Understanding Evangelical Christianity

Eric Hepburn

Sunday, May 25, 2008

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A wise person once said to me, you get to choose how to live, and there are basically two choices, you can choose to be right or you can choose to be peaceful.

The more I have reflected on this the more clear it has become that choosing to be right is about ego, while choosing to be peaceful is about wisdom.

Peace be with you.

Let us join together in song.


How can we become more compassionate?

It is helpful to think of a generic situation where you are engaged with another person.

You perceive their actions, and from this perception you normally confer onto them motives and thoughts.

It is by these motives and thoughts, which we have imagined, that we determine how we will react to their action.

One form of compassion happens when we are clear and honest about the actions of others, but kind and generous when we infer thought and motive.

There is an expression for this in English, it is called ‘giving the benefit of the doubt.’

One way to cultivate our capacity for giving the benefit of the doubt is to keep in mind that we do not know what others are thinking.

Another way is to confer to others a range of possible thoughts or motives, and to be intentional when we treat them as if their motives are the noblest ones.

One of the side effects of this practice, is the way that it helps and encourages others to live up to the generosity of your interpretations.

Let us pray this morning that we can learn to become masters at giving others the benefit of the doubt.

Sermon: Understanding Evangelical Christianity

My first chosen religion was evangelical Christianity, I was a holy roller, I sang and danced and spoke in tongues, and I shouted Amen, whenever I was moved. My second chosen religion was Atheism, I was a professional skeptic and debunker, proud in my claims not to believe in anything that hadn’t been proven. And now my chosen religion, they say the third times a charm, well my chosen religion now doesn’t have a name, I attend this Unitarian Universalist church and I stand in this pulpit from time to time, I search for the truth, and I am honored that you have agreed to spend this morning with me so that I can share some thoughts with you about this journey.

In the home where I grew up religion was not a serious issue. We subscribed to the pedestrian mainstream American view that Christianity was true, but that you didn’t have to go to Church to be a good person, and good people go to heaven, which is important, because hell is not a very nice place.

During my childhood I spent summers with my maternal grandparents. When I was twelve they moved back to rural Illinois where our extended family lived. My Great-Uncle Web was a preacher at a Free-Will Pentecostal Church there, and since all my cousins who were my age went to Church three times a week, I wanted to go with them.

Now, I had been to Church before, but I had never seen a Church like this. I don’t think I will ever forget the first time that I saw someone speak in tongues. I didn’t have to wait long, it was about seven minutes into my first service when my Great-Aunt Rose got to her feet and began making noises not unlike ululation at first, and then transforming into a kind of wailing string of syllables. It was eerie and a little frightening, but by the end of that service, I knew that this wasn’t just an eccentricity of my Aunt Rose, but a normal part of how these people, many of them my family, worshiped.

Three weeks later I was saved, the next week I received the spirit of the Holy Ghost and spoke in tongues for the first time, later that summer I received the gift of healing and performed a faith healing on my great-grandmother’s chronic headaches, which she swore lasted a whole week. I also participated in casting out my first demon that summer, it was a spirit of man-hating in a young woman in the congregation who had been abandoned by her father, and who later went on to marry one of my cousins. As the summer drew to a close, I became concerned about how I was going to continue ‘walking in the light’ when I returned home. My uncle’s Church didn’t have any affiliates in my area, but he assured me that if I prayed and searched, God would find me a home congregation.

I returned home, filled with hope, not only of finding a spiritual community, but of rescuing my family from their religious malaise and bringing them once more under the direct protection of Jesus Christ. Both of these quests were disastrous. My family rejected my evangelical advances and my search for a local congregation was even worse, I was told by many ministers and preachers that speaking in tongues was wrong, that it was a misinterpretation of scripture, that it was even the work of the devil. This practice of Speaking in tongues had become central to my way of worship, as had dancing in the spirit, and raising my hands in the air, and shouting Amen when something the preacher said really resonated with me. Sitting quietly and listening to someone talk, standing still with a hymnal in hand singing dirges, I couldn’t reconcile these methods with my desire to worship and glorify God. I searched, and after a while I stopped searching, I read my Bible, and after a while I stopped reading, I worried about my salvation, and after a while, I stopped worrying.

My life became much as it had always been and when I returned to my Grandparents’ home the summer of my 14th year, I inititialy refused the invitations to go to Church, I didn’t want to repeat the cycle, I preferred to forgo the ecstatic experiences of church to avoid the pain of losing them again. And I also felt let-down by God because I believed that he had not helped me to find a home congregation.

