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Pillars of the Church, Tombs of the Prophets


Readings: Amos 7:12-17; Luke 11:47-48; Galatians 2:1-14


It has been a while since I was with you. I missed you all. This week just past I was visiting my mother in North Carolina. There I attended my old church, St. Stephen's Episcopal Church. The week before that I attended no church service but was in Chicago on churchly affairs nonetheless. As I think you know, I was there to meet with the Ministerial Fellowship Committee of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

I had been preparing for a year and a half for that meeting. It was to determine whether they would accept my ministerial credentials and welcome me into the UU ministry. They did not. Instead, they gave me a new list of conditions, which as it happens, I have no intention of fulfilling. I am done jumping through hoops. I will admit I was stunned at the decision of the committee, though in many ways not surprised.

In what follows I want to share with you some biblical insights relevant to the issue. If you are tempted to take it as self-serving sour grapes, you may be right. And yet I cannot help reflecting theologically on the matter.

Sometimes biblical texts give the lie to the very context in which we find them, namely in a canon of institutionally approved scriptures. If one looks close enough one finds that the text argues against the very assumptions to which it owes its presence in such a book. Like one single student in a graduation photo sticking his tongue out. The passage I have chosen from Amos is such a renegade text.

The scene is a showdown between Amos, a self-appointed prophet, as we might deem him, and Amaziah, an official prophet of the royal court of Israel. He had all the prophetic credentials one might ask, not to mention an official post in the government. The trouble is that Amos, a loud-mouthed upstart and an outsider from Judah, has been appearing in public, on a soap-box, so to speak, railing against the government, its foreign policy, and its official worship. It is all a sham, he says, and for that reason an abomination in the sight of Yahveh. God, it seems, is ever the outsider, ever the lone wolf like Amos himself. Or at least Amos cannot help seeing him that way. Maybe Amos was just talking sour grapes, too.

Amaziah tries to shoo his unlettered rival away. What business has Amos, with no prophetic ID card, no official sanction, in declaring the Word of Yahveh, especially since it made the state and the state church look bad?

How, you might ask, could Amaziah be so sure Amos was wrong? Simply this: he had to be wrong. By definition a true prophecy was one that toed the party line. You see, prophecy was an institution. The court prophets were a group of oracles whose job it was, ostensibly, to advise the king in light of God's wisdom. But the Bible itself makes clear that prophethood had degenerated into a group of well-paid yes-men who were supposed to pronounce God's blessing on any plan the king might float. Prophecy was the party line. Amaziah followed that line well. Amos called its bluff. No wonder he didn't have credentials. He wouldn't play the game.

The prophets were simply the embodiment of the divine right of kings, living proof, as it were. In modern terms we would call them spin doctors. You know, the political handlers who talk to the media after every debate and assure them that an obvious defeat for their man was really a victory if you see it their way. Press secretaries who defend the President's policies no matter how they look. Reporters ask them for a candid opinion, but it is their job never to give one. It is all PR.

Here is one problem I have with ministry and with ministers, and with being a good minister. I am not a good party hack, not a good representative of any institution, not a good front man. I speak for myself, not for a church. And since congregants assume it is my job to speak for them, I disappoint them. I do not have the glad-handing demeanor of a PR representative. I do not see church as an infomercial. If someone wants pleasant assurances, they are not going to get them from yours truly. I will encourage, exhort, admonish--but I do not believe in a comfortable theology that can be sold like a product.

I have no interest in the denomination which sponsors a particular church. It is my belief that, as Nietzsche and Ayn Rand said, it is mediocrity that huddles together and finds strength in numbers--like the Lilliputians did. I don't want to have to sell the next program that comes down the pipe from denominational HQ, as if I were a McDonald's franchise owner told to push McRib sandwiches this month. To hell with that.

