The Rev. Kathleen Damewood Korb
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples
Atheism has become very trendy these days. Of course, it’s kind of a straw man atheism. The official atheists, Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens use a definition of God that is the blasphemous one believed in by those who also believe in the rapture, a God who plays favorites. Or, at the very least a god who intentionally created the universe in its present form and continues to fiddle with it, often on the request of human beings in the form of prayer. Theirs to me is not the consistent atheism that I think is necessary to be truly an atheist. If you are an atheist you have to look at all the possible concepts of God and reject each one of them. They have limited their rejection to a God that most intelligent people, even those who call themselves theists, rejected long ago. Sam Harris spent the last third of his book that established him as a leading atheist in describing his own spiritual journey — a journey that in my way of thinking wholly disqualifies him as a true atheist. The others don’t deal with it with any depth, it seems to me. For a true atheist, the universe must be wholly meaningless. The Existentialists, who called it absurd, who cried out against its meaninglessness, nevertheless created their own meaning, and in doing so created, it seems to me, a God.
One of my newer colleagues asked a bunch of ministers whether any of us had ever preached on the book of Job, as she was planning to do. She got a lot of replies (all yes) but the one closest to my own was from a man who had been in the ministry for some time. “Only every other week,” he said. Me too.
All we have to do is look at the devastation and loss of life in Japan and now right here is our own country in the middle west and south. One of my own cousins (once removed — I didn’t know her) was killed in Hixson, TN, and that whole area that I knew so well growing up has been torn to pieces. And yet, people call it an act of God. I think not. The problem boils down to what for many Unitarian Universalists is the theological question which drove them from their more orthodox religions: The problem of evil. Otherwise stated it is, why do bad things happen to good people? Back in primitive times there really was no problem. God was not expected to be good, merely powerful. Whether it was one God or many, the problem of evil was taken care of by assuming that God was rather capricious. The concept of a just God was unknown, but God might be able to be propitiated if one went about it correctly.
The god that has always given us the most trouble — the one we have to either believe in or not because of the culture in which we live, and thus the one we either accept or criticize is the Judeo-Christian god, Yahweh. Back when the Hebrews started their theological traditions Yahweh was not the only god. Rather, he was the god of the Hebrew tribes only. He was the only one they looked up to, though they accepted the existence of others. In the contests between the priests of Yahweh and of Baal there is no hint that Baal might not even exist, but only that Yahweh was stronger as the Hebrews were stronger than the Canaanites. This type of belief is called henotheism. However, the Hebrews drifted toward monotheism earlier than other peoples, and therefore came up against the problem of evil. When Yahweh was one, albeit the first, among many, evil could be accounted for in several ways. Yahweh’s will might be being temporarily thwarted by another god, or he might be angry about something you didn’t necessarily understand, but anyway, the whole universe wasn’t his responsibility, so if something bad happened you didn’t have to feel that your creator was rejecting you.
When Yahweh became the sole God and creator of the universe, explanations got a little more difficult. Was he just an incompetent bungler allowing perfectly decent people to be destroyed by natural calamities, or babies to be born blind, crippled or retarded? Was he just without a moral sense, or was he beyond our small understanding? That’s when the book of Job was written — when the question began to trouble Hebrew thinkers. Job complains that God is allowing him to suffer when he has always been a loyal servant, and God replies:
Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man,
I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
Tell me if you have understanding,
Who determined its measurements — surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone?
When the morning stars sang together
And all the children of God shouted for joy?
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:
Gird up your loins like a man;
I will question you and you declare to me.
Will you even put me in the wrong?
Will you condemn me that you may be justified?
Have you an arm like God
And can you thunder with a voice like his?
Deck yourself with majesty and dignity;
Clothe yourself with glory and splendor.
Pour forth the overflowings of your anger,
And look on everyone that is proud and abase him.
Look on everyone that is proud and bring him low;
And tread down the wicked where they stand.
Hide them all in the dust together;
Bind their faces in the world below.
Then will I also acknowledge to you,
That your own right hand can give you victory.
In other words, don’t ask. Archibald Macleish, in the play J.B., based on the story of Job, put it very succinctly: “If God is God he is not good. If God is good, he is not God.” In a Supreme Being one may worship infinite power or infinite virtue, but not both. That, of course, assumes that God is a person — a noun. Some philosophers have tried to get around it by saying that everything that happens is good, and we’re just too small to recognize it. I don’t think that even with God the ends justify the means. If the innocent suffer, that is wrong. If God is a being, though, all-good and all-powerful, whatever is must be good.
There are several classical proofs for the existence of such a God. I used to be able to explain them all, but I am no longer sure even of the number of them — five, I believe — that prove that God is a person, force, intelligence, creator, noun. Of the five, I remember three that have some pretensions to being reasonable.