But it didn’t last long, a month maybe, and I was back at Church, on my knees weeping, asking forgiveness for my failure to stay on the path. So I sang, and I danced, and I shouted Amen, and I spoke in tongues. And this time when I went home, I didn’t struggle. I rendered unto Caesar the things which were Caesar’s, and unto God the things that were God’s. In this case, the God that I worshiped was in rural Illinois and my normal life; school, immediate family, friends, these things belonged to the secular world of Caesar. That was my last summer in the Church.

Religion once again became a non-issue in my daily world, but that all changed during my first semester at college. I was taking a philosophy course on contemporary moral issues, and when the topic of homosexuality came up, the quiet (or sometimes not so quiet) bigotry of rural Christianity was waiting there in the back of my brain, ready to argue the point of why homosexuality was wrong. I bolstered my claims with biology, with logic, with everything but the kitchen sink. But when the professor asked me what was wrong with two people loving each other, with two people wanting to be each others’ best friends and helpmates, I had no answer. Like most people who had never actually known or been friends with any gay people, I was all focused on the sex act. Once I was forced to step beyond the bedroom into the world of life, where people love each other, where people care for each other, and where sex is simply a physical expression of that love, I was left without a leg to stand on. On that day, in that class period, I abandoned the God of rural Illinois, I publicly changed my position on homosexuality, apologized if I had offended anyone, and began to self-identify as an atheist. Because my professor was right, hate and intolerance are incompatible with love. And I knew then that Love and justice were more important to me than the God of the Bible, than the God of rural Illinois.

I spent the next few months reading psychology texts and talking with people, trying to reframe my religious experiences into this new atheistic framework. I rewrote my narrative of those years using terms like: social pressure, group think, and brainwashing. I researched the Bible critically, embracing a deconstruction of both the text and the life of Jesus. I believed that I had been duped, that I had been sold a Santa Claus type lie, the only consolation was that the people who sold it had believed it to be true. In reality, this simply increased my feelings of condescension toward grown-ups who had failed to realize that the Jesus story was just another myth. I patted myself on the back for being smarter than they were.

Luckily for me, my journey was not over. It took two other mentors to help me find a deeper and more honest view of the truths of those years. The first one was a Sociology professor named Lonn Lanza-Kaduce. He issued a challenge at the beginning of his Sociology of Law course. He said that anyone can read a theory and tear it apart and find all of its weak points; deconstruction is easy. What is hard, he said, and more rewarding, is to give each author their strongest possible reading. What problems or issues is the author most concerned with? What truth or truths are they trying to deal with? As a reader, can you give the author the benefit of the doubt and confront him on his strongest ground, instead of searching for his weaknesses. It was a serious challenge and it had a profound impact on the tenor of the class, every week we had serious discussions about the merits and strengths of different theories and we looked at how different theories actually addressed different domains of problems, and how much of the criticism that was written about them was really missing the point. We learned how to build better theories.

The second influence was Dr. David Hackett, a religion professor, I took the Sociology of Religion course primarily as a way to improve my background knowledge and debating skill when I challenged the evangelical literalist Christian missionaries who regularly visit college campuses with their confrontational style of ministry. It had become a favorite pastime of mine to spend hours in the middle of the day debating them, challenging them, winning over the crowd. I wish I could say that I had done it with love, I wish I could say that it had meant more to me at the time than winning the debate, in the background was always this justification of keeping them from preying on students’ insecurities and feeding them lies, but, in reality I knew that I was preaching to the choir. My sparring with them was about my own ego, my need to show my superiority, so I got what I deserved when I took this Sociology of Religion course.

When I found out that the professor was a practicing church-goer, I almost dropped the course, luckily for me, my ego was too big for that. Just like the philosophy professor had pulled the rug out from under my homophobia by asking the larger question about love, this professor pulled the rug out from under my sense of atheistic superiority by asking if there was value in the story. He claimed that one didn’t have to believe that the Bible was the literal word of God in order to be a Christian, that one did not have to subscribe to the divinity of Christ, or the resurrection, or miracles, or any of the things I had spent the last two years lambasting. If the Roman myths served Roman culture, and the Greek myths served Greek culture, why couldn’t the Christian myths in the Bible serve as a moral framework for Western Christian culture.

