Friday, August 14, 2015

Across the Great Divide (part one)

The average Unitarian Universalist congregation looks very much like your average Protestant church.  We meet in a building which oftentimes has a steeple.  Inside you are likely to find straight-row pews facing a single pulpit from which someone preaches some kind of sermon (although these can be called "reflections," "explorations," or "talks" as often as they're referred to as "sermons”).  Generally speaking all the familiar elements of your average Protestant service are there:  hymns, readings, reflection ... a collection.

There are, of course, a fair number of differences, too.  One that often surprises and confounds non-Unitarian Universalists is the way(s) we use, and respond to the use of, the word "God."  Some of our congregations are quite comfortable with this word and use it all the time without any problems.  For others the word is anathema, used only on the rarest of occasions and then usually with a disparaging tone.  Individuals within a particular congregation can vary just as widely.

For some, the word "God" stimulates painful memories.  That word has been used to justify all kinds of oppressions and has inflicted all kinds of wounds -- the destruction of native cultures, the denial of the worth of LGBTQ folk, the trauma of clergy abuse, to name just a few.  There are Unitarian Universalists who have come to this movement to get away from anything and everything reminiscent of the religious tradition(s) that did damage to them in their past.  For these people, the word "God" can be an unwelcome reminder of what they've left behind.

For others, the word "God" is simply irrelevant.  It's not that these people believe that "God is dead" but, rather, that the word "God" is as meaningless as "invisible red bicycle toasters."  Those are all real words, but they point to something that doesn't exist, never has, and never will; the words have no meaning.  And so it is with "God" for some people.

There are others in our congregations for whom the word "God" is quite meaningful, and positively so as well.  By far the vast majority of these folk don't use the word referring to an old white man who lives in the clouds capriciously sending blessings and curses on his whim.  (An understanding that was once described by a UU teen as, "a buff Santa in a toga.")  What they do mean by the word can take all kinds of forms -- ranging from a generally liberal theism to a natural humanism.  One thing they generally have in common, though, is a sense that we are not alone in the Universe, that there is something greater than we are, and that this something with which (in which?) we live is somehow fundamental and fundamentally loving.  "God is love" is how our Universalist ancestors put it.

We Unitarian Universalists like to pride ourselves on the spiritual diversity within our congregations and within our movement.  We are, we say, open to wisdom from the myriad religious traditions we humans have created.  We celebrate that within our congregations, in the same pew, there can be Christians, neo-pagans, Atheists, Jews, Buddhists, and all manner of eclectics.  And yet, in many of our congregations and for many of our members, the word "God" can be a sticking point.  In fact, its use can be a deal breaker.

Many of our congregations have responded with what might be called a theological "don't ask, don't tell" policy.  In order not to offend those for whom "God language" is either painful or meaningless, we'll make use of other language in our worship.  Oh, some of our hymns still have the "G-word" in them, but as far as possible we'll strip sermons and prayers (or "meditations") of it.  Instead we'll use, perhaps, "Spirit of Life" or "Spirit of Love."  We talk about the importance of community, of human-to-human relationships with the tacit understanding that we'll leave it to the theists among us to fill in the notion of human-God/God-human relationships.

In the two decades that I have been privileged to serve in parishes I have had many people come to me to talk about their discomfort and dis-ease with "God language."  "Why do you have to use the word 'God'?", I've been asked.  "That word is meaningless (or painful) to me," they say, and I don't doubt for a moment that this is true.

I have also had conversations with people for whom the lack of "God language" is painful.  They did not leave their previous religious communities in pain, they were just looking for something larger.  Some of these people end up leaving our congregations, returning to the churches of their youth, because even though they disagree with much of what they hear (which is why they left in the first place) at least there they can still think about and talk about God.

Others are looking for help.  They don't any longer believe that God is what they had been taught, yet neither do they believe that we are alone in an uncaring universe.  Coming into our congregations seeking guidance, they instead receive the direct or implicit message that it'll make people uncomfortable if they raise their very real questions.  In a sad irony, we end up disappointing these people for essentially the same reason their previous churches did -- an unwillingness to openly and directly engage in a real exploration of the ultimate nature of reality.

