“In Praise of Heresy”

A Sermon by UUCM member and seminary student Terry Cummings
January 11, 2015

Audio Version of the Sermon

As many of you may know, about three years or four years ago I decided to transition from a career in law to a career as a UU minister. It was with great excitement that I led a service here in Montclair in July, 2012, right before I entered Union Theological Seminary as a student. It is a real pleasure to come back to my home church today, and to share from this same pulpit another brief reflection on my journey.

My theme for the service in 2012 was the importance of making the most of life’s various journeys, and not limiting one’s focus to the journey’s end. Two and half years later, with a mere 17 months to go before, hopefully, I complete my Master of Divinity degree, I can honestly say that I kept the promise to myself that I shared with the congregation that day, that I have loved (almost) every minute of my late life journey.

It has not been an easy one. It has been exhausting and expensive, and there have been times when I have hit a wall, and I’ve been sorely tempted to abandon the idea. My social life has suffered from my being in school almost full time, and simultaneously working full time. I barely see my grandchildren because my schedule is so busy. And, I hardly ever get to come to services here in Montclair any more, which is something that I love to do.

This past semester, and the one coming up, as part of my M. Div. degree, I have had the privilege of being a student minister at another congregation nearby.  My time spent as a student minister is the high point of my week, and I love what I am doing.  Almost every Sunday I have the opportunity to participate in a worship service, or teaching a Sunday school class, or leading a discussion group. But, like many people in ministry, as I have learned, being in the pulpit every week can make one yearn for the old days, when you got to sit in a pew, and just be a member of the congregation.

But every time I think of giving up, I realize the importance of what I am doing, both for myself and for the community. And while having to turn in school papers by midnight on weekdays and weekends is a challenge, the possibility of my quitting is unthinkable. I know that, if I had to do it all over again, the long days of juggling conference calls with classes, court appearances with exams, I would do so without hesitation.

I first started attending services in this congregation in September of 2008. Prior to that, I had only set foot in a church about a dozen times in my entire life. And I had never read any of the Bible.

Unlike me, many UUs come from traditional faith traditions, typically Christian denominations, or Judaism, although not always. The living tradition that we UUs share draws upon Jewish and Christian teachings. Recent discoveries and new interpretations of scripture, however, have supplemented our understanding of those teachings, and perhaps now more than ever the voices of the heretics drowned by the early church’s orthodoxy can more easily be heard in the 21st century,

People often arrive at Unitarian Universalism seeking refuge from creeds and dogma that are in conflict with their consciences, their beliefs being at odds with the teaching in which they grew up. And those teachings are usually based on centuries-old traditions of interpreting scriptures that brook neither question nor deviation.

The word heretic comes from a Greek word that means to choose. In the eyes of many faith traditions I am guilty of heresy at many levels. I am proud to be a heretic, however, in part because I believe that the original authors of the scriptures would be quite surprised by the dogma that was subsequently attached to their writings. Ironically, I think that the people who wrote the scriptures might just as likely have been adjudged heretics by subsequent generations. For example, early Christian writings made no mention of Original Sin, and would have been surprised by the theology of Original Sin that St. Augustine and others came up with hundreds of years later.

Centuries ago, people who disagreed with the dogma of the early Christian church, were dubbed as anathema, as heretics. Dogma such as the Nicene Creed, first literally enacted into law by the Roman Emperor Constantine in the year 325 C.E., was the sign of orthodoxy. To disagree with Christian orthodoxy was to risk one’s life until comparatively.  Heresy was even seen as a sign of insanity – – one had to be insane to disagree with the orthodoxy of the church.

Returning to my journey through seminary, however, upon learning that my application for admission had been accepted, I immediately decided to read the Bible from beginning to end. This was a bad idea.

My impulse to read the Bible from cover to cover was born of a common misperception that the chapters of the Bible, the Old Testament and the New Testament, were collected and bound together in the order in which they were written, telling a complete story for children of all ages, chronologically from a beginning to an end. This, of course, is precisely what the compilers of the Bible wanted everyone to believe when they selected, particularly in the case of the Christian Testament, a relatively few stories from among many that were available, and arranged them according to their political and religious preferences. As I have since learned, the Table of Contents of the Bible is itself a political document that evolved over several centuries.

