When Others or You Say 'God'
By Rev. John. A. Buehrens
If you are like most people, you are probably puzzled at times when other people use the word "God." That's not surprising. Different people use the word at different times in very different ways.
Some are angry, cursing: "God d—n it!" Others just feel helpless: "God help us!" Some feel awe: "God, how beautiful!" Others feel glad: "Thank God for that!"
Some say "God" only in worship or in prayer or in private. Others are more public in their discussions of God. But who or what do we mean when we use the word "God"?
There probably can never be just one answer to that question. There are many different ideas of God in our world. Different religions see God differently. Even within a religious group, different people may have different ideas of God.
People who do not believe in or use the word "God" may also have different ideas of what they don't believe in! Occasionally I have asked such people to tell me more about the God they don't believe in. Often I find that I could not believe in such a negative God either.
One tradition says we can never understand fully what God is, only what God is not. A friend of mine says that's because "'God' is not God's name; God is our name for that which is in each, but is greater than all" (Forrest Church).
Respect for the Beliefs of Others
Respect for other people is tied to respect for different ideas about God. After all, different families, individuals, and religious traditions have ideas of God that surely differ.
One Native American idea of God spoke of the Great Spirit as being in all things, asking only respect for all that lives.
In Judaism, when a young person asks, "Why do we say 'the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and our god?'" the answer is, "Because every generation must come to God in its own way."
For most Christians, God is a Trinity—Creator, Christ, and the inspiring Holy Spirit guiding faithful believers.
For Hindus, there are many, many gods—but all as aspects to one divine reality, Brahman, to which each individual's soul, or atman, is also related.
Buddhists decline to argue about whether there is a soul or no soul, God or no God. Instead they see compassion and respect for the Buddha nature in all beings as leading to Enlightenment.
Islam calls all the various tribes and peoples of the earth to abandon their idol-worship and to submit humbly to the one unseen God.
Religion can seem to make trouble if all it teaches is that one set of beliefs is the only right way to believe or that one group is better than others. But religion almost universally teaches that we should treat others with respect because we are all sisters and brothers, children of the same Mystery.
When You Say "God"
Deciding what you mean when you say "God"—or choose not to say that word—should probably be a lifelong process of religious learning and thinking. My own ideas about God have changed a number of times. Yours probably will too.
"I found God in myself and I loved her—I loved her fiercely," said Ntozake Shange in For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf. That's good. But then there's Mother Teresa, who saw God in others—especially the poor and the dying. That's even better.
A hymn I like is "Bring Many Names" (#23 in Singing the Living Tradition), which celebrates many images of God. One verse has God as a women scientist! "Strong mother God, working night and day, planning all the wonders of creation, setting each equation, genius at play..." Another depicts a warm, forgiving Father. God is seen as both old ("grey with endless care... wiser than despair") and young ("eager still to know, willing to be changed by what you have started").
A great minister, John Haynes Holmes, once said, "When I say 'God' it is more poetry than theology. He meant that he didn't have any very dogmatic ideas, but he did have heartfelt intuitions of God. Best of all, when he said "God," he also felt called to help end prejudice and injustice in whatever way he could.
Emerson spoke of "the Soul of the Whole." Like the prophets, he warned that everyone worships something—money, status, their own ego or group. What about you?
God-Talk in Public
Some God-talk doesn't mean very much. On the dollar bill it says, for example, "In God We Trust." To which cynics often add, "All Others Pay Cash."
Other uses can mean more than they usually do. The U.S. pledge of allegiance speaks of "one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all." Like the Scout Oath ("I will do my duty to God and my country...") such uses depend for their meaning upon personal understandings of God and of duty.
These public, symbolic uses of God-talk become problems if they are used to force anyone to say what they don't believe or to believe in particular way. When they are voluntary, however, public pledges or prayers can give people a chance to express human solidarity and humility.
When others say "God," you are given a chance to learn more about them—how they think about God, what they believe about human living and dying, and how their ideas may differ from yours. Just use respect. The same applies when you yourself say the word "God." Try not to use it to make yourself feel superior, either for believing or not believing. Use it with humility. Use it only when it expresses your solidarity with others.
The Reverend John Buehrens served as President of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations from 1993 to 2001 He is the author, with Forrest Church, of A Chosen Faith: An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism.