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All Saints Day

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Saints: the holy ones.  the old word “hallowed” gives us All Hallows Eve (or Halloween), a once new name for an old, old festival that marks the turning of the year toward winter, the diminished days.  Astrologers say that “the veil between the worlds” is thinner at this time, and so people think of their dead.  The early church wisely added to this pattern rather than combatting it.

We sing “For all the saints who from their labors rest . . . .”  Who are these saints?  Traditional theology would say it is all those who died in the faith, having been made holy by their baptism.  But if we are created by a loving God, we are already holy in our making.  And if you don’t believe in a god, don’t you think that all sentient beings deserve respect – and especially those of our own species?

Empathy and concern for the common good seem to be hard to learn in our individualistic society.  One could claim that an interest in the good of the whole is a characteristic for survival from earlier times which is no longer needed.  That is a limited view.  I wish that the barriers between us, the living, might also become thinner, so that we might more easily talk across our differences to discern what is best for all.

Whose Bible?

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I have several large Bibles with commentaries but only two, one King James Version and one Revised Standard Version, which are small enough to carry around.  Both were gifts and both are wearing out at the bindings.  I decided to shop for a portable New Revised Standard Bible (NRSV).  It turned out this translation is out of favor.  The rows of Bibles at Barnes and Noble feature, along with KJV, NIT, NLT, ESV and a few other versions.  I scanned the shelves, closing in on those which were smaller, but none were NRSV.

One such smaller volume in the row turned out to be labeled “The American Patriot’s Bible.”  The WHAT?

This is a puzzling confusion of categories.  I wasn’t willing to pay the $12 to find out what gives this edition the claim to patriotism.  I pictured a focus on the stories of Ezra and Nehemiah, in which the Israelites are trying to make themselves right with God by cleaning up their laws and purifying their blood lines.  Does anyone still give those stories much weight?

I’m proud to be an American, but I can’t figure out what in the Bible connects to that.  There are passages about welcoming the stranger and about caring for widows and orphans that suggest to me some good principles for responsible citizenship.  Is this what the editors have in mind?  When I say I suspect that it is not I reveal my own bias: those who wave the flag of patriotism often have another agenda.

Perhaps this “Patriot’s Bible” makes the claim that America is, or was, or should be a “Christian nation.”  Christian reformers have been a force for good in our history, but they are not the whole story.

I’ll stop at that and let the reader ponder what an “American Patriot’s Bible” might be, while I continue my search for a portable NRSV Bible for use when I travel.

What is Nature? (From the Biography)

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In November 1900, John Emerson Roberts had begun his fourth year as an independent freethought preacher, speaking on Sunday mornings in theaters.  He was beginning to be noticed beyond Kansas City.  A nationwide network, the American Secular Union and Freethought Federation, invited him to speak at their conference in Cincinnati, Ohio.  This was a great opportunity to make his views widely known.

            Roberts chose for his topic “This Natural World of Ours.” As reported the following month in The Truth Seeker, this speech shows that Roberts is still as reverent as any minister. He has transferred his reverence to nature, the “sublime” discoveries of astronomy, and the gradual revelation of the universe as an “ordered whole.” As he has done before, Roberts faults Christianity for condemning the world as evil. If God lost the world to the devil, he argues, this makes God the creator a failure. He speaks harshly of medieval piety:

“Within the cloister, the sanctuary and the cell, with bleeding knees on floors of stone, crouched and cowed the saints in terror. With aching bones, exhausted bodies, tortured nerves and disordered brains, they were visited by visions of horror. Those hideous dreams were called revelations from God, and have come down to us as theology.”

The true secularists among the audience would have enjoyed this immensely. It is not clear whether all would have agreed with where Roberts goes next. He makes a general argument that the world is divine. He sees only two possibilities: either the world was created, in which case it must reflect its creator and that creator’s divinity, or it was not. If it was not created, then the natural world “is eternal, self-existent, intelligent and self-sufficient. Can God be more than that?” Either way, he asserts, the world is divine.

After some additional arguments against old Christian views, Roberts personifies the natural world as mother:

“The faithful world pays the strictest and most minute attention to the least and humblest thing, and treats it with the same dignity that she does the largest and greatest things, the worm, the bird, is as much provided for in the intelligent plan of nature as is any rational being . . . Moreover the laws of nature are moral. They exist in the interest of the health and well-being of man.”

Having lifted up nature, Roberts goes on to challenge the Christian view of heaven.   He asks, “Can it be that the dream of the beautiful world beyond was the gambler’s dream of something for nothing, or the visionary’s dream of sudden wealth?” A world that was not earned would be immoral. He concludes:

“There is an eternal law of exactness and compensation whereby the great world gives back to every one in equal measure and undiminished what each one gives to the world. If we knew this world and kept its laws we should find that sickness and disease, deformity, weakness of will, and poverty were unnecessary, and we should look upon them as disgraceful just as we look upon crime. If we knew this world and kept faith with it we should make our heaven here and ask for none here or anywhere that we did not make.”

Another speaker at this conference was Clarence Darrow.  Both men were paid $25 for their efforts.  Roberts and Darrow began an acquaintance that lasted for decades.  That is another part of the story told in the biography.

Excerpts are from John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date’ Freethought Preacher, which is available from Amazon, through ERYBooks.  Or use the contact page to order directly from the author.

A Freethinker’s View of Women: From the Biography

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John Emerson Roberts was “Kansas City’s up-to-date freethought preacher” partly because he was an avid reader.  He readily absorbed new ideas and included them in his lectures.  One example of this is a lecture he gave in 1900 was called “Woman and Modern Religion.”

            The lecture claims that the Bible and Christianity have been the cause of the debasement of women.  Like many of Roberts’s lectures, this is arranged as a historical progression.  He begins with recent theories about the power of women in ancient societies, citing stories about Egypt, Rome, China and Zuni tribes as fact.  In each he finds a queen or a priestess with significant power.  He summarizes his view of the ancient past:

“The pagan philosophy that recognized the natural superiority of woman must have proceeded in the most rational way.  It looked upon her as the mother, the creator, and the preserver of man and of his world.  Man knew then as we know now that civilization began with the mother. All progress in this world is led forward by the divine guide, love.  Woman was the lover first; man was the fighter.”

Acknowledging that no one can explain how the matriarchal era was replaced by patriarchy, Roberts goes on to describe the patriarchal attitudes found in the Bible.  He declares it “the charter of masculine tyranny” and “the instrument that has forged chains for the enslavement of woman.”  Because of the Eve story, theology has made woman the cause of all sin.  He mentions the Levitical rules of cleansing after childbirth: 40 days for a son, 80 for a daughter.  He asserts, “The New Testament makes no advance toward the elevation of woman.  Jesus seems to have no regard for woman.”

Roberts continues his history with a tirade against the middle ages, one of his recurring themes:  He calls them “a period of a thousand years that has never been paralleled in the history of mankind for its debauchery, its superstition, its intellectual vagaries, its frightful and nameless criminal practices.”

            The concluding section of this lecture is a paean in praise of motherhood.  Roberts speaks of “the mother” but he is surely drawing from his own recollection, either of his own mother, who died in 1885, or perhaps from the example of other mothers, such as Josephine Parks, his second wife’s mother, who had lived with them:

.” . . .when I remember how all we are we owe to her, how in the glad and happy time she sang as she rocked our cradle, knitting or mending or sewing while under the inspiration of a chaste and holy love; when I remember how in the wayward and unthinking years of childhood and youth it was the mother whose love was never overtaxed, it was the mother whose arms were ever open with forgiveness in her heart; when I remember how she toiled and toiled that we might have a little better chance in this world than had come to her; when I remember how she grew old and white haired and wrinkled and wan and feeble with the patient and uncomplaining toil of many years and how we folded at last her cold hands in peace across the loving breast; how the smile, even after death’s cold touch illuminated her face like a halo from the home of God; when I remember the mother, I can worship the best by paying the homage of my honor, my respect, and my love to the motherhood of this world.”

Motherhood, as described here, was a nineteenth century concept.  It developed alongside the new idea that childhood is a special stage of life..  This idealization had little to do with equality or real power.  Roberts apparently did not see the difference between this admiration of motherhood and the matriarchies which he believed characterized the ancient world.

When Roberts spoke the idea that ancient societies were matriarchal was widely accepted.  Later scholarship has concluded that this idea was a figment of nineteenth century imagination.  The idea appealed to Roberts because it made an excellent contrast to Christian, and especially medieval, patriarchy.  The seriousness of the offense, in his view, would not be called into question by the error in his starting point.

