Last Sunday afternoon I attended the interfaith worship service in Aenon Baptist Church celebrating the inauguration of Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson. Aenon is a member of the National Baptist Convention, a traditionally African American denomination. The service was two-and-a-half hours long, but its duration was its least important aspect. We heard a half-dozen black church choirs, each one of which seemed more powerful than the one before. The music moved from spirited to ecstatic and back as people expressed their faith in the goodness of God and life. Scores of young black people joined in a joyous, hand-clapping celebration of life.
The strange thing, however, was that I did not believe most of what was sung. Along with the cantor, the imam, a Hindu, I knew I was in a theological minority. Yet this was a powerful religious experience. How can that be? How can a mystical religious humanist be moved by worship of a God who was personal, male and a father-figure to boot?
I could not worship in this mode every Sunday. It just isn't my cup of liturgical tea. I am much more comfortable in this somewhat subdued setting. My brand of spirituality would simply pour cold water on what happened last Sunday afternoon. I do not doubt the clergy with whom I worshipped, and with whom I work, would be shocked at this sermon.
And yet, there is a commonality here. While most of those worshippers understand creation as the handiwork of a personal God, I understand it as an impersonal cosmic process. For them God is a noun to be worshipped; for me God is a verb, a process in which we participate. But while we differ in our explanations of it - we celebrate the same reality.
I am often asked, "Do you believe in God?" I don't even believe in the question. What does my questioner mean by "believe" and "God"? I am reminded of the incident told about our Unitarian forebear, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was in deep discussion with a conservative seminary professor. "After a stream of Emersonian conversation, the professor began to wonder whether (Emerson) held any religious convictions whatever, and put the question squarely: 'Mr. Emerson, do you believe in God?' 'Really,' Emerson replied, 'it is beyond my comprehension.'" And mine too.However, let it not be said that just because God is beyond my understanding I can't preach about it. It is one of the most fascinating topics in all theology. In the 13th century St. Thomas Aquinas proposed a series of logical arguments for the existence of God, including the argument from perfection - if there is the good, there must be the perfect - therefore God. I'd like to challenge Aquinas by suggesting that God, whatever God is, isn't perfect - truly an heretical proposition.
The word God, for me, is a symbol used by imperfect human beings to point to Ultimate Reality, a projection of human values onto a cosmic screen. It is the difference between seeing Rochester on a two-dimensional map and living three-dimensionally in the City of Rochester. One is intellectually interesting; the other is experientially exciting. The reality is more important than the label we attach to it.
The God symbol has been used for all manner of purposes - good and evil. I will never forget a Harvard Divinity School lecture on the violence of Yahweh in the Hebrew scriptures - the slaughter of the people in Egypt, Jericho, and Canaan being three cases in point. One of my Jewish friends, wife of a rabbi, recently told me she downplayed the Hanukkah celebration because there was so much violence in the story.
Now, the Ultimate Reality to which the word God points didn't do these things. These quasi-historical acts were perpetrated by a people fighting for their lives. The history of their struggle was a holy history, only later attributed to God. Yahweh grew from a nomadic, to a tribal and to a national god until the Hebrew prophets came along. Their ethical monotheism, one of the great spiritual breakthroughs in religious history, portrayed God as a universal being with a sense of justice who dropped a moral plumbline over all people.
As I look at world religious history one cannot help being struck by the use of "God" for the justification of violence - crusades, jihads, holy wars. Look at Northern Ireland as Protestants and Catholics, ostensibly worshipping the same God, are enemies. Look at Bosnia with its religious divisions. Look at the Middle East as Muslim, Christian and Jew are at each others' throats. Presumably all are monotheists, worshipping one God.
Now, to set the record straight, that same God is also the supreme symbol for compassion and love. All this is simply to say that if we take as God the divinity people have described in their holy books, then God is far from perfect. Strangely enough, our Gods are just as imperfect as we are. There must be a connection.
Take the debate over God between evolutionists and creationists. If God is perfect, the Creationist view, why did it take four billion years to produce human beings? Why so many false starts, and bungled opportunities? Why so much trial and error in the process? Why so much sloppiness and inefficiency? As one scholar concluded, "The universe is not tailored to our measurements." And then there is the moral question - how can a good God allow suffering and evil? I find the question quite impossible to answer, nor have I read any satisfactory solution to the quandary. What kind of God would allow the Holocaust or slavery? No self-respecting deity with any power whatever would tolerate these things.
No, I am afraid I cannot accept the personification of deity. To personify God is to limit God, to reduce the reality of God to our terms. This week we read about physicist Richard Seed, who proposes to clone a human being. The ethical issues aside, I have trouble with a man who says that "We were made in the image of God and if we create an identical image, we get closer to God." What arrogance!
I find the human attempt to make God in our image egotistical. Voltaire once said, "God created man in his own image, and man returned the favor." In our arrogance we attribute to God gender, will, compassion and other human attributes without the foggiest idea if this is right. Haven't we noticed that we who presume to know all about this Ultimate Perfection are quite imperfect ourselves? Therefore, it seems to me the God symbol we create is also imperfect. While we may be what God had in mind from the Creation, we are arrogant if we claim God bears our very imperfect image.
