For or Against - One World Week

A sermon given at the Memorial Church (Unitarian), Cambridge on 21 October 2007

One puzzling problem I remember from my earliest reading of the Gospels was how to reconcile Jesus' two teachings we will hear in full in a little moment. On the one hand Jesus says "who ever is not against you is for you" (Luke 9:50) and, on the other hand, he later says "who ever is not with me is against me" (Luke 11:23).

A common tendency in liberal circles, particularly when addressing difficult sayings, is either to claim that the historical Jesus didn't say them or to run straight to a mystical or spiritualised reading. The first move is always seriously flawed because it hides a claim that it is possible to identify the authentic words of Jesus simply by whether you agree with or understand them or not. But, as with all great spiritual teachers, some of the teachings are hard and obscure and it is likely that we are going to be called to address issues we would really rather avoid and dismiss if we can. The second move, to spiritualise the saying and look for the mystical meaning is much more acceptable but remember that there is an ancient Jewish tradition called PARDES which encourages us to interpret the biblical texts in four ways, the literal or simple, the metaphorical or allegorical, through the use of additional material to help unfold the text and, lastly, the mystical.

Today I'm going assume that Jesus did, in fact, offer these teachings and then I am going to try and tease out from them a simple and practical reading directly relevant to a continually present dilemma that faces all liberal religious communities whether they be Christian, such as ours, or from another faith. The dilemma being faced is how can and should necessarily narrow and relatively particular beliefs and traditions expand to contexts that tend towards greater inclusivity without at the same time loosing a coherent identity on the way?

Some of you know that a thinker I am continually finding helpful is the Norwegian philosopher and ecologist Arne Naess - and here I would like to thank Mishko for introducing me to his work. I'm always trawling through aspects of Naess' work and this week read a 1986 paper called "The Basics of Deep Ecology." The Deep Ecology platform is one I personally support and if anyone wants to know more about that please ask me later - I'll put it up on the blog for sure. Naess' paper is, in part, "an attempt to distinguish a common platform of deep ecology from the fundamental features of philosophies and religions from which the platform is derived" (The Trumpeter Vol. 21, No. 1 p. 61).

He points out that many different philosophies and religions - which make up what Naess calls "level One" - are capable of underwriting the same common platforms. So Christians, Buddhists, Hindu, Muslims, Atheists etc. can all find in their faith rooted reasons to support various platforms such as deep ecology or, say, the various global ethic or religious freedom platforms. Naess calls these common platforms "level Two" activities. "Level Three" is where, on the basis of the common platform and in relation to local conditions and opportunities, actual decisions are made by individuals and groups about what campaigns or actual activities can or should be engaged in. "Level Four" is the getting dirty and actually doing something stage.

It should be relatively obvious to everyone here that "level Two" is where most agreement is found and this is made possible because these platforms are always kept fairly general in expression. However, levels One, Three and Four, being much more specific, are necessarily where significant disagreements become inevitable. But Naess' important point is that the common platforms of "level Two" wouldn't be possible without Level One philosophies holding them them up and giving them deep validity, stability and strength and, without the possibility of working together through levels Three and Four, standing on any common platform would all just be navel gazing (or worse!). I leave for another day matters concerning levels Three and Four.

So, let's turn directly now to Jesus' teaching. If you observe the different contexts in which he offers his teaching you will notice he is referring firstly to level Two activity and then to level One activities. He didn't call this or even think them in such a fashion! Here is Luke 9:46-50 (NRSV):

An argument arose among [the disciples] as to which one of them was the greatest. But Jesus, aware of their inner thoughts, took a little child and put it by his side, and said to them, "Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest." John answered, "Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us." But Jesus said to him, "Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you."
Notice that the man casting out demons is not, in the strict sense of the word, an actual 'follower' of Jesus, that's what irritates the disciples. He is not a member of what they think of their level One activity - namely actually following Jesus, listening to his teachings directly and sharing with him prayer and worship and the joys and sufferings of life. What that man casting out demons has done is recognise that there exists a common platform of that we might call "in Jesus' name." His name summed up certain common norms and hypotheses. In this teaching I think Jesus shows he is acutely aware that people who hold different level one philosophies can underwrite such common norms and hypotheses. Another example of this would be Jesus' story of the Good Samaritan. Anyway, I would argue that what we have here is a developing level two platform and when Jesus says "Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you" he reveals his support for such a platform that includes people who did not believe as he or his disciples did. Now here is Luke 11:17-23 (NRSV):

