Now and then it seems useful to me to examine issues of pure theology, even though words, sentences, even paragraphs, are inadequate for expressing the ineffable. Perhaps that is why that for those of us who are not tied to traditional ways of thinking about religious matters there is a sad dearth of serious books, accessible to the thinking non-scholar, on liberal theology - that is, what I would call liberal theology, which is neither self-help nor popular psychology, which is what passes for it nowadays. There is some writing that traditionalists think of as liberal, but it is mostly simply new interpretations of old revelations - attempts to make two or three-thousand-year old myths fit our present time. Sometimes they do it very well, but in most cases I have often found myself wondering why they bother. The questions these theologians are asking themselves seem hardly relevant to those of us for whom the myths which they are explicating seem at best quaint, frequently offensive, and often directed at matters for which we have quite different explanations which seem to us far more satisfactory. Our explanations, which must be at least not contradictory to a modern scientific framework, may also be mythological, but to speculate about ultimate meaning using tools from a world-view which is no longer real to us cannot persuade us or even interest us except as a curiosity. We need a different set of tools, a different direction from which to approach the subject.
Perhaps this lack is one reason for the new gnosticism which has gained so much power in the last couple of decades. Since there are no answers being given to the questions of poetry and mystery and the deep cry of the soul for meaning, that reason can accept, answers are being sought in the magic believed in by more primitive cultures (though efforts are sometimes made to show why it isn't really magic but science) and in the pop psychology of today which is a modern way to deal with spiritual hunger, but which also uses the lure of arcane knowledge that when discovered will somehow magically change our lives. We have decided that the God of traditional religion is not a God that is either believable or useful, but believing, probably un-consciously, like Voltaire that if he does not exist we will have to invent him, we have invented other gods to put in his place. We have turned the planet upon which we live into a sentient god-dess, we have elevated our various psychological urges into objects of worship calling them by names of ancient deities, or we have abstracted the whole idea of God to the point that it has no relevance to the meaning of our lives.
Not long ago I read an article in Newsweek magazine purporting to suggest that scientists, in their search for understanding of the underlying structure of the universe will have discovered God when they have learned whatever there is to know about that. That seems almost as silly to me as the jokes about astronauts finding heaven in outer space. It just continues the old confusion between descriptions of the physical world and the business of the holy. It was that sort of thinking that put Galileo in prison. It is surely the job of scientists to discover, if they can, the underlying structure of the universe, how it is put together, but it is the job of theologians to concern themselves with the why of it.
I think that the real problem may be that we have given up too soon. We settle for easy ex-planations or else deny the possibility of explanations for the meaning that we experience. Sometimes we deny that meaning even exists. Yet we do, most of us, experience life's meaning. When we feel the rapture that the beauty of a rose or a symphony gives us, beyond thought or understanding, we know that it is meaningful. When we are hurt by injustice, or awed by selfless efforts to bring it about, we know somehow that it is because justice is meaningful. Though we may not be able to justify it with rational proof, we understand through experience that there is meaning to be found, meaning to be created, meaning to life.
Therefore it is possible to think theologically. The various concepts of God are simply human efforts to explain our experience of meaningfulness. Book after book is written on various theological questions. Systematic theologies take all the various traditional questions, such as a doctrine of the Bible, Christology (that is the examination of the nature of Jesus as the Christ, the question that got early Unitarians into trouble), sin, salvation, etc., and try to rethink them. In fact, however, I think that all theological issues can be summed up in three questions: What is the nature of God, the transcendent, or whatever, if any; what is the nature of humankind; and what is the relationship between the two? The problem is that they can't be nicely separated. Our understanding of transcendent meaning is based on human experience, the result of our nature, and that defines our relationship with it. It has been said that it is not possible to describe God, only the human experience of God. That is obviously true, but it is clearly insufficient. Before you can describe your experience of God, you need to first decide which of your experiences actually are of God, if any, or if all of them are, and that requires you first to have some idea of what God may be. Which may be why theology often reminds one of a dog chasing its tail.
When I was in divinity school it was fashionable to say that we would "do" theology rather than study it or reflect upon it, or attempt to draw new theological insights. I suspect it was an effort to make it seem like a more useful, more, perhaps, defensible activity, than merely trying to define the relationship of ultimate meaning to human life. It may be that all of us had some niggling fear that there wasn't any such relationship, that what we were committing our lives to had no basis in reality - even something so undefinable as transcendent reality. After all, while you're acting you don't have to be thinking. You don't have to confront your own lack of faith. Nowadays I suspect that, along with the rest of society, divinity students aren't bothering to "do" theology but are just getting in touch with their spirituality, and that will do just as well to enable them to avoid reflection and an honest quest for truth.