 

Excerpts are from John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date’ Freethought Preacher, which is available from Amazon, through ERYBooks.  Or use the contact page to order directly.

Up-to-date In Kansas City: From the Biography

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At the end of the nineteenth century, Kansas City was an exciting place to be.  Businessmen were optimistic, having survived a local real estate bust in the 1880s and the national economic crisis of 1893.  John Emerson Roberts’s “Church of This World” fit right in with the sense of progress.

People back in Michigan, where Roberts had grown up and where he returned each summer, took notice of his success.  In a long interview reported in the Grand Rapids Herald, Roberts was asked about his church.  He responded:

“We don’t deal with anything of which we have no knowledge. We have quit fooling with phantoms and ghosts and the future. We are satisfied to live in this world and to study life here rather than what we are to enjoy hereafter. We don’t lie about what we don’t know. As for prayer and that sort of thing, I can’t see any occasion for it. Christ never prayed in public.”

When the reporter suggested that the Gospel of John indicates otherwise, Roberts argued that that book was written long after the events, and that the writer had no personal experience of the case.  At the end of his article the interviewer referred to Roberts as “the Kansas City up-to-date minister.”

            In 1900, Kansas City was “up to date,” a phrase widely used at the time, in a number of ways. The “skyscraper” celebrated as “seven stories high” in Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics for Oklahoma was actually ten stories tall. It was the New YorkLifeBuilding at 20 W.    Ninth Street. A few other buildings had reached eight stories by 1900. The city’s boosters were eager to make a national impression. They persuaded the Democratic Convention to meet there in July, in the Convention Hall they had built with private money the year before. They got more attention than they expected. Convention Hall burned down in April. A campaign began immediately to rebuild. City leaders assured the Democratic Party that the work would be done in time and it was—just barely. The convention itself brought in plenty of business but it was not an exciting event: The nomination of William Jennings Bryan was a foregone conclusion.

 

The excerpts above are from John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher (Xlibris, 2011).  For more information, see the Books page or contact me.

A Pure Beginning: Reflections and Poem

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In the nineteenth century, when John Emerson Roberts was a liberal preacher, there were many people who believed in an original “pure” Christianity, before things got messed up with doctrines and debates and rules.  One such person was Alexander Campbell, whose follower were first called “Campbellites.” They eventually became the denomination Christian Church/Disciples of Christ.  Another case was that of Joseph Smith; he  avoided creating one more denomination among many by developing a whole new Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

In the twentieth century there was another kind of belief in an original Christianity as feminist scholars like Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza gathered together clues of the roles of women in early Church communities, before the bishops made them second class members.

Current scholars recognize plenty of evidence that there was no original “pure” Christianity.  The letters of Paul reflect lots of discord: “You shouldn’t eat that!”  “You shouldn’t do that!”  “My way or the highway!”  In fact, the writer of the Acts of the Apostleswhom we call Luke may have been the first to imagine a state that never existed, one of harmony and agreement among all.

What I imagine in the early church is a stronger fellowship.  But it may be that strong fellowship requires a common danger.  Those who see “true Christianity” as beleaguered in today’s “secular” culture, probably are able to build such fellowship more easily than others.  Here’s my image of then and now:

Twilight

The half-light of half-learned lessons
cuts us off from elders
of the sharp-edged pagan years.
Outlined by evening sky
they walk toward prayer,
leaning over their lamps.
By flickering light they stand
in corners cut in damp earth
holding each other tall.

Old story told once more,
we rise from cushioned pews,
let fall each other, uninstructed
in the catch of shifting weight.
Shadows of wistful wishes wax
in failing light.   The dark
is out there.  Who can teach
the bending into it?

I don’t recall what darkness concerned me when I wrote this poem.  Perhaps I was just discovering that darkness is a part of life, not to be avoided.  I learned through dance that catching one who falls can be taught; we were also taught how to allow ourselves to be caught.  It’s the same with emotional support – we can learn to give and to receive, but it is something we do need to learn.

Thanks to Allen Matlins for returning this poem to the light by posting it on his blog last November.  It was published in Christian Century in 1983.  Rediscovering it has led me to look at other poems I wrote about that time, to ponder how things and people change over time, and to find several which are still “good enough to share.”

