Kearsarge Unitarian Universalist
TELL ME ABOUT THE GOD YOU DON’T BELIEVE IN
Sermon given by Rev. Emily Burr on 6/1/08
at Kearsarge UU Fellowship
The story has many slightly different versions, but the gist of it is the same. A man (or a woman) is talking with a minister or chaplain or bishop and declares that he is an atheist and does not believe in God. The clergy person responds, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in. I probably don’t believe in that God either.” I have heard that story many times in the past, but never known its origin. I looked for the source while I was working on today’s service, because I wanted to share that information with you. However, the quote seems to have not one, but many authors. I found the quote attributed to an Episcopal bishop; an unnamed Harvard chaplain; Marcus Borg, (a liberal Christian theologian); Forest Church, the UU minister of All Souls Church in NYC; and John Buehrens, past President of the UUA. The fact that many people have used the story indicates its relevance to today’s culture.
By saying, “I probably don’t believe in that God either,” the minister seems to be implying that he does believe in some God. The point being, that for many people, clergy included, God is not the angry judgmental God of the Old Testament, the man with the white beard who sits up in the clouds watching over everything we do. Here is the good news. If you can’t believe in a God who creates human beings and then consigns a large percentage of them to eternal damnation, or a God who is omnipotent but allows young children to have cancer, planes to fly into big buildings, earthquakes to destroy cities and people to make war, maybe you can believe in a very different God.
Here we come to the crux of the matter. It is so much easier to explain to others and yourself what you know God isn’t than it is to describe what you think God is. OK so you are clear about the God do you don’t believe in, but could a different God possibly correlate with your experience and respect your ability to reason and think?
If God is not the traditional God of the Old Testament, can we honor our experiences, our feelings, and our gut reaction by stretching just a little to accept something beyond what we can prove scientifically? Part of the difficulty of any discussion on the matter stems from the limitations of language. The word “god” comes with so many attached concepts that are hard to strip away. These attached meanings are why the “G” word became almost taboo in the Unitarian Universalist world. The word “god” generally comes with the notion of something separate, something apart from us. It usually implies an amorphous consciousness – if not a being that passes judgment – at least a force that consciously created the universe as we know it. Traditional theism supposes a dualistic understanding of God and nature – God as a separate being, the creator of nature. But what if God is not a separate consciousness?
Pantheism is one theology in which God is not separate. Pantheism holds that the cosmos is synonymous with God. The Cosmos is divine, and the earth sacred. Pantheists do not propose belief in a deity; rather, they hold nature itself as a creative presence. Pantheists believe that God or divinity does not transcend reality; it surrounds, and is within. Nineteenth century naturalist John Boroughs was an early pantheist. In his book Accepting the Universe, he writes,
“The term ‘religion’ is an equivocal and much-abused word, but I am convinced that no man's life is complete without some kind of an emotional experience that may be called religious. Not necessarily so much a definite creed or belief as an attraction and aspiration toward the Infinite, or a feeling of awe and reverence, inspired by the contemplation of this wonderful and mysterious universe…
Science kills credulity and superstition, but to the well-balanced mind it enhances the feeling of wonder, of veneration, and of kinship which we feel in the presence of the marvelous universe.
It seems to me that there is no other adequate solution to the total problem of life and Nature than what is called "Pantheism", which identifies mind and matter, finite and Infinite, and sees in all these diverse manifestations one absolute being. God becomes the one and only ultimate fact that fills the universe and from which we can no more be estranged than we can be estranged from gravitation.”
If these ideas intrigue you, you may want to check out the website Pantheist.net.
Another theology often confused with Pantheism is Panentheism. Like Pantheists, Panentheists believe God is the universe but they include more in their concept of God. God is more than the universe. According to twentieth century philosopher Charles Hartshorne, Panentheism can best be understood through the following analogy. "Just as a single organism exists both as a collection of semiautonomous, individual cells and as an autonomous individual who is more than just a collection of cells, God can be seen as both a collection of all the constituent parts of reality and as ‘something more’ than the universe itself." Although we, along with the rest of existence, can be though of as part of God's "body," God's mind or consciousness extends beyond that body and causes God to be more than just a collection of parts.
