Sermons: “Which God Don’t You Believe in?”
Elie Wiesel was just a wide-eyed and innocent adolescent when he and all the other Jews of the Transylvanian village of Sighet were jammed into cattle cars one April night in 1944 by SS troops, and shipped to Auschwitz. Years later, having somehow survived, Wiesel refused to forget by recording his death camp experiences in his haunting book Night. Of all the horrors he describes, the one that I can never remove from my mind’s eye is that of an execution of three fellow prisoners which Wiesel, and thousands of other inmates of the camp, were forced to watch.
It seems that the SS had captured 2 men and a young boy and sentenced them to death by hanging for allegedly collaborating with the Underground. To make an example of them, the Nazis had the prisoners of Auschwitz assembled before the gallows in the assembling yard. As the three victims were stood up on chairs and had their necks placed with the nooses, the two men cried, "long live liberty!"...but all eyes were on the child who remained silent. Wiesel, then only a teenager himself, remembers him as a young boy with "a refined and beautiful face...he was lividly pale almost calm, biting his lip...he had the face of a sad angel." As the sign was given by the officer in charge to kick the chairs out from underneath the three condemned prisoners, Wiesel heard a man behind him mournfully ask, "Where is God. Where is he?" There was "total silence throughout the camp, on the horizon, the sun was setting." All the assembled prisoners were forced then to march past the gallows. Wiesel writes about what he saw, "The two adults were no longer alive. Their tongues hung swollen, blue-tinged. But the third rope was still moving, being so light, the child was still alive. For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet glazed. Behind me I heard the same man asking, ‘Where is God now?’ and I heard a voice within me answer him. ‘Where is he? Here he is—he is hanging here on this gallows.
Wiesel’s friend Francois Mauriac, who knew the details of the author’s deeply religious childhood later wrote this about what the execution meant to him, "From the time when [Wiesel’s] conscience first awoke, he had lived only for God and had been reared on the Talmud….dedicated to [God] and the eternal. But [in the death camp] Nietzsche’s cry [became] an almost physical reality….God is dead, the God of love, of gentleness, of comfort, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob has vanished forevermore beneath the gaze of this (tortured) child...[as Wiesel writes] ‘Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust."’
It took Time magazine until the mid-1960’s to declare on its cover that "God is Dead." But for many others whose lives had been torn asunder by the grotesque human evils of the 20th century the heavens were long since emptied of any all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful-and-caring presence of goodness and light. The rancid smoke that rose from the ovens at Auschwitz rose to a dark and empty sky, and the theological message which many in our post-modern age heard ringing out of the stillness of the heavens was that the all-powerful and loving God of the Judeo-Christian Bible is dead or gone. Humanity, it was said, is now on its own, and in the face of this world’s many evils, often there is little to do but weep.
This remains the tortured theological context in which we must do religion—we must give shape to our meanings, hopes and dreams in this spiritual milieu. The holocaust in Europe during world War II has been followed by other genocidal insanities—one after the other in cruel, depraved regularity—in places like Cambodia, Uganda, Somalia, Haiti and Bosnia—Herzegovina. These are not the easiest of times to believe that our universe is ruled by an all-knowing, all-powerful, just and loving God.
Some still try, mind you. Orthodox Christians, for example, still postulate what is called a theodicy—the theological assertion that conscious, controlling God (who rules the world and shapes human history) can be successfully reconciled with the reality of so much evil in our world. But for many others, including most Unitarian Universalists of my acquaintance, the pain and problems of our troubled world have led many to theologically postulate that if there is some supernatural something in charge, that God is either an incompetent fool, or a cruel demon.
In these hard global times, then, for many the old comforting God of the Judeo-Christian heritage the strictly proportioned God of the Old and New Testaments is dead and gone. That divine personality who pulls the strings of life and history, manipulating earthly events and us for his inscrutably divine purposes, is for many thinkers and people of faith (including me) irretrievably lost. You all remember the old spectacular stories, don’t you? The God of the Bible was a fantastic cosmic personality (male of course, reflecting perfectly the fiercely patriarchal nature of ancient Jewish and Christian culture). This God was a wise and willful ruler of earth who regularly made his presence and purpose felt—both in the broad strokes of history and in the day-to-day lives of ordinary individuals. This "micro-managing God could and would manipulate people and nature to get what he wanted. Without batting a heavenly eyelash, God could cause seas to part, and then flood back in over evil, pursuing armies. God could speak through burning bushes, give commandments down from mountaintops, and lead entire nations by generating towering pillars of fire in the sky. God could destroy (or save) whole cities, turn disobedient women into salt, allow exiles and end enslavements, cause pregnancies and illness and carry on loud and lengthy arguments with reluctant messengers like Moses and Jonah.
Here was a great and powerful God, yet strangely a God in a very human form—more powerful and wise than us for sure—but nonetheless remarkably like us in his anger and mercy, his communications and desires, his thoughts and perspectives, even his prejudices and quirkiness! Either God made us remarkably close to his image, or we made him remarkably close to ours—for the God of the Judeo-Christian Bible is very human in his proportions and propensities.
I have two main problems with believing in the existence of such a God. First and foremost, as one conscious and sentient being in this creation, I simply see no such wise and wonderful supernatural God operating in my universe! I see no pillars of fire, witness no Red Sea miracles, have received no tablets from mountaintops, have witnessed no 127-year-old women giving birth. I don’t see any evidence that some all-powerful being is wisely and justly directing history—either the vast sweeps of human history or the bittersweet flow and circumstances of our little personal lives. And because my Unitarian Universalist faith must be based upon my actual life experience (because I refuse to believe things contrary to reason and the world as I directly experience it through my own sensory apparatus) I must reject this idea of God. I just don’t see the signs of any such God anywhere in my creation, pure and simple.
And the second problem I have with this idea of God is that it requires a theodicy—a theological attempt to reconcile 1) the assertion that our universe is ruled by a good and powerful God, and 2) the reality of so much evil in the world. Theodicies, however framed, have never worked spiritually for me. When the great floods of the summer of 1993 wreaked so much havoc and pain on the people of the Midwest, fundamentalist Christian preachers up and down the Mississippi (whose worldview of a controlling God existing apart from our imperfect world requires a theodicy) suggested that the rains came because God was angry at us for allowing floating gambling casinos! What dangerous and childish theological nonsense, this belief in a God that would manipulate weather and history to keep humanity in line.
Theodicy is also foolishly and dangerously applied to personal tragedies. When I served our church in Plainfield, New Jersey, there was a particularly brutal murder of two young girls by the drug-deranged boyfriend of the mother. At the packed funeral service one of my fundamentalist ministerial colleagues told the sobbing mother to stop crying and not be sad because God in his love and wisdom had allowed these murders to happen to spare the children pain and sorrow in later life! I swear to God that’s how he tried to theologically comfort her! Obviously, if you choose to place such a God at the center of your universe then when horrible things happen (as they inevitably do) you are left either hating God or life itself. In my view, it is just so much dysfunctional theological nonsense to attribute all earthly events to the will and plan of some wise, omnipotent God. Can anyone really believe that a God worth worshipping would intend (or even allow) 6 million Jews to be slaughtered for some "mysterious/divine" purpose….or (closer to home) allow the murder of innocent children as a part of some divine "master plan"?
Perhaps you are like poet James Kavanaugh who has lost the old God of his childhood, "I have lost my easy God—the one whose name I knew since childhood. He was a good God...He was a predictable God...He made pain sensible and patience possible and the future foreseeable...Now he haunts me seldom, some fierce umbilical is broken...(now) I live with my own fragile hopes and sudden rising despair...my easy God is gone—and in his stead, the mystery of loneliness and love!" So our old/simple Gods are dead and gone….consciously or unconsciously we have removed them from our spiritual lives.
And yet, Time magazine was, once again, wildly wrong! God, of course, is not dead. What has been irretrievably buried late in the 20th century are some conceptualizations of God. But no matter how brutal or cynical the times become, no matter how silent the heavens sometimes seem to us, we just can’t quite get the idea of god out of our human consciousness, can we? Not even the heinous evils and uncertainties of our troubled times have succeeded in entirely crushing that Yes, the idea of and yearning for God is as persistent as life itself. It certainly has proved so for me over my adult life. Not even an ardent and absolutist humanism, which I arrogantly built around me in my college and seminary days like a great philosophical fortress, was able to defend me against the irrepressible impulse of my heart to find, name (and then to praise) something higher, holier, and more eternal than myself. Despite all of my intellectual insistences and rational rejections, as I began moving in the ways of my spirit, something I needed to call God broke into my heart, and my heart had no choice but to express homage and praise. Like the Rabbis at Auschwitz, I know that no matter how painful or tragic or senseless life may at times seem to me, I will always and utterly be unable to get God out of my soul. Perhaps, despite your sophisticated protestations, it is the same for you.
One of the hazards I have discovered of being a minister is having people proudly proclaim to me (if I am foolish enough to allow myself to be identified as a clergyperson at—say—a cocktail party) "I don’t believe in God." Usually I respond with a simple "Un hun," because usually their only purpose in pushing up to my face and saying this to me as a "reverend" is to shock or upset me. But what I do say if I sense they are actually sincere about wanting a genuine spiritual dialogue is, "Un hun….well which God is it that you don’t believe in," and then I listen carefully to their response. When I have taken the time for such theological dialogue, nine times out of ten I have eventually been able to say to that person: "Fine. I don’t believe in that (old, outworn, dysfunctional) biblical God either. Vis-a-vis that God we are both atheists! But now that we’ve got that out of the way (discovering what it is you don’t believe in when it comes to God) we are free to explore just what it is you might believe about God that would be positive, creative, healing and liberating for you!" And the truly amazing and delightful thing is that, again, nine times out of ten, if that self-proclaimed atheist and I work together in spiritual dialogue, sooner or later we can find and articulate a god concept which we can both comfortably (and creatively) believe in (or at least discover that our differing conceptualizations of God are in sympathetic, parallel, and supportive relationship to one another!
There are so many creative, spirit-enriching ways for Unitarian Universalists to think about God! I received from you so many thoughtful and theologically useful definitions (some of them are scattered throughout this sermon)! For some of you, God is, as the old Universalists put it, love, simply love—a powerful spirit of goodness, warmth, mercy and justice that lives in people and the world. For others of you, God is a life force or creative spirit or higher power or supreme intelligence or infinite ground of being which animates creation making life and purpose possible. For others of you, God is an unknowable mystery that utterly defies definition or description. And I would be remiss if I didn’t also acknowledge that for some of you, God is simply a concept that is of absolutely no spiritual usefulness. Obviously a God concept is not necessary for people to live lives that reflect compassion, goodness and gratitude. But this is a sermon about God, I’ll pay homage to the integrity and wisdom of humanism some other day!
On and on your theological nuances about God go, and this theological diversity is (to me at least) more beautiful than it is confusing. For I believe that God is, above all else, a radically personal reality, rightfully different for each one of us as we naturally experience our universe in our own idiosyncratic ways. Wise was philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein when he declared that religion belongs to the "realm of the inexpressible." I had an aged teacher in seminary, a comparative religions professor by the name of Frederick Speigelberg, who was so convinced of the utter subjectivity of God that he proclaimed passionately that it was absolute folly and foolishness to even attempt to share our own ideas and experience about God to others. "Be content to know your own God," he would implore, "and for God’s sake don’t try to transfer or argue it to someone else...they must discover their own sense of life’s ultimate sacredness, not try to fit into your own."
Over the years of my ministry, I have tended not to heed this categorical advice. For while I definitely agree with the professor that talking about God with our clumsy, imprecise words is, by its very nature, an often subjective and slippery thing to do, I nonetheless believe there is great spiritual value in our each humbly sharing what God does (and of equal importance does not) mean to us individually. How, I ask, without such respectful sharing of our own ideas about and experiences of God will we ever be able to mature and deepen our theological understandings and spiritual sensitivities?
All of this is by way of prefacing my sharing now my own idea of God, and what God (as I experience it in my everyday life) means to me. I offer my elusive understanding of God not (I assure you) to "set you straight once and for all" on the question of God. We are, after all, Unitarian Universalists who understand truth and reality as mysterious and many splendored things. I share what God means to me in the hope that my understanding might stimulate you in your own thinking and feeling about this most fundamental of all religious concepts. All right, let me be as clear as I can about the God that has emerged to bless and guide me on my spiritual journey. Let me begin by once again getting the old, dysfunctional God out of the way. My God is not a personality, or a consciousness, is most certainly not a ruler or king, but a spirit. A Spirit which actively lives sunk deep down in my world (incarnate is the fancy word theologians use), and which I choose to call holy because it is the most beautiful and sacred reality I know in my flawed and broken existence. Now this spirit of holiness which I regularly see and sense in my creation does not have a personality or consciousness like one of those vague spirits who visited Dickens’ Scrooge on Christmas Eve to set him straight….it is rather really a spirit! One of the original Hebrew meanings for the word spirit is a breath of life. In my spiritual life, a spirit is a subtle, mysterious, non-physical presence, that is very real but not in a scientific way. The spirit of God I know is more like a subtle whisper on the wind, an elusive presence….something that is there, but isn’t!
The Spirit of Holiness I feel sweetening and saving my world is like a breeze, a fresh, healing breeze (which you cannot see or grasp but whose existence you cannot doubt). It’s a powerful and enduring presence of grace, beauty and goodness; a presence ofjustice, compassion and love; a presence of wholeness, harmony and health; it’s a presence of life and purpose that shines out of things great and small. As one CLFer wrote, "For me God is a very positive energy that permeates all of life. It is what every living thing’s soul joins after its physical self has been recycled back into nature. God is an unquenchable yearning in our hearts (that deep hunger in our souls….that nagging inclination of our minds) to believe that something larger and lovelier than ourselves is powerfully and purposefully astir and alive in this profoundly broken creation. In response to my Quest request for your thoughts on God, I received what is now a thick file folder full of divergent definitions from CLFers. Even the most spiritually cynical and skeptical among us wonders—at least in tenderly fleeting moments when life’s utterly holy and healing beauty breaks in—if there isn’t something, something we might call God that breathes through our world, infusing it with enduring sacredness, preciousness and meaning.
The idea of and yearning for God cuts across all continents and cultures of the world. There is something universal about human beings trying to name and know life’s enduring sacredness. As long as we have the mysterious gift of life—as long as we find ourselves so wondrously alive in this astounding creation—we will (whether we consciously want to or not) seek to name and know and celebrate something called God.
I am reminded of the Hasidic tale which is told about the 3 rabbis held in Auschwitz. After months in the death camp, they decide finally to put God on trial for allowing the innocent children to be massacred, and they quickly find God guilty as charged. The God of Israel, the rabbis conclude, broke his covenant with his people. Yet a moment after the trial is concluded, one of the rabbis glances at the setting sun. "Oy, my friends," he said, "its time for prayers. "And the three rabbis bowed their heads….and prayed to God.
"God is not all-powerful or all-knowing, but God is all compassion and all joy—all life." Now let me be very clear about this. This spirit of life-giving beauty, love and goodness I believe in and seek to know and serve as best I can is not "in charge" of the universe. It does not rule the world, manipulate history, have a master plan or consciously intend for my life to go one way or the other. There are to be sure other powerful and countervailing forces of emptiness, angst and ugliness which are also present—pointless and pernicious forces which also sadly manifest themselves in my world. I fully appreciate that for some, such a God—such an elusive spiritual presence, is not powerful or personal enough to be of everyday comfort or usefulness. But for me it is the only God possible in so mortal, fragile and unpredictable a creation. And I do not despise or denigrate that which I call God because it does not control or animate all things. It is holiness enough. It is presence and grace and power enough, and I tell you with gratitude on my heart that the God I know regularly saves me from emptiness and despair.
That which I call God is not "personal" in the sense that I do not have a direct, conversational, human-like relationship with this spirit. But my relationship with this great and gentle presence is fiercely personal. I do worship the spirit, fall into prayer with it, seek to serve it, and quietly in my heart sing songs of praise and thanksgiving for this reality which is much greater and grander than I could ever be. That which I call God does not come to me as a voice rolling out of the clouds, or instruct me with legible tablets passed down from some mountaintop, or sustain me with special dispensations granted just for me, or visit me vividly (even) in my thoughts and dreams. No, my God rather whispers to me out of the everyday subtleties of-life. The spirit of holiness I feel and have faith and confidence in breaks in regularly upon my fragile little consciousness and opens me to the saving, eternal beauty of earth, persons, and the fleeting life I have been so graciously given to live. William Wordsworth spoke for me when he wrote, "I have felt a presence that disturbs me with a joy of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused, whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, and the round ocean and the living air, and the blue sky, and in the mind of (humanity); a motion and a spirit that impels all thinking things, all objects of thought, and rolls through all things."
Perhaps some of you have felt the same God I do? I feel God near me when, in some rare and fleeting moment, I watch the sun peacefully set (red hot and holy) into the ocean near my home….or when I see the flicker of candlelight dancing in the eyes of my beloved life partner Collins across a cozy dinner table….or when I witness people in my community working together to care for someone who is dying or to feed the homeless...or when I crawl into the embrace of sleep beneath a full heaven of friendly, twinkling stars….or when I join with others to see that justice is done, mercy expressed, decency preserved, love shared! The God I know is not supernatural. It is not set off apart and unavailable in some purer, nobler world than mine. But it is super because that spirit of life and love is so superlatively sustaining and it is natural in that it is sunk deep down in the natural, everyday flow of life and persons. It is, as my colleague Clarke Wells puts it, "That dearest freshness in deep down things," a life-giving presence that is sunk deep down into the muck and marrow of this life, a spirit that is freely available to bless and lift and guide me here...now...just as I am in all my foibled and flawed humanness. The God I know cannot do all things, it is certainly not always obvious or available to me, but it remains with me, faithfully and powerfully present in this often broken world of mine...and it saves me, pure and simple, with its grace and power.
And God to me is also a participatory phenomenon….a relational reality….a living process which needs us if it is going to achieve its fullest and finest reality and power. The spirit in the world I call holy is an open, unfinished, receptive spirit to which I can freely lend my heart, lend my soul—lend my energies, affections, efforts, and love. That which I call God can and does operate for life and love quite without me, thank you, for I (after all) am a tiny earth-bound creature of little ultimate cosmic significance. But I believe my God becomes stronger and lovelier as I become more loving, just, and giving. I like what Dorothee Soelle said, "To believe in God means to take sides with life and to end our alliance with death. It means to stop killing and wanting to kill, and to do battle with apathy which is so akin to killing. To take sides with life and experience how we can transcend ourselves is a process that has many names and faces. Religion is one of those names. Religion can mean the radical and wholehearted attempt to take sides with life."
And sometimes, if you or I don’t "take sides with life" —in our little corners of the globe, with the people near us—if we fail to bring our best and most loving gifts to some pregnant human moment (some moment when there is no one else available to incarnate the spirit of God) then God’s spirit is absent. If, for example, you stand faithfully by someone’s death bed, holding their hand and soothing their brow—it is your presence, your physical embrace, tentative and imperfect as they are—that are the only way that dying person it to know this creation’s highest grace and love. It is utterly without self-importance or infatuation that I tell you that I deeply believe sometimes God needs me (and you) if God is to be at all. To me, the most beautiful theological thought of all is that there is a holy spirit breathing through life which WELCOMES AND ENCOURAGES our energies and gifts….the God which haunts and blesses me quietly welcomes my most passionate and loving participation in the creation of life, evermore life!
This idea of god as a relational process is hardly new. Earlier this century, Jewish theologian Martin Buber described God as an active verb that comes to birth best in the loving "I-Thou" encounter (that mysterious arching of energy and affection) that can spark between human beings. And even more recently, a whole new school of theology called "Process Theology" has sprung up to proclaim, basically, that God is a verb—a living process of justice,, love, compassion and creation. The process theologians believe the God does not exist as some abstract, supernatural, heavenly personality far removed from us….but rather is a living process that invites us in ever-fuller partnership with everything that breathes, cares and grows! As a recent rock opera libretto put it in "The Song of Three Children," "God is not a she, God is not a he, God is not an it or a maybe. God is a moving, loving, doing, knowing, growing mystery."
Its a hard thought to hold, isn’t it, that God (or at least one dimension of God) is a verb, a process of noble becoming rather than an actual cosmic being. The God I know and depend on for spiritual wholeness is both a presence and a process. My God is an open, available, holy spirit...a good and gracious spirit astir in-my world, which guides my heart to action, which welcomes my frail, little contributions of beauty and blessing….service and love. We should never dare, of course, to imagine ourselves synonymous with God, not even on those rare occasions when we are the imperfect vessels for God’s holy energy in our daily lives. That would be the worst form of idolatry. But I believe if we are awake to the holy powers and processes that are everywhere around and within us, we participate in that holiness, and that participation blesses, fills and saves us.
So there you have it, one Unitarian Universalist’s idea and experience of God. I don’t expect (or even want) all (or even most) of you to have an identical conceptualization or experience of God. My old seminary professor was surely right: when it comes to what the word God means to each of us personally, there will always be a radical subjectivity, a fierce individuality of experience and expression. What I do hope, however, is that unlike the boring spiritual naysayers I meet at various social gatherings (who simply bellow at me that they don’t believe in some old/tired/dysfunctional God) that in your life you will be searching for and sensing something you can call Most High and Holy—searching for something greater and more gracious than yourself to whom you can give your praise, your allegiance, your devotion.
The old, easy, predictable Gods are dead. But the creation I see is astir with sacredness and grace. I believe there is a Holy Spirit afoot that will bless and nurture all who are open to its power and purpose. I pray you—call it whatever you will, describe it in whatever words work for you—but both savor and serve life’s irrepressible, unmistakable holiness. For Dag Hammarskjold had it right when he said: "God does not die on the day we cease to believe in a personal deity….but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason.
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Last updated on Monday, March 25, 2013.
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