Monday, January 23, 2012

Who Do You Say That I Am? (January 15, 2012)

These reflections bookended a series of readings about the nature of the divine presented by participants in our Adult Religious Education Class.

Reflection part 1:
For as far back as anyone can remember, talking about God has been a problem. That one word is so powerful and so loaded. Richard Dawkins, a contemporary humanist and Atheist writes: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” [Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion ]

Many of us are here in this UU church today because at one point or another we have heard stories about God that we just could not believe in, like the god of Genesis who destroys all the beings of the world in a flood except those saved on an Ark because “the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth.” When I heard stories like this in Sunday school I knew that I could not believe in such a God.

The very first Universalists risked being ostracized by friends and family, losing their jobs, and facing persecution because they could not believe in a God who would damn to hell most of those people he had created and save only an elect few.

I arrived at seminary with just such images of God in my mind. Starr King is part of an interfaith Theological Union, and I didn’t really appreciate until my first semester the opportunities we would have to take classes at the other seminaries -- with Catholics, Episcopalians, Methodists, Jews and Baptists and to engage in deep theological conversation with an incredible diversity of folks. I was repeatedly surprised to hear them struggle with and often reject those images of a vindictive, misogynistic, homophobic God and offer instead a variety of visions of the divine all of which were bigger and more inclusive than I had ever imagined.

John Buehrens, a former president of the UUA writes “to those who tell me, ‘I don’t believe in God.’ I often reply. ‘Tell me about the God that you don’t believe in,’ ‘The changes are that I don’t believe in Him either’” [“Experience” by John Buehrens in “Our Chosen Faith”] Whether we are atheists, theists or agnostics, when we hear the word “God” a set of images and stories and feelings come immediately to mind. What I have come to understand is that for each of us that set of images and feelings is unique. When someone uses the word “God” I assume that I have some idea what is meant, but more and more I have come to realize that we will never know for sure what is really meant unless we ask, and listen.

Reflection part 2:
Many who do believe in God say that God is ineffable, can never truly be described or understood. By definition the word “God” refers to something so different from us as to be outside our capacity to comprehend. As Forrest Church said in our opening reading “None of us is fully able to perceive the truth that shines through another person’s window, nor the falsehood that we may perceive as truth.” So a tremendous amount of humility must accompany any discussion of the divine.

What we can understand is how our beliefs cause us to act in the world. Early Universalist Hosea Ballou argued that those who believed in a judging vindictive god tended to become judging and vindictive themselves. Since, in our limited human view, can never know the true nature of the divine, we can ask ourselves, “do my beliefs cause me to be more compassionate, more ethical than if I did not believe them?” We can ask “Does the model I use for understanding my relationship to the divine and to the world around me lead me inexorably towards working for a more just and sustainable world for all the beings who share this world with me?”

It is this question that brings us together as Unitarian Universalists week after week despite sometimes significant theological differences. Atheists, Christians, Neo-Pagans and Jews can worship together, because we know that ultimately metaphysical questions are most important as they are lived out day to day. Whatever you believe about God, may your beliefs lead you to help build a world shaped by beauty, justice and compassion. May it be so.

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