What’s God Got to Do With It?

March 30, 2003    Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley

© Sally B. White

I was 10 years old when I began asking awkward questions in my Presbyterian Sunday School. I really wasn’t trying to make trouble; I just wanted to understand some things that didn’t make sense.

I started with cosmology: “Which came first, Adam and Eve or the dinosaurs?” My question was met with an uncomfortable silence, then a quick change of subject. I wasn’t satisfied — you can tell, because after more than 40 years I can still remember the exchange, and how I felt about it. But I was willing to leave some kinds of curiosity at the door of the church. I went home and talked about it with my parents — the ones who had bought me the dinosaur book that prompted the question in the first place.

It wasn’t long before we moved on to deeper theological issues. We were learning about the Presbyterian practice of infant Baptism, and were taught that the ceremony and the holy water functioned to wash the soul of the baby clean of sin. My hand shot up. The teacher called on me. I led her through my own catechism:
“Isn’t a sin something that you do that is bad?”
“Well, yes.”
“So how could a new-born baby have done anything that’s bad? How could a
baby have a sin on its soul?”
“Well, what we’re talking about is called “original sin.” You remember the sin
that Adam and Eve committed, when they ate that apple in the Garden of
Eden. They were disobedient, and prideful; they thought they knew better
than God, or at least they thought they could get away with doing
something that had been forbidden. THAT sin has been passed down
from generation to generation. We’re all born with it. And the church has
to wash it away, to give the baby a clean, fresh start. Now, no more

I wasn’t buying it.

I didn’t care what Adam had done, I couldn’t see a brand-new baby carrying the scar of anyone else’s mistakes — deliberate or accidental. This time when I went home and talked to my parents about it, they looked at each other and began to talk about finding a new church, where my questions would be welcomed and I wouldn’t have to leave my curiosity or my interest in dinosaurs at the door.

Within months, we were attending the East Shore Unitarian Fellowship in Mentor, Ohio. My Sunday school class was studying — oh joy! — the religion of the ancient Egyptians and their first monotheistic pharaoh — Akhnaton, Child of the Sun! We built a pyramid out of papier mache. The other kids asked even more questions than I did.

The next year, our class moved on to The Church Across the Street. On Sunday mornings, we would sit around the table in the upstairs classroom, eating graham crackers and drinking apple juice and learning about the beliefs and practices of our Jewish neighbors, or Mary Baker Eddy and the Christian Science Church. We must have gone and visited their services, though I don’t remember the visits. What I do remember is that the questions started again. So many different ideas about God. How could I know which one was right?

This time, I asked my friends at school — the ones I knew believed in God without question. I wanted to believe, too, but I was confused. I wanted to hear from them what it was that inspired and sustained their belief. I started with the Protestants, but all I got were what sounded like rote answers, the gist of what they had learned in their Sunday school classes. I moved on to my Catholic friends. Surely they could tell me why they believed in God — it was so central to their whole lives. Again I was disappointed — it seemed that none of them had asked the questions I was asking , and none of them had answers that spoke to their own beliefs, their own experience. I felt that I was on my own with this one.

In the end, I did find my own answer, but not by talking or debating or using my head. One afternoon I lay on my back on the lawn of the church, off along the edge where the tall oak trees grew, and I looked up at the sky through the tracery of branches and leaves. I watched these tall trees dance in the breeze, each one different but each undisputedly an oak; each one having sprung from an acorn in a process older and more complex than anything I could devise. I was suffused with a calm acceptance of an order and a pattern that included me but did not depend on me, and I called it God.

This moment has been my religious touchstone, throughout my life. I define religion as “that which reminds me that I am connected to something larger than myself;” that which evokes the feeling I had that day under the oaks. I named that sense of belonging and being connected “God” because I was looking for an experience of God. I had been primed to look for God, by the society that surrounded me, by the Presbyterian Sunday school that had challenged and frustrated me, and by the (now) Unitarian Universalist Sunday school that introduced me respectfully to a variety of ways of naming and understanding the relationship between God and humanity. [religions]

In the Unitarian Universalist church, we were encouraged to reframe what we learned in words and concepts and practices that fit our own lives and our own experiences. As I grew older, Sunday mornings — and Sunday afternoons — were filled with lively discussion and debate on all manner of philosophical, moral, ethical — religious — issues. But underlying it all, for me, was a process of translation and interpretation which enabled me to develop a vocabulary for understanding the religious language of my peers. My learning was shaped and motivated by the prevailing culture and values of the Midwestern society that surrounded me. I sought not to rebel or refute, but rather to reconcile and reclaim.

