Can You Say “God?”
February 9, 2003
Oh God! Why in God’s name did I decide to do a sermon on God of all things?
I was up in that God-forsaken frozen north when I decided to do this and God knows what I was thinking! But here we are. So for God’s sake, let’s get on with it.
Can you say “God?”
As noted by my somewhat exaggerated introduction, I can say “God” and often do. The word flows from my lips without conscious thought – especially when I’m experiencing anguish or ecstacy. I think I use it then because it’s the biggest word I know. It’s the most ultimate, unsurpassable, supreme word I know. But I don’t say it or hear that much in this building.
You know it’s funny. We say you can come to UU and you don’t have to check you brain at the door. But some feel that they must check some words when they arrive. And one of them is God.
Why is that?
My original intention was to share with you some of the ideas of major theologians and UU ministers on this question. But after I surveyed members and friends on our email list regarding their utilization and emotional response to the word “God,” I decided that YOUR words were just as illustrative and far more relevant for our congregation. So I”ll be drawing on your comments as my data base.
So why do some folks in our congregation avoid the “g” word?
First, it seems that most folks in this congregation have either rejected or never believed in the concept of God that is traditionally presented. That old white man in the sky just doesn’t do it for us. So we don’t use the word because we think that other folks will interpret it in this traditional manner. Or perhaps because WE still interpret the word in that manner. Some seem to interpret the word as masculine and prefer a feminine or neutral word for diety. And others interpret it theistically – yet or not theists themselves. One member writes: “I have no concept of ‘God.’ My childhood idea of an avuncular, white-bearded man looking down at me from heaven still remains, I guess, but I long ago rejected that concept.”
Another member said, “God is not something that has any meaning to me except for that which was brainwashed into me as a child.”
Second, we may not use the word because we have been hurt by those who have used the word to oppress, ridicule, and diminish. One member shared remembrances of hearing God used in this way. “I didn’t (and still don’t) enjoy it when people use God’s name as a bludgeon to harass, dismiss, or manipulate other human beings, as in ‘God hates homosexuals’ or ‘God wants you to send $5,000 to my ministry’ or ‘God caused the Holocaust’ or ‘God says women submit to their husbands.'”
This pain may have led to a lack of tolerance for God-talk as well as more traditional Christian language. A member confessed: “I know that I have an anti-Christian bias, and I am trying to be better about this. I recognize that I am much more interested in and tolerant of Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic, etc. concepts; I don’t have the same anger and defensiveness that I have around Christian language / messages.”
Because of this pain, some members commented that the word carries too much baggage and one even commented that the word didn’t “taste good” in her mouth.
Third, because of our awareness of this pain remaining in others, some of us are hesitant to use the word ourselves because we don’t want to offend anyone. And we may even be uncomfortable hearing it for similar reasons. One member stated. “I can usually translate anybody’s reference to God into something that is inoffensive and meaningful to me, but I always get nervous about it in a UU setting on behalf of those who tend to freak out about it. This is a strange kind of intimidation, isn’t it? ” Even when we are trying to be nice about this topic, it seems that we sometimes offend. One member writes, “I feel I am always doing this at UU. When I think I’m being complimentary, someone seems offended. C’est la vie.”
There are probably other reasons folks do not use the word “God” or feel offended when it’s used that I haven’t captured in the three points made in this sermon. But – after all – we do have talk back!
Now, as you may have noted – I said SOME do not use the word and SOME are offended. But certainly not all. I had several positive responses.
One member wrote:
“Yes, I use the word God because I believe that God exists even if I don’t know what form God is, if any, as we would understand it in this 3-dimensional world. And I’m comfortable with that.”
“Yes. God for me is a higher power…. God is the best that exists in each of us…. I have used the word in describing human nature, my relationships and the interconnecton in the web of life. I don’t want to put this on anybody else, I just want to be able to explore these questions for myself.”
One member reported that she has always used the word “God” and explained her understanding n these words, “In my mind, God is LOVE in all its aspects. I came to that conclusion as a young adult and still find that word as an appropriate means of referring to a force or creator of all there has been, is, or will be. I believe God is manifest all around us and we all, mena and women alike, are expressions of that God (LOVE).
Another member indicated that he not only referred to God but prayed to God during the meditation time. This member explained his conception of God with these words: “I think of God as the continuously creative power of the universe, who did not complete his or her work 6,000 years ago or even 6 billion, but is still at it. I don’t think of God as necessarily omnipotent or omniscient the way Medieval scholastic philosophers did. They demanded that God fulfill some all-too-human definition out of logical necessity, and that is part of the baggage that mainstream Christianity still carries.”
One member who identifies as a pantheist uses the word God to refer to all that is. This member explained: “God is the process of everything that happens to all that exists…. I keep a motto posted in my living room which is very meaningful to me:: ‘God is a verb’.”
