“God” a sermon by Rev. Brian J. Kiely Unitarian Church of Edmonton, April 13, 2014
Words! Words! They are are perhaps our most wonderful tools for communication with one another, for recording thoughts and preserving and transmitting ideas. They allow us to share complex concepts over great distance and times. I love words!
But words are not all of communication. In fact they aren’t even the most important form of communication between people. Scientists estimate that fully 2/3 of our communication is non-verbal: kinesics or body language, use of voice: volume, intonation etc. And then there is touch, distance from the other person, pace of communication, eye contact and so on. 2/3 of our communication takes place without words.
But it is words that dominate our awareness more than those other things. We are so attuned of words…inundated with words. Words can be our greatest tool but also our greatest burden.
Kermit sang, “It’s not easy being green,” in our Prelude. And then he went on to try to describe greenness by pointing to things that are some shade of green. His song is built on the idea that we associate certain qualities, some bland, some wonderful with the word green. Just what is green? How do you put green into words that communicate green exactly? Kermit found out that you can’t. In the same way, we can’t find the perfect words that truly and completely describe love, or sadness or despair…or god. If we could we wouldn’t have billions of books and songs and poems trying to nail down those very things…or trying to describe god.
Quick disclaimer: unless otherwise noted I am using god in its most generic lower case ‘g’ sense. I will describe what I mean by that in a sec. What I am NOT indicating is a particular divinity: Not the guy who walked with Adam in the garden or got ticked off and drowned everybody but Noah and his family. I am not talking about Jesus’ distant father, nor about Allah nor Siva nor Venus, nor Bridgid nor, nor, nor. They are all characters described and defined by words, characters invented by us, by humans. They are masks made from words. And like I said, words are problematic especially when it comes to esoteric and unfathomable topics like god. Words about god have comforted and caused terrible wars. Words about specific gods have been used to enforce order and exploit wealth as much as they have been used to comfort and console and inspire people in the moments when they are most in need of those things.
Today when I use the word ‘god’, I am speaking of an impulse, a feeling, an understanding deep inside. I am speaking of the colour green – something that is perceived by each of us uniquely and understood by each of us uniquely…and then very likely described by each of us uniquely as well.
So if you are an atheist or a believer or an agnostic or someone who has been battered by the word god, please take a deep breath. Nothing that follows is intended to insult or harm or force you to think a certain way. It is merely an exploration – using inadequate words.
The god problem, if you will, is that theologians and priests and ministers have killed millions of trees, built thousands upon thousands of libraries trying to nail god down with words. They have put forward ideas, argued about them, at times raged and waged war about …what? About god? No. They have waged war about words about god.
Solving the impossible challenge of describing god in words by using even more words has its usefulness, for it invites people to think – and that’s what I hope I am doing today. Yet in another way it can also be an impossible exercise in the chasing of tails. How amazingly silly is that. It’s like debating smoke…or the colour green. It is not a debate that can be won.
You see god does not start with words. God – whatever god may be – begins in us as a feeling or a perception. Unitarian Universalists seem to get that – at least the ones who allow for the possibility of god. Our first Source cited in our Statement of Principles and Sources is us. “The Living Tradition we share draws from many sources: Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.”
Us. We are the starting point in religious exploration. It has always been so in every religious tradition, even if not all the great religious thinkers have acknowledged that truth.
I love that source. It has balance. It speaks both to those who think in terms of the spiritual, but leaves plenty of room for the intellectually stimulated to posit theories about the “forces that create and uphold life”. There is room for the entire continuum that runs between atheist and believer…and it starts with our understanding.
So were does the wordy debate fit into that Source? It fits because words, along with music and art and theatre and even ritual, are the tools we have to try and share our understanding of the mystery and wonder. But they are limited.
What is green? For Kermit it is a series of feelings, some happy and some sad, that define the colour, that define him and the very core of his being. And for Kermit, green is also a series of metaphors that help him describe greenness.
What is god? Pretty much the same thing – a series of feelings, observations, perceptions ideas and metaphors that help us define ourselves and more importantly, help us define ourselves in terms of the other.
For as Martin Buber indicated in the 1930’s, god is primarily a relationship between us and the other. He called it the I/Thou connection. It is about how we define and place ourselves in the universe of fact and the unknown. We are relational creatures.
