“Are you ever going to talk about God?”
I am currently and temporarily serving a church that is officially affiliated as United Church of Christ. It has a Christian history, though its present and anticipated future is more theologically diverse.
Since the 1940s, in the summer it has been host to teenagers attending the nearby Greenwood Music Camp. For five Sundays every summer, these kids not only trek down the hill on foot to attend worship services, they play the music that enriches and enheavens our time in the pews. I am just about to experience my second summer of this joyful noise and can hardly wait.
Though attendance is voluntary, most come. These kids are from all over the country – some from abroad. Some identify as Christian, yet of course there are other faith traditions represented there, not to mention the increasing presence of the co-called nones – people who choose no religious affiliation.
For those five Sundays, worship is intended to be interfaith in nature. After I completed my first summer preaching during this musical, youthful cacophony, one of the deacons queried, as the beginning of this post alludes, “I get that you are trying to be open and inclusive, but are you ever going to talk about God?”
It’s a fair question. First of all, I had just been hired as a Unitarian Universalist preacher and there was genuine curiosity about where God fit into this new experiment and unfamiliar faith, with its reputation for welcoming atheists.
Secondly, my personal theology and spiritual practice is Buddhist. In fact, if and when I get the chance, I usually offer myself up as a “Buddhist-infused panentheistic Unitarian Universalist.” There’s not a lot of God-talk among Buddhists.
Yet for all the coherence I experience in my spirit and soul when engaging in Buddhist practice and discourse, I sense a sacred glue that is all-encompassing, within and without, interpenetrating and animating. It is the deep and essential life pulse that is beyond. Beyond what? Human comprehension, to be sure. Time and space: yup. This planet, this universe: I’d bet on it.
It is the macro that informs the micro, which is usually the closest we can come to perceiving its proof. Such as the Fibonacci sequence of numbers manifest in nature as the golden mean in the spirals of sea shells and the arrangement of branches or veins in leaves, not to mention present at the atomic scale in the magnetic resonance of spins in cobalt niobate crystals. This blows my meager mind, which is as it should be.
(And they say science is out to disprove divinity? I say, science might disprove religion, but with discoveries like this, ultimately support the case for divinity!)
I call all this divine, which is where my semi-orthodox Buddhism stops and my polydoxical panentheism starts up. And room for something like God enters in.
Something like God. Something like the long list of names that UU seminarians and ministers are in the habit of creating: that great transcending Mystery; All that is Holy; Gaia, our Earth Mother; My Rock and Redeemer; Ultimate Source or Ultimate Reality. Though it is not particularly poetic, and open to lots of misinterpretation, I experience the word/notion, “pulse” to be the closest to what I sense of divinity.
In ancient Sanskrit, one might call it prana, which is often translated as “life force.” I was just recently introduced to this word and I like the sound of it. I like that it’s in a language I do not speak or understand. I think there is something to having divine language and sacred songs in a language that one’s brain cannot comprehend, yet nevertheless allows us to understand something beyond the intellect.
Side note: That is why I love the azan, the Muslim call to prayer in Arabic. I hear it and I sense transcendence. For me, it invokes liminal space and experience – thresholds beyond the intellect, into the spiritual.
When I say God or god, I do not mean a personal god and I do not mean a deity. I know I risk people hearing that when I use that word, and I am okay with that. Mostly. When I am preaching, I rarely stop to explain that, because it seems self-serving and wholly distracting. If the word or phrase or concept or reference, be it as a noun or a verb, “God” enters into my sermon or prayer, it is intended as a bridge, as an approximation, as silk strand to spin the spider’s web that connects us all, shining with dew as the sun rises in the sky.
I don’t intend disrespect or to minimize its power, yet sometimes it is a shortcut, the quickest way to stress our shared humanity, though for many it is also the quickest way to burn a bridge, to not only close a door, but to slam it. It is a tender and powerful word.
I learned recently some stuff about the late Unitarian minister, John Haynes Holmes (1879-1964). This guy was a crazy-wonderful, far out radical – he was a founder of the NAACP and the ACLU. In 1921 he wrote a sermon declaring that Mahatma Gandhi was the greatest man in the world. His pacifism (he opposed WWI) exposed the tendency among Unitarians to support the status quo (and in this case, war) and led to his disassociating with the fellowship of Unitarian ministers (though he eventually assented to having his name returned to the registry of Unitarian ministers, after proper restorative justice was enacted.)
An associate recently quoted Holmes as saying, “when I say ‘God,’ it is poetry and not theology.”