Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Religion: Do You Take it With or Without? by Rev. Annie Foerster

A sermon preached on Sunday, February 8, 2015 at Denton Unitarian Universalist Fellowship

When people find out that I’m a Unitarian Universalist minister, their first question if often, “Is it true that Unitarians don’t believe in God?” Up until now I have given the wrong answer. Actually, I have had a number of wrong answers that I used.

My Non-Authoritarian response has been, “I can’t speak for all Unitarians.” My Equalitarian response was, “Some do and some don’t.” My Teleological evasion was, “Everybody believes in something.” My Ontological come-back was, “We understand the concept.” Finally, there was my Ecumenical response: “Which God are you asking about?”

But, as I said, up until now I have given the wrong answer. After due deliberation and calm consideration, I have decided that the next time I’m asked the question, “Do Unitarian Universalists believe in God or not?” I am going to give the proper response, the right answer. I’m simply going to say, “Yes.”

Now that might surprise many of you. You may be thinking, “She certainly hasn’t talked to me about this.” According to recent surveys about half of Unitarian Universalists on their own would answer, “Definitely not!” But I’m still going to say yes, and I will tell you why: It’s the wrong question.

If others have to ask that question of any person with a stated religious affiliation, you can bet they’ve already assumed the answer is no. If they heard that Unitarian Universalists are a sect, or believe we’re part of a Humanist conspiracy to bring evil into the world, as some people do, they are going to hear NO, no matter what I say. And, if they believe that their God—their single, unimaginative concept of God—is the one true response to the question, the only maker and shaker of the universe, they have to hear YES, no matter what I say, because that is the only answer that makes sense to them. That’s why it’s the wrong question.

From experience, I have come to realize that what is really being asked is, “Are Unitarian Universalists religious?” The Western mind, in the traditions of Judaism, Islam and Christianity, without God, or without Allah and Mohammed, or without God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, there is no religion. If there is even a rumored suggestion that some Unitarian Universalists do not worship someone or something called God, then how can we be a church, a religious community? To the Eastern mind, this dilemma is not so obvious. The Buddhists do very well with a god; we’re all gods, they teach.  The Hindus do very well with hundreds of gods.

Now, if I were asked the real question, “Are Unitarian Universalists religious?” I would have no second thoughts, no hesitation. From my belief that religion is an inborn facet of humanity, and that how you consciously live your life, how you order your life, and how you celebrate your life, are your religious responses to that fact, I would answer, “Yes, Unitarian Universalists are religious. They are reflective, thoughtful, compassionate and kind.”

Having dismissed the original question, I would like to go back to it. This God business still gives some of us a great deal of trouble; it makes us very nervous as a group. For many it smacks of the I’m-going-to-tell-you-what-to-believe school of religion, which stands against our belief in freedom of religion and the individual response to religious experience. For others, it hits at superstition and the supernatural, which stand against our belief in rational thought as the basis of faith.

In the traditional, Western Judeo-Christian comprehension of religion, it could be said that I am an atheist, although I do not label myself that way. One Sunday, a visitor of another faith took me aside during coffee and said, “You never once spoke of God. Is this common in your church?”

It’s true I don’t invite God into the sanctuary every Sunday that I preach. That is primarily because of my training as a semanticist, not as a theologian. I know that the word ‘god’ is loaded way beyond the concepts it points to. There is an excellent chance that you would not know what I meant—would not understand my intention. There is a strong possibility that you would not respond to my use of the term in harmony with its intent until we have had more conversations about it.

In other churches and synagogues, my Christian and Jewish colleagues speak freely of This house of God and address their congregations as God’s people. This is a kind of shorthand for a symbolic concept that already has agreement among them. We don’t share such an agreement, you and I, so we don’t use or respond to the symbol.

There are many forms of the term to which I don’t respond. To the jealous and vengeful entity, who chooses sides and pre-selects the winning team, whom the Ancient Hebrews called God, I certainly do not respond. To the creator, who has today and all eternity already figured out, who operates me like a puppet, and who punishes me for my pre-ordained transgression, who the Calvinists called God, I do not respond. To the builder who set up a universe the way people set up model railroads, and then walked away, who the Newtonian deists called God, I do not respond. To a super Daddy or heavenly Mommy who expects a compliant and eternal child, or to a supreme Ruler who demands a kneeling and humble servant, whom many call God, I do not respond. I can imagine these symbols, by they are not in my imagination, indicative of the sacred that I find in life.

Out of personal experience, out of rational thought, out of intuitive understanding, out of creative imagination, out of spiritual sensitivity and out of moral imperative, I do respond to many aspects of life religiously—that is: morally, reverently, thoughtfully and compassionately—but I choose not to name them God. Konstantin Kolenda, in his book Religion Without God, wrote: The idea of God is our recognition of our own longing to take our highest ideals seriously. The idea of God is our recognition of our own longing to take our highest ideals seriously. To that I respond. It is your own response to life, your own highest ideals, that I would have you consider this morning as I continue to discuss the concept of God.

Some detractor of a God-concept would have us believe that the primitives created God out of ignorance, to explain all that their lack of knowledge and understanding could not otherwise explain; or out of fear and smallness. Rather, we should be astounded that their sophistication. Dostoyevsky wrote, “What is astonishing is not that God should exist, but that such a noble idea should enter the head of such a despicable creature as humanity.” This evolutionary smugness we possess belies the fact that after new knowledge is gained and new moral attitudes accepted, we will be the primitives to future generations. I prefer to think that we all, at whatever age or evolution we exist, confront certain human questions, and that our response to them can be framed in a symbol, a metaphor, that we relate to religiously, not out of ignorance, but out of our need for deeper meaning than mere words can express.

When Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers made a series of video programs on religion some years ago, many Unitarian Universalist were transfixed before their television sets. We were allowed into these religious questions without the discomfort of standing too close to the familiar, and possibly once rejected, religious answers. And when Campbell turned to the camera and said, “But, Bill, God is a metaphor,” and smiled that smile that seemed to say, “Don’t you get it?” some of us breathed a little easier. We got it. Throughout religious history, God has stood in metaphor for the human response to the eternal questions. And what are these questions?

Where did all of this come from? Who hasn’t wondered where and how it all began? In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu wondered when he wrote:

Something mysteriously formed,

Born before heaven and earth,

In the silence and void,

Standing alone and unchanging,

Ever present an in motion,

Perhaps it is the mother of the world.

I do not know its name.

Call it the Tao (the Way).

For lack of a better word, I call it Great.

 
Lao Tzu did not choose to call his understanding of the beginning of the world God, but Tao, the Way, saying there is a beginning, let us call it the mother. This all we know, he said. The rest is the nature of things. Don’t look for other answers Just seek the Way. Others have chosen to respond to the question of beginning with the metaphor of a creator, of a build, or shaper, planner or parent. Whether the response chooses the metaphor or the metaphor suggests the response, is not always clear.

What happens when I cease to be? All of us, at one time or another in our lives, face that terrible aloneness, the confrontation with our own mortality, the knowledge of death. Keats wrote, as if writing for us all:

When I have fears that I may cease to be

Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain, . . .

When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,

Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,

And think that I may never live to trace

Their shadows with the magic hand of chance:

Then on the shore

Of the wide world I stand alone, and think

Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.

How we respond to the inhospitable universe and to the finiteness of existence often depends upon our personalities, our experiences and our successes or failures in life. The metaphors we choose to acknowledge or explain death are either ones of companionship, strong support, or the extension of time beyond knowledge. The metaphors say: I am not alone; I have something to lean on; there is time enough and space. The metaphors say whatever is required to respond to the question. The metaphor is the response and the response is the metaphor, because the question is no universal, so underlying, so overarching, that an intellectual response I not sufficient.

How we respond to the mystery of life—to our very existence; to the awe that awakens in us a sense of a power outside ourselves; to the feeling of harmony that sometimes envelopes us—the oneness with time and space; how we respond to revelational insights; to that which is transcendent but connect us; or to that which is imminent but separate from us, is a part of our religious identity. Our response both shapes us and defines us, and out of our response comes the metaphor for life that symbolizes and directs and anticipates our future responses.

Our response to life is made in celebration and in mourning; in acknowledgement and in gratitude; in transformation and in renewal. It sustains us in the search for what is good and the struggle with what is evil; it widens and deepens the self and connects us with that beyond ourselves. Our responses are infinite, and so are our metaphors.

Maybe it would be neater to imagine all our responses as one God, but I prefer the playful and imaginative response of the Brihad-Aranyak Upanishad that claims knowledge—Knowledge!—of 3,306 Gods and also 33 Gods, and 2, and 1 ½ and 1 God. The 3,306 Gods are their Powers—the things they can do, like sunrises and sprouting seeds. The 33 Gods comprise eight excellences: fire, earth, wind, atmosphere, sun, sky, moon and stars; plus 11 laments—which are ten sighs and the self; plus 12 months of the year, which carry the whole world along and around; plus thunder; plus animals. The 2 Gods are food and breath.  The 1 ½ are the Wind that purifies and the World that prospers from the purification, so close are they that they cannot be counted as two. The 1 God is Life itself. And all of them are metaphors.

Often, in religious institutions, we are taught the metaphor before we experience it. That is when it is most convenient to have a sing name—God. But when our personal experience is not the same as the teaching, we conclude that we do not believe in the metaphor. By extension, we do not believe in the concept. And, when we allow ourselves to create new responses, new metaphors, we are understandably reluctant to call them by the old name, the old metaphor we rejected.

That is why the question is wrong. It should never be, “Do you believe in God?” It should not even be, “Do you believe?” The question, if it must be asked, should be, “What is at the center of your experience and faith, and know and response? Can you tell me just one of its 3,306 names?

From the pulpit, I do not speak of God, except in the intellectual sense, as I have today. But I do speak of Life, as the great and transcending mystery, and as the wondrous and terrible gift. I speak of the enigma, the blessing and the curse of Life. I could, if pressed, call that God, but I choose not to. I speak of the power and the empowerment of Love—of the gift we give of accepting on another as we are, while challenging each other to become more than we are. I could, if pressed, name that God, but I choose not to. I speak of Grace—of gifts from the universe, unexpected, undeserved, unexplainable—gifts like happiness, treasures like friends. And I could, if pressed, imagine these as God. But the name and the metaphor seem too small. And so I struggle with language that will never be sufficient for meaning, just as you do. And I believe what I have come to believe and try to share the best of that, just as you do.

And that is why, when I am asked if Unitarian Universalists believe in God, I know the real question, and I will say, “Yes, we are a very religious people.”