The Reverend Kathleen Damewood Korb
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples

Beyond the Urn

I have never especially cared for the poem that I read to you by John Keats, "On a Grecian Urn." Actually, I've never especially cared for Keats as a poet. Nevertheless, as is the tendency of poets, his intuition about metaphysical truth seems to me to point to something real. Not the bit about how much nicer it is to remain static than to die - in that I think he was even culpably wrong. Better to kiss than not to kiss, though you grow withered and old while kissing. Better to live deep and courageously than to settle for an Attic peace. However, the last line, the one quoted so often as to become almost trite, in which he says, "Beauty is truth and truth, beauty. That is all you know and all you need to know." It is not the whole truth, not even the end of it, but I think it is a beginning of a different kind of theology.

Traditional theologizing is based on the Bible. In fact, there is a school of thought which says that if it isn't Biblically based it isn't theology, but merely religious speculation. I would argue that any deep consideration of matters of ultimate concern can and should be called theology, since one's ultimate concern must equal theos (God). That's ultimate concern, you understand, the shaping force of your life. If your ultimate concern is, for example, your physical comfort, then physical comfort is, in fact, your God.

One of the primary concerns of traditional theology, if not the primary one, is theodicy. That is the issue of justifying God's ways to humankind. Traditional theology sees God as, if nothing else, creator of the world, and if this is true, we can ask whether he created it just as he wanted it, and if so, does he have a rather strange sense of humor, or is it rather that he could not create it perfectly, and must we conclude therefore that God is limited in power or omniscience. It is the basic question, the answer to which reveals something about the nature of a god who is the creator of the universe. The assumption of that kind of god, almost universal, is the facile answer to the question that many people think is the clincher, "Why is there something and not nothing?" I don't think it is the necessary answer. Why should there not, after all, be something rather than nothing, and if there is something, why should it not be organized as it is as well as any other way? The way it is organized, after all, works, though by no means always perfectly.

The nature of God, given the nature of the universe, or alternatively, the nature of the universe, given the nature of God, has been not only the traditional way to speculate theologically, but also the non-traditional way. Most people have started out with either acceptance or rejection of the traditional mode of thought, and their theology has thereupon been either classical or reactive. They have either accepted it or rejected it, after dealing with theodicy. Given the nature of the universe, what is the nature of its creator, or is there no creator at all? Those who decide that there is no creator nearly always end their theology right there. They decide that they are atheists, and that is the sum of it. There's nothing more to worry about. Those who opt for a creator have the problem of evil (that is, the evil of unmerited suffering) to deal with. They have to decide either that it does not exist and that what we perceive as evil is merely an error of our limited per-ception, or that the creator itself is limited either in power or ethical judgment. Neither of those solutions seems adequate to me, but neither does that of the atheists.

Most atheism, I think, is caused by giving up the question too easily, and afterwards managing to ignore or dismiss some contra-indications. That does not mean that I disapprove of atheism, as a faith-stance. In fact, atheists may have the only really consistent theology. Nevertheless, if you conceive of life as having any meaning at all, I don't think that you can be the compleat atheist. There must still be some sense of the transcendent, because if all that exists is the material world, there can be no inherent meaning. If you bother with the question at all, you have to reconsider the definition of atheism.

Not being an atheist doesn't necessarily make you a theist, either. Theism is the belief in some kind of personal god. Liberal theists by definition don't believe in the traditional God, but they have a sense of some kind of transcendent presence in which they do believe, a personality, a force, something which can be defined as a causative factor in the universe, but more than causative - intentional. A theist believes in some kind of conscious intentionality in a deity, and therefore has the same problem that traditional theology has, that of theodicy. How do you justify God's way to humankind?

There is, in the west, a cultural religion, and, since that is what we grew up with and react toward, people must start there when beginning to think theologically. Although freedom of religion is basic to our society in some ways, we really do have, not precisely a state religion, although there are some aspects of that in the motto on our coins, the "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, opening sessions of Congress and courts with a prayer, and so forth, but a religion which pervades our culture. It is accepted by almost everyone: Jews and Christians and Muslims, churchgoers and non-church-goers. Whatever the details in the different religions and denom-inations, it starts with the assumption that there is an intentional God who is in some sort of control of the world, who can be propitiated and sometimes even manipulated, who cares about the activities of human beings, having made them in his/her/its own image and created the rest of the world for their benefit, and has a moral sense as well, with some concept of justice and mercy, right and wrong, and will therefore, sooner or later, reward or punish appropriately.

