Jul 24, 2019
Last December Mark Lilla published an article in the New York Review of Books titled “Two Roads for the New French Right.” It discusses intellectual currents in French amongst the Right, specifically amongst people about my age or younger. According to Lilla, they represent something new. They are more concerned with climate change and more critical of capitalism than their elders. Some of them are genuinely anti-capitalist.
Lilla drew extensively from Pascale Tournier’s book “Le vieux monde est de retour, Enquête sur les nouveaux conservateurs” for the article. Pascale is a French journalist who writes for La Vie, a left-leaning humanist oriented Roman Catholic magazine. The title of her book roughly translates to “The Old World is Returning, A Study of the New Conservatives.” Since I study conservative thought and right-wing movements in the United States, I thought it would be interesting to get a sense of what’s going on with the French Right. I sent Tournier an email and she graciously agreed to meet with me.
Most of our conversation covered the ground she touched upon in her book. I read French quite slowly and since buying it in Arles last week have managed to make my way through the first couple of chapters. What she, and Lilla, argue is that conservatism is a new idea in France. Historically, the main currents amongst the French Right have been divided into the Orléanists, Bonapartists, and Legitimists. Each current aligned itself with a different royal house that claimed the French throne. The Orléanists supported the Orleans cadet branch of the House of Bourbon, the Bonapartists supported the family of Napoleon Bonaparte, and the Legitimists supported the elder branch of the House of Bourbon. Without getting into the details, each current holds distinctive political positions about the role of the state in French politics as well as democracy. In the 1970s right-wing populism started to emerge as another current in the form of the National Front led by the Le Pen family. And within the last few years conservatism has begun to emerge as a fifth current.
Taken as a whole the conservatism of the French Right is quite distinct from the conservatism of the Right in the United States. Conservatism in the English-speaking world dates to Edmund Burke’s reaction to the French Revolution. Conservatism in France is primarily rooted in French and Catholic sources. In some ways, Tournier’s description of it made it appear as having little in common with conservatism in the United States. American conservatism is organized around the maintenance and restoration of white supremacy. It promulgates climate change denial and is closely tied to white evangelical Christianity. It celebrates capitalism and business and is anti-intellectual enough in its orientation that intellectual historians, climate scientists, and mainstream economists often state, in some form or another, that it has no genuine intellectual tradition.
The French conservatives that Tournier describes are deeply concerned with climate change. The flagship publication is called Limite and bills itself as a “revue d'écologie intégrale,” a magazine of integrated ecology. They are Catholic and have been deeply influenced by Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si, which argues that climate change is real, and that Catholics must take it seriously. They link their ecological concerns with an analysis that says humanity has overstepped the limits of the natural order, which is how they end up as recognizably conservative. They are for heteronormative nuclear families and opposed to gay marriage. They reject the animating slogan of the May 1968 movement, “It is forbidden to forbid” and instead claim that limits must be sought in all aspects of human life if climate change is to be confronted. Interestingly, this leads them to be critical of capitalism as they fear it is both damaging to the planet and undermines what they imagine to be traditional social arrangements.
According to Tournier, they have turned away from the antisemitism of older generations of the French Right. Instead, they are anti-Islamic. When I asked Tournier if this meant that there were either Jews or Protestants among their members, she told me that Jews and Protestants largely supported Macron. She didn’t know of any of them who were either Jewish or Protestant.
Overall, Catholicism seems to be the conservatives central animating concern. Unlike the older French Right, for whom Catholicism is largely a cultural and political orientation, Tournier thinks that the New French Right was deeply influenced by their faith. It is their faith, she thinks, that has led them to take climate change so seriously. It is their faith, also, which seems have to pushed them outside many of the old Right-Left dichotomies.
Tournier and I ended our conservation not with a discussion of the Right in the United States but with a discussion of the reemergence of the Religious Left. I described for her the work of William Barber II, the Poor People’s Campaign, and the work of my own Unitarian Universalist Association under the leadership of Susan Frederick-Gray. My own takeaway from our time together was that there is energy for new ideas on the Right in France in a similar way that there is energy for new ideas on the Left in the United States. I have no idea the significance of this confluence other than it suggests that political ideologies, like the rest of human culture, are fluid, ever changing, and, at the same time, built upon what has come before.