Well, he had me there. If we had permission to view the Bible as a collection of stories, a collection of myths, then we could apply the same ‘strongest-reading’ approach that I had learned in the context of social theory. I became a fan of Jesus, of Buddha, and of Mohammed in that class. I read their words, and the words from other world religions in that class, I looked for the passages where they saw the truth most clearly and didn’t worry about the parts where their culture, or their fear, or their greed, or their other human frailties got in the way. I began to believe in the universality of truth, in the idea that we are all seeking this truth, that it is a fundamental part of our nature, that it is this truth that unites us and makes us whole.

In graduate school I began to integrate my love of the prophets with my own narrative. I began to critically evaluate both my early religious experiences, my atheism, and my atheistic contention that those early experiences had been meaningless. Ultimately, I was able to reconcile my understanding with my history and reclaim the genuine aspects of those early religious experiences.

I no longer find it surprising in retrospect that one of the most socially bizarre and controversial aspects of my early practice, speaking in tongues, has ended up being one of the most important to me. When I was an atheist I was ashamed of this part of my past, ashamed because I believed that I had been socially pressured into faking a religious experience. But the more I reflected on the experience, the more I realized that I had been wrong. The social pressure theory wasn’t true to the story, it wasn’t true to my experience. The pressure I felt was not pressure to fit in, it was not pressure to please my family or the church, it was the pressure of what to say when you believe you are face to face with God. When you are in that moment of prayer and you feel yourself in communion with God, with the Universe, what do you say? What can you say? Such immense beauty, such immense pain, such immense love? That is what speaking in tongues taps into. When you want to shout your feelings to God, but you can’t put them into words, you just let those raw feelings out in the form of sound. And in that church, you were allowed that freedom and I experienced it, and I cherish it still.

Now, I’m not suggesting that UU’s should start speaking in tongues, it wouldn’t be genuine, and it wouldn’t produce the desired result. What I am suggesting is that we start thinking, individually and collectively, about how we can foster an environment, how we can produce a spiritual haven here in this sanctuary every Sunday, where people leave their self-criticism and their criticisms of others at the door. A space where people can clap, sing, dance, meditate, sit quietly, hum, think, pray, do whatever they do, but do it without worrying about being judged or without spending any energy judging or thinking about what others are doing. Can we, the distracted intellectuals that we are, find a way to experience communal peace and joy here together every Sunday? I think that we can.

I think it starts with looking inward, with using this time we have here together with the unconditional love and support of our community to bask in the light, love, and joy of the truth. Because the truth is joyful. Let me reiterate that for all of us intellectual doubting Thomases who have a much easier time seeing everything that is wrong with the world, and I include myself. The truth is joyful. This didn’t sink in for me until I went to see the Dalai Lama when he came to town, and I tell you friends, the truth has set that man free. And that freedom radiates from him like a warm light of love and joyfulness. He is not joyful because he has comforting illusions, he is joyful because he has spent his life smashing the illusions that separate us from the truth. There is ever-present in his life the radiance of God, the radiance of an interconnected and interdependent universe, the radiance of the power of life and love.

That radiance, the radiance of the truth, is the light that has inspired all religion. It is the same light that the Evangelical Christians are seeking to capture when they go to church, the same light they are trying to share when they come knocking at your door, the same light that you were searching for this morning when you made your way to this sanctuary. The truth is not fractured, but we are often fractured. The truth is not exclusive, but we are all too often exclusive.

The next time you are confronted with someone who has a religious symbol system that you don’t share, I want you to try and translate. You don’t have to subscribe to God language in order to use God language. Maybe internally, you prefer to use the word Universe instead of God, or maybe you don’t like to assign a word to that concept at all. That’s OK. You can translate into their language, and if your heart and intentions are in the right place, your translation into their symbol system will work out.

This doesn’t only apply to Evangelical Christians, it can apply to anyone. If you remember that the differences are often differences in religious language, differences in symbols and not differences in ultimate truth, then you come to realize the possibility of breaking spiritual bread with any of your brothers and sisters. This does not negate the reality of differences in belief, those differences are real, they exist. What I am suggesting is that when we focus on our differences in opinion, we create divisiveness and discord. When we focus on what we agree on, on the magnificence of the universe, the beauty and the pain of living, the importance of love and compassion, the comfort of human companionship, when we focus on these core truths of religion, we create peace and joy. The choice is up to you, you can choose to be right, or you can choose to be peaceful.


I would like to close today with a greeting, because today’s sermon, if given its strongest reading, was about changing the way we meet people, it was about conferring the greatest benefit of the doubt to all of our brothers and sisters, without any reason to do so but faith, without any reason but love.

The greeting is Namaste and it means ?I see the light in you that is also in me.?