October 27, 2013
In the early days of my sabbatical last July—as I was learning anew what it means to pray, as I continued to mull over the sometimes troubled relationship between science and Christianity—in my reading I came across an article titled “How Christianity Became Cool Again.” And I thought, well, that’s good. At least my sabbatical time isn’t preparing me for a trip back to squaresville.
The author, Paul Brandeis Rauschenbush, began by exclaiming with excitement: “Hallelujah! 2013 may be the year that it became cool again to be a Christian.”
Maybe you know what he means. For decades now we’ve heard mostly about the “religious right.” Congregationalists and our ilk were labeled as “squishy” and told that we had gone from the “mainline” to the “sideline.” The author reminded his readers of “a time in the 20th century when Christians were cool, and spoke with a powerful, prophetic voice to the major issues of the day.” This was the time when people such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Howard Thurman, and Reinhold Niebuhr where household names, known for speaking to the life of the spirit as well as calling for action in the world.
“In those days, you could say you were a Christian and [such] names might come to the mind of the listener—and they were cool; meaning relevant, compelling…and forward thinking.”
Leaders such as these helped inspire mainline Protestants to boldly address racism and civil rights, the welfare of children and families, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the war in Vietnam, the role of the U.S. in Central America, the shifting line of separation between church and state, as well as hunger and homelessness and poverty in America. It made good religious sense, of course. After all, Congregationalists and other liberal Protestants are descendants of the great Reformers who challenged empires and reordered societies. The traditions we bear have continually fostered important innovation in meeting social needs. These traditions have produced powerful voices of prophetic judgment and have frequently given birth to great movements of moral protest—saying “no” to what is and also saying “yes” to what might be.
Now after some twenty or thirty years, during which time, we liberal Protestants became, in the words of Marilynne Robinson, “that shaken and diminished community,” we are experiencing a time of renewal, of growth, and, yes, a time of “cool.” From stewardship of the environment to advocacy for gay rights, from rediscovering earlier spiritual practices of prayer, scripture reading, giving, and service to reviving Sunday morning worship with new music and strong preaching, liberal Christian faith is finding its voice once more.
In this congregation, we share a liberal faith in the God made known in Jesus. We respect questions. We know that most answers that we have discovered are provisional at best. We share what might be called an unsettled faith for these unsettled times.
The scripture lessons this morning speak of what the theologian Paul Tillich called “the shaking of the foundations.” Earth breaks to pieces, the mountains topple to the depths of the sea, the walls of the jail collapse. And in the process people find a new, unexpected, and fearsome freedom. These are all good images for the times in which we live. What seemed to be solid old ways have collapsed. The changes have brought new freedom and new challenges. Like the jailer in the story from Acts, we, too, cry out: “What must I do to be saved?”
That is, how do I, how do we respond to the new world in which we find ourselves?
A liberal approach to Christianity is a positive response to our world that addresses the joys and sorrows and hopes of human beings. This is a faith that helps us to live in the presence of God with all the uncertainty and wonder that we experience in these days. A liberal faith is at home in the world. It is a haven in the storm. And it is a rock in an ever-changing and uncertain landscape.
A liberal faith is at home in the world.
In one of his letters from prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian, wrote of a conversation he had with a French pastor while they were both studying in America. They were talking about what they wanted to do with their lives. The French pastor said that he would like to become a saint. Although Bonhoeffer was impressed with that goal, he disagreed with it and said: “I should like to learn to have faith.”
At first, Bonhoeffer said, he thought that he “could acquire faith by trying to live a holy life, or something like it.” He discovered later “that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith…By…living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities…we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world.”
One aspect of faith is what we believe. Understanding what we believe is important. We have the ability to think about God, to develop ways of talking about what God is and what God is not, to learn what Christians and other people have said about God through the ages and how we might speak of God today.
But even as influential a theologian as H. Richard Niebuhr, who thought and wrote a great deal about God during the last century, said “Dead faith is belief in propositions, such as that God is one; living faith includes love….Lifeless faith is purely intellectual while living faith is both intellectual and [a matter of the will].” Surrounded as we are by a major university, we have ample opportunity for thinking about faith—and that is both good and important. But living our faith brings us into engagement with the world.
This is often the experience of our congregation.
We take seriously, not our own sufferings alone, but the suffering of God in the world. We pray for the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the victims of disasters. We also find ourselves helping to rebuild cities; we find ourselves welcoming the homeless, feeding the hungry, and working for policies and practices that would lessen poverty in Iowa City and around the globe. We believe and we act—that is faith.
We believe that God’s love extends to all people. And so we declare ourselves an open and affirming congregation, and stand with gays and lesbians in efforts toward equality in the eyes of the state and of the church. We believe and we act—that is faith.
Through study and reflection we come to a deep understanding of the importance that our Christian faith has for our own lives. Because of this we are able to recognize the same value in the faith of our Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and Baha’i neighbors. And we can find common cause with them in pursuing paths of peace and justice. We believe and we act—that is faith.
In faith we live in the suffering and joy of this world. A liberal faith is at home in the world.
A liberal faith is a haven in the storm.
Our faith calls us into a deepening involvement with the world. As a result, in our individual lives and in our united efforts to follow in the way of Jesus Christ, we are bound to encounter difficult times.
We listened this morning as Isaiah described the sense of the earth shaking that comes with the judgment of God. We read together the Psalm that speaks of, as Martin Luther paraphrased it, God’s help amidst the flood of mortal ills prevailing. My guess is that you’ve had such experiences at times, knowing both the gracious judgment and the gracious aid of God.
These words speak to us in these days when the morning paper and the nightly news can so often lead to us to despair of the future. Political discourse that seems more bent on demolition than ever before. The gap in wealth and income between the very rich and everyone else seems to widen each day.
Out of fear or despair or frustration we might be tempted to give up and withdraw from the world. Nihilism or an otherworldly spirituality might seem appealing or sensible.
The words of the prophet encourage us even when disaster seems ready to befall all creation. In just such a time as this, we realize, as one person put it, “that the world lies under the wrath and grace of God.” Our commitments are renewed, our strength is regained, and our hope is restored, not because all is well but because when we face the shadows we discover the light that shines even there. Still we have our lives and are able to move forward.
When the foundations shake we can still rest in the grace of God. A liberal faith announces that our lives are held in God’s care even in the midst of the world’s chaos. It is a haven in the storms of life.
A liberal faith is a rock in an ever-changing and uncertain landscape.
When confidence is shaken, when the way is uncertain, we live by faith.
Anytime we find ourselves in uncharted territory, when we are called to new ways of life, faith sustains us. When we must attempt what has not yet been tried, we live by faith.
When we seek justice and justice eludes us;
when life seems uncertain or the good is threatened;
when the cost of following the way of Jesus Christ seems too high,
We find that we are able to forgive as we have been forgiven.
We find that we are able to love.
We are able to face the future in all its uncertainty in the coming year, day or hour.
We see dawning on the horizon of history the justice that we have sought.
We are often people of little faith—but that might be all the faith we need. In the uncertain times in which we live, faith is a rock.
It was good to learn early in my sabbatical that Christianity is cool again.
Then in late September I found further encouragement as I was preparing to return to my ministry here. Rabbi Eric Yoffie wrote about what he called “the bright future of liberal religion.” As Rabbi Yoffie sees it, at a time when “religious institutions of all kinds are buffeted by turmoil and change,” that is, when the foundations are shaking, “the liberal religious world is generally responding to the difficulties with typical American inventiveness.”
He points to five signs of liberal religious health:
Young Americans are more likely to be religious progressives than religious conservatives.
Older Americans are becoming more liberal in their religious outlook.
Social justice is becoming more central to religious life.
Liberal religious groups have finally learned that ethics are essential but insufficient for a meaningful and authentic religious life—that is, we now see that people can find good politics all sorts of places. What they want are communities of deep worship and personal responsibility and caring.
And finally, there are liberal congregations throughout our nation that are demonstrating that liberal religion really works. I am certain that we are one such place.
This is the new situation in which we find ourselves as liberal Protestants.
We are at home in the world, finding a haven in the storm and a rock on shifting sand—we live in the power and possibility of a liberal faith.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, MacMillan Press, 1972, pg. 369-70.
 H. Richard Niebuhr, Faith on Earth, pg. 7.
 Bonhoeffer, op.cit., pg. 297.