Monday 20 July 2020

Not Conformed

 Paul in his Letter to the Romans wrote:
Don’t copy the behaviour and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.
That is how the letter is translated in the Bible’s New Living Translation but in the Revised Standard Version it reads like this:
Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
I have to say that I prefer the latter translation, the words in that translation, the RSV, appear to be more dynamic, they charge us not to be conformed to this world. Rather than not copying the behaviour and the customs of this world. The subtle difference appears to me to be in the implied, deliberate act of not conforming. In the face of all the world and its expectations and culture we do not bow down to it, we do not embrace it we do not conform to it for we know the difference between the temporal and the eternal between that of God and that of the world.
When we decide not to be conformed to this world but rather to be transformed by the renewal of our minds we learn of God’s love and plan for us. Then, we can say to the world that there are things more important than all the latest fashions, things more important than the news headlines, things more important than social media drama, things more important than the drugs and the violence of everyday life.
Paul in his letter, does not say how the world is and how it should be. Rather, he knows how the world is but he’s saying as the world is, that is not how you should be. In the world that Paul wrote about, in his life time, even as it is today, authentic religion is discredited and treated with contempt. We will remember that Jesus was shown all the power and the glory that this world could offer him if only he would bow down and worship it. But Jesus as we know, refused. He refused to be conformed to this world and in the same way so must we.
The Buddha simply described life as suffering that can only be overcome when we let go and cease to become subject to the desires of the world and of all its attractions. When we open ourselves to this kind of surrender, we can find God. We can find this sudden inspiration like when we are alone in the silence gazing at a beautiful moon on a gentle starlit night. But we can also feel something of the presence of God in a house of worship. There, we may find a certain contentment or even the joy we can read about in the
42nd Psalm: This Psalm whatever its origins may be, speaks of a deep longing for God so movingly expressed in the image of the deer panting for streams of water. This is the longing of the Hebrew exile in remembrance of the Temple in Jerusalem, seeking where God is, amidst prayer and the exuberance of joy and praise.
As the deer pants for streams of water,
    so my soul pants for you, my God.
  My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
    When can I go and meet with God?
  My tears have been my food
    day and night,
while people say to me all day long,
    “Where is your God?”
  These things I remember
    as I pour out my soul:
how I used to go to the house of God
    under the protection of the Mighty One
with shouts of joy and praise
    among the festive throng
There is nothing abstract or cerebral about this psalm beautifully written though it is, it’s raw and almost physical in its yearning its desire for that intimacy with God. These words speak to us of a true and lived religious experience that can touch the heart as well as the head.
There are however, perhaps times when religion can just become dry or intellectually arid. In 1838, The American Unitarian Minister, Ralph Waldo Emerson caused something of a stir when he gave an address to the graduating students of the Harvard Divinity School. It was an occasion that he used to preach his opposition to the central tenets of orthodox Christianity. Emerson proclaimed the primacy of personal experience in religion over teachings that are merely handed down. As Unitarianism began to develop academically, intellectually, in the 19th century it seemed to become something of a lopsided creation leaving it without proper religious sensitivity to the extent, that Emerson said that it had become ‘corpse cold’.
For Emerson, religion was nothing unless it was a lived experience. John Steinbeck’s Tom Joad, of that famous book and film The Grapes of Wrath said:
A fellow ain’t got a soul of his own, just a little piece of a big soul, the one big soul that belongs to everybody
Emerson in his Divinity School Address said essentially the same thing about Jesus:
Jesus Christ belonged to the true race of prophets. He saw with open eyes the mystery of the soul. Drawn by its severe harmony, ravished with its beauty, he lived in it, and had his being there. Alone in all history, he estimated the greatness of man. One man was true to what is in you and me. He saw that God Incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his world. He said in this jubilee of sublime emotion, ‘I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me speaks. Would you see God, see me; or see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think.
In this short passage alone, we begin to grasp Emerson’s Christology. The soul we all have, is part of one big soul, the soul in its entirety is God. Jesus with open eyes saw the mystery of the soul and lived in it. Steinbeck’s Tom Joad saw that we don’t have a soul but we each have a part of the one big soul. It can be expressed in so many ways, that ‘divine spark’ ‘our inner Christ’ or as the Quakers would have it, ‘that of God in everyone we meet’.
Emerson was seen as the founder of what became known as the Transcendentalist movement. He and the advocates of this school of thought considered the highest religious experience to be a sensation of unity with the infinite. Of God or the Soul, Emerson said:  
We lie in the lap of immense intelligence, which makes us receivers of its truth and organs of its activity.
And a contemporary of Emerson’s, another famous American Unitarian minister, Theodore Parker, promised that he would preach nothing to his congregation that he had not experienced inwardly and made his own.
In a sense, we have been brought full circle back to the words of St Pauls who in his letter advised that we should not be conformed to the world but that we should find renewal in God. This inner voice of ours is really the soul of who we are. It exists in the deep silence of eternity, it is not conformed to the world because it has no ego and yet when all our frenetic activity ceases all our fevered thought is stilled there, we are held in the hands of God in that great soul, the ultimate unity and truth.