Kearsarge Unitarian Universalist Fellowship
Stone Chapel, Proctor Academy, Andover, NH
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Sermon given by Rev. William E, Nelson 3/06/2011

at Kearsarge Unitarian Universalist Fellowship

In my sermon last week, called “Why is God,” I suggested that the concept of “God” arose within human culture as a function human beings’ self-consciousness and resultant awareness of their mortality – something that, as far as we know, does not afflict any other animals on our planet, who go around attending to their day-to-day business without the distraction of existential angst.  Living with the recognition of life’s having a beginning and an end – that we were once not, and will be not again at some point in time – causes us to question just what it is that has brought all this to be.  Why is there life, anyway?  Why is there an earth?  Why is there a universe?  Why is there anything?  And, furthermore, is there some reason or purpose for our being here, or for being at all?  We’re born, we live our lives, we experience joy and pain and all that lies between those two bookends of life; and then one day, in “the twinkle of an eye,” as St. Paul said, it’s all over. 

Some would say, of course, that there’s some question as to whether it’s really all over.  I’m not of that school; I’m with Paul in that regard.  Many people, such as those from traditions wherein reincarnation is accepted, would disagree with my stance, and that’s okay.  It’s an interesting concept, one of those things that people in our own culture find enjoyable to contemplate in a humorous fashion.  I have a clergy friend who has stickers he puts in books that he lends out, that read:  “Please remember to return this book promptly after having read it, or in the next life you will return as a mule.”  Still others, some of whom we all know quite well, have a concept of eternal life in a heaven or a hell, depending on what kind of life one’s lived, involving an eternal disposition reflecting one’s character or lack thereof.  I’m not one of those, either – unless thought that that little spark of energy that ignites us at conception and leaves us at death returns, at death’s moment, to the great energy pool of the universe – which one might just consider an eternal life, if not in the conventional usage of that term. 

Getting back to the concept of God, though, I’m sure that at least some of you have read Karen Armstrong’s wonderful book, published in 1993, called A History of God.  The very title intrigues us, doesn’t it?  Obviously, no one can really conceive of a history of something as amorphous as God.  Not even Karen Armstrong!  But we can conceive of a history of the concept of God, can’t we?  And that’s precisely what Ms. Armstrong does in her book: she looks at the concept of God as human beings have come up with, lived with, tinkered with, and otherwise, for better or for worse, fallen in love with, since the creation of the species. 

She begins her book citing Father Wilhelm Schmidt, who in his 1912 book, The Origin of the Idea of God, described a theory that in the beginning, humans

“. . . created a God who was the First Cause of all things, the Ruler of heaven and earth.  He was not represented by images and had no temple or priests in his service.  He was too exalted for an inadequate human cult.  Gradually he faded from the consciousness of his people.  He had become so remote that they decided that they did not want him anymore.  Eventually he was said to have disappeared.”

This sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it?  I’m reminded of Emily Dickinson’s wonderful line, “They say that God is everywhere, and yet we always think of Him as somewhat of a recluse.”

Ms. Armstrong says, “One of the reasons why religion seems irrelevant today is that many of us no longer have the sense that we are surrounded by the unseen.”  I don’t know if I can really agree with that statement.  In fact, I see an awful lot of an awareness of, if not “the unseen” in the conventional sense, at least the mystery contained in poetry, art (both traditional and contemporary), music, movies, novels, and other such expressions that lift people to a higher level of living.  But the myths that define and illuminate traditional religious expressions seem to have lost their power, and thus their appeal – other, that is, than a kind of nostalgic yearning for something lost that’s not quite able to be found again.  People just can’t “believe” them anymore.  But in regard to the origin of these myths, Ms. Armstrong says:

When people began to devise their myths and worship their gods,
they were not seeking a literal explanation for natural phenomena. 
The symbolic stories, cave paintings, and carvings were an attempt
to express their wonder and to link this pervasive mystery with
their own lives; indeed poets, artists, and musicians are often im-
pelled by a similar desire today.

She goes on to say:

These myths were not intended to be taken literally, but were meta-
phorical attempts to describe a reality that was too complex and
elusive to express in any other way.  These dramatic and evocative
stories of gods and goddesses helped people to articulate their sense
of the powerful but unseen forces that surrounded them.

