© Dr. Chris Schriner 2003
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
October 19, 2003

Whether I am an accident of nature
Or the design of a god,
It is I who must give dignity to my life
If I am to be worthy of the design
Or build upon the accident.

- the Rev. Nick Cardell
(First Days Record, January 1993, p. 9.)

When I was minister at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Laguna Beach, a group of Sufi Dancers occasionally rented our sanctuary. I still remember them chanting, "Ga-tay, ga-tay, para-ga-tay, para-sam-ga-tay" which means, "beyond, beyond, beyond the beyond, and beyond that which is beyond the beyond."

When people think of "religious" or "spiritual" experiences, they often assume that these experiences must be something "beyond that which is beyond the beyond," something faaar out, as when St. Paul was temporarily blinded on the road to Damascus. But many spiritual experiences are neither spectacular nor bizarre. People also hear the holy in the still, small voice. When John Wesley went through the life-changing event at Aldersgate that led him to found the Methodist Church, he described it by saying simply, "My heart was strangely warmed."

I think of spiritual experiences in very broad terms, as anything that heals and transforms us, in either large or small ways. And I want to raise the question, "Why do people have such experiences?" What is it that heals and transforms us? Here are three very different ideas about that:

First, some people believe spiritual experiences are caused by God, a mysterious being or force that works for good in the world. Even very simple and ordinary examples of healing and transformation are due to God, because God is the source of all goodness.

Others say that we can explain spiritual experiences without assuming there is a god. There is no supernatural person, and no mysterious force except for the forces of the universe that can be studied by science.

And finally, there are those who agree that healing and transforming experiences are natural rather than supernatural processes. But because they view the universe or some special part of the universe as holy, they call that God. For some Unitarian Universalists, love is God, literally. They see love between human beings as worthy of worship. Others treat the basic laws of the universe as their deity. And for the Rev. Forrest Church, a Unitarian Universalist minister, God with a capital G is the same thing as Truth with a capital T. Reality is God. (John Buehrens and Forrest Church, A Chosen Faith, p. 86)

So we can say that people have spiritual experiences as a response to an encounter with God, as a response to aspects of the natural world that inspire us, or as a response to something in the natural world which we cherish so much that we call it God.

Unitarian Universalism welcomes all interpretations about the source of religious experience, and it is even OK for a UU to have opinions about God that contradict each other. In fact, deliberate self-contradiction can be valuable, holding two seemingly incompatible positions in creative tension. I claim that both belief in God and the denial of God contain valuable insights worthy of respect.

Unfortunately this issue has been emotionally loaded for centuries, and in particular the word "atheism" has become a scare-term. People who do not believe in a deity have been told they are destined for damnation. To me, the idea of God sending people to Hell because they question his or her existence is an ungodly idea that grows out of the fearfulness, rigidity, and vengefulness of human beings.

It ought to be possible for atheists to imagine themselves as theists and theists to take the skeptic's position without overly quickening the heartbeat or elevating the blood pressure. And what would be wrong with going through phases in which one believes now that God exists, later that God does not exist, and still later that everything is God?

For a while when I was in college I found myself identifying with both theism and atheism at the same time. I had grown up with a sense of continuous communion with God. But in college I began to question whether there was anybody present but myself as I sat silently in Robbins Prayer Room in the Chapel at the University of Redlands, and I began to incline toward atheism. For a while I was so evenly balanced between theism and atheism that I could see either one with equal clarity. It was as if I were sitting on a mountaintop, and if I sat facing east I saw one valley, and if I turned west I saw the other, and both were equally visible. Most of the time people build their houses on one side of the mountain or the other. They either believe in God or do not believe in God because that is the side of reality that they can see.

Today I want to consider the value of two opposing viewpoints about God, two viewpoints that are common in Unitarian Universalist congregations: (1) the idea that God is a mysterious force or spirit which works for good in the world, and (2) the idea that God does not exist, and that spiritual renewal can be explained by aspects of the natural world, such as the resilience of the human psyche and the way people in communities strengthen and inspire each other. Each side of this debate has value, and in fact, two kinds of value. We accept ideas because they fit and because they work.