We share our intellects, our passions, our fears. Sometimes we share these with other beings, sometimes with animals, sometimes with our inner selves in the form of journals and diaries, and sometimes in prayer to an Other we perceive to be outside of us. At the core is the act of connecting and sharing no matter how you frame it. Relationship to that which is outside of us is the key.
In this way, god has been with us since the first dawning of consciousness, probably even before words were invented — from the first days when our evolving intellects could grasp the idea of otherness.
You see I believe that god is an impulse within us. God arises because we have questions and feelings and perceptions that we cannot answer or frame in WORDS. We see beauty and tragedy we cannot explain, but we are uncomfortable with the unknowing and so we call it god, or love, or mystery or undiscovered science or something else. We are afraid of being alone in this big world- even when we are surrounded by others. We commonly fear that no one really knows us. For some, a concept of god eases that ache.
Theology is really just an attempt to frame this impulse arising in us in words. What impulse? The impulse to connect with the other, be it Nature, a human being, a pet, an idea, our self or something else.
We are individuals, but we are not isolated beings. Every second of our lives we are in relationship. We give our thoughts, visions, dreams, work, tears and laughter – and yes, our spirits- to the world, and the world gives back to us. In our Meditation Emerson wrote, “Within us is the soul of the whole; the wise silence, the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal One. When it breaks through our intellect, it is genius; when it breathes through our will, it is virtue; when it flows through our affection, it is love.”
For Emerson there is a symbiotic connection with this otherness. We are in it and it is in us, and we get to give it voice in our feelings and words and actions. And that’s kind of cool.
Because we are relational, we reach out. We want to know and more importantly be known by some other entity. Reaching out is an exercise that brings us peace individually, perhaps, but is often doomed to failure especially when we try to do it solely through words. Our words are simply not up to the task – they are only 1/3 of communication. They might be beautiful, or poetic, or filled with scientific precision, but they are aimed at defining for others that which can, at best, only be defined for us and in us…and then probably only for a short while. I don’t know about you, but my ideas about god are not the same as when I was a child or a young adult and probably not fully the same as even five hers ago.
I heard someone suggest not too long ago that the majority of Unitarians are atheists. Not true…unless the reference is to disbelieving a very specific conception of an anthropomorphized god – generally in this UU culture a Christian conception of a god who watches us, can intervene in our lives and will judge us when we die. I don’t think there are many here who hold to that idea of god.
But I do think that there is a lot more belief in something other, some Thou in relation with our I in this room than the atheism claim can support. And if not firm belief in some concept of god, then at least agnosticism, the position of not knowing for sure. Agnostics allow the possibility of god, but simply can’t work themselves to a place of firm conviction for or against. They are waiting for more evidence.
And certainly there are some for whom the whole word god has been irreparably damaged beyond all reclamation. That’s fine too. The last thing we need is to be forced to use the same words. But if that is your place, if god is an objectionable word for you, I would at least invite you to define for yourself that which connects you to the other. You need not justify it or explain it or even find words for it. But I do suggest you find ways to feel that connecting force, to acknowledge and honour that connection, however you find it. It does not require your worship, but that part of you may require that you honour it.
I, for one, believe in god – most of the time, because when I am at my best I an intently aware of the thousand threads of connection that surround me, embrace me and hold me and tie me to others.
And there are days when I contemplate the horrors that do exist in the world, the massive failings in the human enterprise and the more manageable failings in my own soul. People do horrible things not the least of which is the Rwandan genocide of 20 years ago currently being marked in ceremonies around the world. On those days, believing even in something as ephemeral as the religious impulse is pretty hard. On those days I confess to longing for that father deity who would punish the wrongdoers…the OTHER wrongdoers – not me! There is something delicious in the idea of a divine smiting.
But I don’t call that religion, I call that the same kind of flight of fancy as the ways I imagine spending the millions in my 6/49 win.
Mostly I believe in god, because I believe in myself, and in you and in the goodness of people I do not know and will never meet. I believe that I am deeply related to all of them and to nature as well. I believe in god because there is great art and passionate social activists. I believe in god because there is great music and – especially for me- great chefs. I believe in god because I have felt love, absolute and complete love in my life.
All of those things I have just named arise from our connections with ourselves and the other. All of those transcendent and mysterious connections leave me breathless.
I call that impulsive breathlessness god.