I was sitting in the lobby of the Marriot hotel by the Oakland Airport. I was at the Pacific Central District meeting and had just attended the worst workshop I ever have at a UU Assembly entitled "How UU Theology Transformed the Fear of Death". I had high hopes for the workshop, but it fell appalling short of the potential of the subject.
All that said, the workshop did give me grist for a sermon topic. During the workshop we are asked to talk in small groups about how our personal theology about God influences our views of death. I suffered through the wimpy, befuddled explanations of my fellow participants in the little circle we had formed. I listened to their pathetic attempts to define what death means to them. Then it was my turn. I sure let them have an earful of my own wimpy, pathetic talk about not being afraid of a God that created me, and that's why death doesn't frighten me.
As I was talking I found myself just going through the motions; and I really didn't have any conviction about what I was saying. I went to the workshop to get some original new thoughts that would inspire me to some new insight, damn it! Instead, the person presenting the workshop asked us to discuss our personal views about death, instead of digging deep into the history of how UU theology transformed the fear of death. I felt cheated.
Then it occurred to me that this was the first time in my life I was jealous of Baptists. I yearned for certainty and conformity. I wanted someone to tell me I am a wretched creature worthy only of a divine being's merciful pity. I wanted someone to flog me into spiritual putty, and then rebuild me into a shining Son of God.
There was no public internet service at the Oakland Marriot (imagine that!). So I couldn’t wait to get back to where we were staying to get my dose of spiritual flogging. It didn’t take long to find the solace I was looking for. Doug Britton set me straight. His website was simple and to the point. There was nothing fancy about it. On white background, bold blue titles made the main points. Black text showed all the biblical passages, with red emphasis sprinkled in. Right there, on a powerfully simple website I found the truth revealed in the first few lines: “Death fear: Bible Truths to Conquer the Fear of Death. Don't be afraid of death or dying. (You can conquer the fear of death and dying.)”. Reading on, I found a typical pattern of question followed by biblical answers. Here is an example:
“If you too worry about or fear dying, take some time to read and meditate on the passages in this Bible study. Pray as you read, asking God to remove your death fears and help you see things through his eyes. God does not want you to be afraid of death or afraid of dying.”
When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: "Death has been swallowed up in victory." "Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" (1 Corinthians 15:54-55).
On one Christian website after another I found a similar theme. I have to say I was a little disappointed because I was so looking forward to the hellfire and brimstone, “You’re a wretched creature deserving of obliteration in the fires of hell if you don’t repent” kind of language.
I had to dig deep to find what I was looking for. After quite a while I finally found, under the search word “hell”, only one really good website by Terry Watkins that starts out this way:
“What you're about to read is hard to believe. . .
We're going to examine the place the Bible calls hell. We'll present documented evidence for a place called hell. Don't take what you're going to read lightly. If what you read is true — YOU COULD BE IN SERIOUS DANGER!”
Watkins goes on, with the obligatory quotes from the King James Bible as he reaches a crescendo of infallible biblically-based facts. Then he really lets loose with the truly startling revelation:
“The Bible is clear — Hell is inside the earth!
Scientist and Bible teacher, Henry Morris also agrees the Bible plainly teaches that hell is in this earth:
"So far as we can tell from Scripture, the present hell, is somewhere in the heart of the earth itself. It is also called 'the pit'.”
Watkins further goes on to make the case for hell being at the center of the earth, where the temperature is over 12,000 degrees Fahrenheit! He even features recordings on his website made by people who had drilled deep into the earth’s crust and discovered the “screams of millions of humans!”
Then, of course, came the plea to repent before it’s too late. This is how Watkins so eloquently describes the reality of hell and the fear of it:
“As you leave your body — you realize something is happening. You hear a sound. . . getting louder and louder. . . screaming . . .weeping. . . wailing. Terror and fear beyond anything you could imagine overtakes you. "This can’t be happening!" you scream. Your nostrils are filling with the awful stench of burning souls. Your face ignites from the heat. Flames are now blazing from your eyes, nostrils, ears, mouth — every opening in your body, flames are roaring out. Your body is sizzling and crackling from the flames... You begin cursing the day you were born. You scream — "Oh God, why didn’t you warn me?"— but you remember the preacher pleading with you to receive Jesus Christ. You remember reading that gospel tract. You cry — "God don’t you care?" — but you remember John 3:16 "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son,. . ." "God is a God of love — He won't allow this", you cry — but you remember John 3:36, ". . . he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him."
