Sermon: “What We Call God, Or Don’t”
All day yesterday, the Board and our Committee on Ministry and I met for a retreat facilitated by the new Regional Lead for the Pacific Western Region of the UUA,
We were there to officially “start up” my new senior ministry – which meant we spent a lot of time digging into our shared expectations, our history, and especially some of the unspoken “rules” and “traditions” of this congregation, things that it would be good for any new minister to be aware of.
Since my ministry is new, but I am not, I wasn’t surprised to find that on the list the unspoken rule that we don’t talk too much about God.
James however, looked a little concerned, as he asked, wait, what’s your sermon topic tomorrow? God, I said.
Actually the first sermon I ever preached – in 2007– was on God. As I planned the summer schedule this spring, I realized every year since then, one Sunday in July ends up being a sermon about God. I don’t know why – maybe just like I said last Sunday, the summer is a good time to explore some of these bigger ideas – But even more, as the leadership affirmed yesterday – I believe strongly that we can’t be afraid to talk about things,
even if it means breaking an unspoken rule.
Unitarian Universalism should mean we are able to explore fully, to keep exploring,
to let truth continue to be revealed, to be open to it, to see what it has to offer now,
and what we have to offer it. And so here we are.
The first time I started to re-consider God was in the lecture hall at the Iliff School of theology though it was a few years before I actually enrolled.
I was there as a part of my congregation’s worship team, attending a conference on music, feelings and impacting the heart in worship.
While it wasn’t just about Unitarian Universalist worship, the UU theologian and scholar, Thandeka, was the keynote speaker, and my minister and music director were presenting in one of the sessions. I arrived eagerly hoping to learn more about how to craft worship for our context, and curious about how our often-overly-heady services might better engage the heart.
Before this point, my thinking about God could be characterized in two ways, based in two periods of my life –
First, the Catholic way. Although heavily influenced by the scripture from John: “God is love, abide in God,” this way remained confined to an image of God that was a noun – something or someone, with all the omnis affirmed – ominiscient (all seeing), omnipotent (all powerful), and omnipresent (all everywhere).
This God determined everything, judged everything, created everything, saw everything.
This period of God-thinking continued through my freshman year in college, after which, it fell apart.
Enter, the second way.
There was no crisis of faith, but more, a letting go. The catholic way simply didn’t compel me any longer – it was like I “woke up” and saw what had always had been, but I’d overlooked – and suddenly, this idea of god felt profoundly unworthy of worship,
and thoroughly disconnected to my highest ideals.
If you would’ve asked me directly, I would’ve said I was an atheist, which sometimes I thought just meant – nothing.
By the time I found myself in the lecture hall listening to Thandeka, I was hungry for something positive and constructive – words and tools that were more than just what I didn’t believe.
I had been a Unitarian Universalist for about seven years, and a member of our church’s worship team for a few years – I was long past the relief of the freedom I experienced in Unitarian Universalism – I understood what it was we weren’t worshipping – I wanted to be able to name what it was we were, to claim a deeper connection and understanding to something that was worthy of worship – but I had no idea where to even begin.
What Thandeka said that day – I know now – is not all that revolutionary. In fact you’d likely hear a version of it in the opening lecture to most any class exploring theology,
especially liberal theology. But for me, it was precisely the opening I needed to open up my heart, expand my mind, and take in greater complexity and begin that constructive, positive vision.
A decade later, I still remember writing her words big and bold in my notebook, circled and underlined. She said:
First there exists ultimate reality, then there are words to describe the reality.
First Truth – with a capitol T, then words attempting to name that truth.
The words are not the truth, they are secondary.
Words get feelings and meaning attached to them, traditions ascribed, but those feelings and meanings should not be confused with the reality itself.
Further, the language that we use to describe ultimate reality should always be considered an approximation – profoundly inadequate, inherently inaccurate.
As my theology professor Edward Antonio said a few years later,
all theology is a lie.
It is. Because in theology, you are attempting to convey what – by its definition – no one can understand, and put into words that for which – by its definition – there are no words.
This is one of the reasons that religious Jews are hesitant to say aloud or write in print the name of the divine – for in naming, you shrink the reality to something that could be named, which means you are not accurately describing anything, and yet seeming as if you are.
As is said in the Hindu scriptures: “Those who think that God is not comprehended, by them God is comprehended; but those who think that God is comprehended, know God not.’”
Separating the reality from the word frees us from the usual debates – the up/down vote-
the going to our corners – about the existence of G-O-D, and instead invites us to explore and become curious about that underlying reality. We might try on different frames, metaphors and language – knowing all of it is partial and still evolving – We can freely consider whether the ideas we have – and our sources of truth – are actually telling us anything about ultimate reality – and how we’d know if they did.
And most importantly, separating the reality from the language about the reality allows us to better consider – for ourselves, and without reactivity – what this underlying reality asks of us, our lives, and our life together.
As Unitarian minister A. Powell Davies said, “What we must ask then, is not whether there is a God, as though God could be something outside everything else, but what it is
of which we have experience when we feel the power of truth, or the claim of justice, or the sense of beauty. We experience something in each of these” – what is it?
Theologians have gone back and forth as to whether or not humans can access this reality by way of our direct experience. Our religious forebears, starting with the man known as the founder of liberal theology, Friedrich Schleiermacher and continuing through the Transcendentalists – made the strong assertion that humans can directly experience divine reality, that experience is actually the most trustworthy source of information of ultimacy.
We see this assertion in our faith today in our first source, the “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder.”
Returning to the story I shared last week when I was talking about Truth – the farmer who said “we’ll see” – he is experiencing the reality that James Luther Adams described as “human dependence for being and freedom upon a creative power and upon processes not ultimately of our own making.” Adams says “this experience can be understood theistically, or atheistically.” But either way, it is an experience of being ultimately a piece of a larger interdependent web – a reality that is beyond ourselves – and yet one that still has tangible bearing on our lives.
