16913 Germantown Road
Germantown, Maryland 20875-0320
Three UU Ways to Talk about God
Presenter:Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date:Sun, 10/18/2009
God, God, God.
Is there a more difficult subject for Unitarian Universalists? I don’t think so, actually.
We have such an inherent contradiction in UU congregations, really. Here we are this morning, together, at what is clearly a worship service. It isn’t even a worship service much different in form from a Protestant worship service. Even the hymn tunes are the same, although those of us in the know are very aware that the words are often quite different.
But here we all are, clearly at…church, right? Even though what brought so very many of us here is that we couldn’t be a part of our original religions any more, that we became, at least in some way, unbelievers. This is especially true for UUs who came to us through the 1950s and 60s and 70s and 80s.
Most UUs who came to us then came because they rejected the religion they grew up in – whether because the religion couldn’t tolerate their questions, or because it seemed to focus on separation and disdain between people rather than love and community, or because the religion forced belief in things that we couldn’t believe in because they didn’t make sense to us, at least not the way they were being taught.
And one of those things that didn’t make sense to a lot of people who came to UUism was God.
Especially God in the particular way that it was taught by many churches and synagogues, and still often is, really – God as sort of a real-life Santa Claus, the white man with the white beard up in the sky, sitting on some cloud that no meterologist can see, who is supposed to bestow gifts onto those who follow rules that he made up and punishments to those who don’t follow those rules, but who in actual fact seems to bestow gifts and punishments according to whim and in no discernable system at all.
The innocent suffer, the wicked prosper, the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike, and any scientist worth her salt knows for damn sure that there is no holy golden temple between our atmosphere and space, so what is this heaven thing anyway? It’s enough to make one a non-believer, that’s for sure. And so lots of UUs are non-believers, or at least they don’t believe in this sort of scenario, anyway.
Yet we Unitarian Universalists also come to our congregations because we’re interested in a free search for our own spiritual truths, and our own free searches often lead us to believe, to know, that there is a sacred center to our existence that is mysterious, that is hard to pin down, but is powerful and very, very real. Even our most hardened UU atheists believe in the enduring power of love, of community, of human connection, or they wouldn’t be in our pews on Sundays.
And the new folks coming to our congregations nowadays often don’t come because they are rejecting any sort of church or synagogue that they grew up with, but instead come because they grew up altogether unchurched but have learned that somehow a merely secular life isn’t quite enough. They too are looking to put their finger on that ineffable Something, that Source that makes life worthwhile and meaningful and gives direction to their actions and frames their opinions. It is quite the act of counter-cultural bravery to come to a church these days, especially if you’ve never really been to one before, and there is a strong drive that gets these people into our doors. It’s wonderful that SCUU has become so committed to welcoming such folks when they come to us.
But, unfortunately, our Unitarian Universalist congregations often fall short right here, at this juncture in our searches for the holy in-between the desire to learn and the Finding Out. UU congregations welcome and encourage the search, in my opinion, but don’t encourage the finding near enough – the finding of our own truths that each of us needs to feel spiritually settled.
And when we do find our answers, we aren’t really invited to share them in our communities, for fear that we will be seen as imposing our beliefs on others – something that we UUs have covenanted with each other not to do. And so our findings often go unexplored. This is a truth about our UU culture that needs to be named.
Well, I know there’s lots of room for different beliefs about God and the holy in our churches, and that it’s good to just start getting our truths out there, because if we can’t help our seekers find their truths, then really, what good are we as a religious community? And so today I’d like to offer three different ideas about the nature of God, in hopes of encouraging your contemplation, your thinking. None of these ideas may appeal to you, or they all might, and that’s okay. Because if there’s one thing that theologians and religious thinkers know for sure it’s that whatever it is we’re talking about, it’s big and complicated and we can’t understand all of it, not at once. That’s what makes it so cool and compelling, in my opinion, but it also encourages our seekers to open their minds and think in new ways.
Sometimes the very word God is such a huge block for UU listeners that they cant’ think of anything else except how much they can’t relate to that word. And you may have already noticed that I use the term God pretty freely. I remind you of Forrest Church’s words, from the opening of our service: “God is not God’s name. God is OUR name for that which is greater than all of us, but which resides in each of us.” Greater than all of us, but resides in each of us. That’s what we’re talking about today. That’s where we start, whether we use the term God to refer to it or not – that which is greater than all of us, but resides in each of us.
As I mentioned in our Words for All Ages, two of our ways of talking about God come from the very walls of what are now Unitarian Universalist sanctuaries. This first sanctuary we’ll discuss is that of Universalist National Memorial Church in Washington DC, right there on 16th street a few blocks north of All Souls Church, Unitarian, which we discussed earlier. The sanctuary of Universalist National Memorial was built in the 1930s out of stone and wood, and carved into the stone in the back of the sanctuary are the words that form the first of our UU ways to talk about God. Those words are originally from the biblical book of John, in terminology that those in the early 20th century would be very comfortable with:
[Just so you know, there will be a yellow half-sheet of paper at the back on the way out with these statements for you to take and think about more as you go on, so you don’t need to write them down or anything, in case you were so inclined…]
God is love and he who dwelleth in love dwelleth in God and God in him.
Most of you know that these are fairly unusual words for a UU congregation in this day and age. As I mentioned, we’re much more hesitant nearly 100 years later about even using the God word, never mind carving it in our sanctuary walls. And our strong commitment to gender inclusive language is certainly not seen in this statement. And yet I invite you to examine this phrase because it says something definitive about the nature of God, or that which is greater than all of us, that which is our sacred center.