What makes this doubly sad is that no one knows -- no one can know -- what they're talking about when they talk about that which is pointed to with the word, "God."  Augustine of Hippo, one of the most influential of the Christianity's early theologians, asserted that no one can say anything about God.  To say that "God is gracious," for instance, immediately opens your words to misinterpretation and serves to limit God. 

This can be understood, perhaps, as a verbal analogy to Judaism's prohibition against making images of G-d because any image could be interpreted as suggesting that the ultimate reality of existence can be diminished to the point that it could "fit" into an image.  This is also a way of understanding the Jewish practice of refusing to say the name of G-d.  "Name that cannot be named," is one formulation sometimes used instead.  Even within the Muslim tradition, which has a list of 99 names of God, it is asserted that there is a 100th name that will always remain secret.

To be sure, Augustine found a way to talk about that which cannot be spoken of.   He affirmed that  while you cannot make any positive statements,  you can still make negative statements and you can speak in analogies -- "God is not evil," for instance (instead of "God is good"), or "God is like a loving parent."  Neither of these approaches presumes to claim knowledge of the Holy.  Rather, they are like looking at the sun through one of those pinhole cameras that show you a reflection of the sun rather than the sun itself.

Hospital chaplains often find themselves in the rooms of patients who say that they don't believe in God.  Wanting to find some kind of common ground the chaplain may reply, "Tell me about this God you don't believe in.  I probably don't believe in that God either."  In other words, let's not either of us pretend that we could say what God is.  Instead, let's talk about what God is not.  Perhaps by doing this we'll back our way into talking about what is ultimate in our lives.

And isn't that, really, at least a big part of what this whole religious endeavor has always been about?  We humans are meaning-making creatures.  And while some religious traditions have tried to explain the how of life, and to insist that their particular answers are literally true, it seems much more likely that religion's place is to try and help us to answer the why of it all.

Why is there pain and suffering?  Why is there this particular pain and suffering that I'm experiencing right now?  Why do we and those we love, or anyone else for that matter, have to die?  Why are we here in the first place?  Is there a purpose to life?  My life? Why do love and justice seem to be too often impotent?  Why can't we all just get along?

The arguments over whether there is or isn't a God, and whether in any case we should make use of that word and its related concepts seem to me to be distractions.  Not that the feelings -- especially the pain -- that is often caught up in those debates are unimportant.  They matter tremendously.  Yet they all too often simply serve to separate us when what our world so desperately needs, as do we ourselves, is more coming together.

In the next post I'll suggest a way not out so much as through this seeming impasse.

Pax tecum,


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Jud Leonard said...

I'm puzzled that so many UUs seem to find it painful that others express views different from their own. It seems to me that we talk about accepting our differences, but frequently behave as though that meant never talking about our beliefs. Rather than accepting our differences, it seems we've repressed them.

arthurrashap said...

So, perhaps what the underlying theme of what happens within the spiritual world of 'our' UU building (calling it a 'church' does narrow down and/or label the place) are those questions/explorations you set forth, Wik:
"it seems much more likely that religion's place is to try and help us to answer the why of it all:
Why is there pain and suffering? Why is there this particular pain and suffering that I'm experiencing right now? Why do we and those we love, or anyone else for that matter, have to die? Why are we here in the first place? Is there a purpose to life? My life? Why do love and justice seem to be too often impotent? Why can't we all just get along?"

I find the term "God" to be a convenient label to start discussions of those questions/explorations. As consciousness arises and grows, these explorations become a part of the life each experiences and can bring us to a universal place of oneness (as I interpret what Universal Unitarian means).

Who is out there? Join in! And I am waiting openly on the next musing.

Arthur Rashap

RevWik said...

Hi Jud -- I agree. I've call it our "theological don't ask/don't tell policy" and I think we need to repeal it every bit as much as we needed to repeal the other. I really like the hymn "Bring Many Names" (#23). While it does keep returning to the "God word," it also opens up possibly new meanings and associations for it. I believe that, rather than talk LESS about our beliefs for fear of the potential for offending someone, we should talk MORE about them so that we can really and truly make real our promise to "walk together." (I liken it to the importance of parents fighting in front of their kids from time to time so that kids can learn that it's okay to be angry with another person and that disagreements don't mean that there is no love.)