In this spirit, I fit right in to mainstream Unitarian Universalism today. In word and deed, we see ourselves as an inclusive religious community, embracing — no, celebrating — a broad spectrum of religious beliefs and practices. We honor an array of sources for what we call our “living tradition” — sources which range from “direct experience of …transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures” to “wisdom from the world’s religions” to “humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit” to “spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.”

Our theology is eclectic, (“entrepreneurial,” I’ve sometimes called it), but theology is not what holds us together, not what we have in common. We are a non-creedal religion, holding the individual’s freedom to engage in their own search for meaning, connection, and ultimate value far above loyalty to a common statement of beliefs or even an institution. Instead, we gather around principles of right relationship — those values for human living which we covenant not to believe but to promote and affirm. Time and again, particularly in our Unitarian history, groups have faced off over the articulation or adoption of a statement of belief that might apply to members across the board, and time and again the effort has failed. Rather than providing a common center around which Unitarians or Unitarians and Universalists might focus and from which they might reach out to share good news or good works with the world, attempts at formulating anything like a creed have inevitably spun off dissenting groups that remind the center that, at least among Unitarian Universalists, creeds do more to polarize and divide than to harmonize and unite.

Instead, we assemble a religious practice that aspires to glean the very best from all the religions we know about, emphasizing the universality of the religious impulse throughout human culture and history. The Rev. Forrest Church creates a visual metaphor for this creation in an essay he calls “The Cathedral of the World,” included in the 1989 edition of the book A Chosen Faith: An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism.
Greatly simplified, the metaphor unfolds like this: Rev. Church invites you to imagine a vast and elaborate structure, in his words: “as ancient as humankind, its cornerstone the first altar, marked with the tincture of blood and stained with tears. Search for a lifetime, which is all you are surely given, and you shall never know its limits, visit all its apses, worship at its myriad shrines, nor span its celestial ceiling with your gaze. … Above all else,” Church advises, “contemplate the windows.” (pp. 82-83)

In Forrest Church’s cathedral of the world are windows without number, each different, each beautiful in its own way, admitting and refracting and reflecting light in patterns and colors that span the spectrum, and highlight one another, and glow with heartbreaking beauty. And the light which shines through them, Church thinks of as “the light of God (“God” is not God’s name, but our name for that which is greater than all and yet present in each) [which] not only shines down upon us but also out from within us.” (p. 84)

He suggests that these myriad windows symbolize what he calls “a new theological model, one in which one light (Unitarianism) shines through many windows (Universalism) in various, yet telling ways.” (p 88) He elaborates: “In worship, when a reading, or hymn, or story from one of the world’s great religions strikes a responsive chord in our heart, it becomes a part of our own growing and changing tradition. We may not understand it as it originally was understood, or interpret it as it originally was interpreted, but the light refracted through other windows when mingled with that which shines through our own can enhance our vision, and expand our faith.” (p. 93)

This cathedral is a human creation, embodying religious ideas from many sources, always changing — expanding, even — as humanity learns and grows. Within the cathedral is room for any religious idea you may encounter, and any religious person who desires to be included. Church’s metaphor represents a Unitarian Universalism that is open, growing, accepting and inclusive.

And yet… In actual practice, it occurs to me that we often see ourselves as more inclusive, more affirming, more open-minded than perhaps we are.

Several years ago, when I served the Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Fremont (California) as Director of Religious Education, I had an illuminating (as-it-were) conversation with the father of a first grade student. The father was Jewish by upbringing and culture, and an atheist by conviction. He had been reading about the curriculum his son was using in his Sunday school class, and he was alarmed that we were indoctrinating his son — teaching him to believe in God!

“Oh no,” I said, and I talked about the curriculum, a course called Stories About God. Using stories and activities to embody the stories, it introduces young children to vocabulary and concepts to help them understand that human beings over a wide range of cultural and religious traditions have conceptualized God in a variety of ways: God is like darkness, light, compassion, mystery, mother, father. It offers both an affirmation that this concept of God is elusive, and a framework for the child to begin shaping their own understanding — without in any way indoctrinating or directing the child’s own beliefs.

