What God Isn’t

Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 10/13/2013

[Before the sermon, the congregation saw these clips:
http://www.uua.org/re/tapestry/children/riddle/session1/sessionplan/stor... ]

What happens when what you hear about what God is isn’t even CLOSE to the truth?

I know, I know, in Unitarian Universalism we aren’t supposed to admit that there are versions of God that aren’t true. So I’m going to go out on a limb right now and help us out, maybe, by being the first to say that there are some versions of God that aren’t true. For one, the thing about the turtles – not true, I’m going to say it. If it feels true to you, then I support you in that, but if I have to lay down a line, I’m going to say the turtle thing isn’t true.

And the Even Stevphen debate we saw first – true or not true? It’s a little trickier, right, because albeit in a humorous way, they are making statements that Christians and Muslims actually make – and by contrasting them they make the not-so-subtle point that the religions contradict each other and logically can’t both be true, at least at the level at which they are presenting themselves.

We heard the old song from John Lennon asking us to imagine a world without any religion that hurts or divides, just a world filled with peace. And we saw the adorable Swedish kids with all their great ideas, who are just entering the phase where they’ll begin to wonder whether or not the things they imagine or the things they have been told make sense or not.

What do these things tell us about what God is not? Because knowing what God is not, I find, is as important as knowing what God IS – especially in this pluralistic day and age when there are so very many choices and opinions.

There is no shortage of voices shouting out what they think God is. And it’s important for people who are spiritually curious to be able to articulate what they are sure God is not, while they are on their way to finding out what God might be, so that they don’t get unduly misguided, or hurt, by all that’s already out there. It can’t all be true.

I’m not the first to declare it important to know what God is not; that tradition goes way back, and was particularly notable in the 9th century. That’s when theologian John Scotus Erigena made this statement : "We do not know what God is. God Himself does not know what He is because He is not anything. Literally God is not, because He transcends being." [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apophatic_theology] What an interesting sentence there: Literally God is not, because God transcends being.

I would translate that to say that a creator God is bigger than creation itself, and also bigger than anything any human being can understand or describe. God is not definable by any human conception and therefore no human language can capture what God is. Kind of mind boggling, isn’t it? It kind of blows my mind, but back in the day, this was more than a mental exercise; a theology was born to describe God in terms of what God cannot possibly be, what God is not, so as to help people understand that we’re talking about something really outside the ordinary here.

That theology was called apophatic theology. The word apophatic means to discuss something by not talking about it, such as “we won’t be discussing your recent prison term.” Apophatic theology created a bunch of definitions of God all framed in the negative, what God is not rather than what God is. God is not ignorant, God is not evil, God is not created, God is not beholden to time, that sort of thing.

Apophatic theology becomes, when you reflect upon it, an interesting exercise in thinking about what God is, based on what many can agree that God must not be. And apophatic theology is most helpful in that it holds as front and center the notion that any real God would most likely end up being bigger than anything we can imagine or describe, anyway. That’s important to remember at all times, I think. It implies that anytime someone is defining God it might pay to watch out whether or not what they’re saying can possibly be true, whether or not it’s something someone could actually know.

Because what’s the underlying problem with many of our human ideas about God, if you ask me? Sure, sometimes they’re wrong, like I would say the turtle story is. But mostly they’re just small, small like human beings are small when compared to the vastness of the universe.

There’s a great book from back in the day by a JB Phillips entitled Your God is Too Small [ Phillips, JB. Your God is Too Small. Touchstone Publishing, 1952], and in it he makes an outstanding point. He says, and keep in mind that he is a believer himself:
The trouble with many people today is that they have not found a God big enough for modern needs. While their experience of life has grown in a score of directions, and their mental horizons have been expanded to the point of bewilderment by world events and by scientific discoveries, their ideas of God have remained largely static. It is obviously impossible for an adult to worship the conception of God that exists in the mind of a child of Sunday school age, unless he is prepared to deny his own experience of life. If, by a great effort of will, he does do this, he will always be secretly afraid lest some new truth may expose the juvenility of his faith. And it will always be by such an effort that he either worships or serves a God who is really too small to command his adult loyalty and cooperation.
Phillips goes on to say:
It often appears to those outside the churches that this is precisely the attitude of Christian people. If they are not strenuously defending an outgrown conception of God, then they are cherishing a hothouse God who could only exist between the pages of the Bible or inside the four walls of a church. Therefore to join in with the worship of a church would be to become a party to a piece of mass hypocrisy and to buy a sense of security at the price of the sense of truth, and many men of goodwill will not consent to such a transaction.”