Even if scientists should discover the ultimate origin and structure of the universe, they cannot discover the truth of meaning, the nature of God. Should they find that some extra-universal being has actually created it with some purpose in mind, and confronted that being to ask what purpose that had been, a wildly unlikely possibility, I would still not believe that they had discovered God. In fact, that discovery might finally make me an atheist, a position with which I have been flirting unsuccessfully for years. It would be final proof that our lives are truly meaningless, if we should discover that some super being has created us for its own use or enter-tainment.
Since I don't expect that to happen, I can comfortably continue my efforts to discover a theology that approaches truth, that can tell us why we experience meaning and what that meaning may be. I don't expect to find it, but at least the quest will be, for me at least, more meaningful than the building of structures of belief for the pragmatic reason that they make us feel better, or act better, the symbols of which may, I trust, mean more than psychological urges, primitive magical rituals and artifacts, or ancient, scarcely relevant tradition. Unlike those who are satisfied to stop at these places, I believe that there may actually be something to find, that there is such a thing as transcendent meaning, and that our relationship with the holy is more important than anything else including happiness, self-realization, immortality or mental health, though I would not deny the possibility that all of those may be consequences of it or at least related to it in some way.
That is my own leap of faith, and it is a vast one. I have said that we need a different process, different tools from what theologians have used in the past since they no longer serve us, but like them I start with a leap of faith. However, I hope it has some basis in reality. The first thing to do, I think, is to clear the decks. All the concepts, hopes and dreams, all the events and objects that we have attributed to god may have little of the transcendent about them. The simplest explanation is usually the correct one, and when we look at the universe and at ourselves, it is probably simplest to say that it and we evolved naturally, over eons, in the way that could work, that enabled us to survive and become what we are. Most of the patterns that we see are probably there because otherwise things simply wouldn't work. The laws of gravity and of thermodynamics are there because otherwise the universe could not exist as it does. It is not entirely neutral in relation to us, because the direction in which it evolved enabled us to do so too, so it is essentially a friendly environment for us giving some folks the idea that it was made for our delight. When it is not, when there are fires and floods and disease, it is also because that's just the way the universe works. Should it ever cease to support our life or any life on earth (as indeed it is presumed that it will one day) that's the way it works too, and there's no reason to fuss about it or take responsibility for it - unless, of course, we do it ourselves.
Most of what we are as human beings is probably a result of the same evolutionary forces. Those factors, too, need to be cast out of the argument for or against the truth of the transcendent. That may even include much of our morality at first thought. Ideas of love or justice or even altruism may simply be consequences of the evolutionary pressures that have enabled the fittest to survive. However, there is something else. Something else that, it seems to me, has little survival value, and that is the aesthetic sense. That is a cold way to describe the wonder we feel at the beauties of nature, our awe at the incredible beauties of a great poem or painting or symphony and the minds that could create such glory - human, finite minds. It is an almost clinical expression of the times when we become most aware that we are not mere creatures born merely to live, to procreate and to die, but beings in relationship to the holy, the meaningful, the transcendent. To appreciate beauty of any kind is the most basic, the purest, religious act.
The aesthetic sense is the purest form of valuing, of deciding that some things are better, some worse. We may not, and indeed do not, agree on which things those are. Hard as it is for me to accept, I realize that there are people in the world who do not care for either Shastakovitch or Matisse or Edna St. Vincent Millay. Nevertheless, all of us have some sense of beauty, and in experiencing it we are most aware that life is indeed meaningful. All of us know, too, that beauty is better than its opposite. Though one person's meat is another's poison, it is universally acknowledged that meat is preferable to poison.
Although aesthetic choice is the purest form of valuing, and indicates transcendent meaning, such meaning can be extended to other choices. In fact, it is when we choose the good, however we define that good, that we are in relationship with the holy, expressing our spirituality, in the modern buzzword, even, perhaps, rather than creatures of God, creating God. When we choose the truth over lies, peace over vengeance, forgiveness over resentment, love over hatred, our lives are meaningful - and we are in the act of worship. That is, we are shaping issues of worth with the recognition, celebration and choice of the good.
Life has in it both the sweet and the bitter. I suppose, even after clearing out the underbrush there really are no adequate tools for the theological quest. I am reduced again to metaphor. Our relationship with the holy is the honey in your tea, the choice of the sweet rather than the bitter. That doesn't mean that you can choose not to suffer, not to feel pain, not sometimes to drain the bitterest cup, but it does mean that you can know the good and follow it. As tea is bitter and without the slightest food value without the honey (or for that matter sugar or cream or what-ever) that we may add, so is life without meaning unless there is some admixture of the transcendent - of the holy. It is not that we create god in order to give our lives meaning, but in the experience of meaning we recognize the holy. God is not creator but call to what really matters in our lives. The knowledge of good and evil is what makes us human and makes us religious beings. Not agreeing on which is which is also human nature. Choosing the good is what creates meaning, creates the holy, establishes the relationship between the finite and the transcendent and changes and develops it. It is indeed the ultimate human task.