Monday, May 05, 2014

Try God

Yesterday I co-facilitated a service at the congregation I serve in Charlottesville that was entitled, "God is Dead, Allelujia!  (the faith of an atheist)"  If you want, you can hear a podcast of the two sermons at our website.

One of the things I said is that we -- as Unitarian Universalists -- need to repeal the theological "don't ask, don't tell policy" as urgently as that other one needed to be ended.  We are often so concerned about potentially offending someone that we rarely share in any real way what it is that we, ourselves, believe.  And this, of course, makes it hard for anyone to trust that they can share with us.  How, then, are we to "affirm and promote" our Association's third principle -- "Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations"  -- in any kind of meaningful way?

So, I said, there are folks who believe in God (which can take several different forms and have many different meanings).  And there are folks who do not (which also, actually, can mean different things).  If we don't say these things to each other then we can never get to the more important, more fundamental question -- what does that mean to you?  What does it mean to say that you believe in God, or don't?  That you believe that all things are manifestations of Buddha nature?  That you are a follower of Yeshua ben Mirian?  That you believe it's all up to us?  That's the conversation that can not only help me to understand you better, but that can also deepen and expand my own understanding of life.

On my office wall I have a framed image that I'd taken from the inside cover of the magazine Venture Inward (the journal of the Association of Research and Enlightenment).  Besides the beautiful painting of mountains there is a saying taken from one of the "life readings" of  Edgar Cayce.  The subject of the reading is identified as #1472, and this is an excerpt from their 12th reading.  It says:

"Then, in this era, this age of changes ... it behooves the entity (as everyone), in its relationships in any manner, to impress up others in every walk of life -- not impelling by force, but by love -- to try God; to listen to the voice within ..."
I've had this piece on the wall of whatever office I've inhabited for many years now, because I feel that it describes my calling -- to encourage people to "try God."  I will admit that I haven't always said that out loud to folks -- or, at least, not too loudly nor to too many, nor in those exact word -- but when I have those moments when I forget what it is that got me into this business in the first place, I find myself looking at that page.

But let me "unpack" that a bit, as we seminary-trained folk like to say, because, as Inigo Montoya said in a slightly different context, " I do not think it means what you think it means."

First, I think this, too, is an "era of changes."  Even if we only look at the religious landscape, things are changing tremendously. Increasing numbers of people describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious," and polls suggest that there are literally millions of people who say that they have some kind of belief in some kind of God, but who reject nearly all of the traditional dogmas.

Take a look, as just one example, at the incredibly exciting work being done in the so-called "new Christianity" by people like Brian McLaren and Marcus Borg, to name just too. This is a radically reimagined Christianity, and at this point there's no way of knowing how these changes will play out. So this is indeed, "a time of changes," and not just in the Christian, nor even just in the religious, world.

And what about the, "impress upon others… to try God" part? First note that the reading is quite clear that one should not use "force." This means to me, of course, not just physical force or coercion, but also an intentional attempt to convert by argument. I resonate with the idea that one should use love, and, I would add, example.

And that brings us back to the "try God" part of this whole thing. I am convinced, absolutely and utterly convinced, that there is a Sacred Something -- call it an energy, call it a spirit, call it what you will. And this thing, whatever we call it, whatever it is, is what I believe people have always been pointing to when they talk about "God."

And so many have been so turned off by the way "God" has been depicted.  (McLaren, I think helpfully, suggests thinking about how God has been portrayed in the Bible, for instance, through a character called God, or, actually, a variety of characters with that name.)  And given the reputation "God" has developed over time by the way he/she/it has been portrayed, many have closed their eyes and turned their backs on what I think of as the ultimate reality. And that, it seems to me, is a shame. It's like a tree refusing to nourish itself by the nearby stream because it had heard that streams were no good. It's like a flower blocking itself from the sun because it knew a plant that had once shriveled in the summer heat.

I have written elsewhere that I believe that "spirituality" has to do with living life "that is life."  Thoreau makes the statement in Walden that he wants to live in such a way that, when the time comes for him to die, he doesn't look back at his life and realized that he'd never really lived.  Spirituality, I've said, is about living life that is alive.  So, while I do believe it is my calling to encourage people to "try God," this could also mean, "try touching life at its depth," "try living the fullness of life," "try connecting to something greater than yourself," "try touching a deep and profound wonder."  When I say that I want to encourage people to "try God," and they tell me that they don't believe in God, I always ask, "tell me about this God you don't believe in ... I probably don't believe in that God either."  Then a conversation can begin ...

So why use the "G-word"? After all, for so many people this word is a stumbling block, and if I'm not
encouraging people to "try that old God we no longer believe it," then why use the old word? For me, the answer is simple.  There's so much literature, art, music which uses this word. Some of it, of course, is too deeply steeped in "that God we don't believe it," as to be essentially unusable. But much of it, I would daresay most of it, becomes not only more accessible but more profoundly meaningful when seen in a new way.  This is the work that McLaren, Borg, Spong, Crossan, and so many others have been engaged in so fruitfully.  It's the work I feel called to do.  It's the work I'd like to invite you to do -- not impelling by force, but by love.

Try God.

Pax tecum,


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Dave Dawson said...

Love your post, Erik. Sometimes it seems too simple...almost childlike. Maybe that's why Jesus said..."suffer the little children to come unto me for of such is the Kingdom of God?" THANKS!!

Kim Wilkens said...

Erik - I was hoping you were going to write about the sermon yesterday, so I could write back. I must admit I found it pretty uncomfortable being surrounded by the chorus of "God is Dead, Allelujia!" yesterday. But in the midst of this discomfort, I also felt I had a real "walk a mile" in someone else's shoes moment. I have a difficult time with atheism, in the same way I have difficulty with religious dogma - the certainty drives me crazy. As people with different beliefs, I feel like we are often talking at each other instead of with each other. So to experience what it must be like for an atheist or even an agnostic to be inside a "house of God" (even of the emerging variety) where there might talk of uncertainty and welcoming - the message almost always loops back to "God is Alive, Allelujia!". I understand now how this kind of declaration is not really inviting a conversation.

So thanks for pushing our boundaries and taking us out of our comfort zones while gently nudging us beyond our wishy-washiness to "try God".


Cathy Finn-Derecki said...

Erik, for me it came down to timing and execution.

The timing part refers to choosing a child dedication ceremony, which is not an opportunity to provoke but to soothe and welcome those from the outside. Family members from other traditions come on those days, and in this case we alienated people. I think it was unwise to choose that particular day to hold this service.

As for execution, I believe that your message came way late in the service. It's a hard topic, and it needs to be introduced with compassion, not provocation. Beginning with the chant was an example of the force you decry in your post. Starting with a provocative talk, and ending with the more thoughtful treatment, made an uncomfortable topic even less comfortable.

Overall, I get that atheism needs to be discussed openly, but the first principal demands compassion. In this service, it felt like provocation, rather than compassionate dialogue, was the intent.