Among the problem facing religious traditions in our day is that people don’t recognize, or are unable to comprehend, the function and beauty of living with a mythical thinking.  The great twentieth century theologian Paul Tillich – the only theologian I could truly take very seriously when I was in seminary – once said that the decline of religion began when the myths were literalized. 

The real problem is that we think we’re so smart.  Someone once said that God created the world, and as soon as human beings evolved, they created God in their own image.  The truth of the matter is that God cannot be created, God cannot be described, God cannot be named without mutilating, even desecrating, what God is.  God is mystery, and needs to remain mysterious.  Tillich called God the Ground of Being, or Being in Itself.  God needs to be cloaked in an ephemeral mist, or else God will cease to be.  The American poet Walt Whitman has written of God:

I say to mankind, Be not curious about God.  For who am curious
about each, am not curious about God – I hear and behold god in
every object, yet understand God not in the least.

Still, many of us fuss a bit about God.  In a materialist world, ephemeral mists don’t always do the trick.  Many of us still want to know about God, and can’t be happy just knowing God.  As Woody Allen has written:  “I only wish God would give me some clear sign!  Like making a large deposit in my name in a Swiss bank.” 

The Hebrew seemed to understand all this pretty well.  When Moses was encountered by the burning bush, he asked the “god” therein what his name was.  The answer:  I am that I Am.  God just is – something beyond description.  For Muslims, the giant Kabah in Mecca, which all Muslims hope to visit in their lifetimes, is symbolic of the mysterious presence of God that each Muslim has to create for his- or her self   Why is this simple cube, so huge and black and plain, without any decoration or ornament?  “Because,” says Karen Armstrong in her book, quoting Dr. Ali Shariati, “it represents the secret of God in the universe:  God is shapeless, colorless, without simularity, whatever form or condition mankind selects, sees, or imagines, it is not God.” 

Most of us have seen pictures of Muslims on pilgrimage in Mecca. I find this to be a powerful, powerful image:  Millions of people visiting an immense, mind-boggling – for many, I would think, somewhat intimidating – image created by human beings to illustrate that no “graven image” can possibly represent the depth, the truth, the strength, the inimitable presence of God in our lives.  This is a presence that calls out to be experienced, not understood.  W. Somerset Maugham wrote, A God that can be understood is not God.  Who can explain the infinite in words?”  Who can explain, indeed. 

Where do we go to look for God?  Or for those still a little skittish about the “G-word,” where do we go to look for the Ground of our Being, for Being Itself, for the Mystery, the Awe, the grandness of what Rudolph Otto called the Mysterium Tremendum?  This is something that each of us has to answer for him- or herself.  Nobody can do it for you.  Belong to a faith community is always a good start, of course.  I’m sure it’s where I got my start, which, it turns out, led to all my other paths, including music, art, literature and poetry, friendship, and of course, love in so many of its manifestations, including concern and compassion for others who share this planet with us.    

Across the street from the church in which I grew up was a not particularly elaborate, but very fine house, a nice example of 1920’s classic Italianate architecture, with a stone wall and flagstone path leading into a rose garden.  I remember stopping and gazing into that garden from time to time, actually entranced by the “dew still on the roses,” and embraced by something quite mysterious and wonderful and peaceful; something beyond words’ ability to articulate.  It’s a memory and an image that’s stayed with me all through the years, a tremendous grounding amidst the toil and travail that this world of ours presents, and I’m immensely grateful for it.  It’s a place where God seemed waiting to be encountered.      

Where do we look for God?  Usually such places will find us, should we be walking around with our eyes and ears open and receptive.  Typically, we find God in those places where peace and love and kindness and beauty and goodness prevail.  There are times when this can be terribly difficult.  But never impossible.  To look for God we need to go into our hearts and minds and find that which is unique and wondrous, personal yet universal.  And don’t forget, we don’t have to call it “God.”  As Forrest Church used to say, “God is not God’s name.”  We, in fact, can call this wondrous Mystery anything we want.  Anything, that is, but “Recluse.”

A good friend once sent me a refrigerator magnet that reads “Vocatus atque non vocatus, Deus aderit” - “Bidden or not bidden, God is present.”  Next week, we’ll contemplate the “What” of God, and see if that makes any sense for our lives. 

Thanks for listening!



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