Considering God

A sermon by John N. Marsh, Interim Minister
Preached at the May memorial Unitarian Universalist Society, Syracuse, New York
February 19, 2006

Well, someone is going to talk to you about God sometime, and I figure it might as well be me this morning.

It’s not that I have certain knowledge about God to impart to you. I, like many of you, have inclinations and doubts, gut feelings and wonderings. I am deeply suspicious of those who claim to know God intimately, and I advise you to be also. God, like our own lives, is first and last–a mystery. Not a mystery to solve, or a mystery to leave alone, but a mystery to explore. The spiritual teachers whom I admire the most are not those who claim to have solved the mystery, but those life examples show that they have grown comfortable with the mystery.

M. Scott Peck is a psychologist whose book, The Road Less Traveled, contains a great deal of practical wisdom, but he lost me when he claimed to know God’s will. A woman came to him troubled by sexual fantasies she was having about a man other than her husband. She believed that God was going to punish her for having such fantasies. Dr. Peck responded: “I know more about God than you do, and I can tell you that God is not interested in punishing you for such things.” I agree with Dr. Peck that a God who is interested in punishing people for sexual fantasies is not worth believing in and certainly would not be much fun at parties. However, my brain never pulled itself past the first statement: “I know more about God than you do.” That’s it!,” I thought, “I’m out of here.”

I believe God is different from the material things of this world. If we study the material things of this world the odds are good that we will know more about those things than people who do not study them. I do not believe God is like this. I believe that every person experiences God differently. Every person knows best how God speaks to them. We may gather insights from others, but each of us is our own best final authority.

While I do not know claim to know God, I do know a lot about the history of people’s ideas about God. One of the ideas that appeals to me the most is the ancient doctrine of the “via negativa” or the negative way. Dr. Thomas Aquinas, the 13th century Catholic theologian, the patron saint of pencil makers and perhaps the most influential theologian in Christendom said that we can only begin to know God “when we believe that God is far beyond all that we can possibly think of God.”

The Via Negativa advises us that since we cannot know what God is, we begin to understand God by stating what God is not. I would go even further, and say that I cannot be sure what God is not. I can only be sure about what ideas about God I reject.

It may be that in rejecting these ideas about God, I am rejecting a true understanding of God. Let me give an example: It may be that all of our Universalist ancestors were wrong and there really is an everlasting hellfire awaiting those who doubt God’s existence. However, it’s not only that I don’t believe such a hell exists. It is also that I wouldn’t want to have anything to do with a God who devised such a scheme. It’s morally repugnant.

In looking at the history of human ideas about God, it is worth noting that every age has had some things to say on the subject. I think it was Theodore Parker, a Boston Unitarian in the 1800’s who said, “human beings are religious animals the same way cows are grass eating animals.” It is part of our nature to think about God. However, the ideas change a lot from one age to the next.

In the Judeo-Christian and Islamic holy scriptures Abraham is credited with being the first man to understand God and submit himself to God’s will. However, he was not a monotheist, He believed in lots of tribal gods, he just believed that Yahweh, was the right one for him. Later Moses would write: “You shall have no other God’s before you”, but its clear that most of the Jewish people at that time, believed that other gods existed and had influence in the world, it was just that Yahweh was the most powerful, and as it is said in the scriptures, Yahweh was a jealous God that did not want his followers to have any truck with these other gods.

The descriptions of God at that time are filled with images of power. The way you can tell the true God is because he is the one who makes the biggest noise. Until you come to the prophet Eliah, who lived hundreds of years later, in the time of the Kings of Israel, and introduced a new way of thinking about God:

Later the prophet Elijah reported finding God, not in the powerful storm, but in the “still, small voice.”

This was a radical new way of understanding God!

Elijah himself tells us that people were trying to kill him. He, like many of us here, was thought of as atheist by his contemporaries. Indeed, whenever that label is flung around, it usually signals that society is undergoing a shift in the way that people think about God. Christians were called atheists because they refused to believe in the old Roman Gods. Muslims were called atheists because they did not believe in the old tribal gods.

In the first part of 1900’s it was more common for Unitarian Universalist clergy to describe themselves as humanists. John Haynes Holmes in New York declared: “when I say God, it is poetry.” Stephen Fritchman in Los Angeles went further: “When people ask me if I believe in God, I say no.” His assumption was that anyone who would ask such a question would have a simplistic idea about God.

In April of 1966 Time Magazine ran as its cover story the question: Is God Dead? Phillip Pullman in his wonderful “Dark Materials Trilogy” describes God’s death as that of a very tired old man who has been propped up and used by ambitious evil angel’s for their own purposes for millennia now, and who is grateful for the opportunity to relax into death. “A mystery ending in mystery.” Is how he describes it. Which is, perhaps, not a bad description of anyone’s death.

However, Other than in a fantasy allegory like Pullman’s talking about the death of God is an absurdity in every respect. What is meant is that the way people have thought about God for hundreds of years no longer makes any sense.

What’s more, we are now in what is sometimes called the post-modern age. While the modern age was interested in measuring and quantifying, the post-modern age (beginning sometime after World War I), is more concerned about those things that cannot be easily measured, things that appear at the periphery, but nevertheless influence the outcome of everything. New Age thinkers talk about the butterfly effect—how the air currents created by a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can influence the weather here in Syracuse. We do know that so many things influence the weather that predicting it continues to be an inexact science. It may be that the study of God, or theology will also be an inexact science.

Karen Armstrong, author of The History of God, who calls herself a “freelance monotheist” suggests that the current wave of atheism in Great Britain and western Europe, which is more or less like a sherbet served after a main course at a banquet to clear the palate before the next hearty offering. The old ideas about God are passing away. New ones are coming into being. There is not yet a common understanding about these new ideas. However, there are enough new ideas circulating in enough minds that Fritchman’s “just say no” argument does not make as much sense as it did fifty years ago.