Since that is the God of our culture, when we think about God at all, we first have to think in relation to that God. We can either accept it or reject it. Since there is little or no evidence for the existence of such a God, if we accept it, we have to explain how it actually fulfills all of the dimensions that we have given to it. Since it is so widely accepted, though, if we reject it, we have to explain that, too, at least to ourselves, if we are thinking theologically. Many people never do bother to think about such things at all, simply accepting the common wisdom, but most Unitarian Universalists became Unitarian Universalists in part because they have thought of it. They may not continue to think about it, but they have at least considered it long enough to have come to the conclusion that the traditional explanations of the nature of god are not satisfying. They don't really fit in with our experience of the world.

When that happens we react against the picture of God that has been given us. We may either throw it out entirely and go on to something else, or we may try to make some kind of adjustments to the picture so that it will fit better into the experience that we have. It is interesting that traditional theology is the only form of rational thought in the world that for many people need be based on no evidence at all. In fact, it is a matter of pride for some to be able to say that they believe in whatever they believe in religiously in spite of the lack of evidence. For us this is not possible. We may end with different beliefs, but whatever they are, they start with our own experience, refined through the reason and spirit.

Part of our experience, however, is the cultural acceptance of a particular kind of God, and that is why we begin with our reaction to that idea, and often find ourselves then saying what we do not believe in, rather than what we do. It really is perfectly okay to know what you don't believe in without being perfectly certain what you do. After all, our whole culture has called upon us to believe something that we cannot believe. Seeing no evidence for a God who is really busy taking care of things for us, we may say with Archibald MacLeish in J.B., "If God is good, he is not God; /If God is God, he is not good." This is a conclusion based on theodicy, and it has been said that the basis of all useful theology is theodicy. It is at least the basis for the reactive theol-ogy with which we must, in this culture, begin.

However, though discovering what we don't believe is a good starting point for theology, most of us can't really be completely satisfied with it. We need to try to find out what we do believe. I would like to suggest an entirely different place to start with theologizing and find out where it may lead us. Instead of beginning with the idea of a creator and reacting to that, getting bogged down in issues of theodicy, we might ask ourselves whether there is evidence for any sort of divine transcendence, any aspect of our living which is not material. In what is material, by the way, I also include energy, thereby also rejecting the modern attempt to justify the idea of god on the basis of science. I do not see that the current understanding of the immaterial nature of the material makes it any more holy.

The whole point of religion, it seems to me, is the idea of valuing, deciding what is good, what is important, what is to be worshipped, since its primary activity is worship. This is not, contrary to popular belief, a dirty word. Worship means to shape what is of worth, to discover it, to honor it, and to accept its meaning. God can be called that which is of worth, which we worship.

Is that more than just the development of survival values? After all, what is valued is often that which is most likely to enable the individual or the race to survive. That includes such things as mercy and justice, concern for others, integrity, wisdom and so on. That doesn't mean that I necessarily believe that that is all they are, merely that it can be so argued. I find it hard to look upon survival as a transcendent value, which is why I tend to find the perennial religious question of the existence of eternal life entertaining, but not ultimately interesting, and why I find so much of Keats' poem unsatisfying. However, he pointed to a type of pure valuing, unrelated to survival, which by its very purity I think implies transcendence. That is the aesthetic sense - the sense of beauty.

Those personal events that are usually called religious experiences are almost always triggered by the aesthetic sense. Those people who say that they get more of a feeling of worship walking on the beach or through the woods than at church are talking about aesthetic experiences. "Beauty is truth, truth, beauty." I do not believe that the aesthetic experience is the only, or even the most important transcendent experience, or I'd try walking on the beach on Sunday morning myself. However, I think you can infer from it, in its purity, its self-justifying nature, the existence of the transcendent. It is itself transcendent. Once that experience of transcendence is inferred, other theological inferences can also be drawn. Once you have decided that you have evidence for a divine aspect to existence, you can then begin thinking of in what it should consist, and how you may relate to it.

It is, I think, the process of valuing itself which is the whole of the divine. Not a personal deity which decides for us what will be good for us, and which we can manipulate by prayer and praise, but our own creative choices, our own values which establish our ideals. Those choices may differ from one person to another, but the act of choosing is absolute. This divine aspect is most completely imminent, being a necessary part of every day, perhaps every minute of our lives, and to a great degree within our own control, but it is also transcendent. There are values, which are greater than our petty preferences, which establish greater ideals than each individual's health and well-being, or even in extreme cases, perhaps the health and well-being of the community.

Theology is an intellectual exercise. However passionate, consuming and convincing our experience of the holy, we must needs test that experience through the intellect as well, test it in the community which honors such testing, and in our own minds. To some the intellectualizing that we do may seem to remove us from the worship which is religious being. However, it is the integrity of the mind as well as the spirit that makes worship itself of worth rather than a vain exercise in search of an emotional charge. There must be wholeness in our connection with the holy, a wholeness of the mind and heart, the body and soul. The values, which we choose include not only beauty but truth, not only love, but wisdom. Beauty and truth are one indeed, but so are all of the values that we meet together to discover, to celebrate, and to serve.