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Theology of Accidents

July 30, 2006

Clay Nelson

A sermon Clay Nelson was invited to preach at the Auckland Unitarian Church on the subject of "universalism".


I don't know if you are surprised or not to have an Anglican priest in the pulpit this morning, but I'm surprised. No, I'm not surprised that I'm in the pulpit of a Unitarian church. It is by no means the first time. No, what surprises me is that I'm here wearing an Anglican collar.


To appreciate my surprise you need to know that when I emigrated to New Zealand from the U.S last August as a political refugee protesting the war in Iraq and the systematic destruction of the American Constitution I was one small step away from being received into fellowship as a Unitarian Universalist Minister and I had spent the last eight years administering 400+ member Unitarian Universalist congregations after 15 years of active ministry as an Episcopal priest.


When I decided to leave America, I put aside dreams of returning to the active ministry in either tradition, so that I'm here dressed as I am is purely by accident.


If I believed in predestination, I'd feel a little like the Presbyterian minister who after finishing a sermon about the graciousness of God fell down the pulpit stairs, got up, dusted himself off and prayed, “Thank God that's behind me.”


While I don't remember it being offered in seminary, I wish there had been a paper on the Theology of Accidents. It would've been invaluable as I have come to understand it as the foundation of my religious beliefs that encompass universalism, which is what I was invited here to preach on.


My premise is that accidents of faith are part of our common humanity. That we call ourselves Anglicans and Unitarians may seem to separate us, but how we denote ourselves is historical and says little about our beliefs today. Those are grounded in what I would call accidents of faith.


The idea for “accidents of faith” came out of a conversation with an Auckland University professor of Computational Biology and Informatics. That means he studies how animals and plants evolved to their present state which requires analyzing immense amount of data that can only be handled by large computers. I asked him if he only studied the past or if he attempted to predict how species might evolve? He shared that predicting evolution is the Holy Grail for scientists like him. He said, it was one thing to study what accidents in nature resulted in changes to a species, predicting what accidents might occur in the future and how they would impact a species' evolution had far too many variables to be calculated at this time.


In the language of faith we can look back easily enough to see what “accidents” in history changed religion or our personal faith, but predicting where we are going in our faith is an open book. All we can say is accidents will happen and our faith will change. This alone is a challenging premise for those who want their faith and their God to be both eternal and unchanging.


An example of the lack of predictability of how faith might evolve would be if Thomas Cranmer, the first Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury were to read my sermons and writings online, he would not recognize any kind of Anglicanism he was familiar with. He might call me a Christian Unitarian after reading my declaration that the Trinity is a dangerous doctince of God or a Christian humanist after reading my belief that the best part of Jesus was that he was just a man. Either way he would consider burning at the stake too good for me. The same is true for you. Michael Servetus, Francis Dávid, Faustus Socinius, John Biddle, Joseph Priestly or even Charles Joy, who conceived of the flaming chalice, would not recognize the beliefs of most of you as being anything close to what they meant by Unitarianism. At best they would see you as atheistic humanists in the line of John Dewey or new age pagans at worst. I suspect this because of a class I taught to Unitarians in the U.S. on the history of Unitarian Universalist thought. Most of the students were appalled at how much of their historic theology was theistic and Christ-centered.


I am an Anglican first because of the accident of birth. I was born the great-grandson and great-great grandson of Southern Baptist preachers. While growing up, my mother hated Sundays. Church was boring and an all day long affair. Her grandfather's sermons were long and tedious in their conservative fundamentalism. When it came time to marry she wanted a very different religious experience. She and my father chose to marry in an Episcopal Church, I think mostly because their services were rarely more than an hour.


The rest of my faith story is shaped by a series of accidents, one after another so that I stand before you as an Anglican priest, but Anglican not because of my beliefs but because Jesus and the Anglican tradition are a part of my story and I am a part of it.


