The Reverend Kathleen Damewood Korb
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater
SPEAKING OF GOD...
The other day I heard someone say that one of the words that should be stricken from our vocabulary is the word God. I will admit that I seldom use it myself for the same reason that he was suggesting that it be abandoned. It has been tattered, torn, besmeared and besmirched, misused and abused for thousands of years. Nevertheless, I don’t want to relinquish it to the fundamentalists, just as I don’t want to abandon the American flag to the radical right. One of the things that it is most obvious that the faith of Unitarian Universalism does not have is a generally accepted idea of what God may be, any common theology. We have a full range of beliefs ranging from the Yahwism of one of my best friends and colleagues to an absolute atheism which rejects any concept of transcendent meaning in the universe. This is our pride and our gift. We are about the freedom of belief that can result, given the finiteness of our understanding, in not just differing, but even contradictory beliefs within one faith, and even within each congregation — maybe even within each congregant. The freedom which allows and even requires each member to take responsibility for his or her own beliefs must inevitably result in wide differences. We share not our beliefs, but the way in which we go about believing them, the process which looks at evidence, which examines varied traditions, which tests its conclusions and continues to test them in free and open exchange of ideas. It is, in effect, about the integrity of the mind and spirit. We believe what our own individual searches require us to believe, and test those beliefs within the church community. One of my roles as minister is to tell you my own conclusions and how I reached them as an aid to the dialogue, a sounding board, and sometimes a gadfly to keep you from becoming complacent in the beliefs that you have settled upon — a role that you often play for me as well.
One of the things that I often hear people say is that they know what they don’t believe, but they don’t know what they do. That is actually quite reasonable, and in no way a matter for shame. Deciding that something is unsupported by evidence is pretty easy, but what we do believe is a moving target, and to the free mind it is highly proper to suspend belief if the evidence is insufficient. For most religious questions the evidence is indeed insufficient. We can, however, commit to an interim belief, as it were, even commit with passion, after we have cleared away the deadwood. The concept of God is probably the most confusing and difficult, and yet the power of the word compels us. Much of what I say today you will have heard in bits and pieces throughout my preaching — maybe all of it — but today I’ve tried to collect it in one place.
I am sometimes asked why a complete non-believer would even go to church, and it is one of the better questions I am asked, since complete atheism would have to deny the existence of any meaning at all, and the meaning and purpose of life is always the object of our religious search. There can be no meaning to any life without some concept of transcendence. If we are simply here to exist, to get as much pleasure out of life as we can garner, to reproduce and to die, it is hard to discover any real meaning in such existence. It is, however, possible to say that although meaning is not intrinsic in the universe we can create it by acting as if there were meaning, by discerning such values as we wish to serve, arbitrary as they must be, or tied merely to enlightened self-interest, and serve them. The atheist would come to church to get help to ascertain such values, to test them within the community, and to be given the opportunity to serve them which assigns meaning to life. That is one of the things I mean when I say, as sometimes do when feeling mischievous, that the purpose of the church is to glorify God. For the atheist the values that I occasionally use the word God to represent may be arbitrary or may be one of the consequences of the evolutionary process, but they are nevertheless what the atheist comes to church to celebrate and to serve.
Even among those who accept a creed, the word God has no single meaning. It is metaphor, poetry, a description of the indescribable. When someone says that they believe in God, or they do not believe in God, my temptation is to ask them what god it is that they either do or do not believe in. I suspect it’s not really a useful statement. For those who call themselves atheists, the god that they reject is usually that of an all-powerful, all-wise, all-benevolent creator who has a plan for human history which he (or in these days, sometimes she) is constantly adjusting. This is the god who listens to prayers and answers either yes or no, who watches over you and saves you from disaster or punishes you for your sins, and perhaps has legions of angels to take care of the details. This is the naïve understanding of many of the authors of the Bible, and there are growing numbers of people who say that this is the god in whom they believe. It is also the god that most of those who call themselves atheists have in mind when they say that they do not believe.
Let me make it clear that when I use the word god, that is not the one that I have in mind. It never ceases to amaze me that so many people find such a god believable or worthy of worship. The inconsistencies in such an idea are legion. Actually, the all-wise and all-benevolent aspects of this deity are of later origin than the Old Testament. That god was the powerful creator, but his mind could be changed by sufficiently persuasive argument. When he wanted to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorra, Abraham was able to persuade him that two virtuous families alone would be enough to change his mind, and as it was, he let Lot and his family leave (they being the only virtuous ones) instead of destroying Sodom out of hand. Moses, too, was able to persuade Yahweh to change his mind about destroying the Hebrews when he discovered them worshipping idols. This was a god of power alone who ruled primarily by fear but also by bribery. Originally, of course, he was not the only god, but merely one among many. He was the god of the Hebrews only, and it was only later that he was conceived of as creating and having power over all the earth.