All the classical proofs begin with the assumption that the universe is real. Unlike Descartes, I can even disbelieve in the reality of myself if I try hard enough, but since if we live at all we have to think of ourselves and our environment as having some reality, even if we realize our own distortions of it as we look, I don’t argue with them on that basis. The first one that I sort of liked said that if the universe existed, it must have been created. If something exists, it must have come from something. Well, eternity is a hard concept, but physicists have pretty much convinced themselves that the universe is eternal, though expanding and contracting, and eternity works both ways. What always will be always has been. Even if one can’t believe in the eternity of the universe, the idea of an eternal god is just as worrisome. Even kids think of it: If God created the universe, then who created God?
Another attractive argument was that if something exists there must be a purpose to it, and if it has a purpose, the purpose can be called divine. My father used to regale me at a tender age with the concept of God as the N+1 mind which held within it the knowledge of the purpose of the universe — not that God did anything. I find the idea of purpose emotionally satisfying, but because I want it doesn’t make it so. The answer to that argument is again, not proven. Also it is essentially saying that the ends justify the means.
The argument that many thinking people can accept is the proof from design. Despite the fact that it is getting a bad name because of the effort to have the concept taught as science, it is a defensible point of view. That is, everything is so marvelously strange and wonderful, so complex and so patterned, that there must be a divine mind behind it. Who, the argument goes, can gaze into the golden heart of a rose, or witness the precision of the dance of the celestial spheres and yet not believe in a creator? Well, I’m afraid that I can quite easily. Roses were never so beautiful till human beings took a hand in their development, and surely were their dance less precise, the celestial spheres would not exist at all. It makes sense to argue that those things that occur by chance which do not work with such precision, cannot continue to exist.
However attractive the arguments may be, they all fall to the ground on one point: If God made the world, why didn’t he do it right? A perfect being could not create an imperfect product.
The argument could end right there. It makes sense to be an atheist, and I suppose that in conventional terms that is what I have just convinced myself and everyone else that I am, just like Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens. It is the logically consistent position, and I do like logical consistency. However, in one of his most famous lines, Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” and far be it from me to admit that my mind is little. The fact is, that though in traditional terms, I am unquestionably an atheist, in my own terms, I can’t manage it. It seems impossible for me to deny that there is something beyond the material, beyond what I can touch or taste or see or even comprehend, but it is not a being, not a person, not even a force, not a noun. What it seems to be is, rather, a verb, a reaching for the ultimate good which clearly does not objectively exist — at least not in our material universe. An idea of the good is universal, though varied. One person’s meat is another’s poison, yet each has some idea that meat is preferable to poison. That understanding does not vary. Absolute good — God, if you will — does not have being, but the process toward the good is absolute. It is not a noun, or a series of them: love, joy, truth, beauty, justice, peace, etc., but the active process of choosing the good, a verb, which has divinity. It is as we make creative choices that increase the possibility of good that we participate in the divine.
As a former English teacher, I must admit that we cannot grammatically conjugate the verb God. One may not say I god, you god, he, she or it gods, but one can act it nevertheless. One loves, searches for truth, worships beauty, works for justice and peace, feels the joy beyond understanding, and one is conjugating the verb God.
There are two questions people frequently ask when I explain this idea. Actually, there are three, but the one about how to make value judgements if good is relative takes at least one full sermon in itself, so I’ll try to deal with only two of them today. One is, why use the word God at all, when my concept is so different from the traditional concept of God as a noun. After all, more evil has been done in the name of God than for probably any other reason. There is truth to that. However, god is also a synonym for whatever may be beyond the getting and spending of every day and carries an impact greater than any other word I can think of. It is short and easy like the words in the best poetry. The deeper and more complex the connotations of a simple word, the more power the word has. To say god does not bring immediate, clear understanding, but it opens the way to layers of meaning for each of us to search for his or her own truth. With a word of power the search may be carried on with the whole being, feeling as well as thought.
Which leads me to the second question: How can you get emotionally involved with that kind of God? How can that concept have power to move people? You can’t pray to creative choice. You can’t hope that it will consciously intervene for you. You can’t rest in its everlasting arms or contemplate its face in heaven. Perhaps so, and yet it seems to me that the question is in some way irrelevant. If a belief in god as noun is impossible and therefore cannot gain your acceptance, those emotions of dependence and rest could not be felt anyway. On the other hand, when God is the act of loving, of working for good, of rejoicing in the beauties of daily life, then God is truly present and permanently and wholly part of emotional response. Is that not emotional involvement? It is involvement of every kind, truly e-manu-el, God-with-us, in every act, feeling or thought which transcends the daily to seek for the good.