Popular Preacher, Part II: Rhetoric and Religion

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When John Emerson Roberts did his five part series on The Inevitable Surrender of Orthodoxy, he set up a series of parallels, a good rhetorical device.  The second sermon was on “Two Gods” the God of vengeance and the God of mercy.  The third sermon, on “Two Bibles,” contrasted the Bible, valuable as a record of human development, with the natural universe, “the only book God ever wrote.”  The fourth sermon, “Two Plans” he used mostly as an excuse to discuss and dismiss old ideas of the atonement.  “The necessity of an atonement disappears with the old idea of a capricious and changeable God,” he concluded, ignoring his own earlier comments on a God of judgment vs. a God of mercy.  A rhetorical flourish.

Only in the final sermon of this five-sermon set did Roberts turn to more positive thoughts.  It’s another parallel, this time between Jesus and Voltaire.  This idea was not new with Roberts; he borrowed it from Victor Hugo, who had spoken on the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of Voltaire’s death in 1878.  In fact, a good third of the sermon is straight from Hugo, though Roberts does not admit it.  This is normal for preachers; they are not required to identify their sources.

Voltaire was a popular freethought hero in the United States in the second half of the 19th century.  Born Francois Marie Aroeut in 1694, he was a poet, playwright and philosopher who challenged authority at every turn.  He wrote satires about church and society.  Of his works, one that survives today is Candide – in large part because Leonard Bernstein made an opera out of it.

One hundred years ago Voltaire was much better known:
●  In 1866, Voltairine de Cleyre was named after him.  After enduring education in a convent (her parents thought it was the best education available to a young woman) she became an atheist and an anarchist.
●  In 1879, the Music Hall was built in Chicago partly to provide a platform for David Swing, a liberal preacher who had left the Presbyterian denomination.  Voltaire’s bust was included along with those of Moses, Mozart and other heroes of faith and music.
●  Clarence Darrow, who had admired Voltaire since his youth, found him a profitable lecture topic in the early 20th century.

Roberts begins his discussion of Voltaire with a strong metaphor:  “The plain is habitable because the mountain is beyond,” he says, and continues:

Voltaire was the mountain.  Rugged, defiant, implacable, lightning-scarred, storm-enveloped, immovable, august, sublime, he towered above Europe and the eighteenth century with unspeakable scorn for superstition, secular or sacred, and with unquenchable devotion to reason and light.  Kings exiled him.  Police officers arrested him.  Bastilles and prisons confined him.  Ignorance hated him.  Superstition execrated him.  The priesthood denounced him. . . .

What has this to do with Jesus?

There are of necessity two kinds of prophets.  One shows the way to heaven, that is to moral health, to sanity, to a consisten and reasonable faith and to kindness toward men and reverence toward God
Such was Jesus, and such are all great souls who, from the spirt and genius of the world of matter and of man, imbibe the thought of God.

Voltaire is another kind of prophet, one of those “whose visions disclose the abyss towards which the unreasoning haste.”  Roberts’s argument requires the assumption that religion in Voltaire’s time had reached a very low point.  Voltaire, Roberts says, “rescued it from ecclesiastical asphyxiation and gave it light and air.”

After going at length into the contrast of Jesus and Voltaire as two types of prophet, Roberts brings them back together:

The church in all ages has put dogma first, charity and tolerance last.  Christianity today is dogma plus all the virtues that support the social order.  Jesus reversed that method.  Voltair reversed that method.  Jesus was called in his own day a heretic, and would be called a heretic now.  Voltaire was called a heretic, and would be called a heretic now.  But God sends such heretics among men to sweeten life, to establish justice, to illuminate the true, the beautiful and the good, to plead for humanity and for God and prevent religion from perishing from the earth.

Roberts was carried away by his own rhetoric, and so was his congregation.  He filled a 500 seat sanctuary with his sermons.  It is quite a stretch to call Jesus a heretic, since the Judaism of his time was both varied and non-dogmatic; the charge of heresy requires a single controlling authority.  Roberts is reading back from his own experience and his own era.  There is, however, some truth in his claims.  Christianity has always been at risk of becoming a prop for the status quo: “dogma plus all the virtues that support the social order.”  Roberts seems to be putting his hope in a new Voltaire, rather than a prophet like Jesus.

This post is an expansion of material in John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s ‘Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher.

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