“Not true,” the father objected. The curriculum was based entirely on the assumption that there was a God, and that the only question was what kind of a God that might be. The child might be encouraged to choose from among all these many God-concepts, but where was the possibility that there might be no God at all? Where was there room, in this curriculum or even in this church, for an atheist? What we were doing was surely indoctrination, and he did not want his son to be taught, in church, that he had to believe in any kind of God at all.

The family gave it a good try, but they began coming less and less frequently. The father would lead the service during the Jewish High Holy days, and preach a time or two during the summer. But he did not feel included, and his relationship with the church was that of advocate and adversary.

This encounter sensitized me to my use of “God-language.” In an attempt to be inclusive, I tend toward poetry and metaphor. You will hear me use words like “spirit,” “mystery,” “power,” even “connection,” hoping to tap into a common sense of that “something larger” to which I believe we are connected. I have no need to call it God. Indeed, the discipline of naming the attributes or qualities I am really talking about, rather than wrapping them in a word as imprecise as “God” is in itself a spiritual discipline of great value. It keeps me honest. It can function as a bridge between myself and others when unspoken or unexamined assumptions about the meaning of a word like “God” could divide us. It can hold the door open to a conversation about deepest values with many, many people for whom the word “God” itself is a metaphor for that something larger than ourselves which I hold to be at the heart of religion.

But the issue for that father in Fremont was much more than an issue of language. As an atheist, for whom the concept of God is just not helpful, no theological metaphor, however poetic, reaches out to include him. If there is a window in Forrest Church’s cathedral of the world that represents an atheistic perspective, I venture to say it is a window with no glass at all — a window open to wind and rain and birdsong and starlight with nothing to reflect or refract or color the light. If there is a room in that cathedral that welcomes atheists, I imagine it is an open porch, or a courtyard, where all the elements blow through, unhindered by the structures that human beings build to shield and shelter themselves from the sheer immensity of the universe.

As my adaptation of Forrest Church’s metaphor suggests, it is no easy thing to be an atheist, even in a Unitarian Universalist congregation. Nonetheless, there are perhaps more atheists among us than many of us realize. In a recent article in the UU World, author Dan Kennedy cites statistics that report that in 2002 just 0.4% of all Americans say they are atheists, whereas 18% of Unitarian Universalists polled in Ohio, West Virginia and western Pennsylvania in 2001 considered themselves atheists. Nationwide, in 1997, 46% of 8,000 Unitarian Universalists surveyed considered themselves humanists — a category that includes agnostics and atheists — and in 1987, 7% of Unitarian Universalists “picked ‘atheist’ over other options, including humanist.” (UU World, January/February 2003, p. 35)

It is neither my purpose nor my place to speak for the atheists among us — to interpret or enumerate the many forms which atheism takes, or the wide diversity of spiritual paths which atheists follow. But it is my privilege to walk and talk with some of them, and to learn from their courage. It is humbling to learn how frequently they are met with a suspicion that without a belief in a transcendent God, they must have no reference point for ethics, or morals. It is painful to think that in all the outpouring of grief following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 — attacks that, as Dan Kennedy speculates, “may have been a direct result of religion gone bad” — the voice of atheism was excluded from public ceremonies of mourning. It is embarrassing to know that when I respond to someone’s sneeze with an almost reflex “bless you,” there are those who hear the unspoken word “God,” and wonder “what’s God got to do with it”?

The great promise and the great strength of Unitarian Universalism that lies in that which Adlai Stevenson named: “in helping ourselves and others to see some of the possibilities inherent in viewpoints other than one’s own; in encouraging the free interchange of ideas; in welcoming fresh approaches to the problems of life; in urging the fullest, most vigorous use of critical self-examination.” By choosing a spiritual path that is grounded in questioning even — or especially — the deepest, highest, most sacred assumptions; by refusing to accept “God” as the ultimate or even a stop-gap answer to life’s hardest questions, the atheists among us offer inspiration and examples to us all.

And how can we reach out, how can we embrace one another across the distance, not between God and no-God, but between one human being and another? Only by practicing and perfecting that radical openness, that unflinching inclusiveness, that irrepressible curiosity that brought us to Unitarian Universalism in the first place, and keeps us coming back. Only by setting aside our fear of difference, and celebrating all the many ways that human beings understand ourselves in relation to all the world. Only by walking together, in mutual support and mutual respect.

Only then will we truly know that we are connected to something larger than ourselves. And what we call it will not matter.

May we find a way to make it so.  ♦

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