Speaker: Rev. Carolyn R. Brown
Religion deals with the big questions. Really big questions. Why are we here?
What is life about? Why is there evil? What is the purpose we are to fill during
our lives? What happens after death? Where is our salvation? Which came first?
The questions or the answers.
Today I’m going to tell a story of religious people looking for answers. It’s a story
of the early Christian church losing its influence to the bureaucracy. It’s a story of
later theologians interpreting events to fit their needs to control the people. It’s
the story of the origins of the doctrines of original sin and atonement. It includes
a combination of question/answer and answer/question developed over fifteen
hundred years.The end result has led to some religious doctrines that have
harmed millions of people and comforted millions of people.
The background for our story comes from the Old Testament Garden of Eden tale
of Adam and Eve eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God
had provided them with a perfect life and asked only that they did not eat from
this tree. When they did, God threw them out of the garden and punished them
with a future of hard work and pain. From this biblical account came the idea that
all humanity is born in sin, all humanity is alienated from God.
At the beginning of the story we have Jesus, a Jewish teacher, riding toward
Jerusalem for the Passover feast. His reputation precedes him, his reported
miracles, his healing message of love, mercy and forgiveness and his exemplary
life. Riding a donkey, he entered the city as a misbegotten possible Messiah.
For the scriptures had pictured a warrior messiah. How could this Jesus and his
band of misfits overpower the enemy because his God was stronger than their
You know that Jesus was a threat to the establishment, was tried, convicted and
sentenced to the death of a common criminal. His followers remembered his
message and believed it was the real thing, so they continued in his footsteps.
They were also persecuted and the early church was an underground movement.
As it gained strength, the leaders tried to develop a positive, life-sustaining
message out of the events surrounding his death, which led to the doctrine of
You can hear it in the Nicene Creed, written in 325 of the common era, which
reads “Jesus, who for us and for our salvation, came down, took flesh, was made
man; and suffered.” To understand the importance of the development of this
creed, I suggest reading the book “When Jesus Became God” by Richard E.
Augustine developed this idea further in the fifth century, commenting on the
significance of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem: “The master of humility is Christ who
humbled himself and became obedient even to death, even the death of the
cross.” Augustine believed that death was not natural, but punishment for the
sins of Adam and Eve. John Shelby Spong writes that this promoted the idea of
Jesus as rescuer.
The full answer of how “Jesus saves,” which is seen on small signs as we drive
throughout our country, wasn’t fully developed until the Council of Trent in the
sixteenth century. The “Decree on Justification” condemned the view of the 5th
century theologian, Pelagius, who denied the existence of original sin. The
Doctrine of Atonement was finally fully developed. John Dominic Crossan, my
favorite Jesus Seminar scholar, called Atonement “the most unfortunately
successful idea in the history of Christian thought.”
Here is the doctrine in brief thanks to Van Harvey’s Handbook of Theological
“Humankind, since Adam, has been born in sin, which is an affront to the
infinite majesty and honor of God. Such an affront requires an infinite
satisfaction. (I assume the word satisfaction here means punishment.) But
since no creature can offer such satisfaction, God himself must offer [or
accept] it, although in human form since it is on behalf of humanity.
Therefore, Jesus took upon himself the punishment properly due humankind
and thus satisfied God’s just demands.” In short, Jesus died for the sins of
the world. Those who believe in him, would, through him, achieve
everlasting life. In this structure, salvation has changed and is now
understood as the deliverance from a sinful or fallen state into a redeemed
or “saved” one.” (Barbara Tubbiano)
Christianity has held this doctrine in its entirety for over four centuries. It creates
a religious system that emphasizes the death of Jesus rather than his life, rather
than his teachings and his example of love and compassion to all people,
regardless of their status in life. Our Unitarian and Universalist forbears saw the
importance of concentrating on the life and teachings of Jesus. You have
probably heard the comment that the religion of Jesus is preferable to the religion
about Jesus. Jesus himself never taught the doctrine of atonement as the
meaning of his life.
I grew up in an evangelical church and was taught the doctrine of atonement and
original sin. I accepted that I was born a sinner and made many attempts to find
salvation through being born again experiences. But I abandoned belief in
original sin when my first niece was born about 40 years ago. As I held her in my
arms in a soft pink blanket, and smelled that wonderful clean baby smell and
touched the smooth new skin of her round face, I could not imagine how anyone
could assert that she had been born in sin. She was pure innocence, pure positive
I began a lifelong study of religion during my twenties, sometimes in college,
sometimes on my own and since 1973 within the community of our liberal
religion. During my studies at New York University, I lost faith in the image of a
God who required the sacrifice of Jesus in order to redeem mankind from eternal
suffering. Reading the books of Paul Tillich, gave me an entirely different view of
how my universe worked. I abandoned my old ideas of God.
John Shelby Spong, the retired Episcopal bishop whose books are read widely by
Unitarian Universalists writes in Why Christianity Must Change Or Die:
“I would choose to loathe rather than to worship a deity who required the
sacrifice of his son… We humans do not live in sin. We are not born in sin.
We do not need to have the stain of our original sin washed away in
baptism. We are not fallen creatures who will lose salvation if we are not
There was a letter to the editor of Newsweek this week in response to their recent
issue on “Spirituality:” It read in part: “How sad that in the 21st century the vast
majority of Americans haven’t evolved beyond believing in magical and unproved
Bishop Spong explains this:
“The language of original sin and atonement has emanated from Christian
circles for so long that it has achieved the status of a sacred mantra. This
means that it cannot be questioned, nor does its basic structure stand in
need of any further explanation. In the light of new circumstances, it is
merely adjusted, never reconsidered. Yet, upon closer inspection, these
sacred concepts involve us in a view of human life that is no longer
operative, a theistic understanding of God articulated in a form that is all but
repulsive, a magical view of Jesus that violates our minds, and the practical
necessity for the Church to elicit guilt as a prerequisite to conversion…” p.
I found a story that reflects the dilemma of 21st century religious people who
were trained in these orthodox doctrines we’ve talked about so far. This came
from a newsletter column by the Rev. Bruce Southworth:
“Recently, as I returned from the supermarket with three bags of groceries
in hand, I stopped at 35th and Park for a “Don’t Walk” sign. I put the bags
down to rest a moment…It was Labor Day and quiet on the streets with
little traffic and few pedestrians. As I waited for the traffic light to change I
was startled by the sound of a sudden whoosh of air and a sharp thud.
As I looked around I couldn’t see anything unusual at first. But then across
the street near the corner [I spotted a large] book, with a brown-orange
cover — a dangerous projectile, to say the least.
I stared upward to see if anything else were on its way. No one appeared.
No more books came flying out. All was quiet again…as I scanned the
building for some clue.
I crossed over to get a better look at this curious volume. The title…was
printed in large capital letters: ORTHODOXY. My imagination went to work:
Orthodoxy had been thrown out the window! I too have done that on many
occasions…Our Unitarian Universalist heritage and religious faith encourage
us to exercise freedom of belief and celebrate many paths of spiritual
growth. Humanity is too diverse and too wonderfully imaginative to be
compressed into one mold or creed.
I looked up again, hoping to see someone and to say, “Come visit our
church across the street! There’s a diverse community for you with a rich
tradition and a life-affirming faith. Keep the best of what has nurtured you,
but come explore with us!” But no one appeared, and the mystery [about
Orthodoxy flying out the window on that street corner] remains….”
In the late eighteenth century, Universalist minister, the Rev. Hosea Ballou wrote
in A Treatise On Atonement that he rejected the notion that people will only do
good works if threatened with eternal damnation for doing evil actions. Ballou
goes on to say that atonement has to do with how we repair the harm done to
one another in the here and now, how we make it right. He said salvation has
nothing to do with being saved from eternal damnation when we die; he believed
that we carry guilt from the hells, the harm, we have caused in the here and now,
and the only atonement, or salvation, is how we make amends with those we
have harmed in the here and now. This is our heritage, our break from dogma.
After we throw Orthodoxy out the window we experience the discomfort of
standing in the questions. Our liberal faith does not give us answers to those big
questions I mentioned at the beginning of this sermon. But together we learn
along the path each of us chooses that we share common ground in many
religious matters. First of all, we hold that each human is born free from sin,
born in innocence with possibilities for growth and development limited only by
outside events. We affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person.
Second, we hold that revelation is not sealed but continues to unfold as we
practice our free and responsible search for truth and meaning. We are not tied
to dogma that no longer works in the 21st century, dogma that was created when
learned peoples believed in a three tiered universe, and that the world was flat
and the perceived center of the solar system.
We hold that we are bound in a web of connections with all that is, with all of
humanity and all of nature, with the smallest particle and the vast stretches of
space beyond imagining. These connections make everything we do important,
for every choice we make echoes with meaning and matters profoundly.
These inclusive and compassionate ideas need to be heard today by all who are
disappointed or cynical or discouraged, those feeling tired, those who are looking
for hope. Those who want to find a way to work for justice and peace, those who
want to raise their children in community, those who seek a spiritual home.
The title of this sermon is misleading. It would have been clearer had I said no
“traditional” saving grace required. For this church offers “salvation” to those who
enter here, but not the traditional kind described above. When we think of
salvation we often think of wholeness. The word salvation comes from the Latin
salvas, meaning to heal and make whole. In this sense, we all seek salvation,
healing each other’s wounds and moving towards wholeness. The power of this
salvation is not to lift us out of the world, out of life, but to plunge us more deeply
Living with forgiveness and compassion, loving our neighbors as ourselves, we
continue to improve our human relations and build religious community.
Our next work is to invite the larger community around us to join us.