together.
Now you begin to see why we Unitarian Universalists want to choose option D. There are those who believe in God; there are those who don’t believe in God; there are those who don’t know or don’t care; and then there’s us. We do all of the above, and that is our unique strength, that is the unique contribution we have to make to the world.
We Unitarian Universalists refuse to be boxed in by either-or theological choices. James Luther Adams, perhaps the most prominent Unitarian Universalist theologian of the twentieth century, started out as a traditional Christian. He became a Unitarian and a religious humanist at about the same time. Later on in life, he thought of himself as a theist, a liberal Christian; although he was a very liberal Christian, active in feminist critiques of God-images. When I look back at my own religious journey, I have been successively a non-traditional theist, a non-traditional humanist, and now I call myself a religious naturalist; as a religious naturalist, I can use God-talk or not as I wish, and still be theologically consistent. Someone once asked a Universalist minister what it was, exactly, that Universalists stand for. “We don’t stand,” he said, “we move.” [Fisher 1921]
And this brings us back to that story I told at the beginning of the worship service, that old, old story about Moses and the golden calf. You remember the story: Moses and the Israelites make promises to the god Yahweh; in return for Yahweh’s protection, Moses and the Israelites promise (among many other things) to refrain from killing each other, and to refrain from worshipping other gods or goddesses. Yet when Moses is gone for a while, the Israelites start worshipping a golden calf, and then Moses kills a whole bunch of the Israelites for doing so.
Before I go any further, I have to make something clear to those of you here this morning who might be new to Unitarian Universalism. We Unitarian Universalists do not take the Bible literally, any more than we take Shakespeare literally. Did Moses really go up onto Mount Sinai and speak to a god whom he called Yahweh? Yes and no. Did Macbeth really see Banquo’s ghost in Shakespeare’s play “Macbeth”? Yes and no. In each case, there is a literal answer, an answer which is fairly trivial and ultimately rather boring; and there is also a non-literal answer, an answer which relates to moral and spiritual truths, and it is in answering this latter question that we can be transformed at our deepest levels of being.
We Unitarian Universalists have traditionally understood the story of Moses and the golden calf to be a story calling upon us to reject idolatry. Let me explain one way we Unitarian Universalists might define idolatry:
When the Israelites made the golden calf, they were guilty of idolatry: instead of coming to terms with the complexities of moral and ethical thinking encapsulated in the laws of Yahweh, the Israelites tried to take a set of religious concepts that were really quite complicated and subtle, and they tried to reduce those concepts to something that was showy but empty and useless. When Moses ignored the law of Yahweh that prohibited killing, so that he could angrily kill anyone who worshipped the golden calf, he was guilty of idolatry. He took a set of religious concepts that were complicated and subtle, and he cut out all the parts he didn’t like. So Moses ignored the law against killing so that he could enforce the law against worshipping another god; and in one of the Bible’s moments of supreme irony he exchanges one form of idolatry for another form of idolatry. Both types of idolatry are the same in that they place undue significance on something of little or no significance.
(I cannot resist digressing here for just a moment to point out that the usual American method of reading the Bible is the first form of idolatry. Most Americans, when they read the Bible, take this complicated, layered, fascinating collection of literature written over a period of thousands of years, and reduce it to simplistic moralism. Most Americans read the Bible the way they’d read the latest thriller by Dan Brown, when we should be reading the Bible the way we read Shakespeare, reading it as literature that offers something to everyone from the groundlings to the most sophisticated intellectuals.)
Historically, we Unitarian Universalists have resisted idolatry with all the power of our beings. The Unitarians of my grandparents’ generation realized that the crosses that had appeared in some Unitarian churches were idols — symbols that had taken on undue significance. My aunt and uncle belonged to the Unitarian church in Lexington, Massachusetts, and in the late 1940s that church developed a really beautiful Christmas eve service, where the whole church started out in darkness, and gradually a few candles were lit, then a few more, and at the end of the service everyone was holding a lit candle and the combined light of all those individual candles lit up the whole church. As this candlelight service evolved, someone threw in a dramatic moment when an internally-lit cross rose up in front of the pulpit — a nice piece of theater, a sort of dramatic reminder that Christmas is central to the Christian tradition. And so for some years, that internally-lit cross would rise up on Christmas Eve — until the year when they decided that the symbolism was heavy-handed, that it was a form of idolatry. So that big old cross got stuffed in a garbage can, and placed in front of the church, where (it is said) it provoked a great deal of comment about those Godless Unitarians among certain more literally-minded residents of the town.
I remember the first time the minister introduced the flaming chalice into a worship service in the Unitarian Universalist church I grew up in. I was sitting next to my mother, a lifelong Unitarian, and as he lit the match she muttered under her breath, “Graven images” — which is an old-fashioned way of accusing that minister of idolatry. I don’t think the flaming chalice is inherently idolatrous, but if we place undue significance on what is essentially an insignificant object, then it becomes idolatrous. The flaming chalice began as a symbol used by the Unitarian Service Committee during the Second World War, and really it is a symbol of our commitment to social justice work. This congregation’s habit of extinguishing the chalice strikes me as tending towards the idolatrous, as placing undue significance on a very simple symbol.
Another obvious example of something here in our church which can be interpreted as idolatrous is the branch which hangs in this room. I don’t mind having a branch hanging on our wall; it’s a nice piece of decor. But when I am uncomfortable when I hear people attributing symbolic significance to that branch; that, it seems to me, is placing undue significance on what is, after all, just a branch. And I’m sure some of you disagree with me, and you will politely let me know about your disagreement after the worship service. We need polite disagreement if we are to keep ourselves from falling into idolatry. Because people like me — mystics who want to get rid of all symbols — we can create another kind of idolatry, an idolatry of simplicity where we try to place undue significance on plainness and complete lack of ornamentation.
Anything can become an idol, a graven image, a golden calf. Even if we got rid of all the symbols, our whole building could become a graven image, if we place undue significance on it. We don’t even need a building in order to be a congregation; all we need is each other, and the search for truth, and a commitment to make the world a better place.
The golden calf was an crude attempt to fix the truth in a calf made of gold. Let us be sure that we do not try to fix the truth in some material object — the truth will not be held in a golden calf, nor in a flaming chalice, nor in the branch, nor in this building. The truth may be held for a time in a community of people, as long as that community of people remains flexible and willing to evolve. We may be comforted, for a time, by our building, or by the flaming chalice, but do not confuse such comfort with truth. Truth and comfort are united only in a community of people. If this building crumbles into dust, we will still be able to take comfort in each other, we will still be able to take comfort in this religious community, we will still know the truth that we can change the world for the better. We gain strength from each other, from our shared religious community; and we take that strength out beyond our community to heal a world that desperately needs healing.
Do you believe in God? Choose one of the following: (A) Yes. (B) No. (C) Don’t care or don’t know. (D) All of the above. As Unitarian Universalists, our choice is clear: we choose option D. We choose to remember that we have debated this question for a century and a half, with very intelligent people arguing for very different answers, and we no longer expect a definitive answer. We choose an answer that puts us in a unique position to help heal the world. We choose to resist an idolatry that would limit us to simplistic answers to religious questions.
Dorrien, Gary. The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion, 1805-1900. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001.
Fisher, Lewis Beals. Which Way? A Study of Universalists and Universalism. Boston: Universalist Publishing House, 1921. [p. 9]
Fontaine, Carole. “Strange Bedfellows? human Rights, Scripture(s), and the Seven Principles.” Journal of Liberal Religion, Winter, 2003; www.meadville.edu/journal/2003_fontaine_4_1.pdf accessed October 2009.
Hodgin, E. Stanton. Confessions of an Agnostic Clergyman Boston: Beacon Press, 1948.
Jones, William R. Is God a White Racist?. Boston: Beacon Press, 1973, 1997.
———. “Theism and Religious Humanism: The Chasm Narrows.” The Christian Century, May 21, 1975, pp. 520-525.
Tucker, Cynthia Grant. Prophetic Sisterhood: Liberal Women Ministers of the Frontier, 1880-1930. Bloomington: Indiana University, 1991.