I will spare you the rest. You get the point. I got both the spiritual flogging I was after and I got the assurance I was looking for from my own, more superior religion. I mean, really... a religion that allows us to laugh at the absurdity of such descriptions of hell... well that’s go to be pretty powerful stuff, right?
More about how “UU Theology Transformed the Fear of Death” a little later. But for now I want to delve into a curious thing about the theology of death, or more properly, the theological answers to the fear of death. First, let’s take a look at how we modern human beings view death and how it relates to religious motivation.
Psychologists have addressed the hypothesis that fear of death motivates religious commitment, and that it may be alleviated by assurances about an afterlife. Empirical research on this topic has been equivocal. According to Kahoe and Dunn, people who are most firm in their faith and attend religious services weekly are the least afraid of dying. A survey of Americans in various Christian denominations showed a negative correlation between fear of death and religious concern.
In another study, data from a sample of white, American Christian men and women were used to test the hypothesis that traditional, church-centered religiousness and de-institutionalized spiritual seeking are distinct ways of approaching fear of death in old age. Both religiousness and spirituality were related to positive psychosocial functioning, but only church-centered religiousness protected subjects against the fear of death.
In an innovative test of what people fear the most, Bill Tancer analyzed the most frequent online search queries that involved the phrase, "fear of...". This follows the assumption that people tend to seek information on the issues that concern them the most. His top ten list of fears consisted of flying, heights, clowns, intimacy, death, rejection, people, snakes, failure, and driving.
In a 2005 Gallup poll (U.S.A.), a national sample of adolescents between the ages of 13 and 15 were asked what they feared the most. The question was open ended and participants were able to say whatever they wanted. The top ten fears were, in order: terrorist attacks, spiders, death, being a failure, war, heights, criminal or gang violence, being alone, the future, and nuclear war.
Death is number four in the “Click” book (behind flying, heights, clowns, and intimacy)... clowns are more fearful then death?? And among teenagers it’s terrorist attacks and spiders that are more scary... spiders???
When asked whether they would prefer to die suddenly or as the result of illness, 80 percent of people quickly affirm a preference for sudden death. In reality, however, 90 percent of us will die from illness and only 10 percent from sudden death. It is interesting to note that most of us think we are afraid of death when in fact our greater fear is the process of dying, and that is something we can do something about.
The impetus for this discussion today was a desire to find the answer to the natural question the workshop posed... how did UU theology transform the fear of death? Obviously, people are still afraid of dying. I’d be so bold as to say human beings will always have that fear, and that no amount of religion or a theology that informs it, will ever alleviate that fear. But because we draw our roots from the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is important to examine how our theology evolved and the effect it had on transforming, or at least shaping, Christian views on death. Indeed, I was very interested in how clowns and spiders got to rank as scarier than death.
My intention is not to go into a long dissertation about theology. I must, however, paint a picture of those thinkers, philosophers, and theologians that contributed to our present views on death, redemption, and salvation.
John Calvin, who lived between 1509 and 1564, was a prominent French theologian during the Protestant Reformation and the father of what is now called Calvinism. Martin Luther and Calvin are arguably the most significant architects of the Reformation. Mark A. Nol said of the two, "If Luther sounded the trumpet for reform, Calvin orchestrated the score by which the Reformation became a part of Western civilization”.
