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Sermons: “The Theist In Me

[This sermon is second in a three-part series: "The Humanist in Me," "The Theist in Me," and "The Christian in Me."]

You may have noticed that I do not completely attach myself to one label. I do not speak (as I’ve heard another minister do) under the title of "Why I am a Humanist," or "Why I am a Theist," or "Why I am a Christian." The fact is that Unitarian Universalism in general, and this speaker in particular, is quite pliant and adaptable. A single label rarely captures the essence. Our religion could be, and has been, called a "fuzzy" religion, for it does not demand precise categories or labels.

Last week, I spoke of "The Humanist in Me," and in doing so I spoke of my appreciation for, and commitment to, that tradition which honors reason as the arbiter of belief. Reason is the keystone of the humanist view, and it warrants my solid intellectual and religious respect and commitment.

In honoring reason, humanism rejects supernaturalism. This is part of the humanism that is in me. Rejecting the supernatural does not necessarily entail rejecting the sense of the sacred or the sense of the holy or, for that matter, the sense of the divine.

There is a theist in me as well as a humanist. The God of this theism, though, is a natural, not a supernatural, God. It is not the God of children’s stories, nor is it the God of traditional lore. This God is not easy to describe or explain, so it deserves having a whole sermon devoted to it.

The idea of God arose from vague sources in the misty human past. Many psychologists suggest that the idea of God arose from our mental projections. According to Freud, for example, we began to believe in a God because, even as we grow older, we crave the protective care of a parent, so we exalt the memory of our own parents (or the parents we wish we had), and call that all-powerful idea "God."

Others say the idea arose out of our ignorance of how the world works. Since our ancestors could not adequately explain the weather, or the seasons, or the sun and the moon, they invented the idea of an all-powerful, supernatural, conscious being who could control these mysteries that were beyond our understanding.

Whatever the historical source of the idea of God, we know that the idea is pervasive in the human race. There has probably been more thought and writing throughout history on this subject than any other single idea. In the "Great Books" series, which contains the writings of such great figures as Homer, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Darwin, the two thickest volumes are the indices, which give a subject reference to the ideas contained in the Great Books. The indices are broken down into what it calls "Great Ideas," such as "Democracy," "Truth," and "Love." In the chapter referencing the "Great Book" writings on the subject of "God," one finds the following claim:

In sheer quantity of references, as well as in variety, this chapter on God is the largest chapter. The reason is obvious. More consequences for thought and action follow from the affirmation or denial of God than from answering any other basic question.

According to this, then, the idea of God is probably the most popular idea in the great writings of Western civilization. This fact has a particular sting to it when one realizes that the next twenty minutes or so will be devoted to thoughts on this subject from a humble minister from Indiana.

I don’t believe that the existence of God—or, for that matter, any claim about God—can be proven. The question, "Does God exist?" is a non-sequitur. It has no meaning. The question implies that we can talk about God in the same way we talk about cows or leprechauns or triangles.

I have at times mentioned the ancient Hebrew tradition in which the name of God is unutterable. In Hebrew scriptures, the name for God is rendered by the initials "YHWH," which today we pronounce "Yahweh." And the word "Yahweh," the linguists tell us, means "it causes to be" or "it causes existence." To say that God exists is to confuse God, the source of existence, with the things that exist themselves.

I do not believe that God exists. I do not believe in the existence of a Being to which I ascribe the name "God." And yet, at the same time, I do believe in God. I believe in a unifying force of the universe to which I may relate, and on which I may rely.

I do not believe that God exists. Yet I do believe in God. I expect the juxtaposition of these two sentences to be confusing for you. I hope so. Because it is confusing for me, too. But it reinforces my conviction that talking about God tends to raise more confusion than clarity. And that’s why I talk about God so very rarely in public.

This morning, I will talk about God, and I wish to share with you some of the thinking I’ve done recently about that concept. And I begin with a humbling disclaimer: I have nothing reliable to say about God. In fact, no one has anything certain or reliable to say about this subject.

It is too often the case that those who speak about God presume rather to speak for God, on behalf of God. They tell us about what God approves and disapproves. They tell us what pleases God and what angers God and what God wants us to do. In most talk about God, the speaker’s opinions are presented as God’s opinions, and therefore the speaker doesn’t need to claim responsibility for his or her views—they are, it is alleged, from God.

As for me, I feel more comfortable speaking my own opinions, and not burdening God with the blame or credit for what I say.

There is nothing reliable or certain that can be said on the subject of God. But there is, I suggest, much that can be said that is interesting, and probably a few things that can be said that are useful. While we cannot speak about what God is like, we can, at least, speak about our human experiences of the divine. Such experiences found continuously throughout human history, are, I think, often interesting and perhaps occasionally useful. It is in that spirit that I approach the subject this morning.

My approach is like that of T.S. Eliot, that great secular poet who spent so much of his life in search of God. Eliot spoke about the human experience of the divine as the "point of intersection between the timeless with time." Here is what he wrote, in part:

To apprehend the point
of intersection
of the timeless with time,
is an occupation for the saint....

There are only hints and guesses,
hints followed by guesses;
and the rest
is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.

