Posts Tagged God

The G-Word

I preached this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on January 14th 2018.

I’m going to begin by asking for a favor.

We’re in the South, more or less, and there are a few foods that are known for being popular in the South. To pick a couple of them, one is fried chicken and another is watermelon. Maybe you don’t eat either of these at every meal, but perhaps you’d eat one or the other if they were served at a picnic or a potluck. So how many of you would eat fried chicken? Hands up if you’d eat fried chicken. And how many of you would eat watermelon? Hands up if you you’d eat watermelon. Okay, so that’s pretty much everyone, whether vegetarian or not, who’d eat one or the other.

Now I picked these two foods because there are parts of them that you can’t eat. In fried chicken there are bones and in watermelon there’s the rind. When you’re eating these foods, those are the parts you leave on the plate. So here’s something you might not have thought about, but it’s an important question: Do the bones and the rind stop you from enjoying the parts of fried chicken and watermelon that you do eat? No, they don’t. Much less would it make sense to get angry at the chicken bones and the watermelon rind because you can’t eat them.

The reason I bring up fried chicken and watermelon and the fact that there are parts of them that you can’t eat is because a lot of discussions about religion are the same way. A friendly discussion about religion is, in fact, a lot like a picnic or a potluck. There are parts that appeal to us, that we like, that we enjoy, and there are parts that are, essentially, inedible.

Now I want to stress the “friendly” part of “a friendly discussion about religion”. I’m not talking about somebody making religious claims that are actively harmful, that promote inequality or prevent injustice. That would be like bringing a plate of poisonous toadstools to a picnic: they’re not going to be good for anyone!

So imagine you’re in a group with other friendly people — such as the Sunday Morning Forum or a Fellowship Circle — and the topic is how we view and understand the world and our place in it. You’re sharing your answers to questions such as: Why are we here? How did reality come into being? Why do bad things happen to good people? What happens to us when we die? More importantly, you’re going to hear the answers that other people have to those questions.

Some of their answers you’ll like; they make sense to you, maybe even helping you to understand something that’s been puzzling you. Some of those answers will challenge you, but then you figure out they’re actually familiar ideas expressed in unfamiliar ways, or they use different words than you’d use; you’ll have to work at translating those answers into your own terms to appreciate them. And some of those answers will simply be unacceptable to you, with ideas that are clearly incompatible with your own experience; they make no sense to you no matter how you try to translate them.

Here’s the favor I’m asking of you, and why I asked you to think about fried chicken and watermelon: enjoy other people’s answers that work for you, with or without translation, but don’t get angry at answers that don’t work for you. For one thing, other people’s answers belong to other people; if you like them, if they make sense to you, great; if you don’t like them, if they don’t make sense, well, they’re not your answers anyway. For another, getting angry at somebody else’s ideas, experiences and feelings, that does more harm to you than it does any good.

So when it comes to discussions about religious matters between friendly and well-meaning people, please, do enjoy the fried chicken and the watermelon of the theological potluck that’s offered to you, and please, don’t get angry at the chicken bones and the watermelon rind just because you can’t eat them, too.

I asked for this favor up front because our subject today is God, and I don’t think there’s any subject about there’s more disagreement. For many people, it’s the most important part of their faith, and they don’t understand how any religion can exist that doesn’t put God front and center. Only, ask them and the person in the pew next to them how they actually understand God, and you’ll quickly find that even people going to the same church don’t really share the same theology.

Many religions got their start because of disagreements about understandings of God, and Unitarian Universalism is no exception.

Both Unitarianism and Universalism began with quite specific theological ideas that departed from Christian orthodoxy. For the early Unitarians, it was their belief that God was one — a unity, not a trinity — including the specific belief that Jesus was fully human and thus a viable role model for what it means to be human. For the early Universalists, it was their belief in God’s love as the strongest force in existence, stronger than the ability of any mere human to do wrong, such that every soul eventually reaches heaven.

Over the centuries, both Universalist and Unitarian belief systems evolved, growing much broader than their Christian origins. The Unitarians did this, as I see it, largely by accident, thanks to such spontaneous movements within Unitarianism as Transcendentalism and Humanism. The Universalists, on the other hand, did it much more intentionally, embracing the implications of Universalism as a religion that could truly be for all people. Either way, by the middle of the twentieth century the Universalists and the Unitarians found themselves in such similar places theologically that the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America joined together, consolidating to form the Unitarian Universalist Association in 1961.

Now there was a habit, particularly within Universalism, of writing statements of belief, articulating who we are and how we understand the world not only for the benefit of other people but also for ourselves. Our Seven Principles and Six Sources are part of that long tradition. Such statements have been crafted in different ways at different times, but one of the favorite tools is, of course, the survey. And while a survey is rarely an effective substitute for getting people together and talking with them, it is an easy way to get a lot of people to answer simple questions.