Although many people believe Calvin was on the right track, most mainstream Christian theology now refutes, or at least, downplays Calvinistic theology. Calvinism is often distilled into what is known as the “TULIP” format. Point for point, the following is the main thrust of both Calvinism and the modern Christian counters to Calvinism:
One of the first to scale the walls of Calvinism was Charles Chauncy, who lived from 1705-1787. He was the leading opponent of the Great Awakening, the Protestant evangelical movement that swept through the British North American colonies between 1739 and 1745. He published his major theology work entitled, “The Mystery Hid from Ages and Generations”, in 1785, just two years before his death, and two decades after he had completed it. He had held back publication because he recognized the rigorous logic of his arguments ended up affirming an innate moral sense in man, a belief in human free will, an affirmation of universal salvation and thus the spiritual equality of all. These claims undermined the doctrinal traditions of his own Calvinist faith tradition and the social hierarchy he extolled from the beginning to the end of his life.
The next person to further the cause of religious liberalism, in opposition to Calvinism, was William Ellery Channing, who lived from 1780 until 1842. In Unitarian Christianity Channing described the Bible as "a book written for men, in the language of men" whose "meaning is to be sought in the same manner as that of other books." He defended the use of reason in religion, and offered conclusions from a reasoned study of the scriptures. He said that nowhere does the New Testament's word for God mean three persons; that The Trinity was such a confusing doctrine that it “distracts the mind from communion with God”; and that in effect the doctrine of predestination "makes of men machines." Channing believed that God had made human nature, with its capacity for moral choice and ever increasing understanding, akin to the divine. He said in his 1830 Election Day sermon, " I call that mind free which escapes the bondage of matter, which, instead of stopping at the material universe and making it a prison wall, passes beyond it to its Author."
Emerson and others pushed even further, asserting an ever more radical theology, which came to be known as Universalism. They believed that the God of love would not create a person knowing that that person would be destined for eternal damnation. They concluded that all people must be destined for salvation in an afterlife. Some early Universalists, notably Hosea Ballou, denied the existence of Hell entirely.
Unitarians and Universalists often have had common interests and communication between them. In the often-quoted words of Thomas Starr King, pastor of the San Francisco Unitarian Church at the beginning of the Civil War: "The Universalists believe that God is too good to damn them, and the Unitarians believe they are too good to be damned!”
The Universalist faith declined after the Civil War, as many Universalist churches were destroyed and many Universalist ministers who had served as army chaplains were killed. As the concept of damnation became less central to many American religious groups, the Universalist faith seemed less unique in its teachings and its membership waned. Let’s face it… if you do not believe in a vengeful God whose sole purpose seems to be to toss you into Hell the moment you die, then you are much less likely to fear death, right?
The theological contributions of both the Unitarians and Universalists cannot be understated. They certainly lessened the fear of death by preaching the following concepts that would have had them burned at the stake just a hundred years prior:
In conclusion, my desire to answer the questions raised by the excellent name of a dismal workshop I attended was the genesis of this discourse today. So, to answer the question of “how did UU theology transform the fear of death", I’d have to say... “Well, we sort of did because we don’t believe in damnation from a God who is supposed to love us.” That’s the simple answer. Yet, when you reflect on it, it seems high time for Unitarian Universalism to make a comeback on the religious scene because there is too much theological fudging going on.
We UUs can proudly claim a theology that is still shocking to some, and refreshingly enlightening to others, as it was to me. That degree of shock indicates how relevant our faith is to the modern world. I think we UUs need to take our religion to the streets and offer it to a world that still suffers from unnecessary fear of death. Death is scary enough without all the added anxiety about final punishment for being human. I’d like to see the fear of death pushed off the top ten list!
When that happens, maybe we’ll see many more people identifying themselves as Unitarian Universalists. To expand on my favorite UU saying “We don’t have to think alike to love alike. And we don’t have to worship alike either.” Of course, having millions more UUs walking around, by no means, may translate into many more people in our church buildings. But I, for one, think that’s probably a good thing too!
About this blog.
This blog is a place where many of the confluences of my life can be shared. I am, at the core, a creative person. I approach everything from that basis... whether composing symphonies, playing the cello, being a serial entrepreneur, writing sermons and essays, flying airplanes, or creating software apps. I am deeply passionate about creativity, issues of social justice, and spiritual enrichment. These are fundamental to everything I do. Welcome to my journey!