The hint half-guessed,
the gift half understood is
incarnation.

"Hints and guesses," says Eliot. For me, that is all we can say about the divine. We begin with our own experience. We learn from the experiences of others. And what we gain in understanding the divine, which is ineffable, beyond the human world of knowledge, is merely hints and guesses.

So, this morning, I will share with you some of my hints and guesses about God. What is God? What is the theist in me? I cannot answer with any reliability or certainty, any more than the ancient Hebrews could. But I can offer, in the words of Eliot, some hints and guesses. These hints and guesses arise out of both common and uncommon experience.

Hint #1: There is something that urges people to love and care for one another. Rabbi Harold Kushner, who has written movingly about the meaning of suffering, wrote the following about God:

When people ask me, "Where is God?" I tell them I would rather rephrase the question to read, "When is God?" Asking "where" implies that God is an object located in a specific place, and if we could just find the right place, we would find God. Asking "When is God?" gives us the idea that God can be anywhere, if the right things are happening. When people are loving, brave, truthful, charitable, God is present. God is not in the place, but in the moment.

Martin Buber, when asked, "Where is God found?" would reply that when people treat each other in a truly human fashion, God fills in the empty space between them. Like an electric arc between poles, God is not so much in either person, as in the relationship that connects one with the other.

The love and care that is expressed between and among human beings is, for me, an expression of the divinity that lies behind the logic and order of the universe. This, I think, is the meaning of the following line, written by E.E. Cummings:

Love is a deeper season than reason.

So the first hint about God is that there is something that urges people to love and care for one another.

Hint #2: Life is meaningful. At least this is my experience of life. There is no particular reason why life should be meaningful. You are born, you live, you die. And yet, somehow in that simple formula, people have been able to fill their years of existence with meaningful acts and contribute to the greater enjoyment of life by all.

The great psychologist Rob May died back in 1994. I suppose I subscribe to his definition of religion, that religion is "the assumption that life has meaning…One’s religious attitude is to be found at that point where he [or she] has a conviction that there are values in human existence worth living and dying for." So, if you assume that life carries meaning, you are, by this definition, religious.

Where does this meaning come from? I suppose we create it ourselves, mostly. Or inherit it from others, to some extent. But it is not absurd to suggest that meaning has as its source what everything else has as its source.

I remember, in my study of Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophy, being perplexed by the fact that he talked about God at all. Whitehead offers a fairly complex but complete system. His metaphysics offer to explain why things are the way they are, in fully natural, not supernatural, ways. Why, then, did he talk about "God?"

I poured through dozens of books about Whitehead, searching for an answer, until I finally found one. It was only a sentence or two, but it suggested a reason. Whitehead needed God, the author said, to explain "novelty" in the world. Novelty. That something new happens, that something unexpected happens (such as genetic mutation, for example). The world can go on tomorrow pretty much as it did today, but somehow, something tomorrow will be different.

And another philosopher, the Unitarian Henry Nelson Wieman, called it "creativity." Novelty or creativity: whatever it is, there is something that allows us to face life with fresh vigor, with excitement, and with meaning.

Life is meaningful, or at least it can be. There is no reason why life should be meaningful. But, for many people, it is. Meaning arises from the novelty and creativity of the human imagination, novelty and creativity being normal components of nature itself. From that creativity, we can create meaning. The discovery of meaning, for many of us, is a hint at what Eliot called "the intersection of the timeless with time."

Hint #3: It seems increasingly clear that science is moving toward a theory of cosmic unity and interrelatedness. While it used to be the case that science tried to study nature by isolating it into its discrete parts, today, science is increasingly finding that nothing can be understood in isolation from the rest of the world. Every atom in the universe is related to all other atoms.

Physicist David Bohm has written about the unity of the cosmos, and suggests a theory that the whole of the universe is somehow greater than the sum of its parts. The universe is a living system, just as, on a smaller scale, we are living systems. It is easy to consider the human person as being greater than the sum of its parts. We are only now beginning to understand the cosmos as such a living system, too.

As parents watching our children grow, we are fascinated by the  development of their individual personhoods. They have their own personalities, their own memories, their own private thoughts. We recognize in our children their own consciousness and emotions. Each one, we come to conclude, is far greater than just the sum of his or her parts. Each one is, in fact, a "person."

So, too, Bohm would say, the universe seems to be more than the sum of its parts. Beyond the vast sea of energy that fills the void between the planets and stars, there seems to be a creative force, what he calls "holomovement," that gives the universe a unifying character, not unlike the unifying character of a someone’s personality. The universe is more than the sum of its parts, and in the universe can be observed, as Eliot so poetically noted, the intersection of the timeless with time.

Hint #4: I am amazed at the human capacity to overcome tragedy and pain. For example, I stand in admiration of any alcoholic who is able to control that disease. I am impressed by those who have suffered the deep pain of loss and can still live with hope. Where do they find their strength?