My colleague Steven Beall of Youngstown Ohio, says that he does not believe in God, but he trusts in God. He writes: there is something in life that calls me forth–that urges me out from any false thing that I might hide behind. As the sound and flash of a storm calls me out to be drenched in the warm rain and caressed by the winds, so there is something in the world that moves me out of safety and into life, into creativity. Knowing that what calls me forth will never forsake me–that is, knowing that engaging the world and its risks is infinitely preferable to the futile, harassing urge toward comfort–is itself a profound comfort.

Donald Bethelme, in the short story I read from earlier, proposes the idea that maybe it would better if we expressed questions about God in mathematics equations—which is something that the makers of the Matrix movies would understand.

I see movies like the Matrix as giving today’s youth different ideas about the nature of the universe than were available to me when I was growing up–so it is natural that they would have different ideas about God.

God is becoming less and less of a noun and more and more like a verb–less of an entity, more of a process.

Freeman Dyson, author of Infinite in all Directions writes: “ I believe that we are here to some purpose, that the purpose has something to do with the future, and that it transcends altogether the limits of our present knowledge and understanding. If you like, you can call the transcendent purpose God. If it is God, it is a Socinian God, inherent in the universe and growing in power and knowledge as the universe unfolds. Our minds are not only expressions of its purpose but are also contributions to its growth.”

John Cobb, who teaches theology in Southern California, says that God is not found in things, but in the relations between things. Just as in music, the music is not found in the notes, but in the spaces between the notes. If you took a symphony of Beethoven and put all the notes together and heard them all at the same time, it wouldn’t sound very impressive, but if you string them out and put in accents and pauses and gallops and intervals, then you have something there. The music is not in the notes, but in the spaces between the notes. And God is not found in objects, but in the relationships between objects, and in the meanings that we give objects. Human beings have a greater self-awareness than most animals, and so, according to this idea, God may be found in our reflective awareness of ourselves.

Can such a God do the jobs assigned? Can such a God comfort us in our deepest sorrow? Call us out of ourselves, call us to be better people than we are at present, call us to build a better society than we live in at present? I think yes. I think the final answer is in our living.

In her book, The Fire Dwellers, the novelist Margaret Laurence has a character, Stacey MacAindra, who talks to herself. In one passage she talks to herself about God:

At the Day of Judgment God will say Stacey MacAindra, what have you done with your life? And I’ll say, Well, let’s see, Sir, I think I loved my kids. And he’ll say, Are you certain about that? And I’ll say, God, I’m not certain about anything any more. So He’ll say, To hell with you then. We’re all positive thinkers up here. Then again, maybe He wouldn’t. Maybe He’d say, Don’t worry, Stacey, I’m not all that certain, either. Sometimes I wonder if I even exist. And I’d say, I know what you mean, Lord, I have the same trouble with myself.”

These are some of my ideas about God, I look forward to hearing some of yours.

see God in Community

There was a time in my life when I would cringe whenever I heard people talk about God. It seemed to me that people used God as a way to tell other people how to behave and what to believe. God became oppressive. I rejected this oppressive God and explored atheism. I love science, and studied existentialism and evolution; I explored how this whole existence of ours could be just a freak accident of nature. That all the chemicals lined up just right – over time of course – to bring about life – then a life form so complex, it’s capable of self actualization. I can accept all that – without God.

Yet, with all I know about life, I do find myself being entirely grateful at every turn!

Consider this amazing little planet, formed by cosmic dust, where we have developed technology that brings us clean water and heat and food and the morning paper. The trees in the autumn turn brilliant colors and the geese fly back and forth each spring and fall.

I am truly grateful to be here and experiencing all of this.
Our existence is truly a gift and I am compelled to be grateful – ever so grateful to… ahhh, here is a problem. To whom (or what) am I grateful?

If god does not exist than I can’t express my gratitude directly to God. I have to improvise. The next best thing I have found is sharing my gratitude with other people.
Being in community with like minded grateful people. This shared gratitude seems very apparent with most every single person I have run across. What flows between people in community, friendships, love, helpfulness, caring, relationships, family… whatever that flow is, it brings me closer to having my gratitude being delivered.

On Sunday morning we gather together for a Celebration of Life service. To me, this is all about being clear about how grateful we are! – So with each breath I take and each beat of my heart I share with you, my spiritual community – Thanks be to God!

 Reading from Donald Barthelme’s short story: At the End of the Mechanical Age

…God was standing in the basement reading the meters to see how much grace had been used up in the month of June. Grace is electricity, science has found, it is not like electricity, it is electricity and God was down in the basement reading the meters in His blue jump suit with the flashlight stuck in the back pocket.

…I started to speak to Him as all of the world’s great religions with a few exceptions urge, from the heart, I started to say “Lord, Little Father of the Poor, and all that, I was just wondering now that an age, the mechanical age, is ending and a new age beginning or so they say, I was just wondering if you could give me a hint, sort of, not a Sign, I’m not asking for a Sign, but just the barest hint as to whether what we have been told about Your nature and our nature is, forgive me and I know how You feel about doubt or rather what we have been told you feel about it, but if You could just let drop the slightest indication as to whether what we have been told is authentic or just a bunch of apocryphal heterodoxy—“

But He had gone away with an insanely beautiful smile on His lighted countenance, gone away to read the meters and get a line on the efficacy of grace in that area, I surmised, I couldn’t blame Him, my question had not been so very elegantly put, had I been able to express it mathematically He would have been more interested, maybe, but I have never been able to express anything mathematically.