Notice that Amaziah tells Amos he'd better stop badmouthing Bethel, because after all, it's the king's own chapel. Significant choice of words. You know the difference between a chaplain and a prophet? Jim Wallis is good on this in his book Agenda for Biblical People. A chaplain is a clergyman retained by an institution to perform religious functions for them. Billy Graham praying at the Inauguration, Tom Skinner praying at a football game. That sort of thing. A chaplain is the functionary of the institution that pays him. Just like Amaziah.

And there is no problem with this as long as there is no question of speaking the truth. There are plenty of aspects of religion that are ceremonial, ornamental, aesthetic. And a chaplain does these things quite properly. But the trouble comes when the minister is told to prophesy, i.e., speak the truth as he or she sees it, and yet is really expected to speak the comforting affirmations of a chaplain. This is going to mean that sooner or later the preacher is going to say things that make the congregation, or at least the major shareholders in it, mighty nervous, and then it's time for a search committee.

Don't you see? It has to happen sooner or later. An institution has the right to have a party line and to require a paid spokesman to mouth it. You're not going to hear Ed McMahon admitting that he is fronting for an insurance scam. To hear Bill Cosby say Polaroid is really better than Kodak.

And if you gather a group of free thinkers who will allow a preacher to speak his mind, people who want no party line--what's going to happen? You're going to have a loose collection of individualists (which is what you want) who will gradually drift away. They will shun the responsibilities of making an institution and keeping it going. And they are right! Many of us have seen the institution of a church become an albatross around our necks till the congregation exists simply as the maintenance crew for the institution. We don't want that, so instead we want to travel light. But there will be no future to such a group.

I think that's OK. Emerson's followers formed a group of free thought churches, but none of them survived his death. Many Unitarians dropped out of the American Unitarian Association because they thought it was getting too restrictive, too institutionalized. And they were right: dissention was being squelched to form a united front. So the dissidents withdrew to form the Free Religion Association. It rapidly became completely impotent. Any attempt at agreement for common action chafed this or that member, so they remained a debating society and finally died out. Meanwhile, the Unitarian denomination remains.

But it remains as an institution. It is not uncommon today to hear UUs like the historian Conrad Wright putting down Emerson as some kind of adolescent trouble maker and exalting instead the conservative institution builder Henry Whitney Bellows, who strong-armed the denomination into being.

I say I think there is no irony in a short-lived collection of free-thinking religionists who eventually go their own ways enriched by their common experience. This was what I promoted at First Baptist, and it was no wonder the church never grew. New members would come, but they were pilgrims, searchers, like you. And inevitably they would continue their search--elsewhere! Of course! The whole idea was freedom!

But this simply did not serve the purposes of the institution we had. Various church bureaucrats complained that we had to fill those pews to get new bureaucrats and new funds! And we should spend our efforts getting the sort of members who would settle down in a church and shoulder those responsibilities: young families with children. It all came down to marketing. It always does in an institution. It has to.

But however understandable, even inevitable it may be, it is nonetheless insidious. It leads to ironies and hypocrisies such as Jesus condemns in Luke's text. Religious institutions venerate the prophets of the dead past, the ones who can no longer speak inconvenient and embarrassing things. And the old things they said? Well, they can be de-fused with the proper exegesis. But let any new prophet say what the old ones said and he will share the same fate as the old ones. "Blessed are you when all men speak ill of you and cast out your name as evil for the sake of the Son of Man, for so they treated the prophets who were before you."

Again, what would you expect? Are you naive enough to believe that an institution can take seriously what the prophet says and survive as an institution? I used to be so naive, I admit. A group that does take it seriously will not long survive as a group! And that's the way it must be! The church of seekers must be ephemeral. If it becomes permanent it fossilizes. When it comes to its natural end there is nothing to regret; nothing has gone wrong. As Thomas Jefferson said, each generation must have its own revolution. This is no less true spiritually. Let the truth of the spirit be discovered again and again, whether discovered in an old book or not, it doesn't matter. Each new seeker has to see it for himself; you can't inherit it.

Jesus points out the irony of those undertakers of the prophets who venerate their safely silent corpses. "You who erect the tombs of the prophets! You say you would never have killed them? Then tell me why you're building that new one over there?" Maybe that's the point of the business about Joseph of Arimathea burying Jesus in a brand new tomb: it was just waiting for him, since it was only a matter of time.

