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Herb Rothschild Jr.: Hope banishes despair

In my last column I focused on the cosmic powers of this present darkness. Given the rhythm of the seasons — I’m writing this one on the first day of spring — it seems only right to share my hope that our struggle to transform those political, economic, and cultural powers into life-enhancing forces won’t be in vain.

Unitarian Universalists aren’t asked to ascribe to a religious creed. Instead, they are bonded by seven principles — including the inherent worth of every person and a free and responsible search for meaning — general enough to warrant universal affirmation. Consequently, members hold a wide variety of specific beliefs about such matters as the existence of a dimension of reality that transcends the material world.

In cities such as Ashland that have only one UU congregation, this variety of beliefs co-exists. In larger cities that have several congregations, to an extent people gravitate to the ones where their beliefs predominate. Thus, UU congregations may vary in character.

One congregation in Houston was predominantly humanistic. Most of its members were secular humanists, but some were open to the possibility of spiritual reality. They had no minister; instead, they paid honoraria to guest speakers at their Sunday services. Several times I was invited to speak. Given that I believe in spiritual reality, I sought opportunities in my talks to suggest that such a belief is intellectually defensible. Once I was asked to speak on Easter Sunday, so I decided to challenge myself by focusing on the resurrection, which I assumed almost all the congregation regarded as the equivalent of a fairy tale.

I drew on John Shelby Spong’s book on the subject. From 1979 to 2000 Spong was the Episcopalian Bishop of Newark; in retirement he has continued to advance liberal Christianity. That is, with Joan Chittister, John Dominick Crossan, the late Marcus Borg and others, he has undertaken a fundamental re-thinking of Christianity. Eschewing the doctrines that developed long after Jesus lived, doctrines that formed the basis of institutional orthodoxy, liberal theologians focus on the various ways the early followers of Jesus tried to understand his ministry and death.

Jesus’ execution was potentially a death blow to whatever movement his followers thought he was leading (there are indications in the biblical writings of considerable disagreement on that score). They scattered in fear. But later — how many weeks or months we don’t know — they experienced something that transformed them from frightened and discouraged individuals to a self-confident and mobilized community.

What that something was we can’t be sure. The four canonical gospel writers talk about it in different ways as they try to express its power. Eventually it became codified as a factual event — Jesus rose from the dead on the third day. But as Spong emphasizes, the historicizing of the resurrection robs it of its power. If we cannot experience the resurrection in our own lives, there is no triumph over death.

Optimism and pessimism are mutually exclusive. They can differ because they’re based on equally shallow encounters with human reality. Hope and despair are inextricably bound, because they emerge from the same deep and unflinching grasp of our condition. Hope is the continual transformation of despair through the experience of mutual forgiveness and love. It frees us from the internalized powers of this present darkness, and joins us in collective struggle against their external manifestations.

Happy Easter.

Herb Rothschild's column appears in the Tidings every Saturday.