© Dr. Chris Schriner 2007
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
November 4, 2007

A well-known minister died and arrived at the Pearly Gates at the same time as a cab-driver from New York. The cabbie was ushered into Heaven, but the clergyman was left waiting outside. Finally, he said to St. Peter, "How come you let that cab-driver into Paradise, and I'm still waiting out here? I am a renowned minister." "Well," St. Peter said, "when you preached, everyone slept. But when he drove, everyone prayed."

So - if I want to get to heaven I guess I'd better keep you awake! And one way to do that is to preach on a subject that makes people as nervous as riding in a New York taxi - a scary subject like god.

God-talk makes UUs nervous because we have so many different opinions about deity. We are open to all positive theologies and philosophies. But the Unitarians and the Universalists evolved out of a Middle Eastern religious tradition, namely Christianity. You may have noticed that some religions which started out in that part of the world tend to sharply divide people into those with the right beliefs and those with the wrong beliefs, and to be very hostile toward those who believe "incorrectly." Because this attitude has influenced our whole culture, Unitarian Universalists often avoid talking about religion for fear of getting into arguments with each other.

Fortunately, we are learning to candidly discuss what have been called the "differences that unite us." And this morning we will explore the rich and varied ideas we have about god. Later this fall I'll preach a similar sermon about various approaches to secular humanism.

In preparing for this talk, I sent out an email inviting your comments and 15 people responded! I'll quote some of you this morning and a few of you said it would be okay to use your names. I've saved other comments for possible use in future sermons.

For most people, the divine is something we discover through spiritual experience, something wonderful beyond our understanding. Since ancient times humans have felt they could sense mysterious entities or energies. Many indigenous peoples have believed in animism, the idea that animals, trees, and rocks have spirits. This has sometimes evolved into pantheism, the belief that god is everything, or is in everything as in panentheism. An email from one of our members criticized the standard idea of god as an invisible super-person, but then went on to say that "the feeling that there is something beyond us, that seems to be a universal human experience. And it does seem odd that ... at the time of the 'big bang', the bits ... clumped together to make galaxies, stars, planets, and us. So there must be something about those bits which include the potential for everything that there is in the universe today ..."

The email concluded, "I see God as a 'placeholder' concept that refers to that interconnectedness of all the bits of the universe. Together we are God." This statement combines the intuition that there is something beyond us with what modern science tells us about the cosmos.

The sense of "something beyond" is often felt as a strangeness, an invisible entity or energy that is radically different from you and me. But it is also often felt as a close kinship, as in the idea that we are made in god's image. If we emphasize our kinship we may describe god as a person, a conscious being who thinks, feels, communicates, makes decisions, and acts in the universe. If we emphasize god's otherness, we may think of deity as an impersonal energy. One of you wrote about "a force for good in the universe ... an energy running through everything and everyone via that good old UU favorite - an interconnected web." Karen McVey suggested that, "Science fiction offers as good a place as any to find god. Star Wars' The Force is my favorite example," she said. "That transcendent experience of something greater than oneself that, at the same time, is available to draw on for what ever purpose one needs."

Sometimes people affirm deity to help explain how the world began. One of you said that God "is the name that I use to explain the starting point of existence."

I've been talking about the sort of god that can be discovered, through religious experience or by thinking about the universe and how it began. But there's another approach to god which might be called "designating a deity." Instead of believing in god as a being or a force which may or may not exist, we may instead give the status of deity to something we consider marvelous or holy, something good enough to be called god. Jesus said God is love, but for some UUs, love is their god. And if we designate love as our deity, then since love exists, obviously a god exists.

One person emailed me saying, "I believe that human beings have a collective consciousness." She identifies herself as an atheist, and atheism is a valid option for UUs. But some people would consider a collective human consciousness to be a kind of god. This is an example of how theism and atheism actually overlap. Whether someone who believes in collective consciousness is a theist or an atheist depends only on the way they choose to use words.

I consider many things in life sacred, and I could certainly call them god, or gods. I have reverence for love, creativity, the web of conscious beings, humanity in its journey through time. And it also feels right to say that I worship the truth. But I usually do not refer to love, creativity, the great Web, humanity, or truth as gods, because I do not want to confuse people, or to confuse myself. I grew up in a culture where the idea of god implies an invisible bearded male super-person. Based on my understanding of how the brain works, I do not think I can redefine god as something else without the old god sneaking back in when I'm not looking. Using the word "god" jangles unconscious or half-conscious neural patterns in my brain, so that any new idea of god that I invent is likely to eventually start growing that long white beard again. If we learn a word when we are very young, it is impossible to easily erase all of that word's connotations. So to avoid confusion, I usually speak of the holy or the sacred rather than god. I certainly respect those who want to redefine god beardlessly. I just think doing this is harder than we may realize. Go ahead and make a new image of god, but keep a razor handy because you'll need to regularly shave stubble from god's smooth new face. (Occam makes a pretty good razor.)

It does sometimes work for me to speak of deity. For example, last year I posted these words in my office: "Do not defy the god of pain, nor ignore the god of joy." Do I think there is a pain-god going around prodding people's posteriors with a pitchfork? Do I believe in a cheerful god of joy who invites us to dance with her? Of course not. My statement was meant poetically, not literally. But these poetic meanings convey a powerful and life-giving reality, telling me that emotional and physical pains carry important messages I should not defy, and that as Joseph Campbell says, I should "follow my bliss," being guided by whatever brings me joy.

