Voice of Reason

Rev. Thomas takes a levelheaded look at religion and faith

Commentary

by Barry Henderson

My friend the Rev. Oliver â“Buzzâ” Thomas has written this book about God, and religion, and faith. He's eminently qualified to discuss the subjects, as he's an ordained Baptist minister. He's also a distinguished attorney and one of the foremost authorities in America on the matter of separation of church and state. He's rededicated himself to education, serving as executive director of the Greeneville, Tenn.-based Niswonger Foundation, and the book he's produced is a testament to his commitment to education.

The book is titled 10 Things Your Minister Wants to Tell You (But Can't, Because He Needs the Job) (St. Martin New York). There are 10 chapters, in which Thomas lays out his perceptions of religion in the historical perspective he's acquired in a lifetime of study and practice. Impressively, he gets it all down in 108 pages. I wasn't surprised at its compactness, because Thomas is adept at being direct. I was a little surprised at how much it moved me, but I shouldn't have been. Thomas, who was once general counsel to the National Council of Churches, poses his opinions in ways that are often revelatory.

I should preface this discussion of his book, which amounts to a review, by saying that I became Thomas' friend when I interviewed him for a story several years ago for a July 4 issue of Metro Pulse . It became a story about him and his career as a champion of church-state separation. I allowed him to write his own account of the importance of that separation to run alongside the main story. In it, he made some arguments that I still use in discussing the issue. He said that freedom of religion is fundamental to the rights set out in the first 10 Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. If people are not allowed to believe what they wish to believe and to disbelieve what they wish to disbelieve, he said, none of the other Bill of Rights provisions will be respectedâ"not free speech or a free pressâ"none of them.

If you think about that, you'll probably have to agree.

Thomas has similarly pithy things to say about religion, or religions, really. Tolerance of all religions is a cornerstone of his little book. The chapters are listed in capsule form on the dust cover, as well as set out in the contents. They represent questions that nearly every clergyman must be familiar with and most laymen have pondered over. They are:

How Did It All Begin? Why Are We Here? What Is the Bible? Is There Really Such a Think As a Miracle? How Do I Please God? What About Women? What About Homosexuality? What About Other Faiths? What Happens After We Die? How Will It All End?

OK, you've thought about such things. Thomas doesn't pretend to have all the answers, but he's willing to discuss them in terms you can't help but understand and that will very likely enlighten you in ways you haven't fully considered. His is a Christian perspective, but it is laced through and through with ecumenism. If he preaches anything, it is tolerance. He sees no contradiction between Creation and Evolution. â“God did it,â” he says of Creation, â“and He's still doing it in the form of Evolution.â” Thomas sees men and women as equals in God's eyes, no matter what was set out in the Bible millennia ago. He finds nothing in the teachings of Jesus that attacks homosexuality or provides any basis for discrimination against homosexuals (yes, he discusses Leviticus and its many abominations). What happens at death? That's a tough one, but he views the concepts of Heaven and Hell as states of mind, rather than physical conditions. And his descriptions of Revelations reflect his belief that the tales are just thatâ"tales of the unknowable.

Thomas' view of the Bible is that it cannot be taken literally as the word of God, that it is not inerrant. Jesus, he explains, was human, but an exemplary human, even with his faults. So if one follows the teachings of Jesus as much as is humanly possible, the achievement of a state of Christian grace is within reach, in Thomas' estimation. That doesn't mean it's easy, but he makes it seem not as hard as it at first appears.

The whole of the Christian religion was summarized by Jesus, even before there was such a thing as Christianity. Love God and love your neighbor. That's it, and Thomas takes it on faith that it will work out. So who's your neighbor, in that regard? Anyone in need was Jesus' answer.

If that sounds too simple, try it before you dismiss it, Thomas suggests.

You won't find it out from the note describing Thomas' past and present pursuits, but he was an all-state linebacker at Maryville High School who went to UT and tore up a knee. He went on to UT law school, dropped out to follow his vocation to Baptist Seminary, where he graduated first in his class, ministered in the poorest district of New Orleans for a time, then returned to UT law, where he also graduated first in his class. Recently, he's been shepherding the Niswonger Foundation's contributions toward education in Upper East Tennessee's economically deprived school district, and he still answers the occasional call to help resolve disputes over religion or to speak on the separation of church and state.

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