By the Reverend Kathleen C. Rolenz
I remember the moment that I stopped believing in the God of my childhood. Some of you have heard this story before—but some of you for whom perhaps this is your first Sunday, may not, so I beg your indulgence. I remember it vividly. I was sitting in the front pew of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, in Ellet, suburb of Akron. I was in confirmation class.
The pastor was giving the lesson that night, about the importance of baptism and the meaning of salvation. He told us a story of a mother who had not yet gotten her baby baptized. The baby died. He told us that that child’s soul was not going to heaven, because the parents had refused the rite of baptism.
Something clicked in my thirteen year old brain that said “Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.” I told the Pastor that and I remember he got really mad—red in the face–at being challenged by a thirteen year old girl. I also remember thinking “if this is what God is, then I don’t want any part of Him.” I left the church and never looked back, angry at is judgementalism, its patriarchy, its hypocrisies. I left the church and never came back–until I fell in love with the members of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Kent, Ohio, and subsequently, fell in love with this movement that I now have the privilege to serve.
My story is not all that dissimilar to many of yours that I hear. Nor those of you who come from other religious traditions, I’ve heard stories of incredible oppression, of punishment for not believing or thinking correctly, of moments when some light bulb goes off in your head and you say “I don’t believe what I’m being asked to recite.”I hear stories of being ostracized from the church of your family because you find yourself not believing. I have sat with people who have wept in my office to discover that they have found a religious home that does not think of them as a sinner for asking questions, for doubting, or for not believing in God. And, I hear exclamations of joy from people who tell me that they are rediscovering God on their own terms and refashioning a God of their understanding—a God who looks and sounds nothing like the one of their childhood or their past—the God of their Unitarian Universalist faith.
Although for many years Unitarian Universalism has attempted to avoid, dodge, ignore or deride God, we are coming to understand that it is imperative for Unitarian Universalists to grapple with God. We will never come out with a creedal saying “this is what all Unitarian Universalists believe about God,” because that is antithetical to our way of being religious. However, finally, we are discovering we can talk about God and what that word and that concept means—or does not mean to us. We’re learning how to frame the questions so that they have the possibility for depth conversation. Probably the first level of conversation between believers and non-believers is something like “Is God Real?”
So let’s look at that question. Is God real?
Well, yes—more or less. William James, who wrote the classic book “The Varieties of Religious Experience,” says that the question needs to be reframed. It’s not really about whether or not God is “real,” but whether or not there is, as he calls it “more.” James then goes on to describe two kinds of world views—one that believes in “more” and one that believes in “less or no-more.” What does this mean? In the religious world view, “more” means that in addition to believing in the visible world of our ordinary experience, and as disclosed by science, there is a “more” or, as Marcus Borg describes, a “nonmaterial layer or level of reality,” an extra dimension of reality. In a non-religious world view, there is no “more…” there is only “this—the space-time world of matter and energy and whatever other natural forces lie behind or beyond it. We are bound by and restricted to the life we live in space and in time, and there is nothing else—not in this life or in any other.
In the last three centuries or so, these two world-views have collided in Western culture at least and both the religious and non-religious seek to impose their beliefs—that there exists something “more” to our lives than the tangible reality we see and there exists nothing more. As I said earlier, in most churches, this point would not even be up for discussion. Of course there’s “more”—and that reality is called God. However, in this church, nothing is taken for granted, not even God herself. So let’s look at what I mean when I say God is real—more, or less and look at two ways of understanding the “more.”
In his book The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg divides this “more” camp into two concepts of understanding and experiencing God. One way he calls supernatural theism, and this is the God that many of us grew up with. This is imagining God as a personlike being. God is up there—or, is “out there” beyond the universe. God continues to intervene in human affairs. God responds to prayer. For some supernatural theists, the proof of this God can be found in scripture, particularly in such events as Jesus’ virgin birth, the miracles, his resurrection and other extraordinary powers. God is conceived of with human characteristics—some of which are drawn from the Hebrew Scriptures; God is all powerful; God is judge, a ruler. God gets angry and destroys those whom He (and God is always a He) wishes. God plays dice with human life and is capricious. God is also loving, a shelter and a rock in a weary God. God weeps for humanity’s evil and destructive tendencies. God is a Father in the best sense of Fatherhood—a protector, a provider—a fierce defender of the innocent. I want to affirm that if your belief system tends towards supernatural theism, there is a place for you in this church. While it’s probably not the majority opinion, these walls are wide enough to include you—and a little later, I’ll come back to what that inclusion looks like.
