God Revised

PictureSeveral years ago, I was sitting at the desk in the Chaplain’s office at the Denver Women’s Prison, waiting for one of the inmates, and I could hear my own breathing.  It was heavy, and quick, which was not at all what I wanted it to be.  I wanted it to be calm, and centered.  But it was no use.  It was my first pastoral care appointment – first, ever – and I was nervous.

She arrived shy, and slow.  She showed me her ID, and her pass, told me her number quickly, formally.

She sat down across from me, and called me “Pastor.” And then it was quiet.  We both breathed, and I knew I wasn’t the only one trying to be braver than I felt.

“Did you have something you’d like to ask me,” I began.  “How can I help?”

Finally, she offered, “I’ve been having some struggles with the Devil. Actually, I’m angry at God.” She backpedaled quickly.  “I know that’s a sin.  I can’t be angry at God.  I’m just angry at myself.  I’ve been fighting myself.”  And then she held out her arms, covered in scars, lines running horizontally up and down her veins.

When providing pastoral care, you always want to ask yourself the questions:  why me, why here, why now?

We all show up with our own stories, and questions, fears and struggles. And part of the power of pastoral care lies in the mysterious ways our stories come together in a given moment in service of a new healing, and hope.

As I sat there that afternoon with this beautiful, wounded woman, I couldn’t help but shake my head at the mystery of being handed her request, this random request of all the requests that are made to the chaplains’ office every day.  To be handed this one.  For this to be my very first.

There were other reasons, but the one I return to whenever I think about our conversation, was God.  With all her scars and her anger and her fear, she was stuck on God.  Stuck on a God that couldn’t handle her for who she was, couldn’t take her anger, her pain, or her truest self.  Stuck on a God that required her to injure herself to make herself worthy of life, worthy of forgiveness and transformation and hope.

And I think I was there because, for much of my life, I have gotten stuck on God too.  Stuck on old notions, stuck on all the ways I’ve let God go, let a certain kind of God go, stuck on asserting what I mean when I say “God,” asserting so much I have sometimes failed to listen to what others experience as “God,” or misunderstood their joy or their struggles with their God, asserting so much I fail to experience along side them, the mysterious, transcendent, active source of a Love greater than I can even conceive, and failed to respond to this Love that is everywhere available and abundant asking me simply to help spread its reach.

Our religious tradition’s awkward 10-syllable name – Unitarian Universalist- is one of the few that expresses two explicit claims about the nature of God.

  • Unitarianism affirms the unity of God and rejects Trinitarian orthodoxy in favor of Unitarianism.  God is One.
  • Universalism asserts that a loving God would damn no one to hell – we are universally saved.

These origins of our UU identity are perhaps especially ironic given that for a long time, our religious movement – has also been stuck on God.

For a long time, God has been like a taboo word in many of our congregations, and over time, we all learned to self-identify our theological leanings as a way of determining if we were truly among like-minded individuals – despite our lifting up of the saying attributed to 16th century Unitarian, Francis David, that we need not think alike to love alike.

Are you a theist or an atheist, Christian or humanist, Buddhist or Pagan, Mystic or Activist…pick, pick, pick; define, define, define; stuck, stuck, stuck.

This strict theological labeling spread as folks who attended our churches began to think of themselves as Unitarian Universalists hybrid with something else – atheist UU, Christian UU, Buddhist UU, etc. etc.

Although when it came down to it, it was often light on the UU; heavy on the other thing.  Unitarian Universalism was as if an empty vessel through which we could practice these other things that actually meant something, actually held content of meaning and purpose.

As Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams warned against, as the various categories hardened, life began to seep out of them, and so out of us, and our religious communities.

There are many reasons we embraced this “hardening of the categories.”  Among them:
We weren’t sure how to define ourselves as a singular body after the consolidation of Unitarians and Universalists in 1961, and so we needed to anchor ourselves in identities already defined.

Also, we were nervous that speaking about God would reveal only our differences and break our fragile bond. We lacked faith in, as well as understanding of, our covenantal way.  “We need not think alike to love alike.”

And, we had an influx of folks from other religious traditions who – like the woman I spoke with in the prison, had been taught a constricted concept of God that had left them injured and reactive.  In a well-intended spirit of compassion, our congregations ceded to their request that no mention of God be made else it trigger these past experiences.

And then, the confluence of the religious right with the political right and the concept of the “Moral Majority” in the 1980s convinced us that our only available path was to claim ourselves in reaction to both of these, and posture ourselves an anti-religion religion. I suppose, when “prayer” and “God” look like that in public, distancing ourselves entirely must’ve felt like the best possible option.

But something interesting has been happening in Unitarian Universalist churches in the past 10 or 15 years, or at least in the faith communities I interact with in the west.
A tide is turning.  And it has nothing to do with whether or not we have figured out how to use technology in worship (mostly we haven’t), or whether or not we have great websites (really), or whether or not we are reaching out beyond our church buildings (not so much). The turning is deeper and more substantive than all that.  It’s the kind of turning that actually bears the hope of our survival, our continuing relevance in the ever-changing world.

The turning is about God.

I want to lift up two stories that illustrate this turn. There are surely a host of others, but these are two that stand out for me:

The first, was in my preaching class at my liberal Methodist seminary – the Iliff School of Theology, in Denver. The professor for homiletics was fabulous, but also known for being relentlessly puzzled by Unitarian Universalists.  In my preaching course, there were 4 Unitarian Universalist ministers-to-be, all at different stages of our education and formation.  In the second or third class, one of the others ended up in a dialogue with the professor, that ultimately resulted in her asking for that theological concretism we’ve been trading in for the prior 40ish years.

She said to my friend, “Wait, what are you? I mean, are you a Christian or a Humanist or a Buddhist or…?”

And my friend paused and looked confused, and she said, “I’m a Unitarian Universalist.”

“Oh yeah, yeah,” my teacher responded, “But what kind of UU are you?”

“I’m a Unitarian Universalist.”  The teacher was really confused now.  She went around and asked all of us to self-identify, and without fail, we all said, “I’m a Unitarian Universalist.”  She was totally shocked.  I hope it led her to go learn – as it was clear we all had – what it meant to be a Unitarian Universalist, without qualifiers attached, and to imagine that “Unitarian Universalist” could be an identity with sufficient meaning and content all on its own.

The second, was at General Assembly in Salt Lake City in 2009, when the Rev. Galen Guengerich, Senior Minister at All Souls in New York City, taught a 2-day workshop, with each day in the range of 6 hours long, on UU Theology.  And over 300 people attended.  It was crazy, everyone was stunned – after the first day most predicted they’d lose about half the attendees, but in fact new people showed up, and the room was bursting with energy and enthusiasm.

All this to hear what was basically a workshop on concepts of God.   And it wasn’t like – Build Your Own Theology – it was, here’s UU worship integrated with a constructive theology, here are our hymns put along side big theological questions. It wasn’t individual focused, it was offered as a gift to all, an invitation to the “we” of Unitarian Universalism and a theology we could express for today.  It didn’t assume that everyone agreed with every little detail – but it was willing to make some concrete and particular claims, that most Unitarian Universalists found compelling and helpful.

The fall after I returned from that General Assembly, I was interning at the UU Church of Boulder, where one of the members had been one of those nearly 400 – and though he had long self-identified as an atheist, he was on fire.  He proposed we work together to create a class based on the workshop, and offer it to members at UUCB. As soon as we advertised we were doing it, we had 20 people enroll, and over those 8 weeks of our course, we never had fewer than 15 in attendance, and always they’d show up having read all the articles, ready to talk and wonder and construct theology, together.

Since then, Galen has taken much of what he offered in his workshop, along with a variety of other sermons and articles, and turned the whole thing into a book published last year, God Revised.

As with his workshop, the book has Galen tackling a series of common theological questions.

He begins with epistemology – how it is we know what we know. Generally, he affirms human experience as the primary test for truth, and upholds logic, reason and rationality as critical tools.  Still, he leaves room for mystery, acknowledging “the most important realities are often the hardest ones to see.”

From there, he addresses the nature of existence, and ways of describing everything – everything.

This leads directly to his concept of God, which Dick’s reading summarized pretty well.  God to him is not supernatural, but a way of speaking about that everything everything – it is a way to name our experience of being interdependent, located in time and place but aware of all the many other times and places of the past, present, and future.  His theology of God calls to mind something Unitarian Burdette Backer, one of the signers of the 1931 Humanist Manifesto said about her concept of God: “We are the children of a creative and dynamic universe, and its restless energy is at work within us to carry forward the work of creation.  This is what I mean when I say I believe in God – God is not an idea; God is work to be done in the world.”