There is nothing supernatural about it. Not at all. It is altogether natural, but it is also sacred. Again, I will let Harold Kushner speak:

I believe in miracles, but I believe only in big miracles, not little ones.
Things like parting the Red Sea or making the sun stand still are
not miracles for me; they are special effects. Cecil B. DeMille or
Steven Spielberg can do it as easily

Authentic miracles happen when weak people become strong, when timid people show courage, when selfish people turn generous…I can believe in God, not because someone has proven it to me philosophically, but because I so often see ordinary people become capable of the most extraordinary accomplishments.

Hint #5: There is something that connects me to the rest of the universe. That, at least, is how I feel. There is an underlying logic and a penetrating power that oversees the pattern of the planets, the seasons of the year, and the flux of my own life. Let me call it the Reason (or Rationality) of the universe.

The nineteenth century Romantics wrote of Reason (always with a capital "R") as the divine source that influenced all things. Perhaps I belong in the nineteenth century, but that image makes some sense to me. Or perhaps I belong in the first century, for the early Christians also used the same metaphor when speaking of Logos as a word for God. Logos means reason, or the logic of the universe—an inherent orderliness or harmony that all things honor, that allows things to make sense.

There is a dusty  old book I found on my shelf, published over a century ago, that seems to connect with the modem physicist’s view of the cosmic unity. The book is entitled The Idea of God, and was written by John Fiske, a philosophy professor at Harvard. This book was written in the 1880s, not long after Darwin’s theories had challenged some of the traditional religious doctrines.

Fiske felt himself to be a philosopher of evolution. Darwin, he felt, had revolutionized scientific knowledge, and it was his task to examine the philosophical implications of Darwinism. It was this effort that produced the book.

In it, Fiske looked at the religious implications of Darwinism. What results is, in fact, a description of the universe that could have been written by 20th century physicists like Bohm. Fiske writes: "If the study of physics has taught us anything, it is that nowhere in nature is inertness to be found. All is quivering with energy."

For Fiske, this persistent energy is called (no kidding) "Force" (one wonders if Han Solo had read Fiske). It is, he says, "the animating principle of the universe." But elsewhere, he refers to it as "Power, the infinite and eternal Power."

And I am a part of that power, just as you are a part of that power. There is something that connects us to the rest of the universe. Call it Reason or Rationality, call it logos or logic, call it Nature or God, whatever it is hints at what Eliot described as the intersection of the timeless with time. We are there in that intersection.

Hint #6: We live with conscience, with a sense of moral rightness, with a sense of duty. Something urges us to do that which is right. Something shames us when we do wrong, even when no one else knows.

I do not believe in a God of reward and punishment, but somehow, the logic of the universe compels us to develop a conscience and to know, for the most part, when we are doing right and when we are doing wrong.

Immanuel Kant, who only rarely had a way with words, offered what is, for me, the most precise summary of religious sensibility when he wrote, "Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing wonder and awe—the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me." These two items—the starry heavens above and the moral law within—are the two components of any complete religion.

These are the hints and guesses about God that come out of my experiences. I confess that they don’t say very much about God, certainly nothing reliable or certain. But I find them to be interesting, and I find them to be useful.

I do not believe in the existence of God. But I do believe in God. The theist in me believes in God the same way the idealist in me believes in Truth.

I do not believe that something exists that we can call "Truth." Truth does not have its own separate existence. It permeates all of life. Truth can be experienced, though never fully understood. I do believe that there is a truthful quality to experience that excites us and edifies us. I suppose I believe in God in the same way I believe in Truth.

Truths, like God, are revealed to us only in part. There is always more truth to explore, more truth to experience.

The theist in me is of the sort that was described by John Haynes Holmes, a great Unitarian minister of the first half of this century.

When I say [the word] God, it is poetry and not theology. Nothing that any theologian ever wrote about God has helped me much, but everything the poets have written about flowers and birds and skies and seas, the saviors of the human race, and God—whoever that may be—has at one time or another reached my soul! More and more, as I grow older, I live in the lovely thought of these seers and prophets.

The theologians gather dust upon the shelves of my library, but the poets are stained with my fingers and blotted with my tears. I never seem so near truth as when I care not what I think or believe, but only that these matters of inner vision would live forever.

Poets rarely offer literal descriptions; great poets deliver to us only hints and guesses about truth. This is, indeed, a path to the divine.

The subject of God rarely comes up in our Unitarian Universalist churches, including this one, because God, as that idea is commonly understood, is more confusing than enlightening. And yet God, as I understand the idea, so permeates every part of existence—in fact, is existence—that whenever life’s meaning is discussed, God, whether specified or not, is also discussed. So once in a while I do talk directly about God, as I’ve done today, but most of the time, I talk about other things, and any link to God is indirect or implied.

To talk about God directly is usually to utter the unutterable, so I can only do it by way of hints and guesses.

I will close with another part of T.S. Eliot’s poem about the quest for God, for that intersection between the timeless and time.

For most of us, there is only the unattended moment,
the moment in and out of time,
The distraction of it, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all,
but you are the music
While the music lasts.
…There are only hints and guesses.

Copyright: The author has given Unitarian Universalist Association member congregations permission to reprint this piece for use in public worship. Any reprints must acknowledge the name of the author.

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Last updated on Monday, March 25, 2013.

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