So in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, the UUA sent surveys to UU congregations. Somebody at the UUA deserves credit for having the presence of mind to include some of the same questions each time, to see if anything was changing. Specifically, there was a multiple-choice question, “Which one of the following comes closest to expressing your beliefs about God?” What’s striking is that, in all three decades, the distribution of responses was very similar and, though I don’t think there’s any more recent data, my own unofficial experience suggests it would be pretty similar today.

The first answer choice (out of five in all) was “God is a supernatural being who reveals himself in human experience and history.” We might consider that the traditionally theistic belief and, like it or not, such a traditionally theistic God is usually imagined as male. About three percent of UUs selected this answer choice.

The second answer choice was “God is the ground of all being, real but not describable.” If you’ve ever heard of theologian Paul Tillich, the phrase “ground of being” comes from him. This answer choice spans deism, mysticism and some agnosticism, and close to thirty percent of UUs selected it.

The third answer choice was “God may appropriately be used as a name for some natural processes within the universe, such as love or creative evolution.” This is the answer of choice for many humanists and neo-pagans, from physicists to pantheists, and it’s not surprising that almost half of UUs selected it.

The fourth answer choice was “God is an irrelevant concept, and the central focus of religion should be on human knowledge and values.” This is more hard-core humanism, as well as atheism, and a fifth of UUs selected it.

And the fifth and final choice was “God is a concept that is harmful to a worthwhile religion” and about two percent of UUs selected it.

As I said, this distribution of responses matches my own experience in talking with Unitarian Universalists over the years. A small number of UUs are pretty traditional theists, while about three-quarters of UUs have broader conceptions of divinity, even if they’d never apply the word “God” to them. About a quarter of UUs think that God is either an irrelevant concept or actively harmful.

Here’s a question, though. If a clear majority of Unitarian Universalists are at least okay with some concept of the divine, then why do we use the word “God” so infrequently? (To the point that we can joke about it being “the G-word”?)

In 2011, when the Unitarian Universalist Association was celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, the Religion News Service published the sort of article that causes ministers to pull out their hair. It began:

A recent Sunday service at the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore ended with an apology. Laurel Mendes explained that religious doctrine had been duly scrubbed from the hymns in the congregation’s Sunday program. But Mendes, a neo-pagan lay member who led the service, feared that a reference to God in ‘Once to Every Soul and Nation’ might upset the humanists in the pews. ‘I didn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable by reciting something that might be considered a profession of faith,’ said Mendes, 52, after the service. ‘We did say “God”, which you don’t often hear in our most politically correct hymns.’

Let me get my pedantry out of the way. The hymn “Once to Every Soul and Nation” doesn’t include the word “God”. Just in case Baltimore was doing something oddly retro, I even looked it up in the 1964 hymnal, Hymns for the Celebration of Life, where it was called “Once to Every Man and Nation”, but still no “God”.

I should note that many of those hymns that went on to be in our current hymn book were indeed edited in the late seventies, but in most cases that was to remove unnecessarily gendered language that privileged men. When it came to the word God, there was no attempt to “scrub” “religious doctrine” to make hymns “politically correct”, whatever that much abused phrase actually means these days. We still have lots of hymns that refer to God— just not the one in the article. Rather, the problem identified in some of the old hymns was always referring to God as male.

By way of response to the article, here’s my colleague, the Rev. Dr. Victoria Weinstein.

So right away we come off as bizarre-o. This isn’t just a word I’m throwing out there to be funny; it’s one Unitarian Universalist’s reminder to the rest of us that when it comes to our image in the broader culture, we appear to be so far off the beaten track of what constitutes religion [that] the wheels have fallen off our truck. That first paragraph reveals us at our weirdest and worst: irrational, ‘pre-offended’, entitled, immature and quarrelsome. […] I’m not sure if the reporter edited Mendes’ remarks or not, but there is the further issue about why a profession of faith is in the least objectionable in a [UU congregation]. It is not: we recite them all the time[.] But someone has taught this conscientious lay woman well: she is on red alert for offense and is obviously walking on eggshells, the hallmark of a highly anxious system.

Weinstein does acknowledge that the rest of the article almost redeems itself from what she calls “the wackadoodle impression made in the first paragraph”, though she notes that, in contrasts to the five ordained men quoted in the article, “the one woman interviewed is also the only lay person the reporter talked to, and she is portrayed as being insecure and apologetic.” Clearly there are bigger problems than whether a hymn uses the word “God” or not.

In short, and this is why I asked up-front for a favor about not getting angry at things that don’t feed us, we need to get over ourselves when it comes to “religious” language.