Another way of thinking God is through the lens of panentheism, which imagines God and the God-world relationship differently. Panentheism, broken down into its essential elements, simply means pan—everything; en—in and theos—God; or God is in all. The central claim of panentheism is that God is “the More” who is both right here—in our every day lives—in our daily minds—and is also “more than right here.” When the apostle Paul writes about the God in whom we live and move and have our being, he is actually describing himself as a panentheist, because it is not a Zeus like God that he writes about—it is the God that is closer to us than our own skin; the God that is in the animating breath. The panentheist God is harder to imagine than the supernatural theist understanding of God. For the panentheist, God does not have personality traits, it is not about divine intervention, but divine intention and divine interaction By that, I mean that when one believes that God is in everything, one also believes that Gods intention is for the good—for a sense of wholeness and restoration of justice. That’s a much more subtle and theologically difficult place to be.
So you’d think that for those who have a God concept as central to their belief system, panentheism might be way to avoid the supernatural theism that I described earlier. God is in everything. That’s easy to see, most days. God is in the sunrise—the sunset. God is in the infant’s face, and the face of a beloved, coming home after a long trip; God is in the poetry of Rilke, God is as close as the neighbour next door; so close you can hear God’s breathing; but there’s problems with that concept of God too. Is God then in the speeding bullet who kills a child, playing on her front porch? Is God then in the bear that attacks and kills the jogger? Is God in the tsunami, or the bomb, or the planes or in the decisions made that cost thousands of lives?
That’s where panentheism breaks down as a belief system. So neither one—the supernaturalistic theism or panentheism are perfect ways of understanding God. I’ve struggled with both of these concepts—the supernatural theistic God and the panentheistic God—and frankly, the whole idea of God itself. There is part of me that needs to believe in a God—something greater than myself—something greater than humankind alone—that is a consistent and dominant force for good in the world. It’s not that I don’t believe in the human capacity for good, but there is so much more evidence for our equal capacity for evil that I need an overarching philosophy that stands unequivocally for those values, principles, beliefs and hopes that are good. I don’t believe in a God that is all powerful, all knowing, that intervenes in human affairs, that is like an uber-force; yet there is some comfort in believing in a universal force for good—even if it co-exists with a universal force of destruction. While trolling the internet for a picture for this morning’s cover, I came across a group of atheists carrying a sign that said “prayer is just talking to yourself.” I reluctantly had to admit that part of me believed that to be true. I wondered–what if all our thoughts and prayers; complaints and concerns to God—is simply wishful thinking—affirming Freud’s assertion that religion is comparable to a childhood neurosis, and belief in God merely a projection of the childish wish for the protection of an all-powerful father.
What if that were true?
Someone asked me once what I believed, and I wrote “I believe in God the Father.. the Mother…the Sister..the Brother, my companion, Friend challenger, Silent Presence, absent fullness. I have long wondered if this God whom I love so much is a figment of my imagination…it used to scare me to think so. Now, I don’t care. Perhaps it is…and what a figment!” What a figment indeed. In fact, the reason that God evokes such strong emotions in believers and non-believers alike is because it’s a word that attempts to address the very nature of Being itself. Theologian Paul Tillich states that the word “God doesn’t refer to a particular existing being, but rather attempts, and usually fails, to address the Ground the isnes or that-ness of our existence. Abraham Maslow suggests that “even the word “god” is being defined by many theologians today in such a way as to exclude the concept of a person with a form, a voice, a beard, etc…God gets to be defined as “the integrating principle of the universe, or “the whole of everything” or “the meaningfulness of the cosmos…” While intellectually that makes sense, it seems cold—distant—unapproachable. So maybe it’s not God that’s the problem. Maybe it’s the word “belief.”