Philosophies of life fit in the same sense that a map of the world resembles the way the world appears - and like the map, there are always distortions. And they work in the sense that beliefs have benefits or payoffs.

Before continuing with the sermon, I want to pause for a time of meditation and conversation. I'd like us to close our eyes and think about how both belief in God and denial of God fits and works. Then we'll talk about that. So close your eyes and go within for meditation or prayer, and think first about how belief in God fits people's experience and works in their lives. Then think about how atheism also fits and works in people's lives.

I'd like to hear from a few of you about these questions, and I encourage us all to state our own ideas in a positive way rather than criticizing the viewpoints of others. It's easy for discussions of religion to become antagonistic, so we need to make special efforts to maintain respect.


For the rest of my sermon I will explore the way that both belief in God and disbelief fits our experience and works in our lives.

Belief in a mysterious force or spirit fits our experience, because many of us (including some atheists and agnostics) frequently think and act as if such a force or spirit existed. Try asking yourself questions such as the following: Do you sometimes feel as if your life is part of an intelligently created pattern? Do events seem to push you in a positive direction, as if someone or something were watching over you? When you do things that are creative or destructive does it seem as if someone or something knows about it? Do some things apparently happen in order to teach you a lesson? Does there seem to be a force for good in life? Do you sometimes imagine that this force is protecting you from harm and from your own mistakes? When you are in trouble does part of you look to this force for assistance, and do your thoughts at times resemble traditional forms of prayer?

When an atheist has these attitudes, it could just be a throwback to childish superstition, or it could represent spiritual insight. In any event, some atheists and agnostics do have a theistic side, a part of their personalities that believes in something like a god.

So for many of us, faith in a transcendent god fits our experience some of the time and to some degree. It also works, by providing provides certain benefits, and one of the main benefits of theism is personalization. Because we are persons, we think in personal terms and in relational terms. We tend to anthropomorphize everything, to treat everything as if it were human. For example, the concept of Mother Earth means a great deal to me. I find it beneficial to personify something that is not literally a mother.

Personalization is also helpful because it encourages person-to-person dialogue. In my work as a psychotherapist I often use the gestalt dialogue technique pioneered by Fritz Perls. One way of doing this is to imagine that you can divide yourself into two people, one of whom wants to do one thing, while the other side favors the opposite. Then you actually conduct a conversation, out loud, between these two individuals. I soon discovered that my clients made better decisions by using this dialogue technique than by just talking about their problems in the usual way. Finally it dawned on me that this may be what happens in prayer. By praying, we enter into a conversation (whether in reality or in our own imaginations) with a source of inspiration and insight.

A god who can talk to us is especially helpful when we face moral dilemmas. Because we are persons, we look to other persons for guidance, and it may be easier to obey a person, even an invisible person, than to be true to an ideal.

So belief in God fits our experience and works in our lives. But it also works to assume that God does not exist and that spiritual experience can be entirely explained by what happens within the natural world. Such a non-theistic viewpoint fits the periods when God seems to be absent, when the universe seems arbitrary, as if nobody is in charge. For some, those periods are few, for others they are common, but many people have experienced the absence or the silence of God.

Furthermore, non-belief works; it has real advantages. To appreciate these advantages, try visualizing the human mind as being like a congress, with representatives from various parties. In virtually every mind at least one member of this congress represents the Party of Doubt, the party that says God probably does not exist. What would happen if this member were banished from parliament? What would we lose?

Without doubt and skepticism, people might be tempted to treat life here on Earth as trivial. Belief in God commonly goes hand in hand with belief in an afterlife, so that this present life is only a tiny beginning - and yet there's usually a bit of doubt. "Everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die." It is said that there are no atheists in foxholes, but few foxhole-dwellers are such committed theists that they would jump out and charge the enemy, clad only in "the whole armor of God." (Ephesians 6:11) Do you remember the Rolling Stones song where Mick Jagger says he was driving down the road listening to a radio preacher who claimed that "you always have the Lord by your side." "I was so pleased to be informed of this," Mick sings, "that I ran 20 red lights in his honor. Thank you, Jesus!" Obviously it makes more sense to conduct our lives as if divine intervention is possible but not certain.