However appealing I might find some aspects of New French Right’s religious based approach to climate change, it makes more than a little nervous to take a friendly interest in political currents that, whatever their other appeals, routinely inhabit the same space as reactionary, historically anti-semitic, movements like the National Front (now the National Rally). My own nervousness was heightened when I discussed Limite with a friend who is not a scholar or a journalist but a climate change activist. She told me, “they dress up their right-wing politics in an ecological package. They are not serious about ecology but they are serious about opposing gay rights, feminism, and other cultural issues dear to the Left.” Not being immersed in French politics, I am in no position to judge her assessment. But it does make me cautious.
Apr 1, 2019
as preached the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, March 31, 2019
We have reached the midpoint of our sermon series on the principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association. This morning we are going to be talking about the fourth principle: “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” The core question I want us to focus on is: What does it mean to be responsible? Before we get to that question, though, I want to invite you back with me to an earlier time and place. I want you to come me with to Geneva, Switzerland.
The year is 1553. Geneva is a growing medieval city. A mass of tight streets and narrow houses on the shore of a large sweet water lake, in the next ten years it will almost double in size. Near the city’s center sits St. Pierre Cathedral. It is a Gothic structure, solid stone. There are big round columns capped with carvings depicting biblical scenes, angels, the resurrection of Christ, Satan, and even a mermaid. The rest of the massive sanctuary is spare. The ancient statues and carvings that had depicted the saints have all been smashed by iconoclasts. The stain glass remains. Blue, purple, and red pools on top of the wooden pews. Near the front of the church stands the pulpit. And from that pulpit each Sunday preaches John Calvin--one of the fathers of the Protestant Reformation.
Calvin is a man of both religious reform and religious reaction. He is a reformer for having rejected the authority of the Pope in Rome. He is a reformer who wishes to save the church from the accrued corruptions of medieval theology. He is a reformer who claims that salvation comes through faith alone. He is a reformer who understands the Bible to be incontestable the word of God.
He is also a reactionary whose supporters have turned him into the virtual dictator of both civil and religious life in Geneva. He is a reactionary who believes that without divine intervention humans are innately depraved. He is a reactionary who believes that certain ancient theological, non-scriptural, teachings are non-negotiable. He believes in the Trinity--the idea that the Holy Spirit, God, and Jesus Christ are all one single being. He believes in infant baptism--the claim that the immersion of children in water shortly after their birth is a sign of the covenant between God and God’s people.
Just recently, Calvin has charged a man by the name of Miguel Serveto with spreading heresy. Serveto--who will be known to history as Michael Servetus--is a brilliant man. A doctor, a theologian, a true Renaissance scholar, he is the first European to describe pulmonary circulation, the way blood moves from the heart to the lungs and back again. Servetus’s theology is not Calvin’s. He does not believe that people are born wicked or sinful. He rejects infant baptism as unnecessary. Instead, he holds that it is only possible to enter into a covenant with God as an adult.
More troubling to Calvin is Servetus’s position on the Trinity. Servetus has rejected it as a non-scriptural form of tritheism. Servetus reads Hebrew and Greek fluently. He argues that the Trinity is to be found nowhere in the Bible. He believes Trinitarians are actually tritheists. He claims they worship three gods. In one inflammatory text he has written, “Instead of a God you have a three-headed Cerberus.”
It is not solely Servetus’s denunciation of the Trinity that Calvin finds troubling. It is the way that Servetus thinks about Jesus. Servetus believes that Jesus was a man. In one particularly offensive book Servetus has written: “God himself is our spirit dwelling in us, and this is the Holy Spirit within us. In this we testify that there is in our spirit a certain working latent energy, a certain heavenly sense, a latent divinity and it bloweth where it listeth and I hear its voice and I know not whence it comes nor whither it goes. So is everyone that is born of the spirit of God.” In this passage and elsewhere Servetus has signaled that he believes it is possible for each human being to awaken the divinity within them. Jesus, Servetus believes, was created by God to help make people aware of the breath of God which resides in each of us.