Well, do I believe in God or not? Instead of a simplistic yes or no to what I regard as a superficial question, I propose to ask what I believe are more meaningful questions - and provide my own tentative answers:
Is Ultimate Reality natural or supernatural? I believe Ultimate Reality is a natural process of Cosmic Creativity that is and probably will always be beyond our comprehension no matter how hard we try to understand it. I find the Big Bang of cosmic evolution far more awe-inspiring than the lovely, but limited, myth in Genesis.
Is Ultimate Reality personal or impersonal? When I was a teenager I preached a sermon on "My Friend God," thinking I had direct communication with deity. Now I don't. Have I just stopped listening? Did God give up on me? Or have I entered into a different kind of relationship with reality?
Church historian Martin Marty once sardonically wrote that some people left the church because they believed God to be a "Cosmic Snoop" worried about every detail of our lives and judging us accordingly. Marty went on: "There are billions of stars in billion of galaxies and billions of people on earth, yet somehow God has time to use a spyglass - in search of sinning mortals." A cosmic God, I understand Marty to say, just doesn't have time for such trivia.
But then, if Marty rejects God as Cosmic Snoop, watching over our every action, how can God pay attention to the prayers of any and every individual? I believe Ultimate Reality transcends the personal/impersonal distinction. I believe it to be a great sea of cosmic being into which we were fortunate to have been born.
Is Ultimate Reality benign, indifferent, malign? With Albert Camus I believe in the "benign indifference of the universe." This reality in which I live and move and have my being is indifferent to me - the rain falls on the just and on the unjust. But I apprehend it as benign - I feel privileged to be a part of it - to swim in the river of time before I am washed into the infinite ocean.
Does this Ultimate Reality have meaning? I do not believe there is meaning inherent in the universe - a mysterious divine secret for humans to discover. Meanings are what human beings create as we try to figure out how to live. Life, for me, is not some meaningless series of episodes. I understand it to be a drama in which I have a brief but significant walk-on part.
Does this Ultimate Reality have a will? I am one of the few preachers who do not presume to know God's will. I don't have a clue. I identify with Abraham Lincoln who when confronted with clergy from north and south, both of whom claimed to know the will of God, said he was the only one who didn't know it. Here again, God's imperfection shows as the contradictory desires of human beings.
Does this Ultimate Reality intervene in our lives or in human history? I confess when my Christian and Jewish friends speak of "acts of God" I are reminded of insurance company attempts to explain the capricious conduct of the cosmos more than some divine hand taking up work that ought to be ours to do.
Our confusion of the human and the divine is delightfully illustrated in the typographical mistake made by one Dean Ronald Reisinger of the Disciples Seminary Foundation, School of Theology, Claremont, California discussing appointment of someone named Rod Parrott. "As I engaged in the search for the person to call as assistant dean, it became evident that we had in our midst an outstanding candidate. God is a creative, articulate, committed individual who is a good teacher, listener and organizer. He will be an effective team member with us." Maybe so, but the divine works through the human. God cannot become an excuse for inactivity.I don't expect any direct help from the cosmos as I try to repair an imperfect world, but I do expect help from other workers, living and dead, who believe that life matters. And I do believe with Unitarian Universalist theologian Charles Hartshorne that God "is ... not ... a supernatural Force breaking abruptly into history, but as the cosmic Life of which our lives are a part.... When we die there is no endless heaven or hell to which we are consigned, but the contribution that each of our lives has made continues in the ongoing, deathless divine life.... Human life is like a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, but when we close the book the story does not disappear."
So much for an imperfect sketch of my theology about an imperfect God. Is there a Unitarian Universalist concept of God? As with all theological matters there is no dogma of God among Unitarian Universalists. In our midst are atheists who deny the existence of God - though by calling themselves atheists, they reveal that they take the God issue very seriously. We are agnostics - who just don't know, but want to make the best of this life. We are theists who emphatically believe in a personal God with whom one can have communication. We are deists who think of God, with Thomas Jefferson, as a "rather chilly Divine Architect." We are pantheists and pagans who believe God is in nature. And we are religious humanists like me.And so why is God so frequently or infrequently used in our worship services? It is too frequently used by the atheists and agnostics among us and not frequently enough by the theists and deists in our midst. I use the term sparingly and carefully for overuse may breed meaninglessness - this way I get a conversation going - and in that conversation we are at our best.
For me God language is poetry - pointing imperfectly to a cosmos that has, like everything, a crack in it. Are we less religious if we do not mention the word "God" but live creatively in the mystery? Are we irreligious if we do not claim to believe in God but experience the ecstasy of living each and every day? Are we not religious if we don't join the 95-plus percent of Americans who claim belief in God, and instead join the much smaller number who invest themselves in seeking peace and justice?
With Anthony De Mello I wonder, "Can God be put into words?" It might have been better if I had said nothing. That is for you to judge.
I close with the words of the late Dag Hammarskjold from his spiritual diary, Markings: "God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason."