Talking About Tough Issues: God

Listen to the following voices in the endless conversation about God:

From Hindu sacred scripture, the Chandogya Upanishad, written more than 2500 years ago: "Brahman is supreme; he is self-luminous, he is beyond all thought. Subtler than the subtlest is he, farther than the farthest, nearer than the nearest. He resides in the heart of every being."

And then there is novelist Gunther Grass, writing in 1970: "I don't know about God…. The only things I know are what I see, hear, feel, and smell."

It is but one thread in the endless conversation, and here is another:

Theologian Thomas Altizer, writing in 1965: "We must recognize that the death of God is a historical event: God has died in our time, in our history, in our existence."

But then there is philosopher Hannah Arendt, writing five years later in 1970: "The way God has been thought of for thousands of years is no longer convincing; if anything is dead, it can only be the traditional thought of God."

Finally, consider a third thread in the endless conversation:

The ancient Greek philosopher Xenophanes, writing before the time of Socrates and Plato: "The Ethiopians make their gods black-skinned and snub-nosed; the Thracians say theirs have blue eyes and red hair. If oxen and horses had hands and could draw and make works of art as men do, then horses would draw their gods to look like horses, and oxen like oxen–each would make their bodies in the image of their own."

And then there is philosopher Obert Tanner, writing in 1989: "While the ideas about God may appear to change, the experience of God appears to abide with people in all ages."

So many threads in the endless conversation about God. Brahman is subtler than the subtlest, farther than the farthest, nearer than the nearest; but then how can we know anything beyond what we can see, hear, feel, and smell? And should we even be bothered by such a thing? Then there are the horrors and atrocities of the 20th century-proof that God is dead; or is it just the traditional idea of God that has died? Finally, there is the insight that people create God in their own image; but is that all there is to it, and God images are expressive of nothing more than human biology and human need? Or do our God images, as varying as they might be, conditioned by language and history and culture as they are, nevertheless point to a Sacred Reality that exists timelessly in its own right?

God is a tough issue to talk about. Once you start doing that, and I mean really doing that-asking tough questions in all sincerity, no holds barred, as well as speaking out of your authentic experience and understanding-you enter into the endless conversation, and the sheer diversity and complexity of opinion can bewilder.

But this happens, as well: the conversation changes your life. It takes you places that you never thought you would go. This is what I want to focus on today, as it is illustrated by our collective Unitarian Universalist history. Our centuries-long struggle with the God question has taken our religion to the ironic place of making no official pronouncements about God-leaving it up to the dictates of individual reason and conscience. And to many people who are not already Unitarian Universalist, this is quite odd. It can be odd even for some who ARE Unitarian Universalist. How can it be a real religion when it takes no official stand with regard to the most basic and crucial of metaphysical issues, like the existence of a Sacred Reality called Brahman or God or something else? Even Buddhism takes a definite stand, through the Anatta doctrine, which states that permanent entities like immortal souls or Gods do NOT exist and are logically inconsistent with the Nirvana possibility for all sentient beings. Every other religion takes some kind of stand: why not Unitarian Universalism?

Yet our fervent grappling with the God question over the past several centuries has brought us to where we are today. It has integrity. There are crucial lessons to learn. Let's take a closer look, and consider our unique contribution to the endless conversation about God.

And I begin with a moment in history: October 27, 1553. A cold and rainy day in Geneva, Switzerland. A procession of people heading outside the city's walls to a hillside, where a man named Michael Servetus would be burned at the stake, with a book strapped to his thigh called The Restitution of Christianity, which he had written and which was the reason he was being burned. Burned for heresy. Burned for proclaiming a message that authorities felt would lead others to believe wrong things and so put them in threat of eternal hellfire and damnation. So as to prevent such permanent torment for others, the authorities would subject Servetus's body to temporary torment. This was the thinking. They had to get rid of him.

What was it all about? To a significant degree, it was just like a quarrel between family members, which can be more vicious than any other. Servetus was a religious reformer, one of the many people who made up the Protestant Reformation in Europe, along with Martin Luther and John Calvin. "God himself is our spirit dwelling in us," he once said, "and this is the Holy Spirit within us. In this we testify that there is in our spirit a certain working latent energy, a certain heavenly sense, a latent divinity and it bloweth where it listeth and I hear its voice and I know not whence it comes nor whither it goes. So is everyone that is born of the spirit of God." In other words, Servetus felt God's call working in his life and especially in his mind. The latent divinity there "bloweth where it listeth," and where this took him was to apply reason to established religious doctrines and practices, just like the other religious reformers of the time. Their collective question was: Which established doctrines and practices block people from connecting with God because they come from human ignorance and corruption?