But he knew what they were thinking and said to them, "Every kingdom divided against itself becomes a desert, and house falls on house. If Satan also is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand? - for you say that I cast out the demons by Beelzebul. Now if I cast out the demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your exorcists cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you. When a strong man, fully armed, guards his castle, his property is safe. But when one stronger than he attacks him and overpowers him, he takes away his armour in which he trusted and divides his plunder. Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.
Here we are witnessing, not a debate about a common platform, but one inside a particular community - figuratively speaking a 'castle' that needs protecting. It's about keeping true to a particular metaphysical or philosophical understanding of God and not about dividing the religion, the kingdom. Jesus is concerned to show that he is able to cast out demons because he has a proper relationship with God and not because he has a relationship with Beelzebul. This is why Jesus says here, "Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters" - he is being a good steward of some fundamental level one philosophical and religious insights that he is not going to let go. But don't get distracted by the actual metaphysical details here, because what I simply want you to note that in this context this is much more about metaphysics and detailed belief than the earlier passage. In short this is level One stuff and here there will always be much more contention and a certain kind of 'narrowness'.

It is worth remembering that many religious groups in this country now thought of as liberal - I think particularly of Unitarians and Quakers - historically held fairly narrow fundamental level one philosophies that were radical and Christian but they were of a type that also encouraged them to support and even start some vitally important common platforms with people who believed very differently to themselves. Their liberalism is an emergent quality. So they were involved in numerous liberal platforms concerned to promote workers and women's rights, they campaigned for the abolition of slavery and for decent public health systems and battled for religious freedom. These platforms were incredibly effective and on them they learnt a great deal about people who were very different from them - they began to respect, even to love, many of them. The level two common platform experience was and is an intoxicating experience and we inherit its fruit. We all agree, we are all one - isn't this marvelous!? And it is - I remember very well the visceral excitement of blockading various nuclear weapons establishments in the '80s standing shoulder to shoulder with people of wildly different faiths and beliefs.

The problem is that many liberals were utterly seduced by this experience and forgot that, like any platform, without considerable support from underneath it simply isn't stable or sustainable. In that forgetting many liberal churches have changed from being religiously committed communities (necessarily 'narrow' in certain respects) to becoming themselves platforms for social justice, religious freedom, ecology or whatever. Remember, don't get me wrong, I think platforms are wonderful and I support many of them and value the diversity of belief found in those who share these platforms with me. But common platforms are not religious communities and they cannot replace them. Props and pillars are narrow things that can be driven deep into the soil. That narrowness and rootedness is what enables platforms to stay on the surface of things. Religious communities are also narrow things that can be driven deep into the soil of the divine and it is the stability gained in that self limitation that, as they emerge above the soil, can help them be such strong support to many common platforms.

I think Jesus was acutely alert to this problem and recognised that am emergent, wider, sustainable, diverse and genuinely liberal common platform is only to be achieved if you can first maintain your own necessarily quite narrow level one philosophies which, in turn, have emergent more widely supporting qualities.

In short, reflecting on Naess' work and Jesus' two sayings, I want to make it clear today that I am increasingly of the opinion that if we really are concerned to encourage true liberalism and commitment to diversity in our wider society - to help build One World - then our first duty is to be pretty strict and disciplined in maintaining our own, necessarily, narrow level one philosophy namely Unitarian Christianity. As long as this 'narrowness' it is kept at the appropriate level (level one) it is not illiberal to say in our churches "whoever is not with us is against us, and whoever does not gather with us scatters." The reason it is not illiberal is because if we don't take time to challenge people who would undermine our own tradition's theological position then we destroy its powerful emergent liberalism and we are left with no strength or will to play our role in supporting wider and more inclusive level two platforms where we can truly say, and truly mean, "whoever is not against us is for us."

Being a follower of Jesus is hard because his teachings always bring us up against the realities of life but the two teachings we have explored today are perhaps amongst the toughest for those of us who self-define as liberals. But, as I noted earlier, it is becoming clearer to me by the day that if we wish to be able to utter strong and inclusive yeses in our world we first have to be able to say some strong and exclusive nos. Alas, this is hard wisdom that comes not come easily nor smoothly.