And the same is true in UUism. I follow the practice of referring to the denomination by that institutional abbreviation, just like the CIA, the FBI, instead of using the complete form "Unitarian Universalism," because I cannot see the family resemblance to the great traditions of sectarian dissent, the Unitarians and the Universalists, from whom they claim descent. In my opinion, what we see here is but another example of building your religious Pentagon, your Vatican, on the holy ground of prophets' tombs.

Tell me, how can it be that in our day UUs can damn Emerson and Jefferson with faint praise while exalting gray bureaucrats like Henry Whitney Bellows and Frederick May Eliot? You know the joke that Jesus could never be accepted as a member of a Baptist church? I fear for the prospects of Emerson or Thoreau or Kenneth Patton in today's UU churches, should they make the attempt to join. Would they have made an adequate annual pledge? Would they have been good team players? I doubt it, and what's more, if they had been, history would never have preserved their names.

Which finally brings us to Paul and his encounter with the so-called "Pillars," James, John, and Peter. This is the text with which I really identify.

Let me draw a contrast between the great Apostle to the Gentiles and the satraps of Jesus in the Holy City Jerusalem, the home office. Liberal Protestants like to call Paul the Second Founder of Christianity. We say that he transformed the religion of Jesus, a simple moral piety, into a dogmatic religion about Jesus. Wrede said this, so did Harnack, and recently it has been revived by Jewish New Testament scholar Hyam Maccoby. I think it is correct. But it doesn't mean Paul was a villain. It doesn't mean that, even if we disagree with what he taught.

You see, what this means is that Paul was like Jesus: an original thinker, a charismatic religious genius. For him Jesus was no longer a human being. He had already become a god. And that meant Paul was to his Christ as Jesus of Nazareth had been to his Father. Like Jesus, Paul was a radical, a lone wolf, a loose canon. Not an organization man. He struck out in a new direction, his own direction.

What about James, John, and Peter? Here are mere names. What shadowy existence they went on to have in early Christianity was simply as--you guessed it--symbolic figureheads for religious institutions, James as the founder of Ebionite Jewish Christianity and Peter as the pedigree of the Roman popes. And John? The big name affixed to the fourth gospel to give it legitimacy when some thought it was a piece of Gnostic blasphemy penned by Cerinthus!

Look at the titles of these three, James, John, and Peter. James and John are called "the Pillars." This is a mythic/cosmic allusion, referring to the great pillars holding up the vault of heaven. The pillars of heaven are frequently mentioned in the Bible. The two pillars in Solomon's temple, Boaz and Jachin, were meant to represent them, just as the Temple itself, like all ancient temples, was supposed to be a microcosm of the universe as they pictured it. In fact, this is most likely what "Boanerges" means, the epithet given to James and John in Mark's gospel.

Peter is also called Cephas, the Rock. This is supposed to represent the great foundation stone of the cosmos, on which, again, the Jerusalem Temple, as a copy of the world, was supposed to rest. And what is the significance of Simon Peter being the cosmic Rock? "You are Peter, and upon this Rock I will build my church. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, so that whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." This was not lost on the popes. The whole point of James, John, and Peter being the Pillars and the Foundation Stone was to guarantee their institutional authority.

And with this, Paul was destined to collide, just as Jesus collided with the authorities of his day. In 1 Corinthians Paul is already fending off Peter's claim to be the foundation stone of the church. He says that no one can possibly lay another foundation than that of Christ himself.

But one day Paul finds it advisable to go to the home office and try to gain the recognition of the Pillars. It will save him some needless friction if he can get their blessing. If he can get them to accept his credentials. And it works. He is glad to accept the one condition they place on him--to gather a relief fund for the Jerusalem church. He is faithful in carrying out the mission, as you can see in several of his letters.

