There is a joke I have heard told among Christian ministers. At an interdenominational seminary, a new Presbyterian professor of Church History gave an assignment for the first day of class, for each student to come to the course with a three page paper on what they knew of “Church History”. All of the Lutheran students began their papers with the nailing of the 99 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Chapel by Martin Luther. The Episcopalian students began with a King named Henry. All of the Baptist students began with the day they began building their home churches… and the one Unitarian Universalist student’s paper began with the first day he walked into his home church.
I am often amazed by how many of us have understandings of our religious faiths that are divorced from the history in which those faiths have evolved and developed. One of my less gracious moments in my life was early in my months at the U.S. Army Chaplain School, I was having a conversation with an evangelical colleague. In the conversation about the difference between a creed based church and a non-creedal church, I mentioned the Council of Nicea in 325 ad, and he said “What’s the Council of Nicea?”
I inappropriately asked, before I could stop myself, “Just what seminary did you say you attended again?” Once again, my motorboat mouth outran my hummingbird posterior, as my father used to say… Thankfully, it is happening less often, and humility is still the central part of my inner spiritual work.
I came at it the other way, not from religion to history, but from the history to the religion. My bachelor’s degree is in history, with specific study of how Christianity and warfare have intersected. I spent a lot of time studying the Crusades, the Conquest of Latin America, and the Reconquista in Spain. At the time of this study, I was an avowed Deist (with all the egotism towards religion that being a Deist often entails).
I had grown up in a Southern Baptist church for whom “Church History” had ended with the writing of Revelations and begun again when the first bricks were piled together to build a church in Knoxville Tennessee in the late 1800’s. The intervening 1,700 years were unimportant, a mere interlude. Some slight homage was paid to those who had gotten us away from the Catholics, and every once in awhile something called the “Great Awakening” would be wistfully sought to happen again. That was all I knew.
Nothing about how the books of the bible were chosen, except that God somehow mysteriously did it.
Nothing about how the Trinity came to be, except that if you look really closely at certain bible texts and squinted your eyes, the fact of the trinity became apparent.
Nothing about why this Judean reform movement soon became dominated by Greeks and Romans.
Nothing about why we were singing “Onward Christian Soldiers” in honor of a man who had told us to turn the other cheek, and to practice loving kindness, acceptance, and social justice.
By the time I was 20, I believed in none of it. I was just as fundamentalist in my rejection of Christianity as many others are in their rejection of anything but Christianity. Yet I had always been fascinated with history, and so when I chose that as my major in college, I found myself drawn to study the history of this religious movement I thought I had rejected. I had discovered “The Gospel According Thomas Paine” known as The Age of Reason. I began capitalizing the word Reason whenever I wrote about it.
What did Emerson say?… a person will worship something? My personal trinity had become Reason, History, and Liberty.
Yet these three, reason, history, and liberty brought me back from a wholesale rejection of religion, and brought me into a deeper understanding of what religious faith means. In learning the history of the Christian church, I began to see how human Jesus was, how human his followers were, and how human the religion itself is, even if it tries to deny it. I found in the teachings of Jesus a path towards right relationship and beloved community that was missing in my earlier understanding of the faith. I found in the example of his life an example I could model my life upon.
That same fascination with history was my entry into another religious movement, Unitarian Universalism. Through my explorations of Deism and Christianity, I found the writings of William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Hosea Ballou… and especially Theodore Parker. I found a religious tradition that had followed a similar path of struggle with the intersection of reason, history and liberty within the Christian Faith, and had made similar choices. It was history that made a Unitarian Universalist of me.
I am finding I am now walking the same path in my exploration of Zen. If it were just the teachings, I doubt it would capture me… but add the history, of the Buddha, of Dogen, of the religion in China and Japan… and I find myself fascinated.
You can not understand a religion, any religion, by its teachings and practices alone. Religions always rest upon the foundation of their history.
Yours in Faith,