Servetus has been inspired in his views through his encounters with Judaism and Islam. He grew up in Spain immediately after the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabel had offered the Jews and Muslims who lived there a choice. They could convert to Christianity or they could suffer banishment. Many stayed, converted, and secretly continued to practice their religions. Servetus’s interactions with these conversos has convinced him that the Trinity is the stumbling block that prevents practitioners of all three religions from recognizing that they are all children of the same God. This belief and his discovery that the word Trinity is not in the Bible has given him a lifelong mission to teach the Christian world about the errors of the Trinity.
Sitting on a wooden chair, gripping its hand tooled armrests, brooding, in St. Pierre Cathedral, Calvin reflects that Servetus’s views threaten all of Christianity. If they are allowed to spread, they will destroy the very Reformation Calvin has worked so hard to create. Servetus’s unorthodox theology will undermine Christian theological unity. The Catholics and the Protestants might not agree upon much but they agree upon the Trinity. They agree that humans do not have the spirit of God dwelling within them. And they agree upon the necessity of infant baptism.
Calvin is thankful that in response to his charges the Council of Geneva, the city’s civic authority, has condemned Servetus to death. At Calvin’s prompting the Council has issued a verdict “to purge the Church of God of such infection and cut off the rotten member.” This surgery is not be merciful. Servetus is to burned alive with his books on a pyre built from green wood.
Calvin sits and broods. He and Servetus have corresponded for years. When they were young men they had both been on the run from the Catholic Inquisition. Their paths almost crossed once in Paris as they each sought to escape the authorities. Yet, Servetus has grown so obstinate in his heresies that Calvin has become convinced that Servetus will never realize his errors.
Calvin sits and broods. A friend arrives, bringing him a report of Servetus’s death. Even at the end, Servetus refused to recant his beliefs. On the way to his place of execution he cried, “O God, O God: what else can I speak of but God.” His last recorded words also deny the Trinity. Right before he succumbs to the flames he wails, “O Jesus, Son of the Eternal God, have pity on me!” Calvin’s friend observes that Servetus could have saved himself from the flames if only he had transposed the words. Had he called on Christ the Eternal Son instead of Christ the Son of the Eternal God he would have been allowed to live.
The trial and execution of Michael Servetus is one of the most famous episodes in Unitarian history. His 1531 book “On the Errors of the Trinity” is largely regarded as first text in the continuous stream of religious tradition that stretches from sixteenth-century Europe to this pulpit in twenty-first-century Houston. It is true that are earlier figures and movements whose theology influenced ours. The second century North African theologian Origen taught that all souls would eventually be united with God. Arius was another North African theologian. Living in the third and fourth centuries, he built a large following by arguing against the Trinity. He believed that Jesus was not eternal. He believed Jesus was created by an eternal God. But despite these truths, it is with Servetus that enduring Unitarian theology begins.
There is a direct line from Servetus to the Edict of Torda. Issued in 1568 by King John Sigismund, the Unitarian king of Transylvania, it was the first European law guaranteeing religious tolerance. Sigismund and the other Transylvanian Unitarians were greatly influenced by Servetus as they struggled to make sense of Christianity while living on the edge of the pluralistic world of that was the Ottoman Empire.
There is a direct line from Servetus to the Polish Brethren of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who were known as Socianians. They were followers of the Italian theologian Fausto Sozzini. Like Servetus, they rejected original sin and the eternal nature of Jesus. They influenced the English Unitarians who later founded some of the first Unitarian churches in the United States. When President Andrew Jackson’s followers smeared President John Quincy Adams for his Unitarianism they called him a Socianian.
This direct line is one reason why our tradition was long summarized as a commitment to “freedom, reason, and tolerance.” When asked to describe Unitarian Universalism, the lifelong member of our communion Melissa Harris-Perry wrote, we “set aside divisive doctrinal battles [while] we seek a straightforward commitment to the fluid, open, collective work of seeking our truths together without assuming that we will all share the same truth.” An understanding that doctrinal beliefs can be lethally divisive is why a commitment to “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning” is central to our faith.
Now, I said, at the outset of my sermon, I wanted to focus our attention on one word of our principle. That word is responsible. Since we are examining a single word, I thought it wise to consult that massive tomb known as the Oxford English Dictionary. It once spanned more than a bookshelf. These days it has been safely reduced to a database. Turning to the OED, as it is affectionately known, we discover that the word is both an adjective and a noun. In our principle it appears as an adjective modifying the word search. There are eleven different ways in which responsible can be used as an adjective. The earliest dates to the sixteenth century. The most recent only came into use in the 1970s. Our adjective invokes the most contemporary meaning. Responsible in our principle appears to mean, “a practice or activity: carried out in a morally principled or ethical way.” A responsible search: a search carried out in a morally principled or ethical way.
Responsible is derived from the French responsible. The French comes the Latin respōnsāre, which means “to reply.” We might then think that to be responsible is to reply or respond to some set of underlying moral or ethical claims. Our fourth principle does not tell us what these underlying moral or ethical claims are. It only suggests that we are to be accountable to them.
In what remains of our sermon, I want to suggest to you two varieties of moral claims we might be responsible to in our search for truth and meaning. And then, in a somewhat tautological move, I want to suggest that the challenge of the search for truth and meaning is that it is a search for the very thing we are responsible to.
Two types of moral claims we might respond to in our search are the horizontal and the transcendental. These types of claims exist upon separate axis. As the name implies, horizontal claims are those that we make based upon this plane of existence. We make a horizontal claim when we refer directly to our relationships with other humans, other animals, and the Earth.
Transcendental claims are those that we make based upon some other plane of existence. As the name implies, such claims transcend this world. We make a transcendental claim when we refer directly to our relationship with a moral law that exists outside of the human community or exists due to a divinity such as that indescribable religious element we call God.
Much religious jostling takes place over the question of which of these two types of claims--the horizontal or transcendental--takes precedence. This Thursday at Rice I am going to be part of panel on interfaith dialogue. The conversation will be between an evangelical Christian, a Muslim, and myself. We are supposed to circulate our questions to each other in advance. The questions are supposed to be around some aspect of the other person’s tradition that we do not understand or would like clarified.
The evangelical Christian is from a conservative tradition that is opposed to sex same marriage. One of my questions for him, therefore, has to do why his community chooses to emphasize that aspect of their theology. There are only a handful of Christian scriptures that appear to address issues of same sex love. Most of them were originally directed towards other concerns. In contrast, there are over two thousand biblical verses that focus on the injunction to be in solidarity with the poor and to work towards economic justice. Why, I want to know, does his tradition emphasize one at the expense of the other? The evangelical Christian’s question for me is: Isn’t the dismissal of God, the deification of the human spirit, and trust in human ethics a naïve and dangerous project?
Based on these questions, I am not entirely certain our efforts at interfaith dialogue are off to a good start. However, I think that they nicely highlight distinctions between horizontal and transcendental moral claims. I arrive at my line of inquiry from a horizontal position. I am concerned about the GLBT community and economic justice because of the human relationships I have. I grew a Unitarian Universalist in a faith community that has long taught that many different kinds of sexual expression and gender identities are natural, normal, and wonderful. I have long known that there is only one human family and that a society based on the exploitation of labor leads to poverty, injustice and human suffering. Looking around, I am moved by the pain that I see in the eyes of others. I recognize it as similar to my own. It is like the verses by Mary Oliver in our hymnal:
You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. / You have only to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. / Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. / Meanwhile the world goes on.
Such words summarize horizontal moral claims more eloquently than I can. Here we find an understanding that it is the shared human experience--our animal, bodily, loving nature--that unites us. It is to this earthly unity that we are responsible.
In contrast, my evangelical counterpart’s relationship is not primarily with the horizontal--with the human community that surrounds him--but rather, with the transcendental, that which he has chosen to name God. He worries about my more horizontal morality because, he fears, it misses the place where morality is rooted: in a particular conception of the divine.