Now my findings suggest that we are a very diverse group when it comes to this matter. That’s not surprising. But WHY am I bringing forth this matter today. Is it because I enjoy a good controversial talkback? Although that can be interesting, that is not my reason for wanting us to have this conversation. So here goes my reasoning for what it’s worth. I don’t believe that we as a religious movement and that we as a congregation and that ME as a member are living up to our third and fourth principles.
Our third principle is:
Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
Our fourth principle is:
A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
This place should be a sanctuary – a safe place, where we can search for truth and meaning and use words that are meaningful to us in our own spiritual growth without feeling intimidated, or feeling that we may be constantly offending folks when we use religious language that is meaningful to us. And we also need to feel free to express that we have no use personally for religious language. You know I knew that some folks felt oppressed about being able to use “God” in this place but I found that those who had no belief in any higher power were the ones that were more likely to use the anonymous option for responding to my survey. So these folks obviously feel that they can’t openly express themselves either. That was really eye-opening for me. One thing that drew me to UU was the fact that I could finally be free to be me! And I think we CAN be much freer here to express ourselves than in most places of worship. But we still have work to do.
Well, now that I’ve stuck my neck out a little bit on this topic, I’m going to stick it out further – see how far it will stretch.
In the anti-racism workshop we did here a while back, and in the small church growth workshop we had – this question came up – “Why can we not attract more African Americans here – or why do they not come back after they visit?” I mean – we are the diversity church — right? Hey – we march in the MLK parade. Well, some of my African American sisters and brothers have shared with me that what we white folks might consider as “God-talk” is an important part of their culture. This “God-talk” as well as ties with scriptural stories including the exodus of the Israelites and others got their ancestors through slavery, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights movement. It may be difficult for some of us white folks to understand. It’s important for them to hear some spiritual language in church and to be able to use it themselves. If we really want to be welcoming, we need to think about this. Now, I’m not saying that we would be racist not to take this into consideration. That word is another one that is full of emotion and difficult to face. But if we do not consider this, we are at the very least being insensitive to something that may be important to our sisters and brothers.
We may also seem unwelcoming to liberal Christians – which is really sad, since our heritage is based on liberal Christianity. There was a Presbyterian minister in one of my seminary classes. He was very concerned about a possible upcoming vote in their denomination. It seems that those who are very opposed to the ordination of gay men and lesbians as deacons and lay ministers, etc. put forth a petition calling for a vote which would require all ministers to sign a statement which would confirm not only their agreement with this ordination ban, but would also confirm their belief that Jesus is the only way to salvation. This minister indicated that if it came to that, he and many other liberal ministers would not be able to sign. He said, “Where will we go? Will Unitarian Universalists welcome us?” Of course the class members said – “Come on over” – but I wondered.
Now I’m not suggesting that in order to be welcoming we should all start using more “God talk” in our language. But we should certainly work on being open to the words that people use to express their spiritual paths. And I agree with UUA President Bill Sinkford that we probably all need to expand our vocabulary to include ways to express what we hold as sacred and holy. We UU’s need a language of reverence In a letter that will appear in the upcoming UU World magazine, Bill quotes David Bumbaugh, a Unitarian Universalist minister and a religious humanist, AND one of my professors at Meadville Lombard.
We have manned the ramparts of reason and are prepared to defend the citadel of the mind. But in the process . . . we have lost . . . the ability to speak of that which is sacred, holy, of ultimate importance to us, the language which would allow us to enter into critical dialogue with the religious community.
Those of us that may identify as humanists may take a lesson from Bumbaugh. He states.
Humanism . . . gave us a doctrine of incarnation which suggests not that the holy became human in one place at one time to convey a special message to a single chosen people, but that the universe itself is continually incarnating itself in microbes and maples, in hummingbirds and human beings, constantly inviting us to tease out the revelation contained in stars and atoms and every living thing.
That sounds like religious language to me!!
One of our members said that she had been reading Forest Church’s book, Bringing God Home. She wrote that although she doesn’t talk about God in this fellowship, she could talk to Forrest Church about God because she has an understanding of what he perceives as God. Maybe that’s the key. Maybe we need to have a better understanding of each other’s theology and then – perhaps – just perhaps – we would feel free to use words which represent that which we and/or others perceive as ultimate or holy.
My challenge to all of us here today is that we be open and that we practice those principles we hold dear. I know it’s not that simple. But we can begin to have the conversations that will help us to understand each other and understand what we each hold as sacred.
So whether your beliefs (or non-beliefs) are based on theism, deism, pantheism, atheism, or agnosticism – whether you identify as a buddhist, Christian, humanist, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Pagan, just plain old Unitarian Unversalist or none of the above or all of the above, —-I leave you with this hope :
May the Spirit of Life fill you,
May the Mother Goddess hold you,
May the Universe enfold you,
May Peace be with you,
May the Light of the World Illuminate you,
May the Truth set you free,
May the Force be with you,
May Love guide you every step of the way,
May the strength of your own mind and body give you courage,
May your Community of sisters and brothers lift you up,
And on and on and on and on
Including those words familiar to us all,
May God bless you.
© 2003 Jane A. Page, Statesboro, GA.
All rights reserved.