With that background his partiality for one group of people over others was perfectly understandable, but it is that issue that makes such a concept unacceptable today. What makes unbelievers out of many of us is the idea that a god who created the entire universe would care more (and more personally) for some of his creatures than for others. Every time there is a disaster or violence in which some are killed and others spared, some at least of the survivors are sure to credit God’s personal concern for them. Of course, the people who give god credit for watching over them usually are not even thinking about the ones who did not receive such blessing. They are simply reacting in relief and gratitude, but for those of us for whom that is a major issue of faith, the hackles rise and such a god is rejected, often with disgust and anger. So whimsical a god, it seems to me, is simply not worthy of our admiration, whatever his power. This is not the god I mean when I speak of god.
Rejecting the concept of a god who plays favorites, who even notices when the good suffer and the evil flourish, seeing that the rain falls on the just and the unjust, and yet needing an explanation for why there is something and not nothing, some of us have chosen the idea of an indifferent creator, one who creates for the sake of creation, setting it going and yet never interfering, even without interference as a possible quality. These are the deists for whom god is simply the unmoved mover, the source, or perhaps even the force, but whose will ceases after the forces begun by creation are set in motion. It will go as it was set in motion to go, following the immutable laws laid down at the beginning. So complex and wonderful a universe, this argument goes, must have had a divine design. There is simply no evidence that the designer is still interested. Although this is obviously a defensible idea, it, too, is not what I mean when I speak of God. Why should there not, I ask, be something rather than nothing, and why should it not be that it works as gracefully as it does because that’s the way it must work to continue to exist? Why posit a mover because there is movement, a designer because there is complexity and pattern? I do not find the evidence for such a god compelling, and worse, at least from my point of view, it leaves our existence as meaningless as if we had no notion of a creator at all. Our interest in such a god, except as explanation for our seemingly unnecessary existence, would be as remote as its interest in us. It could be argued that moral law was laid down at the moment of creation, and service to that law is the source of meaning, but the reason for such creation or such a law is obscure, and the only basis for such law or such service is the self-serving one of survival and continuing evolution.
Although in our culture we speak of a monotheistic god, a Supreme Being, as the focus of religious faith, this belief is not universal. It is understood almost without explanation or apology in our culture that that is what religious faith means: belief in a supreme being. However even in the eastern religions where god is less personal (though the multiplicity of gods are more so) the idea of god still has being, is still manipulable by ritual, can be supplicated or invoked and revels in praise. It exists and somehow gives humanity purpose simply by the fact of its existence and our human relationship to it. Yet beings, it seems to me, are not matters for religion but for science to discover. If they created or control the world or even influence it, the extent of power is not supernatural, but a part of nature. Only Buddhism of the world’s religions does not focus, except in its more popular manifestations, on a god who has shaped or is still shaping the earth or the universe, but classic Buddhism finds its purpose in escape, and virtue is, as it is in most religions, the means for salvation, rather than the source of meaning. No personal god, no supernatural force, no means of escape from this life of engagement in the world can be what I mean when I speak of god.
None of the traditional ways of thinking about god — creator, judge, savior, protector, punisher — can compel my belief, and yet I do speak of god, and the meaning and purpose of our lives in celebration and service to it, though if I am not trying to be provocative I usually call it the holy or the transcendent. There is, in nearly all our lives, a need for a sense of purpose, a call to the life of the spirit, a call to dedicate ourselves to something greater than ourselves and our material existence. That is what religion is about, but for me, at least, the worship that is the body of religious faith is not toward supernatural being or any of the other ways we think of god as separate from ourselves. It is transcendent even of language, and yet it is in language of some kind that we must communicate these ideas to one another.
So how shall I speak of God? There was a great preacher — I think it was Theodore Parker — who said, “The arc of the universe bends toward justice.” Yet we know, we see every day, that justice and the material universe have nothing to do with one another. The old question returns again and again. What does the suffering of the innocent, which occurs over and over in nature, have to do with justice? What does the existence of evil have to do with justice? What do our finiteness, our imperfection, our inborn grasping natures, have to do with justice? And yet it is that call, not merely to justice, but to love, to creation, to generosity, to wisdom, to goodness and beauty, that I mean when I speak of God. The material universe bends toward nothing, it seems to me, except itself, if Einstein was right about its being a closed curve, but the spiritual universe gives us purpose and meaning when we dedicate ourselves to it. It calls us to justice, to all that takes us beyond mere survival and the search for happiness, or at least for pleasure.
And so I do speak of God — not a God who exists but a God who gives our existence meaning. Not a being, not a force, not creator or judge, not protector or punisher, but the call to purpose in our own being, a call to use our own force for goodness, to create beauty, to seek justice, to protect the weak, to struggle against evil and to become more than we have been, more, perhaps, than we have ever believed we could be, in its service.