This conception of the divine, his community teaches, has issued certain injunctions about how we humans are to live our lives. If we fail to live by those injunctions--which for him includes particular teachings about human sexuality--we not only lead morally deformed lives in this world. We jeopardize ourselves in the next world. That, is a truly, transcendental position. Not only is our moral orientation to something that exists outside of the human life we share. But the consequences we face for failing to live a moral life come not in this horizontal world but in some other transcendental plane of existence.
My evangelical counterpart’s transcendental position is not the only one. Nor is my horizontal position the sum of horizontalism. Our human best includes people who oriented themselves towards the transcendental. Coretta Scott and Martin King attended Unitarian churches when lived in Boston. They ultimately moved away from Unitarianism because they felt they needed more of a transcendental connection to the divine than they believed our tradition offered them.
Conversely, our human worst includes people who oriented themselves towards the horizontal. The Soviet Stalinists of mid-twentieth-century killed millions of people. They justified their actions on horizontal claims about alleviating the most suffering for the largest number of people. Some, like the great Russian dissident Anna Akhmatova, drew upon the transcendental to survive their brutality, writing:
A choir of angels glorified the hour,
the vault of heaven was dissolved in fire.
“Father, why hast Thou forsaken me?
Mother, I beg you, do not weep for me...”
Other Russian dissidents, such as the poet Victor Serge, drew upon the horizontal as they resisted:
Our hands are unconscious, tough, ascendant, conscious
plainsong, delighted suffering,
nailed to rainbows.
Together, together, joined,
they have here seized
And we didn’t know
that together we held
this dazzling thing.
And so, we reach our tautology, our fourth principle. Our Unitarian Universalist Association has committed us to “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” But that search, is, so often for the thing that we are responsible to. In your search do you find yourself responding to the horizontal? Is it the human, the this world, the way rain glistens upon live oak leaves or the scamper of a lizard (is it a gecko, a skink, or a six lined race runner?), the tears that you see in the eyes of migrants as they suffer under Texas bridges, that call to you? Or is it an awe-inspiring indescribable divinity who blesses the universe with life and stirs within you an understanding that you should work to change the country’s barbaric practices towards immigrants? Is it both? Are they incompatible? Which are you responsible to? The horizontal or the transcendental? Or, perhaps, even, something else, something that I have failed to name that is neither horizontal or transcendental but unites, encompasses, or exists outside of both?
I could close with those questions. Instead, I want us to reach back to Calvin and Servetus. Calvin had Servetus killed because he felt that our religious forbearer endangered humanity’s relationship with the transcendental. Calvin believed that a relationship with the transcendental took precedence over a horizontal relationship. Conversely, Servetus was trying to reconcile the horizontal and transcendental. Humans understand God in many ways. Finding the commonality between these paths, he thought, would lead to peace. And yet, he could not give up on what he felt was his correct understanding of humanity’s relationship with the transcendental. As he was burned he cried, “O Jesus, Son of the Eternal God, have pity on me!” And as Calvin’s friend observed, Servetus needed only to change the words--to compromise on his understanding of humanity’s relationship with the transcendental--to save his life.
It is difficult to be responsible. It is challenging to understand what we are supposed to respond to even as we seek to find it. And, so recognizing this challenge but also recognizing our call to meet it, I close with repetition of our earlier reading by Leslie Takahashi. I invite you to hear it as a prayer:
Walk the maze
within your heart: guide your steps into its questioning curves.
This labyrinth is a puzzle leading you deeper into your own truths.
Listen in the twists and turns.
Listen in the openness within all searching.
Listen: a wisdom within you calls to a wisdom beyond you
and in that dialogue lies peace.
Let us walk the maze together,
open to where it leads us,
open to the transcendental,
if we encounter it,
and the horizontal,
when we find it.
Be us not afraid to name the divine
if we discover it
and be us not afraid
and care for the human,
and all that is
this beautiful world
wherever we go.
to say Amen.
Dec 5, 2018
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, December 2, 2018
It is good to be back with you. I hope you all had good Thanksgivings--not too much food or drink. I was in Denver for the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion and then here for the holiday. My parents came to visit. We had Thanksgiving with some of their friends who live in Meyerland. Then we visited other friends in Dallas. I managed to keep myself to a single slice of pecan pie, which is probably why I can still fit into my suit this morning. It was hard. Pecan pie is my favorite.
Actually, I like pecan pie so much that I think of it as a kind of ordinary miracle. Ordinary miracles are the wondrous things that fill our human lives. Birth, death, the cycle of life, there is something about it all that transcends human comprehension.
Even as something as simple as pie can transcends human comprehension. There is an enormous amount of stuff that goes into making the most ordinary pastry. There are the pecans--products of earth, wind, soil, sun, water, and difficult human labor. So much must happen for us to even have these sweetmeats. And then there’s the flour, the butter, that strange English treacle called Lyle’s Golden Syrup... And of course, the necessity of having someone who actually knows how to bake a pie.
This is a skill with enough nuance that its mastery is the subject of much debate. I do not know about your family but in mine there are different schools of thought on how to prepare a good pie crust. Everyone agrees on what a good pie crust is--it is light, flaky, slightly salty, and holds together under fork. Few folks agree exactly how to make it. Some claim that a good pie crust requires lard. Many object to the use of lard on the basis that it is not vegetarian friendly. Others advocate for substituting some of the water with vodka. I fall into the camp that freezes the butter before using it in the crust--it creates a tender bite.
The ideal pecan pie somehow transcends these debates. It is a miracle that combines chemistry, human ingenuity, and evolution. Sometimes when I eat pie, I actually manage to remember this and recall that our lives are filled with mystery and wonder. The real question is not, What is the best way to make a pie crust? The real question is, We will open ourselves to the mystery and wonder that surround us? I detect something of this line of questioning in Marge Piercy’s Hanukkah poem, “Season of Skinny Candles:”
When even the moon
starves to a sliver
the little candles poke
holes in the blackness.
The holiday season is a time to remember the ordinary miracles that fill our lives. The candles that poke holes into the season’s lessened light are reminders of the spark that rests within each of us. They are reminders that our universe is mysterious and wonderful. It is good to pause every now and again and just take it all in.
It can be hard at this time of year to do so. I do not know about you, but I find the stretch between Thanksgiving and New Years to be an exceptionally busy time. In addition to all of the family holiday preparations, there is all of the stuff that happens in congregational life. There are events like last night’s fantastic church auction, after which I am afraid I need to apologize to my neighbors for playing the kazoo a little too enthusiastically with my son. There are seasonal parties. And there are special worship services. This year we are holding a solstice service on the 21st at 6:00 p.m., a Christmas pageant on the morning of the 23rd, and a candlelight service on Christmas Eve starting at 7:00 p.m.
These services offer us the opportunity to pause. The Christmas Eve services I lead follow a fairly traditional format of lessons and carols. However, they vary in one substantive respect. I do not just draw from the canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Instead, I use readings from the non-canonical gospels--ancient texts that tell stories about Jesus which did not make it into the Christian New Testament.
I do this as a reminder that within the context of the broader Christian tradition, Unitarian Universalism is a heretical movement. Our views are closer to those of the people who were kicked out of the ancient Christian church than they are to the Roman emperors and theologians who created the doctrines central to contemporary Christianity.
Take Arius and Origen of Alexandria, two early Christians whose theologies are held to be heretical by much of the Christian orthodoxy. Arius preached that Jesus was a human being who had obtained moral perfection. Once Jesus did so he was adopted as a child of God. Origen taught that at some point in the future there would be “the perfect restoration of the entire creation.” That is a version of universal salvation, the idea that in the end all souls will be united with God. Contemporary Unitarian Universalism gets its name from these two ancient heresies: Unitarianism, the belief that Jesus was a human being rather than a god; and Universalism, the story that the love of God is all powerful and that God condemns no one to Hell. The past President of the Unitarian Universalist Association William Sinkford summarizes these positions this way: “one God, no one left behind.”
This view is one of the reasons why contemporary Unitarian Universalists often are comfortable drawing wisdom from the world’s religious traditions. We understand religion to a universal human impulse. There are ordinary miracles to be found through engaging different rituals, stories, songs, places, and teachers.
This attitude has been with Unitarianism since its very inception. In sixteenth-century Europe, Unitarianism emerged as what is called a hybrid faith. Almost five hundred years ago, in places like Poland and Transylvania, Unitarianism developed at the intersection of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Its practitioners recognized that adherents to all three religions were children of the same God. In her study of early European Unitarianism, Susan Ritchie observes, “Convinced that Christians, Muslims, and Jews were a part of the same religious family, Unitarians resisted theologies of God that could not be freely shared across these traditions.” They recognized that the miracle of existence which we humans share cannot be captured by the teachings of a single tradition. As our own Unitarian Universalist Association puts it, our living tradition draws from “from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual lives.”
All of this goes some of the way towards explaining why at this busy time of year we honor the Christian holiday of Christmas, the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, and the turning of the year that is the winter solstice. It also helps explain how someone like me can identify with Unitarian Universalism and Judaism. As I think I have told you before, I am the product of an inter-religious marriage. My mother was raised Moravian. My father was raised Jewish. This meant that growing up we celebrated both Christian and Jewish holidays: Christmas and Hanukkah; Passover and Easter. And in my house, we still do.
Tonight, is the first night of Hanukkah. Today and next Sunday we are honoring both the Christmas season and Hanukkah as part of the service. We have some Hebrew songs, some Hanukkah poems, and next week we will light a special menorah called a hanukkiah. Carol recounted the basic outline of Hanukkah story earlier for the big idea. It celebrates the victory of a group of Jews called the Maccabees over a Greek king who decided to put an end to local religions. He forbid the practice of Judaism under pain of death. Pagan rituals and sacrifices were conducted in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. It was defiled. When the Maccabees were eventually victorious they set out to rededicate it. They searched the Temple for oil with which to light the Temple’s lamps. The Talmud relates, “they searched and found only one bottle of oil sealed by the High Priest... And there was only enough oil for one day’s lighting. Yet a miracle was brought about with it, and they lit the lamps from it for eight days.”
Hanukkah commemorates the miracle of a single day’s oil lasting for eight nights. It is a tiny moment of divine agency--the only miracle the extension of the light across eight days. Why eight? Rabbi Arthur Waskow observes, “Since the whole universe was created in seven days, eight is a symbol of eternity and infinity.” The eight days of light are reminder that our world is filled with the ordinary miracle of existence.
The idea that the world is infused with the miracle of existence or the spirit of the divine is present in all of creation is found in many Jewish teachings. The great Jewish mystic Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz is said to have explained the story of Hanukkah to his disciples this way, “Listen, and I shall tell you the meaning of the miracle of the light, at Hanukkah. The light which was hidden since the days of creation was then revealed. And every year, when the lights are lit for Hanukkah, the hidden light is revealed afresh. And it is the light of the Messiah.”
Let us dwell on the second to last sentence of Rabbi Pinchas’s interpretation, “every year, when the light are lit for Hanukkah, the hidden light is revealed afresh.” This is the message of the season, miracles are ever present in our lives. The hidden light of creation, the miracle of our existence, is waiting for us to rekindle it at all times. We need to only to open ourselves to it--to find the ordinary miracle in the pie or the light of the candlelight.
I learned something of this myself when years ago I studied with the great scholar of Jewish mysticism Paul Mendes-Flohr. When he taught he refused to ever fully close the door of his classroom. He said that it was possible that the Messiah, the great teacher who would bring about human redemption might come at any moment. He did not want to miss the announcement by shutting the door. A miracle, the light of creation, might shine forth right now.