Actually, we are doing better in that regard than we were fifteen years ago, when then-recently elected president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Rev. William G. Sinkford, suggested that UUs should reclaim a “vocabulary of reverence”. The uproar only calmed down when Sinkford issued an open letter promising that he wouldn’t make anyone use the word “God”.

Now, I have to say that I stopped using the word “God” back in high school when I realized I was an atheist. A decade later, I learned about pantheism, and I was okay identifying the Universe as God on the basis that it didn’t say anything about the Universe but rather said something about us and our emotional response to existence. Then, in the UU congregation I joined, it was clear that “God” was not a helpful word because so many people had been hurt by churches and people with unhealthy ideas about God, particularly in how God has been used to justify oppression and suffering. And going to seminary, I learned the art of theological translation: Could I simply accept what someone else said? Or should I translate it into my own terms, such as replacing “God” by “Universe”? Or did I just need to set what they’d said aside and leave it?

I still don’t use the word “God” without good reason, but I am realizing that there is a time and a place for it. For instance, I reject male-centered ideas about God, but I have found that I am quite okay with — and even enjoy — the lifting up of female divinity. Did you hear, for instance, that Roy Moore was actually correct when he said that the election in Alabama was in God’s hands? Only, what he doesn’t know is that God is a black woman.

Aside from the delicious subversion, there can be a playfulness that nonetheless delivers an important message. Consider this poem, for instance, by Oklahoma poet (and preacher’s daughter), Kaylin Haught:

I asked God if it was okay to be melodramatic
and she said yes
I asked her if it was okay to be short
and she said it sure is
I asked her if I could wear nail polish
or not wear nail polish
and she said honey
she calls me that sometimes
she said you can do just exactly
what you want to
Thanks God I said
And is it even okay if I don’t paragraph
my letters
Sweetcakes God said
who knows where she picked that up
what I’m telling you is
Yes Yes Yes

So let me finish with this.

During the debate over Bill Sinkford’s call for Unitarian Universalists to reclaim a vocabulary of reverence, the Rev. Dr. Rebecca Ann Parker wrote an open letter. Parker was president of the Starr King School for the Ministry, our UU seminary in San Francisco, and when it came to the word “God”, she noted that

over the course of the past two hundred years, in the name of justice and liberation, religious liberals have hastened the death of God. We have presided at the funeral of God the King, God the Father, God the Unmoved Mover, God the Old White Man in the Sky, the Able-Bodied God, the Straight God, the All-Knowing God, the Leave-It-All-to-Me-and-I’ll-Take-Care-of-It God, and more. In place of God, we have emphasized human responsibility. We know it is in our hands to create justice, equity and peace.

I will qualify this by saying that the problem was never God. The problem was that God was too small. The problem was that God was made in man’s image — and I do mean “man” because the problem was that God was imagined as a man, a supposedly powerful man, the sort of being that men imagine themselves to be if only they had all the power (and none of the responsibility) in the world, a justification for men to act as they please in the cult of toxic masculinity. Have you ever noticed that whenever someone declares that something is what God wants, it’s also what that person wants? Amazing! That’s how you know that their God is only a small god, and is no bigger, in fact, than their own ego. And not only is such a small god an excuse for selfishness and greed, but it’s also an excuse for failing to act when there’s a real need.

So, with respect, I’m going to edit Rebecca Parker’s words: “In place of a small god, we have emphasized human responsibility. We know it is in our hands to create justice, equity and peace.”

Furthermore, while we have hastened the death of a small god, we have also midwifed the birth of a God who is a working mother, a God who is gay, a God who is black or brown, a God who is transgender, a God who is disabled, a God who is sick, a God who is imprisoned, a God who is poor, a God who is in recovery, a God who rejects toxic masculinity and white supremacy, a God who sides with the oppressed and downtrodden, a God who is begging us to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice.

And that’s the place where, no matter what we mean by the word “God” or even if we choose not to use it, we can find common ground. I have long said that it doesn’t really matter what each of us believes; rather, what matters is how we behave. Sure, our beliefs determine our behaviors, but we are judged by our behavior. When someone works for justice, equity and peace, when they are kind and charitable and generous, maybe they don’t believe in God and they’re doing good because it’s the right thing to do, or maybe they believe in God and they’re doing good because that’s how God manifests in the world. Such beliefs are not incompatible when it comes to making the world a better place, because what matters is making the world a better place.

May that be the true measure of our beliefs, now and always.

~)<

I am grateful to the Rev. Michael Piazza, in whose “Future Church” workshop I was privileged to participate a few years ago, for the fried chicken analogy. (I added watermelon as a non-meat option.)

Leave a Comment

%d bloggers like this: