|Jesus depicted on a Polish Socinian/Unitarian medallion|
This brief piece is born out of the fact that for many European and North American liberals (especially in Unitarian and Universalist circles) religion has increasingly become for them just a general, abstract theory about life that doesn’t require for its full flourishing a deep, personal commitment to some specific role model. As the following poem by Stephen Dunn poignantly reveals many people have developed crippling fears particularly about our own culture’s central, inherited model of the ideal religious life, Jesus of Nazareth, in whose footsteps we used to be able to follow with complete confidence. As Peter wrote in his First Epistle: ‘For to this [life] you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps’ (1 Peter 2:21).
At The Smithville Methodist Church by Stephen Dunn
It was supposed to be Arts & Crafts for a week,
but when she came home
with the “Jesus Saves” button, we knew what art
was up, what ancient craft.
She liked her little friends. She liked the songs
they sang when they weren’t
twisting and folding paper into dolls.
What could be so bad?
Jesus had been a good man, and putting faith
in good men was what
we had to do to stay this side of cynicism,
that other sadness.
OK, we said, One week. But when she came home
singing “Jesus loves me,
the Bible tells me so,” it was time to talk.
Could we say Jesus
doesn’t love you? Could I tell her the Bible
is a great book certain people use
to make you feel bad? We sent her back
without a word.
It had been so long since we believed, so long
since we needed Jesus
as our nemesis and friend, that we thought he was
that our children would think of him like Lincoln
or Thomas Jefferson.
Soon it became clear to us: you can’t teach disbelief
to a child,
only wonderful stories, and we hadn’t a story
nearly as good.
On parents’ night there were the Arts & Crafts
all spread out
like appetizers. Then we took our seats
in the church
and the children sang a song about the Ark,
and one in which they had to jump up and down
I can’t remember ever feeling so uncertain
about what’s comic, what’s serious.
Evolution is magical but devoid of heroes.
You can’t say to your child
“Evolution loves you.” The story stinks
of extinction and nothing
exciting happens for centuries. I didn’t have
a wonderful story for my child
and she was beaming. All the way home in the car
she sang the songs,
occasionally standing up for Jesus.
There was nothing to do
but drive, ride it out, sing along
As a British Unitarian and Free Christian minister I remain convinced that in both secular and religious liberal circles it is vitally important to rediscover the value and need to commit to a role model – especially to the human Jesus. The best way I can show you why I think this is the case is via an example drawn from my own work teaching people how to play jazz and, particularly, jazz-bass. Before I entered the ministry I worked professionally as a jazz bassist and today I still find time to continue to play, record and teach music. One of my own key role models when I was learning to play was Chuck Israels, especially his playing in the trios led by the pianist Bill Evans between 1961 and 1966. Israels’ summarises an experience many of us working in this field have had:
Over the years, as I have assumed the role of “Jazz Educator”, both within and outside of “institutions of higher learning” . . . I have learned to ask [of students] a revealing question. “Who is your favourite musician?” It is remarkable that more often than not, I get no clear answer. There is sometimes a period of uncomfortable silence broken by occasional throat clearing noises, while the prospective student searches for a name or perhaps tries to guess what name might create the most effective impression. Sometimes an embarrassed silence yields nothing and occasionally there is an equally uncommitted claim to have listened to and liked “everything” (from an unpublished essay, An Unpopular Perspective on Jazz Education).
Like Israels, every year a number I find a number of such students standing before me. So what is going on here? Well, despite the obvious very negative aspects of this situation, Israels believes (and I agree with him) that the student is in fact motivated by something very worthwhile, namely, the ‘idea of the potential pleasures of performing with and for other people, with the attendant rewards of attention and shared activity.’ These are, he notes:
. . . worthwhile values and have served as a part of the motivation of many artists. But this is a broad image which is insufficiently concrete to serve as a focus for attainment. There is no clear place to begin and the mentor is reduced to helping the applicant to find something to love. Get a model. Find a prototype. Without this there is no image and no passion (ibid).
After thirteen years of professional ministerial experience in the United Kingdom I know intimately that people who come to find out about a liberal church tradition, such as the one I serve in Cambridge, are also motivated by many worthwhile things. For example the belief that they will gain here a certain sense of mental and spiritual stability and insight, a sense of belonging to a community with a long and venerable history and lastly, but not leastly, that they will be able to achieve a creative, confident openness to the wonderful, plural, complex and contingent nature of our world. But, as good as all these things are, together they form such a broad canvas that, alone, it is wholly ‘insufficient to serve as a focus for attainment.’ If an individual church or minister allows people to remain at this general level there is simply no clear place for someone to begin to learn how actually to be religious liberally.
Consequently, as mentor – whether as a music teacher or minister – I often find my role is in the first instance simply to help people find something to love, to get a model and find a prototype.
In the case of my music students I have to give them some recordings and then, when they find a particular bass player they actually like, I ask them to come back to me so we can begin the first important step, namely, the task of imitating that model and of figuring out just exactly how he or she is playing the things they are. (If you’re interested, my great female role model was the wonderful Carol Kaye who played bass on many Motown hits of the 1960s as well as on some of the classic Beach Boys recordings.)
To the disappointment of many of my students this turns out to be harder work than they imagined. However, it is absolutely clear that if a student doesn’t get a role model about whose playing they are truly excited then they will have ‘no image and no passion’ and what is already a huge task quickly becomes for them far too difficult to see through to the end. Although the student rightly desires all the fruits of being a jazz player if they never do any of the required foundational work (which includes imitation) then they will turn out to be directionless players with no substantial grip on anything real about the music. At best they will become mediocre players and, at worst, they will simply come to experience feelings of utter frustration, hopelessness and failure. In an attempt to get out of this difficulty one solution, often unconsciously adopted by some of my students, is to begin believing that the really good jazz players have simply had something like ‘magic dust’ sprinkled on them at birth! They foolishly begin to turn their human heroes into little less than gods and themselves into merely second-rate human beings. As we in Unitarian circles know only too well, many religious traditions have turned their own founding figures into something little less than god and, in the case of Jesus, even into ‘God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God’ (Nicene Creed).
It seems to me that all that I have said above about jazz is also true in many Unitarian and Universalist circles. The liberal who merely desires the fruits of a liberal religion but who then fails seriously to follow a religious prototype or model of that faith-in-action will never get a real grip on what they need to be doing themselves in their own liberal religious life. Everything will remain for them terribly unfocused and unfulfilling; there will be no attainment and no progression. At best they will be mediocre in the matter of living a liberal life, at worst they will experience feelings of utter frustration, hopelessness and failure.
It is true, of course, that there are other models or prototypes one might follow rather than Jesus, and I am not making here some covert claim for his absolute uniqueness and value of him over all other great religious teachers. All I am saying is that Jesus is, without doubt, our own particular culture’s primary religious model and, for all kinds of straightforward, sensible historical and cultural reasons, his example remains the best and most obvious place for us to begin to learn how to live a genuinely liberal religious life.
Now, I am aware that some liberals may seek to resist the message of this address because they believe it would tie them down and unduly restrict them. But a model only ties and represses when it becomes absolutely fixed and formalised, merely to be slavishly repeated without any variation and creativity. However, the true model, when taught about appropriately, frees us because it is precisely in the process of modelling ourselves on something tangible that we are helped to be able to push out into the real world to test and experience reality ourselves. In short, the conception of following Jesus I have in mind, and which encourage in the church where I am minister, is much more like the exciting, fruitful and open relationship I continue to have with my musical heroes than it is like the rigid, dogmatic relationship to Jesus envisioned by most Christian orthodoxies.
I try to make it clear that it was only by, in the first instance, imitating my jazz heroes that I was able to learn how to move from a vague idea or theory about how to play jazz to actually playing jazz. By extension, when I then go on to play for them I can also show that, despite all my copying, I don’t today sound like any of my heroes but only like me, Andrew Brown, jazz bass-player.
What is true in the world of jazz is also true in the world of liberal religion but the tragedy of Christianity in its global, institutional, and more conservative and orthodox forms is that it turned, and still turns Jesus from being a startling and inspiring human role model into a dead, dogmatically held metaphysical theory about the world. Standing up (like the child in Dunn’s poem) for this latter kind of Jesus (with an associated slavish support of the institutions that support these theories) is something I remain profoundly uncomfortable about. But, unlike the parents in Dunn’s poem, I try to show that we in our own Unitarian and Universalist traditions are not forced merely to ‘drive on, ride it out and sing in silence’ with this song – no! We can, instead, choose to show our children, ourselves and others another way to stand up for Jesus by singing a different kind of song.
The genius of our shared tradition is found in that over nearly four and a half centuries it has been able consistently to help people to see that when Jesus is followed, as a true human exemplar, this enables a person to begin to experience, not a pale imitation of Jesus’ life nor that of some dogmatic religious institution but, instead, their own beautiful, complex, contingent life in all its fullness and abundance.
It should be clear that the current rise of conservative and fundamentalist Christian ideologies around the world requires us to show that there is, in fact, another way to stand up for Jesus – a way that is liberal and open-hearted and which tends towards, not dogma and coercion but, instead, a genuine love for freedom of conscience and toleration in religion. A way that shows, as Ferenc Dávid once said: “We need not think alike, to love alike.”