And this is where the family quarrel part comes in. Michael Servetus wasn't just any kind of Protestant reformer-he was a radical reformer. He wanted reform to go all the way, not just some of the way. Luther and Calvin had severed the relationship between the state and the Catholic Church in Germany and in Switzerland, but then they turned right around and created new alliances between the state and their own churches. But to the radical reformers, this church-state connection was itself an example of human ignorance and corruption. And so was the doctrine of the Trinity-the idea that God is three separate persons who are somehow also one. Luther and Calvin would not let go of this doctrine, but Servetus said that true reform required it. Not only is the doctrine NOT scripture-based, it also poses a huge obstacle to the believer's relationship with God. "But what else is being without God," he once said, "but being unable to think about God, when there is always presented to our understanding a haunting kind of confusion of three beings, by which we are forever deluded into supposing that we are thinking about God?"

The quarrel between otherwise-likeminded people was vicious-and we know how it ended. Servetus burned, with his book The Restitution of Christianity strapped to his thigh. The power of the state-in control of his arch-enemy John Calvin-leveled against him.

But now listen to one response to what happened to Servetus. It comes from another religious reformer of the time, Sebastian Castellio. Castellio's plea was for tolerance. "To burn a man," he insisted, "is not to defend a doctrine. It is to burn a man." "Let me have the liberty of my faith as you have of yours. At the heart of religion I am one with you. It is in reality the same religion; only on certain points of interpretation I see differently from you. But however we differ in opinion, why cannot we love one other? […] There are, I know, persons who insist that we should believe even against reason. It is, however, the worst of all errors, and it is laid on me to fight it…. Let no one think he is doing wrong in using his mental faculties. It is our proper way at arriving at the truth." Sebastian Castellio, 1553.

And there it is-one of the formative stories of our Unitarian Universalist religion. Just listen to the themes: "God himself is the spirit dwelling in us" moving us towards reform; the centrality of the mind in the religious life, so that "what else is being without God but being unable to think about God"; vicious quarrels between otherwise-likeminded reformers; and then a plea for tolerance, rooted in a sense of a religion that is larger than specific doctrines and interpretations of doctrine. Rooted in love. "But however we differ in opinion, why cannot we love one another?" Ever since Servetus in the sixteenth-century, the growth and development of these themes has been nothing less than the story of our religion and our faith.

And so, turning to American Unitarianism in the early nineteenth century. By the 1820s the religion had achieved definite clarity about what it stood for: God was one person and not three; and God was uniquely revealed through the life of Jesus of Nazareth as recorded in the Bible. Was Jesus God? No-but to live as Jesus lived was the way to salvation; it was the way to spiritual fulfillment in life. If "What Would Jesus Do" bracelets were available to our early nineteenth-century forbearers, they would have been wearing them.

But now, watch how the themes from the story of Servetus start to unfold once again. In the 1830s, Transcendentalists with a passion for God-like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Theodore Parker-start to speak out of their personal experience and speak up. People, they say, don't need Bibles and they don't need established Christian traditions like the communion ritual to connect with God-people can discern truths about God and the spiritual life directly, using intuition. The Transcendentalists also argued this: that Christianity was not the only way to God. God could be known in many ways, through the many religions around the world. To say the least, this was contrary to the established faith of the old guard Unitarians, who were themselves reformers in their own right and so especially nettled to have what they thought was settled unsettled.

And then something else happened. In 1859, the publication of a work by the Unitarian biologist Charles Darwin: On the Origin of Species-this work sent shock waves through the denominations and triggered another variety of spirituality in our movement, one that rejected Transcendentalist intuition and embraced the scientific method as a key source of insight about religious matters. For people who embraced this approach, a whole new world opened up. Evolution was God's way of creating the world. Science could become itself a kind of scripture, complementing and correcting the traditional scriptures of old. Once again-imagine what the old guard Unitarians thought about this.

The old pattern, with all its themes, was unfolding anew. Reformers stepping up to proclaim their new vision of God and the spiritual life, in the face of an established faith which had itself been crafted by reformers. No one burned at the stake, true: but vicious-enough disagreements and quarrels among people as they tried to figure out, amidst all the diversity and disagreement, what their faith actually stood for. By the 1870s, Unitarianism included Christians who wanted to focus exclusively on Bible-based, "What Would Jesus Do" Christianity; it included Christians who were open to the insights and teachings of other world religions and science; it included people who did not consider themselves Christians but believed in God in some way; and it also included people who wanted nothing less than to transcend the language of traditional religion, leave it behind: people who felt that words like "God" had had their day and needed to be shelved. This was Unitarianism after the Civil War-moving in all sorts of different ways, having a hard time explaining itself to the world, riddled with conflict and confusion. Religion in crisis.

What happened was this. Sebastian Castellio's words came alive. "Let me have the liberty of my faith as you have of yours. At the heart of religion I am one with you. It is in reality the same religion; only on certain points of interpretation I see differently from you. But however we differ in opinion, why cannot we love one other?" These words came alive for us, and they changed us as a religious movement forever. We chose love over doctrinal clarity. As the poet Edwin Markham writes, "He drew a circle that shut me out– / Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. / But Love and I had the wit to win: / We drew a circle that took him in!" That was our answer. All who wished to be a part of our spiritual communion and join our covenant of right relationship could. That's the direction we took.

As it turned out, Unitarian Universalism did find itself achieving a kind of theological consensus by the 1950s, and it lasted throughout the 1970s and even into the early 1980s. There are many of you here who may be able to testify to this (or to let me know if I've got it wrong!). The consensus was this: a perspective patterned somewhat after the Humanist Manifesto of 1933, which was signed by thirty-four Unitarian ministers and academics (and one Universalist). "We are convinced," said the signers of this Manifesto, "that the time has passed for theism…. Religious institutions, their ritualistic forms, ecclesiastical methods and communal activities must be reconstituted as rapidly as experience allows in order to function effectively in the modern world." This is what the Manifesto said. Build a religion that "would not be shaken, even if the thought of God were outgrown" (Rev. Curtis Reese). And while, in 1933, this was a hotly contested idea in our congregations and churches, by the 1950s it had become a core ethic. God really wasn't talked about-the topic was passé, or in bad taste. We did not have worship or sermons; we had services and academic-style lectures. It is exactly why, when in the 1980s, Unitarian Universalists started to feel a call to greater spiritual diversity, that so many of us who had grown up with a humanist-oriented Unitarian Universalism felt like we were losing our religion. As an essentially Humanist faith,1950s through early 1980s Unitarian Universalism had achieved clarity; but then came the Purposes and Principles in 1985 which talked about how we are a Living Tradition with many sources besides humanism, including mystical traditions, world religions, our parent traditions of Judaism and Christianity, the words and deeds of prophetic men and women, and earth-based spirituality. With all of these sources, spirituality-talk and God-talk couldn't help but come rushing back into our congregations and churches. And with it, the family quarrels ensued.

It's where we are today: a time that is comparable to the antebellum period, charged with difference and diversity, standing back from affirming whether or not God exists, not taking a stand on this or other traditional religious questions.

And so it is time, once again, to remember and to choose the genius of our movement, which was evident in the themes surrounding the story of Michael Servetus. Our genius is not so much our capacity to proliferate ideas about God-because that will happen anyhow, with or without our participation. No-our unique contribution to the endless conversation is our commitment to grounding life in religious community on something that is far deeper than beliefs. Not that beliefs are unimportant-beliefs are absolutely worth living and dying for. And that's the point-they are too vital and important to be legislated by the community. The individual must have freedom to choose the ones he or she will live and die by. The individual must do the spiritual work that only he or she can do, which is to struggle with all the half-gods so that the real gods arrive.

So let us do this: bind ourselves together by love, amidst all our diverse searching and seeking; allow the Spirit of Life to dwell within us and move us towards renewal and growth in our relationships and our world; say the words we need to say that, for us, adequately express what our spirits yearn for and what makes sense to us. God is one of those words, in addition to all the others. So let us say it. Let us sing it. And as we do this, let there be tolerance. "Let me have the liberty of my faith as you have of yours," said Sebastian Castellio from almost 500 years ago. "At the heart of religion I am one with you. It is in reality the same religion; only on certain points of interpretation I see differently from you. But however we differ in opinion, why cannot we love one other?"

The very existence of Unitarian Universalism says that we can-and its continued existence into the future demands it. Amen.