This statement -- God is love and he who dwelleth in love dwelleth in God and God in him – defines God as Love. It does not say that God is loving, or really nice, or could be nice if you’re good. It says that God IS love. God equals love. Love equals God. The two terms are interchangeable. You could say “I believe in God”, or you could say “I believe in love”, and it would be the same thing to say.
The statement goes further in its radical definition, because it says that those of us who dwell in love are in fact dwelling in God. So that brings two questions, to my mind:
One, What does it mean to dwell in love, to live, to reside, in a loving state? What would it mean for our lives, for our world, if we were to actually DWELL in love?
And two, what would it mean for our relationship with any of our past Jewish or Christian religions if we understood the definition of God to be love, nothing more and not one bit less? How would we better understand such big questions as the meaning of our lives, the meaning of life itself, if we equated the troublesome term Godwith the enormity of the term Love?
How would such a definition change our actions, our purpose as Unitarian Universalists?
Our second way of talking about God comes from a congregation that likely doesn’t think it’s talking about God at all, and only very recently began talking about Unitarian Universalism. This congregation is the Washington Ethical Society, also on 16th street in Washington DC, which two years ago voted to join the Unitarian Universalist Association while retaining their status as an Ethical Society. In the interest of time, I won’t say more about that, but suffice it to say that ethical culture is very interested in issues of how to live right in the world, and not in the slightest bit interested, at least officially, in theological questions of who or what is God. And yet, painted over their sanctuary (or auditorium, as they call it) is a profoundly theological statement, to my mind. The statement is this:
Where people meet to seek the highest is holy ground.
I invite you to take this statement very seriously as a definition of God, or that which is holy, which is the same thing in my opinion. We often seek out sacred places or holy spaces, without perhaps considering the qualities that make them so. In my years of preaching and leading worship, however, I can tell you that one thing that makes a space sacred, that makes worship elements meaningful and a sermon effective, is the degree to which people arrive expecting to be informed and transformed by their experience there.
It is the quality of people who come with their hearts open, with their questions on their lips, with their earnest hopes at the forefront, that makes each worship service a sacred time, so sacred that the worship leaders can feel it, can see it in your faces.
We could sing songs and give speeches and read poems in another environment and it wouldn’t have half the impact that it has in this room. And it isn’t the room that makes it so but the people in it, who come here to seek their best selves, to hope for a greater future and as good a present as they can create. We come here to seek the highest, the best we can be and the best of what our world has to offer. It is that questing towards the highest that makes our time here holy.
And so I have to ask: What would happen if we brought our best selves, our questing for the highest, to every aspect of our lives? What if we walked ALL our steps on holy ground – not just our Sunday morning steps, or our church life steps, but all of them?
Our third and final way of talking about God is a little lighter and comes not from the hallowed walls of some sanctuary but from a little independent movie that I saw years ago, starring Luke Wilson and Ben Kingsley1.
In this movie, Ben Kingsley plays an alcoholic hit man whose drinking is getting in the way of his work. Really, I guess it happens even to hit men. His mob family sends him out to San Francisco to find a way to sober up, or face the consequences of his bungling on the job. And so Ben goes out there and stumbles upon an Alcoholics Anonymous group, and finds a sponsor, played by Luke Wilson.
As many of you know, Alcoholics Anonymous or AA is a support system to help people stop drinking, and part of the program is coming to understand the work of a higher power in your life, as you understand that higher power. Ben Kingsley, in the movie, does not understand the concept of the higher power, and Luke is talking with him about it as someone who’s further down the path of recovery. And in this discussion, Luke makes a statement that struck me as one that Unitarian Universalists could really stand to hear sometimes.
Luke says something like this:
“It doesn’t matter to me what your higher power is. It really doesn’t matter - it can be the Golden Gate bridge for all I care. But I’ll tell you this – it’s gotta be a few things. [Here it is…]
It’s gotta be big. It’s gotta be good. And it’s gotta be NOT YOU.”
Big. Good. Not you.
Listen, I have no problem if you never come to believe in anything more than Love, and Good, and a striving for humanity’s potential. As I think this sermon amply demonstrates, that already means the same thing as God to me.
But everyone in this room has been faced with a time where they knew there was something bigger than themselves out there. Maybe it was a good thing. I knew when a baby started knitting itself together inside my body without my help or much of my understanding – not unlike the movie Alien – that there was something wildly creative about this world that was willing to use me as a vessel but didn’t really need me to keep on trucking.
And there have been times in my life where I have been laid so low that there was no way I could have pulled myself up alone, without the help of people who loved me, or strangers who saw my pain, or a community that cared, or a universe that keeps on creating, keeps on regenerating, bending towards wholeness and good even when my particular situation is oh, so bad.
What is important to me theologically is for us human beings to know where we stand in the order of things. We are creatures with vast potential, that is for sure, potential we’re nowhere close to realizing – but we are also small parts of a system whose outer boundaries we can’t fathom – and yes, I’m speaking to even you astrophysicists in the congregation (because I know you’re out there) in saying that there are outer boundaries to our existence that none of us can fathom. We wouldn’t even know how to start – and it’s not for lack of trying. And so whether we see God in a traditional sense, or we define God as Love, or as holy space, it is this final, humble way of talking about God that is most important to me, in the end.
That Something that is greater than all of us, but resides in each of us, it is big. It is good. And it is not you, or me, or any one of us, or even humanity as a whole. It is something else, something more, something grand, something mysterious, something holy. It is big, it is good, and it is not you.
The rest of the picture I leave for you to fill in. But don’t just leave it blank – keep adding things and changing things and let us know what you’ve learned. Maybe someday your statement of faith will be up on our wall. So may it be, one day.