by Kathleen Damewood Korb

One of the things we sometimes try to do is to discover what label we can adopt to describe ourselves theologically, either to clarify our own position to ourselves or to others. Some of these labels seem very easy to latch onto, others we may try to avoid, and none of them is very exact. My definitions of the words in the title of this sermon are probably no better than anyone else's, but the very exercise of defining can sometimes clarify what we believe. That's why I think it can be useful - not that the labels matter, not that categorizing ourselves is particularly helpful - but that just trying to bring some order out of the chaos of theological definitions sometimes shows us a path for our own search.

When the Rev. Sarah Voss called and volunteered to preach for us while her husband was attending a conference in New Orleans, I sent her a letter describing our congregation as I perceived us, in order to make it easier for her to decide how to preach to us. One of the things I said was that I believed that although the congregation contained a full range of liberal theological stances, a majority of our members probably were non-theists but not atheists. Whatever the accuracy of that statement, it seemed to some to whom I related it a very fine distinction to be drawing. On reflection, I suspect it is, on the contrary, even broader a distinction than I thought at the time, but it may be a little obscure to some who don't think about these things for a living. Often I hear people say that they know what they don't believe but that they don't know what they do believe. I think this defining process can be useful in that respect as well.

There may be some words that you would expect to see on this list that aren't there. We often define our Unitarian Universalist theologies as being Christian, theist or humanist. I think these are less useful distinctions for deciding what you believe theologically than most, and that is another reason for this exercise. When we use the words Christian or humanist to mean separate theological points of view, we are being unfair to each. When I was doing my student ministry in Brockton, MA, my supervisor, Timothy Ashton, now District Executive for the Mass Bay District of the UUA, loved the high church traditional Christian rituals. He told me one day that he was planning a Maundy Thursday communion and would like me to participate. After he had informed me of the meaning of Maundy Thursday and communion by intinction, with neither of which I was familiar, (though I assure you I had heard of the Last Supper) he said that he would like me to take around the bread and say some sentences over it, while he served the wine, leaving it to me to decide on the sentences. I served the bread saying to each recipient, "Bread is the food of the body; shared bread is the food of the soul." He followed me with the wine saying, "Take this in remembrance of me." Afterwards a member of the congregation came up to me and said, "I knew you and Tim had theological differences, but until this evening I had no idea they were so great." My response was, "Actually, Tim and I are theologically very similar. It's our liturgical preferences that differ." Yet he would have been characterized as a Christian and I as a Humanist by anyone observing that ritual. It has been more a dichotomy of belief than of practice.

Besides which, Christianity does not have to be theistic, although it usually is, and despite the present usage of the term, humanism isn't even close to being a synonym for atheist. It is possible to be a Christian if, for you, the teachings of Jesus are the center and basis for your faith, however you interpret his relationship to God, and that relationship can be interpreted in many different ways, some of which leave a personal god out of the equation entirely. Humanism has been expressed as an aspect of many different theologies over the centuries, Christianity being one of them. To use it as a synonym for atheism is to ignore its true historical usage in the effort to avoid the negative connotations of the word atheist - about which more later. Anyway, that's why they were left out of this particular list. There is much to say about both of them, but this continuum - theist, deist, non-theist, atheist - is more specifically theological.

That is, if it were really a continuum, which, although it appears to be that on the surface, I am not sure it is. You will notice that it doesn't include agnosticism either, which for many people is a favorite label. However, for me it seems to be a decision to abandon the quest as futile, which, I suppose, in some sense it is. We are all agnostics when we realize that we can never know the answers of theological belief for certain, without doubt and without possibility of contradiction. To maintain an open mind and admit the possibility of new understandings is not the same thing as to simply say, "Well, I'll never really know whether there is a god or not, so I'll just call myself an agnostic." The probability is that they, too, commit themselves to one or another belief or unbelief privately without the willingness to be proven wrong. We do, after all, live our lives either as if they have a higher purpose and meaning or as if they do not, and having taken whichever option we choose, we can no longer be the fence-sitters of agnosticism. When someone refuses to take Pascal's wager, he or she is rather on the side of belief than unbelief. If you have your child Christened in the Catholic church, just in case they may be right about original sin, you are admitting that your belief outweighs your unbelief. If it does, you might as well go for it. Call yourself a theist and quit waffling. After all, some of the very best thinkers are theists. Which brings me, after taking up half my time in telling you what I am not going to talk about, to the topic of this sermon. What are the meanings of these various labels? If we look at them carefully enough we may even discover some possibilities that we had not previously considered. Theism is the belief in a personal god. It is, in our society, even in our world, the sort of ground zero for religious speculation. When you look in the dictionary under religion you will usually see it defined as belief in a supreme being. This is theism. Twelve-steppers of various kinds have adopted the vocabulary of the Big Book of AA and talk of a higher power. This is also theism. When you speak of a creator, a first cause, a heavenly father (or mother, for that matter) or the Force, it is theism. This is the god, however imagined, that people mean when they say that they do or they don't believe in god. It implies power and will and/or concern. It is in some sense, therefore, personal, although very few thoughtful people today even consider the old Sunday-School idea of a bearded old man in white robes up in the sky who made them and can still be swayed to attend to their needs if sufficiently motivated, either to believe in or to deny. It is the other more sophisticated ideas of a personal god that receive our attention and respect, but all of them, by their very nature elicit the essential question of the dichotomy of power and goodness. Archibald MacLeish said it very succinctly in J.B.:

If God is God he is not Good, If God is good, he is not God. Take the even, take the odd, I would not stay here if I could, Except for the little green leaves in the wood And the wind on the water.
Less succinctly but just as clearly, the point is made in the reading by Nicholas Biel, "Adam's Complaint." If God is all-powerful then that power allows unmerited suffering. If God is love and goodness and cares for that suffering, then the divine power is obviously limited or cannot be truly understood by finite minds. You can take your pick and still be a theist. One of my friends likes to talk about God's shadow side, as Star Wars talked about the dark side of The Force.

Deism is actually a form of theism, but I wanted to talk about it separately because some people use the words interchangeably, and deism is a very specific theology which deserves its own label. It was the theology of most of the founders of our country and most of the thinkers of the Enlightenment - therefore also most of the founders of the Unitarian movement. When Newton demonstrated mathematically the laws of the universe, although he himself was very much convinced of the daily interest of his Deity in the world, it became possible to think of it as a universe that had been created and set in motion and left to continue in the way in which it was ordained to behave. Stars would continue to be born and die, planets would move around them, living things would arise and fade, just as God's original laws demanded. God would neither intervene or alter those original edicts. It was the idea of the infinite watchmaker whose creation would continue to tick as it was ordained to tick from the beginning. Anything that did not seem to fit with known rules could be explained once humankind had widened its knowledge of God's laws. First Cause and subsequent indifference is the belief of the deist. Other understandings need a different name.

The next two words in the list, non-theist and atheist seem at first glance to be a distinction without a difference. It will be easier to begin, I think, with an exploration of the implications of atheism, since it has an absoluteness about it which makes it somewhat easier to grasp. It is the belief that there is no god of any kind, that the physical universe needed no first cause and is as it is through chance or necessity, and that we as highly developed animals are simply a successful product of evolution. The ideals that we hold, the religions that we espouse, the values that we believe in, are simply useful survival characteristics. Morality has evolved simply to enhance the successful continuance of the human race, like the migratory instincts of birds. There can be no transcendence and therefore no meaning except to be, to continue to be, and to enhance the ability of our race to survive in the most friendly possible environment. Without some sense of transcending mystery, an infusion of the spirit, the answer to the question of the meaning of life is that it has none. It simply is. Should you ask the point of that, the answer is simple. There is no point.

For the non-theist, too, there is no personal god, no creator, no supreme will, not even a force in the sense of intention either for good or evil. There is, however, a sense of the holy, of the transcendent, which gives meaning and purpose to life, and that also can be called god, though it has no being in the sense of the god of the theists. Shortly before my mother died, she said that she had become more and more atheistic as she aged. She had become less and less the vivid and compelling thinker she had always been as her illness increased, but my question in answer to her statement almost brought back the old excitement. I asked her how she was able to justify the aesthetic sense, the recognition of beauty, without a dimension to life that transcended the material. As the purest, if not the most important, form of valuing, does it not simply by its quality imply that there is and must be something beyond mere material existence for those who experience it? Our last conversation was an enthusiastic and wide-ranging theological discussion. Whether or not I convinced her of my own conviction of a dimension of the holy which gives life meaning, her enjoyment of it certainly made it seem more meaningful to me.

In one of the traditional catechisms I understand that the answer to the question, "What is the purpose of life," is "To glorify God and enjoy Him." Although there is little in traditional doctrine that I can accept, I like that one. I even think it's true, whether you are theist or non-theist. Perhaps it would even be true for the atheist who despite his or her atheism chose to live as if life had meaning. That really is the life of faith, whatever your beliefs, to live as if those beliefs are true whatever your doubts may be. Theist, deist, non-theist or atheist, we can celebrate beauty and goodness in all their manifestations. We may believe that they are the intentional creation of a personal god and a benign presence whose existence demands obedience and praise, or that the dimension of the holy that we perceive in the experience of commitment to our highest values is enough to infuse life with meaning, or we may think that however meaningless life is, those are the things that make it worth living. We may, of course, often vacillate among those options depending on the condition of our state of belief or doubt. However that may be, and however we may differ theologically, and whatever words we may use to express it, we can nearly always agree on the purpose of life - to find its meaning and its joy in a commitment to the highest and best, however we may understand it, and whatever theological label fits us most comfortably.