Strong language, right, but an accurate description even today of why so many people are hovering around religions but not coming in the doors.

JB Phillips goes on from this to outline all the very many too-small Gods that people believe in. He has cute titles for these small gods. There is God as Resident Policeman, pretty self-explanatory; God as the Parental Hangover, that one that’s just like your dad; God as the Grand Old Man, respected but out of touch; God as Meek And Mild, so milquetoast as to be irrelevant. And more. Phillips makes the point that any real God is not, could not be, a reflection of your particular conscience, or a manifestation of your guilt, or a reflection of the bossiest person you know, or the most boring.

All of those ideas of God – ideas that are bandied about as absolute truth by any number of religions, by the way – all of those ideas of God are wrong by virtue of being too small.

Phillips adds a poignant description of the situation he’d like us all to avoid. He writes: “If a man lives in a light proof room, the sun may shine in dazzling splendor and the man himself will know nothing of it. He might light himself a candle or he may bore a hole in his prison. In the first case, he can never have more than an artificial glimmer, and the second he will get only a tiny glimpse of real daylight….[but] there is no reason why we should be content with the candle or the pinhole if a little determined thinking and a little sincere action will remove the shutters.”

If there is one thing I want to do with my ministry, to do with my life, it is to get folks to see – and this comes off as terribly not-UU, so please bear with me – but my goal would be to get folks to see that so very many of the things people call God are not God, could not possibly be God. My goal would beto get folks to see that most of the versions of God that people talk about out there are, let’s face it, wrong. Wrong for being, mostly, too small. I want to remove the shutters, like Yoko Ono did for John Lennon’s room, I want to help remove the shutters so we can see the dazzling light. I want that for myself, to see that light, and because I want it for myself, I want it for you, too.

Which brings me back to Unitarian Universalist practice, because there is definitely at least one more way that God Is Not that it would do for folks in this religion to consider.

There is one story of theological development that we UU ministers hear frequently from our congregants. The way the theology is described usually goes something like this: I was brought up in (some religion, could be Christian or Catholic or Jewish or Islam or really anything) – I was brought up in (this religion) where they taught me all about God, and then something happened – you might have asked questions that were shot down, or you had a real life experience that contradicted what you were taught, or you grew up and noticed that what you were told wasn’t really matching what you observed, but at any rate, something happened, and then I said to myself : “If this is what God is, then I don’t want anything to do with God.”

That’s the important part of the story: “If this is what God is, then I don’t want anything to do with God.”

When someone says this as part of their story – and it happens a lot - most attention is paid, both by the person speaking and the people listening, to the latter part of the sentence, the “I don’t want anything to do with God” part. But the truth of this statement, like any if/then statement, is entirely predicated on the first part, the “if this is what God is” part.
If this is what God is, then I don’t want anything to do with it. But what happens if that is NOT what God is? What if what you always heard God is is so off, so wrong or short sighted or mean or small, that it’s not much different from hearing that it’s turtles all the way down?

It breaks my heart to think that people might turn away from the thing that you don’t laugh at in the hospital, the thing you don’t laugh at in a war, the thing big enough to bring unexplicable comfort when you’re starving or freezing or poor, simply because they were told false and small stories about that thing when they were as tiny and cute as those Swedish kids.

There is never ending room for mystery and wonder when we’re talking about the things that have to do with God, things like where everything comes from, and where it all goes, and why. Creation and meaning and love, that’s what we should be talking about when we’re talking about God. If you get into a conversation about God that’s smaller than that, like the one with Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert that we saw, then you know you’re solidly in the world of what God is NOT.

Maybe we need a thoroughly modern adaptation of our own apophatic theology that tells us what God is not, in order to help us see what God might be.

What would we say God is not, in this day and age, in this religious tradition? Let’s go out on a limb and say what is wrong with other people’s ideas of God, just for fun. How liberating! Okay.
I’d say that God does not exist in the form of a human being, even a really big, really old one.
I’d say that God does not live in a physical place in the sky.
I would say that God wouldn’t experience time the way we do, because time is a function of a created universe, and the creator of that universe would have to begin outside of linear time.
I’d say that God is not as afraid of death as we are by a long shot.
I’d say that God doesn’t regard some groups of people differently than others.
I would say that God isn’t mean, and that an authentic God would not suggest we be mean to each other.
I would say that God is not limited.
I would also say that God is not distant.
This is some of my apophatic theology. [turn sign] What would you say God, or, if you prefer, the force at the source of creation, what would you say that thing is not?

And by saying what that thing is not, what does that tell you about what it is?

That’s for you to decide, but I’ll bring in some ideas next time.