This was the central teaching of Rabbi Pinchas. He lived in the Ukraine during the eighteenth-century. He was a companion of the great Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, more commonly known as the Baal Shem Tov. The words Baal Shem Tov in Hebrew mean the Master of the Good Name. He taught, “the world is full of enormous lights and mysteries” and that we can find them if we are open ourselves to them. It was alleged that he knew the secret name of God. And he was held to be a great miracle worker.
One story has it that once he prayed on Shabbat in a field full of sheep. The sheep we so moved by his prayers that they, “assumed the original position... [they] had held when... [they] had stood at the throne of God.” Other stories relate that he was regularly visited by the Seven Shepherds of Israel: ancient biblical figures whose numbers include Abraham and Moses. Still others tell of how he could travel great distances quickly and appear mysteriously to provide counsel to the perplexed. But most of the stories involve him finding the miraculous in the everyday, of discovering after gathering for an evening service that, “The night had suddenly grown light; in greater radiance than ever before, the moon curved on a flawless sky.”
Unlike Rabbi Pinchas, the Baal Shem Tov does not appear to have left any teachings about Hanukkah. Perhaps this is because it is a relatively minor Jewish holiday. It fits a general pattern of resistance to persecution commemorated by many Jewish holidays and summarized by some Rabbis as, “They tried to kill us. They didn’t kill us. Let’s eat.” The special food of Hanukkah being latkes, potato pancakes fried in oil to commemorate the miracle of eight days of light.
The holiday itself does not appear in the Hebrew Bible. Its story is recounted in the First and Second Book of Maccabees, texts which were preserved by Christians. Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Purim, and Passover are all more important. Yet, starting in the nineteenth-century, it became central to Jewish life as the Christmas season became increasingly commercial. Many Jewish families wanted to match the excitement of the Christian holiday with its bright lights, trees, carols, presents, and feasts.
Some Jewish parents even wanted their kids to experience something of the thrill of Santa Claus. They surprised their kids with fairly extravagant gifts. In my father’s family this took a something of absurd twist. When my father and his siblings were little my Grandmother Lorraine decided that the joy of latkes, dreidels, gelt, and gifts was not quite enough. So, she invented the Hanukkah Birdie.
The Hanukkah Birdie was a bird who brought Jewish children gifts throughout the eight nights of Hanukkah. My grandmother rarely did things halfway. She actually commissioned an artist to paint a Hanukkah Birdie mural on a cloth that could be hung in my grandparent’s house. It featured a bird carrying presents in its beak. Every year at Hanukkah time my grandmother would take out the mural and her kids would know that the holiday had arrived. My father remembers, “It gave us something tangible, like our Christian friends had.”
It would be easy to make the story of my Grandmother and the Hanukkah Birdie a story about assimilation, especially since only about half of her grandchildren fall under the category of observant Jews. I would like to draw a somewhat different lesson. The human desire for miracles is something that transcends time and culture. We never know where we might find them. One of our central religious tasks is to open our selves to the miracles. It is to kindle the light of creation, as Rabbi Pinchas would have Jews do, or find the miraculous in nature, as the Baal Shem Tov taught.
You might hear in all of this some kind of theistic position, some kind of argument for the existence of God. That is not the message of this sermon or the point of the candles of hope that we kindle during the holiday season. Instead, I am suggesting we approach to the world like the great mystics. Louise Gluck takes such an approach in her poem “Celestial Music.” You will recall it is a dialogue between a theist and an atheist. There is no resolution to the theological positions in the poem. Instead, Gluck writes:
In my dreams, my friend reproaches me. We’re walking
on the same road, except it’s winter now;
she’s telling me that when you love the world you hear celestial music:
look up, she says. When I look up, nothing.
Only cloud, snow, a white business in the trees
like brides leaping to a great height
Celestial music, white business in the trees, either one a miracle, either available to us, like the lights of the season, like nature itself, each day of our lives. Pecan pie, the flames of the hanukiah, pearls of light on Christmas trees, the great teachings of mystical Judaism, the wisdom of our own Unitarian Universalism, may all of these things remind us of a simple fact: the world is filled with ordinary miracles. We can encounter them each of the days of our lives.
And now, let the congregation say Amen.