What happens when we really do, as the old hymn says, "drive the dark of doubt away?" Well, in some cases what we have is suicide bombers. No doubt many of those who blow themselves up in Israel, Iraq, and other countries, are convinced that they are going to wake up in Paradise. Perhaps a healthy respect for the possibility that death really may be the end helps maintain a stable and somewhat sane society.

So the first advantage of unbelief is that it directs our attention to the importance of life here and now. Maybe our time on earth is just a tiny and trivial eye blink in an eternity of existence . . . but what if it's all we have?

Furthermore, openness to the possibility that God might not exist can help us let go of our need for security. To feel at peace with life even if the world isn't as good and safe a place as we would wish—this is an important stage of spiritual growth. And yet many religions do everything they can to keep people from reaching that stage.

I want to believe that Goodness is in charge of the universe, that I will live forever, and that everybody will be happy for eternity. In principle all of this could be true, but there is no final security. Even if we had all died and gone to Heaven, and we were snugly ensconced in Paradise strolling down those golden boulevards - some bigger and meaner god from some sinister super-universe might come along and say, "I don't like this dude, Jehovah, and I'm going to blow his Heaven straight into Hell."

Being able to face ultimate, absolute, cosmic insecurity and accept it - that is the most solid form of security we can get. If we pretend we're certain that everything will turn out perfectly, we will never reach that level of spiritual development.

When I think of outgrowing the need for security, I think of Frank Powell. Frank was the father of Jean Brookhart, a member of Orange Coast Unitarian Universalist Church in Costa Mesa, California, and Jean suspected that her dad was an agnostic. Frank was a dedicated humanitarian, who founded the first bureau for handicapped children in Wisconsin, and set up programs for youngsters with hearing problems, rheumatic heart trouble, and other ailments. When at last he was on his deathbed a local minister came by and asked him, "Have you made your peace with God?" Echoing the Unitarian Henry David Thoreau, the old man replied, "As far as I know, I have not quarreled with him." "Well then," said the pastor, "are you confident that your soul will attain salvation?" "Reverend, I've spent my life up to this point thinking about other people and I'm not going to start worrying about myself now."

At the funeral, that minister said he had to respect a man who could give those answers. Perhaps he sensed spiritual adulthood in the agnostic, Frank Powell.

And so the belief that there is a god "out there" has advantages and illuminates reality. But atheism is also valuable. I think we need both perspectives to faithfully reflect what the human family has experienced on our journey thus far. They seem like opposites, but it can be good to hold two opposites in creative tension.

I am so glad there was a time in my life when I could sit on the mountaintop and look with equal clarity into the valley of theism and the valley of atheism. But it is nearly impossible to remain balanced on that lofty pinnacle. Eventually I came down the mountain, down on the side that says that spiritual experiences can be explained without referring to anything outside the natural order of the universe. Even so, I try to be open to whatever may exist beyond this universe, and even "beyond that which is beyond the beyond." I am cautious about using the word "god" because this term is so thickly encrusted with traditional meanings. But sometimes I speak of the Source with a capital "S," to refer to the Source of spiritual renewal, healing, and transformation. The Source may be one or it may be many. It may be "in here" or it may be "out there." It may be part of the natural order or it may be something that is entirely beyond the grasp of science. Fortunately, I do not need to understand the Source in order to revere it.

Spirituality involves tapping into wellsprings of healing and transformation. We may touch the true Source in the secret time of prayer or while strolling at dusk by Lake Elizabeth, by chanting Buddhist sutras, or by hearing the laugh of a child. Whatever its origin, it is real and rich and life-giving. Long may we drink from that inexhaustible fountain.

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