Getting back to the idea of designating a deity, several of your emails conferred the status of deity on things that definitely do exist. One of you wrote, "I hardly believe in a God anymore. However, the thing that makes most sense to me is that God is the whole and we are the parts that make up the whole." Some said that God exists in our minds: "the idea of God fulfills a human need for something greater than exists in reality as we know it." John Porter commented, "Thirty years ago a friend told me that 'the nearest thing you'll ever find to God is the person sitting next to you.' I think that's pretty close." If we designate the person next to us as god, then treating others with respect becomes a kind of prayer.

So god can be something wondrous we discover, a force or a person or an unknown that picture in personal terms because we are persons. Or god can be what we designate as deity, as worthy of reverence. As Unitarian Universalists we have the freedom to incorporate multiple ways of conceiving god. I often say that each human being contains many sub-personalities. All of us have many facets. And each sub-personality may have a different idea of god. There is definitely a part of my mind that still believes in the Old Testament god Yahweh, white beard and all.

Here's an email which reflects an inner multiplicity, and complements this with a many-faceted concept of god, and a sophisticated understanding of science. "My Goddess is intersexual-asexual-ambiguous-ambivalent, very much like me, and dualistic, in the model of yin and yang. For every perfection my Goddess has an imperfection. She has infinite dimensions, ... all of them rotating and sliding against each other at different rates even as the laws of physics themselves re-aligned and then began solidifying in the first few nanoseconds after the Big Bang. She is hot and cold, she is loving and hating, she is infinite and infinitesimal, she is bound by fate and liberated by free will, she is constantly changing even as she remains immovable and fixed, and I am moving through her infinite dimensions even when motionless as the universe itself is carrying me on a convoluted spiral path, rotating me on the planet, revolving me around the sun, swirling me around the center of the Milky Way, expanding me outward from the initial singularity of the big bang, a wisp of smoke wafting across and throughout the universe." Yes, Cheryl Josie Poniatowski wrote that.

For some UUs, the part of us that studied science is atheistic, but other aspects of our personalities believe in god. And we may value our faith in god even though we have deep doubts. Ed Green suggested, "Believe in a being greater than you, even if you do not know if the being exists. Turn to that being, or the belief of that being, when faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges." He said he loved the passage in the Gospel of Matthew about the birds of the air and the lilies of the fields.

This next email shows flexibility and even ambivalence, appreciating the divine presence while at the same time affirming doubt and skepticism: "While I'm not sure at all that I believe in a 'God' per se, there are times when I'm pretty sure I do, and over all, I think I like to live my life assuming that there may be some beneficent force in the universe, or at least "we're not alone". Someone who's shoulder I can cry on when most distressed, or someone to praise when feeling most joyful. Especially in our culture when we don't do these things very publicly, it's helpful to have a private 'other' to share with."

It has been said that UUism is the only denomination where you might call up your minister in a panic because you are starting to BELIEVE in God. But we're getting beyond our theological anxiety. And if you change from theism to atheism or atheism to theism, we won't throw you out as a heretic. We'll say we're glad you're still learning and growing.

Suppose you want to deepen your connection with whatever is sacred to you. How can you do that? If you think of god as something you discover through spiritual experience, my first suggestion is to start with a sense of mystery and wonder, and continue to take that mystery seriously. One of you pointed out that "since most of the universe is 'dark matter' about which we know almost nothing, there seems to be lots of room for something we don't understand." And Ed Green expressed appreciation to his wife Donna for pointing out that people tend to describe god in human terms. "So long as we do so ... we will not understand God," Ed concluded. "We should try to find God, not create him in our image."

So we can search for the holy with openness to mystery and wonder, rather than approaching it as something we already understand. My second suggestion is to try out varied imagery for visualizing deity, regardless of whether you believe in a supernatural entity or you think of god more poetically as a way of conceptualizing something wonderful and transcendent. Earlier we sang the hymn "Mother Spirit, Father Spirit," and we can explore male godliness and female goddesses as well as transgender and ungendered imagery. If you typically picture deity as a white person, try switching races, ethnicities, or cultures. (Remember the African-American god in the film, "Bruce Almighty?") We can think in terms of different ages, as in the hymn, "Bring Many Names" with its "Old, aching God" and "Young, growing God, eager still to know ... quick to be delighted, singing as you go ..." And that wonderful final verse somehow gives us imagery without an image: "... joyful darkness far beyond our seeing, closer yet than breathing, everlasting home ..."

So we can be open to the mysterious and we can explore many images of the divine. And my final suggestion is simply to hang out with whatever you see as holy. Regardless of how you think of god or even whether the word god is meaningful to you, remember to be with what is sacred for you. If something represents the highest we can know, if we owe it our allegiance and commitment, why would we neglect it? It's easy to be so focused on everyday trivialities that we forget life's greatest treasures. We get so busy that we neglect the garden of Life, and our spirits dry up for want of healing waters. I hope your involvement in this congregation encourages you to tend that sacred garden. Be with god, or what plays the part of god for you.

If a traditional idea of god speaks to you that's fine. And as a Unitarian Universalist you can follow your instincts and intuitions wherever they lead you, perhaps feeling a god-force, or a holy personal presence, or an unknown essence that no human tongue can fully tell. You may choose to designate something sacred as deity. You can picture the divine as male and female and beyond, making the ultimate mystery more approachable by putting a human face on the holy darkness. And we can all keep learning to share our spiritual journeys, so that sermons about god become far less frightening than that New York taxi ride I mentioned earlier. Theists, atheists, and agnostics can all be sincere spiritual seekers - and good companions to each other in this amazing experience called being alive.

Note: "Occam's razor" was named for William of Occam, who said that theoretical explanations should not require us to believe in unnecessary complexities. [Go back to the sermon]

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