Thursday, December 18, 2014

Uncovering the Names of God (December 7, 2014)

God is a sticky word. Some of you will remember that a couple of ago the worship team asked you to write down words that for some are part of a “language of reverence” but for you feel, well, sticky. When some of us hear the word “God” in a conversation, for example, the conversation which may have been going along fine suddenly gets stuck. “What do you mean by god? Do you mean what I mean by god? Or do you mean what the preachers on the family life network mean by god?”

Check in with yourself right now and notice the “feeling tone” of that word “God”…Does it change when I say “Spirit of Life”….or “the universe”?

The feeling tones evoked by different names change over the course of our lives. They may change from day to day. For example, it is very common to use the name “father” or “mother” for the divine. Everyone knows the power these roles have in our lives. They are not only powerful archetypes , but also deeply personal. The most common Christian prayer begins: “Our Father, who art in heaven.” Notice the feeling tone as you hear that. Just notice. Inside that word “father” is contained all our societal archetypes about fathers, for better or for worse. For several centuries there the father was considered the head of the house, whose will was law, who could control the freedom of his wife and children. Another image of a father is a supportive father who is always there to lean on when you need help. What each of us brings with us to the name “father” is going to depend highly on our own experience of our own father. For some of us it will contain our own experience of BEING fathers. When we hear that word we might hear: 

The problem solver

The judge

The comforter

The playmate

The one who leaves

The provider

The abuser

The punisher

That one word is so full of meanings, of implications. 

When my son was very little, maybe 4, we used that same story in worship, and afterwards, hoping to start a little parent-child conversation about the topic, I asked him what name of God he liked to use. He said “father in heaven.” I have to admit this is a sticky name for me. As a feminist I had spent many years reclaiming God from the patriarchy, reading the works of those radical theologians who insisted that if God had any gender at all, we must be able to envision and honor female aspect of the divine. So I said to my little 4 year old child “In the paradigm in which there is a father in heaven, there must also be a mother earth.” Which he accepted with grace. 

So let’s unpack the name “mother.” First, if feels to me a little revolutionary. Because I grew up not even knowing that God could be female, it can be a symbol of female empowerment. For those who grew up Catholic, it may bring to mind “Mary, Mother of God” who has the characteristics of purity, compassion, patience, gentleness. But again, our own life story will profoundly inform how we hear this name. In our own experience the name “mother” may call to mind:

One who brings new life into the world

The playmate

The perfectionist

The confidant

The one who leaves

The provider

The punisher

The nurturer

Usually all that happens in our minds so quickly we don’t even notice it. It is in the nature of a symbol to contain all those different feelings, memories, associations without our consciously calling them up. When we hear a sticky word, we may not even realize that we are sort of clicking off- “nope- I’m not going there.” Today I’d like for us to take a little time with these names, and find some new ways of responding to them.

One thing we can do is look for words that best express what theologian Paul Tillich called our “ultimate concern” -- words that express wonder and reverence, words that help us communicate how profoundly we are connected to something larger than ourselves. Unitarian Universalists affirm the radical notion that because each of us is so unique, the collection of words that have meaning for each will also be unique. Every person much uncover for themselves the words that express the ineffable- those mysterious parts of being alive that are so hard to express. I hope during our meditation today you were able to find a word or two like that. It can be really empowering to do our own naming. Moreover, there is a certain integrity we claim when we use exactly the word we mean to express our own reality in this moment. That honesty of language is an important part of being Unitarian Universalist- choosing language that really expresses what we know or feel to be true. It is part of our “free and responsible search for truth and meaning”- our 4th principle. As we change and grow, the images we use will naturally change and grow as well, or they will become too small, too limiting. The names we use can offer greater freedom, or they can box us in.

When I first was introduced to the Song of Solomon in my Hebrew Scriptures class in seminary, I could not figure out what on earth a book of love poems was doing in there. I had never heard anyone call god “beloved.” It turns out that the writings of the mystics are filled with this imagery. The Beloved is the object of desire and love whose presence makes the heart sing, and whose absence creates loneliness and grief. Notice your response to that word “beloved”

Around the same time I was introduced to the name “co-creator” through the writings of German Liberation Theologian Dorothee Soelle; we are right now engaged in co-creating the world with every other being on this earth. We co-create with the plants, the animals, the tectonic plates who are shaping the very earth, and, if you are a theist, with God. But you don’t have to believe in God to know that the forces tiny and huge constantly shaping our world form a vast web so complex we will never truly comprehend in all its ever changing subtly. Notice your response to that name “co-creator”

What about “Friend”? That has a very different feeling, doesn’t it? The name friend draws to it every friend you’ve ever had. The ones that stood by you when you needed them most, the ones who let you down. Or maybe it calls up the times when you felt friendless and alone. What would it mean to call the divine “friend?”

Father, Mother, Beloved, Co-creator, friend. These are just 5 of the infinite number of names for the divine. Maybe one or more of those names feel “sticky” to you, but that very stickiness can be a clue for our own spiritual growth. By paying attention to the names that feel like closed boxes, that seem to take away our freedom, self-knowledge, greater consciousness and spiritual growth are possible. Instead of “clicking off” we can turn our attention to that sticky feeling and consciously notice our response. I was reading a book recently written by a Catholic author who used a lot of very traditional names for God, like “Lord” which I must confess is one of my sticky words. Normally I would have just put the book aside, but instead I took outmy pencil and every time I found a word that riled me up, I just drew an arrow pointing to the word. Because there is energy there in our reaction to sticky words. That anger, that inner disturbance, can help us learn more about ourselves -- can help us grow spiritually. 

It’s like my yoga teacher was saying, it’s great to do the poses that feel good in the moment, but if you don’t balance the practice of poses that feel delicious with the poses that are a challenge for you, you won’t grow in strength or flexibility. The next time you hear a name for the ineffable that pushes your buttons, you can challenge yourself by asking “why does that word push my buttons?” For example, when I hear the word “lord” the image that comes to mind is that of a feudal landholder who has the power over the life and livelihood if his vassals. He rules without any understanding of their lives from his mansion on the hill far away. Unconsciously I put myself in the role of vassal, and feel oppressed, feel a lack of freedom. But I can ask myself “Why do I call to mind the type of lord who constrains freedom, rather than one who “supports and protects”? What might I learn about my own instinctive response to hierarchical power?

When we start to uncover and open up the deeper layers of our response, maybe some insight will come like a light bulb lighting up, or maybe it will take a long time of just noticing and wondering. Because that little flare of “not that” which happens when we read or hear a certain name shows us that the name has power over us. That reflexive pulling back, like a hand over a hot stove, shows us a wall limiting our freedom. Maybe that wall is there for a really good reason. Maybe it’s telling you it’s time to stand up to a patriarchal theology. Or maybe there is an old wound there between you and your father that shapes you in some way you don’t fully understand. I believe that by just noticing compassionately, non-judgmentally, we expand in freedom. Part of being a congregation that encourages one another in spiritual growth means that while we do try to avoid pushing one another’s buttons theologically, we know that if we are going to go really deep, we are going to touch some tender places from time to time, so we need to gently support one another in going to the hard places and being present to the reality of what emerges.

Later in the conversation with my son all those years ago we were discussing the difference between religious traditions and when I mentioned our friend’s congregation Nick asked “do they believe in many Gods like us?” I felt like I wasn’t doing very well as a religious educator, so I tried to redeem myself, explain that Unitarianism has right in the root of the word “uni” meaning one. We believe in the one-ness of God, the one-ness of everything. The theological rift that gave birth to Unitarianism came from the insistence that God was one, and not three as the Trinitarian majority believed. I think this makes UUs a little nervous about using ANY names for God, because once you use a name like “father” for God, you are not naming the whole truth. 

Perhaps if I had been an Islamic mother, or a Hindu mother, I might have done a better job. In Islam, a tradition where creating an artistic rendering of the divine is forbidden, lest these images might become idols, the tradition mentions 99 names for God. Since the qu-ran says “Nothing resembles him in any way whatsoever[i]” the Islamic names for God refer to qualities, like: "the Compassionate" and "the Merciful." Yet the Islamic creed (Shahada ) is very clear “There is no god but God.”

Hinduism throws caution to the wind when it comes to naming and creating detailed images and stories about the many aspects of God. Think of the fantastic images of Ganesh, the elephant headed God of Wisdom, or Krishna, the blue faced boy playing the flute. Or Kali, the dark goddess of destruction. There is a common misconception in the west that Hinduism is polytheistic, and that its followers worship idols. Vivekenanda told the audience at the World Parliament gathering: 
“At the very outset, I may tell you that there is no polytheism in India. In every temple, if one stands by and listens, one will find the worshippers applying all the attributes of God, including omnipresence, to the images. It is not polytheism”

So Vivekananda is saying that the worship of these different attributes of God is not a worship of many gods. Instead, it is a path that some follow in seeking ultimate unity. In fact, the Hindu belief in unity extends beyond one unified God, to a fundamental unity (or non-duality) of all that is.

I think this gives a good grounding for our own Unitarian Universalist process of uncovering the names of God. To me the Hindu concept of “Brahman” is very like my own sense of the one-ness of everything, that fundamental unity that Vivekananda mentions. As it says in the Upanishads:
That supreme Brahman is infinite, and this conditioned Brahman is infinite. The infinite proceeds from infinite. If you subtract the infinite from the infinite, the infinite remains alone.

So that which is infinite is the pure, ineffable state. But it’s hard to relate to infinity, so we speak instead of “aspects” of the infinite oneness. Perhaps we might call to mind the difference between the immense power of the ocean, and the gentle habitat of a particular tide pool. 

Given the impossibility of really naming the divine, of naming that which is by definition beyond our understanding, many people use the name “mystery.” Because no responsible search for truth and meaning is ever going to arrive at the one final right and true answer. This amazing world we share is constantly changing. Any theological answer you pursue, no matter how well reasoned, is ultimately going to meet a cloud of un-knowing. Always there is the potential for surprise, for the unexpected, the new.

Whether you are theist, atheist or agnostic, the names we ourselves use for the divine, or the names we hear from our neighbors, in the news, in sacred texts, shape our relationships with God. These names also tell us something about who we are, and help us bring to consciousness our usually unconscious responses to the world in which we live. I leave you this morning with a challenge- to notice the names that help us feel empowered to live an ethical and meaningful life, and to notice the names that make us feel shut down, feel that our freedom is constrained. The more we simply notice without judgment both our positive and negative responses to all the many names for the Spirit of Life, the more we will grow in understanding and in freedom.

[i] in Surat ash-Shura, ayah 11: