Handout 2: Forrest Church's Theology
This handout summarizes and contains quotes from portions of Forrest Church's book, Bringing God Home: A Traveler's Guide (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2002). Used with permission.
The Awe and Humility Life's Gifts Evoke in Church
Church calls the feelings of awe and humility, fundamental feelings born of our experience of life itself, personal experiences of the Holy, the Light of God, Truth, the sacred. These feelings have their source in a transcendental realm of experience beyond our rational minds. These feelings reveal the unimaginable, the mystery, the hallowed ground in which our life abounds. This is the case, Church says, because of our cosmic origins: "Spun out of star-stuff, illuminated by God, we participate in the miracle we ponder." This miracle, according to Church, is the gift of life. More precisely, the gift of our life. And this gift is our shared common text: He writes:
Our common text is the creation. Though limited by the depth and field of our vision, we are driven to make sense of it as best we can. So we tell stories, formulate hypotheses, develop schools of thought and worship, and pass our partial wisdom down from generation to generation. Not only every religion, but every philosophy, ideology, and scientific worldview is a critical school with creation as its text. By whatever name we call its author or co-creator, we are all interpreters of the poetry of God. ("Universalism: A Theology for the 21st Century," UU World, November/December 2001).
He implores us to really consider creation:
Life on this planet is billions of years old. Our span of three score years and ten (give or take a score or two) is barely time enough to get our minds wet.
By cosmologists' latest reckoning, there are some 100 billion stars in our galaxy, and ours is one of perhaps 100 billion galaxies. ... By my reckoning, the cosmic star-to-person ration is 1.6 trillion to one. ... Billions of accidents conspired to give [Jesus, the Buddha, Muhammad, and more] each of these compelling teachers the opportunity even to teach. Knowing this—pondering numbers beyond reckoning—doesn't strip me of my faith. It inspires my faith. It makes me humble. It fills me with awe. (Bringing God Home: A Traveler's Guide, p. 232).
From such contemplation and experiences of awe and humility comes a corollary basic rule:
If our religion doesn't inspire in us a humble affection for one another and a profound sense of awe at the wonder of being, one of two things has happened. It has failed us, or we it. Should either be the case, we must go back to the beginning and start all over again. We must reboot our lives until the wonder we experience proves itself authentic by the quality of our response to it. I may not believe as Jesus did, but I should dearly hope to love as Jesus did, to forgive and embrace others as unconditionally as he. The principle challenge of theology today is to provide symbols and metaphors that will bring us, in all our glorious diversity, into closer and more celebratory kinship with one another as sons and daughters of life and death. ("Universalism: A Theology for the 21st Century," UU World, November/December 2001).
Church urges us to use a theological lens to make sense of our feelings of awe and humility and offers us a theological metaphor. Church's theology describes the world as a cathedral with windows beyond number that represent different religious worldviews. The Light shining through each set of windowpanes is the same Light of God, which Church, at various times, also refers to as the life force, the Holy, Truth, or Being Itself.
Each worshipper in Church's theological metaphor cannot comprehend the truth that shines through another's set of windows because the Light is refracted differently. Each vision of the Light, nevertheless, is beautiful: Some visions are "dark and meditative, others bright and dazzling. Each tells a story about the creation of the world, the meaning of history, the purpose of life, the nature of humankind, the mystery of death." All of the visions, as this metaphor makes evident, are interpretations. They are ways of thinking and meaning-making ideas about the Light. And so lightness and darkness mingle in these visions because the images are refracted through particular sets of windows. The result, says Church, are partial clarifications of reality that emerge in the patterns and play of shadow and light as the windows become shrines for worshippers and for those who reject religion but nevertheless seek truth.
Church calls his theology a 21st-century theological universalism that not only promises both breadth and focus to its adherents, but also honors different religious approaches, while excluding absolutist truth claims. While the conflicting "theological passions" that accompany these different visions can lead people to reject religion entirely and distance themselves from those who attempt to interpret the meaning of the Light, such rejection carries the risk of rejecting the "deep encounter with the mysterious forces that impel our being." Church also observes that no one is "actually able to resist interpreting the Light."
Church developed his "theological universalism" to meet what he calls the principal challenge of theology today: Theology must "provide symbols and metaphors that will bring us, in all our glorious diversity, into closer and more celebratory kinship with one another as sons and daughters of life and death."
His own personal Universalism is Universalism modified by "Christianity, not the other way around... . The universalism I embrace... holds that the same Light shines through all our windows, but each window is different. The windows modify the Light—refracting it in myriad ways, shaping it in different patterns, suggesting various meanings—even as Christianity does my universalism."
Church provides us with five guidelines for a Universalism for the Twenty-First Century:
- There is one Power, one Truth, one God, one Light.
- This Light shines through every window in the cathedral.
- No one can perceive it directly, the mystery being forever veiled.
- Yet on the cathedral floor and in the eyes of each beholder, refracted and reflected through different windows in differing ways, it plays in patterns that suggest meanings, challenging us to interpret and live by these meanings as best we can.
- Each window illuminates Truth (with a capital "T") in a unique way, leading to various truths (with a lowercase "t"), and these in differing measure according to the insight, receptivity, and behavior of the beholder.