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A Matter of Taste


OT: Psalm 34:1-10

NT: Revelation 10:8-11

Text: Rainer Marie Rilke, The Sonnets to Orpheus XXVI


The question of the growth of our church is never far from my mind. It cannot be, because every Sunday I am unavoidably reminded of it by the majority of empty chairs in this small room. Indeed one might be excused for thinking we have a congregation of chairs with the occasional token human mixed in. It would certainly justify the old joke, "Is this seat saved? No, but it's under conviction!"

We have made several attempts at letting our light shine. As you know, I believe that changing our name to something like First Ecumenical Church would be a major step in the right direction. Perhaps one day that will happen. But let me tell you what I believe is the crucial problem.

We manage to attract a good number of people to our various programs. A good crowd comes to our Film Series. And to my various classes, which I view as ways of putting myself before the community, before potential church goers who might like what they hear and decide to explore the church. And occasionally one will come. But most do not. Why?

I think it is because we are delicately poised on the edge of the sacred and the secular. We are positioned "on the boundary" as Tillich said. Ours is the genius and the curse of Liberal Protestantism. We have rejected most of the oppressive aspects of traditional religion. We reserve the right to think freely. We will not be told what to believe. We revere nothing simply as a sacred cow.

That doesn't mean that for us nothing is sacred. Far from it. But it is we, it is you and I, who will decide what is holy to us, and what we will believe and do. Much of the dogma and the spirituality of the past we reject as an oppressive alien law. We want the religion of moral and intellectual autonomy.

Sounds good to me! It sounded so good to me thirteen years ago that I broke my habit of not going to church anymore and joined this one. I liked what it stood for and what it didn't stand for. And I have seen a steady stream, well actually, I guess, more of a steady trickle, of like-minded souls joining the church for the same reasons. But why so few?

I believe that most of the individuals who have left traditional dogmatic religion have gone farther than we, rejecting religion altogether. They feel no longer any need for God, for religion, for ritual, for scripture. They find their souls' sustenance instead in great art, great music, literature, poetry, philosophy.

And thus when we offer poetry seminars, film series, philosophical discussion groups, or even Bible classes that are truly scholarly, they come. But they see no need at all to come to our church service. It would not even occur to most of them.

Ironically, we are satisfying their needs by the satellite programs we offer. Church would seem superfluous to them. They feel a need for poetry, film, scholarship, but not for worship. I look at all these wonderful people as part of our congregation, though I realize they don't help us pay the bills.

This all puts me in mind of Friedrich Schleiermacher's first published work, On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers. He wrote to the artists and the intellectuals of the nineteenth century who were sick of religion for all the harm it had done (and still does!), such as religious wars, persecutions, retarding scientific progress. Indeed, sometimes I share their feelings. Such intelligentsia decided that what they needed was simply culture and morality. Religion was equal to superstition.

But Schleiermacher was convinced they had thrown out the baby with the bath water. He wrote to convince them to take a second look at religion, his kind of religion, our kind of religion. His point was that there was much more to it than the evils they rejected. What else was there?

This is a question I have been called upon to answer more than once, and I have been asked the question by both orthodox believers and secular humanists. Once Paul Kurtz, editor of the Secular Humanist magazine Free Inquiry, demanded of me, "Bob, you admit it's all mythology, that none of it's literally true. Why do you stick with it? What is there left to it?"

Dr. Kurtz is one of the "cultured despisers of religion." They are still a numerous tribe. They demand to know what they are missing by not being religious. They deserve an answer, and if we cannot give them one, then maybe we ought to join them and close up shop here. Leave it to the Pentecostals.

I think Schleiermacher's answer is still a good one. He said religion is not privileged knowledge, secrets and doctrines that only Bible believers are privy to. On the other hand, he said religion is not reducible to morality either. It is something that transcends both knowledge and action, and is identical with neither.

Religion, he said, is "a sense and taste for the Infinite." It is a matter of taste, of a certain kind of sensitivity.

Sensitivity to what?

It is difficult to say. The ancient sages of the Upanishads, before whom I bow, said that every attempt to describe it must end in failure. Neti, neti, they said. "Not this, not that." It is greater than the sum of all things, yet it is hidden away, smaller than a mustard seed, in the hollow of the beating heart. Or to put it another way, to explain what the nonreligious person is missing is like trying to explain a joke. To dissect and diagram a joke is to miss the humor in it! You can't conduct an autopsy on something without killing it. You won't be able to see what makes it tick, because the moment you cut it open, it has stopped ticking!

Baruch Spinoza, the great philosopher and mystic, was a pantheist. He believed that all things are so many faces of God. Because of this, many of his contemporaries called him "God-intoxicated." And yet he was excommunicated from the synagogue as an atheist! How could he be seen in two such different ways? Because he rejected traditional religious dogma. He was free to discern God everywhere precisely because he had stopped imprisoning God up away in heaven somewhere.

If you lacked religious second sight you would only see that Spinoza no longer had a traditional God. But you would not see what he saw: the subtle halo-radiance of God hidden, yet quietly blazing from all things.

The conventionally religious could not see it either. They were great believers in an orthodox dogma, but they were tone-deaf when it came to the Infinite. You can belong to a religion and yet blind to the presence of the Religious dimension.

What you have to be able to sense is what the Buddhists call Nirvana within Samsara. Early Buddhists believed one had to flee this vale of tears called Samsara in order to find the holy zone of freedom and salvation elsewhere, in Nirvana. But then Nagarjuna realized that Nirvana was right here all the time. You just had to see it. In fact, the only reason Samsara was a vale of tears in the first place was that we didn't recognize Nirvana within it, beneath it.

Sometimes it is easy to steal a glimpse. Being out in nature one can sometimes see what the Greeks symbolized as wood sprites and dryads: flashes of the Holy among the trees and hills, in the spray of the waterfall. One may have a vision of mystical unity with the Infinite in such circumstances and be moved no closer to any orthodox creed. William James records several such cases.

But I believe we can even train our spiritual sense to see the Holy in the very shadow of the unholy, the glow of the Shekinah amid the wreckage of the sinful world.

The bright sheen of the Holy is too hard to look upon. As Krishna tells Arjuna: "You cannot see me with this eye of flesh." As Yahweh tells Moses, "Mortals shall not look upon me and live." The Holy is a holy terror. That is the meaning of the Medusa myth: the divine is unbearable to mortal eyes. It is like looking at the sun during an eclipse: you will pay a terrible price. So what does Perseus do, since he must see Medusa? He looks at her pale reflection. It is enough.

And so sometimes we must look for the face of the Holy by looking at the shadows that imply its face. These shadows are the devastation and desolation of the world. In them something of the Holy can be imagined, conspicuous by its absence. It is always something one sees out of the corner of one's eye. Never directly.

Is it obvious straight on that the least of the downtrodden is in fact the very Son of Man? No, it is not. But neither is it invisible if you know where to look.

It is a matter of taste, and it is an acquired taste. My brother-in-law Scott manages a restaurant. To fit himself for his work he took training to become a wine-taster. Now he is quite deft at distinguishing the bouquet of one fine wine from another. Not me. I can, however, tell whether I'm drinking Coke, Pepsi, or RC Cola. There's the difference between Scott and me.

And it's also the difference between the liberal religionist and his or her secular counterpart. It's like an ear for fine music. I never appreciated Classical music until I was about 30 years old. Then suddenly--it hit me! How beautiful! How sublime! What made the difference? I don't know.

But I think it is like the sense and taste for the Infinite. It is an acquired taste, and I invite my secular brethren to acquire it. You are, I say, in no position to write off religious sensibility if you do not share it, any more than the boor who rejects Classical music or great art.

But, on the other hand, remember what's implied when we say "something is a matter of taste": someone is not culpable for not sharing your tastes. One is not culpable for not sharing the sense and taste for the Infinite. He is only pitiable, like I was before I awoke to Classical music.

I believe many of you, like me, could almost as well be secularists. You are only a hair's breadth away from all those good folk who come to Heretics Anonymous, to the Film Series, to my Postmodernism class. You do not really feel that you need religion. That is not why you are interested in it. But you share the taste for the Infinite, and you believe that church is like the wine-tasting classes Scott attended. Here you can perhaps sharpen your taste.

Somehow I would like to learn to communicate this to those outside. Maybe I will find a way, and the church will grow.

Religious doctrines are theories, concepts. They are not pills one takes to experience the Holy, to taste and see that the Lord is good. That isn't the point of them. I don't imagine anybody felt much different after the Council of Nicea where they voted that Jesus Christ was fully God.

You probably have a better chance of catching a stray glimpse of the Holy amid the mystery play of ritual, and that's what we are about to do in the Holy Eucharist. And it is a perfect example of what I have been talking about. What is a piece of bread? What is a cup of juice? They are mere atoms of physical food. But in them, through them, we strive for a fleeting moment to taste the Infinite.






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