Tuesday, June 2, 2020

What UUs Believe About God

If the title of today’s service made you nervous- you’re not alone. In a room with 50 Unitarian Universalists, you are likely to have 55 different beliefs about the divine, and a bunch of different feelings about just saying the word “God.”

Since our earliest days both Unitarians and Universalists have stood up for the right of each person to believe what is in their heart about God. Way back in 1568 King John Sigismund, the first only Unitarian King, issued the broadest edict of religious toleration in Europe at the time, (granting the Socinians the same level of toleration as was already enjoyed by the Catholics, the Lutherans, and the Calvinists) saying:
“In every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well, if not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied, … for faith is the gift of God, this come from hearing, which hearing is by the word of God.” 
My childhood home
As your minister I can’t tell you what to believe; you will listen to what I say and see how it sits with your soul. As UU theologian Rebecca Parker tells us: “UUs do not have a creed, but this living tradition, our history, is like a house we live in that we did not build - the house we live in and care for. We must know it in order to preserve that which is worth preserving, and change what needs changing.”

So today I’d like to give you just a bit of a house tour. You may not agree with everything in our history, but as Parker suggests, by doing a hosing inspection, we know what we want to preserve and what we want to change. We know where we agree and where we dissent. Our Universalist ancestors back in the 18th century were troubled by the Calvinist theology which suggested that humans are fully depraved and in bondage to sin and subject to God. Our Universalist Ancestors were Christians, but with a radical belief in Goodness and love, God’s love and goodness, and our own capacity for good. They dared to ask the heretical question “why would a loving God create people only to damn them to hell?” At the center of their theology was the belief that no one was excluded from God’s love.

But not all UUs believe in God. This became an important part of our movement in the early 20th century with the birth of the humanist movement, in which Unitarians had an important role. This was the time of WW 1 and the Spanish Flu, when it was hard to have faith in the old images of God. Perhaps what’s happening in our country right now is calling you to question and rethink some of your beliefs too. The early 20th century was also a booming time for science, and the Unitarian side of our tradition was grounded in the idea that reason and science must be compatible with religious beliefs. Humanism de-centralizes God and theology, and instead emphasizes ethics and human action. Some Early humanists were Atheists, but all believed that instead of arguing about doctrine and theology, it was important to live an ethical life.

Both Unitarians and Universalists always believed that humans have good capacities, including conscience and freedom to act. For UU theists we might believe that those qualities are given to us by God, and mirror those qualities in the divine. For Humanists, our capacities and freedoms are uniquely evolved in humans and take on central importance – if there is no God, this is our mess to fix.

UUs today, be they theist, agnostic or Atheist, tend to believe in our own capacities to do good, to make good choices, and the importance of living out those good choices.

In front of my childhood home 
A lot of UUs today will say they have had numinous or holy feelings in nature. This part of our house was built in the 19th century especially with the transcendentalists, like Unitarian minister Emerson, who spoke of a “God [as] close as breath.” Instead of a God out there somewhere far away, UUs who believe in God tend to believe that the divine is “immanent”- an intimate part of all life. That’s why some UUs feel more comfortable with the phrase “Spirit of Life” – they see something sacred and holy in living beings.

Important parts of our UU house were rebuilt by Unitarian Universalists, along with other liberal religious folks, who worked hard to deconstruct oppressive images of the divine, images that are Patriarchal, racist, ableist. Those UUs who believe in God tend to believe that the divine is beyond Gender, beyond Race. That if God is imminent in all life then the divine is present in temporarily able bodied people as well as disabled folks, old bodies and young bodies, queer bodies and straight bodies. For UU atheists, those images of a white patriarchal God that privileges some and oppresses others are too powerful to redeem, and they are atheistic to that God.

In the 1980s the women’s movement in UU asked us to deconstruct these patriarchal and oppressive ideas, not only by taking out all the “he/him” pronouns for god, but by inquiring what else needed to be deconstructed about those old and oppressive images of God. It was through this inquiry that Unitarian Universalists came to consider earth-centered spiritualities and the interdependent web of life. The divine was not just for humans, but deeply interwoven in all life. I myself was an atheist until I participated in a women’s group at my UU church and started to liberate my own images of God from that White man in the sky that you see everywhere. If God could be a woman, if God could be black, if God could be a spirit infused in every part of the web of life, if God was love, maybe …

In the 20th century many UUs gave up on the word God. In our old hymnal if you look in the index under God it said “see O Life that Maketh All things New.” In the grey silver hymnal we use today in the index it says “God, Goddess and Spirit.” This service today is probably the most times you will ever hear the word “god” in a UU worship. Sometimes we say “the divine” or “sacred” or “Spirit.” For some of us when we say “web of life” we are referring to what is most holy for us. When I say “all embracing love” I am speaking of the most holy thing I can think of, close are our very breath, and bigger than any one of us. Some folks feel that trying to name God is limiting- that God is just a mystery. Several of our coming of age kids said they “didn’t know about God” and we assured them that not knowing is okay. That’s a proud part of our tradition too.

I want to give you a moment now to bring to mind any words that you like to use to talk about that which is most sacred, for that which holds all. Words for what gives you hope when the problems of the world are larger than you and me.

What do UUs believe about God? You can hear how many answers there are to that question, including “please don’t use that word, it is too loaded with centuries of oppression and exclusion” But the house we inherit called Unitarian Universalism is one built on the belief that there is something precious and scared about life. We believe in Love, even when our hearts are broken. We believe that connection is important, and that we are not alone. Our house is built on a belief in the human capacity for Good, and we believe that what we do is important. Some of us are not sure what we believe, and we all agree that not- knowing is important too. Some of us believe that what holds us and gives us hope is divine, is spirit. Others believe it is just life, that life is so much bigger than all of us, surprising us with its creativity and renewal. The cornerstone of our house is the knowing that our ideas of the sacred must be big enough to hold every person, to hold all of life.

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