There is an area in upstate New York that in the 19th century was given the nick name the Burned-Over District.
It was given the nick-name during a period of intense revival in the US, with hell and damnation being preached at huge tent revival meetings. Fuel denoted the unconverted population, those people who were receptive to hearing the Gospel. The “burned” were those who had been converted to this hellfire, Calvinistic, brand of Christianity.
The Burned-Over District got its name then, because it had been so overdone. Every preacher under heaven had been through there; the population had not just been converted, they had been converted multiple times, to multiple nonconformist sects.
Imagine the contrast between growing up in a context like that, as opposed to a context like today, a context like the families I mentioned earlier – trying to get their sons and daughters christened because of some lingering sense of Christian identity.
One very famous boy did grow up right there at that time, and as you might imagine he was deeply conflicted. Hearing of all these competing religious sects, fighting for attention, proclaiming messages which were often at odds with one another: who could one believe?
On top of that there was a deep sense of God’s intervening in the lives of ordinary people. This seems so strange to us today that it is difficult even to imagine, but if a crop failed, or if a business went under, that was God punishing you. In their imaginations miracles were everyday occurrences.
This famous boy had an operation when he was thirteen years old, the cutting out of a bacterial infection in his leg. He refused whiskey to dull the pain; in his world, in his imagination, a gruelling operation like this was God ordained, and therefore should be endured, should be accepted.
This boy prayed – what church should I join? Which church was correct in what it taught? He claims to have received an answer - that they were ‘all wrong’, that they were all an ‘abomination.’ To him and his likeminded piers, “true Christianity” has been lost and corrupted. The biblical text had been copied again and again, with little alterations here and there, corrupting the message, and from Constantine onwards the Christian faith had been so tied up with political power, that the true purpose had been irrevocably lost.
The boy I am talking about is Joseph Smith. He went on to found his own Church: the Mormon Church, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. He went on to have many more visions, not dissimilar to the fantastical visions of Moses recorded in the Book of Exodus, and of course, he wrote the Book of Mormon. The Mormon faith as many of you probably know is incredibly odd. In Mormonism, true and faithful male adherents can ultimately advance to become gods, to reign over their own planets. In Mormon mythology a group of Israelites got in boats and sailed to the Americas in Old Testament times, and their descendants are the Native Americans. In Mormonism Jesus was not born of a virgin, but rather God the Father literally came down in the flesh and impregnated Mary. And on and on it goes…
Now how and why Joseph Smith came to all these strange ideas is anyone’s guess. Did he really believe it? Or was it all some great game to him? That is a difficult question to answer, but as you might imagine, the reformed, Calvinistic, Bible based Christians were not happy with him in the slightest, and ultimately he was shot for his heresy.
I have an amused affection for Joseph Smith – I think we share a few similar character traits – he was like me a serial enthusiast, and I cannot help but admire that initial impulse of his to uncover what the ‘truth’ really is. In his younger years, before becoming ensconced in his own imaginative world, he was intensely curious.
In the world of lingering Christianity, religion plays a funny role. Religion is perceived in its traditional form of ‘I and Thou’, subject and the sovereign, and yet at the same time shows up as being quite alienating. One wants to tick the religious box by getting a child Christened, but has at same time no intention of perusing the religion question. Because within the world of lingering Christianity there is essentially no religion question to ask; traditional forms of ‘Christianity’ are the answer, to which on occasion the particularly brave will venture for a time, recognise it as vacuous and retreat.
To truly ask the Religion question one must be totally immersed in the world of religion, that one is driven to ask deeper and deeper questions, like Joseph Smith. Or conversely be so un-religious, and unfamiliar with the sacred, that the exploration of the religious is the beginning of new kind of adventure.
The middle ground, cultural Christianity, or lingering Christianity, dulls such desires. As such I see this new poll, in which the majority of British people are declaring themselves as ‘non-religious’, as a positive one. The death of ‘lingering Christianity’ allows for what I believe is already happening - a resurgence of spiritual seekers, and this community should be a hotbed for such as these.
In this way when they encounter the glorious nonsense of religious language as it is used in this space they may be more receptive to it and the way we use it here. We had read to us an extract from Harvey Cox’s ‘The Secular City’ – he was a prominent American theologian writing in the 60s - he wrote this book believing that in western society in general religion was on its way out, that secular values, of love and freedom, would take over. But in reality the desire for spiritual meaning has never been dulled.
Once upon a time, a Unitarian expressing what he or she though in public was a dangerous thing to do. Today there is no dogma hanging over society to judge us, no hierarchy of clergy to give or withhold seals of approval.
It is a good thing to talk about religion and religious beliefs and experiences, both personally and publically. If we don’t talk about religion in the public arena, then religious discourse will be meaningless, and revolve around the extreme end, distracting our politics and endangering our world.
We cannot let the ‘shallow end’ control our religious conversation, nor should we let the highly-educated intimate us into being shy to talk about our own faith. It is the absence of good quality religious talk in our private lives and the public square that allows the vacuum to be filled by uninformed and narrow versions of religious talk.
Religion by its nature impels us into speech. We must speak of religion to each other, and more importantly out there, because in so doing we without ever saying “come” offer invites to those so called ‘non-religious’, invites that will gnaw at them until they look and seek for themselves. After all religion is the ultimate category of meaning.