You sit before me as Unitarians not because you would go to the flames with Servetus or die in prison with Dávid rather than acknowledge the Trinity. They are part of your faith story, but accidents of faith have shaped your present beliefs.


An ironic example of evolving faith would be that of Charles Darwin. By accident of birth Charles was born into a Unitarian and Anglican mixed marriage, but in spite of a family full of free thinkers he did not doubt the literal truth of the Bible. He studied Anglican theology to become a clergyman only after neglecting his studies to become the physician his father desired him to be. As luck would have it most naturalists at the time were Anglican clergy who apparently had the time to wander the woods studying God's creation. In his studies he became convinced by William Paley's argument that design in nature proved the existence of God. However, his beliefs began to shift during his time on board HMS Beagle. He questioned what he saw — wondering, for example, at beautiful deep-ocean creatures created where no one could see them, and shuddering at the sight of a wasp paralysing caterpillars as live food for its eggs; he saw the latter as contradicting Paley's vision of beneficent design. While on the Beagle Darwin was quite orthodox and would quote the Bible as an authority on morality, but had come to see through the study of geology the history of creation in the Hebrew scriptures as being false and untrustworthy.


Upon his return, he investigated transmutation of species. He knew that his clerical naturalist friends thought this a bestial heresy undermining miraculous justifications for the social order and knew that such revolutionary ideas were especially unwelcome at a time when the Church of England's established position was under attack from radical Dissenters and atheists — that is, you guys. While secretly developing his theory of natural selection, Darwin even wrote of religion as a tribal survival strategy, though he still believed that God was the ultimate lawgiver. His belief continued to dwindle over time, and with the death of his daughter Annie in 1851, Darwin finally lost all faith in Christianity. He continued to give support to the local church and help with parish work, but on Sundays would go for a walk while his family attended church.


I suppose it is the accidents of faith that led Charles into agnosticism that have made conservative Christians so adamant in their opposition to his theories. They have even gone so far in the US as to build a $25 million natural history museum to support the ideas of Creationism and the inerrancy of scripture while they continue their fight to have Intelligent Design taught as a science alongside Darwin 's theory of evolution in schools.


But I wonder where Darwin 's faith might've ended up if his accidents of faith had included encounters with modern thinkers Karen Armstrong, Lloyd Geering, Don Cupitt, and Jack Spong? Their ideas include seeing God as a supernatural being in a three-tiered universe as a human construct that is no longer valid or useful, the divinity of Jesus being at best a fourth century explanation of his unique human qualities that continue to impact the world, that God was a metaphor for humanity living life without fear and with integrity, loving wastefully, and being fully one with the rest of the creation. Charles might have marveled at how his theories had not killed religion but helped set it free of an oppressive understanding of God.


When I was trained for the ministry I was taught about a God who acts in history, but Karen Armstrong turned my understanding of God on its ear with her book The History of God. If God has a history God has a beginning and an end. What she made clear is that a supernatural understanding of God or gods was born with human consciousness no more than 350,000 years ago. Considering the earth is thought to be 4.5 billion years old and the universe is between 11 and 20 billion years old — give or take a billion, God was born considerably after creation. Nietzsche in the 19th century pronounced the God of history dead, a victim of accidents of faith such as Copernicus and Galileo, Newton and Locke, Spinoza and Hegel, Darwin and Freud. To his announcement God might respond like Mark Twain after the NY Times prematurely published his obituary, “reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” But these accidents of faith laid the groundwork for new thinking about God, a God who was not a supernatural, external being capriciously intervening in human affairs.


If God were dead, one might assume religion would die as well. But some religions exist where God was never born at all such as Confucianism , Buddhism and Ethical Humanism. And New Zealand theologian Lloyd Geering, argues that a Christianity without God is both preferable and possible.