Galen also deals the nature of humanity, as well as the role of religion and the nature of faith.  He asks if we need to be saved, if so, from what, by what? He addresses our mission or purpose in the world, and proposes an ethical paradigm he calls an ethic of gratitude.  And finally, he makes a proposal for how all this can and should be lived out within Unitarian Universalism and our Unitarian Universalist congregations.

There’s a lot about God Revised and Galen’s work that doesn’t resonate for me.  I find its insistence on the Enlightenment as an anchoring paradigm to be problematic and outdated for a multi-cultural, post-colonial and post-modern world.  And I find its division between “traditional” religion and the concepts he calls “evolved” to be somewhat condescending and not even all that accurate.

The book A House for Hope by John Buehrens and Rebecca Parker – also a recent Unitarian Universalist comprehensive theology – offers an account I find more compatible with post-modern, feminist, womanist, mujerista, and queer theologies – you can find it in our book store as well as for your e-reader on Amazon.

And still, I remain profoundly grateful to Galen and what he’s been up to in his ministry over the past decade and I recommend his book to all of you.  His writing pulls us out of the theist-atheist polarity desert we’ve been wandering in these last 40 or so years. He offers a way to say that both are right, and he does this grounded in a specific theology that makes particular claims. His willingness to speak boldly and straightforwardly in turn reveals and inspires our collective hunger and capacity to do this kind of bold and straightforward theology together, and more regularly, as Unitarian Universalists.

PictureOn that day in the prison, what now feels like a lifetime ago, the woman held out her arms covered in scars, and my heart broke for her.  The God she had been taught to believe in couldn’t take the anger inside her, couldn’t take her shame, or her pain.  It would be too overwhelming, too frightening or offensive to her flimsy God.

As our stories came together that day, she and I started to revise these ideas she had for God, to let God grow, let God be bigger, big enough to take it all – all the messiness, all the anger, all the fight we could throw.

I kept encouraging her – God can take it! Just yell, and scream, and ask God why?

I think she was terrified.

Yet still, for those few moments, I felt our breathing slow and there was a tangible feeling of love and hope between us, all made possible through our shared construction of an image of God beyond that which would offer salvation by way of self-injury.

God.  God is a word.  God is a word we use to try to describe the feeling we have of being small and big and powerful and helpless, and alone and yet somehow connected to everything else; it’s our shorthand to describe our sense of an Ultimate Reality.

Where we run into trouble, is when we confuse the naming of the experience with the experience itself – and imagine that the conclusions and interpretations we’ve made, or that someone else has made – are primary, and then lock up these conclusions as set in stone and force our lived experiences to comply.

I began this month speaking on idolatry, and that’s just what this kind of confusion is.  Treating the interpretation as if it’s the thing itself.  But all theology is an attempt to describe what is indescribable, to name the unnamable.  Which means, in many ways, all theological utterances are lies.  And as the Upanishads attest, “’Those who think that God is not comprehended, by them God is comprehended; but those who think that God is comprehended, know God not.’”

Still, as meaning-makers, humans must attempt to bring to speech some concept of life in its widest possible sense, to acknowledge our experience of the mysterious reality within which we all live. We are compelled to interpret and to try to understand, compelled to attempt to name and claim the story we are in, and our role in it.  We are all natural theologians.  We can’t help it.

God Revised, as you heard in the reading, advocates strongly for integrating into our interpretations a concept of God, and the use of God language.  Personally, I am not sure it matters all that much. As James Luther Adams also offers, the Spirit of Life can be interpreted theistically or atheistically.

What does matter, is that we continue to loosen our categories, let more breathing room in, let ourselves explore and not get stuck – on God, or on any of it.

What is critical is that we experiment with holy curiosity and let down our defenses so we can better hear one another, be with one another, recover from our individual and collective religious injuries of the past, and move together into a free and creative, liberated and liberating constructive theology, one that I am confident will be the lifeblood of our living, breathing, Unitarian Universalist faith.

May it be so.

The sermon and its future versions are dedicated to the Revs Nancy Bowen and Howell Lind, who have made sure we all knew what it meant to be Unitarian Universalists, no qualifier needed.

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About Rev. Gretchen Haley

Gretchen Haley serves as the Senior Minister of the Foothills Unitarian Church in Fort Collins, CO. She's relentlessly curious about most things, especially the big stuff of theology, the beauty of creation and poetry, the magic of collaboration, and the great joy and often-great-depth of popular (and less popular) television and music. She and her partner of 17 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (10) and Josef (8).
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One Response to God Revised

  1. Pingback: UU Book Discussion Group - Foothills Unitarian Church of Fort Collins, CO

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