Nevertheless, in the summer of 2012 a large print, and quite heavy, edition of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible accompanied me everywhere. I took it on vacation to Paris and Florence. I read it on the way to work, and every chance I could. By the time orientation started at seminary that September I had read 90% of the Old Testament and about 70% of the New. My advice, don’t try this at home!

First of all, to state what is obvious to most of us, the Bible is not a single book; it is a collection of books. The word Bible is derived from the ancient Greek word, biblia, from which we get the word library, bibliotheque in French. The word Bible doesn’t even appear in the scriptures, and it was hundreds of years after the birth of Christianity that the word “Bible” was used to refer to the scriptures. Second, the Bible is an incomplete set of the ancient scriptures. It is a selection from among many more works.

The technical term for the Bible is the word canon, which means “a collection of books that are recognized as being divinely inspired.” This of course begs the question, recognized by whom? It also assumes that stories, written mostly if not all by males, were the result of divine inspiration. In Unitarian Universalism each individual is free to decide that question for themselves, and I am not going to ask for a show of hands as to whether people agree.

There is an Old Testament canon, sometimes called the Hebrew Bible, and a New Testament canon. In fact, there are numerous New Testament canons, roughly divided between the Roman Catholic, the Protestant, and the Eastern Orthodox churches. The Christian Bibles also, as we know, include most of the Hebrew Bible, but they don’t all include the same books. Nor do they agree with one another in other ways. The Ten Commandments, for example, which are in the Old Testament books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, are not in sync with the Christian tradition. The commandment against adultery, for example, is the seventh commandment in the Jewish and most Protestant traditions, but the sixth in the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches.

The Hebrew Bible, known as the Tanach in Judaism, can be traced to stories that were common all over the Near East in the late Bronze Age, about 1200 or so BCE. These stories were mostly passed down by word of mouth for over a thousand years before they were first collected in writing. One historical theory holds that the main reason they were first reduced to a collection in writing in about 300 BCE was because at that time the Greeks ruled most of the ancient world, and those upper class Greeks had written works like Plato and Socrates that well-to-do young Greek men studied, and the Jews decided they wanted their own library as well.

The first written version of the Hebrew Bible wasn’t even written in Hebrew. Known as the Septuagint because it reputedly took seventy scholars to reduce all the ancient texts to writing in a single collection, was actually written in Greek. It wasn’t until the Middle Ages CE that the Masoretic Text, the book we know today as the Old Testament, was translated back into the original Hebrew, which by then was a mostly dead language. It was over a period of many centuries of evolution and history that led to the Book of Genesis being placed at the beginning of that Bible, even though older stories were reduced to writing well before the Book of Genesis as we know it today was pieced together from dozens of unrelated stories and woven into a more or less coherent narrative.

Ironically, all 27 books of the New Testament were written by individuals who considered themselves to be of the Jewish faith. They did not consider themselves to be Christians as much as followers of many different types of Christ-movement within Judaism.

Most of these books were written at least 100 years after the death of Jesus of Nazareth. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, which open up the New Testament, were not the earliest accounts of Jesus to be written. The earliest document in the New Testament is St. Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, which scholars date to about the year 50, at least 25 years before the earliest gospel found in the New Testament, the Gospel of Mark, was written. Matthew, which precedes Mark in the canon, was written sometime later than Mark

Pretty much all of the books of the New Testament were written (in Greek) outside of Israel and Palestine, mostly in Syria, Egypt, and, like the letters of St. Paul, modern day Turkey. Ironically, while the early Christ followers in Egypt are hardly mentioned in the New Testament, it was they who in the fourth century CE had the most impact in defining what later became the Christian canon and the modern Christian creed, and the distinction between orthodoxy and heresy.