Religions are human and cultural, not divinely ordained. They are a mirror of the best and the worse about us as a species. They can nurture fear or courage, war-mongering or peace-making, division or unity, oppression or liberation, desolation or hope, sickness or health, hate or love. Religion's role is to answer questions about what is ultimate reality and why are we here? Religion is our means of giving purpose and meaning to the brief span of years we call our lives.


Thanks to Darwin many of us now believe ultimate reality is a moving target, ever-changing. Creation was not a single act of the past but is an on-going event in which we are both being created and creating. Our purpose appears to be a willingness to engage that reality, much like going on a journey, traveling light, carrying with us only our capacity to love, to imagine and to create. That is our act of faith. For us God is the metaphor for this journey. One could argue that it will only be with the extinction of our species that this God will die.


It is this common journey — this common “God,” if you will - that unites all religions and belief systems. This is the basis of universalism as I have come to understand it. It is not about common beliefs or a common language or a common story. It is recognizing we are all on the same road, wondering what is around the next bend. No one system has a unique claim to the journey although they may describe it uniquely and some of its adherents may arrogantly claim knowledge of the road's destination. These fellow pilgrims have no theology of accidents to give them pause to question. They are like the male of our species who is genetically incapable of asking for directions. But no one knows where our journey is going, only where we have been. And even in that we took different snapshots of the countryside we passed. Our journals describe different experiences of the same road. It is that recognition that may preserve our species and our God. For it is the worst in religion, religion without a theology of accidents, that may be the undoing of our species. Evidence abounds. Religion is at the root of the destructive chaos in the Middle East and the melting of the polar ice caps. Unabated they may ultimately be God's cause of death. But the best in religion gives me hope. If despite our differing faiths and beliefs, we can encompass a theology of accidents we and “God” may extend a little longer our role in the ongoing evolution of the cosmos.


Unitarians and Universalists are one of my sources of hope. They recognized they were traveling on the same road and were humble enough to recognize that they not only did not know its destination but were helping to determine it, Unitarians and Universalists in the United States were able to merge in 1961 in spite of their differing beliefs, explained famously by Thomas Starr King. “Universalists believe God is too good to damn us, while Unitarians believe we are too good for God to damn.”


By your example I'm not suggesting that faith groups need to merge for our species to survive. In fact, quite the contrary. I think each faith group's experiences along the road provide us with insight and a better understanding of reality. The variety of faith stories enrich us no matter what our personal story is.


What the merger did was create a new reality. You created a microcosm of our universal task. You created a faith community that seeks ways for different faith stories to live in community honouring the common journey. Your experience so far shows us it is not an easy task, but not impossible either. It has created some interesting faith stories that we haven't seen before. In the U.S. it is hard to find a UU minister that doesn't have a hyphenated belief system. At General Assembly no one would be surprised to be introduced to a bi-sexual black-Latina minister who worships the Goddess as a Christian-Buddhist.


I'm not sure what that means but she opens me up to new possibilities and ultimately for me that is one of religion's more important roles.


With that openness my faith journey is not halted when I encounter the next accident of faith: the next Darwin around the corner or learn that humans don't have that many more genes than a worm (our differences being more about what kind of bacteria we host in our bodies) or that we can introduce human brain cells into a mouse giving it a capacity to think to a small degree like us.


With that openness we come to understand that belief systems are less important for their ability to describe the journey than their capacity to help us and our fellow pilgrims survive along the way.


In the language of my Christian story, do our beliefs lead us to act in ways that bring forth the realm of God, the ultimate universal purpose of religion, that Lloyd Geering describes as taking place when:


“there is increasing personal freedom to think and to speak,

the slaves are being freed,

patriarchy is crumbling,

homosexuals are free to 'come out',

weapons of mass destruction are being widely condemned,

racist attitudes are being overcome,

equality of the sexes is being achieved,

the disadvantaged are no longer being ignored,

human worth and values are being increasingly honoured.”


May it be so. If not during our time on the evolutionary stage, may we be an accident of faith that brings it closer.


Namiste and Blessed Be.



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