Just before Halloween of 2005, Wayne and I were visiting our congregation in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and we attended an evangelical, fundamentalist religious haunted house. Instead of the usual ghouls and ghosts and such, there were scenes depicting what hell would be like for the “unbeliever.” It got progressively more gory, until the last scene was a Mel Gibson worthy depiction of Jesus flogging and crucifixion. Afterwards, we were issued into a tent and met by earnest and sincere believers who tried to get us to say that we accepted Jesus as our personal lord and savior. I told them that I was a Christian and that I tried to follow Jesus way in all that I did. But that wasn’t’ enough for this young man. I had to say the words. I had to confess that I believed. His insistence brought out my rebel and I would not say what he wanted to hear, because of something else, that as a Unitarian Universalist I do believe—that our life and our work is about deeds—not creeds—about how we live and move and have our being as a result of our values. Professing the words mean nothing if they don’t get translated into practice. As I left, he said quite seriously “I will pray for you,” and I expect, he is still praying for me, to this day.
The need to find a name for that which is beyond naming—the totality of our life with all its insights, missteps, broken dreams, peak experiences, lost moments, discovered truths and hard-won sense of self—is written into the DNA of our being. When Moses goes to the mountain to see the burning bush and hears the voice of God, he insists on getting God’s name—and all that God can come up with is the unwieldy “I Am that I Am.” When Alanis Morrisette plays God in the 1999 film “Dogma” and sings the song that Carlos performed for you earlier, she uses God’s “I am statements” but turns the words back on us. Instead of God being “out there” God is very much “with us” who says “I am…all the contradictions that make up the human experience…I am your joy and your fury…I am your weapons and your light…” What Morissette has done with this song is the same thing that panentheism has done for theology—that God is no longer up there or “out there” but right here. The idea of the incarnation—which is what churches all over the world begin celebrating this Sunday—means that this type of God is not something separate from us; but intimately connected to and with us. God is in all things—and all things in God—and there is no separation between the two.
But what if—what if—this idea of God and incarnation has absolutely no meaning for you? A couple years back I was talking with a colleague of mine who told me of her struggle. Raised a Unitarian Universalist, she spent most of her early career as a minister trying hard to believe in God. She read books; she tried prayer, meditation, going on retreats, wanting to feel what she heard others felt about God. She didn’t want an intellectual understanding of God—she wanted a relationship. And finally, she said, one day, she just let go the burden of God, and accepted the fact that it wasn’t there, and she didn’t need it, and her life was no better or worse for having come to that conclusion. She doesn’t flinch when someone speaks of God, she can sing Christmas carols with abandon, she is pleased for her friends for whom God is an important part of their life, but for her, it’s just not all that important—but there are other things that are. She is passionate about justice, particularly women’s rights around the globe. She is a fierce advocate for marriage equality. She has a meditation practice that nurtures and sustains her, and from time to time, we talk about those things most important in our lives. She talks about mystery and wonder; about how much like a Buddha her dog can be; I sometimes talk about my prayer life—my halting sentences towards God, my curiosity and admiration for Jesus. When I talk in this way sometimes she looks a bit bored; when she talks too much about the spiritual qualities of her dog, I want her theology to include more—and yet—yet—what makes sense to both of us is the relationship—and that’s what it’s really about—this non-believer’s guide to loving God.
In his book “The Unheard Cry for Meaning,” Victor Frankle writes that “the concept of God need not necessarily be theistic. When I was fifteen years old or so I came up with a definition of God to which, in my old age, I come back more and more…a kind of operational definition—God is the partner of your most intimate soliloquies.” We don’t know God, but we do know something about relationships. I resonate with Albert Einstein when he writes “I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes, or has a will of the type of which we are conscious in ourselves. An individual who should survive his physical death is also beyond my comprehension…enough for me the mystery of the eternity of life, and the inkling of the marvellous structure of realtiy, together with the single-hearted endeavour to comprehend a portion, be it never so tiny, of the reason that manifests itself in nature.” For Einstein, the relationship to what many describe as God is this unfolding awareness of the “mystery of the eternity of life—the marvellous structures of reality…”for him—this was the “more” that Williams James talked about—and it was “enough.” I’ve never seen God’s face in some supernatural way, but I have seen the God of my understanding in your faces, in the work of this church, often done by hands for whom the concept of God doesn’t have much meaning. I’ve never heard God’s voice through a burning bush, but I’ve heard your voices, speaking against injustice and saying supportive words to the broken-hearted. I’ve never felt God’s hand, but I’ve held yours; after 9-11; after dear members passing, in celebration and tragedy and triumph, and for me, that was more than enough.
God Bless You. I love you. Shalom.
This is a transcript of a public sermon, delivered by the Reverend Kathleen C. Rolenzon on Sunday, December 7, 2008 at the West Shore Unitarian Universalist Church.