Like today, at the time Jesus of Nazareth was alive there were more Jews living outside of Israel and Palestine than there were living there. And six or seven centuries of Jewish diasporas had had a major impact on the lives of the peoples who lived around the Mediterranean. It is estimated that around that time approximately 15% of all Gentiles were converts to Judaism. Why, because by law they had to worship the Roman Emperor as a god, as well as various Pagan gods and Rome represented an unbelievably brutal and violent dictatorship. By comparison to the Roman world, the Jewish faith, with its emphasis on the Ten Commandments, was more appealing.

It is not a coincidence that shortly before the time of Jesus, the Roman Emperor Augustus proclaimed himself to be both the son of God and the product of a virgin birth. Many scholars read the New Testament gospels as counter-imperial texts that have little to do with what we now call Christianity. The Gospel of Mark, which is my personal favorite of all of the New Testament gospels, is undoubtedly a political satire written within a generation of Rome’s destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70, and never intended to be the cornerstone of a major new religion. Indeed, the last eight verses of what we know currently as the Gospel According to Mark were added hundreds of years after it was first written, in order to make it fit into a later theology of early Christianity.

How then did these different movements within first century C.E. Judaism evolve over a couple of centuries into a generally anti-Semitic religion known as Christianity, with its dogmas and creeds? There are many reasons for this, but I want to pick on a person named Athanasius, who I consider with the benefit of 21st century hindsight to be one of the baddest of the bad guys of history. I should say that this my personal view, and may not reflect the official position of the UUA.

Athanasius was the Bishop of Alexandria, Egypt for the majority of the mid-fourth century. He played a major role in securing the Emperor Constantine’s approval of what eventually became known as the doctrine of the Holy Trinity in the year 325. The problem the Church Fathers faced was this. If one believed in only one monotheistic god, and not a multiplicity of Pagan gods, how could one worship both God and Jesus at the same time? How could the worship of Jesus the Messiah not be a form of Pagan idolatry? The debate over this question had existed for a couple of hundred years before a man named Arius argued strongly that Jesus was subordinate to God, and not the same substance as God.

To cut a long story short, it was Athanasius who triumphed over Arius, resulting in the Nicene Creed becoming the law of the Empire. That creed states that Jesus was “of one substance with the God the Father”, a doctrine that Jews, Muslims, and the majority of Unitarian Universalists do not accept, and which is a major cause and symptom of the split between early Christianity and Judaism.

And it is Athanasius’s Easter letter to the churches of Alexandria, Egypt in 367 C.E. that is the earliest known document to claim that the 27 documents of the current New Testament canon as the definitive, and closed, list of authoritative Christian documents. Athanasius is the first Christian author to have referred to his designated list of Old and New Testament documents as a “canon.” This Letter was a response to two other competing Christian movements. Athanasius’ letter was an effort to secure primacy over these other groups by arguing that closing the canon as he suggested would ensure the purity of the faith and keep out heretical texts.

We have already heard in one of today’s readings how Bishop Irenaeus had already decided about 180 years earlier that there were only four gospels worth keeping because there were only four winds on the Earth. Athanasius’s Easter letter took the next step, essentially closing the door on revising the list of books in the Christian library for all time. Even Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism, was unable to change Athanasius’s canon in the Reformation of the 1520s.

Unfortunately, this meant that a number of other gospels that were in circulation at the time were almost lost forever. Works like the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Thomas, The Acts of Paul and Thecla, and dozens of others, were cut off from Christians for a millennium. It was not until the discovery in Egypt in 1945 of the Nag Hammadi library that many of these so-called heretical works became available for study. These first century C.E. works have shed a new light on early Christianity that the canon specified by Athanasius concealed. For example, the description of Jesus’ attitude to sin in the Gospel of Mary, that was in one of today’s readings was entirely different from the concept of Original Sin which still holds sway in many churches even today.

It is unfortunate that in the development of Christian theology from the fourth century to the present day, so much of traditional Judaism and the early Christ movements was left behind. The recent discovery at Nag Hammadi of previously unknown texts provides an amazing lens through which we can see how books not included in the canon reflect how different the world might have been if those labeled as heretics had won the day. But we should not easily set aside the books that did become part of the canon, because they too have wisdom from which we can learn. As my New Testament professor Hal Taussig points out, one does not read the Bible seeking facts, but it nevertheless contains a great deal of truth.