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Mark Hicks

Religious Beliefs and Prejudice

Hi Friends -

We’ve got chapter 9 in Romans annotated with Charles Fillmore commentary. Here is the link:  The first paragraph (verses 1-5) is part of the Revised Common Lectionary reading for this Sunday. Much of the annotations are based on a Unity commentary of 1936, which you can read here:

One way to interpret this passage, and the rest of the chapter, is to consider how Paul’s own people, whom he calls “the Israelites” had a consciousness of being privileged because of “God’s Election of Israel.” Paul says that their sense of being privileged made it difficult for “the Israelites” to “accept the gospel” which is based on faith, not on ethnic identity (the flesh). Feeling “great sorrow and unceasing pain” for his “own people,” Paul argued that God is working out a plan for a more universal salvation, not for the Elect only, but rather for the “children of the promise.”

If this seems relevant to the conversations we are having today regarding privilege, ethnic identity and being "God's Elect," it is. And this historical interpretation is certainly a valid way apply the biblical text to our spiritual journey.

But it is not the only way to interpret this passage. And it is not the way that Charles Fillmore interpreted it either. Charles always looked through the historical account to see the deeper insight playing out in the spiritual realm. For Charles Fillmore, the “Israelites” were not an ethnic group “according to the flesh” but rather “the illumined thoughts in [our] consciousness, which are undergoing spiritual discipline.” They include, as the 1936 commentary says, our “conscious prejudices and narrow religious beliefs.” The commentary asks,

“When we enter into spiritual consciousness, do we find that all our former religious beliefs and prejudices are at once transformed?” And the commentary continues, saying, ”we either surrender our conscious prejudices and narrow religious beliefs, or we allow them to be transformed.”

I bring this up because I see many people in Unity trying to get a handle on the relationship between religious belief and prejudice. I did so myself back in June when I wrote about Solipsism and when I wrote two weeks ago about Essentialism. Facing and discussing prejudice is extremely difficult. No doubt, in dealing with prejudice, we need to go deep and stay with it until transformation occurs. The 1936 commentary goes on to explain why discussing prejudice is so difficult:

“Although spiritual consciousness brings us into a realization of strength and power, it does not at once transform our fixed religious beliefs and prejudices of long standing. Established as these are in the subconsciousness, they emerge again and again to be dealt with by us in our overcoming. We desire to keep our sense of reverence and awe and to capture again the inspiration that was ours when we embraced our childhood faith. All these ‘Israelites’ we bring in time, into the security of the Christ Spirit.”

Now, having read that, many people will want to focus on the collective character of “conscious prejudices and narrow religious beliefs.” And the way they will do so will be less than compassionate: with snarky references to traditional language, with put downs about “embedded” theology, and, particularly now, with broad accusations of white Christian racism in the church. That there is white Christian racism in the church is no doubt true. And it needs to be addressed.

But addressing collective prejudice isn’t what the apostle Paul wrote about, nor was it what Charles Fillmore is talking about. And, to be honest, my sense is that most of Jesus’ teachings about the poor and the oppressed was not so much about political and social justice as it was about our individual conscious and subconscious prejudices and our narrow religious beliefs.

If we ignore our individual character and place all our focus on the collective, then our “Israelites”—our spiritual thoughts, which are trying to develop into full Christ-like thoughts—will not mature. They will “reject the gospel”—or at least the gospel of love, grace and forgiveness, just as Paul’s “own people” rejected the gospel and as many do today who lash out on social media. Let me explain why I believe that is so.

As Paul laments, rejecting the gospel means we miss out on all the things associated with the transformation–the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises and blessing. It’s difficult to grow in love, grace and forgiveness when we’re throwing rocks at others.

Put another way, our focus on collective prejudice will get us nowhere until we make progress with our individual prejudice. And our collective conversation on religious beliefs and prejudice will be healthy as long as we do what the 1936 commentary does: talk about ourselves first and foremost, not others.

And when I say ourselves, I mean each one of us speaking about our own personal religious beliefs and prejudices before we talk about all of our collective religious beliefs and prejudices. What I have observed doesn’t rise to that level, at least on social media.

My hope is that biblical references such as this chapter in Romans and time-honored commentary such as Unity published in 1936 will provide some guard rails as we open ourselves—individually and collectively—to the transformation by the Holy Spirit.

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Mark Hicks
Sunday, August 2, 2020

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