Then imagine his shock when in Antioch the whole thing blows up in his face. Peter visits and circulates freely among Paul's Gentile converts. They don't keep kosher? What of it! If Paul told them they didn't have to, Peter's not going to undermine him. But then some representatives of James appear, and Peter changes his tune! He seems to realize that the Pillars do not really look at Paul as a legitimate colleague at all, and so he falls in line with James' party line and tells the Gentiles that, on second thought, they'd better adopt Jewish customs, do it the way the Pillars do it--and to hell with Paul. Paul charges him with hypocrisy on the spot.

One wonders whether Peter at that moment found himself experiencing a bit of deja vu. Didn't he used to hear Jesus say such things to the scribes? Back then, in Galilee, Peter cheered him on. And yet now here he is--on the receiving end!

And indeed we may ask what on earth could have happened to bring Peter to such a point!? I'll tell you: he had become one of the custodians of an institution, that's what! He no longer had the freedom to tell the emperor that he had no clothes on! He no longer had the luxury of speaking his mind! He had become the very sort of nameless functionary whose nervous scrupulosity about the rules Jesus used to lampoon! What is the scripture of the churches today? The Bible? Sorry, not even close! Try Roberts' Rules of Order. That's the holy Torah.

Any New Testament scholar will tell you Jesus never meant to found a church, and it was no accident! A church, an institution, could never have kept his insights, his truth alive! An institution can ever only become a mausoleum for a suffocated truth. Peter, James, and John were Pillars of the church. But by the same token, in the very same moment, they were also the builders of the tomb of the prophet Jesus.

Nietzsche explained why it happens: the Superman transvaluates the values of his day, but the mass, the herd, cannot live for long on that exalted mount of transfiguration. The atmosphere is just too rare. So the first thought of the disciples, the followers, is to build a tabernacle, a shrine, for the prophet atop the mountain, a tomb for his truth, and then to descend the hillside as quickly as possible! And then it's business as usual. Roberts' Rules, full speed ahead.

Abraham Maslow (in Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences) sees it in terms of prophets like Isaiah, the Buddha, Jesus, being "peakers," people with peak experiences of revelation or enlightenment, ecstasy in which they are lifted outside the limits of their selfhood. But one cannot pass this experience on to others. They must find it for themselves. And they don't want to. The mass who follow the prophetic peaker will only admire the prophet's experience from afar. Soon they will be saying they could never experience it. And then they will say that the prophet was a saviour, that because he had the peak experience we need not try to have it for ourselves. It would be presumptuous to try!

It is what Weber called "the routinization of charisma." The original power of the prophet, after he dies, becomes channeled into routine, institutional structures, administered in the form of sacraments by duly appointed, certified representatives. And no one notices that it has long since drained away. We retain the form of religion while denying the power thereof.

And then we get to the jest of Kierkegaard, and the joke is on us: "Imagine a man who preaches that the teacher of truth can have no disciples--and immediately 50 men apply to preach his doctrine in his name!" Isn't that precisely where we got Christianity and all the other religions? Built on the bones of the prophets.

Institutions survive, but what are they surviving for? One cannot pass down peak experiences or prophecy. It is useless to expect those trained as ship's captains to rock the boat. They can only be obedient crewmen, maybe galley slaves.

The events of the past year, both at First Baptist Church and with the UUA's Ministerial Fellowship Committee, have made something clear to me. Believe it or not, I have not simply grown defensive. I have to admit that too many people are professing to see me as the emperor with no clothes. I can no longer pretend they are all wrong. And this morning I have given the reasons that I think, that I hope, underlie this perception. I am just not cut out to be a parish minister. I can teach, preach, exhort. I can try to be Socratic and get you to reopen old questions, to make up your own minds. But then Socrates never founded a school of philosophy, did he? No more than Jesus ever founded a church. If I want to follow in their footsteps, it's time for me to recognize that I have to walk where they walked--outside the institutional structure. I am done seeking the pastorate. Where I am allowed to teach and to provoke, I will gratefully accept the opportunity. Thank you.

--Robert M. Price

May, 1995




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