Rather than the experience of dependence, Unitarian Henry Nelson Weiman, in his 1926 book Religious Experience and Scientific Method, focused on the experience of “opening oneself to the widest possible range of sensuous qualities that may be available in the present moment.
As scholar Paul Rasor describes, Weiman tried to apply a lens of scientific inquiry to a ‘state of diffusive awareness,’ the kind where ‘one becomes aware of a far larger portion of the totality of immediate experience which constantly flows over us.’”
Wieman’s work was an early forerunner into the latest field in theology, what’s called neurotheology, where we turn to neuroscience and the study of people’s brains in meditation or prayer – the deep experiences where the practitioner feels utterly connected to all that is, or where they report the self slipping away into an ultimate oneness.
Here personal experience meets up with scientific analysis to offer an even fuller –
yet still partial – picture of ultimacy.
It’s not just when you are by yourself – meditating or convening with nature – that these experiences of ultimacy show up. Throughout the twentieth century, feminist theology, liberation theology and process theology pointed to the utter connectedness, dependence and awe we experience by way of relationship with others. Relational experience is where we start to get god as a verb – a strong concept not just in feminism but in Jewish mysticism – which is the idea that we are held not in love, the noun, but in love the verb – in loving – and that our experience of active, dialogical, co-creative interchange with other people is where we can most fully access what is ultimately at the heart of the universe.
Experience as a source of ultimate knowledge – however- is not without its problems –
shaped as it is by our culture, our life experiences, our personal preferences, and our biases and prejudices. Not only does experience lead to language, but the language we use in turn shapes how and what we experience, and how we interpret that experience.
Liberal theologian Gordon Kaufman believes that ultimacy is more reliably discovered through observation, scientific understanding, metaphor, and stories. As Paul Rasor summarizes, for Kaufman, ultimacy is the “creative cosmic and evolutionary forces that ground and sustain everything that exists.”
Neil de Grasse Tyson would feel comfortable in framework – as would Nancy Ellen Abrams whose book, A God that Could Be Real, that our book group read last year – explores the new science of emergence as a way to think about what Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich called “The Ground of Our Being.”
Over the past decade, since Thandeka first intorduced me to the possibility of separating the reality from the language describing that reality, I’ve spent a lot of time considering the value of rejoining the two – the value specifically of using the word most people use to describe ultimacy: God. .
Where I am today is not where I was a few years ago – and probably not where I’ll be in few months either – “Revelation is continuous.”
The word God can for some do the opposite of what we want to be doing when we explore our great interconnectedness, and the connectedness of all of life across all time and space, and for many it doesn’t come even a bit close to that feeling of being small and vulnerable and yet somehow still held, and it can utterly fail to describe the feelings we get when gripped by a sense of justice, or overwhelmed in awe by great beauty, or compelled by gratitude for all these gifts of life, all that’s given, that keeps being given.
The word God can keep god shrunk.
Which is why we shouldn’t just throw it around, as if we know what we mean, as if we’re saying anything by using it, as if there’s anything we should say except, Great Mystery.
And yet I don’t think we should avoid it entirely – the word, and more importantly,
the curiosity and exploration of the underlying experience and reality it’s trying to describe. We need dialogue about our concepts of God – we need to feel free to explore what we mean, what we know, what we have let go of – and why.
Galen Guengerich – senior minister of All Souls in NYC, in his book, God Revised says that even if we reject the idea that there is a supernatural God, we still need a concept of God.
His reasoning is twofold – first, that most people in the world, in America specifically, affirm an experience and/or belief in God, and so if we’re going to be in relationship with most people – which our faith asks us to do – then we need to have a working understanding of the idea of God, and in turn be able to articulate how this understanding has bearing on our lives, and on life itself.
Especially, if we’re going to be effective in interfaith work, it can be helpful if when our friends across the table are praying “Dear God,” we don’t flinch, or tighten up with defensiveness – or even sigh with a subtle discomfort or judgment – but instead connect with the feelings and experiences we mean and understand – the sense of ultimate mystery.
And friends, let’s also acknowledge that these differences are not just about those who are beyond this community, but within – as our survey last year and my personal experience testifies, we have just as many people who long for God and God-talk as we do who avoid it entirely. It is all of our task to try to understand one another, to bring curiosity and a capacity to translate for ourselves what the other is trying to express and share, and to make meaning together even across these different understandings, and different preferred words.
Secondly, Galen argues that we need a word to describe those experiences of life in the ultimate sense- we need a word to describe that feeling of being connected to everything else.
As he says, “We have a word for the totality of the physical world; the word is universe.
We also need a word for the unification of all the experiences in the universe; that word is God. When I say, ‘I believe in God,’ I’m saying that I believe in an experience that intimately and extensively connects me to all that is – all that is present, as well as all that is past, and all that is possible.”
One last thing. Poet Stephen Dunn writes about his daughter who – much to his dismay – came home from summer camp with a Jesus Saves button. Considering her enthusiasm, he has to acknowledge, “You can’t say to your child, ‘Evolution loves you.” It is – as he says – “magical, but devoid of heroes.”
God – and the stories and images and metaphors that you might attach to God, whether of the Jesus or other variety – engages our imagination and our heart in ways our children, and we often long for. When we release the language from the reality, put sufficient space there, then the language and stories can be creative, playful, and free – we can explore them for their helpfulness, the ways they empower us, comfort us, and call us into living fuller, we can explore without feeling too stuck in them and what they precisely mean– because they don’t have to be exactly true – actually we know they aren’t. And it’s in knowing this, remembering this – that we might just approach something that is.