This pantheistic or panentheistic God is the god we spoke of in today’s Responsive Reading. “I am consciousness in the living” “I am time without end.” This God is not separate. How can we be separate from time without end? But what meaning does that have - God as time without end?
I think Forrest Church is trying to explain a similar meaning of the word “god” in the quote at the top of today’s order of service. “The power which I cannot explain or know or name I call God. God is not God’s name. God is my name for the mystery that looms within and arches beyond the limits of my being.”
Last week, when I was talking with my husband about my personal theology I was taken by surprise. (One hazard of being a minister’s spouse is being trapped in a car when said minister is thinking out loud about the next sermon topic.) I was trying to put my own theology into words and explain that in my agnosticism there is a hope. It is a hope best described by the Martin Luther King Junior quote, "We must act secure in the knowledge that, even though it often doesn't feel like it, the arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice." As an agnostic, I believe we humans cannot know or truly comprehend the nature of the divine, perhaps because that arc is so very long, but I do live my life as if the universe somehow bends toward the good. I have to. I was startled at my own emotional reaction when I entertained the possibility that the Universe isn’t moving toward the good. The deep feeling was a measure of my migration along the atheism - agnosticism - theism spectrum. I used to firmly believe that the universe was totally random, that life and evolution occurred by sheer luck. I still hold that as a possibility, but now that view of the universe makes me sad. That aimless universe produces a feeling of great loneliness. I don’t want to believe that what we see, or can prove, is what we get. I want there to be something that is nudging the universe toward justice and good.
Like Patrick Murfin in the reading, I can tell you lot’s of characteristics my potential God/ spirit/ universe bender doesn’t have, but it is harder for me to find words to explain what it is. A colleague, Bob MacDicken of the Hickory, NC UU church has a definition of God that comes close to putting my thoughts of a possible God into just a few words. He says, “At the core of my belief system are three key ideas that, taken together, I call God -- Truth, Creativity and Love”.
God as Truth is my Pantheistic aspect of the divine. That aspect is the science, the fact of what exists. For me, that facet of God has to do with the fact that, as best as we have discovered, everything in the universe is different forms or densities of energy. All the matter is just protons, neutrons, electrons and other sub atomic particles. But these tiny, tiny bits of matter are not really particles they are energy. Not only outer space but also our inner spaces are mostly nothing. This knowledge of physics and all the other amazing truths we have discovered through science are part of the divine.
God as Creativity is my process theology aspect of God. Where do new ideas come from? How and why do we choose what we choose? What is it that has driven the universe to become more and more complex? If everything is truly random shouldn’t the universe be heading toward complete entropy? The Great Story or The Universe Story as told by Michael Dowd or Brian Swimme brought me greater understanding of this side of the divine: divinity as evolution – evolution of matter, evolution of flora and fauna and evolution of ideas.
God as love is the hardest for me to put into words. It is intimately connected to God as Creativity. The connection and affection we feel for another must be more than biology or the physics of brain cells. For me, love is the clearest expression of the arc of the universe bending toward the good. These three aspects of our existence, combined, help me come to some kind of terms with the mystery that is in me and around me.
Carl Jung said, "Whether you call the principle of existence God, Matter, Energy, or anything else you like, you have created nothing. You have simply changed a symbol."
It may be just a symbol, but the concept of God/Energy/Spirit/Universe bender or whatever as something that makes of the separate one whole is not a trivial concept. Religion is about finding meaning in life. Being aware of and examining what ties our universe together is worthy of our attention. So I leave you today with a question – You may already be able to talk about the God you don’t believe in, but can you articulate, even to yourself, what you do believe in? How do you wrap yourself around the mystery that looms within and arches beyond the limits of your being?